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Consumer Protection Act: Interpretation

Volume 489: debated on Thursday 29 October 1987

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3.17 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they now propose to amend the provisions in the Consumer Protection Act relating to the defence of development risks so as to bring them into line with the EC directive.

My Lords, I am fully aware of the views that have been expressed about the differences in the wording of the development risks' defence in the Consumer Protection Act, and those used in the EC directive. But the Government remain convinced both of the need to retain the defence in the Act, so as not to stifle innovation, and also of the correctness of the choice of wording in the Act. As the noble Lord is aware, the development risks' defence was debated at length during the passage of the Bill through Parliament. The present wording interprets the meaning of the directive with a clarity that will make it easier for both the courts and businessmen to understand. I have no plans to amend the Act.

My Lords, I thank the Secretary of State for that full reply. May I ask him whether he has considered the opinion by a very eminent QC which was sent to him some time ago confirming the view which was expressed here that the present wording of the relevant subsection, replacing as it did an amendment passed in this House, does not comply with the EC directive? Is he not concerned that if this matter goes to the European Court of Justice the likelihood is that we shall suffer yet another defeat at the hands of the court?

My Lords, in my experience I have found that lawyers often give conflicting opinions. The Commission is aware of what we have done and no formal approach or complaint has been made by the Commission over the wording of the development risks' defence in the Act itself. This has been through both Houses of Parliament and the decision has been made. I hope that it can stand.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware—I can think of no conceivable reason why he should be, but convention compels me to put it in this form—that I spent many long and far from exhilarating hours presiding over the deliberations of the legal committee of the European Parliament on this very complex and technical directive? Does he appreciate that, as he would expect from that circumstance, it by no means follows that the wording is perfect?

My Lords, I appreciate the sacrifice which my noble friend has made, but I do not envy him in the slightest.

My Lords, as it is my amendment that is being discussed, I wonder whether I might ask the Minister a question? The noble Lord, Lord Young, was not the Minister when this was done on 14th May. I believe he has just said that he is aware of all the arguments. But I wonder whether he would have a word with the Leader of the House, who is aware of the background to all this and who was good enough to discuss it with me at the time. Perhaps subsequently after speaking to the Leader of the House the noble Lord, Lord Young, might feel able to look at the matter again. Finally, does he realise that this decision of your Lordships' House was set aside neither by argument nor by vote but by private arrangement, which I thought was quite disgraceful?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton. By convention and in fact, I am fully aware of my predecessors' acts. I must repeat that I am aware of all that happened during the passage of the Bill through the House. I still have no plans to amend the Act.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that industry will appreciate greatly his original Answer?

My Lords, can the Minister explain how the wholly objective standard set in the directive is met by Section 4(1)(e) of the Act, which must, by saying what a producer may be expected to discover, be a subjective standard?

My Lords, we are now entering into a technical realm. The Consumer Protection Bill, as it went through your Lordships' House and eventually into law, provided a test which all parties outside your Lordships' House and the Government—I accept not all in your Lordships' House—felt would be better and would not put at risk technical innovation. It is for each of the members of the Community to comply with European Community directives in ways which they think fit and proper. It is for the Commission to decide whether we have met that test. It is now a matter for the Commission.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that I did not ask him about the opinions of his predecessors, which we know and which do not impress us? What I asked him was whether he would have a word with the Leader of the House, who had discussed all this with me, about the background of this matter. Finally, is he aware that I am not on a technical matter, but on something which is much more difficult—a simple answer to a simple question?

My Lords, the next time I see the Leader of the House I will have a word with him about it.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that considerable latitude was given as to how member states' governments should implement any Community directives, and that views differ? If any member state oversteps the mark, that is a matter for the Court of Justice.

My Lords, it is first a matter for the Commission which has looked at what individual member states have done. It could then easily be a matter for the International Court of Justice or the European Court. That will have to follow in due course.

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that Brussels has been notified that we have conformed with the directive?

My Lords, the European Commission is aware of what we have done. Discussions have taken place. Nothing has happened as a result. I hope very much that the Commission is satisfied with the Act as it now stands.

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept my assurance that if the Government decide to do the sensible thing and accept the views that were expressed by your Lordships' House during the passage of the Bill—that the words of the Act should track the words of the directive—and that if to do so they wish to produce a Bill to that effect, they will have the Opposition's full support in ensuring its speedy passage?

My Lords, I am grateful for the undertaking given by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. I have yet to see whether we wish to come back to him on it. I very much doubt it. I repeat again: at present we have no plans to amend the Act.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we warmly welcome his decision to concentrate on the work of his department and to resist any blandishments which might take him to less profitable and rewarding pastures?

My Lords, I am grateful. I found out that there was no second salary involved!