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Column 572protection to buyers. We have interlocked that code of practice with the rules and regulations of the National House- Building Council on housing quality. If a house builder does not acknowledge the National House-Building Council rules, he cannot get the "build" mark and without that he cannot sell his house of flat. That cunning interlocking of an existing regulatory mechanism in house building with our code of practice on sheltered accommodation will provide for the first time truly meaningful protection against abuse in that area.
There will be an element of discipline because somebody who buys sheltered accommodation in a development and finds that it is not being run in accordance with the good practice in our code will be able to go to the National House-Building Council which will be able to discipline its members. That discipline puts the house builder in a difficult position, because he may not be able to sell the property that he has built. I put that example before the House because the hon. Member for Gateshead, East condemned any kind of voluntary code of practice. The work that we have carried out in this area and on the many other voluntary codes which are registered by the Office of Fair Trading under the 1987 Act is a useful and effective way to go forward in consumer protection.
In relation to the 1987 Act, I have mentioned our code of practice. One of the key features in the Act is the question of misleading price indicators. That is a valuable addition to our consumer protection law. It means that for the first time in sheltered accommodation people will not be able to make false claims about the way that service charges are likely to go. That is a good example of a piece of general--not specific--legislation that helps a group of consumers. Would those consumers be aware of that protection if it were not for the information emanating from my code of practice? It has generated much newspaper comment, and I pay tribute in particular to The Daily Telegraph which has assiduously followed through on the code. Newspapers have a vital role to play in putting forward such consumer information, because they reach a large number of people and can get the message across quickly and effectively so that people can react accordingly.
It never fails to amaze me that we still have the confidence trickster, or the pressurising salesman. Many consumer problems that we are seeking to address result from such people. We have all heard stories of double- glazing salesmen saying, "If you don't buy today, you will lose your 25 per cent. discount." Those are the main bones of contention, rather than some of the more sophisticated consumer arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East. The hon. Lady mentioned the interesting case of the produce industry and Europe. There is already European legislation on common grading standards. All produce sold as class 1 in Europe has to follow these rules and regulations. They are down there, they are agreed to, they are in statute. Has the hon. Lady ever bought a bruised apple, a soft tomato or a flabby lettuce? I imagine that she is honest enough to admit that she may have found such defective produce. However, the EEC grading standards say that such produce should not be sold. The point is that we need good, human input to make the standards work. That is why people such as trading standards officers and Ministry inspectors have an important role to play.
Column 573Above all, the trust that the buyer and the seller have in one another is what will determine whether rules and regulations are followed through, and followed assiduously. That is the best form of protection for the consumer. It will mean that if leading retailers find that products are not in line with their specifications they will take action straight away. They will not need an inspector. However, the human input is required to make the rules and regulations work. The hon. Lady put forward many specific ideas, but I wonder whether we shall have the resources to make them work. I know that what made our rules and regulations work in the produce industry was our agreement that we wanted to make a high quality product, because if we did not, our customers would not buy it. That is straightforward and simple.
Other common European regulations work to our mutual benefit. The hon. Lady's suggestion that there should be a European statement on safety can be compared with the reality of what happens in the motor industry. Cars have been produced for a long time, so we have construction and use regulations that lay down the technical specifications against which cars can be built. They are highly geared towards producing safe motor cars.
What will happen in 1992 will lead us further down that road, because we shall then have common standards. That is the right way to go, rather than the way in which the hon. Lady is pointing us. Making general statements about safety in a technical sector such as that of motor cars is no substitute for the detailed objectives of our construction and use regulations and the pan-European requirements for cars on, for example, exhaust emissions. Specific and detailed regulations are worthwhile, but general statements tend to be meaningless.
The hon. Lady's speech gave the impression that there is no legislation on safety. I am glad to see that she now shakes her head, because that underpins the point that I am making. In many sectors--for example, motor car manufacture--excellent legislation deals with the consumer protection and safety issues to which she drew the attention of the House.
I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to look at a few specific points because no one can claim that consumer protection is perfect. The Consumers Association magazine Which? does an excellent job in highlighting the continuing need for activity, and local citizens advice bureaux are a useful source of information. I work closely with my local office in Lytham St. Annes. It keeps me fully appraised of important factors.
I am concerned about one or two points in particular. One is consumer credit. Many people, perhaps through lack of education and information, take on consumer credit obligations that they later cannot meet. I was disappointed when the previous Minister would not take up an idea that I put to him. It was that everybody, on taking out a consumer credit agreement, would be given a booklet laying down precisely the nature of the agreement that he was taking on and the obligations that it gave him. It is all too easy to get credit from a shop. Those who may not be as financially aware as others suffer when they take on such obligations without due notice of what they have let themselves into. The credit industry could do something like this itself, but to make certain that it does it should be required to give the information to the consumer. Caveat emptor--let the buyer beware--but the buyer must be aware to beware.
Mr. Favell : Consumer credit is an issue that exercises all our minds and I regularly come across not only young people but parents who are worried about their children who get into debt. As my hon. Friend will be aware, as an infant, which one is until one is 18, one is not responsible for repaying debts. However, once one has reached the age of 18 and is free to vote and fight for one's country, one is responsible for getting out of debt, if one is in debt. That should be spelt out loud and clear.
Mr. Jack : I thank my hon. Friend. I do not disagree with his solution. However, I am concerned about the question of information, and I should like to see more information made available when people take out credit. There are financial implications and obligations in taking out a life assurance policy, and there is a cooling off period during which one can decide whether the policy is exactly what one wants and one can study the implications of one's signature on the bottom line.
Some interesting things have been said by Opposition Members about guarantees. I notice that in 1986 the Office of Fair Trading estimated that the amount spent by consumers on unsatisfactory goods was £3.5 billion on cars and accessories and £346 million on household appliances. I do not want to detain the House unnecessarily by reviewing the question of guarantees, but the Department could do much good for consumers by looking at the terms of guarantees, particularly those that say, "Woodworm treatment : guaranteed for 20 or 25 years." How many companies will be around for such a time to honour long-term guarantees? We all look to guarantees as a reassurance that the product will do the job that it says it will. We should look at the bonding of guarantees, and I know that such a move is supported by the National Consumer Council.
Let me pray in aid of my argument on the general subject of the direction of Community law on consumer protection a speech made by Sir Gordon Borrie which was published in the Journal of Business Law in March 1988. I hope that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East will have a chance to look at it. Sir Gordon says that, originally, the Commission tried to introduce many directives on specific functions, but that they were not taken up very much. He went on to say that the Community developed, in a way that he approved, its approach to more general statements on the subject of consumer law. That is an important observation, by one who sees that as a welcome direction in which the Community should go. It also underlines why the Government are sometimes the odd man out. They see Europe trying to be prescriptive and detailed when what it needs to do is to set the scene, point out the problem and then allow the individual Government, and then the individual state, to solve the problems. The most appropriate and Conservative way of proceeding is to trust the individual, to give him information and to provide him with a framework of protection, which is what the Government have done. I am certain that on Thursday people will take that view rather than agree with the hon. Member for Gateshead, East.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : May I argue one specific case and cause--the need for a complete and separate department of consumer affairs? About 15 years ago, I was Minister of State for the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. I shall argue for a return to the
Column 575basic concept but not the form. I shall be relatively non-political, and while I shall criticise the Government I shall also be critical of the period for which I and my colleagues were responsible for consumer protection.
It is important to emphasise a point that tends to be forgotten. Implicit in talk of the consumer society is that the consumer is king. The history of the consumer society has been one of erosion of the consumers' power in the market place and of an increasing need for the Government or, now, the EEC as a sort of continental authority to back up the consumer's diminishing power. Long gone is the day of the local market, when local producers and local sellers knew local buyers and were dependent on their reputations in the local market. At that time, there was parity of status between individuals. By the nature of the highly desirable changes that had to occur if we were to move to the levels of affluence that the western world now enjoys, a market has inevitably evolved in which that relationship altered massively against the power of the consumer. Mass marketing and mass production removed the decision-maker from the purchaser, making it more difficult for consumers to make representations that matter and count.
Some of the new techniques that are used, such as the use of quality control, have led to the market place discovering errors and, if enough pressure is applied, suppliers putting them right. A quality control system that checks one in every 10 products detects a mechanical error in the system, but the converse is that there is a one in 10 chance of discovering an inadvertent human error. Statistically, such human errors pass through the system more than is identified. If a remote marketing company or remote international manufacturer is involved, it is difficult for the consumer to obtain redress.
Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North) : Is not the remoteness that the right hon. Gentleman is describing covered by the most basic of our Sale of Goods Acts, which allows a consumer who has bought a defective product to return to the local shop where he bought it and demand redress rather than have to try to seek redress from a remote manufacturing company? The process is rather closer to home and easier for the consumer than the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting.
Mr. Williams : It can be as difficult to obtain redress from a mass marketer as it is from a mass producer. I have written many letters to firms that have branches nationally on behalf of my constituents, because sometimes it is very difficult for them to obtain their legal rights. That is not a political point but a reality of the market place.
That problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is difficult for the consumer to know whether he is making a good or bad purchase decision at the time of purchase because of the increasing complexity of products. Domestic appliances are becoming increasingly complex, products such as foodstuffs have increasingly complex additives and there are technical problems with the irradiation of food. The complexity of products makes it more difficult for the consumer to make a considered judgment about the version of a product that he should buy. It is important, therefore, that there is back-up to
Column 576ensure that if something subsequently goes wrong with a product the consumer can be adequately assured that it will be put right. The House has had to take action against even reputable international producers, who have not hesitated to use the complexities of the law to shelter from what consumers consider to be their rights. One or two hon. Members who are present today were present when we discussed exclusion clauses. The hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) referred to guarantees. I well remember the exclusion clauses that we had to make illegal whereby major companies were offering people guarantees that, if they were silly enough to sign and return, removed the rights that they already had at law and conferred on them a lesser set of rights.
The use and type of the market, the nature of products and the increasing sophistication of those who want to protect their selfish interests against those of the consumer have diminished consumers' rights. Further, we are moving increasingly into a credit economy--I shall not make any political points about that, tempting though it is--one of the inevitable effects of which is that if someone makes a mistake they may pay for it long after they are able to get any use from a faulty product.
It is clear that a countervailing force is needed in favour of the consumer. The hon. Member for Fylde referred to Sir Gordon Borrie. I was in the middle of an interview with Shirley Williams to appoint him when I was called out by Jim Callaghan and switched from the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection to the Department of Industry. Despite the shortcomings of the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, for a while it reversed the power balance within Whitehall between the consumer and producer to such an extent that the Confederation of British Industry began to squeal that protection had moved too much in favour of the consumer.
I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer affairs has found his work fascinating. What I am about to say is not a personal attack on his role, because one must first be an Under-Secretary and then a Minister of State before becoming a Secretary of State. Since the Conservative party came to office, there has been a progressive erosion of the protection for the consumer that was provided in the 1970s. We saw first the abolition of the separate Department of Prices and Consumer Protection and then the subsuming of consumer responsibility within one of the major industrial sponsoring Departments. Within that Department we saw the downgrading of ministerial status so that, instead of the job going to a separate Cabinet Minister, it was given to a Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State. Under-Secretaries of State can argue their corners belligerently--I am sure that that is true of the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs--but the final say rests with senior Ministers. Those who have been members of the Government know the close relationship that exists in a sponsoring Department between the sponsored industries, their officials and their Ministers. It is difficult for a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to win the argument in an enormous Government Department, with a hierarchy of Ministers of State who are responsible for different sectors of the economy and a Secretary of State who believes that 95 per cent. of his responsibility is directed towards industry and commerce.
Mr. Forth : Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that important changes have taken place in the Department since he was such a distinguished member of the ministerial team? The sponsoring relationship has been radically changed as well so that there is now, deliberately, no direct involvement by the Department with industries in the way that he may recall from his days in the Department. That may well have changed things greatly in the context of the right hon. Gentleman's argument.
Mr. Williams : I well understand that point. I understand that the sponsoring divisions no longer exist, but an analysis of the work of civil servants within the Department would show that their work time is devoted more to industry and commerce than to consumer interests. The sponsoring Department even appoints the consumer watchdogs. The Department of Energy, which has a close relationship with the gas, electricity and coal industries, appoints the members of Ofgas. Because of technology investment, the Department of Trade and Industry has a close relationship with British Telecom. It appoints the members of Oftel. That is not to say that Professor Carsberg is not a formidable man and that he will not do a good job, but the person who is responsible for consumer interests is aware that the Minister who decides whether to reappoint him must consider the demand by the industry that his office is intended to monitor. The hon. Member for Fylde argued a case for self-regulation and I was interested in the instance that he put forward. The reality is, however, that a voluntary code is only as strong as the coverage of the trade association that has underwritten it and that association's will to enforce it. If a trade association covers only 60 per cent. of the suppliers of a particular good or service, another 40 per cent. are outside its scope. That makes it difficult for the trade association to take a tough line with its members, because they are likely to say, "We will do exactly the same. We will go outside." It is not just that responsibility for consumer protection has been relegated--it is highly fragmented between Departments. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is responsible for food standards. Even if we accept that Ministers want to ensure that food is safe and standards are high, the Department is automatically laid open to allegations of whitewash the moment a major case arises and it appears to be dilatory. In terms of self-interest, it makes sense to take those responsibilities from that Department and give them to a separate Minister for Consumer Affairs.
The Treasury is responsible for credit policy. Incongruously, the Department of Employment--a matter of great interest to the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory)--is responsible for tourism. That is an anomalous allocation of responsibilities. The Department of Energy has responsibility for gas and electricity. The Department of the Environment has water responsibilities. The Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for safety standards in respect of weights and measures and such large sectors of industry as British Telecom. The Home Office has responsibility for standards in television, radio and the media generally. The Department of Transport has responsibility for consumer interests in relation to those companies that supply ferry, air and rail services. Legal services come within the Lord Chancellor's
Column 578domain. Taking a wider view of the consumer, all those instances ignore the consumer element in education, health and so on. There has been fragmentation of responsibility for consumer interests in so many Departments that it is difficult to get a cohesive and coherent consumer strategy.
In 1974, we had the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. It did a worthwhile job within a limited context. By creating a Department, the Government pulled together people with a single objective, but the Department failed because its scope was too narrow. Without the price element, it did not merit the status of a Department. Originally, the prices side took half the Department's work but, as that became less important, it was clear that the Department was not viable as an administrative entity. That happened not because the concept of an independent Department was wrong but because the Department was too narrowly based.
One of my first battles in the Department took place when I wanted to take responsibility for safety from the Home Office, which, in fairness, the Home Office was only too happy to relinquish. I lost the battle to get tourism from the Department of Trade. The Department flatly refused to surrender to the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection responsibility for package tours, hotel standards and so on. Clearly, those aspects should have been covered by a separate Department.
It is time that we stepped back, looked again at the consumer functions that are submerged throughout Whitehall and considered which could and should be extracted--not which ones the Departments are willing to give up- -and given separate Cabinet status through a Department of Consumer Affairs. Such a Department would have the muscle to match the powers of the sponsoring Departments. It will be even more important after 1992 when we have to struggle with Brussels as well as Whitehall.
Mr. Conal Gregory (York) : I welcome the opportunity to debate this key subject and I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) on her perspicacity in pursuing it. For a long time, I have had an interest in consumer matters. In the 1983-87 Parliament, I took the initiative through a private Member's Bill to pioneer the Consumer Safety (Amendment) Act 1986, which became law.
Although Conservative Members may be full of moans and groans--and I shall add to those shortly--I must say at the outset how delighted I am that the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs and his colleagues take the matter so seriously. I want to draw the House's attention particularly to the fact that the Government acted with great speed a short time ago in introducing regulations to ensure that much safer upholstery was used for furniture. With the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), I expected to have to carry out an all-party campaign, which might have taken years to achieve such a regulation. However, the carpet was removed from under us and he and I were delighted by the speed with which the Department of Trade and Industry acted.
The Government have protected the consumer and the Consumer Protection Act 1987 is but one of the initiatives taken by the Department of Trade and Industry. Although I welcome the debate, I deplore the tone of the motion. I
Column 579recall the Labour party's lack of interest for a long time in consumer matters when it was in office and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to reject the motion.
The Consumer Protection Act 1987 exempts second-hand goods from the general safety requirements. Although some second-hand goods such as electrical goods are covered by specific safety legislation, others are not. The safety of second-hand and repaired tyres is wholly uncontrolled and there is considerable evidence that potentially dangerous tyres are being sold to the public without any warning or advice about previous use or, more important, major repairs. The hon. Member for Gateshead, East will recall that section 14 of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 deals with :
"False or misleading statements as to services".
Section 14 has proved virtually unworkable because it requires a level of proof far in excess of that required by other trading standards legislation. It was a Labour party initiative, but it has not worked in practice although trading standards officers have tried to make it work. The Labour party also scratched at the surface of major issues, such as misdescribed holidays, which I shall speak about in detail in a moment. Do the Government intend to review the provisions and to bring them into line with section 1 of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, which applies to all goods?
The hon. Member for Gateshead, East referred briefly to loan sharks and I wholly concur with her remarks. Too many people are getting into debt with second or third mortgages. I am concerned, as I am sure you are, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you have read the national press today, to see that some hon. Members are trying to persuade the Minister to remove warning statements such as "Failure to maintain payments may mean you forfeit your house." That warning should be displayed by all reputable bodies to those seeking a loan. I am surprised that certain finance houses have been trying to persuade hon. Members to have such warnings removed.
Another important matter is shop notices. I was appalled to hear about certain notices in Winchester, to see them in Coney street in York, and in other places, advertising closing-down sales, but without any apparent intention to close down. I remember that a jeweller's shop in Regent street claimed that for some 10 or 12 years. However, in Winchester, the notice said that it was only four days until the closing down sale and another was written in similar terms. When are those shops intending to close down? Will it be next week, next month or the year 2000? Shops can continue with such notices and keep refreshing them. As long as no malice is intended, members of the public can be hoodwinked. If they are not familiar with a town or city, they may believe that they are entering a shop where prices have been reduced artificially because it is closing down.
I want now to turn the spotlight on the travel trade, in view of its importance, and its lack of response to complaints. The trade's constant inability to take action has seriously undermined consumer confidence. After the purchase of a car, a holiday is probably the most expensive regular item bought out of a family budget. Travel agents and operators alike market dreams that rarely reach expectations. In 1977, fewer than 4 million package holidays were sold. The growth in package holidays has
Column 580been so dramatic that Britain's tour operators expect to offer just under 14 million charter holidays with a value of £3.7 billion in the year to the end of March 1990.
However, consumer satisfaction has hit rock bottom. The Office of Fair Trading reports that as many as one in five people make a formal complaint about their package holiday and that 40 per cent. of foreign trips are plagued by difficulties. Part III of the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which came into force on 1 March this year, presumably gives consumers more protection over pricing. The guidelines state :
"Travel agents should make sure that correct price indication for holidays is made clear to consumers before booking."
Our travel agents would do well to have those guidelines placed before every clerk ,in every booking office, whether Lunn Poly, Thomas Cook, the Co-operative, Hogg Robinson or whichever, and to be reminded of them every 10 minutes of the day for a good month. Do the guidelines mean that consumers should be given accurate prices with no hidden extras?
Ms. Quin : I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. Will he inform us whether he supports the European Community directive on package travel? The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs does not.
Mr. Gregory : The hon. Lady has pre-empted my remarks. I give hearty support to that directive, which does not go far enough. I want to deal now with the problem of inaccurate fares. Travel agents frequently fail to find the lowest fare. In a survey carried out by Which? published in May, 83 per cent. of travel agents quoted the wrong fare. I want to stress for the record that the figure was not 8.3 per cent. but 83 per cent. The agents were not asked a difficult question. They were asked to quote the cheapest scheduled air fare to Geneva, Paris or Brussels. Only 17 per cent. of agents found the cheapest fare. Some quoted more than £82 too much, either through incompetence or through instructions to quote only the fares of certain airlines.
Most operators' forms insist that insurance is taken out at the time of booking and not a minute later, and suggest that otherwise the form in invalid. They require the consumer to accept that, unless they tick a box to the contrary--
Mr. Favell : I bow to my hon. Friend's superior knowledge on consumer affairs and, in particular, congratulate him on being a pioneer in consumer legislation in recent years. However, does he agree that it is fair to point out that Britain is a European leader in the provision of cheap package tour holidays? One hears regularly of people from abroad flying with scheduled air fares to this country to take advantages of the many offers here. Are not the reasons why the industry is so successful the fact that tour operators have entered into voluntary agreements and the activities of a private organisation, the Consumers Association, and Which?, its journal?
Mr. Gregory : My hon. Friend may be correct to say that the industry has the greatest proportion of sales, but it also has the greatest number of complaints. Rarely do people go back to the agent who has booked their passage. I recall seeing a cartoon recently of an individual in a travel agents who was asked by the clerk where he wanted to go.
Column 581He said that he would like to go on holiday somewhere close to his baggage. That does not strike me as wholly inappropriate. I have already referred to the difficulties with travel insurance forms. In addition, the cover is inadequate and the premiums are unacceptable. Holiday insurance premiums are usually higher than any broker would obtain and the cover is not as extensive. Exclusion clauses apply if someone becomes redundant or pregnant after booking a holiday, but that booking could have been made many months before the intended holiday. Therefore, the question of liability must be considered.
I also draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that many agents are either misinformed or unimaginative. If a consumer purchases a product, it should serve the purpose intended. There is little point in recommending a hotel or venue with no lift or in an area with steep hills for someone who is physically disabled, because such a recommendation could mean that that person is confined to just a few rooms of the hotel.
I do not wish to restrict my remarks entirely to the retail sector and to the travel agents because they often say, "That is not our problem--not in our back yard. The difficulty is with the tour operator." Tour operators have a cavalier approach, often cancelling holidays outright or changing dates. I shall give an example. A couple from Tamworth booked a holiday in Turkey with Intasun. It was cancelled. They were offered an earlier date but could not take it. The holiday was supposed to be a celebration. They chose to take a holiday in Scotland instead and I am jolly pleased that they did so. Tour operators also change the timing of journeys. I know of pensioners who booked a holiday in Corfu with Horizon specifically because the tour was to depart at 1.40 in the afternoon and return at 8 o'clock at night. However, within days of the intended departure, those people learnt that they were to leave at 11.25 in the evening and return home at 5.40 in the morning. Understandably, they cancelled because the new arrangements represented a quite separate contract from the one that they had entered into.
Many people would like to use their local airport, which makes more sense than bussing people halfway across England. It was for that reason that a family with young children and an elderly aunt chose a holiday that started from Luton, their local airport. However, the operator switched it to Gatwick, a one and a half hour train journey away.
There is also the vexed matter of surcharges, which are not explained and which are operated on a maverick system from one operator to another. Indeed, some firms quote different surcharges for the same holiday. Kuoni Travel Ltd., which normally has a very good reputation, produced separate brochures that quoted different sterling rates for the same holiday. Therefore, people on the same package could face different surcharges-- could anything be more ludicrous than that? Yet one faces an uphill struggle if one wants the trade body, the Association of British Travel Agents, to take effective action.
There is also the problem of hotel changes. One can find the chosen destination to be fully booked once one is abroad. I know that ground handlers try to help by putting people in cheaper accommodation for say three nights and then switching their hotel or making the facilities of the intended hotel available later, although they may be four streets away.
Column 582Holidaymakers travelling abroad expect a high standard of safety in the hotels and apartments in which they spend their holidays. However, the safety levels all too often fall well short of those required in the United Kingdom. I am sure that many hon. Members regularly watch the Esther Rantzen programme on Sundays and will have been appalled to learn of potential hazards such as lifts without internal doors, inadequate railings on stair and balconies, the lack of life-saving equipment at swimming pools and dangerours cots. A list of consumer dissatisfactions would be longer than a month's supply of Hansard, yet operators continually seek to get out of the problems by saying, "Take your claim to the ground handler in the country in which you suffered on that holiday." Clearly, United Kingdom operators and United Kingdom agents should accept their responsibilities.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes : My hon. Friend has made some valuable and important points, especially about safety. Has he received many complaints, and has he any reflections, about the other side of the coin--the medical care that people seem to be denied by so many companies? Many of the company representatives seem to deny the people in their charge access to the medical care that is available or that should be available from the expensive insurance that those people have taken out. Such representatives are risking the lives of the people who put their trust in them.
Mr. Gregory : I echo my hon. Friend's remarks. Ground handlers seem to be ignorant of the E111 form and its uses. They seem constantly to depend on the travel insurance that has been taken out and do not provide the adequate safeguards to which most consumers are entitled unless the holidaymakers have taken out a more expensive policy with an organisation such as Europ Assistance, which is again to the benefit of the travel agent, when such safeguards could and should have been organised more properly at the beginning of the process. When my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary replies to the debate, I hope that he will at least confirm that he is unhappy about safety levels and that he would like to see greater responsibility from the tour operators and agents. I hope that he will call on them to ensure that they accept liability, because operators cannot continue to shirk that important point. The regular horror stories in all our postbags would not be so intense if the travel trade took its responsibilities seriously and did not make so many errors in the first place. It should be prompt in offering proper compensation. Far too many operators try the hard-sell through glossy brochures and have no compunction about cancelling holidays outright or offering different destinations, departure times, airports and flight times.
The message that appears to be coming through is that, although one may have thought that one had entered into a contract, one cannot be sure if, when and where one is going on holiday.
Much of the anger and frustration could be deflected if the travel trade offered adequate compensation. Two tour giants, Thomson Holidays and Horizon, last year launched "no cancellation" offers. I am sure that with his laissez-faire approach my hon. Friend would say that they are splendid companies to do so. That offer seemed to be a guarantee that arrangements would be honoured and that the small print would not be invoked. However,
Column 583consumers booking with those companies already know that that offer is not worth the paper that it is printed on because the companies have been sliding out of their responsibilities, offering as little as £15 compensation. That is derisory and it ill becomes their press officers to have made so much of their approach last year. Tour operators have had their chance in voluntary codes of conduct and have been found lacking all the way along. The time has come for some Government intervention. It is because Government action is called for that I turn now to the EEC draft directive on package travel. It contains a great deal of commonsense and even the Association of British Travel Agents, which is the main body for both agents and operators in the travel trade, has stated that it "accepts that there is a need for additional protection for EC travellers."
That is quite a statement from ABTA, which rarely admits anything. I am delighted that it has accepted that point even though, in its consultation documents to the Minister, it has tried to erode each point of the draft directive. I am glad of that admission from ABTA because we need some redress and the consumer, whom we are trying to support in this debate, needs help.
Press comments have suggested that my hon. Friend the Minister would like a package holiday ombudsman. Indeed, the consumer must have statutory rights which could, by all means, be backed up by a trade body. An ombudsman would be welcome, but we need a trade that is willing and anxious to participate and the holiday trade seems reluctant to do so.
The draft directive calls for compensation to holiday makers who have reasonable complaints. ABTA's submission states :
"Many of the risks resulting from the Directive would be uninsurable."
I wonder whether ABTA has heard of Lloyd's of London. Perhaps we could introduce the two parties to each other because there is no such word as "uninsurable".
I remember debating insurance with the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) when discussing the major consumer legislation of the previous Parliament. We discussed covering the liability for pharmaceutical risks, the extent to which consumers were exposed to risks with new pharmaceutical products and the extent to which the risk was insurable. The answer is that it was insurable ; Lloyd's is prepared to underwrite the risk. It is unrealistic, and unbecoming, for a great tour industry not to fulfil its responsibilities properly.
ABTA says that consumers can only realistically expect an organiser to use his best endeavours and have third party liability, which would be limited. In other words, ABTA seeks to transfer liability to anyone other than itself--to the ground handler or to the consumer, perhaps, for having been unfortunate enough to book a package holiday in that particular place. ABTA is shirking its responsibility. Let us consider the objections. The travel trade says that it is reluctant to offer compensation or take responsibility for the difference in price of the holiday if the price has increased by more than 2 per cent. Other industries quote forward, and stick to their quotes. Take the example of the motor car industry. One may book a new motor car three or four months in advance. The price
Column 584may change, but a contract has been entered into and the motor trade honourably allows the purchase to take place at the earlier price.
ABTA says that bland and unhelpful expressions would enter the brochures-- for example,
"There are sporting facilities usually available."
But that is all that the consumer gets now. Virtually no operator and few agents reveal information about noise. One rarely knows, for example, whether a hotel is close to a busy road. Then there is proximity to the beach. I have yet to see a brochure that properly informs its readers whether it is a sand or a shingle beach. Few say whether there are lifts in the property or set out costs of using a swimming pool, towels or a sunbed. Anyone who has been to the Mediterranean will be aware that war almost breaks out on the beaches between the British and the Germans over the availability of sunbeds. One may discover unexpectedly that there are no shops at the airport. That is one problem that Intourist faces, as I discovered when I had the pleasure of visiting Moscow and Leningrad over Easter. For someone with a young family, it is vital to be able to find soft drinks at the airport, especially if one is to be held there for three or four hours or, as in my case, five hours. We went without refreshment.
What compensation do operators offer for such delays? I cannot find a brochure that offers a penny until 12 or more hours have elapsed. Imagine that. A holidaymaker may go to the airport an hour or two before the required time for the flight and then may have to wait 11 of the 12 hours without compensation. The start or end of a holiday should not be ruined by excessive delays such as that, and we need compensation for shorter delays. In the case of someone who has gone on a weekend break, half a day--a large proportion of the time available--will already have been used, yet he will be offered little or no compensation.
In view of that catalogue of complaints, it is not surprising that Blackpool attracts more British visitors that Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey put together, and long may that last. Operators offering the splendid United Kingdom destinations operate with one hand tied behind their backs. Holiday packages in Great Britain and Ulster are first class, and all concerned take their responsibilities seriously, but those selling primarily overseas lack consumer commitment.
We have waited too long for the overseas package holiday trade to put its house in order. Now is the time to act, and every traveller will journey with confidence this summer if he knows that the British Government have insisted on a fair deal.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : We are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) for raising many important issues. I declare an interest, as the speech that I shall make had its genesis a fortnight ago when I looked at some of my flowers and vetegables and found that they were covered with greenfly when they ought not to have been covered with greenfly. I am
Column 585indebted, too, to Nicholas Carter, a senior scientist at Rothamsted, who provided me with a great deal of information.
The subject of my speech is the future of the national insect survey at a time when aphids are filling fields and gardens throughout the summer. If this were a personal complaint, I should not raise it in the House, but as it is a widespread complaint, about which something could be done, and as the Government are taking unjustifiable action in cutting agricultural research, I feel fully entitled to do so.
We have had a mild dry May, and the biggest explosion in the aphid population for 15 years. Greenfly, blackfly and other pests are threatening crops but apparently it is intended that the Rothamsted insect survey should close many of its insect traps, provide less information about the spread of aphids and cut its forecasting activities, which are vital to farmers.
One consequence will be that more insecticide will be sprayed as an insurance, in the absence of information about pests. I am especially grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East, therefore, for bringing me into order by making environmental consequences part of the subject of her motion.
The Rothamsted survey monitors insects using traps sucking insects out of the air and collecting them for future counting and analysis. The first British suction trap was set at Rothamsted experimental station in 1964. By 1970, 10 more traps had joined the survey. By last year, 23 traps, each 12.2 m tall, were in operation--including six in Scotland. As a Scottish Member, I emphasise that we are greatly concerned about the problem that is now upon us in Scotland. Rothamsted has the most extensive network of suction traps in the world. During 446 site-years its researchers have counted almost 10 million aphids from 300 species. This invaluable database, which allows scientists to make accurate predictions about times of infestation by many aphids, is threatened by the Government's policy on agricultural research, which they regard as a commercial spin-off. An unpublished Government review of agriculture research and development, known as the Barnes report, has identified aspects of Rothamsted's work, such as its forecasting activities, as near market as it can save farmers money by pinpointing times at which they need to apply insecticides to their fields. The Government believe that that work should be paid for by the farmers.
Funds for the insect research survey which come through the Agriculture and Food Research Council's institute of arable crops research are being reduced. As a result, the survey will have to close some traps completely and monitor others for only part of the year. The IRS weekly publication The Aphid Bulletin and Aphid Commentary, distributed by post, free of charge, to more than 300 interested people will not appear this year.
The Government's shortsighted approach threatens an unrivalled database for entymological and ecological research, as well as for farmers. It is likely to lead to the more profligate spraying of chemicals by farmers, who will be unaware of the true extent of any likely aphid attack. The loss of data also threatens efforts to assess whether environmental changes, including climatic changes, are having long-term effects on the insect population.
Workers who empty suction traps look not only for aphids but for aphids' many predators such as ladybirds, hover flies, lacewings, spiders and beetles. All those
Column 586captured are kept and catalogued. The damson hop aphid attacks hops. Insecticides can prevent it from causing larger reductions in the yields of hop gardens in Herefordshire and Kent every year. The spraying of insecticides has been so intensive that the damson hop aphid has developed a resistance to many of the chemicals used. The time to spray for maximum effect is when the aphid migrates from its winter hosts--damsons and sloes--to hops. Samples taken in Kent and Hereford over the past 15 years combine with weather details to provide a good database from which to project the start and finish of the migration. The samples revealed that it is possible to use data on temperatures in early spring, rainfall figures for winter and spring and the amount of sunshine in summer to predict the migrations.
All that work is threatened, yet with greenhouse effect conditions, it is even more important. For example, the black bean aphid spends the winter on spindle trees and migrates to crops such as spring beans in May or June. Suction traps provide more data, from an elaborate system of constantly updated forecasts, of the size and timing of the migrations. The system was developed by IRS together with the Government's agricultural development and advisory service and Imperial college, London. Forecasts are based on the size of the previous autumn's migration as measured in suction traps, egg sampling and sampling of aphids on spindle trees in the spring and, finally, the early stages of spring migration. In 1989 researchers expect damage to bean crops in much of eastern England and the west midlands. Crop infestation by aphids has already occurred some two weeks earlier than usual.
You asked us to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that I have made my point in general and, as the Minister is nodding, I assume that he believes it to be a serious point. Nicholas Carter and others--I consulted widely before the debate--have produced a great deal of information, of which much is available to gardeners. Long-term data such as those provided by the IRS will prove valuable in determining trends in aphid population biology, and such trends may be linked to changes in land use or climate. That role for the survey has not yet attracted a great deal of attention, but it may turn out to be its most important as concern about the changing climate gathers ground. Unfortunately, the long-term monitoring that is essential to such work is often the poor relation of science because it is non-experimental and needs no sophisticated equipment. Thus the Natural Environment Research Council gives a low priority to its biological records centre. The problem is that long-term monitoring is often incompatible with short-term decisions about funding. Once a continuous sequence of data is broken, it can never be recovered.
If such work is interrrupted, let alone brought to an end for some short- term financial gain--quite frankly, an accounting gain--to make the books of a Department look good, great damage will be done. There must be some sort of sequence in that work. There are several million gardeners in this country. Indeed, the Minister represents a Worcestershire constituency. Worcestershire is famous for its gardens and many of the Minister's constituents will think it a heck of a pity if any of the work relevant to the national insect survey is interrupted.
I note that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has done me the courtesy of coming into the Chamber. He represents a beautiful part of a beautiful city and I can assure him that his constituents are most concerned about
Column 587the problems of aphids such as greenfly and blackfly. If the Under-Secretary does not believe that, he should ask his constituents in Davidson's Mains. I hope that the Scottish Office will take an interest in this matter. I shall tell him exactly what I have said and where I obtained my information when we are behind the Chair. I am hoping for two detailed answers--one from the consumer Minister, once he has contacted his MAFF colleagues, and the other from the Scottish Office.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : I apologise to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for not wishing to follow his speech because, quite frankly, I did not understand it-- [Interruption.] Some of us admit that we do not understand matters, unlike certain Labour Members who interrupt from sedentary positions.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) on raising this important subject for debate. I apologise for having missed the beginning of her speech, but I was doing some work on something to do with Europe that will occur later in the week, although what it is escapes me for the moment. I was disappointed with much of what she said. She gave a long shopping list of aspirations and ideas about what could be controlled and what sort of standards should be introduced, but I heard no strategy for how to do that. I assume that her remarks came from the same stable as those of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), although he put forward a strategy largely based on his experiences as a Consumer Minister. I had a great deal of sympathy with what he said, although I did not necessarily agree with his strategy.
Two separate roads could be taken in approaching this problem. I am not entirely sure that the Labour party and I want to take the same road. It is right that people should be protected from buying dangerous goods or a service that does not live up to its description. A number of ideas have been put forward by hon. Members on both sides of the House suggesting changes in the law, new regulations and new codes of conduct.
I do not want to go down the road of seeking to tell people what are the best options in what is available, but from much of what the hon. Lady said I detected her wish to go down that road. She concentrated many of her remarks on information. My experience of some of the consumer information services provided by local authorities is that they tell people, "This is the range of goods available and this is what we think you should buy." Local authorities are not equipped to give such advice. It is certainly not the purpose of Government, whether central or local, to spoonfeed people as though they always know what is best, what consumers should be buying and how they should spend their money. Spoonfeeding is very much a Labour party approach--indeed, it is exactly the approach set out in its 1983 election manifesto. No doubt that is why it did so disastrously. The manifesto contained 100 pages telling people how the Labour party would run their lives for them. From the hon. Lady's remarks, that still appears to be very much the Labour party's approach.