Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Speaker : I must remind the House that this is a private Members' day, so I urge hon. Members to confine themselves to specific questions, and perhaps ones that have not been asked before.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood) : May I tell the Minister that the Bellwin scheme is not good enough? Local authorities are at the end of their financial year and some of them, such as my own, are under spending restrictions. We have had to rehouse 70 families from two tower blocks, when we already have 2,000 homeless. First, will he reconsider the matter, because the cost to local authorities that are already hard-pressed could be enormous? Secondly, is it not correct that under the new housing finance regime, housing costs could be ring-fenced and would fall upon other housing tenants? Thirdly, the frames of two tower blocks in my constituency may have been twisted by the wind. In view of that, will he reconsider the restrictions on capital expenditure, which is almost being used as blackmail because people will not accept a housing action trust scheme?

Mr. Hunt : The hon. Gentleman was in the last Labour Government, and if he examines what we are doing on this occasion he will find that there are generous provisions under the Bellwin scheme. Every local authority knows the scheme well and knows how to operate it. Therefore, last night, when we made the immediate decision to invoke the scheme, they were able to concentrate on protecting people and property.

I shall consider the point that the hon. Gentleman raised about ring- fencing the housing revenue account, and write to him. I am unaware that it would have that effect.


Column 1195

I have already made absolutely clear what the effects will be on capital restrictions and the way in which I shall consider supplementary credit approvals and capital allocations.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West) : I thank my hon. Friend for his statement, and in particular, what he said about Bristol. Would he briefly explain the effects of the Bellwin scheme on statutory authorities other than local authorities? I am thinking about the severe damage to the roof of a national landmark--Temple Meads station in Bristol. I am not sure whether provision for repairs will necessarily be made by British Rail.

Mr. Hunt : I am concerned to hear about the damage to Temple Meads station because I know the building well. That gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to British Rail because there was considerable destruction last night and already there has been a significant recovery in services. I wish to commend the staff and all those involved within British Rail who responded so quickly to the emergency. I understand that British Rail provided accommodation for people who were stranded at stations, and I think they set a good example.

I shall study the question of Temple Meads station and write to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon) : Although we welcome the hon. Gentleman's statement and its effects on local authorities, I am concerned that there is no Welsh Office Minister present, bearing in mind that ferocious gales lashed Wales yesterday. In addition to the finance to local authorities, and following on the matter raised by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern), will he ensure that, if finance is necessary to repair the Cambrian coastline service--I understand that the station at Llangelynnin was demolished yesterday and I pay tribute to the six railway men who worked hard to ensure that no danger to the public resulted--and if British Rail requires funds for that work, its applications will be met by the Government?

Mr. Hunt : My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is co -ordinating all Government Departments and is closely in touch with Ministers from the Welsh Office and the Scottish Office, as well as other Ministers involved. Therefore, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right to make an issue of the absence of a Welsh Office Minister in the House today. I know that they are actively considering the position and doing everything they can.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : Following the previous great storm, the Secretary of State asked the Countryside Commission to set up a special programme to save damaged trees. Since then, about £5 million in grants has been paid out, and more than 800,000 trees have been funded as a result. Can my hon. Friend give a commitment today that he will consider extending that scheme to other parts of the country and to continue it if necessary?

Mr Hunt : I should like to respond positively to my hon. Friend. The royal parks are the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. We are assessing the situation, but we are determined to make good the losses and to replant so that future generations will continue to enjoy our heritage of


Column 1196

fine trees. My hon. Friend is right to refer to the question raised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The unit Task Force Trees has been working through local authorities and other organisations to assess damage and priorities for action and to give advice. It will be arranging payments of grants. We are considering a continuation of Task Force Trees and an extension of its remit to all affected areas of the country.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) : The Secretary of State was kind enough to mention the areas gravely affected by the storm last night. In Cleveland, a Middlesbrough man was killed in his car by a falling tree, and electricity supplies have been cut off. May I have his assurance that the Bellwin scheme will apply to Cleveland? May I also refer the Secretary of State to a statement in today's Daily Mirror which says that Gorden Kaye, the actor, was taken to hospital after being rescued by the ambulance services. On his way to hospital he said to them, "You are worth more than 10 per cent."

Mr. Hunt : On the first point, my announcement about the Bellwin scheme applies throughout England. I am aware that the storm has hit certain parts of the country badly and has left few areas totally unaffected.

On the second point, I am a great admirer of the star of " Allo Allo" and I am sad to hear that he has been injured, but I do not think that he would want the hon. Gentleman to raise the matter he has just raised in this context.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes) : Is there any possibility that the European Commission will assist us? Will my hon. Friend confirm that they made finance available for those people who lost their lives, for the bereaved and for people who suffered damage in the December storms. Will there be any assistance from the social fund for yesterday's storm?

Mr. Hunt : I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is in touch with the European Commission. The EC social fund gave the United Kingdom some £220,000, after the December storms, for individuals who lost relatives or suffered loss or hardship. The Commission is meeting this afternoon to consider whether to make a further grant for yesterday's storm, and I hope that it will be sympathetic.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : Will the Minister acknowledge that, whenever serious problems of this sort occur, it is not central Government that have the job of clearing up the mess, nor the private sector, but local authorities and local authority manual workers? Will he also acknowledge that the professionalism of local government has been constantly and consistently undermined by 10 years of Conservative Government? As a result of what happened yesterday, rather than take the easy conclusion of the one-off payment to deal with the problem, will the hon. Gentleman draw the more important general conclusion that local authorities must have their confidence and professionalism restored?

Mr. Hunt : The hon. Gentleman has the picture wrong. I made the comment earlier, and I now reinforce it, that I pay warm tribute to all those in local authorities who responded so magnificently to this problem. They have done so with great professionalism and skill and at obvious cost to themselves in their personal lives. I think


Column 1197

that the hon. Gentleman will find that the atmosphere in local government is not as he describes. I shall be going from the Chamber to join one local authority which is already dealing very effectively with the situation.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : Is the Minister aware that south Devon and Dartmoor were particularly badly hit last night and that north Dorset was hit by a tornado? Two of my constituents who live on the edge of Dartmoor lost their lives. Will he please explain to the South Hams district council, whose 1p rate amounts to only £90,000, how it will be able to repair over £100,000 worth of damage to council houses and over £800,000 worth of damage to roads and other structures?

Mr. Hunt : I made it absolutely clear, to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and other hon. Members, that, as yet, it is impossible to calculate what the final bills will be. However, as I said to my hon. Friend, I shall be very pleased to meet officials from his district council and to consider the position with them.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : Should not the Bellwin scheme be used more widely? There is some doubt whether it is to be employed in Scotland. Furthermore, those authorities to which the Bellwin scheme applies will still have to meet well over 25 per cent. of the expenditure out of their contingency funds. That will have a knock-on effect on the poll tax. It will also have a knock-on effect in Scotland in connection with the poll tax. How will the Bellwin scheme rules affect the poll tax?

Mr. Hunt : I thought that what was most important last night was the need to establish certainty and to make it clear to local authorities that the Bellwin scheme, which they know well, will be put into operation immediately. We have done that. As for the amounts involved, I believe that it is a generous scheme. My right hon. Friend and I intend to incorporate the scheme into the new system. It gets the balance right between the taxpayer on the one hand and the ratepayer and the future community charge payer on the other.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) : Does my hon. Friend accept that his statement will be welcomed by local government? I am particularly pleased about his flexible attitude towards the Bellwin plan. I believe that it has cobwebs on it that need to be dusted off. Where there is strict control over the amount of money that can be given by central Government and open- ended expenditure by local authorities, that must give rise to concern.

I also pay tribute to the emergency services. However, on a slightly discordant note, I ought to point out that I believe that the Metropolitan Police could have done a great deal more to move London's traffic by the deployment of 40 to 50 policemen at strategic points where there were bottlenecks. No action whatsoever was taken. Even this morning there is slow-moving traffic in London because of failure by the police to control the traffic flow, which has absolutely nothing to do with the damage.

Mr. Hunt : For the avoidance of any doubt, I should say that I have not announced any flexibility in the Bellwin scheme. I have explained to Opposition Members that it introduces a note of certainty. Every local authority knows exactly where it is with the Bellwin scheme. I said that I


Column 1198

intended to incorporate the Bellwin scheme into the new system of local government finance on 1 April. As for the Metropolitan Police, my hon. Friend is being a little unfair. I was in and around Westminster last night where there was a tremendous crush. I thought that the Metropolitan Police handled it extremely well and swiftly. Obviously, however, my hon. Friend's remarks will have been heard by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Speaker : Will hon. Members who are rising to their feet please ask brief questions? I realise that the storm has affected most constituencies in the country, so I shall call all those hon. Members, but I ask them to be brief, please.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe) : I do not think that anybody can criticise the Met Office this time for its storm prediction. However, when a storm of this intensity hits other countries, notably America, there are regular storm warnings. I refer in particular to the scaffolding and construction sheeting that was blown off buildings yesterday in urban areas, particularly in London. It caused damage, delays and disruption. Will the Government consider providing greater guidance and warning to those in the construction industry so that they can take steps to prevent that happening?

Mr. Hunt : May I just establish what happens over warnings? The emergency services have statutory and common law duties to preserve life and protect the public. In a major emergency, the police are responsible for the overall co-ordination at the scene of an incident and for allowing fire and ambulance staff to carry out their specialist functions. When a storm affects wide areas, the police are responsible for issuing public safety advice about the dangers of travelling, and they would close roads that were judged to be unsafe. That would be in addition to their particular functions. I understand that public warnings were issued. Nevertheless, we shall keep the matter under review in the light of what happened on this occasion. I believe that the emergency services responded in a magnificent and typically professional way.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Will the Minister ensure that any consequences of the damage caused by the hurricane are not inhibited by the suggestion from the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and that, if a council has been at fault, the fault should not be a burden on the people of that area because of under-insurance? That seemed to me to be a very mean suggestion. As local authorities will be the main organisations to carry out restoration after storm damage, will the Minister also take on board British Rail's difficult financial position and the fact that storm damage will have cost it several million pounds? Will the Government provide more capital so that British Rail can meet the additional cost? It is already absolutely hamstrung by cash shortages.

Mr. Hunt : I shall of course ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments about British Rail are passed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. As for his point about insurable risks, the Bellwin scheme is very well known and has been in operation for a number of years. Local authorities know exactly where they stand. They know that the damage must, under the criteria, be


Column 1199

non-insurable. I should have thought, therefore, that every prudent and careful local authority would have adequate insurance.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) : The Minister will be aware that vesting day in the electricity supply industry is only about 65 days away. According to those in the industry to whom I have spoken, after that date no provision will be made for action such as that which was taken last night to switch linesmen from unaffected areas to carry out emergency repairs in affected areas. That was done magnificently in October 1987 and again last night. That was a well established procedure prior to vesting day. The new distribution companies will have a primary duty only to their shareholders. They will not have a primary duty to participate in emergency work. Is the Minister able to assure me that, if a storm occurs subsequent to vesting day, the same emergency arrangements will still apply, whereby linesmen from unaffected areas will be switched to affected areas where cables have been damaged?

Mr. Hunt : I do not think that that will be affected by statute. In an emergency, everybody responds. Last night, people, voluntarily and in accordance with their duties, combined to produce the maximum impact to help people and to protect property.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Some might argue that the Minister was a little lucky yesterday, with the emergency services being stretched as a result of the ambulance dispute, caused primarily by the Government. It makes sense for the Government in winter, when there are likely to be hurricanes and storms, to have all the emergency services at full tilt all the time. Is the Minister aware that he might well be hamstrung by the fact that he has already spent £30 million--or his hon. Friends have--on financing the alternative to the ambulance workers? As at least three months of the winter still remain, it would make sense to settle the ambulance dispute so that, if there is another emergency, the whole show is back on the road.

Mr. Hunt : I am pleased that so few Opposition Members have sought to make that kind of point. What makes me, and I believe the whole House, proud about our emergency services is that, whatever the background to the emergency, they immediately respond. They do so in a magnificent way, and I have already commended them for that.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : Before he finishes, will the Minister pay a specific tribute to the ambulance workers for saving lives on a day when the courts at the behest of health managers and the Government, were preventing them from running emergency services in many parts of the country? Does he not think that that was obscene during a full-scale emergency?

Mr. Hunt : As so often, the hon. Gentleman has followed in the steps of his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I have already paid specific tribute to the ambulance men and women who gave so freely of their services and responded so magnificently during the currency of the dispute. I unhesitatingly do so again.

Mr. Bryan Gould (Dagenham) : May I join the Minister in offering our heartfelt sympathy for all those who were tragically bereaved, injured or suffered other serious loss as a consequence of the storms? May we also offer our


Column 1200

gratitude and congratulations to the emergency and other services, who again demonstrated how much we depend on them at times of need and how unstintingly they give of their time, effort and courage when the call comes? Will the Minister recognise that the ambulance workers in particular--I am sorry that he did not feel able to mention them in his opening answers--have again shown that their sense of duty to the community overrides all other considerations? Can we hope that, when the current crisis is over, the Government in equal measure will recognise their reciprocal responsibilities to the ambulance workers and offer them a fair settlement?

I express our concern at the extent of the damage and disruption caused to property, to essential services and to our national heritage in Scotland and Wales as well as in England, and our awareness of the huge burden that that will mean for public, and particularly local, authorities. Therefore, I give a qualified welcome to the Minister's assurance that some resources will be available from central Government to meet those new and unexpected commitments.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the immediate problem may be cash flow- -a problem exacerbated by the difficulties that many local authorities will face in the run-up to the poll tax--and that the immediacy of the help may be just as important as its quantity? Will he also give an assurance that, when the immediate crisis is cleared, the Government will not revert to their traditional attitude of hostility towards local government spending?

I must therefore express my disappointment and regret that the help being offered to local authorities is constrained by the limits implicit in the Bellwin scheme. As Conservative Members have pointed out, that means that we face a repeat of what happened in 1987, as local authorities are again required to find the first tranche of emergency expenditure from their own resources, but on this occasion those resources are in even scarcer supply, given the problems that local authorities face in relation to the poll tax.

Will the Minister assure us that there is no prospect--and there ought to be no prospect--that local authorities will be faced with penalties or that poll tax payers will be required to pick up the additional bill? Why cannot the Government reimburse local authorities for every penny of such unforeseen expenditure? Will he not reconsider that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) has asked him?

What arrangements has the Minister tried to make with his right hon. Friends in the Department of Social Security for those on income support who may now face substantial and unplanned expenditure? Finally, although the storm was accurately forecast, we must now surely recognise that such storms are no longer a once-in-a-century phenomenon. Whether that is a consequence of global warming--although that possibility should give urgency to the measures we put in place to deal with that problem--we must now recognise that it is essential to prepare and co-ordinate better arrangements to reduce and prevent damage after such warnings. Will the Minister therefore tell us what long-term arrangements he has set in train to cope with the new situation?

Mr. Hunt : I counted 10 points in that question. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for joining in the tributes that the House has so warmly paid to the emergency services and the sympathy that it has extended to all those


Column 1201

who have been seriously affected by what has happened. On the hon. Gentleman's third point about the ambulance services, I made it absolutely clear in my statement, saying :

"I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing gratitude and admiration for the way in which the emergency and voluntary services, the local authorities coped with this emergency." As soon as one of the emergency services had been singled out, I took the opportunity to pay tribute to it.

As the hon. Gentleman has done so, I must pay tribute to the other emergency services for the magnificent way in which they responded. As soon as the ambulance services had been singled out, I immediately paid tribute to those ambulance men and women who so swiftly came to the assistance of people in trouble. They always do that, and they have a magnificent record, but so have the police, the fire brigade and local authorities.

The hon. Gentleman's fourth point was to give a qualified welcome to my announcement. A qualified welcome from the hon. Gentleman is a great tribute, and I am grateful to him. He is right to welcome the announcement I have made, because local authorities know exactly where they stand. The scheme is long-established ; there is no need for any local authority to query its application, as they know how it works. We believe that we have got the balance right between the taxpayer and the ratepayer and the future community charge payer. It is not Government money or local authority money : it is money that is raised from the people, and it is necessary to achieve a balance between the taxpayer and the person who is contributing to local authority spending.

The hon. Gentleman stressed the immediacy of help. Of course help must be immediate and swift, and we are


Column 1202

making it clear to local authorities throughout the country that, as and when they have claimed under the scheme, those claims will be met as speedily as we can possibly pay them.

In regard to hostility to local authority spending, the hon. Gentleman is probably a little out of date. Many years ago, one of his right hon. Friends told local authorities, "The party's over." He may not remember that, but I do. There has always been a history of trying to contain local authority spending, and we are doing so more effectively than any previous Government.

There are no penalties on local authorities. I have made it absolutely clear that the expenditure by local authorities will not affect the amount of grant they will receive.

Those on income support will receive help from social security offices if they contact them, and will receive special help in special circumstances which rank for payment under the scheme which my right hon. Friends at the Department of Social Security are advancing.

In regard to global warming, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is now in Africa making a speech about the problems of global warming and following up the lead that Britain has given the world in seeking to address that problem. We should be aware of that, and the Opposition should pay tribute to it.

In the long term, we shall consider every situation to discover how the arrangements can be improved-- [Interruption.] --yes, which way improvements can be made to the existing arrangements--but I said absolutely clearly that we are satisfied that there has been an immediate and effective response and we shall do our best under the leadership of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, to ensure that that response continues for as long as necessary.


Column 1203

Consumer Guarantees Bill

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker : In fairness to the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), who has had some time taken from the debate on his private Bill, may I ask hon. Members now participating in the debate to adjust their speeches so that he does not lose any more time. 11.48 am

Mr. Alexander : The House was wise to receive that exchange of concern, although it took place just as I was warming to my theme. I was explaining the difficulties experienced when a customer finds that the goods that he has bought do not come up to his original expectations. I was arguing that it would be much easier if the customer knew, unless he was prominently informed otherwise, that he will have a guarantee. It is wrong and frustrating when something goes wrong with an item that one has bought within a year, because one must either comply with the restrictive terms of the so-called guarantee or wait for the item to be sent back to the works, where the defect may be dealt with some time in the future.

Even more frustrating for the customer is to be told that, as he has used an item--driven it, washed something in it, or watched something on it--for a month or two he has no redress. All hon. Members want business to succeed and do not want the Bill to harm or be a burden on it, but if business is encouraged to sharpen its service to the customer it will achieve greater success. A business that stands by its work deserves to succeed.

It is important to point out that the provisions of the Bill are not compulsory. Nothing obliges the manufacturer or trader to give a guarantee, but it enables the customer to know where he stands. I speak as a qualified solicitor, although I am not declaring an interest, as I am no longer a partner in a firm. It has been suggested inside and outside the House that if consumer problems are not resolved simply, lawyers will gain business.

Mr. Stern : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Alexander : May I make a little progress?

In my experience, no family solicitor likes to take on a client who has a claim about defective goods, because he knows that it will be tedious, time -consuming and frustrating for the client, for whom almost invariably he will be unable to get much satisfaction. I should like it to be known that the legal profession does not seek the business of dissatisfied customers who have goods with which they are not satisfied.

I have been impressed that almost all the organisations that have contacted me and the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), although they may have ideas on improving the Bill, have accepted the principle behind it. Perhaps a little to my surprise, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, almost all the major car manufacturers and the Retail Consortium, which sent a useful briefing, accept the Bill in principle.

It seems that only my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs is hostile to it. I await his speech with interest, but I gather from the press that he feels that it would be too bureaucratic. I can


Column 1204

understand the Minister believing that any legislation, particularly that emanating from his Department, is likely to be bureaucratic--bureaucracy is involved in much legislation--but I would like him to reflect on the fact that Ministers have hardly ever commended reforming legislation under the private Members' ballot. Ministers usually say that such Bills involve bureaucracy and that they cannot commend them to the House.

Mr. Forth : So that there is no misunderstanding, and to be fair to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders--I may not have a chance to deal with the problem in my speech--let me make it clear to the House that I have a letter from the society, which I have its permission to use, which states :

"the Bill contains a number of serious flaws which will only give rise to dispute should the Bill become law we believe that legislation of this sort should not be rushed through Parliament by way of a Private Member's Bill."

I think that the House should know that that is the position.

Mr. Alexander : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for correcting me. I had understood from press releases that the society was in favour, but if that is its view, I unreservedly withdraw my remark. My hon. Friend the present Minister is a successor of Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes, who was Minister for Consumer Affairs--a very distinguished one, too--when I first came to the House. She promoted the idea behind the Bill. She clearly thought that it would be workable and that such proposals could be commended to the House. For the customer, the Bill should be simplicity itself. The customer will know that he or she has the right to a replacement or a refund if something goes wrong during the first 12 months after the purchase has been made. The manufacturer will know that, if he gives that guarantee, his product will be enhanced. The Bill certainly needs some smartening up--no private Member's Bill does not--and amendments will be made as it proceeds through the House, but that is not a reason to reject the Bill, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not advise us to reject a measure of such obvious benefit to our constituents.

It is the most vulnerable of our constituents who will benefit if the Bill becomes law--the person who is too intimidated to go to law or too confused to argue his case with the manufacturers, the trader or even the small claims court. It is a Bill that gives such obvious national benefit that I should be astonished to find anyone voting against it or anyone completely against it. I join the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West in commending it to the House.

11.58 am

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow) : After the private notice question about the storm, we have to get back into the swing of the debate, so let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) on drawing first place in the ballot. Goodness only knows how he did it. I think that next time we have a ballot I shall ask him to write my name in the book for me, then perhaps some of his good luck will rub off on me.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West does not have more of his own hon. Friends here to support him today. It is true that the storm may have something to do with it, but some of the Labour Members who have been stuck at King's Cross and Euston


Column 1205

might have taken the opportunity to come rushing back to support him. That was not to be, but the hon. Gentleman seems to be getting plenty of support from Conservative Benches.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : The hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to assure the House that my hon. Friend has a great deal of support from Opposition Members, but we are anxious that the Bill should be given its Second Reading this morning, so I have prevailed on my hon. Friends not to make long speeches. We could do so if necessary. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands.

Mr. Summerson : Of course, I understand that and I join the hon. Gentleman in his wish that the Bill should have its Second Reading. To start with, I had strong reservations about the Bill. I have always been a firm believer in the efficacy of the market and I have always believed that regulation or prospective regulation should be looked at closely. However, I also believe that a measure of regulation can be helpful to the market. The market is sometimes a muddled place. Anyone who walks down a street market will see the basics of a market at work and that there can be a muddle. Once I had read through the Bill--I assure the House that I have--I thought that many of its provisions were excellent and would add a great deal to consumer choice.

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) described the Bill as a "caring" Bill. As he used those words, I am sure that I saw my hon. Friend the Minister's teeth growing longer and more pointed. However, I see that his teeth have now receded and I hope that when he comments on the Bill, he will accept that many Conservative Members have made comments in favour of it. It is not an especially long or stringent measure and it places great stress on voluntary co-operation with manufacturers, which has persuaded me to support it.

What is the present process when we go into a shop and buy goods, and how do guarantees arise? When one buys goods, one spends half an hour back home unpacking the item, by which time the floor is probably covered in shavings, packaging and bits of cardboard which, in turn, give rise to rubbish. One tends to think about recycling, but I must not be diverted. Doubtless a small postcard eventually falls out of the packaging. Attached to the postcard are a number of paragraphs of extraordinary verbiage, which no one can understand, and small print which goes on at length. One will find somewhere that one is enjoined to fill in the card and return it to the manufacturer.

All too often, one forgets either to fill it in or to post it. If one gets as far as filling it in, putting a stamp on it and posting it, there is always the thought at the back of one's mind that one will be submerged in floods of junk mail. One thinks, "Will the manufacturer put me on the lists of all his chums in the trade?" Next, the postman staggers up the stairs weighed down with junk mail. I have moved house three or four times in the past three years and at the last address but three, bagfulls of junk mail are still arriving, which drive the present owner of the house mad. I have had to incur expenditure in going to the local post office, filling out yet another card and paying an extraordinarily fat fee to the Post Office for the privilege


Column 1206

and pleasure of ensuring that all that junk mail is forwarded to me at my present address. That does no one but the Post Office any good.

People come to my surgery, as other hon. Members have said, to complain about goods that they have bought, which are shoddily manufactured and which give bad service. They say, "What is the law on this point?" People think that as we make the laws, we should know what the laws are. They invariably look disappointed when I say that I am sorry that I do not know what the law is on the subject and that I shall have to find out. They say, "For goodness sake, you are a Member of Parliament and Parliament makes the laws. Why don't you know what is in them?" I say that they have only to look at the previous Session, when goodness knows how many Bills were passed. I confess that I have not even looked at quite a few of them. As a result, people go away thinking that their Member of Parliament is not giving them a very good service. If I say that they should consult a solicitor, they think that I am in cahoots with the local solicitors, which is not true.

Should manufacturers give a consumer guarantee? I can think of some firms that would have no hesitation in giving a guarantee and the name Rolls- Royce springs instantly to mind. Rolls-Royce is a simile for excellent workmanship, pride in craftsmanship and British endeavour. I am sure that Rolls-Royce would have no hesitation in giving a consumer guarantee on its products.

According to the Bill, the consumer guarantee will be purely voluntary. However, if manufacturers provided such a guarantee, they would discover that it gave a fillip to sales. People would see the guarantee and believe that the manufacturer was taking pride in his product and had no worries about providing the guarantee. I am also sure that those manufacturers would find that their sales abroad would increase. No manufacturer in his right mind would set up two production lines, one for consumer-guaranteed products and the other labelled, "Shoddy products to go abroad". All goods would come off the same production line and would be built to the same high standard.

If a product carrying a consumer guarantee goes wrong, the manufacturer will hasten to put it right. He will not want to be dragged through the courts because that would not be good for his name. If a manufacturer takes great pride in his product, he will have no hesitation in giving it a consumer guarantee.

The consumer guarantee is of particular relevance to microwave ovens. Schedule II refers directly to those ovens. I noted what the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West said about the state of his health and what happened when he misused his microwave oven. We are all aware of recent incidents when microwave ovens have not heated food to the required temperature and people have become ill after eating food cooked in them. If a manufacturer provides a consumer guarantee for his microwave oven, that will ensure that the oven heats food to the correct temperature.

Why is the Bill necessary? As I said, all hon. Members receive complaints at their surgeries about shoddy goods. If all goods were well made, no one would complain and there would be no need for the Bill. Unfortunately, all goods--I was about to say that all goods are not well made, but I would have got myself into a proper tangle. I meant to say that many goods are not well made and that is why the Bill is necessary.


Column 1207

It has been claimed that people who are not satisfied with their goods can go to the small claims court. However, people are scared stiff of going to court.If someone buys something that does not do the job that it is designed to do, he wants only to take it back to the shop and to tell the retailer that it does not work. The retailer should then say that he is sorry and give a replacement. That was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin).

I am sorry that my hon. Friend has left the Chamber because I am sure that he would be nodding his head furiously if he were present. I was interested to learn that he had a problem with something that he bought from Dixons. My wife told me that it was high time that I brought myself into the 1990s, so last summer I went off to Dixons and bought myself an Amstrad word- processor. The thing arrived and the customary guarantee card fell out of the packaging. I looked at it and then went back to the shop to ask exactly what sort of guarantee was being offered.

It turned out that there were two sorts of guarantee, but I cannot recollect exactly what they were. I filled in a card and paid a fee of about £50, which meant that if that expensive product went wrong, all I had to do was ring up a certain number to ask someone to come to fix it. The thing did go wrong and it turned out to be a problem associated with one of the disks. I rang the given number, and someone came to look at it, but told me that there was a call-out charge of £51. I said that I had already paid £50 so that if it went wrong someone would come to fix it and I asked why on earth I had to pay the call-out charge. I was then told that all I had to do was reclaim the charge under the terms of the guarantee. What a performance.

There was no question of picking up the word-processor and putting it in the back of my car to take it back to Dixons. It comes in three parts and it is rather heavy. Moreover, because of lack of space in my flat, I had not kept the wood shavings and cartons that were used to package the delicate parts of the mechanism. If I had taken it back to Dixons in Victoria street I should have had to park on a double-yellow line and, probably, I would have got a parking ticket or my car would have been towed away. What a lot of fuss. I filled in the claim form and I sent it off. I received notification from Dixons to say that it could not handle that refund application and that I had to do it through some other channel. That form is now sitting on my desk under piles of paper. Doubtless I shall get round to it some time, but, by then, I shall probably be told that the guarantee is out of date. One cannot win.

The example that I have given demonstrates the need for the Bill. It places no burden on the manufacturer. Should he voluntarily guarantee his products, however, the consumer, on seeing that label, will think, "Marvellous. I have a consumer guarantee." Consumers will be able to buy that product with great confidence and, as a result, the manufacturers' sales will increase at home and abroad. Manufacturers who know that their goods are shoddy will never dare to display a consumer guarantee on their goods. They will find that their sales will drop, so they will either have to update their products or go out of business.

Doubtless my hon. Friend the Minister thinks that I am being far too optimistic and that I am painting a rosy picture.


Next Section

  Home Page