HC Deb 26 October 1954 vol 531 cc1859-64
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Henry Strauss)

I beg to move, in page 5, line 22, after "six," insert: but subject to the next following subsection This Amendment is preparatory to the Amendment in line 25, at the end, to insert the new subsection (4). I think that it would be convenient for me to address the Committee when we reach the second Amendment, as the Amendment I have moved is merely preparatory and formal.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Higgs

I beg to move, in page 5, line 25, at the end, to insert: Provided such regulations shall not apply to food prepared or sold with a view to consumption on the premises. The purpose of subsection (3) of the Clause, at the end of which it is proposed to insert these words, is to give the Minister power to make regulations for imposing requirements as to. and otherwise regulating, the labelling, marking or advertising of food … The Clause is drawn in very wide terms, and in introducing this Amendment it is not the intention to detract in any way from what I imagine to be the intention of my right hon. Friend in proposing the Clause in that form. If no restriction at all were introduced, the Clause might have some rather surprising results. It is not limited to any particular kind of trade and it would apply to hotels, restaurants and cafés. It is to this that we wish to draw attention.

No doubt it is most desirable that the Minister should have power to require people who sell food in shops to disclose the contents of what they sell, but it might be considered most undesirable by many that one should compel those who sell food for consumption on the premises to publish on the menu or in advertisements on the walls the exact contents, the nature and the method of preparation of every dish which is served.

8.30 p.m.

On Second Reading we had discussion about a dish sometimes referred to as "angels on horseback" There are on the menus of catering establishments many dishes which the public have long come to regard by what might be described as fancy names. To make regulations requiring the details to be published instead of the fancy name would be to alter the way of life which has been accepted from time immemorial. I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary will be prepared to give an assurance that it is not intended to make regulations which would compel all catering establishments to publish recipes instead of menus. No reasonable person would contemplate doing that, but that is not quite the end of the duty of the House of Commons as I see it.

The power to legislate by way of regulation is one which must be given to Ministers in many connections, and I suppose that food and drugs present one of the widest fields in which it is necessary. Nevertheless, we have a duty to see that the power is as narrowly circumscribed as the case made out by the Minister allows. In other words, if it is not intended to make regulations on a special point, it is our duty to see that power to make them is not given. Therefore, it is our intention in the Amendment to avoid giving power to the Minister to make regulations on a subject on which we do not imagine that he intends to make them.

Dr. Hill

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Higgs) made it clear that he was seeking to prevent this power being interpreted as a requirement to reveal the recipes on menus. It was never intended to do that. I realise that my hon. Friend is entitled to have that assurance. We shall seek ways and means of giving expression to it. I will look at the matter and consider whether the position can be secured.

However, my hon. Friend will appreciate that the words which he proposes would go far beyond what he said in his speech. I will examine the position to see whether there can be a specific exclusion on the point he has mentioned. and that point only. I hope, in view of what I have said, that he will withdraw the Amendment.

Captain J. A. L. Duncan (South Angus)

Before my hon. Friend asks leave to withdraw the Amendment, as no doubt he will, I wish to stress the last point that he made. Inevitably, in modern times, we are bound to legislate by regulation. We do not like it, but it is inevitable in the modern state. The corollary of that is that the regulating power should be circumscribed to what is necessary, and only to that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for agreeing to reconsider whether the point can he met on Report. I reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Higgs) said about the fact that the regulating power should be as restricted as is reasonably possible. That is of constitutional importance in these days.

Mr. Higgs

In view of the assurance which has been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. H. Straw

I beg to move, in page 5, line 25, at the end, to insert: (4) In relation to the labelling and marking of food with respect to weight, measure and number, the last foregoing subsection shall apply with the substitution for the reference to the Ministers of a reference to the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade has certain powers to make regulations under the Sale of Food (Weights and Measures) Act, 1926. These powers were extended by the Defence (Sale of Food) Regulations, 1943, which were made under emergency powers. Those emergency powers are being repealed by the Bill, but under the powers that we thus had, we have made the Pre-Packed Food (Weights and Measures: Marking) Order, 1950, and an amending Order in 1951.

Those two Orders are preserved under Clause 32, but the powers to make such Orders are conferred by Clause 5 (3). The effect of the Amendment is to enable the Board of Trade to make labelling regulations concerning the weight, measure and number of articles of food. The Board of Trade is, as hon. Members will realise, the Government Department concerned with weights and measures legislation.

Mr. G. Darling

The Opposition are, of course, not opposing the Amendment, for it is very necessary, but it is also necessary to point to the confusion into which we are getting about consumer protection services.

We have the Minister of Agriculture, who is essentially a Minister in charge of production services in his work as Minister of Agriculture, dealing with the Bill as Minister of Food, and he has told us that he is not likely to have a split mind and that he can look after consumer interests as well as producer interests, which, with all due respect to him, I do not believe. Now we have the Board of Trade coming in. The Prime Minister has said that his mind is not made up about where the consumer protection services in the Ministry of Food are ultimately to go. We have not the faintest idea which Minister, when the legislation is put into force, will be primarily responsible for it.

If I might for a moment be allowed to be out of order, I suggest that we ought also to consider whether the time has not come to set up a Ministry to look after consumer interests generally, taking over the consumer interests which the Board of Trade has, the consumer interests of the Ministry of Food and some of the consumer interests of the Ministry of Health. Let us have a body in our Governmental apparatus which will at last look after the interests of the consumer and nothing else.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Willey

We are dealing here with the powers provided for the Minister regarding labelling, and what disturbs me is that, after all, if this job is to be done thoroughly, it is a question of establishment. One of the victims of the Government's move for economy was precisely the division concerned with labelling, and, in view of the importance of this Clause and of the powers which, at the moment, are being exercised under Defence Regulations, it was unfortunate that economy should have been made in this field.

It is a pity that the labelling division had to suffer, particularly as this was a field of activity in which there were very close and harmonious relations between the Ministry and the trade, and I am convinced that this sort of job can only be done in that sort of way. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will at least show some repentance about this and will assure the Committee that this matter will be regarded seriously, so that the close liaison which has existed between the Ministry of Food and the food trades will continue and that there will be no endeavour to affect this work by pursuing false ideals. This is one of the most important jobs which the Ministry has done over the past years.

I hope the Minister will reveal the intentions of the Government regarding the labelling of food and drugs by assuring as that, as far as his Department is concerned, there will be no endeavour to weaken this work by further economising at the expense of this establishment. This is an establishment which really fully justifies itself, and if we are to continue with this sort of relationship between the food trades and the Ministry, we shall get what ought to be done without resorting to police activities. This was the sort of work which was very much appreciated, and I feel that there has been some unfortunate lack of confidence in the ending of the labelling division, and that this was an unwise move.

Now the Government have put before us a Clause making permanent the provisions of the Defence Regulations and have assured us that it is the intention of the Government to use these powers in the best way in which they can be used, which is to provide the headquarters establishment with close liaison with the food trades.

Mr. Amory

I know that the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) knows my Department a good deal better than I know it myself, and I can only say that when I come to look into these things I shall certainly remember what he has said on this matter.

Mr. G. Darling

The Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, from our point of view, are quite right in saying that there is already provision for making sure that people do not make misleading statements in labelling, and so on, and that the publicity which they associate with their products is reasonably true. Even though provision to that end may be there, it is perfectly true that people engaged in the food and drugs trades do make misleading statements about the constitution of the goods they sell, the qualities they attach to them and also their effect.

If we are to make this Measure really effective on behalf of the general public there must be better provision for bringing offenders to book. I am not clear what procedure has to be followed when a person offends this Measure, to make him behave as he should behave under the law.

8.45 p.m.

If we are honest in our intentions to protect the consumer we should make sure that the people who offend by falsely labelling their products can be brought quickly to book and that manufacturers and traders will be afraid to make misleading statements because they will know that they can be brought quickly into court or otherwise dealt with to prevent them going on in their dishonest course.

The enforcement of the legislation ought to be reconsidered, and we ought to have in view the second point which I have made, that we should do the job so effectively that people will be afraid. They will know that they cannot get away with the misleading things of which they have so often been guilty in the past.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.