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Column 588Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) said rather than on what he wishes she had said. I hope that he will now get on with the reality rather than the fantasy.
Mr. Hughes : The hon. Gentleman was rather peripatetic during the hon. Lady's speech. I thought that he entered the Chamber after me and so could not have heard all that she said. I can understand his wish that the Labour party's 1983 election manifesto did not exist. Perhaps he wishes that he had not stood on that manifesto.
Ms. Quin : At what point during my speech did the hon. Gentleman enter the Chamber? He complained about the absence of a strategy, yet I began my speech by saying that consumer interests needed to be taken into account across Government Departments. I referred to certain matters that were later taken up and enlarged upon by my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams).
Mr. Hughes : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for clarifying that point and I shall certainly read the early part of her speech. I remember looking at the clock when I entered the Chamber at 3.42 pm. I am, of course, delighted to hear that the hon. Lady covered those points.
I wish to take a different approach from other hon. Members to the food issue, and pick up a phrase used by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West. He said, in many ways quite rightly, that gone are the days of the local buyer knowing the local producer. Of course those days have gone. We do not necessarily know who produces the goods. It is important that people should have trust in stores such as Marks and Spencer and Sainsburys and the manufacturers.
That point has been brought home to parents who are concerned about the problems that have been faced by some baby food manufacturers. It is interesting to look at the manufacturers' different responses. Farleys had a milk problem. It is instructive for all food manufacturers to think carefully about what caused the problem in the Farleys factory. In the end, the company went out of business or had to be bought out by, I think, Boots. The company went out of business because people lost trust in it. Did they lose trust in that company because of the problem in the factory? They did not. They lost trust in the company because of the way in which it reacted to the problem in its factory.
The managing director of the company appeared on BBC television and said that there was a problem. That was several days after the problem appeared in the factory, and, until then, the company had failed to tell the public about it. When he finally admitted that there was a problem, in that live BBC interview, the managing director advised people not to buy that company's products any more and to throw away the products that they had at home. The advice to throw those products away was rather ungenerous. As subsequent manufacturers who have had similar problems have said, the managing director should have said, "Return the products to us and we will refund your money." That would demonstrate a more generous attitude. What finally killed the Farleys company was reluctance on the part of the senior executive to admit that there was a problem in the factory and the company's failure to close the production line when the problem was discovered. As
Column 589a parent, when I heard that the company had not closed its production line, I lost confidence in the company. I was clearly not alone, as the company went bankrupt.
Mr. Hughes : I hope that I heard the hon. Gentleman say from a sedentary postion, "Quite right, too." I agree. [Interruption.] One day the hon. Gentleman will treat hon. Members to a speech. It will be a rare thing. He makes only sedentary contributions when I am in the Chamber.
There has been a marked difference in the problems that are faced by other baby food manufacturers such as Cow and Gate. As the parent of two small boys, I still have every confidence in Cow and Gate and other companies.
Mr. Hughes : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) for mentioning Heinz. I am sure that he will agree that those companies were totally honest and, therefore, deserve the support and trust of all parents. From what they say about their sales figures, it is obvious that they are getting that trust. We place enormous trust in the retailer and the producer. Whatever the Government might do and whatever regulations might be in force, that trust is foremost in buyers' minds.
I may have missed what the hon. Member for Gateshead, East said, but I was surprised that she did not pay tribute to the consumer safety statistics that have been collected by the DTI. Important changes have been made in the updating of consumer safety statistics and the basis on which they have been collected, including the extension of the system to cover leisure accidents. I am the sponsor of the Safety in Children's Playgrounds Bill. Many groups are seeking to improve safety standards in children's playgrounds. It is important for them to get from the DTI relevant statistics about the number of children who need to be hospitalised, and why. It is easy to have a preconceived idea of why accidents happen in playgrounds. For instance, most people believe that the hard surfaces in two thirds of our playgrounds cause most accidents in playgrounds. However, the DTI has revealed that most accidents happen because children collide while running from one piece of play equipment to another. Without further statistics, how can we introduce further legislation, standards or codes of practice, as I hope that the Department of the Environment will do?
It is important to pay tribute to the work of theDTI--
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What is the relevance of the contribution by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes)? His remarks about play schools and playgrounds are interesting, but how are they related to the EEC? He is talking about the presentation of British standards rather than EEC standards. Some hon. Members have been waiting a considerable time to debate the poll tax.
Mr. Hughes : People will read that intervention with great interest and note that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) is clearly not interested in safety in children's playgrounds, and the parents in his constituency--
Mr. Barnes rose--
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) to the terms of the motion. I am bound to say that he seems to be ignoring the motion, whatever the merits or demerits of any later debate may be. I ask him to have regard to the number of hon. Members who are waiting to speak in a short debate.
Mr. Hughes : I acknowledge that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman's point of order is rather amiss. As you will have read, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the first line of the motion states "To call attention to the failure of the Government to protect the consumer".
It goes on :
"that government policies have failed to benefit the consumer". I was making consumer points. They belie the motion. I should have thought that it was not only reasonable but important for those points to be made.
It is essential to have not only consumer safety statistics but consumer safety campaigns. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on conducting the campaigns. The first was on toy safety. Most of us in the peak shopping time before Christmas saw giant teddy bears in the shops, with retailers helping to promote the safety message. There has been an improvement in consumer awareness of fireworks safety. Fireworks are dangerous things. Anything that can be done to limit their use or to persuade people not to use them is good. There have been electric blanket campaigns designed to encourage the elderly in particular to get their old electric blankets serviced. There is nothing that the Government can do to make that happen. How can we get someone to take an old electric blanket to be serviced merely because the Government say so? However, people can be persuaded, and persuasion is important. In conjunction with the Child Accident Prevention Trust, two booklets on child safety equipment and on the safety of nursery equipment have been made available through the clinics to all new parents. I was impressed, when our last baby was born five months ago, when I received copies of those booklets. I pay tribute to the Minister for making those booklets available. The hon. Member for Gateshead, East said that part of the Government's response to the issue--as she put it, the Government's inadequate response--was privatisation. I do not understand how she can make that point. She said that privatisation had failed to protect the consumer, especially in terms of price. If one considers the prices charged for electricity and gas, they are lower in real terms than those charged previously--certainly those charged under the Labour Government. Those who pay electricity and gas bills know that prices are lower than they were, and that they have not gone up in line with inflation. [Interruption.] It is interesting that Opposition Members either laugh or shout ridiculous comments from a sedentary position, when both the Labour party and its friends in office, the Liberals, did so much to hike up the prices of those two basic commodities. They know that they are responsible for the twin evils of high prices and under-investment in those two industries. Privatisation of those industries has, first, protected the consumer by keeping the prices down, and, secondly, has caused a substantial rise in investment in those industries, which is another important protection for the consumer.
Mr. Hughes : As the hon. Lady has mentioned the water industry, I will comment on it now. We must compare the record of this Government with that of the Labour Government. As we know--after all, the chairman of the Water Authorities Association has told us this--we are still suffering from the massive under-investment of the Labour Government, which is causing problems on our beaches and with our water supply.
Mr. Hughes : I shall give way when I have answered this point. That under-investment is still causing problems. [Interruption.] It is all very well saying that was 10 years ago, but it is the experts who are trying to run those businesses who tell us the answers, not hon. Members speaking from a sedentary position. Water privatisation will give us a guarantee that we can have decent standards for our water supply, because the supply will have to be to the standards laid down by the National Rivers Authority. The Labour party, having voted against all those provisions in the Water Bill, has put itself on to the side of those people who are the polluters of the water supply and who do not care about higher standards for water. Of course, we shall have higher water standards. We do not need the Labour party, with its dreadful record in government, to give us any lectures on that point.
Those are important areas for consumer protection. I believe that the Government have a good record on consumer protection, and that they have given it a higher priority by ensuring that there is real work carried out, rather than the pretence of a Ministry. We have heard from the Labour party today that it wants to return to the pretence of wrapping these things up in words. It wants to over-regulate and to tell people that politicians can make decisions better than ordinary people making their purchases. I do not believe that that policy will wash with the public. They want the freedom to make their own decisions, providing that they know that they can have protection from shoddy goods and from false promises. Once we have made more strides in that direction, as we shall in the next few years, people will understand, as in so many other areas, that the Labour party's approach to this matter is entirely fraudulent. 6.4 pm
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) : I fear that the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) missed almost every relevant point at the core of the debate. If one wants to take the two extremes of the argument, there is the extreme view that says that the free market will solve all our problems and the one that says everything will have to be regulated down to the last detail. Having said that, the main contributors to the debate are saying neither of those things. I believe that the constructive debate is to recognise the limitations of the market place and those of the
Column 592regulatory authority, and determine how one can secure a sensible balance. That is how we might achieve a constructive debate. Given that the context in which the motion is set is the move towards the single market in 1992, the point to stress at the outset is that there is obviously an argument as to what the single market will mean for the consumer. I want to make it clear that I believe that the single market offers great opportunities for the consumer. The creation of a unified economy of more than 320 million people offers a very wide range of choice and opportunity for the consumer, economies of scale for the producer, which will help to bring down costs by securing access to a bigger market, and a higher rate of innovation, both of the product and of technology. Those are the kind of benefits that I believe can and should accrue. Indeed, I am advised that a report by Alber and Ball to the European Parliament in 1983 estimated that the existing regulations across the Common Market amounted to the loss of a week's wages for every worker within the Community. One must assume, therefore, that removing many of those restrictions will be of positive benefit.
I want to make it clear that I believe that the single market is something to be welcomed and to be encouraged. I understand the arguments from Conservative Members that we do not want to go into that situation only to impose a whole range of alternative regulations. I believe, however, that we need to approach the matter in an objective and sensible manner. One argument is to say that a free market is the best possible protection for the consumer. My comment on that is, perhaps, but "it ain't necessarily so," and that there are tendencies within a free market to create monopolies and a situation where consumers are disadvantaged and where they need active intervention to secure redress.
The hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) and other hon. Members have mentioned the Government's programme of privatisation. I do not want to dwell on that matter for very long, but it is worth saying that in the run- up to the privatisation of British Gas and to the current privatisation of electricity, the Government have pursued a policy of deliberately raising the prices of those commodities to the consumer by a rate far higher than the rate of inflation. I do not have to defend the last Labour Government-- indeed it is not my intention to do so--but to refer to something that happened 10 years ago and to ignore the fact that the price of oil went over $40 at that time--
Mr. Bruce : The hon. Gentleman says than any excuse will do, but $40 of 10 years ago has to be compared with a price that actually dipped two years ago to $9 and is now under $20. That is a substantial difference. That rather goes with the Government's claim that they have presided over record investment and earnings. Almost every year of this century, barring wartime and the first two years of the present Government, Governments have been able to say that. If they were not able to say that, they would not have been re-elected, so it does not amount to a very substantial or radical claim. One takeover that I feel has not necessarily added to the benefit of the consumer has been the takeover of British Caledonian Airways by British Airways, which I believe should not have happened. It was brought about as a
Column 593direct consequence of the Government's refusal to recognise, when British Airways was privatised as a monopoly, that it was such a dominant player in the domestic scene that it effectively destroyed the possibility of British Caledonian Airways remaining as an independent airline. As somebody who has to make frequent use of British Airways, I do not believe that, as a consumer, I receive adequate treatment in choice or service. Too often British Airways cancels planes at short notice--it is very often the last plane of the day--very often because it has to divert that aircraft to a route on which it faces competition. Therefore, the exact opposite to what is intended follows. Because it has a monopoly on certain routes, the consumer who is completely dependent on British Airways suffers the greatest. Those who would have the opportunity to divert to another airline find that they have a choice, because British Airways cannot afford to leave them without the choice and lose the business to its competitor. The Government should address such problems and should ensure that British Airways operates as a competitor on routes, but, if it is accepted that a certain route cannot sustain two operators, the Government should ensure that the consumer is given the same treatment as would be given on a route where competition exists. When companies have been privatised as monopolies it has been argued that regulation is necessary. That argument does not divide the House--why else did the Government introduce Ofgas and Oftel if they did not recognise that such regulations was necessary? The argument that divides the House is the extent to which that regulation should be effective. I have no doubt that when the Electricity Bill comes back to the House two important amendments accepted in the other place will be reversed. That is regrettable because those amendments were in the interests of the consumer. When the Gas Bill went through the House, I and other hon. Members pointed out that the provision of choice in the industrial sector was totally inadequate and that British Gas would be taken to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. That proved to be correct.
One of the concerns about the single market and its implications for consumers is its effect on and drive towards mergers and takeovers. In recent years we have seen evidence of that. The takeover philosophy is different in different member states. My party believes that the obligation to prove that a takeover is in the consumer's interest should be put on the hostile predator and not on the recipient of the bid. Evidence collected by the Minister's Department suggests that the vast majority of takeovers are, almost by definition, designed not to increase competition or consumer choice, but to consolidate the larger, hostile bidder's position within the market. By definition, that is contrary to consumer interest. General statements of good will are made and we are told that economies of scale will be made and rationalisation procedures will be followed that will benefit the consumer. Analysis, however, suggests that once the bid has been accepted the consumer is worse off. Our proposals would lead to a dramatic improvement in the protection of consumer interests. It is to my continual regret that the Government have said that such takeovers are a matter for the shareholders and that consumer interests do not count. They believe that if the shareholders are willing to sell, that is the only basis on which most takeovers should be decided.
Column 594Shareholders are always delighted to sell because increasing their standing in the market place enables them to exploit the consumer for an even greater profit. Why on earth should shareholders resist such an obvious temptation? The Government and the wider community have an obligation to ensure that takeovers are examined for their possible benefit to the consumer.
It is worth making a comparison between the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany. In that country hostile takeovers are almost unknown, essentially because the structure of ownership within German industry means that it is almost impossible to secure such a takeover without the consent of the main banker of any corporation, who also tends to be the major shareholder.
As 1992 approaches Britain is increasingly vulnerable to takeovers from countries inside and outside the Community and, at the same time, we are unable to secure similar access to the ownership of those countries' markets.
It is interesting to consider the financial characteristics of the European markets in comparison to our own. Mention has already been made of consumer credit. I shall not be mealy-mouthed about it. I believe that the ethic the Government have advanced has fuelled a consumer credit boom that has fundamentally weakened our economy and has meant that many people face genuine financial hardship. I do not believe it is just a case of loan sharks, but the way in which our retailing operators conduct their business. When people go to a shopping centre they are actively encouraged to take out lines of credit for goods and services which they do not actually need, but which they are tempted to buy. They are not aware of how they will pay for such goods and services. I do not believe that consumers are adequately protected against being tempted to take on levels of credit that they cannot afford to sustain. Such credit is even more damaging since the Government have lost control of the economy and have been forced to jack up rates of interest dramatically over a short time. People now find that their level of repayments is far greater than they had anticipated or budgeted for. The code of practice that has operated in some of our retail stores must be altered radically.
It is interesting to consider the two most successful economies of the developed world--Japan and West Germany. They operate on highly conservative financial principles and the level of savings is far, far higher than our own. It is between 15 and 20 per cent. Long-term strategies are carefully considered by those countries. We operate on a short-term basis and our propensity to save could well move into a negative index soon as a direct result of the climate created by the Government.
The Government's policy is extraordinary, as they seem to encourage people to buy goods and services that are not produced in this country with money that most people do not have. On that basis it is not surprising that our economy is getting into trouble. The Government continue to claim that the thrust of their policy is the need to keep inflation under control and yet they refuse to join the exchange rate mechanism of the European monetary system. All the evidence suggests, however, that our membership of that mechanism would not only help to bring inflation under control, particularly in the long term, but that such inflationary control could be achieved with lower rates of interest. It is interesting to note that the French found a direct correlation between that and--
Mr. Favell : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The European monetary system has nothing to do with the motion on the Order Paper and you should bear in mind that a number of hon. Members still want to speak.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) is straying considerably from the motion on the Order Paper, but I am sure that he will bring his remarks back to the motion.
Mr. Bruce : Yes. My simple point is that every consumer I meet would like us to have a level of inflation comparable to that in France and interest rate levels comparable to those of other countries. Consumers would benefit from our membership of the European monetary system. It appears that the Prime Minister and her adviser, Professor Alan Walters, are alone in the conviction that their argument is right.
It has been argued that consumers, in order to make a rational choice in the market place, must have access to information, particularly in the case of environmental protection. Earlier it was suggested that the market was already responding to consumer concern and that retailers had managed to give people information by better labelling and that that had meant that, at no cost and without Government action, environmentally offensive products had been and were being phased out. That argument has been advanced in relation to aerosol cans and CFCs, but they represent a relatively small part of the problem in comparison to the range of environmental concerns. Many of the companies that had introduced ozone- friendly aerosols still operate large amounts of refrigeration and air- conditioning machinery and they do not make adequate provision for that machinery's disposal through recycling. Therefore, they are in danger of destroying all the marketing benefits which they have given to the consumer, because of their own industrial effluent. The consumer should know about that.
The importance of information has recently been highlighted by a couple of specific issues. In an intervention during the speech of the hon. Member for Gateshead, East I drew attention to the issue of dioxins, which she had mentioned. I represent paper manufacturers and fully understand the balance of the arguments. The American markets have proved that consumers demand information and a right to choose. They want to know whether the products that can produce dioxins are being used in the bleaching of particular paper products. They also want the right to buy dioxin-free products.
At the moment, the Government's reaction, which I have raised with Ministers, is that that is entirely a matter to which the markets should respond. That is not good enough. First, there should be regulations to ensure that the information is provided and, secondly, there should be, at the very least, a Government push to ensure that choice is provided. That has happened in the United States. One benefit of the larger single market may be that it will make that easier to happen within the European Community : I hope so. Last week, I also raised the issue of Alar, which has been banned in the United States, but which is still used in the United Kingdom. Consumers need to know whether an apple product has been treated with Alar. If they have that information, they may well ensure that the market determines that Alar is phased out, but without it they are
Column 596unable to do anything other than refuse to have anything to do with apples, which seems to be a draconian response to force on consumers.
I appreciate that other hon. Members wish to speak so I shall draw my remarks to a close. The Government should acknowledge that there is a role for them, as for local authorities, in the process of securing information, alerting the public and providing the necessary facilities. In a number of ways, the Government are being asked to promote good environmental practices and, so far, they are not providing the support needed. I commend local authorities which, for example, have established a code of practice in their contracts on the protection of tropical hardwoods and the recycling and use of CFCs. It is regrettable that, so far, the Government have not been prepared to promote an initiative to enable the recycling of CFCs or labelling--never mind a code of practice--for tropical hardwoods, ensuring that they come only from sustainable sources. If they do not come from sustainable sources, the community should be entitled to set up a collective ban against them. That is the one way in which the promotion of sustainable tropical hardwoods could be ensured. On both these issues, local authorities such as Sutton and my own council of Gordon have taken initiatives and asked the Government to support them to enable them to increase their services to the consumer. However, so far, their requests have fallen on deaf ears. When fully developed, the single market offers a wide variety of opportunities for consumers. However, because of the wide differences within the Community, there must be a recognition of common consumer standards and the Government must recognise their responsibility to set that balance. I fear that, to date, they have not done so. I have received all sorts of concerned representations on many matters of developments in a rapidly changing market.
Those people feel that, at the very least, more information should be made available and that, if the Government are not prepared to be the agents to secure the information, the market response is often too slow.
Sheltered housing and the voluntary code of practice have been mentioned in the debate. Only last week, I was approached by a councillor, who was of a more Conservative than SLD persuasion and was concerned at the way in which nursing homes and sheltered housing operations for the elderly in the private sector seemed to be able to pitch their price according to a person's ability to pay. The industry effectively built its profit on running down people's money and was happy to allow them to continue on social security when their money had run out. That suggests simple profiteering : if it is not, I assure the Minister that there is great worry among Conservatives who feel that it looks awfully like it. Those are the sort of matters for which the Government have responsibility.
I hope that the Minister will accept that this debate is about securing a sensible balance between a totally unbridled free market and excessive regulation. The Government are in danger of leaving the balance too much on the side of the free market, which does not work exclusively in consumers' interests.
Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport) : This has been an interesting debate for me, and I think that I speak for other hon. Members. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) for introducing this
Column 597interesting subject, which has exercised the minds of the Government throughout the 10 years in which they have been in power. The hon. Member for Gateshead, East, is wrong to suggest that the Government are not interested in consumers' interests. The Consumer Protection Act 1987 was wide reaching, far ranging and far from popular with many of the organisations and concerns which the hon. Lady would consider to be natural supporters of the Government. There was much opposition from manufacturers to the first part of the Act which, for the first time, gave the man in the street the opportunity to sue manufacturers for damage without having to prove negligence. That was completely new to British law and has been, and will be, vastly popular with the consumer. It was, of course, unpopular with the manufacturers.
Under the Act it became an offence, with certain exceptions, to provide unsafe consumer goods. For the first time, it imposed a general duty on suppliers to ensure, with some exceptions--one or two of which, particularly food, I agree with the hon. Lady ought to be reconsidered-- that goods supplied were safe.
The Act also made the provision of misleading price indications an offence.
The Act said what suppliers of goods and services should not do. It is far easier for the Executive and those who have to enforce the Act to do that. It is far more difficult to do what the hon. Lady suggests : to say what the suppliers of goods should do. She suggested, and I intervened at the time, that there should be far greater regulation on the make-up of manufactured goods. In a changing world it is impossible to lay down standards for goods that people do not even think will emerge on to the market, to say what they should and should not contain.
The hon. Lady also suggested that there should be far greater labelling. Before I entered the Chamber, I bought a Marathon bar from the Tea Room.
Mr. Favell : I am not going to admit to my wife that I bought it or, at least, that I am going to consume it. It is absolutely smothered in information, most of which I do not understand. I understand that it contains fresh milk chocolate with fresh roasted peanuts and a peanut butter nougat and caramel centre. However, I do not understand 62 g E. It gives me the following nutritional information : "Energy 1248 kJ/298 kcal
Carborhydrate 33.5 g
Protein 6.3 g
Fat 16.4 g
(of which saturates 7.4 g)"
It goes on to tell me how I can win a trip to the Super Bowl, and gives me various other guarantees, which I cannot read because the print is far too small. There are various competition rules for yet another competition. Finally, it says that it is best before 2 September 1989, which I understand, with another hieroglyphic on the side. It is the first time that I have read the cover on this product and it will be the last. I do not think that any other hon. Member has ever read one of these before.
I suggest that we keep these messages simple. Already, my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us, products' labels must show safety warnings and, on food, they must tell us the "best before" date and give details of the product. That
Column 598is fair enough, and it is quite enough to go on any label. It is simple and intelligible to someone like me and to 99 per cent. of the population.
It is unreasonable to attack the Government for failing to protect the consumer ; we have a long record of protecting him or her. The first great act--some might say it was also the last--of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) was to introduce his retail price maintenance legislation. That was a great act on behalf of the consumer and it was certainly not popular with those who would be regarded as the Government's natural supporters. We have not stopped there. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will remind us of the Financial Services Act 1986, which was highly unpopular with many of the Government's natural supporters.
We are now introducing legislation to protect the consumer against the lawyers, of whom, alas, I am one. With my lawyer's hat on, I must say that that legislation is not popular with me, but I can understand it from the consumer's point of view. We are also questioning the activities of the brewers--organisations regarded by the Opposition parties as natural supporters of the Conservative party. We fear no man, however, and we are seriously looking into what we regard as the brewers' abuses of their monopoly power. Finally, we are tackling the doctors. The doctors themselves tell us that, almost to a man, they voted for us in the last general election, but we are not in the business for votes : we are in business for the consumer. We genuinely believe that our reforms are for the benefit of the patients. They are certainly not intended merely to garner votes.
Mr. McCartney : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have been here since the beginning of the debate, during which hon. Members who have gone in and out have spoken for considerable lengths of time and were called out of order on numerous occasions by another Deputy Speaker. It is unfair that I should not be allowed at least two minutes in which to place on record a point to which the Minister may want to respond in writing--
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Eric Forth) : I regret the position in which the hon. Gentleman finds himself, but it is not for me to get involved in the way in which the debate has proceeded--until now, it has been most orderly
Mr. McCartney : I want to raise the issue of hazardous chemicals and of possible changes in EEC legislation which will undermine the position in Britain. If I am prepared to write to the Minister, will he make arrangements for him or a colleague in the Department of Transport to meet me to discuss this matter?
Mr. Forth : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find that whenever he contacts Ministers of any Department he will receive a courteous, full and--I hope--speedy reply. I hope that he will in this case. I certainly undertake to reply to him if he writes to me.
Column 599I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) for raising this matter in the way in which she has and for using what is always a precious occasion--coming high in the ballot for motions--to do so. That has enabled her and other hon. Members to set out their anxieties and some important points about the vital matter of consumer protection. It also gives me the opportunity, for which I am grateful, to set out some of my and the Government's thoughts on the subject.
I start, unashamedly and with some pride, by quoting from the White Paper put out by the Department of Trade and Industry in January 1989 :
"In consumer protection, the policy emphasis will reflect the Government's belief that the best form of protection comes from consumers making well- informed choices and acting in their own interests. To achieve this, information can be more effective than regulation. However, where the case is made out for regulation on safety or other grounds, the Government will not hesitate to act." That not only encapsulates the Government's view but it reflects the tone of many of today's contributions--and not only from the Conservative side. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) made remarks along these lines. We are not necessarily separated by much on this matter. I want to deal with as many of the detailed points that have been made as possible.
To illustrate the Government's attitude, I want to give an example of the sort of approach that we tend to adopt, based on a combination of information when appropriate, and regulation when appropriate. In this context, I want to mention the promotion of timeshare developments, which has worried many hon. Members and their constituents. I have received a number of complaints about timeshare, most relating to the award schemes used to entice people to presentations at which they are often subjected to high-pressure sales techniques. Some end up signing contracts which they subsequently regret. I hasten to add that these practices are by no means universal and I have publicly acknowledged before, and do so again, the efforts of the industry, through the Timeshare Developers Association, working through its code of practice, to improve and maintain standards in the industry. The association's membership now represents about 60 per cent. of timeshares sold to United Kingdom consumers.
The Department of Trade and Industry has actively tried to promote the development of these standards. For example, in 1987, we produced a leaflet for consumers entitled, "Your place in the sun--or is it?" It warned people interested in timeshare developments to be wary of prizes, discounts and half-price offers--
Mr. Frank Cook : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understood that the Minister, quite properly, wanted time in the debate to reply to it. I have sat here for the best part of the debate and can remember no hon. Member mentioning timeshare. If the Minister wants to make a statement on that subject, he should take time out of the proper schedule of the House, not out of a private Member's debate.
Mr. Forth : I am trying to develop an argument that combines the provision of information, on which I have just touched, with a reference I am about to make to the role of the Office of Fair Trading, which is directly relevant to consumer protection. If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, we shall get there fairly quickly.
Column 600I was talking about the information provided by my Department's leaflet, of which we have now distributed about 650,000 copies. Thus far have we gone with information, but from time to time that can be deemed not enough, and this is a case to which that applies. I have therefore asked the Director General of Fair Trading to conduct a review of the whole range of timeshare problems which will cover marketing and other issues to do with United Kingdom properties advertised here, and overseas properties wherever they are promoted, and which may involve a review of legislative and self-regulatory controls. The Office of Fair Trading would then come up with such recommendations as it saw fit. The director general agrees that this is an appropriate time to examine this problem, which has recently caused some anxiety to consumers.
This is a good example of the recognition of a need for such action, and I am delighted to say that the director general has agreed to involve his staff and expertise in it. I look forward to receiving his conclusions early in the new year.
Another matter that is repeatedly mentioned is safety. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) mentioned the home accident surveillance system, the provision of statistics by our hospitals which give a firm, factual basis from which to launch policy developments. It is not often appreciated that accidents in and around the home result in about 5,000 deaths a year--as many as, or more than, occur on the roads. About 3 million people receive injuries serious enough to receive medical treatment.
We must not only recognise the problem but develop policies and approaches to deal with it. This is being done. The United Kingdom legal system governing consumer safety provides a level of protection equal to, and probably better than, that in most other countries. Many speakers today have referred to the Consumer Protection Act 1987 which introduced significant changes in the law and resulted in major improvements for the consumer. The introduction of the general safety requirement in that law means that it is now a criminal offence to supply a consumer product that is not reasonably safe. This general duty has many advantages over an approach that relies on detailed and restrictive regulations covering individual products. For example, it means that the enforcement officers can take action when a dangerous consumer product appears on the market.
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes) : There is a problem with that legislation because it is not always applied in a logical fashion. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Minister of Health is considering using the powers in that Act to ban a certain brand of smokeless tobacco. When my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) was Under- Secretary of State, she acknowledged that cigarettes were more dangerous than the product that my hon. Friend the Minister proposes to ban under the legislation. Will my hon. Friend urge some caution about the way in which that legislation is sometimes used, because there is not always logic about the way in which it is employed?
Mr. Forth : If I did not know my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) a bit better, I would suspect that he was being mischievous because he is trying to draw me into commenting on
Column 601something that another Department may be doing. If it is using the excellent legislation that I am describing to the House, so much the better, but my hon. Friend must not try to draw me into the substance of a decision that may well be made by another Department. That Department is quite capable of coming to the right conclusion on the matter and I am sure that my hon. Friend is giving it as much advice as he can.
Several hon. Members have mentioned labelling. The Consumer Protection Act 1987 fully recognises the importance of adequate warnings and instructions in relation to the safety of products. The guidance given to the courts on the factors that they should take into account in deciding whether a product is unsafe specifically includes both the manner in which goods are marketed and the instructions or warnings that are given with the products. To support this feature of the law, my Department published an authoritative guide to producing better instructions and warnings for consumer products. That is an important area but it is not often highlighted and has not been referred to during the debate.
Giving people adequate and workable instructions on the use of products can make a considerable contribution to their safe use. We continue widely to promote that practice among manufacturers and designers, and I hope that even in the courts we will see the kind of best practice set out in the guide regarded as a benchmark for considering cases.
The Consumer Protection Act also introduced changes to the law on product liability. The system of strict liablility means that it will be much easier for people injured by defective products to obtain redress through the courts. As my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) rightly said, there is now increasing redress available other than through the full court procedure. For example, there is arbitration and the small claims procedures, and in many ways we are rapidly improving the way in which consumers, as individuals or through the many consumer organisations, can seek and obtain redress. Experience of these features of United Kingdom criminal and civil law will do much to deter those who may be tempted to supply goods that do not come up to adequate safety levels.
The motion calls on the Government fully to implement the EC product liability directive. Hon. Members may have seen reports that the EC Commission had expressed some dissatisfaction with the way in which our Consumer Protection Act implements the directive, particularly over the so- called "Development risks defence." The Government have made it clear that the Commission's objections will be considered carefully but that we believe that the Act properly implements the directive. I can confirm that the Commission has now written formally to the United Kingdon setting out its concerns, but it is usual practice, and I propose to stick to it, to preserve the confidentiality of these exchanges. However, it will be obvious from what I have said that dialogue is continuing.