HC Deb 04 July 1962 vol 662 cc585-9

5.42 p.m.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Pre-Packed Food (Weights and Measures: Marking) (Amendment) Regulations 1962 (S.I., 1962, No. 977), dated 9th May, 1962, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th May, be annulled. I say at once that we do not intend to press the Prayer to a Division. It does not call for a great deal of discussion. I am glad that it has come on rather early, not only because I dislike midnight discussions, but because this happy timing will allow the Minister of State, Board of Trade, who replies to the debate, to keep an engagement that we on this side as well as hon. Members opposite welcome—that of meeting a trade delegation from China.

As we understand the Regulations, we approve of them and support them, but our purpose in putting down the Prayer is twofold: first, to ask the hon. Gentleman to explain the Regulations in simple terms which ordinary shoppers and shopkeepers can understand—and I am sure he will do that; and, secondly, to complain about the way that the Regulations are presented. I am equally sure that the hon. Gentleman will be sympathetic with regard to the complaint.

I understand that the Regulations have been introduced to clear up a legal ambiguity to which the Lord Chief Justice has drawn attention, the point being that it was not clear whether the legal validity of the Regulations which the Board of Trade has assumed for them was in line with the Food and Drugs Act, 1955, from which the Regulations derive. I have had difficulty in following the legal arguments, but I am sure that if the Lord Chief Justice is satisfied with the Regulations, we should all be grateful.

The point that we wish to raise is the need to make regulations under the Food and Drugs Act abundantly clear and to explain them to shoppers and shopkeepers in such a way that ordinary people can understand them. These Regulations and the original 1957 Regulations, which they amend, are designed to guarantee that in regard to certain foodstuffs the customer shall get the proper weights and grades for which she pays, and that any trader who tries to defraud his customers by putting false labels on certain packaged foods can be, and should be, prosecuted. These are Regulations for ordinary folk, who should be able to understand them.

In so far as the Regulations are designed for the purpose of protecting customers and consumers, we not only welcome them but. If I am in order in mentioning a point about the 1957 Regulations, we urge the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to carry on the good work and to ensure that the schedules embraced by the Regulations are so comprehensive that they not only cover all packaged foods which are being sold, but can be so worded that packaged foods that may come on to the market will be covered without our having to discuss frequently new amending Regulations.

I should probably be out of order in pursuing that point—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

I am glad to hear the hon. Member observe that he probably would be out of order in pursuing the point further.

Mr. Darling

I do not intend to pursue it further, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.

My point concerns clarification. The Explanatory Note to the Regulations, which is very brief, states that they will come into operation on a certain date and that they provide for the application of certain provisions of the Food and Drugs Act 1955 and the Food and Drugs (Scotland) Act 1956 in relation to proceedings for offences against the Pre-Packed Food (Weights and Measures: Marking) Regulations 1957". It goes on to state that The provisions applied relate to the defence of contravention due to the default of third parties, the defence of warranty and offences in connection with warranties. I defy any layman to understand what that means.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

Or lawyer.

Mr. Darling

I am glad to hear my hon. Friend say that even lawyers cannot understand it.

The point which I emphasise is that when dealing with Regulations of this kind, which are intended for ordinary people and which specify the legal rights of shoppers when they go shopping, if it is impossible to express clearly what the Regulations mean in an Explanatory Note to Parliament, some arrangement should be made to give publicity to these legal rights, so that not only shoppers, but traders also—because the purpose of the Regulations is not only to protect the customer, but to protect reputable traders from unscrupulous competition—can understand their legal rights. I am sure that the Minister of State will agree.

I would be out of order if I went on to mention somehting else which I had in mind—that is, the need for a new Weights and Measures Bill. I therefore conclude these brief observations by expressing the hope that in future when we have Regulations of this kind, we will have either a proper Explanatory Note or, if that cannot be done, publicity will be given to the Regulations throughout the country so that people can understand them.

5.49 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Sir Keith Joseph)

I apologise to the House for the state of my voice. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) has stated the purpose of the Regulations clearly, but, in reply to his question I should like to expand on their purpose. Before doing so, perhaps I may say that I will certainly pass on to my right hon. Friends the points that the hon. Member has legitimately made on the wider issues.

These Regulations deal only with what, as the hon. Gentleman realised, is a very narrow point indeed. The fact is that, under the Food and Drugs Act, the Board of Trade had certain powers only to make Regulations of a certain sort under certain Sections. The Board of Trade exercised these powers in the 1957 Regulations, which are being amended by the Regulations now before the House.

The largest part of the 1957 Regulations—that is, Statutory Instrument 1880 —in fact, deal with the protection of the consumer, but paragraph 5 of the Regulations deals with the protection of the trader, and it so happens that the legal ambiguity which the Regulations now before the House are intended to cure occurred in connection with paragraph (5), which deals with the safeguards for the trader.

The legal ambiguity arises for this reason. Certain defences available to the trader if proceedings are taken against him under the Food and Drugs Act, and certain limitations on the defences available to the trader if proceedings are taken against him, were assumed in the Food and Drugs Act to be available to the trader if proceedings were taken against him under Regulations made under the Food and Drugs Act.

Advisedly, my right hon. Friends concerned with the Food and Drugs Act, and my right hon. Friend who laid Regulations 1880 of 1957 assumed that the particular defences available to the trader, and the limitations and definition of those defences, which are found in Section 113, Section 115 (2) and Section 116 of the Food and Drugs Act, 1955, would also be available and would apply to any proceedings taken against the trader under Regulations made under the Food and Drugs Act. That was the general understanding when the 1957 Regulations were made.

In 1961, the Lord Chief Justice, in an obiter dicta, threw some doubt upon whether, in fact, these Sections and subsections did apply to proceedings taken under the Regulations. There was some inconvenience arising from that, and to clear up this inconvenience and after consultation with a wide range of interested parties, it was decided to introduce amending Regulations, which are those now before us—Statutory Instrument 977 of 1962—to lay down, without any ambiguity, that these three Sections, dealing with the defences and the limitations on the defences available to the trader under these Sections, apply to proceedings taken under Regulations as well as to proceedings taken under the main Act. This is the sole purpose of this Statutory Instrument, which, I think, has been generally welcomed.

It so happened that, since the decision to lay these amending Regulations was made, the Lord Chief Justice, in a later case, has thrown some doubt upon his first obiter dicta. The fact, therefore, that the law is still not finally decided upon this point makes these Regulations the more welcome to the trade. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied by my explanation, and by my assurance that I will pass on his wider comments, and will now withdraw the Prayer against them.

Mr. Darling

In view of the hon. Gentleman's very clear exposition, which is far more clear than the Explanatory Note to the Regulations. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

5.54 p.m.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The Sitting is suspended until seven o'clock.