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Volume 116: debated on Wednesday 13 May 1987

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7.30 pm

I beg to move amendment No. 54, in page 21, line 47, at end insert

'and it shall be a defence, if the misleading indication is given in a printed catalogue, circular or price list, for that person to show that he informed the consumer in writing of the manner in which the indication was misleading before the consumer became legally bound to purchase the goods, service, accommodation or facility in respect of which the misleading indication has been made.'.
The Minister and I have had discussions within the past few days on the Bill's impact on mail order traders. He said that he was willing to give certain guarantees rather than to amend the legislation, and, as we are compacting the Bill's proceedings, it is proper that any such undertakings that he is willing to give should be clearly stated. Therefore, the amendment is intended not to be pressed, but to be a vehicle for him to state to the Committee what he has already stated to me.

I do not consider it appropriate to include a defence of the kind contemplated in the amendment in the Bill. As the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) said, the amendment is directed at special difficulties which might be faced by mail order traders. That seems to me a relatively narrow and detailed matter. The provisions of the Bill itself are meant to be of general application. The Bill already makes provision for codes of practice and for regulations, which are the proper means to deal with such matters of detail.

The proposed defence also goes much wider than can be justified. It could put consumers who make purchases through mail order catalogues in a rather worse position than those who buy goods in shops. For example, where goods in a shop are marked with one price but the customer is asked to pay a higher price at the checkout till, the trader has committed an offence under both the existing law and the Bill, even though the customer can simply decide to leave the goods at the till. The proposed defence would allow a mail order trader in similar circumstances to avoid committing an offence by sending a revised price indication to the customer with the goods, even though the consumer would be required to go to the effort of posting the goods back if he did not want them at the new price. That does not seem to me to be an acceptable outcome.

If genuine mistakes are made, the mail order trader will, as will any other trader, be able to make use of the due diligence defence in clause 39. However, I accept that mail order traders may face particular difficulties with the requirement in clause 20(2) to take all reasonable steps to ensure that consumers do not rely on a price indication which becomes misleading after it has been given. Therefore, my Department is considering with representatives of mail order traders what would be an appropriate definition of "reasonable steps" in those circumstances and I hope that it will be possible to reach an agreed solution. But I am confident that any solution can, and should, be reflected in the code of practice, or, if necessary, regulations.

I hope that with that explanation and assurance the right hon. Gentleman will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.