asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if she is satisfied with the number of consumer advice centres currently available.
In June 1974 there were about 35 consumer advice centres now there are about 60, including mobile units. In addition, there are 670 citizens advice bureaux, an increase of 45, most of which now deal with consumer problems.I would like to see this development go further when the economic situation permits. But at present the Government consider that the enforcement of consumer protection legislation, much of it new, including the Consumer Credit Act, must, within the constraints on local authorities' spending, have priority over new developments in consumer advice.
But will my right hon. Friend accept that the implementation of consumer advice centres is an important part of the social contract? Does she agree that in Labour's Programme 1973 we stressed the importance of establishing a nation-wide system of high street consumer advice and control units to which the consumer could go immediately and ask for the price control mechanism to be operated, instead of the present rather haphazard system? Will my right hon. Friend urge action to be taken on this?
I think that my hon. Friend will accept, coming as he does from one of the leading local authorities in this field, that there has been a very sharp jump forward in the last 12 months. Indeed, if I were to give him the figures from when the Government came to power in February 1974, he would see that there has been about a fivefold increase in the number of consumer advice centres as well as an increase in the number of citizens' advice bureaux. I assure him that I yield to no one in believing that these are of crucial importance, but it would be a mistake for Parliament to pass legislation and then not to finance the means of enforcing it as quickly as possible.
Is it not true that, on a cost-effective basis, citizens' advice bureaux are giving far better value for money than are consumer advice centres, particularly at a time when there is a great shortage of local authority funds?
I think that the hon. Gentleman would find it hard to sustain that argument. It depends very much on the citizens' advice bureaux at which one looks and in what area, because the citizens' advice centres are virtually all in metropolitan areas, with relatively high rent and rate costs to meet. But my strong impression from those advice centres which have been in being long enough to return effective reports is that in many cases they are more than saving their ratepayers the cost of running them. We are endeavouring to get full reports so that we can put a complete picture before the House, but as many centres have been running for only a matter of months, and in some cases weeks, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it will be a little time before such a report can be brought forward.
May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a change in practice in the consumer advice centre in my constituency, which is one of the two consumer advice centres in Scotland? Is she aware that the control of it is now in the hands of the regional authority and that, instead of the director of the consumer advice centre being able to drive a bargain with the retailer, problems now have to go through a cumbersome mechanism, with letters being written? This is disadvantageous to the customer.
I assure my hon. Friend that we have urged local authorities not that they devolve on the districts the major responsibility which was left with the county authorities under local government reorganisation but that, as far as possible, matters of consumer complaint should be dealt with locally, which gives a much more effective and helpful service.
Is the right hon. Lady aware that the high-powered and expensive expertise offered by gas and electricity consultative councils is not used a great deal by people who need the advice? Therefore, will she discuss with the gas and electricity boards the possibility of these consultative councils having officers available to help the public in consumer advice centres?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the question of the structure of nationalised industries' consumer councils has been sent to the National Consumer Council for review, and we hope that one of the things which will emerge from it is a simplification of the direct service to the consumer, who often finds it easier to go to one point of assistance rather than to many.