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Consumer Advice Centres

Volume 940: debated on Monday 28 November 1977

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mrs. Ann Taylor.]

12.55 a.m.

I am drawing the attention of the House tonight to the closure or proposed closure of some 30 local authority consumer advice centres because such action, in my view, cannot be regarded as purely a local issue to be decided solely by councils accountable only to their electors.

The issue is of national concern, not only because the Department represented by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, has made available substantial financial support for consumer advice centres but because the last three years have seen a steady building up of a national network of consumer advice centres, which have played a very important role in the general battle against inflation by protecting the shopper's purse against unfair trade practices, by dealing with unreasonable price rises, and by dealing with complaints against shoddy goods which do not represent value for money. In this period particularly this has been money which can ill be spared when there is a policy of income restraint, and certainly spared less by those on very low incomes.

The growth of consumer advice centres has been very rapid under the benevolent wing of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and, if I may say so, his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stevenage (Mrs. Williams). I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has played a particularly energetic role in encouraging local authorities to see and understand their responsibilities as providers of consumer advice, information and guidance in an increasingly complicated market situation.

It was Mr. John Methven, as he was then, the Director General of Fair Trading, who, in his annual report for 1975, illustrated how complicated the situation is. He said:
"Consumer laws often prove extremely difficult to understand for all but the most sophisticated shopper, and I have been dismayed in my discussions with trade organisations at the lack of knowledge shown by many traders concerning their legal obligations towards their customers. Whenever new consumer protection laws are introduced a great deal of carefully directed publicity is essential. For example, many shopkeepers do not know that they have an obligation to supply goods of merchantable quality. The novelty of the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act is no excuse because this obligation goes back into Victorian times."
If such ignorance is widespread among tradesmen who spend their working lives in constant contact with the problems which arise during buying and selling goods or providing services, it is hardly surprising if housewives or, more commonly today, their husbands or their children, have difficulty in knowing what they should do, whom they should see, how they should assert their rights when something goes wrong when they are out shopping or when they get home and realise that there is a fault in something for which they have given hard-earned cash, or if the item is not suitable for their purpose owing to some misdescription.

It is well known that, until the Consumers' Association was set up in the late 1950s, there was not a great deal of protection about at all, except through the criminal law. We can guess from our experience of the modern trading standards service that in the past too often the work of the old weights and measures officers—working as they did from obscure premises and with little publicity —was not as effective as it coud have been. Even, I suppose, in the shop itself, where frequently in a one-to-one situation the honest shopkeeper built up a good relationship with his customers, the passage of time, the development of self-service by the supermarket and, more recently, the hypermarket, has altered the situation.

The shopper has had to face a bewildering variety of merchandise and products in a rapidly changing technology, and as a result many people in recent years have found shopping a confusing business. This confusion was recognised in the Fair Trading Act 1973, which required the Director-General of Fair Trading and the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee to deal with any trade practice which
"has the effect or is likely to have the effect of misleading or confusing consumers with respect to any matter in connection with relevant consumer transactions".
Taking their cue from consumer clinics established in Europe as early as 1928 and in the United States in the 1930s, the Consumers' Association decided to reach down into the High Streets of Britain.

The success of the association's magazine "Which?" in the area of product testing and comparison, with consumer advice and a complaints service, was seen to be reaching only a limited section of the population and that section was usually particularly articulate and well-informed. The association set up its pioneer consumer shop in Kentish Town —a shop that combined a pre-shopping advice centre with a citizens advice bureau which took up individual complaints. It was an instant success form the moment it opened in 1969 and over 40,000 people passed through its doors in two years. Indeed, I well remember going to visit it in 1969 in common with other members of my own local authority, and it persuaded many of us—with its bright front, its splendid presentation and its accessibility—that this was something that was filling an information vacuum which had been clearly causing disadvantage to a lot of people.

So, in a number of London boroughs, notably in Greenwich, first, and then in my own London borough of Havering—using at that time the free penny rate that was available to us under the law prior to 1972—we began to set up consumer advice centres.

Following the financial arrangements in the 1972 Local Government Act, many other authorities in the provinces were able to follow suit.

I was gratified to learn from my right hon. Friend that in July 120 consumer advice centres in this country were being grant-aided by his Department. He estimates that they serve a population of about 25 million, which is almost half the total population. By any measure it is clear that these centres have met a need which had existed for a long time but was not being satisfied before 1972.

Figures are not complete, and I understand that the Director General of Fair Trading is improving the method and the scope of collection of statistics, but according to his last annual report for the year ending September 1976, the number of consumer complaints handled by local advice centres and citizens advice bureaux was 470,503. Of these complaints, 358,000 were about goods, 37,000 concerned the servicing of goods and 75,000 arose from the provision of services. The largest groups of complaints came from the supply and servicing of motor vehicles, clothing, furniture, radio, TV and other domestic electrical equipment.

If allowed I shall give the House an idea of what has happened on the ground by referring to the Havering Advice Centre, with the establishment of which I was closely associated as leader of the council.

The need for this service in Horn-church and Romford was pretty obvious when we looked at the area and saw that it was a regional shopping centre where more than £30 million of consumers' money passed every year. It served a population of 250,000 in the borough as well as the population of a large hinterland.

As a result of our study of the centre at Kentish Town we set up our advice centre in acquired shop premises in Romford Market Place in September 1972.

There was some opposition. The local chamber of commerce denied that it was necessary at all and said "We satisfy all the complaints raised in this town." We checked, and we found that it had dealt with nine in the full year prior to our inquiry.

In the very first year at Havering, we had 30,000 people through the centre. There has been a slight fall-off since, perhaps as the novelty has worn off. I was told the other day that in the year to September 1977 the centre had 29,494 callers. Of those, more than 10,000 had brought shopping or pre-shopping inquiries and 6,000 of the inquiries related to social services, family, matrimonial and financial matters.

Despite the change of political control in 1974, the centre has remained a key council service. It has a pre-shopping advisory staff, trained and funded through the Consumers' Assocation. It has a trading standards officer on duty at the rear, who deals with contraventions. Mainly, he deals with them by giving advice and warnings, rather than by legal action. The council has there its own general information staff and, in an innovation recently, a representative of the local citizens' advice bureau for four hours on each of three days. The centre has taken part in the food price surveys which help shoppers get value for money and which have been especially important during the last few years of incomes restraint.

The centre is typical. Although the combination of services within centres varies from place to place and although in some areas mobile centre have been developed because of sparsity of population, the sort of work done at Havering is typical of that done at other centres. The important feature of it is that it has a bright shop front slap in the main street. It is in the public eye. People know where they can get information and help, and this is what the Conservative-controlled council of Havering wants to stop.

The council voted on 19th October by 31 votes to 29 to close the present centre next spring. There is already strong local opposition to this step. The local papers, NALGO, other trade unions and public meetings have come out against the proposal, and a public petition is being organised. I do not doubt that if this step is taken by other authorities in other parts of the country, similar reactions will follow.

It is interesting to note that the Havering council is proposing to move its consumer advice centre to the 11th floor of Mercury House, an office block housing a number of council departments to the north of the shopping centre. It is doubtful whether any casual shopper coming into our shopping centre will know where he can go to get help of the kind which has been freely available since 1972.

The advice service is to be withdrawn and shrunk, and it will go into a remote backwater of the kind that it was in back in the old days when weights and measures officers kindly answered inquiries if one could track them down.

Everyone understands that we have been through a period of severe financial restraint, and I do not doubt that most people looking at the situation will imagine that these advice centres are being threatened because of the financial situation. But that is not true. I think that there is an ideological objection being taken to them.

Certainly in money terms, these centres have not been much of a burden on the local authorities. The bulk of the cost has been met by a very generous grant paid by my hon. Friend's Department. In the case of Havering, there is a grant of £35,000 in the current year, leaving about £13,000 for the local authority itself to meet. But that is in respect of its part of the centre, which is concerned mainly with information services.

The reason why I think that the threatened closures is doctrinaire is that at least one spokesman for the Conservative administration has said that he and his colleagues do not feel that it is the responsibility of local authorities to run advice centres at all. There is clearly a deep divide on this issue between Conservatives in the country and Conservatives operating within London, both in this House and in Conservative Central Office.

Back in 1972, I remember that one of the leading visitors to the Havering Advice Centre was the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) who, having given great praise to the centre, called a national meeting of local government representatives to discuss the expansion of local advice centres. He obviously thought them important, because on the Second Reading of the Fair Trading Bill on 13th December 1972 he said:
"But the greatest need is still for informal advice and conciliation. This is already available from over 500 citizens advice bureaux and from those local authorities which have set up their own consumer advisory services.
Without wishing to belittle what is already being achieved, we must recognise that there are parts of the country in which that kind of advice is still not available. I hope as part of a continuing programme to be able to identify ways in which the Government can act to secure the establishment of a network of local consumer advisory services that will be comprehensive and nationwide."— [Official Report, 13th December 1972; Vol. 848, c. 467–8.]
In view of what is happening in a number of Conservative-controlled councils, it is interesting also to see what "Conservative Campaign for 1977" says:
"The Conservative Party has always been more active on consumer protection than Labour".
It boasts that
"The network of local consumer advice centres was expanded, bringing benefits both to consumers and to small retailers who were able to obtain advice on their dealings with wholesalers."
It seems that the Conservative Party is saying one thing nationally but doing the opposite locally when in power.

I agree with the observation about the centres and small business men. In my experience disputes not only between traders and consumers but between traders and wholesalers have been brought to the centres, and very often the traders get a free form of arbitration which relieves the problem. One trader spoke last week of the Havering centre:
"If you are not there two things will probably happen. People will resort to abuse and violence because of ignorance of their rights or I will waste a lot of time being dragged off to the small claims court".
The amount of money recovered for consumers by the consumer advice centres in my part of the country has run into many thousands of pounds, yet a quarter of our total number of such centres are now threatened with closure, or have been closed. At this time next year, we may well have fallen below the figure of 100 centres in the country, unless a number of Conservative-controlled councils can be brought to their senses.

The West Midlands County Council announced in June that all its "shoppers' shops" will be closed by next April. There were 10 advice centres in the area, including one mobile unit and a county hall office. The mobile centre and shoppers' shops at West Bromwich, Central Birmingham, Northfield, Coventry and Dudley have already closed.

Derbyshire County Council also announced last June that it would close its 10 advice centres, which included three mobile centres. One consumer adviser will be placed instead in the trading standards offices at four places in the county. One mobile centre and the advice centre at Swadlincote have already closed. By next April, centres will be lost at Buxton, Chesterfield, Derby, Ilkeston, Long Easton, Ripley, and the remaining two mobiles. Northamptonshire County Council has just announced the closure of its consumer advisory service, which operated within the Department's headquarters.

In Greater Manchester, it is widely believed that the ruling Conservative group will propose closing some or all of the 12 centres which are located at Central Manchester, Ashton under Lyne, Bolton, Bury, Leigh, Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport, Swinton. Urmston, Wigan and Wythenshawe. Those who understand the work being done by the staffs of these centres have been hoping for expansion rather than contraction of the service in the next few years. The country is not uniformly served. Most centres are found in urban areas, al- though mobile centres and experimental services like the Box 99 telephone service in Surrey have proved effective in rural areas.

It is encouraging to learn that Strathclyde regional council is expanding and improving its centres and that Merseyside plans to open a new centre next year. Excellent work is being done in places like Islington and Lambeth to meet the special needs of ethnic groups by the publication of leaflets in six languages.

But all these improvements count for little against the disaster which is to hit the national network to which Governments of both parties have been committed. There have already been strong representations from the National Consumer Council and national organisations representing consumers and citizens' advice bureaux, stating that they cannot take the centres over without substantial increases in their resources.

I would like my hon. Friend to spell out the action he proposes to take to stop the proposed action. Will he call in the authorities concerned for consultations? Will he urge them to drop the dog-in-the-manger attitude adopted by county councils such as the West Midlands which has refused to allow Walsall District Council to operate a centre? Will he look at the possibility of giving parallel powers either to the Director General of Fair Trading or another body to operate advice centres in areas where local government fails to act, bearing in mind the comments of Mr. Gordon Borrie, to the Chairman of the Institute of Consumer Advisers, that the Office of Fair Trading has always looked upon local advice centres as its "eyes and ears", and bearing in mind, too, that the need for consumer advice is intensifying under economic pressures?

Will the Minister say what further grants can be given for the setting up of new centres? There is also the question of the longer-term development of advice centres of all kinds. I appreciate that centres dealing with law, housing and other aspects of life are the concern of other Departments. Can my hon. Friend say what the Government feel about the well-argued case published by the National Consumer Council, suggesting that Government funding Departments get together to work out a common policy for advice centres? Does he believe that we should move towards a general practitioner advice service, in which citizens' advice bureaux could play a significant role? Does he accept the view which Michael Young, Chairman of the National Consumer Council, has just expressed to the effect that expert advice should be as fundamental a right as is education?

The House has supported many developments in recent years to extend the public's right to know. The right to information and advice, what the National Consumer Council calls the fourth right of citizenship, has hardly yet been recognised in places such as the West Midlands, Derbyshire, Havering, Manchester and Northampton. In those places the citizen-consumer is having his rights steadily eaten away.

1.17 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection
(Mr. John Fraser)

I welcome this debate and the chance to say something about the future of consumer advice centres and to reaffirm Government support for them. A consumer advice centre typically occupies shop-front premises, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Ward) has described, and is a place where the consumer can seek advice. Most important, these centres are the visible and accessible allies of the consumers, and the public face—and it is important that authorities have a public face—of the local authority consumer protection department. They also exist to advise and help traders as much as consumers. There is no conflict of interest between a reputable, honest trader and the existence of the consumer advice centre. They are popular and well patronised, and are the eyes and ears of the Director General of Fair Trading, of my Department, of the local authorities and of the traders they serve. Those who are opposed to these centres might just as well be opposed to job centres which are also shop-front premises serving the public, or housing advice centres or even police stations.

That last analogy is not far-fetched, because some consumer protection departments are law enforcement departments and every law enforcement department ought to be approachable and readily accessible by the general public. I very much hope that we shall have no party differences on this subject. We have not had any in the past. Throughout the country many consumer advice centres have been opened by local Labour parties, Conservative parties and, for all I know, independent parties. It is regrettable that a few elected Conservative authorities have embarked upon a wholesale closure of consumer advice centres. I do not mind any form of rearrangement—that is a matter for a local authority's judgment—but we have heard of wholesale closure, and my hon. Friend is right to use the word "doctrinaire". In the West Midlands they have not only decided to close centres but have refused to hand them over to district councils which would have been prepared to run them and would have received 100 per cent grants from Government. My hon. Friend has mentioned Havering, which, unfortunately, does not have a district, because it is a London borough. I hope that any local authority thinking of closing these centres will reconsider the matter and ask whether it is not doing a disservice not just to consumers but to ratepayers.

If councils close down advice centres the complaints do not go away, malpractices do not go away, overcharging does not go away, and the need for traders to receive advice does not go away. Those problems still exist. If the councils lose out on the 100 per cent. grants there is every chance that the work load will fall on the citizens' advice bureaux and the general work of trading standards departments. I hope that the authorities concerned will think again.

Secondly, I am willing to see any local authority that wishes to come to discuss this matter. If a district council wants to take over a centre and can get the agreement of the county council, I hope that it will come for help to my Department. I think that the centres are best run by local authorities, but as a last resort, consumer groups may wish to continue the centres—perhaps well-known consumer bodies. If they wished to put in a salvage operation in default of local authorities being able to do so, I would be willing to entertain that proposition if it was put to me.

We did not invent CACs; we inherited them from the Conservative Government and it is right that we have continued that policy. We have put our money where our mouth is. We have overseen a fivefold increase in centres. We have announced a 100 per cent. grant to continue to maintain them for this year and next year. My Department is now prepared to finance the setting-up costs of limited numbers of new consumer advice centres, provided that these costs are incurred by 31st March 1978. A total of up to £300,000 is being made available for this purpose.

These Government grants are in addition to those already being paid this year towards the running costs of existing consumer advice centres. My Department has already announced that it will grant-aid the running costs of all consumer advice centres for a further year, from 1st April 1978 to 31st March 1979. Local authorities and other organisations—I emphasise "other organisations"—are invited to submit applications for these new capital grants. A circular giving full details of this scheme will be sent to local authorities very shortly.

As my hon. Friend said, the policy of opening and maintaining consumer advice centres with 100 per cent. grants has been supported by the National Consumer Council, the Consumers' Association and the National Federation of Consumer Groups. It is equally significant that the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has also publicly opposed decisions by local authorities to close consumer advice centres. In short, those best placed to recognise consumer needs see an important role for such centres and we as a Government have done all that we can to ensure that those needs are met.

There is another misconception that I wish to nail, namely, that the centres are expensive. They are not. Their total cost is -½p per month per person in Great Britain. It is less than one twenty-thousandth of total consumer expenditure. That is a small price to pay for being assisted in the battle against inflation. The centres assist not just consumers but traders in the exercise of their rights.

My hon. Friend suggested that the Director General of Fair Trading might run such centres, but that is not possible. He does not possess the power to do so. I hope that I have given the whole picture of what alternatives are available if, regrettably, the local authorities decide—I hope only after taking considerable thought—that they cannot continue with the centres. That is a decision that I hope they will not take lightly. It is not a decision that will save money for the ratepayer, but it may put a considerable burden on ratepayers, traders and consumers in their areas.

My hon. Friend has visited Walsall advice centres at my invitation. Has he any information to offer my constituents on what the Government propose to do, as the West Midlands County Council is trying to put the boot in to Walsall's running its own service? Have they any proposals to recover money from county councils such as the West Midlands, to which money granted in the last financial year is not being spent because of closure prior to the grants' running out?

I understand that no money can be paid after a centre is closed. I have no powers to compel a county council to do anything. Indeed, it would be an interference with local autonomy if I tried to do so. I have met the Chairman of the Consumer Protection Committee. The only powers that I have in dealing with the county council are powers of persuasion, but I hope that even at this late stage it will think again. There has been an offer by the district council to take over the service, but there can be no compulsion. Until we have the further reorganisation of all advice services, and perhaps there is a general duty to provide advice—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-five minutes past One o'clock.