We intend to improve the protection given to consumers in a number of ways, including the introduction of an order under the Prices Act 1974, as amended, on price indications, and unit pricing about which we are currently engaging in public consultation, and changes to other legislation affecting consumers' interests.
What steps is the Minister taking to try to implement the recommendations of the National Consumer Council on product guarantees? Is he considering following the practice in the United States where consumers are given a guarantee that if a major purchase breaks down and is not satisfactorily repaired a full replacement is supplied?
I am, of course, giving close and careful consideration, as I always do, to the recommendations by the National Consumer Council. Although I yield to none in my admiration for the United States I do not believe that we should always seek to copy what our friends in the United States do. Although I shall consider carefully the recommendations of the National Consumer Council, I have yet to make up my mind about whether they would be beneficial to our consumers.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to provide consumer protection is to have a proper degree of competition between the companies that provide the goods and services consumed by the public? Surely it is competition and free enterprise that provide good consumer protection.
I have enormous sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that if we look carefully at these matters we shall see that consumers in the West under capitalism have enjoyed a much greater degree of consumer protection and benefit than their opposite numbers behind what we used to call the iron curtain. Therefore, the best possible approach is the one that we are now taking. which is to temper the advantages and benefits of the market and competition with a light regulatory touch.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the joys of the market place is the ever-changing perspective of the need for consumer protection, as with the levelling off of the housing market? Does he agree that now that the frothiness has been taken away, the need to legislate against estate agents has been reduced?
As my hon. Friend knows, I have asked the Director-General of Fair Trading to look carefully at estate agency and its business practices, and to come up with recommendations. When he reports to me early in the new year, as I have asked him, I will look, as always, most carefully at his recommendations to see whether we can agree on the best way forward.
Does the Minister accept that public confidence in any new legislation to protect the consumer is severely dented by his failure to implement current legislation? A young girl died on 5 November after swallowing part of a toy in an egg like the one I have in my hand. That was the second such death and the manufacturers are withdrawing the egg. Consumer protection officers have asked for it to be banned, and yet despite that it is on sale in large quantities in hundreds of thousands of shops throughout the country. Why does not the Minister use his powers under section 13 to ban the toy altogether?
I slightly regret the tone and terms with which the hon. Gentleman has presented the matter to the House, but I shall give him a full answer. As he well knows—or perhaps he does not—the enforcement of existing laws is a matter for the trading standards officers who do an excellent and superb job in enforcing consumer protection laws at local level. In this case, which one of his hon. Friends raised earlier, we looked carefully at the matter and were affected by the death of the young child. However, on balance, given that the product has been on sale for many years in this country and throughout Europe—millions of them are sold every year and its packaging contains a warning—I took the difficult decision that the death did not justify banning the product. I did so mainly because the child's tragic death was caused by the ingestion of a small part of the egg's contents. Many other products and toys with small parts are available in the market place. If we were to start banning every product that could be swallowed by a child, there would be very few toys left in the market. This is primarily a matter for parents and I am sure that all parents are aware of the potential danger to children of small items. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we look at all such cases most carefully and, in this case, made a difficult—I believe the right—decision.