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Consumer Protection

Volume 933: debated on Monday 20 June 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer protection what further measures are proposed to improve the protection of the consumer.

Good progress is being made on a number of important measures. For example, the Unfair Contract Terms Bill, sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Ward), is well advanced in its passage through Parliament and the Price Commission Bill is before the House. A number of further measures to protect consumers are under consideration, including a new consumer protection Bill on which I am currently having consultations.

As this Parliament may well go on for another year or two years, and as it is unlikely to get controversial legislation through the House in view of the Government's majority, will my hon. Friend and his Department seriously consider bringing forward important consumer protection measures and putting them in the next Queen's Speech so that Parliament may occupy its time dealing with consumer protection matters?

I have already said that I hope that in the next Session there will be a consumer protection Bill dealing mainly with consumer safety. I appreciate that it is felt on both sides of the House and by outside bodies that urgency should be given to dealing with other measures of consumer protection.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that so far the best method that has been found of protecting the consumer is by ensuring that there is genuine competition in each product and service sector, and that the greatest problem is where there is not, for various reasons, genuine competition?

Yes, but we are trying to encourage genuine competition and the Price Commission Bill, when enacted, will add bite to the competitive edge. As the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said in the House recently, no market is perfect and most markets are far from perfect. We also need consumer protection measures embodied in legislation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a valuable general protection would be afforded to the consumer if there were a rigorous investigation of the retail price mark-ups in the footwear industry, which a recent footwear study report shows to be unacceptably high?

The Price Commission will investigate those prices where notifications are given under the present system. It will be free to select for investigation that sort of sector under the new régime under the Price Commission Bill.

As it is a fact that Government legislation on employment protection has produced a vast increase in unemployment, and as their legislation on rent controls has produced a vast increase in homelessness, what guarantee is there that legislation on consumer protection will have anything other than the contrary effect?

First, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's premises based on the legislation that he has mentioned. Secondly, we are usually supported by the mass of consumer organisations and the mass of reputable traders and manufacturers when we bring considered consumer protection legislation before the House.

Will my hon. Friend give as much attention to the protection of consumer services as the Department gives to goods? Is he aware that the National Car Parks car park at Euston has been giving no information of the amount that the parker will be asked to pay as he or she drives into the car park? If a car is parked for three hours the charge is £1, but if a car is parked for three hours and five minutes the charge is £5. The parker is not made aware of that fact until he or she is about to leave.

The Unfair Contract Terms Bill is one example of the priority that is being given to consumer protection in the provision of services. That aspect is being given as much priority as the provision of goods and the provision of information about services. It is as much in our minds as is consumer protection against shoddy goods.