HC Deb 28 February 1945 vol 408 cc1519-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pym.]

6.13 p.m.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

After the storm comes the calm. After we have wandered round the Curzon Line, I want to draw the attention of the House, and particularly of the Minister of Food, to a matter that is affecting our own people, and after all that is of some importance to the people of this country. I hope the Minister will not take this as a personal attack upon him or upon his Department. They have done a grand piece of work during the six years of war, and I find myself very hesitant to criticise them. Neither am I finding fault with, or levying any criticism upon, the produce which is imported to this country from overseas, whether that produce comes from Canada, the United States of America, whether it is under the Lend-Lease policy, or whether it comes under the heading of an ordinary business transaction. I am not finding fault with that, because so far as my investigations have carried me, I find that produce from overseas is of the correct weight and the correct grading; and the packing is what I would describe as par excellence.

On 17th January I put this Question to the Minister of Food: To ask the Minister of Food, in view of the widespread complaints being received from retailers and the consuming public about short weights experienced by retailers when receiving goods from wholesalers, he will endeavour to stamp out these dishonest practices by detailing inspectors to supervise and check packages and produce at the producing end by calling in local food officers and weights and measures inspectors to assist wholesale enforcement by making it compulsory for all wholesalers to supply retailers with proper invoices without prior request, and by securing the release of paper and other materials to seal packages and so prevent pilfering. On the same day another Question, of a similar character, was put by another hon. Member. The Minister of Food, when he answered the two Questions, 62 and 66, together, said: I would refer my hon. Friends to the reply I gave on 20th December to a similar question by my hon. Friend the Member for East Wolverhampton (Sir G. Mander)."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th January, 1945; Vol. 407, c. 163.] What was the answer to that Question? The Minister of Food said: I regret that I am not able to adopt my hon. Friend's suggestions, but if a retailer will give definite particulars of short weight supplies I will have immediate investigations made. Enforcement Inspectors, including Weights and Measures Inspectors, are already employed on such work.''—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th December, 1944; Vol. 406, c. 1774.] In my judgment, that is asking the retailer who is given short weight by the wholesaler to stoop to the level of a common informer. With that I entirely disagree. I do not think that a retailer who receives short weight should be compelled to report the matter to the Ministry of Food. My job, in the short time at my disposal, is to prove that short weights are supplied to retailers by wholesalers. I have made some investigations. I quote now from the weights investigation sheets. Here are three cases out of the large number of investigations that I have made. On 14th November, 1944, two boxes of apples were supplied by a wholesaler in this country to a retailer. The reputed weight was 42 lbs., but the actual weight was 36 lbs. There is glaring evidence of underweight. Another case relates to a bag of carrots, the reputed weight of which was 56 lbs., but when weighed it proved to contain only 40 lbs.—a difference of 16 lbs. out of 56 lbs. I could go on quoting from these weights investigation sheets. Of 144 packages, or cases, of apples, English grown and served to the markets, the reputed weight should have been 5,594 lbs., but they contained only 5,146 lbs.—a deficiency of 448 lbs. There were 120 packages of tomatoes, which should have contained 1,440 lbs., but which actually contained 1,339 lbs. 9 ozs.—a deficiency of 100 lbs. 7 ozs.

I am submitting this evidence in order that the Minister of Food may make investigations himself from the particular firms, if he so wishes, in order that he may find out whether what I am saying is accurate. These complaints come from many sources in the country, from North and South, from retailers and consumers. As far back as May, 1944, this question was the subject-matter of consideration by the Society of Inspectors of Weights and Measures. I quote an extract from the "Municipal Review," dated May, 1944, page 106. This is the conclusion they came to after very exhaustive and searching investigation: The Executive Council of this Association have recently given careful consideration to the reports relating to the sales of goods in wholesale markets, particularly fruit and vegetables, from which it would appear that the giving of short weight or measure is fairly widespread. Evidence has been collected showing that these reports have been fully substantiated. The council desire to call the attention of your Association to the Preamble of the Sales of Food (Weights and Measures) Act, 1926—'An Act to provide for the better protection of the public in relation to the sale of food, including agricultural and horticultural produce,' and to the fact that, by Section 14, the Act was only made applicable in so far as it applies to pre-packed articles of food in retail dealings."' Then it goes on to say: The executive council have received a number of representations from various bodies. It is considered that the shopkeeper or the retailer is fully entitled to receive correct weight or measure just as much as the purchasing public, and it is evident that, where short weight or measure is received by the shopkeeper, it must, of necessity, be passed on to the public, either in the form of overcharging or short weight. We have this position, which is an anomaly, under the existing legislation. We have the Sales of Food (Weights and Measures) Act, 1926, applying to the retailer, but that same Act does not apply to the wholesaler at the start. In my judgment, that is wrong. I am fully aware that, when the Bill was presented to the House in 1926, this House put in a Clause to protect the retailer, but, in another place, it was removed, and now we have the position that the wholesaler, if he is dishonest and unscrupulous, can take advantage of the retailer.

There is one point I want to make in connection with legislation. I know that the Minister will say that, in the war-time situation, it is impossible to introduce new legislation or regulations to cover the points that I am making. He will tell me that he has certain powers, but not the staff to enforce those powers. I submit that there are ways and means, if not of eliminating these dishonest practices, at least of bringing them down to the lowest possible minimum. I shall also be told that the weather, lack of packing machinery, labour difficulties and loss in transit come into the problem, but I do not think that these reasons, which may be advanced by the Ministry of Food, are sufficiently strong to condone dishonest practices. They ought not to be tolerated for any length of time in this country. As soon as ever it is discovered that traders are taking advantage of a war situation, that ought not to be tolerated by the Department of Government responsible for the enforcement of the regulations. I appreciate the difficulties. I see them almost every day of my life. One of the amazing things to me, from the complaints that have been made, is that not a solitary person who has experienced short weight has made any complaint about the price. They all say: "We are prepared to pay the price fixed by the Government provided we can get the weight for the price we pay." That is an honest way of dealing with the business.

If the Department interested itself in this business, I am confident that these dishonest practices would cease. Already, since this Question has been 01, the Order Paper, I am informed that there has been a considerable improvement. I can tell the Minister of my own experience in Covent Garden this morning when I saw 10 lb. of soil taken from a bag of carrots. I appeal to the Minister to get his Ministry on the job and, in ways and means best known to himself and to his Department, try to put an end to this evil, which is growing so much in the country.

6.27 p.m.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

I wish to support my hon. Friend in his representations to the Minister of Food. I have been interested by complaints made by my constituents. At first I was disinclined to believe the statements, so I started to make inquiries. I have paid several visits to Covent Garden in recent months. One has found that the short weight difficulty really amounts to a scandal. What is wrong with the Ministry of Food is that there are too few inspectors. The inspectors of weights and measures should have greater powers, and divisional inspectors should be appointed to go into the wholesale markets. The whole organisation is only in its infancy from the point of view of marketing produce, and it seems to be weighted in one particular direction, that of the wholesaler as against the retailer, to whom ultimately the consumer looks for proper value in regard to the goods he is purchasing. This morning I saw short weight being delivered. Bag after bag of potatoes and carrots were put on the weighing machine and, time and time again, the retailer was really being made to pay for the land of Great Britain. It is unfair that the retailer should be mulcted into paying a very high price for something of the full weight of which he has been deprived, and have to pass it on to the consumer. Some of us are keeping a very close eye on this matter and the Minister ought to see whether he cannot reorganise his Department and do something to remove this injustice.

6.29 p.m.

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I do not contemplate speaking for more than two minutes. We are anxious to hear what the Minister has to say and I do not want to take anything from his time. I only intervene because I have had correspondence on the subject with his Department and I want to reinforce what my hon. Friend has said. There is an enormous amount of petty pilfering going on all over the country and very deep feeling is being aroused in many places among small people who have neither the time nor the means to enable them to protect themselves. What the right hon. and gallant Gentleman said in his letter to me—and it is true—was that if a loan received short weight from his wholesaler he could sue in the county court or the High Court for the value of what had been bought and was not delivered, and for the overpayment that he had made. Of course he can, but the amount in each individual case is so small that it is not worth his while to go to court each specific time, with all the risks and costs of litigation. The wholesaler knows that perfectly well. It was for just that reason that for a shopkeeper to give short weight to a member of the public was made an offence which could be dealt with in the criminal courts. All the matters that my right hon. Friend stated to be difficulties in the way of removing the anomaly are no difficulties at all. If there is a good explanation for the short weight, that will be a good defence to any proceedings. It is not a reason for saying that if a retailer gives short weight because of lack of labour or any other reason he shall be guilty of a criminal offence but the wholesaler shall only be answerable in the civil courts. That is not equitable.

Mr. Burke (Burnley)

Will the Minister deal with the point I raised when he told me that the retailer has his remedy—if he will report the matter, the right hon. Gentleman will take action? It is rather difficult for the retailer to do that in these days, because he is tied to a certain man and his supplies will be cut off.

6.32 p.m.

The Minister of Food (Colonel Llewellin)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend who raised this topic, because there is a certain amount of misunderstanding about it. It is true that the Weights and Measures Act which was passed by this House before the War does not cover wholesale transactions. I should be out of Order if I were to discuss the amendment of that legislation on the Adjournment of the House, although my hon. Friend went a certain way in that regard. At any rate, for war time, under our Maximum Prices Orders, there is a remedy in the criminal courts as well as in the civil courts. We lay down maximum prices in our different fruit and vegetable orders for each class of controlled produce—not for everything; we do not do it for things like asparagus, we do it for things in ordinary demand—and if a person sells any of the articles which come under those Maximum Prices Orders, and the weight given is so short that the Order is not complied with, then that is an offence for which he can be prosecuted. That is the position.

We provide in each of these prices quite a considerable margin of tolerance. Take a thing like a cauliflower, of which the maximum retail selling price is 6d. per lb. That works out at 56s. per hundredweight. The maximum buying price is 26s. 3d. per hundredweight for cauliflowers untrimmed, 34s. 3d. for cauliflowers trimmed. Hon. Members will see that that gives the retailer a margin of 29s. 9d. per hundredweight for the untrimmed cauliflowers and 21s 9d. for the trimmed cauliflowers. In all these maximum Prices Orders we allow a large margin between the wholesaler and the retailer so that it can cover a degree of wastage.

Then there is excessive wastage that is not covered by the Maximum Prices Orders. Let us see for one moment where the vegetables and fruit come from. My hon. Friend who opened this discussion said he had no complaint about anything we were bringing in from abroad, so that we are, therefore, dealing entirely with home produce. In the case of fruit and vegetables they come from one of two sources, either direct from the producer—and a considerable number of transactions are from the market garden, allotment, or farm, to the retailer, without going through a market—or from the wholesaler. Quite frankly, I cannot have a man on every farm or on every wholesaler's premises. I have not enough inspectors to do that, and if I were to do it I should be setting up a kind of Gestapo, which neither we nor the British public want to see. Therefore, we have to rely on a certain number of spot inspections. The other difficulty is this: There is no offence until a sale has taken place. If a man packs a box of apples at a market garden and says there are 56 lbs. when, in fact, there are only 50, he is committing no offence until the actual sale takes place.

One of the difficulties, which is serious, and with which I am much concerned, is that perhaps owing to war-time shortages of supply there is far too much pilferage in transit at the present moment. It is, quite honestly, getting serious. That is not the fault of the fellow who packs up the goods on the farm. The package leaves the farm and is accepted by the retailer. Again, I have not sufficient staff to inspect every package that comes to retailers, but we have two inspectors at Covent Garden market, who can be approached, and there are similar inspectors in other parts of the country. I am not condoning any breaches of the law, because it is an offence to give short weight. But I do not want to see people prosecuted just because there is a little short weight now and again. It happens from time to time, but I do not believe in that kind of enforcement. If, however, the offender is persistent I am as anxious as anyone in this House that he should be brought to book. All I am asking—and I think I am justified in asking it—is that retailers should not condone the offence either. They circulate hon. Members and myself, and they are justified in doing so, but I ask them to give a little help, too. I do not look upon that as being the action of a common informer in the least; I look upon it as being the duty of every citizen to help to see that the law is enforced.

Dr. Morgan

That may ruin his business.

Mr. Collindridge (Barnsley)

What if the retailer's supplies are cut off as a consequence of his making a complaint?

Colonel Llewellin

If we found that the retailer was not getting his supplies, we should try to arrange for another wholesaler to supply him, but we cannot enforce this control without a vast increase of inspectors unless we get the help of the retailers in this way. I ask for their help I appeal to them, if they want to help themselves, to help us to enforce the law. If the hon. Member will give me the source of the figures he read out I will have them investigated and see that action is taken. May I also add that package materials are extremely short. I should like to see them increased but we get the best we can out of the small supplies available.

Mr. T. Brown

Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman give an assurance that, in the event of a retailer making a report about short weight, he will not have his supplies cut off by the wholesaler and, if they are, that he will have his business restored through some other wholesaler?

Colonel Llewellin

I cannot give an assurance that any one wholesaler will supply the retailer, but we will do our best to see that he gets his supplies from somewere else.

Adjourned accordingly at Nineteen Minutes before Seven o'Clock.