§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This Bill is based upon the Report of the Food Council, which has for many months been in the hands of Members. That Report represents an exhaustive inquiry extending over four months, and a very illuminating Report it is. I think the thanks of all Members of the House are due to the Food Council for the work which they have put in on this Report. This Bill is, in effect, an amplification and a development of the existing law. As far back as 1878 the Weights and Measures Act was passed, which enacted that it should be a penal offence if there was fraud in the use of weighing or measuring instruments. The Merchandise Marks Act, 1887, similarly made penal a false trade description, and a false trade description was defined to include an indication of number, quantity, weight, or measure. The Sale of Tea Act, 1922, which is now on the Statute Book, and which perpetuated Orders which had been in force for some years previously, already provides that tea may only be sold by net weight and in fixed quantities. In the same way, the Sale of Food Order, 1921, again carrying on what by Order had been law for four or five years before that, applies similar provisions with regard to bread. In Scotland, the law has gone somewhat further than in England. I do not know whether it is that the Scottish are more vigilant, but in 1892 Scotland obtained the Burgh Police Act, the object of which was to enable local authorities to prosecute in cases of wrong weight, and that general Scottish Act has been reinforced in Scotland, by local Acts, in the cases of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and several other big municipalities, giving them special powers.
But these Measures, general or particular, have failed to achieve their object. A prosecution under the Weights and Measures Act can only succeed 1944 where an inspector actually sees the weighing take-place and can prove that there has been fraud, and in the same way, even in the local Scottish Acts, except, I think, the Edinburgh Act, deliberate fraud has got to be proved, and thus it has come about that the purpose of the old legislation is not effected. There is an enormous Volume of evidence, coming from local authorities all over the country, from inspectors of weights and measures, and from many others, which establishes the need for further protection of the public. The Food Council, in their Report, very properly draw attention to the fact that what is needed is not to prevent any general perpetration of fraud or short weight—they are careful to say that this is not a general practice—but that what is needed is that the consumer should be protected against the fraudulent or the careless trader, who is certainly the exception and not the rule. They say, in paragraph 10 of their Report:We do not in the least desire to suggest that the giving of short weight and measure is generally prevalent in the retail trade of the country, or to overrate the extent to which the practice prevails. It is, on the other hand, equally desirable, both from the point of view of the consumer and from that of the honest trader, not to underrate the opportunity which the absence of adequate protection affords for giving short weight and measure, or the extent to which some traders, as shown by the detailed evidence before us, take advantage of these opportunities.If I might sum up in a word, what it is sought to do by this Bill is not to make any novel and revolutionary change, but to standardise, in common and staple articles of food, what is the established practice of sound traders throughout the country. The evidence which has been adduced shows the need, in the interests of both the trader and the consumer, of further legislation. I could multiply examples, but I will take just two. In Glasgow (where there have been special powers) over a period of five years, 23,000 tests were made, out of which 3,600 cases of short weight were found. I will not stigmatise Scotland, but I will come to England. In the Metropolitan district of Essex, out of 63 cases where samples of milk were taken, there were 45 cases of deficiency. And instances are given—they are within the common knowledge of Members of this House—of meat, bacon, and butter where 1945 there is short weight and where there are mistakes not only in weight but also in price. This appeal for further legislation comes to us with an irresistible chain of authority behind it. It is backed by the County Councils' Association, it is backed by the Association of Municipal Corporations, it is backed by the London County Council, by the Middlesex County Council, and by many other local authorities, individually and collectively. Moreover, there is a precedent for it in, I think, every one of our Dominions. I think in every single Dominion legislation of the kind which I am submitting to-day has been in force for some time, and similar legislation is also in force in the United States of America.
But it is not only that the representations in favour of this legislation come to us from every local authority which has studied the matter, but the views expressed by the local authorities and the Food Council in regard to their inquiries are endorsed by a large number of representative trade associations in the different trades. They are seeking protection as much as the consumer. The Association of Multiple Shop Proprietors are entirely in favour of these proposals in this Bill, and join with the London County Council in backing the proposals which the Food Council have put forward. The Scottish Federation of Grocers and Provision Merchants, who represent, I understand, 70 per cent. of the grocers in Scotland, are in support of this Measure, the National Federation of Meat Traders supported it in their evidence, and the National Federation of Dairymen's Associations supported it, and they all supported it because what is sought to be done is to make the backslider, who is, I believe, rare, conform to the sound standard practice. I may say that the Co-operative Societies are also heartily in favour of the proposal. Therefore, I think it is not too much to say that the case for legislation of this kind is established by general consent.
The Clauses in the Bill are all based on recommendations of the Food Council, and I think the most convenient course will be if I take the House shortly through the provisions of the Bill to indicate their effect and explain certain Amendments which I shall have to propose in Committee as the result of 1946 further close discussion with the trades affected and with the Food Council, on all of which I think I may say the Food Council are in general agreement. Clause 1 of the Bill lays down the obvious proposition that, if you sell by weight, measure or number, you shall deliver what you purport to sell. The recommendation to that effect is in paragraph 15 of the Food Council's Report. That provision at once raises the question of whether this Bill should be made to apply to the wholesale trade as well as to the retail trade. Practically all the evidence which was brought forward was evidence with regard to retail trade and retail transactions and the whole of the recommendations which are made are in the interests of the individual consumer and have regard to the transactions by the individual consumer. It is true that in paragraph 54 of the Report there is a tentative recommendation that the wholesale trade should be included, but I think I shall do no injustice to the Food Council when I say that it is but tentative, for they themselves say that the ease of the wholesale trade was not at all exhaustively considered. Pre-packed articles stand on an entirely different footing from the ordinary whole-sale transaction. A pre-packed article is, in the nature of the case, prepared, wherever it is manufactured, ready for retail sale, and, therefore, in dealing with pre-packed articles, we have an entirely different set of propositions to deal with, as compared with where we are dealing with ordinary wholesale transactions.
I certainly should not propose to exclude pre-packed articles from the scope of the Bill, but I think consideration will show that there are almost insuperable difficulties in applying the Bill to the wholesale trade generally. Let me take, for example, the position of the farmer. The farmer says, with reason: "You may legislate to bind me, and bind me strictly, so long as goods are on my premises and under my own control," but in the course of his business the farmer—and in the term "the farmer" I include the market gardener—consigns his goods by common carrier and parts with possession of them, so that he no longer has any control over them. They pass into the hands of an agent or salesman in the market. The farmer then has no control over his goods, and he cannot prevent some petty larceny 1947 occurring or, possibly—such things may occur—some agent breaking a parcel, altering it, and making up deficiencies in one parcel out of another.
I submit, therefore, that it would be unreasonable and unnecessary to subject the agriculturist to a penal enactment in respect of transactions which, in the nature of the case, are really outside his control. We come again to the big wholesale exchanges. On the big wholesale exchanges business is conducted in accordance with recognised rules, and, therefore, there is no need and no justification for a further interference. Moreover, there is on the exchanges a regular practice of meeting deficiencies in quantities by adjustments of price. That is a recognised trade practice. Moreover, the dealings between retailer and wholesaler raise a totally different case from the dealings between retailer and individual buyers who go into the shop. The retailer is dealing on a relatively lower scale than the wholesaler, who is dealing not in a domestic transaction but in a recognised course of business. He is in a much better position to pursue his civil remedy in law than is the ordinary purchaser who goes into a shop. There is also, as I have pointed out, the regular practice of adjusting deficiency by price; and, finally, if a retailer is dissatisfied with the treatment which is meted out to him by the wholesaler, he can change his wholesaler, and deal with a different firm. Therefore, I suggest that the balance of equity and convenience undoubtedly lies in limiting the operation of this Bill to retail transactions.
With regard to the Amendments which I am going to outline to-day, I think it is convenient that I should at the earliest possible moment explain what the Amendments are which I shall propose. As soon as the Bill receives a Second Reading, these Amendments will be put on the Order Paper, so that they may be in the hands of hon. Members to-morrow morning. Clause 2 provides thatA statement as to the weight or measure of a pre-packed article of food"—which is defined in Clause 14—shall be deemed to be a statement as to the net weight or measure thereof unless otherwise specifiedThat provision, Members will appreciate, is necessary to the general scheme of the 1948 Bill. Clause 3 provides that there shall be no misrepresentation by word of mouth or otherwise. Clause 4 is a most important Clause. It provides that the articles of food which are set out in the First Schedule to the Bill must be sold by net weight, and the articles referred to are provisions and groceries which are universally and by common practice sold by weight. Hon. Members will find the recommendations in regard to that in paragraph 24 of the Report, and the preceding paragraph. As the result of the discussions to which I have referred, I propose to table two sets of Amendments which, I think, will prevent the provisions of the Bill from interfering with the regular and convenient trade practice, and will facilitate its working without any detriment to its effect and to its purpose. In the first place, the grocers have represented, quite reasonably, that in the ordinary course of trade they use paper in some cases, and paper bags in other cases, in which they weigh out the commodities which they are selling, and they say that in order that their business may be rapidly transacted, that practice ought not to be unreasonably restricted. I quite agree with them. The Food Council recommended that it should be made clear that the use of a counterweight—a piece of paper of the same weight as that used—put on the weighing pan of the scales is permissible. I am advised that that is permissible as the law now stands, and therefore, it would not be right to insert a provision to that effect in the Bill. But merely to confirm the law would not meet the difficulty. In the first place, many of the most recent types of scales would not admit of it—I refer to the automatic type. In addition to that, even where you can use a counter-weight, it is said, and I think with reason, that to make every transaction depend upon that would lead to delay and mistakes, and a good deal of waste of time and material, and I think that is reasonable.
What do we Want to insist upon in this legislation? We want to get fair and accurate delivery, but to interfere as little as possible with reasonable and rapid business practice. I should like at once to acknowledge the great assistance which the Board of Trade have received from the Scottish Federation of 1949 Grocers' and Provision Merchants' Associations who devoted a great deal of time and trouble to devising what is the most practical means of treating this admitted difficulty, while retaining the essential provisions of the Bill. After exhaustive experiments, they submitted a proposal to the Board of Trade, which I propose to endorse and embody in the Bill. They say, in communicating it to me:How to overcome this difficulty and at the same time not to take away the value of the Bill has caused this Federation much thought, and many experiments have been made to find a way out of the difficulty. After most careful consideration and practical demonstration we have arrived at a solution which we hope will be acceptable to you and which we feel can be made acceptable to the trade, while at the same time it provides ample safeguards for the public. We suggest that an article shall be deemed to be of nett weight provided that in the case of provisions the wrapper weighed with the goods does not exceed one-hundredth part of the gross weight of the package, and that in the case of other goods when the wrapper or container weighed with the goods does not exceed one-sixtieth part of the gross weight of the package. It is felt that by adopting this suggestion most of the opposition to the Bill will disappear. Careful experiments have been made, and we have no hesitation in stating that our suggestion is practical. The proportion of weight which we suggest should be allowed is exceedingly small, and the public will have no cause for complaint.I do not propose to do it by percentage, but by actual weight of drams, which I am advised is more convenient. I have received communications from a number of district associations of grocers in various parts of England—hon. Members probably have had the same experience in their districts—who regard this as the most practical and convenient way out, and I am quite sure it would appeal to the commonsense of any practical man that a simple scheme of this kind is far preferable to a suggestion once thrown out, that people should be allowed to sell a "reasonable" amount of paper as net weight, or to have some enormously complicated schedule of weights which would vary with each kind of article. It is only right to say that those who make the papers concerned have been ready to come forward and meet the general convenience. I received only a few days ago a communication from the Association who represent the makers of these papers, to say that they are quite 1950 prepared to endorse and accept this proposal in the general interests of trade and the consumer.
The Amendment which I, therefore, propose to table in order to give effect to this recommendation is as follows. I propose that we should permit tare on paper at the rate of 2½ drams per pound for bacon, ham, butter, lard, suet and margarine, and at the rate of 4½ drams per pound for the other articles which are set out in the Schedule, with the exception of tea, coffee, cocoa, chocolate and potatoes, in respect of which no difficulty really arises. Broadly speaking, the lower weight is where the article is weighed with a piece of paper, and the higher where it is the common practice to sell with a bag.
§ Mr. G. HARVEY
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the word "reasonable" as being in doubt, but in Subsection (2) of Clause 13, the word "reasonable" is used.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
The word "reasonable" may be reasonable in one case, but not in another. I think anybody would agree that to leave it absolutely at large for any Court to decide what in any given circumstances was a reasonable weight of paper would be far more injurious to a trader than to give him a perfectly definite weight to work to which is known to him and in common use, and that is the considered view of the Scottish Association. Provided those weights are not exceeded, traders will be deemed to have complied with the requirements of the Act.
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
It exactly follows the proportion given by the Scottish Federation, with the exception that where they suggested 1.66 I am allowing 1.75. That is just a fractional point of 1 per cent. more. Then I propose to ask the House in Committee to make one other Amendment.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. The proviso, of course, will have to come out if we confine the Bill, as I propose to do, 1951 to retail trade. The other Amendment I propose is in Sub-section (2), which lays it down that prepared articles must be sold in certain defined amounts. Investigations have shown that the defined amounts which are proposed do not cover all the variations which are used in practice with regard to pre-packed articles, and therefore I propose to table an Amendment which will allow a greater variety, and which will include all the packages which are commonly in use at present. While giving a greater variety it does not alter the provision with regard to net weight, because the House will see that there is still to be an indication of the net weight. The Amendment which I propose will cover all the trades which are conducted on that basis. There is just one other matter.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
I am going to table it to-night. What it will do will be to allow amounts which, as the Bill is at present framed, have to be sold in quantities of two ounces, four ounces, eight ounces, twelve ounces, one pound, or multiples of one pound, to be sold in quantities of two ounces, four ounces, six ounces, eight ounces, twelve ounces, one pound, one pound and a quarter, one pound and a half, one pound and three-quarters, two pounds, two pounds and a quarter, and so on, up to four pounds, and over four pounds by the pound.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
I agree it is rather complicated, but it is necessary that people who sell pre-packed articles in these multiples shall be free to do so. I do not want to complicate things, but to help the trader. It has been represented that there are manufacturers of certain types of pre-packed articles who will have to change their practice if I do not make this Amendment.
§ Mr. HARNEY
What effect will that have on foreign imports in sizes which are outside those proposed? Does any liability attach to them?
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
This is a domestic Act, and covers any trade here. 1952 I can assure my hon. Friends that there will be no preference given to the foreigner over the Britisher.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
That is so in one way, but what this Amendment will do will be to cover all the types of carton which are at present in use. If someone wants to send foreign pre-packed articles into this country no doubt he will have to conform to our domestic legislation. Surely that is only right and reasonable.
§ Sir WILLIAM PERRING
The right hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware that you cannot plead warranty in respect of goods which come from outside the United Kingdom. When we are dealing with the Dominions will that apply to the pre-packed articles, which bear a warranty up to 2 lbs.?
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
I think it would be better that we should deal with these technical questions, such as the question of warranty, when we come to the Committee stage, but substantially the position is this. The Second Schedule applies the defence of warranty in the Sale of Food and Drugs Acts to transactions of this kind. Of course it is true that we cannot proceed crimiNally against somebody who is outside the jurisdiction. We give to the retailer a defence of warranty in any ease where warranty has been given by any person who is in that jurisdiction.
§ Sir ROBERT BIRD
To go back to the proposed Amendment, I understand it covers the sale of pre-packed articles in quantities of 2, 4, 6, 8, 12 ozs., 1 lb., and multiples of 1 lb. So far as I can see the only difference in the Amendment from the Sub-section as it stands in the Bill is it permits the sale of those articles in quantities of 6 ozs.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
My hon. Friend did not realise that I went on to speak of 1¼ lbs.,1½ lbs., and 1¾ 1bs., but I think that could be considered in Committee. I am sure the House will agree that we had better not anticipate the Debate on the Committee stage on a number of details. I thought it was right, however, that I should give to the House at the first possible moment the 1953 broad and important Amendments which I propose to make. I propose to table those Amendments to-night so that hon. Members will see them on the Paper tomorrow before we go into Committee on Thursday and, if my hon. Friend wants to move art Amendment to my Amendment, I do not promise him to accept it, but it is open to him or any hon. Members to move it.
There is one other matter I want to mention. I am going to ask the House to exclude cheese for the time being from the First Schedule. The reason for that is this. It is quite possible to point to certain types of cheeses and to say that they ought to be included and to point to other types of cheeses—fresh cheese which is subject to great evaporation—which obviously ought to be excluded. But it is one thing to take, on the one hand, a cheese which should plainly be included and on the other one which should be excluded, and it is quite another to draw a dividing line or make a definition. We ought not to put an article into this Schedule unless we are certain not only that we can get a satisfactory definition but that every trader, big or small, who is dealing in those articles will know exactly where he stands. It was suggested to me from the other side of the House that we should distinguish between pre-packed cheeses and other cheeses—that pre-packed cheeses should be exempt and that other cheeses should be subject to the obligations of this Bill. But I am sure that that would not be a sound distinction. There are many pre-packed cheeses which compete directly with non-pre-packed cheeses made in this country, and which, undoubtedly, ought to be included if we include cheeses at all. The only effect of excluding pre-packed cheeses would be to give them a preference—they are very often foreign articles—over the article which is not packed. That is not a satisfactory solution, and it is not what is desirable. What is desirable is to define cheeses in such a way that every trader will be able to appreciate the sort of cheese which under the Bill ought to he excluded. Therefore, I am going to ask the House to leave cheese out of this Measure until we are satisfied it can be brought in fairly and in a way which every trader will be able to understand.
§ Sir HERBERT NIELD
Will the right hon. Gentleman extend that to other articles which are well known to be subject to evaporation?
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
The only other article in the Bill which requires consideration in respect to evaporation is meat.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
No, Sir, not the best sultanas. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should buy Empire sultanas. I do not think there is any necessity to take any other articles out of the schedule. Clause 5 provides that butchers' meat must be sold by net weight and also that a legible statement of the net weight must be delivered with the meat. That is paragraph 31 of the Report of the Food Council and the Federation of Meat Trades state in their evidence that that was merely enforcing what every reasonable butcher would carry out today as a matter of course.
§ Mr. HARVEY
There may be delay in delivery. There is such a thing as evaporation during the delay. Will the weight be the weight at the time of purchase or at the time of delivery?
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
In that case the butcher has his remedy quite plainly. He delivers a certain weight which is paid for. There is sold by a butcher a certain weight and at the time of that sale the purchaser states that he requires the meat in a few days and the butcher undertakes to send it to him. In that case the butcher clearly has a remedy. All he has got to do is to put on the weight when the thing is sold and if evaporation does take place—I think the question of evaporation is a great deal exaggerated—let him weigh the article again before he delivers it and add to his note that the weight at the time of contracted delivery was so much. There is however the case of boned meat where it is necessary to provide a safeguard and that safeguard I propose to give in an Amendment that there should be two weights given.
1955 We are continuing the provisions of the Sale of Bread Order which has been in force since 1917, and I do not think there will be any dispute about that. Every successive Government has pledged itself to continue the Sale of Food Orders dealing with bread by the Expiring Laws Continuance Act until specific legislation could be introduced. It has been a matter of common agreement on all sides that at the earliest possible moment that legislation should be made permanent.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. James Hope)
I hope hon. Members will allow the Minister to make his speech without raising points which are, in essence Committee points.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
There is no difficulty in making a loaf of the exact weight. For the last 10 years every baker in the United Kingdom has been compelled so to do under an Order in Council. The hon. Member will see that, in dealing with cases like that of loaves of bread, we do not take isolated instances, and that before a man is prosecuted it will have to be shown that he has gone wrong in a number of cases. I do not think we need waste time over bread. All I am doing here is to keep the law where it has been for the last 10 years, by common consent. Milk is to be sold in half-pints or multiples of half-pints, and here again, the trade agreed that it is a very reasonable practice.
Clause 8 exempts petty sales, that is, penny sales or sales of under 2 ozs. Clause 9 gives power to the Board of Trade to make Regulations, and there I propose to submit an Amendment. The Food Council recommended that the Board of Trade should have power by Regulations to add to or to subtract from the articles in the lists. I do not think an article ought to be added to the Schedule or taken out of the Schedule without a positive Resolution of Parliament, and I, therefore, propose to table an Amendment to provide that in the case of paragraphs (a), (b) and (c)—that is, where the effect of a Regulation would be to bring within the purview of the Bill an article which is now outside it, or to take out of the Bill an article which the House has decided shall be put in it— 1956 such a decision shall only be operative where there has been a positive Resolution of both Houses of Parliament. I propose to limit the ordinary power to make Regulations to purely administrative Regulations, where we are simply carrying out the general instructions laid down in the Bill.
With Clause 10 1 need not trouble the House, because the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture does not propose to proceed with it, if the Bill is limited to retail sales. Clause 11 gives inspectors of weights and measures the usual powers of inspection and entry—purely the powers under the Weights and Measures Act, 1878. Clause 12, the Penalty Clause, is in line with the ordinary provisions of such Clauses. Clause 13 provides a number of safeguards to traders and will cover the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Mr. H. Williams), providing that when dealing with bread or pre-packed articles one must not take a single instance but take a number of articles and see whether on the average full weight is given. It deals with cases of bona fide mistakes, with the question of responsibility as between master and servant, with shrinkage in the weight of meat, and with provisions as to warranty. The First Schedule sets out articles which are required to be sold by weight. The Second Schedule applies the provisions of the Sale of Ford and Drugs Acts, which established warranty as a defence, and provided penalties for giving a false warranty. The Third Schedule provides for the consequential repeal of existing Statutes.
I think that, with the Amendments which I have indicated, this Bill will command general agreement. The discussions which have taken place since the Bill was first introduced have enabled us to improve it and to make it more, convenient for traders without sacrificing any question of principle or any interest of the consumer. I would only add that I think it is important that where one has. as is the case here, a very strong demand for strengthening the existing provisions of the law we should not hesitate to strengthen them, but we should be careful to do so in the manner which is most practical and convenient and consonant with the ordinary reputable trade practices of the day, 1957 provided that we do not thereby sacrifice any of the necessities of the case; and I submit that if the Committee assent to the Amendments I propose, the Bill, as it emerges from Committee, will safeguard the interests of the consumer and the trader without interfering unreasonably with any existing trade practices.
§ Mr. WEBB
I think the House will congratulate itself on having at last got this Bill, and will congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on having surmounted so many difficulties. Heartily do I congratulate the Department which has worked under him and which has had this thing in hand for I do not know how many years. Before the War it was on the stocks—but we do not count the War. Ever since the Armistice, that is to say, for eight years, the Department has been striving to get a Measure which would satisfy the needs and provide all the safeguards which are required. It has been a very difficult task, and at first sight I am inclined to say the Bill represents far and away the best draft that has ever appeared, but I think the House is entitled to complain a little at having such a very complicated Bill, and a Bill which has given rise to controversy on one side and the other, presented for Second Reading eight days, or thereabouts, before the Prorogation. In spite of the fact that it has already passed through another place, it will be extraordinarily difficult to get the Bill made into law before the close of the Session, and I hope all Members who care for the object the Bill seeks to attain will do their best to get it passed. The prospect of its failing from sheer lack of time fills me with dismay, and we ought to make every effort to avoid any attempt to wreck the Bill this Session either by too much discussion or by too ingenious Amendments. Still, I cannot help feeling a little sorry that as this Bill was prepared so long ago it was not presented to the other place at an earlier date, and that at the last moment we are still to have a number of Amendments. I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman did not cause those Amendments to be introduced in another place, because the fact that they have to be brought forward now will add greatly to the danger of the Measure not being passed at all.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
When the Bill was under consideration in another 1958 place I had not received from the Food Council the representations which made the Amendments necessary.
§ Mr. WEBB
I withdraw any criticism of the right hon. Gentleman himself, but we may express our criticisms of the Government machine as a whole. I do not want to anticipate the Committee stage but we shall have to consider very carefully the scope of the exceptions and the retreats which the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to make in response to the very legitimate demands of a number of sections. There is a very valuable victory for honesty and common sense in the previous legislation insisting that an article which is stated to be a pound in weight shall weigh one pound not weight. That was applied to the ease of tea. This provision would be required mostly for pro-packed articles, and I should be very sorry if the right hon. Gentleman were to go back in any way upon that decision of the House, which has been thoroughly successful.
I can quite understand that when selling butter or wet things over the counter there may be an objection to dumping them down on the bare pan of the scales, and that it is difficult to avoid weighing in paper with the article, but I should not have thought that made it necessary to depart from the principle of net weight, and I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman has done it. We cannot discuss his reasons, but he must have had good reasons. There is an allowance of 2½drams in respect of these cases, and it seems to me that there is that much departure from principle. With the old-fashioned balance it was quite easy to even things up by putting a piece of paper in each pan of the scales. I admit that that cannot apply to the automatic balances, but we have long required the trader to see that the 4 lb. loaf of bread is of full weight and he has overcome the difficulty of guaranteeing that each loaf shall weigh 4 lb. by adding a little more in order to be sire of giving 4 1b. Therefore, I cannot see why, when weighing out sultana raisins or oatmeal into a bag, he cannot estimate the weight of the bag and give that little bit more that will be required to ensure that it is 1 lb. net weight. It may be that the right hon. Gentleman has chosen what is the easier course, but I do not see why he should extend an extremely dangerous exception 1959 or privilege to the pre-packed article. When the pre-packed article is called a pound surely it ought to weigh a pound. There is not the same difficulty there about introducing something between the article and the pan of the scales, and I do not see why the packet should not be made up net weight. The right hon. Gentleman has still to convince me that he should apply his exceptions to the pre-packed articles sold by the retailer.
I do not want to go into other Committee points, but there is one general observation which it is fair to make. Whilst, on the one hand, this Bill will protect the consumer, and will protect also the honest trader against the dishonest trader, at the same time nobody wishes to make life impossible for the small shopkeeper, who has not the same facilities as the large multiple shop or the co-operative society. We do not want to impose anything too onerous upon him, and the Bill will have to be looked at from that point of view. Here I cannot refrain from expressing my regret that the right hon. Gentleman is confining the provisions of this Bill entirely to the retail trade. He is not offering the small retailer any protection against certain malpractices, misrepresentations, and may be fraud, of the wholesale firm which the ordinary retailer can protect himself against. The small village shopkeeper has not any particular choice, and he is very largely in the hands of one wholesale trader. I think something might be done to protect the small trader against the possible malpractices of the wholesaler. There is the practice, for example, of selling articles in bags purporting to contain a cwt., but which, when examined, do not contain anything like one cwt., and the retailer has either to get an allowance to cover the short weight, or else he is expected to pass on the fraud by giving short weight to his customers. While we ought to do everything we can to protect the customers, we ought not to shut our eyes to the fact that the retailer suffers very much from the practices of the unscrupulous or careless wholesaler.
I do not know how far that requirement may be met by Clause 10, which enables the Minister of Agriculture to make Regulations for the purpose of prescribing units of sale, including the 1960 dimensions and materials of construction of standardised containers to be used in wholesale dealings in such agricultural and horticultural produce as may be specified in the Regulations. I think something may be done in that case. In my view, trade suffers very much in the aggregate from the variety of names used for selling the same article. We have got rid to some extent of the differences in the definition of such measures as a gallon, a hogshead, or a bushel, but we do not know what a bag means. It certainly is not uniform, and the retailer is apt to suffer from the variations. It is certainly a misrepresentation on the part of the wholesaler who says a bag contains 112 lbs. when he is supplying the customer with very much less than that weight. I hope this Bill will be given a prompt Second Reading so that we may get to a consideration of the Amendments, and I trust the House will not he led too far from the original simplicity of net weight. We ought carefully to consider what can be done to safeguard the petty retailer, who needs protection against the wholesaler, just as the consumer needs protection against the retailer.
Mr. HUGH EDWARDS
I feel sure the House will rejoice to know that the President of the Board of Trade has proposed some drastic changes in this Bill, and to that extent he has anticipated the objection which many of us might have had to make. I am glad to notice that this Bill has not been inspired in any sort of war by any sort of feeling that short weight is practiced in the grocery trade, and that there has been no suggestion of that. The honesty of the grocery trade hits not been called into question in any way. Last night I had the pleasure of meeting a deputation of the grocers in my constituency and I was very much struck with the fact that they were all extremely anxious to take every possible step to prevent short weight in their trade. As they very truly said, their trade depends upon goodwill, and it never pays a grocer to resort to short weight, because, if he does it once or twice, he loses his customers, and competition is too keen to make that possible. I was hoping the President of the Board of Trade would have done something more than he is proposing with regard to standard weight. I understand 1961 that it is the desire of the Grocers' Federation to have a standard weight of paper—
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
That is exactly what I have done. I have given two standard weights which, I am sure, is the easiest thing. The exact standard weights are what has been recommended by the Scottish Federation, and that means one standard weight for the article weighed on the bit of paper and another for the article in a bag. If the hon. Member for Accrington will get the grocers to agree to that, I think it is far better to have those two standard weights than to have an infinite variety.
The statement which the right hon. Gentleman has just made is far more lucid than the one he made when he introduced this Bill. The right hon. Gentleman who spoke from the Front Opposition Bench (Mr. Webb) made a very illuminating speech but we were unable to understand what he was really saying, and I hope that the next time he speaks he will turn occasioNally in our direction so that we may have the benefit of his wisdom. I was quite satisfied with the statement made by the President of the Board of Trade, and inasmuch as his proposals really represent an acquiescence of the demands of the grocery trade I think the right hon. Gentleman has done very well, and I shall be quite prepared to support him.
§ Mr. HARVEY
I do not know whether I shall be in order in referring to the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, to commit this Bill to a Select Committee.
§ Mr. HARVEY
I would like to say that under no circumstances whatever would I, or any of my hon. Friends, be a party to any subterfuge or trickery in business, and no Member of this House is more averse to trickery in business than I am. There are means of dealing with trickery in the present law in the shape of the Merchandise Marks Acts and various Weights and Measures Acts as they stand at the present time. I would like to give the following quotation from paragraph 4 of the Report of the Select Committee which sat in 1914: 1962The Committee are of opinion that some grounds exist for allegations of short weight on the part of sellers, but on the whole the retail trade of the country is honestly conducted.The Royal Commission on Food Prices followed that up in 1925 by saying: that they did not bring any general accusation of dishonest trading or profiteering and the recent Report of the Food Council endorses this statement in practically the same strain. This, at any rate, is a good beginning. Another passage of the Report of the Select Committee of 1914 contains the following words:It is largely a matter of custom and convenience whether goods are sold at gross weight or net, by piece or by package, and there appears to be no adequate ground for interference with these methods except in certain cases.The Food Council, who are the originators of this Bill, is the outcome of the Royal Commission on Food Prices, and this Commission issued its Report only last year, In the Majority Report which they issued they evidently set out with a determination to create a Food Council, and they recommended that it should be composed of 12 members with a paid chairman. I put a question to the President of the Board of Trade the other day, in which I asked what was the cost of maintaining the Food Council, and I was told it was £2,613 per annum. In the Minority Report of the Royal Commission over the signature of Mr. T. H. Ryland, it was suggested that there was the old Department in existence called the Ministry of I wonder if this Department is still in existence, because Mr. Ryland in his Minority Report said that he gathered that his colleagues were anxious to continue that Department under a new name with spreading wings.
Under this Bill it is now proposed to proclaim small grocers and butchers as dishonest traders and to police them accordingly. Every item in these proposals seems to indicate that these are people that want watching, and I think that is distinctly unfair because it does not accord in any way with the statements that have been made by the various Committees. That is my reason for suggesting that these matters should be referred to a Select Committee. A Select Committee of the House of Commons seems to me to be the only kind of Committee that is competent to 1963 consider this matter in all its bearings. Even a Standing Committee of the House upstairs is not quite appropriate, and with all due deference to the suggestion that is now being made, I think that a Committee of the whole House is the most inappropriate way of dealing with this Bill. In a Committee of the whole House only one thing can happen. It is not a question of hon. Members considering the various Amendments and aspects of the subject to be brought up, but it is simply a question of what the Whips will do in the Division Lobby. My feeling is that the composition of the Council as it stands does not inspire confidence. To the best of my knowledge there is not a single person on that Council who can be described as having any practical experience of the subject with which he is dealing. You will have to have a considerably larger number of inspectors to carry this into effect, and if they are to justify their position, their policy must be to initiate cases to prove to their superiors that they are doing their duty.
Another item in regard to this Bill is that seven days' delay may take place between the time when a defendant may be informed that proceedings are going to be taken against him. I need not say that in the food trade that is quite impossible and is not just, and I think that some amendment ought to be made to that when the Bill goes through its various stages. The principle of net weight, in itself, is not a practical proposition without extra scales and extra staff, though the counterpoise, I understand, has been done away with. A great number of the scales in use at the present time are automatic, and I believe that these scales, which are very expensive, will have to be considerably augmented. There are 26 articles in the Schedule, and power is given to add to their number.
I was wondering this morning, when I was looking through the Schedule, if there was any idea of adding 50 per cent. to it, so that it would become comparable with the Articles of Faith. I wonder, too, if it is asserted that the public are going to benefit from this Bill. My feeling is that the public will not benefit from it but will eventually suffer by it. The percentage in the grocery trade that is obtained on turnover at the present time is, as a general rule, approxi- 1964 mately 15 per cent., and such things as sugar are sold at a loss. Grocers as a class are not people who make money. They are not people who run about in Rofis Royce cars. They have no superfluous funds to use for any purpose whatever, and certainly they have no funds available for such latter-day luxuries as directors' fees. I saw in the paper this morning that the Board of Trade list of failures was issued yesterday. I had no time to see exactly how many grocers had failed, but I did hear that the number was considerable; I am sorry I did not take the trouble to look it up. When people talk about net weight and gross weight, the inference is that the grocery trade itself is making money that it ought not to make; no other inference can be drawn from it. The only people who can tell whether these people are making money or not are the Inspectors of Taxes, who have the net profits before them.
This Bill is purely and simply an interference with trade, and it must mean a rise in prices, which the public eventually will have to pay. As my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Hugh Edwards) has said, there is very keen competition, and very expert supervision is necessary in order to make it pay at all, and there is no room at all for what are commonly called "duds."
The other day I was considerably struck by a heading in an evening paper, "Butchers' Bloated Profits." It said that certain butchers were making a gross profit of 70 per cent., but when I analysed it I found that it referred to some solitary butcher—I do not know where he is—and that it was TO per cent. on his cost, and riot on his turnover, which is a vastly different thing. No doubt, however, it answered the purpose for which it was inserted. I took this reference in the paper to be a timely appearance, in view of the discussion that is taking place to-day. It has rather emphasised my point that the Food Council is essentially an amateurish body, and, if the matter were not so serious, statements of this description would he amusing.
I should like to tell the House how such statements as this arise. There is issued in Smithfield Market what is called a Fair Retail Price List, and the man who compiles this is Mr. Milman, 1965 the superintendent of the market, a very accurate and clever man, who knows his business as superintendent thoroughly. The issue of these lists was deprecated by the Royal Commission on Food Prices, in paragraph 229 of their Report, as being very misleading, because there are so many varying qualities of meat that it was impossible to get down to any standard that was at all reliable. I have here a quotation from the Fair Retail Price List, which shows the prices from the lowest to the highest, the item quoted being topsides of Argentine beef. I have also a corresponding list that was issued by someone in connection with, or acting for, the Food Council. The Fair Retail Price List of the market said that reasonable prices were 10d., Is., and Is. 2d., according to cut, bone and waste being reckoned as 1 lb. I am prepared to pass over the question of bone and waste, though 1 lb. is not a fair allowance. I myself had it tested twice yesterday, and my own and the general experience of the trade is that it is not 1 lb., but 3 lbs.; the 1 lb. applies to the very best Scotch heifer beef. The Food Council, however, instead of putting down these prices, namely, 10d., 1s. and 1s. 2d., or even quoting the middle price, stated in their price list that the butcher was getting 1s. 2d. all round. This could riot have been actually a mistake, and, although I am very sorry to have to say it, it seems to me a little like sharp practice.
If the House will permit me, I would like, in support of the Motion that stands in my name, to refer again to the Report of the Royal Commission. In paragraph 194, on page 82, dealing with certain shops, it takes the turnover of shops averaging £50 a week. It takes 27 such cases, and states that the gross profit of those shops, on the turnover, is 20 per cent., and the net profit 8 per cent. It should be noted, in dealing with small shops like this, that they are as a general rule proprietarily owned. The next paragraph, No. 195, refers to 86 returns, with a turnover of from £50 to £100 a week, and in those cases it is declared that the average net profit, on turnover, is 6.6 per cent., yielding an average annual income of about £260 a year, or £5 a week. The next paragraph refers to shops with a turnover Of between £100 and £200 per week, and it is stated that large numbers 1966 of the butchers in this country come within this category. it is there stated that the average net profit earned by private firms in this group is 5.7 per cent., giving an annual income of about £475. The last case I have to quote shows 37 returns taken haphazardly, properly certified, where it is stated that the net profit is just under 5 per cent.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
I am not quite clear how the hon. Member connects this argument with the Bill. He appears to be arguing about fair prices and profits, whereas the Bill deals with the question of weights. Perhaps he can establish the connection.
§ Mr. HARVEY
I rather expected you to ask me that question, Sir, but this Bill has been initiated by the Food Council, and I was endeavouring to prove that its intricacies are such that only by reference to a Select Committee could they he properly dealt with.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
I understood that the hon. Member was suggesting that the Food Council was not a good authority in the matter, but now he is quoting the Report of the Royal Commission, which is a different, matter.
§ Mr. HARVEY
I had to refer to the Report of the Royal Commission, because it refutes the very statements that have been made by the Food Council. I have nearly finished, and, perhaps, I may be allowed to proceed for a moment or two. The Report also goes on to say, in Table 13, that the very highest profits made at any time were made by the Cooperative societies, which showed 23.1 per cent. gross profit, and 10.1 per cent. net There is one item which I think might be interesting, if I might be permitted to refer to it, and which was omitted from the Report of the Royal Commission, namely, that when a number of profits were tested in 1922 and in 1924, certified accounts showed 4.2 per cent. net profit in 1922 and 4.4 per cent. in 1924. These items agree with my own accountancy experience, and I only want to say that the statements which have appeared in the papers, suggesting that prices could be reduced by as much as 2d. per lb., are absolutely absurd when the average profit obtainable in any butcher s shop is somewhere in the region of ½d per lb. I will conclude by saying that in my opinion, and in the opinion of friends of mine who 1967 have studied this question in all its details, the Bill is absolutely and unqualifiedly unnecessary. If Departments of the Government cannot assist traders, I wish, and everyone wishes, that they would not hinder. Government Departments, as a rule, do not distinguish themselves for their business acumen. We preach economy, and we have it placarded in front of us at every turn, but we do not practise it. There is no profiteering in this particular trade, and the wholesale market treats this Bill with absolute contempt.
The Food Council was never intended, when it was set up, to deal with complicated trade subjects such as net weight, because no member of the Council possesses any but superficial knowledge whatever of this subject, and they are incapable of carrying a Bill like this into reasonable effect. The whole Bill spells dislocation of trade. It puts into the hands of grand inquisitors trades which do not deserve to be so pilloried. There is only one thing for the ordinary trader to do eventually and that is to raise prices or quit. The Food Council's object when they started out was to justify itself. Small traders are evidently to be beaten by the official stick and pilloried for offences they have not committed and never had any intention to commit. I therefore desire to move in all sincerity, and in the interests of fair play, "That a Select Committee be appointed, composed of Members of all sides of this House, who can view without bias the position of trader and consumer alike.' The Whole House sitting in Committee cannot possibly deal with this subject.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
A Motion for a Select Committee cannot be moved as an Amendment to the Second Reading.
§ Sir H. NIELD
Precisely. That is why I was wondering my hon. Friend was called upon so early in the Debate to clear the, pitch as to where the Bill was to go. However my hon. Friend has made his speech. I think the Government ought to consider twice before they initiate this perfectly new legislation in the Autumn Session. Autumn Sessions were first used for the purpose only of clearing up business which could not be 1968 done during the normal session of Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman said in answer to criticism from the other side that the reason why certain proposals he intends to make by way of Amendment were not in the Bill before it left another place was that he had not received the Report of the Food Commission.
Sir H. MELD
I apologise if I have unintentioNally misrepresented the right hon. Gentleman, I certainly so understood him. However, whether that be so or not, the Bill was introduced on 10th November, and we are therefore having new legislation not included in His Majesty's speech at the opening of the session, and we are expected at very short notice to pass the Second Reading and, with an interval of only one day, to proceed with the Committee stage. The Government surely cannot be aware of the feeling of the country or they would not propose a Measure which is going to create great difficulties. Perhaps the concessions for-shadowed by the President of the Board of Trade will very largely meet the case of the grocers. He has taken the advice of the Scotch grocers but I am told, though I have no reason to advocate the claims of any particular trade, by the English grocers that they by no means meet the case as it presents itself to them. It is strange that the large Federation of Grocers in England and Wales should not have been consulted in order that we might endeavour to come to a basis which would have been more acceptable than the Bill. The Government must not suppose, because they introduce legislation, that it is of necessity such as could be accepted by the whole community,
I understand the Select Committee of 1914 distinctly reported that there was no case of habitually selling under weight. Then comes the setting up of the Food Council charged with the duty of enquiring into the allegation of profiteering in food and leaving humanity nothing to do with the question of short weight. They also exonerate traders as a whole from dishonesty in that respect. It is the Food Council who, I understand, are the parents of this Bill. They are the persons who have induced the Government to take it up. They 1969 are persons who sat to deal with a totally different subject—profiteering. Of course profiteering is wrapped up in the question of short weight but it is a different subject from that we are engaged upon now, and although I have no knowledge and it would ill become me to make any reflection on the members of the Food Council, when you deal with technical matters of this sort you ought to take advice and not be moved to action by the conclusion of persons who meet together for another purpose. I am asked to indicate, on behalf of the grocers in my constituency, their sense of satisfaction with the Bill as it was up to the moment of the announcement of the proposals. It may be that by cutting out those articles which are supposed to be cut out in Clause 4 the point will be met which they raised, but there is one point to which I ask the right hon. Gentleman's attention and that is the question of warranty. These smaller men who have to sell proprietary articles have no warranty at all unless it is expressly stated. I think anyone engaged in trade will appreciate the difficulty of getting written warranties from those who supply goods. The right hon. Gentleman will go a long way to mollify the grocers if he will provide in the Bill that an invoice indicating weight shall amount to a warranty and shall be so construed. They will then have a definite remedy and it will make the wholesaler far more careful in packing his goods than he probably is at present. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to see to that and put an Amendment on the Paper which will give that protection in any case, that an invoice qua invoice, indicating the weight on it, shall ipso facto be a warranty that that weight is correct. I do not propose to vote against the Bill because the Clause itself is sufficient justification.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
Will my right hon. Friend look at paragraph 8 in the second Schedule:For the purposes of the foregoing provisions a statement on any container or any wrapper, band or label affixed thereto or delivered therewith shall be deemed to be a written warranty.
§ Sir H. NIELD
If the right hon. Gentleman will consult his advisers he will find that invoices stand in a totally different category. The words "which will contain the weight of the parcel 1970 sold" will not refer to the individual trader. I ask him to consider the point because, although apparently a small one, it is of enormous value to these traders who are obliged to take these packets and who perfectly honestly pass them on. The Bill deserves to pass for the first Clause only, because we all wish, by any means possible, to put down anything like systematic dishonesty. On the other hand, it is most desirable, particularly at this moment, that we should consider the difficulties of any part of the community.
§ Mr. R. MORRISON
I think the last two speeches we have heard would have been much more in order on the Merchandise Marks Bill. I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman was seconding the Motion to refer the Bill to a Select Committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "There is no Motion!"] It seemed to me it would have been much more honest to move to reject the Bill, because reference to a Select Committee would simply he to destroy it. The hon. Member for Kennington (Mr. Harvey) made an attack on the Bill first of all from the point of view that it was injurious to trade, then he launched out into an attack upon the Food Council, then he made a complaint that the Government had left the question too late, and he finished up with a very spirited defence of the butchers, suggesting that there were no high profits made by them. I want to deal with one or two of those points. First of all, I gather the right hon. Gentleman said he thought the President of the Board of Trade had been misinformed as to the attitude of the English grocers.
§ Sir H. NIELD
My observation was directed to this point, that he had consulted the Scottish grocers but did not appear to have given the same attention to the English.
§ Mr. MORRISON
At any rate, I have received a letter to-day from the Tottenham Grocers' Alliance, which is affiliated with the Grocers' Federation, and the Greater London Council of Grocers' Association. They say they favour the adoption of net weight standards, but as it would be impracticable to carry out the principle, in common practice the Measure should be amended to allow the 1971 use of paper of a net proportion to the weight. They suggest that the wrapper weighed with the goods should not exceed one-hundredth part or one-sixtieth part of the gross weight.
§ Sir H. NIELD
I congratulate the hon. Member. What Tottenham thinks to-day the world will think to-morrow.
§ Mr. MORRISON
John Bright said adulteration is only another form of competition. He might have added that short weight was a form of competition and a very unfair form. No one will suggest in this Debate that shopkeepers give short weight as a general habit. There does not seem to be anything in the Bill to prevent the shopkeeper who earns his living honestly, as the overwhelming majority of them do, from sleeping soundly in his bed. The question we have to consider is whether the Bill will benefit the public. May I give an example in respect to the Co-operative Wholesale Society, who are the largest distributors of tea in the world? For many years they sold their tea net weight, as against all their competitors selling it by gross weight. That cost them £90,000 per annum. Had they followed the practice of most other shopkeepers and put the tea in the bag and then weighed it, they would have been £90,000 to the good every year. That figure applied some years ago. With the increased trade that they have to-day that costs them £400,000 per annum. This Bill is a somewhat timid extension of that some principle that the public are entitled to know what weight they are getting.
I suggest that the frauds—I can show that there are frauds—that are taking place inflict greater hardship upon the poor than upon any other class, because the poor have to buy in small quantities and have no means of checking the weight of the goods they buy.
§ Mr. MORRISON
True, tea is net weight now. and this Bill is a small extension of the same principle which has proved successful, and, as far as my information goes, has saved consumers in this country something like £3,000,000 a year, as against the time when tea was sold in the bag and generally in a leaded 1972 bag. No one will suggest that shopkeepers in general, or any large percentage of them, are dishonest. Most important evidence was given before the Royal Commission on Food Prices by Mr. Cole, Chief Inspector of Weights and Measures for the City of Manchester, who gave evidence on behalf of the Incorporated Society of Inspectors of Weights and Measures, of which he is a past president. He said:It is not alleged that the general run of traders give short weight or measure or that they have a desire to trade other than honestly, but there is a minority which does not hesitate to stoop to one of the meanest forms of robbery, and the people who suffer most are those who con least afford it.The danger of legislation like this is that it is often designed to catch the little shopkeeper and to allow the big manufacturer to go scot free. For example, may I give some of the big offences which I hope this Bill will go a little way towards stopping, although it is only a beginning? It was pointed out in evidence by Mr. Cole that there is a practice growing up in some quarters of selling butter by the pat instead of the pound. As a result, certain shopkeepers are offering pats of butter which only weigh three and a-half ounces or seven ounces, instead of four ounces and eight ounces. The ordinary housewife who goes to buy her butter and buys by the quarter pound or the half pound purchases these pats. There is no liability on the man who is selling the butter by the pat. He is not committing an offence, because he is selling by the pat instead of by the pound. That. I take it, will be stopped by this Bill.
Mr. Cole in his evidence also gives a most glaring example, and I hope nobody in this House will defend it. He said that when the grocery trade started to sell packet peas, they were put on the market packed in 16-ounce packets, full weight. Later, the packets fell to 15½ ounces, then to 15 ounces, later to 14 ounces, and eventually to 13 ounces. No intimation was given to the public that the weight had been altered, and the packet was the same size as origiNally. Mr. Cole went on to say that some of these packets to-day contain 10 or 11 ounces. No one in this House will defend a practice of that sort. Here is a large manufacturer putting packet peas on the market with 16 ounces in the packet at first, and gradually reducing the quantity, accord- 1973 ing to Mr. Cole's evidence, until the weight to-day is 10 or 11 ounces, while the packet remains the same size. The public is being cheated by a practice of that sort, and every honest shopkeeper ought to rise against it.
In his evidence, Mr. Cole also dealt with two other items which I regret to say are not in the list. The first is jam. I know there are difficulties in the way of that. A firm in which I take some considerable interest in London, which has a very large number of customers, has been increasing its trade lately. Many of the new customers in changing over have brought their empty jars with them in order to buy new jam. The firm has not been able to accept the empty jars because they are no use to them as they do not hold 2 lbs. It is impossible to get 2 lbs. of jam into the jar. From the evidence, it appears that some jam manufacturers are sending out jars as much as three ounces short of the weigh that people expect they contain; but the manufacturers are riot committing any penalty, because they are selling jam by the jar. A very grave case has been made out in regard to soap. Evidence was given by Mr. Cole that a large firm of soap makers who used to pack standard weight bars of washing soap—
I was endeavouring to show that the most important part of this Bill is the part that applies to the packet goods that are made by large firms and put on the market. The illustration which I was endeavouring to give with respect to soap applies to foodstuffs. In the case to which I was referring, two bars of soap are put up, one in tissue paper and one in a cardboard box. The one in tissue paper weighs 12 ounces and the one in the cardboard box weighs 10 ounces. The public think that there is no difference and that they are of the same weight. Evidence was also given in regard to milk. Mr. Cole quoted a case which occurred in 1919 of a firm selling 1,300 gallons of milk per week in alleged pint bottles. He pointed out that one of the inspectors tested 130 bottles and out of the 130 bottles tested only 38 would hold a pint. Some 73.8 per cent. of the bottles were found too 1974 small to hold a pint. By this dishonest means this firm was making an extra profit of £1,400 per annum. Another case which was quoted in evidence was an advertisement from a weekly trade paper giving a quotation for chocolates:Chocolates. Special cheap line. Suitable for cheap market trade, in ½ lb. box containing about 4 ounces of chocolate, but showing appearance of box being quite full. 1 lb. size ditto, contains about ½ lb.I have mentioned these instances in order that some hon. Members may realise that, apart altogether from the suggestions made by trade organisations, from the point of view of the Inspectors of Weights and Measures, the servants of local authorities, whose business it is to deal with this sort of thing, a case has been made out, and a case which every honest shopkeeper should welcome.
There are other points which one would like to deal with, but they are Committee points. I intend to support the Bill, although I am sorry it does not go considerably further. I repudiate altogether the suggestion of the hon. Member for Kennington (Mr. G. Harvey) that this Bill casts an aspersion upon the honesty of shopkeepers. Shopkeepers would be well advised to repudiate that view. There is no intention to cast an aspersion upon them, but there is an intention to prevent honest shopkeepers from being defrauded by a few unscrupulous people in the trade, and there is an intention to prevent the public from being cheated by being sold packet goods of articles, when they do not understand what they are buying.
§ Mr. WOMERSLEY
I congratulate the hon. Members who have spoken on the fact that they have stated, what the Food Council themselves stated, that they have no desire in the least to say that the giving of short weight is generally prevalent in the retail trade of this country. I am glad to have heard that statement from hon. Members, because on behalf of the shopkeepers I should have been prepared to repudiate any suggestion of general dishonesty. The shopkeepers are agreed that any deliberate giving of short weight ought to receive reprobation and be regarded as a penal offence. We are one on that point. When the Bill first appeared in print we who represent shop-keeping interests felt that it was not fair to the honest trading community. I wish to congratulate the President of the Board of Trade on the very lucid manner 1975 in which he has explained the provisions of the Bill. I was delighted that he took the Bill Clause by Clause. I also thank him for the Amendments which he has promised. There are still one or two things which I hope he will be able to concede to the trading interests which will not in any way weaken the Bill, but make it much more easy for the traders to carry on their business.
I am wondering why he has excluded the wholesalers from the purview of the Bill. The only reason I can give is that the wholesalers, through their organisation and the agriculturists, have been able to bring sufficient pressure to bear upon the right hon. Gentleman to get him to keep them out of the Bill. Surely, the law that is good for the retailer should be equally good for the wholesaler. In the way of the delivery of goods from the wholesaler to the retailer there are many glaring cases of short weight. One knows of a sack of potatoes which contains, say, 1½ stone of dust, as well as the potatoes. However, the right hon. Gentleman has decided to exclude the wholesalers, and I suppose we cannot have them included. With regard to the question of the Scottish Federation of Grocers, I am puzzled to know why the right hon. Gentleman has not consulted the English and the Welsh Federation of Grocers. The Scottish Federation represents 4,000 members. He says that it represents 70 per cent. of 4,000 grocers. The English and Welsh Federation has a membership of 16,000 and represents 40,000 shops. He would have been well advised to have consulted the English and Welsh grocers and not to have taken his views only from the Scottish Federation. But he has suggested, in the method of dealing with wrapping paper, one way out of the difficulty which, I think, with a further slight amendment will meet our point.
Let me say a word on the question of warranty which is dealt with in the Second Schedule. It is laid down there that a warranty can be set up as a defence; but in paragraph (4) of the Schedule it says thatA warranty given by a person resident outside Great Britain shall not be available as a defence to any proceedings under this Act.I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say that he was going to bring all the 1976 foreign packers under the same rules and Regulations as the English packers, and I think that the Sub-section, therefore, should be altered. Surely a retailer ought to be able to rely on the warranty of a packer whether he is a resident in this country or not. Further it seems to me, I hope I may be wrong, that this particular paragraph will exclude Ireland, that a warranty from an Irish packer will be of no use to a retailer in this country, and that is a point to which the right hon. Gentleman ought to attend in the Committee stage. We all know the tremendous amount of produce that is sent from Ireland for sale in this country. I hope he will be prepared to consider further slight Amendments to the Bill, and then he will probably get the co-operation and support of those who up to now have been somewhat opposed to the Measure.
§ Mr. HARNEY
I only wish to refer to one or two points, because most of the criticisms which I have been desired by my constituents to pass on the Bill have been met by the proposed Amendments of the President of the Board of Trade. There are, however, still two points to which I want to draw attention, with the view of his considering whether he will not make further Amendments in respects. The first point is this. Clause 4, as it stands, provides that goods must be made up in packages of certain sizes. The proposed Amendment is that the number and variety of these packages should be increased. It goes no further than that; and it seems to me that a difficulty arises there. The warranty, of course, does not refer to imported goods, but at the same time the retailers of this country are bound to sell imported goods as they are hound to sell home-produced goods. If therefore some foreign countries choose to make up the articles that are required in this country in packages of different sizes to those specified in the Bill then any person who sells these packages must do so at his own peril or refuse to import these goods. I do not think that is intended. It is not for me to suggest an Amendment at the moment, but I think it should be possible to say that packages of home-produced goods shall be of a certain size but that in the case of imported goods, if they are sent in the sizes recognised in the importing countries, they may be sold in this country.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
Surely that would enable a foreign importer to give short weight if he was so disposed.
§ Mr. HARNEY
No, it would not. The warranty is there. Whatever the foreign warranty says is the weight is some protection to the person who sells it in this country. It will prevent the foreigner getting away with short weight. It is said that goods of a certain description can only be sold in specified sizes of packages and weight, and I am putting it to the President of the Board of Trade that if the foreigner chooses to make up goods which we want in packages that fall outside the limits specified, then it is impossible for merchants in this country to import these goods, no matter what demand there may be for them, and they would commit an offence under this Bill if they sold to their customers in sizes which might suit the foreign importer but which do not fall within the specifications of this Bill. The President will understand that I am putting this forward in a thoroughly friendly spirit. There is another objection to which want to refer. If he would be good enough to refer to Clause 5, he will see that it deals with butchers' meat. I do not know any more about meat and groceries than do about sandwiches, I am simply putting to him questions which my constituents have represented to me. It has come out, in the course of the Debate, that sometimes meat is sold for delivery two or three days' hence, and that that period of time is quite sufficient to cause considerable evaporation, that the meat when sold is of one weight and when delivered is another weight. The Clause as it stands says that the person shall deliver meat with a statement of its net weight, presumably, at the time of delivery.
The President answered that objection by saying that the seller's remedy is in his own hands. He can have two weights; the weight which on the Monday when it is sold, is 20 lbs., or the weight on Thursday, when it is delivered, which is 19 lbs. What is the selling weight? Is it the 20 lbs. or the 19 lbs.? If the right hon. Gentleman will take it from me, according to the law of the land the sale weight is the 20 lbs. on the day of sale, yet, according to this Bill, the only price he can be paid for is the price of the 19 lbs. weight delivered. I 1978 do not think it is intended to rob the unfortunate butcher of this 1 lb. in this way. I wanted to make these two points, otherwise I thoroughly approve of the Bill. I do not think it implies any slight whatever upon the retailers of this country, any more than an Act of Parliament making offences punishable implies a slight on the community. The honest traders should be the first to see, and no doubt they are, that the dishonest among them are brought to justice, and it is well that we should have on the Statute Book a Measure which will protect honest traders from the dishonest endeavours of others.
§ Mr. RAINE
I should like to say that the Amendments which the President of the Board of Trade proposes to put down on the Paper, particularly with regard to wrapping paper, will give great satisfaction to the grocers, and will withdraw the sting from the serious opposition they have put up to the Bill so far. But there is another aspect which has not been mentioned during the course of this Debate, and which, had it not been for the Amendments which have been put down, I should have felt it my duty to refer to at greater length than I propose to do this evening, and that is, the position of the consumers in regard to some of these articles. One great consideration is that these articles should be sold in a clean condition, and if they have to be weighed on the scales without paper those which are of a sticky substance would, in the nature of things, make the scales very dirty. I am not going into any great detail because the Amendment proposed covers the point, but I had an ocular demonstration in one of the beet shops in my own constituency only a few months ago, and I was absolutely convinced that without such an Amendment as is proposed the consumer might get the correct weight, but there would be a very great chance of his goods being delivered not in a clean condition, because it is quite impossible after weighing a pound of some articles to clean the scales, and in actual practice that would not he done. However, the continuance of weighing the article along with the paper removes that objection.
A question was asked by an hon. Member opposite as to why they should not give this net weight. At the time I had this interview, at the request of the Grocers' Association in my own 1979 constituency, I asked the question point blank of one of the members, and he said that the cost of the paper per annum was about £600, and that the profits would not allow a small trader to pay that sum or anything like it; that the only alternative would be to increase the price to the consumer, and, if that was done by the smallest fraction, one farthing, it would be out of all proportion to the cost of the paper. I desire to join with other hon. Members, although I shall not vote for the Bill going to a Select Committee, in expressing my surprise that a Bill like this should be brought in at the fag-end of the Session. It would have been far better to have kept it until next Session, when we could have discussed it quietly in Committee upstairs. Instead of having to pass this Measure, as I understand, by Thursday next, we could then have looked at it more calmly and more leisurely in the Committee Room upstairs.
Let me say one word on the question of the honesty of the great bulk of the shopkeepers of this country. They are noted for their honesty, and one fact which is often overlooked in connection with this point is that if a person desires to defraud anyone they can get round any Act of Parliament they like. But in any well governed town the Inspector of Weights and Measures has his officials out continuously examining weights and scales in the various shops, and in my own constituency, for example, whilst that work is constantly going on we only get a very few cases in the course of the year where there are any grounds for complaint that the scales are not correct. Without saying anything more, because I am delighted we are going to get these Amendments inserted in the Bill, I support the Second Reading of the Measure.
§ Mr. TAYLOR
I should like to utter a word of welcome to this rather anæmic child of the Food Council. The doctoring it has already received at the hands of the President of the Board of Trade has removed some of the more serious objections with regard to its practical application. We all welcome the principle that net weight is going to have a wider application in this Bill, and I am quite sure that the majority of our traders will themselves work it, provided that in the administration of the Bill there is the minimum of interference. There are still, 1980 however, a number of practical difficulties to be faced, and I have no doubt when we come to Committee stage the President will consider with sympathy and regard the convenience of the people generally. But I rise for the purpose of drawing his particular attention to Subsection (5) of Clause 13. The Clause provides for the shifting of a prosecution from the employer or the proprietor to the assistant in certain vases. As I read the Clause the position will be that when a prosecution has been launched against an employer for contravening the provisions of the Bill, he will be entitled, by laying an information, to secure a transference of the prosecution from himself to his employé, and in this way he will be able to avoid the publicity that comes from the prosecution, and to appear before the public as quite an innocent party.
I have the gravest possible doubts as to the principle embodied in this Clause, because it obviously opens up a way for very serious abuses. It opens up a way for connivance between the employer and the assistant, in order that the employer may avoid the penalty of misconduct. I am not going to suggest that in the ordinary case of the average small private trader there is anything like systematic dishonesty or the giving of short weight, but I am going to put it to the right hon. Gentlemen that in the distributive trades to-day you have huge trusts and combines which have lost all personal relationship between the employé and the actual employer, and in these circumstances the employés are simply profit-making instruments for a limited liability company, whose first object is to make the maximum amount of profit. It is well known to those who have had experience of the distributive trades that in the multiple concerns there is a sort of constant pressure on the manager by the district inspector, and by the manager on to the rest of the staff, and that the allowances, in the grocery trade, for instance, for determining shortages, and the principles upon which responsibility is taken over by managers for stocks, are not at all satisfactory from the managers' or assistants' point of view. It is true to say that in this connection there is a constant pressure on the whole of the employés to keep the shortages arising from evaporation aid waste of various 1981 kinds at an absolute minimum, and there is a pressure in this connection towards, shall I say sharp practices? that does not perhaps exist in the case of the individual trader.
This will be a very serious matter for the assistants if the Clause goes through in its present form. Let us take, for example, the case where a prosecution takes place and where the employer, perhaps by connivance or otherwise, transfers, under the terms of the Clause, the prosecution from himself to the employé. The employé, if he is convicted and dismissed, will find it exceedingly difficult to get other employment; that is to say, in a case where perhaps there had been no connivance and where the assistant was bearing the penalty for a breach or the Act. He would have the utmost difficulty in getting further employment. But in a case where connivance had taken place, you might have an assistant convicted in order to save the employer's face, and then, after a time, the assistant is dismissed in order that the employer may keep right with public opinion and not appear in any way to assent to what has taken place. I earnestly hope that the right hon. Gentleman will review this Clause, and consider, if it is not possible to delete it altogether, whether he can give additional safeguards to secure the thousands of shop assistants who are the servants of great combines in the retail trades.
§ Mr. H. WILLIAMS
I was rather interested in the remarks just. made by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Taylor), who appears, however, to have overlooked the fact that the Sub-section which he criticises appears in substantially the same form in the Merchandise Marks Bill, and that when we were in Committee on that Bill we had long discussions on this particular point, and there was general unanimity, after we had analysed the whole situation in detail, that it was right to provide some protection for an employer who, though perfectly innocent himself, might be punished for the offence committed by his assistants after he gave specific instructions to the contrary. I think that most of us who have certain views, not about the principle of this Bill, because on the principle we are all agreed, but certain views about some of the details, will have had our minds very consider- 1982 ably set at rest by the statement of the President of the Board of Trade. On the other hand, I must join with those critics who regret that we are having such a short time to consider this Bill, because it is the details that matter and not the general principle. You might have unanimity on a general principle, but when the details are complicated, if you rush a Bill through there is danger of had legislation. The important Amendments which the President of the Board of Trade has announced this afternoon will not be known to the interested parties until to-morrow. They will have very little time to consider the Amendments, and very little time to convey their views to their various representatives in Parliament. Therefore, some of the Amendments will not receive quite the consideration that they ought to receive.
There are still a few points left for consideration. Like some other Members of Parliament, I have received a number of communications from grocers and butchers in my constituency. As constituents they are fully entitled to make representations to their Member. The object of the Bill is to protect the consumer, but in protecting the consumer you have no right to inflict an injustice on another class of the community. It is my function to represent every legitimate point of view in my constituency, and I shall always do so. One aggrieved person is as much entitled to protection as a large number of persons, because justice does not take numbers into account. It is only Socialist politicians who judge a thing from the point of view of the number of persons involved. The hon. and learned Member for South Shields (Mr. Harney) drew attention to the problem which faces the butcher who is requested by his customer to delay delivery, and I think the President of the Board of Trade must give some further consideration to the rather acute problem which arises when there are two official net weights in respect of the same commodity. The other point to which reference was not made was the question of boned meat. I understand, however, that there is some, possibility of the right hon. Gentleman moving an Amendment 1983 with regard to boned meat, and that will remove another very serious difficulty. Provided the right hon. Gentleman can meet us on those two points, he will remove one of the most serious blots on the Bill. I have no intention of hindering the progress of the Bill, though I do regret that we have had so little time to consider it.
§ Mr. W. BAKER
I do not, propose to follow the last speaker in his party references. I content myself with saying, in the first place, that I think the statement of the President of the Board of Trade has met the criticisms which have been brought to my notice. I wish to ask one question. I have looked in vain for a reference in the Schedule to jam or any similar article of food. There may be quite excellent reasons why jam should be excluded from the Schedule, but I should be glad if an explanation could be given.
§ Mr. GROTR1AN
I want to mention one small point which has not been referred to so far. I feel that the Amendments adumbrated by the President of the Board of Trade do go a long way to meet the difficulties that are felt by the grocery trade. My right hon. Friend has promised an Amendment which will allow a certain amount of paper to be included in the net weight of an article. The chief difficulty with regard to paper is the blue sugar bag, which is, of course, a paper of substantial weight. That is an industry which is entirely British, and it would be unfortunate if anything were to occur under this Bill to throw these people out of employment and render their machinery useless. The question I put is this: Has my right hon. Friend been in communication with the makers of these papers, and does the Amendment which he has promised meet their difficulty, and is sufficient weight to be allowed in the net weight so that people can still use the blue sugar bags of a certain thickness?
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House for To-morrow.—[Sir P. Cunliffe-Lister.]