HC Deb 17 June 1873 vol 216 cc1085-90

in rising to call the attention of the House to the provisions of the weights and Measures Acts and to the inexpediency of Superintendents of Police and Police Constables being employed as Inspectors of weights and Measures under such Acts; and to move a Resolution, said, the subject was one of considerable importance to the commercial and trading community of the country. The great desirability of having a uniform system of weights and measures was admitted; and it had been attempted by successive Governments and Parliaments to secure such a system. In 1760, a standard measure of length was provided, and placed in the custody of the Clerk of the House. No action was, however, taken in reference to it until 1793, when Inspectors of weights and measures were appointed. In 1824, after an inquiry by a Committee of the House, a general Act was passed on the subject, which, however, practically became a dead letter in consequence of no provision being made for the verification and inspection of weights and measures. In 1835, another measure was passed—that which was now in force —under which the weights and measures of the kingdom were regulated. It was a comprehensive measure, and directed that a standard should be provided; that copies should be supplied to the different localities throughout the kingdom; and that certain measures should be adopted for testing and adjusting them, and the different Quarter Sessions throughout the country very freely adopted and very fairly applied it. So matters remained until 1839, in which year the General Police Act was passed, which caused much discussion and gave rise to the apprehension that under it local burdens would be largely increased.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted; and 40 Members being found present—

MR. GOLDNEY resumed

The Act of 1839, instead of being directory, was permissive, and gave power to the Court of Quarter Sessions to put the Act into operation if they thought necessary. The Act had been in operation for years throughout all the counties of England, and was working satisfactorily as a Police Act; but the magistrates, in order to make it more palatable, proposed some changes. The provisions of the Act of 1835 were that in every county the magistrates should divide the whole area into districts; that over such districts there should be an Inspector, and a complete set of standard weights and measures; and that it should be the duty of the Inspector to attend market towns on certain specified days. He (Mr. Goldney) contended that the effect of having put the execution of the law with respect to this subject into the hands of the police had been in a great many cases to deter fair dealers from bringing their weights and measures to be adjusted owing to their apprehension that they might be summoned for having them incorrect. It appeared, too, that the police fancied it was their duty not to afford any assistance to the trader in adjusting his weights and measures, but rather to detect wherever they could anything like irregularity. The operation of the law under these became so burdensome that a great many Petitions were presented to the House praying for relief. In 1867, a Royal Commission was appointed to consider the subject of weights and measures. That Commission sat five years and published five separate Reports at different intervals. They reported that the whole system was bad, if not vicious; that there was no central authority at all to control the Inspectors; that the weights and measures required skilled persons to deal with them; that it was inexpedient that police duties should be imported into matters which were connected with the commercial system; and that steps should be taken to give facilities to traders to have their weights and measures rectified. The misfortune was that there was no discretion vested in the magistrates in this matter, and a party having in his possession any weights and measures which differed from the proper standard was liable to be punished equally with the man who committed a fraud. The evidence taken by the Commission showed that at one time the convictions in Manchester were so large and vexatious that the tradesmen petitioned the town council to change the system, which was done. At Bath, where the convictions had been intolerable, the new Inspector invited all the traders to come to his office and have their weights and measures adjusted. They did this willingly, and the Inspector gave it as his opinion that when weights and measures were deficient it arose not from fraud, but in almost every case from accident or negligence. There should be some central control for testifying the qualifications of the testers, and that the duties should be performed with regularity and fairness. The object should be to prevent fraud, and not to encourage its detection, and precautions should be established that persons should not be punished for deficiencies of a venial character. There should be a distinction between those who verified the weights and measures and those who had to inspect them. The scale makers refused, before the Committee, to guarantee the correctness of their weights and measures for six months on the ground that use, and even contact with the atmosphere, would soon place them out of order. One of the recommendations of the Commission was that the Board of Trade should have the appointment of these Inspectors, and it would be desirable that at all events they should pass the Civil Service examination. Some of these police Inspectors had thought it right to enter into the Government Departments. One had entered a post-office and examined the balances used in weighing letters, while another had gone into the Custom House and tested the measures of capacity employed in spirits and wines. In another case one Inspector went into a country banker's in order to examine the weights used for gold. If their powers were really so large there ought to be some security that they were competent to undertake their duties. If the Government thought it desirable to employ these policemen as stampers and examiners it was desirable on every ground to relieve them from their duties as policemen. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the Resolution of which he had given Notice.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it is inexpedient to continue the employment of Superintendents of Police and Police Constables as Inspectors of weights and Measures."—(Mr. Goldney.)


said, that in the absence of the President of the Board of Trade, the duty devolved upon him of replying to the remarks of his hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham. He admitted that the subject was one of immense importance, and one which, if placed upon a sound and satisfactory basis, would give an amount of satisfaction throughout the country which more apparently important measures had failed to inspire. It was in 1835 that the Act was passed by which the whole inspection of weights and measures was put in the hands of the local authorities, who appointed their local Inspectors; and since that time there had been no material change in the law, although various Committees and Commissions of Inquiry had been appointed and had reported upon the subject. He agreed with the hon. Member that the great object which they should keep in view in regard to this matter was unity, and to a certain extent centralization of authority. If they could have a central authority possessing practical and experimental scientific knowledge, and which could impart such knowledge to and control the local officers, great advantage would be gained; but, considering the number of officers appointed throughout the country, it would be difficult to aim at that unity of system which was so desirable. Among the bodies empowered to appoint Inspectors were the Justices of Quarter Sessions, the Vice Chancellors of the Universities, and the town councils in England; the magistrates, the grand juries, and, in default of them, the Judges of Assize in Ireland, and the justices convened by the Sheriff in Scotland. The remarks of his hon. Friend were chiefly intended to show that under the Act of 1835, officers of comparatively rude character were appointed who were unfitted to perform the delicate duties intrusted to them, and that if it was desired to have an efficient system there must be a control over the officers, who must themselves be of sufficient intelligence to receive impressions from head-quarters. He thought that was a most excellent scheme, and it was the endeavour of the Government to carry out the recommendations of the Royal Commission to which the hon. Gentleman had referred, who, it should be noticed, drew a distinction between the offices which the police were fit to hold and those for which they were not properly qualified. The Commissioners entertained no objection to the employment of the police in the inspection as far as fraud or accidental injury of weights and measures was concerned, though they were unanimously of opinion that the duty of verification should be performed by a much higher class of men. He hoped that time might be found, though not this Session, to embody in a Bill the recommendations of the Commissioners, which were of the highest importance to the country at large, and that in the Bill would be clauses containing the spirit and the practical suggestions which the hon. Gentleman had made to the House. In his opinion, they would most successfully meet the wishes of his hon. Friend if they could infuse a portion of the great skill and practical experience of the Warden of the Standards into the officers who might be appointed throughout the country. He hoped the hon. Gentleman would rest satisfied with this explanation, and not press his Motion to a division.


said, he had not found in town or country any complaint with reference to the inspection of weights and measures. In the larger towns they were attended to in the most admirable manner. They wanted no central authority in this matter. If anything they had too much of it, and they saw its evil effects elsewhere. There was not only the seller but the buyer to be considered, and he wished to know who was to appoint these talented Inspectors proposed by the hon. Gentleman, and who was to pay for them. Weights and measures, taken as a whole, were fairly attended to; and if such was not the case in the county in which the hon. Gentleman resided why did he not, in quarter sessions, move for a committee to inquire into the matter. A very much better case must be made out before the House of Commons would consent to have a central authority dealing with their weights and measures. If they were to go on in that way, in a short time they would have nothing but central authorities. In the counties with which he was acquainted no difficulty whatever was experienced in the matter. Even if they were to appoint a man in London at a salary of £10,000 a-year to superintend the weights and measures of the kingdom mistakes would be made. If hon. Members in their own localities would endeavour to insure accuracy, it would have much more effect than the appointment of a highly paid central authority.


said, that in his county (Dorsetshire) there were very few complaints, and the duties were efficiently performed at a very small expense. He agreed with the hon. Member who had just sat down that if hon. Gentlemen in in their own localities were to attend to the matter they would do much more good than a central official who would cost the country a great deal.


observed that in his county (Pembrokeshire) he had heard no complaints on this subject. This, however, was an age of grievances of every possible kind; but there was no such practical grievance in this matter that the Board of Trade should appoint a highly-paid official to look after it.


felt bound to say that within his knowledge there were great complaints of the working of the Act; but, perhaps, the complaints came from tradesmen not as honest as they should be. There might be something in the matter brought forward by his hon. Friend. As payment was exacted from the tradesman, the Inspector was apt to be hard on those who did not come often to have their weights and measures verified.


said, that after the assurance which had been given by the Government he would withdraw his Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.