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Department Stores (Consumer Protection)

Volume 986: debated on Monday 16 June 1980

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12.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will consider introducing legislation to provide for a system of classification of large department stores according to the extent to which their trading practices afford protection to the consumer.

No, Sir. I agree that retailers should be strongly encouraged to adopt trading practices which protect the consumer. If, however, any system of classification is to be introduced—which would be difficult—it should be operated by voluntary bodies in the same way as the classification of hotels and garages.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is she aware that certain large stores automatically prosecute alleged shop-lifters, without making any effort to satisfy themselves that there was any intention to steal, and that that places respectable people—who may experience a moment of absent-mindedness or stress—in real danger? Should not such stores—notably the Army and Navy—be obliged to display a notice over every entrance, saying "Shopping at this store can be very dangerous to your health?"

The concern expressed by my hon. Friend is fairly widespread. However, this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Will the Minister look at another aspect of the activities of large stores? Will not she consider the impact on imports into the United Kingdom that result from the range of their buying and marketing powers? Is it not a fact that, compared with France or Germany, there are so few sales outlets within the United Kingdom that it makes for easy import penetration of our markets?

Retailers are in the business of providing consumers with the widest possible choice at the lowest possible price, and at the best possible quality. That is their only role.

Reverting to the specific question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer), does not my right hon. Friend agree that the trading practices of stores—particularly self-service stores—have directly resulted in a massive increase in shop-lifting? Does she not accept that there is no shop-lifting in banks and that if a store insists on inviting people to help themselves, it should not be surprised if they do so? Is she further aware that this practice not only causes expense to taxpayers and to the courts but a great deal of human misery, as numerous mistakes and wrongful prosecutions are made? Will she hold discussions with the Home Office and the Attorney-General to ensure that something is done?

Not for the first time, my hon. Friend has expressed a concern of which I am well aware. He will know of the considerable cost that faces the retail trade as a result of shoplifting. I do not think that this is a matter that I can properly discuss with the Lord Chancellor or the Attorney-General.