Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know that you spend time over the weekend trying to get away from the politics of this place and I know that that is difficult for you because you have to get your tackle ready for Monday morning. In view of the efforts that you have been making to keep abreast of events, I have no doubt that you have noticed that there is an almighty row going on between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Hon. Members ask on points of order, "Mr. Speaker, have you had any request for the Minister for so-and-so to make a statement?" I shall not ask that, but instead ask whether you have hada request from the Prime Minister and from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a statement so that we can hear about the conflicting reports? It is high time that we had it all out in the House from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and then you would not have to keep sticking your nose in and watching the goggle box to find out what is going on.
That this House is of the opinion that government policies have failed to benefit the consumer and have not ensured that the consumer interest is properly taken into account in the run-up to 1992 and the single European market ; and calls on the Government to reform and up-date the 1987 Consumer Protection Act, to introduce a new system of labelling of goods in order to provide accurate information on their health, safety and environmental implications, to implement fully the European Economic Community product liability directive and facilitate a speedy adoption of the product safety directive, and to make provision for regular and systematic consultation with consumer organisations on all aspects of 1992 legislation.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce for debate a subject of my choice. I feel slightly schizophrenic in that I am raising for debate a subject for which I have Front Bench responsibility, although it is through the private Members' ballot that I have been able to bring forward this subject. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this is a subject for which I have partial Front Bench responsibility, because it is my contention that the Government have failed the consumer, and neglected consumer interests, across the whole range of their Departments and policies. I shall refer to the work of Ministers of several Departments and to how their policies have impinged on the consumer and given the consumer a raw deal.
Not least of the problems, as the motion says, is that the Government have failed to safeguard the consumer from the effects of the opening up of the single Europe market in 1992 and all the legislation that is involved. I make no apology for the fact that this afternoon I shall refer to many of the European issues facing consumers. This is a particularly appropriate time to do so, as we are in the last few days before the European elections. The debate on whether Europe will benefit the consumer and the average citizen of the EEC, as well as what its effects on business will be, are subjects about which we are all rightly concerned.
On many occasions, the Government have claimed that their free market approach to economic policy automatically favours the consumer, offering greater choice and reasonable prices through unfettered competition. This attitude, which can most kindly be described as naive, has come to look more and more untenable during the Government's term of office. I shall aim to show that what is now needed is a considerable improvement in consumer protection and consumer rights, both domestically and via the European Community, including the right of the consumer to be fully informed, the right to be consulted, the right to easy and inexpensive channels of legal redress, improved rights of compensation, and so on.
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : What makes the hon. Lady say that the European Community is in favour of informing the consumer and giving out information? Is she aware that the Consumer Protection Act 1987 removed origin marking, which was one of the best consumer information services, solely because of an instruction from the EEC? How can she say that that body helps the consumer when the average family in Britain pays an extra £13 a week for its food directly as a result of the EEC?
Ms. Quin : The EEC has had mixed effects on consumers. I shall not be wholly praising the EEC, but nor shall I be wholly condemning it. I shall be picking out the various elements of EEC consumer protection and looking at those examples that need reinforcing. I shall not hesitate to criticise certain aspects of EEC legislation that harm the consumer. It would not be wise to take an oversimplified view of the EEC. I hope that the point that I was making will become clearer to the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) in the debate.
Let us examine some of the recent actions of Government Departments and see what effects they have had on the consumer. One of the main issues, about which we have had several debates and questions, is the failure of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to protect the consumer. That is particularly true of consumers' worries and fears about food quality and safety. While modern farming practice is good at producing the quantity that is needed--in many cases, it goes way beyond that, with the production of large-scale surpluses--there is nevertheless more and more consumer concern about the quality of food and, in particular, about the amount of information the consumer is given about the treatment of food.
Recently, I asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food a question about the use of tecnazene--a chemical that inhibits the sprouting of potatoes, thereby improving their shelf life. Potatoes treated with it are not safe for human consumption for six weeks following the administration of the treatment. The Minister informed me that last year about 20 per cent. of potatoes in Scotland were treated with tecnazene, and that a similar percentage were treated in England and Wales, although figures were not available. Apart from expressing my concern that the Minister did not have the figures available immediately, my principal reaction was that consumers are unaware whether the potatoes that they buy have been so treated. If they were treated, they do not know when that happened or whether the potatoes that they are buying fall within the safety limit. Much concern has recently been expressed about the use of Alar on apples. Again, consumers have no way of knowing whether the apples that they are buying have been treated.
We are now being told that the Government are likely to permit the irradiation of foodstuffs. I oppose that strongly and believe that we should oppose it within the EEC rather than giving way in advance, which is what we appear to be doing. At the very least, food that has been irradiated should be clearly labelled. That will cause the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food problems because there is no foolproof test to show whether foodstuffs have been irradiated, which is a further reason why the process should be banned until a system of proper testing and labelling is devised.
The Consumers Association is calling for the mandatory labelling of all foodstuffs, and perhaps the Minister will comment on that. One of the failings of the Consumer Protection Act 1987 is that agricultural produce is excluded. When the Act was being considered, Labour Members pointed out that defect in the legislation. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) is present because he led for the Labour party on that issue. To many hon. Members, it seems that the prodcer rather than the consumer has the upper hand under the
Column 560Government's agriculture and food policies. Only through the introduction of an organisation such as the food standards agency, which the Labour party has recently called for, will the balance begin to be redressed.
The activities of other Departments work against the consumers' interests. The most flagrant example is the Government's privatisation programme, especially that of the natural monopolies of water, gas and electricity. From contacts with my constituents and my recent experience gained in canvassing at by-elections, I am aware that, while all those measures are unpopular with the voter, the privatisation of water most enrages consumers. People were especially enraged by the advertising campaign, which told them what they already knew--that they are served by a network of water authorities and that water is delivered to their houses--and the pre-privatisation price rises, which they regard as a massive consumer con. Most British people are drinking water that falls below EEC standards. Most consumers know that the pressing priority is not selling off water to private interests but investing in the necessary infrastructure and remedial works to ensure that water quality, whether it be drinking or bathing water, is fit to use. I strongly believe that safety and health factors are much more in the consumers' interest than the Government's obsession with privatisation.
The National Consumer Council has pointed to many of the problems facing consumers when having to deal with private monopolies. Page 5 of its publication "In the Absence of Competition" states : "The monopolist can charge prices higher than the consumer would pay in a competitive market and can therefore make excessive profits."
The publication goes on to argue, rightly, for regulation on prices and quality and for proper penalties whenever there is a failure to abide by whatever system of regulation is agreed. The NCC wishes also to ensure that consumers are compensated for any reduction in quality. Consumers are worried that the Government's determination to please their corporate supporters means that consumers will end up with woefully inadequate safeguards. The pre and sometimes post-privatisation price rises have given us prices for certain utilities that are higher than those of our competitors, so not only consumers but industry is set to lose out in the run-up to 1992. Consumers and users are suffering because of Government actions and failings in other Departments. One example is Britain's transport network, which is crumbling because of lack of investment and a short-termist approach brought about by Government cuts and economies which turn out to be false economies when we consider the nation's long-term needs. Whether it is the decaying London suburban rail network, the lack of infrastructure linking the regions to the Channel tunnel or the chaos through bus deregulation in certain areas such as mine in Tyneside, the consumers as users of the services have to bear the consequences of lack of Government support. There is a lack of Government support not because there is no money available for such badly needed investment but because, through dogma, the Government refuse to spend it.
Ms. Quin : I have not overlooked that. It is a bone of contention in my region in the north-east. We feel that some of the roads in our area that have been in desperate need of upgrading for many years--the A1, particularly north of Newcastle, and the A69, from Newcastle to Hexham--are not getting the cash injection that is needed. People in my region are worried because, although the announcement is welcome in certain areas, we still will not be adequately linked to the Channel tunnel. That injection of cash is nowhere near the amount that is needed if we are to compete properly in 1992.
Under the last Labour Government, there was a Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, headed by a Minister with Cabinet rank. Under the Conservative Administration, consumer affairs have been progressively downgraded, so that it is now the responsibility of a junior Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry. That is an obvious illustration of the lack of importance that the Government attach to consumer affairs. Labour's current policy review again talks about a Cabinet Minister for consumers to protect them and give them rights under Government policies.
The record of the Department of Trade and Industry does not give consumers grounds for confidence that their future is safe in its hands. The Department deals with many matters that are vital to the standards, quality and reliability of the goods we buy. Pricing policy, price indications, weights and measures and labelling are all within the Department's remit. Yet it is clear that when dealing with that variety of issues the Department's instinct is always to come down in favour of voluntary action and self-regulation. Indeed, the Minister is nodding enthusiastically as I say those words. Self-regulation seems to be the Department's watchword. Yet consumer organisations and consumers want statutory requirements on standards and labelling that are arrived at independently of any firm or industry which in the normal commercial way has a vested interest in persuading consumers to buy its goods. The consumer wants independent and impartial information, but the Government are consistently failing to provide it.
There was great disappointment, for example, about the Goverment's action on misleading price indications, because the code was not given the full statutory backing which many would have liked. Another issue that has come to the House's attention recently is the system of determining the accuracy of weights and measures. Here, too, the Government seem intent on ignoring consumer protestations. As hon. Members will know, a private Member's Bill- -the Weights and Measures (Amendment) Bill--is currently before the House. The Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs has declared his support for the Bill, although it represents the abandonment of a previous all-party agreement on how to change the weights and measures system. The all-party agreement was embodied in the recommendations of the Eden committee, which met three or four years ago. The committee recommended self-verification of weighing machines in certain circumstances only because the safeguards included were acceptable to industry, consumers and local authority trading standards officers. The Bill was drafted only after consultation with industry. The Bill's promoter has, rightly, declared an interest, in that he is consultant to the National Federation of Scale and Weighing Machine Manufacturers. Although he has subsequently tabled some amendments, the Bill is
Column 562still unsatisfactory to consumer organisations, which rightly feel that it was the Government's job--which they were committed to do--to bring forward the recommendations of the Eden committee, which were agreed by all parties, in the appropriate legislative form. Just today I have seen a report that self-regulation and the voluntary approach are to be extended to estate agents and that a voluntary code of practice is being suggested. One newspaper reports that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) has said that he will be calling for a statutory code. If he does so, he will have the Opposition's support. We believe that this is an important matter and that neither a voluntary approach nor self-regulation is appropriate. Estate agents should be obliged through legislation to act responsibly towards consumers.
Another example of the Government's obsession with the self-regulatory approach was provided by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he spoke at a recent conference about the increasingly important phenomenon of what has come to be called "green" or "environmentally conscious" consumerism. In responding to the desire of consumer organisations for a proper system of labelling which would give consumers accurate information about the environmental impact of the goods they are buying, he said that, while he understood the desire to introduce environmental labelling, he favoured a voluntary approach.
I should like an environmental labelling system to be introduced as a matter of urgency. The voluntary approach is not the answer. We need a developed form of the West German Blue Angel eco-label, which is independently assessed and in the administration of which consumer organisations and environmental groups, as well as industry, are represented. I believe that that system is funded by industry but that industry is happy to accept the independent recommendations of the body that administers the scheme.
Mr. Favell : Has the hon. Lady observed that environmental labelling is now proving good business to many retailers and manufacturers and that market forces are bringing about what the hon. Lady is requesting at no extra cost to the consumer, whereas if the House were to enact the legislation for which she is calling a vast army would be needed to ensure that each label contained the correct information?
Ms. Quin : The Blue Angel system in West Germany is funded by industry, and does not, therefore, involve Government money. In any case, such a system need not be expensive. I shall be dealing in a few minutes with the hon. Gentleman's point about industry itself becoming more environmentally conscious.
Incidentally, the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs did not respond to a question that I put to him during Trade and Industry Question Time not so long ago when I asked him his views on environmental labelling. I hope that he will take the opportunity of giving the House his views on that issue today. It seems that at last the Government are beginning to realise some of the commercial implications in the important trend towards green consumerism. However, a great deal more needs to be done to encourage industry to respond to the boom in demand for environmentally friendly products. That will be especially important if our
Column 563"green" consumers are to be able to buy British goods instead of imports from, say, West Germany where green consumerism and industry are more advanced. I need hardly remind the House that we are already running a massive trade deficit with West Germany. Although the Government are beginning such a campaign and industry is starting to respond, I should like more progress. The Government have been prepared to spend many millions of pounds on glossy advertising campaigns in recent years and this is one area in which Government advertising might be welcome.
Consumer organisations are already doing a good job in making consumers aware of the environmental implications of much of what they buy as well as in pointing out the dangers of the pseudo-green claims that manufacturers sometimes make. While I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) that industry is becoming more environmentally minded, I am afraid that there is also some phoney greenery in industry. One can sometimes be tempted to buy a product which claims to be environmentally friendly but which turns out to be wrapped in unfriendly, non-biodegradable packaging. We must take a good, cool and hard look at the claims of many manufacturers to be environmentally sensitive, because theyare not always what they seem.
I am glad that there is also growth in the setting up of consumer organisations specifically to highlight environmental concerns and the need to promote green and socially responsible consumerism. I refer to the valuable work of the Women's Environmental Network, which recently produced a good report on dioxins, and to its campaign to encourage the production of chlorine-free paper products.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) : On that important point, and taking up the earlier intervention of the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell), does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems is that the Government's reaction tends to be that if the market will bear the offer of a choice of dioxin-free produce, so be it, but that they are not prepared to intervene to ensure that that choice is made available? Is not that the fundamental difference between the Government's philosophy and what consumers really want?
Ms. Quin : I agree that that is exactly what is happening, although it is not just to help consumers and consumer organisations but because there is a vital need to protect the environment that we should be taking more interventionist action than most of us would otherwise like.
New Consumer, an organisation whose headquarters are in Newcastle, is doing research into the environmental and social implications of many of the goods and services that are currently being provided. I think that I am right in saying that the Consumer Protection Act 1987 had to be put on to the statute book rather hastily in time for the general election, and Labour Members criticised it at the time as far too weak. It already needs strengthening and updating, in line with some of the difficulties experienced by consumers since it was passed and some of the new developments, particularly the environmental developments that I have described. Better labelling is a key factor,
Column 564but it is also clear that EEC legislation will be increasingly relevant, and I shall refer in more detail to EEC matters later in my speech.
The consumer also needs much easier and cheaper access to legal redress. Hon. Members may remember the recent case of two sisters who were accused of shoplifting by Tesco. Although in the end they were pronounced completely innocent, they faced ruinous costs. An improvement in the legal aid arrangements is vital for consumers. We also need a proper statutory code of advertising practice and proper powers to order the correction of misleading advertisements. That would certainly help to counter the many misleading advertisements that appear in newspapers in which loan sharks offer people easy credit without explaining to them that there is a catch, or displaying the rates of interest that they will have to pay. As I said, agricultural produce and unprocessed foods will also need to be brought within the Act.
There are other anomalies. The Food and Drugs Act 1955 does not cover microwaved or cook-chill food. That is not surprising, but both have recently caused outbreaks of food poisoning and they should be covered.
It would be nice if the Government would announce today their help and support for the establishment of a proper, comprehensive, nationwide network of consumer advice centres. The citizens advice bureaux and many specialised advice agencies do a terrific job, as I know from my contact with them, but I am perturbed by the fact that the network of local authority consumer advice centres has been cut, largely because of the Government-imposed economies that local authorities have had to make. I am even more perturbed to learn that the Government do not even seem to keep centrally the figures relating to the number of local authority consumer advice centres or information about where they are to be found. That lack of figures was made clear in an answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown).
Some excellent consumer advice centres disappeared when the Government abolished the metropolitan county councils. That was certainly the case in Tyne and Wear, where the Tyne and Wear consumer advice centre did a very good job. The result of all these cuts is that there is now patchy provision of consumer advice, with certain regions clearly under-served. I am glad that the Labour party's proposals in recent policy documents would rectify that deficiency. The Government should closely examine the so- called lemon laws in the United States because its consumer protection legislation could teach us a great deal. It is difficult for people in Britain to get defective goods replaced or to obtain adequate compensation. Years after the problems were first highlighted, there are still far too many cases of, for example, substandard cars being sold and then purchasers having tremendous difficulty in obtaining compensation or a replacement vehicles. There are also far too many examples of poor garage servicing, with cars sometimes being delivered back to their owners in conditions that might endanger them and even other road users.
Column 565authorities. Will she pay tribute to the local authorities' co-ordinating body on trading standards? I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister takes his responsibilities seriously--for example, he has made resources available to tackle the problem of flammability of upholstery. However, it would be ridiculous for every local authority to carry out that exercise when it could be co-ordinated by one or two local authorities. It is therefore right that proper co-ordination is acknowledged.
Ms. Quin : I am happy to acknowledge the importance of proper co- ordination and also the good work of the Association of Trading Standards Officers. However, the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised if I do not agree with all of his remarks. It is astonishing that the Government are no longer even informed about the remaining number of local authority advice centres. They have not carried out a study to determine the areas where consumers need a resumption of that service.
I wish to refer to other issues which consumer organisations have raised directly with me and which I hope the Minister will consider. The Consumers Association is concerned about the lack of an adequate certification scheme for gas equipment. Before British Gas was privatised, it had to approve all domestic gas appliances to ensure that they met the appropriate British standard. As, in theory, British Gas is no longer a monopoly, there is no longer any requirement for such items as gas-fired boilers and heaters to meet any particular standard, although I understand that gas cookers are covered by some regulations. The Commission in Brussels has issued a directive that all British gas appliances must meet safety requirements, but the responsibility for that rests solely with the manufacturer as there is no requirement for independent verification. That is another example why we believe that the self-regulatory and voluntary approach is not appropriate.
The Consumers Association is also concerned about the wiring of electric plugs on home appliances. Like most consumers, I am annoyed that I have to buy a plug separately from an electric appliance. Legislation is necessary to ensure that consumers can buy appliances that are already fitted with plugs. Because of the great variety of prices for goods, without legislation consumers may still buy the appliances and plugs separately if that makes the total purchase less expensive. A survey by Which? highlighted th problem of consumers not knowing how to wire plugs correctly, which could lead to accidents.
In the latter part of my speech I will deal with consumer affairs within the EEC and, in particular, the consequence for British consumers arising from the opening of the single European market in 1992. Recently the Consumers Association and the London-based Consumers in the European Community Group produced interesting research and literature on the consumer in 1992. The publications of those bodies made important recommendations to the Government and to European institutions. I hope that, by now, the Minister has read them. When I referred to them at the last Department of Trade and Industry Question Time, he said that he had not read them. They are essential reading for many people, even before European election day on Thursday.
A Department of Trade and Industry press release refers to a speech that the Minister made before the Scottish Consumer Council. It states that the Minister
Column 566"dismissed criticisms that the Government neglected consumers in planning for the Single Market in 1992.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We recognise the Single Market is everything to do with consumers.'
Mr. Forth explained that the Government's awareness campaign was deliberately targeted at businesses because it was they who needed to gear themselves up for change, whereas consumers do not have to make special plans."
However, consumers certainly need to be aware of all the decisions being made in the run-up to 1992. I am sure that they wish to know whether their interests will be safeguarded. Consumer organisations certainly need to be geared up just as much as industry does, because they have the job of advising their members and the general public about legislative changes and changes that must be introduced if the consumer is to have adequate protection.
In his press release, the Minister went on to say that he wanted to explode three myths. The first concerned the statement :
"the Single Market will not result in lower safety standards." The second related to the statement :
"Furthermore, the UK will continue to negotiate to ensure that the harmonised European standards take place at the higher end of the spectrum- -levelling up and not down."
There is a certain inconsistency in those two myths. If it is true that standards are not to be endangered, why is it so important to negotiate to ensure that they are not so endangered? The negotiations are important, and the results will determine whether standards are to be reduced or raised as we hope.
On 1 June, the Minister attended a meeting of the EEC Consumers Affairs Council. Given all the EEC directives that have already been agreed and those that are currently under negotiation and affect the consumer, the agenda for that meeting could have been endless. However, in answer to one of his hon. Friends at Question Time, the Minister seemed to say that such meetings were rather pointless and infrequent. None the less, some positive gains seem to have been made by the meeting.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Eric Forth) : It is important that the House understands that the setting of agendas and the frequency of the meetings, as the hon. Lady probably knows better than any other hon. Member, are entirely for the presidency. The Spanish presidency chose to wait this length of time before having a meeting. The Greek presidency immediately beforehand did not choose to have a meeting with the Council of Ministers. I am sure that the hon. Lady understands that.
Ms. Quin : I accept partly what the Minister has said, but, given the number of directives that directly affect the consumer, I wonder whether he will now be arguing for more frequent meetings of the EEC Consumer Affairs Council than has been the case.
Some gains appear to have been made at the meeting, notably the joint position agreed by the Council of Ministers on a common system for calculating the annual percentage rate of interest under the consumer credits directive, which I welcome. However, other developments at the meeting give rise for concern. I understand that the draft directive on package travel was raised by the European Commission, but that the United Kingdom Minister was strongly opposed to the directive, even though all consumer organisations to which I have spoken are very much in favour of it, as it offers better protection for the consumer than anything at present.
Column 567I remind the Minister that it was not only Labour but Conservative Members of the European Parliament who, in the European Parliament supported amendments which in certain cases strengthened the directive for the benefit of the consumer. However, perhaps that is just another area where there are disagreements within the Conservative party over European issues. There certainly appears to have been a difference of view on that issue between Conservative Members of the European Parliament and the attitude adopted by the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : The hon. Lady is talking about differences of view apparently within the Conservative party on the future of the European Community. Will she confirm that the former leader of the European Parliament Labour group said : "It is obvious the Common Market is utterly incapable of reforming itself. The sooner Britain gets out the better"?
He said that in 1987, and that is perhaps why he was sacked from that job. However, the new leader said :
"The Common Market has been a disaster for British people." Does that go along with the pro-European flavour that the Labour party is pretending to give to the British people?
Ms. Quin : The hon. Gentleman, of course, has used the labels loosely. I do not know whether he was here when I responded to an earlier intervention, when I said that in my speech I would be criticising certain aspects of the EEC and praising others. I believe that there is a mixture of good and bad, certainly in consumer protection. If we want to widen the debate to talk about the state of the major parties as we approach the Euopean election, I would say that the Labour party is in much better shape to fight that election, and has been much more united that the Conservative party has been during recent weeks.
Will the Minister continue to oppose the draft directive on package travel? If so, will he take national action to prevent tour operators from continuing to breach the code of the Association of British Travel Agents? The breaches of that code were highlighted recently in a report from the Office of Fair Trading. I note that the Minister said something recently about the creation of a holiday ombudsman. While I see the need for someone in authority to follow up the many complaints about package travel, I do not believe that that will in any way contradict the need for an EEC directive in the form that will most benefit consumers.
At the EEC Consumer Affairs Council on 1 June there was a worrying lack of agreement on the general resolution covering consumer protection and 1992. I have been told that our Minister was in a minority of one in disagreement on an issue which centred on EEC rules on the safety and quality of consumer products. The British view was said to mystify the other member states, in that the Minister made no attempt to find a solution that would have allowed an overall agreement. As usual, we have managed to antagonise the other member states without having achieved anything in return. Perhaps the Minister will tell us by what steps he proposes to reach agreement at the next meeting of the Council on that issue. At the meeting the priority to be given to consumer education was also discussed. Apparently, Ministers do not disagree about the necessity for some system of
Column 568consumer education within the member countries, but I wonder whether the Government's recent refusal to countenance the use of the Lingua programme in schools will signify a similarly negative approach to consumer education. I believe that the better informed and educated consumers are, the better that is for our society. There are other EEC-related issues to which I shall refer briefly. The product liability directive was agreed and is already in force, but it has not been satisfactorily implemented in the United Kingdom to the full advantage of the consumer. The development risks defence, which was a contentious issue at the time of the Consumer Protection Act 1987, has proved to be a problem in relation to the United Kingdom's implementation of that directive.
The United Kingdom should work determinedly for the adoption of a product safety directive which would underpin many of the agreements on standards and so on set within the EEC as part of the 1992 programme. Without a directive such agreements on standards will be unsatisfactory.
The current EEC standards and those to be adopted on a range of consumer products also raise different issues. I shall not go into details, but there is concern among consumers in this country about the standards relating to refrigerators--that is particularly important because of recent worries about food--cooker surface temperatures, electric room heaters, spin extractors, ultra-violet skin treatment appliances, hedge trimmers, chain saws and so on. A tremendous variety of goods and products are part of the discussions on the harmonisation of standards in 1992. The list of issues related to consumer protection is long, but the conclusion is obvious. In all the regulations and the negotiations on safety standards, those standards should be set at the highest level.
Mr. Favell : We are living in a fast changing world. Is the hon. Lady suggesting that the EEC should set standards for every product on the market now or in the future? If so, she is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. It is impossible for every product to be examined and a standard set before its manufacture and retail.
Ms. Quin : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that a more general system for standardisation has already been agreed in Europe. Within that general system one must try to ensure that the standards are as high as possible. That need also reinforces my earlier point about the need for a product safety directive to underpin many of the broader agreements on standards that have been reached.
The EEC cannot simply be about a Europe open for business ; it must be about consumers and society. The Community must benefit all citizens within Britain and Europe. The Government may protest that they are concerned to see standards for consumers set as high as possible, but the Government's opposition to recent EEC initiatives to improve the health and safety of workers is well known. I believe that the health and safety of consumers cannot be anything but a related issue.
The organisations concerned with the well-being of the consumer need to be consulted more about all aspects of 1992 legislation. The Consumers Association and the consumers of the European Community group made that point strongly recently. Consumers must be formally involved in the European standard-making process. From
Column 569contact with the European institutions, many of us know that many of the EEC decisions are taken by officials behind closed doors. Therefore, it can be extremely difficult for consumer organisations and others to have an adequate input in such decisions.
We are all consumers, and when talking about consumer protection and rights we are talking about something which is vital to a civilised society in which commercial forces operate for the general good, not to the public detriment. Therefore, concern for the consumer is an essential part of concern for society as a whole. Given this Government's record, I do not think it will surprise anyone that it will become increasingly clear that the Labour party is the natural ally of the consumer, to which the consumer will increasingly look in the future.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) : I shall comment on one or two of the points made by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin), and address one or two agricultural issues. In doing so, I declare an interest to the House because I am the parliamentary adviser to the Produce Packaging and Marketing Association.
In Committee, we had an interesting debate on a European directive on product labelling in the produce industry. We raised issues such as Alar and the other chemicals which the hon. Lady mentioned. The controversy surrounding Alar is a classic example of how information emanating from the consumer industry in the United States, where there were clearly differences of opinion about whether Alar was as bad as one group said, was suddenly picked up by the consumer body here and led to a major scare. When it examined the scientific evidence which lay behind the scare, our own committee on pesticides, which is an independent body with no commercial or Government connections other than the fact that it reports to a Government Department, found no scientific evidence for banning Alar for the treatment of fruit.
The debate did not go on to expose the wider issue of the benefit to the consumer of using Alar. It ensures that apples stay on trees and do not fall off too early and means that the consumer is not presented with a poor quality, bruised fruit which may have other disadvantageous aspects. A hint of a problem is seized on without scientific evidence and promulgated as a new gospel. The scientific evidence surrounding Alar suggested that, for an individual to obtain the same level of input of Alar as did the mouse with the tumours, he or she would have to eat 25,000 times the normal human consumption of apples. I cite that as an example to show that realistic and scientific evidence must lie behind our discussion of many of these consumer issues.
Consumerism touches on the important issue of information. Often, when a consumer has to make a choice about goods, he or she has to fight a battle against ignorance. The hon. Member for Gateshead, East was strong on solutions, but weak on how we could improve the information flow to the consumer. She also gave the impression that we have little consumer protection and that what there is is utterly ineffective. She made it sound as if we were standing at the abyss of consumer abuse, and that she, on behalf of the Opposition, had all the solutions. That is palpably not true.
Column 570I have looked for facts and figures to aid me on the subject of information. An article in The Sunday Times of 6 November 1988 showed that :
"According to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) 40 per cent. of people in the sample of 2,000 did not know the seller is responsible for correcting matters if, say, an electric kettle does not work." If we are still at the basic stage of educating the consumer about his or her rights under existing law, I see little hope for the panopoly of legislation suggested by the Opposition in this debate as a solution to the mind-boggling range of problems before us.
Mr. Jack : I am not blaming the consumer for this. I am pointing out that one of the key aspects in any consumer transaction is information. Even if European directives or regulations covered every item mentioned by the hon. Lady, could we say with confidence that the consumer would quickly become aware of them and act on them? A short time ago, in November 1988, 40 per cent. of a large sample did not know their basic consumer rights, so I doubt whether a lot of new legislation would take us any further forward.
I note also that the present consumer legislation ventures into the realms of second-hand goods. The Sale of Goods Act 1979 deals with that point. Many of us have received letters from our constituents complaining about defects in products that they have bought, especially second-hand products, yet the Sale of Goods Act already protects people in this respect.
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : Would it not have been better if the Government had spent millions of pounds on advertising on television and explaining consumers' rights instead of publicising the privatisations of the water and electricity industries in the past few weeks?
Mr. Jack : The hon. Gentleman might have made a more telling point if he had paid tribute to the £50 million that the Government put into trading standards and the £8 million grant-in-aid that the Department of Trade and Industry gives to the citizens advice bureaux. So it is not true to say that we are not meeting our financial responsibilities to look after the consumer. The Securities and Investments Board has produced a video and booklet discussing its own affairs.
It can be seen from these examples that consumerism is a complicated business. It covers every sort of purchase of goods or services, and it takes a lot of effort to get through the basics that we already have. I fear for what may happen if the line adopted by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East is pursued ; we shall have yet another Euro mountain--this time, a paper mountain of ideas that may be well intentioned but are weak when they come to be applied. I have some limited experience of consumer affairs--at one time I was employed by Marks and Spencer and had to deal with consumers' inquiries. It was interesting to see how even that reputable business encountered the problem, when dealing with consumers, of working out whose the responsibility is when something goes wrong. We had to point out, for example, that inadequate attention to washing instructions on shirts might result in holes appearing in them, and that was not the company's
Column 571fault. If we take some of the hon. Lady's arguments to their logical conclusion, industry will be made responsible for every fault, which would be wrong.
From the front line of a retail establishment we observe a strong relationship between the price of goods and services and their quality. The Conservative Government can take credit for having increased earnings by record amounts. We have reduced taxation and put more money back in the pocket of the consumer, so that, generally speaking, he can afford a higher standard of goods.
Mr. Jack : If the hon. Gentleman had worked in a retail environment as I have, in Marks and Spencer and latterly in the produce industry, he would have clearly understood that we are upgrading. When did he last visit his local Tesco? The range of goods on display there and in Sainsburys has vastly improved in quality compared with a few years ago because people can now aford to pay for quality. Inherent in the Opposition's argument is the seductive idea that consumers can be safeguarded. People do not like buying goods that fall apart and are inherently poor in quality and safety. They quickly say, "No, that is not for me." They prefer to buy a good branded item that has been proven in service and they buy it from a reputable retailer. In that way, the market place can best serve the consumer in giving adequate consumer protection.
The laws on goods of a merchantable quality start to open the door to ways in which people can obtain redress if poor quality goods are offered. I had an example of this when I bought my wife a handbag which fell to pieces. After much remonstrating with the shopkeeper, I took him to the small claims court and won the action on the ground that the goods were of unmerchantable quality. I know that the existing legislation works and provides good and cheap redress for the consumer who runs into a problem. That answers the point made by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East about the expense of the law. The area of the small claim is the one that most often hits the consumer, and it is the area in which the consumer most often seeks protection through the law.
I have been involved in an interesting area of consumer protection. For the past 18 months I have been working with members of the House Builders Federation to produce a code of practice to regulate the area of private sheltered accommodation for the elderly. It deals with a classic consumer problem that started in an industry that was growing rapidly and had growing pains. Its management and sales style led to problems in that people were getting a deal that was not quite the one that they thought they should be getting. Service charges were going up more rapidly than people had anticipated and the quality of the service in the industry was not as good as they had expected.
We worked first with Age Concern to identify the problem more clearly and with the House Builders Federation to produce a code of practice. On 27 June, before the whole of the industry and with the help of the National House-Building Council, we shall launch a voluntary code of practice to regulate some of the excesses in sheltered accommodation. The code will give excellent