§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.35 p.m.
§ The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. F. J. Erroll)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I feel sure that the House will welcome the introduction of modern legislation on weights and measures. The House will recall that a Weights and Measures Bill completed its passage in another place in February, 1961, but it was not practicable for this House to find time to complete its consideration that Session.
This Bill is broadly the same in outline and in substance as the Weights and Measures (No. 2) Bill which was then introduced into the House in July, 1961. I should like to say straight away that consideration of the earlier Bill in another place resulted in many improvements in the Committee stage there and I should like to place on record my appreciation of those who did so much to improve the Bill.
The subject of the Bill is technical, and its details are necessarily complicated, but in its application it is right down to earth. It seeks to bring together and modernise a great mass of out-of-date legislation and to give the consumer much better protection than present law provides. It concerns any of us who buy or sell anything—and even those who get their shopping done for them. This is a Bill which has something for everyone.
Before I turn to the details of the Bill, I think that it is worth considering what we should be trying to achieve by legislation of this kind. Weights and measures law is designed to protect the consumer and to this end it has, I suggest, three main functions.
First, it must define clearly the units of weights and measures which may be used in trade, so that buyers and sellers use a common language of quantity. As the Molony Committee said in its recent report:A uniform system of units of weights and measures, nationally used and enforced, is plainly part of the basic vocabulary of consumer protection.34 With that view I fully agree.
Secondly, it must ensure that weighing and measuring equipment used for trade is accurate and that the risk of fraud is minimised. That is most important. Finally, it should ensure that the consumer is given useful and accurate information about the quantity of goods that he is thinking of buying.
In drafting the Bill, we have tried to keep these aims clearly in view. At the same time, we have attempted to create order from a chaotic mass of existing local and national legislation. We have tried to provide legislation suitable for modern as well as traditional methods of selling—suitable for the supermarket as well as the village store; and we have tried to ensure that the Bill will give us adequate powers to enable the requirements to be adjusted as necessary to meet future developments in trading methods.
I should like to emphasise that the Bill concerns itself only with weights and measures. It cannot cover, and is not intended to cover, other aspects of consumer protection such as those which the Molony Committee has considered. The recommendations of that Committee include not only amendment of the hire-purchase legislation, but also of the Merchandise Marks Acts and the Sale of Goods Act, 1893. The recommendations also cover the labelling of textiles and clothing, the definition of trade terms, standards for consumer goods, safety, misleading descriptions in advertisements, seals of approval and a host of other subjects.
The Government are carefully considering all these recommendations. Meanwhile, they have already announced their acceptance of the Report's central recommendation, namely, that a Consumer Council should be set up to represent and protect the interests of the consumer. I am advised that legislation will not be necessary for this, and we intend to go ahead with its establishment as soon as possible. I thought that it might be convenient at the beginning of this debate to inform the House of this important matter.
The Council will no doubt take a close interest in weights and measures problems, along with other questions affecting the welfare of the consumer. The present Bill gives the Government the powers 35 they are likely to need to give effect to any recommendation on weights and measures that they may receive from this source.
I should like also at this point to acknowledge the importance of the original spadework done in this difficult field by the Committee which was set up under the late Sir Edward Hodgson. Although the Bill does not follow the Committee's recommendations on every point, I think that it broadly reflects the spirit of most of them and, in many cases, follows them closely in detail.
The Government have also had a great deal of advice, particularly from bodies concerned with administering weights and measures law, and interested parties of all sorts who had special problems or general suggestions. All this information and advice has been of great help in preparing the Bill.
Perhaps I may now turn to the structure of the Bill itself——
§ Mr. A. E. Oram (East Ham, South)
In view of what the right hon. Gentleman says about the Molony Committee—the fact that, as I understood him, it will not be necessary to introduce a Bill to set up the Consumer Council—can he tell us what the Government's intentions are about a debate in the House on the Committee's Report generally? I asked this question of the Leader of the House. I understood that a discussion of that kind would be relevant to the consumer protection Bill which we were anticipating at that time.
§ Mr. Erroll
I appreciate that point, but I should have thought that a general debate on some convenient occasion could be discussed through the usual channels, or could be the subject of a private Member's Motion on a private Members' day.
§ Mr. Francis Noel-Baker (Swindon)
Does the Minister know when he will be able to announce the setting up of the Consumer Council; and whether he will make another statement about its composition before he does so?
§ Mr. Erroll
I am pressing on with this matter as rapidly as possible. I should not like to tie myself to a specific date. My intention would be to make an announcement in the ordinary way, giving 36 details of the terms of reference and, if possible, the name of the chairman of the Council——
§ Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
As I understand that the Molony Report will be discussed in another place in a day or two, would it not be a good idea to discuss it here, and so discuss the terms of reference of the Consumer Council before the right hon. Gentleman proceeds to appoint it?
§ Mr. Erroll
I am aware that consumer protection is to be discussed in another place. If it is the desire of the House to have a debate on consumer protection, that is probably a matter that can best be handled through the usual channels——
§ Mrs. Harriet Slater (Stoke-on-Trent, North) rose——
§ Mr. Erroll
I have already given way three times in a very few minutes, so perhaps I might be allowed to proceed with the opening speech on this important Measure.
I invite the House now to look at the structure of the Bill itself. Hon. Members will see that it is divided into six parts. The first part starts from scratch, and defines the basic units of weights and measures—the pound, the yard, the kilogramme and the metre—from which all the others are derived. The new definitions proposed for the yard and the pound are of fundamental importance, and I therefore hope that the House will bear with me for a moment or two while I try to explain this rather technical and difficult matter.
Up to the present, the yard and the pound have been defined as the length and the mass respectively of two physical objects made more than a century ago and called the Imperial Standards. These are, however, subject to minute changes over the years, and the values of the yard and the pound have, therefore, also altered. The Bill now defines the yard and the pound by reference to the metre and the kilogramme, thus enabling a constant mathematical relationship between imperial and metric units.
In the case of the yard, there will be a constant absolute value, too—and the phrase "absolute value" has a special 37 meaning in this connection—because, by international agreement the metre has, in turn, been defined by reference to the wavelength of Krypton-86 light which, I am assured, is something that does not change at all. The kilogramme, however, is still defined by reference to a piece of metal known as the international kilogramme. This standard is, I am glad to say, of more recent construction than that for the pound—
§ Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)
At the moment, for the benefit of local authorities, copies of the standard yard are kept in varous parts of Great Britain. Can the Minister assure us that copies of the new standard of Krypton light wavelength will also be kept in various parts of the country?
§ Mr. Erroll
A later part of the Bill deals with this important matter.
I should not like the House to be alarmed by the prospect of these changes in the yard and the pound which will result if the Bill is passed. I am told that what will happen is that the yard will be one ten-thousandth of an inch longer and the pound one-thousandth of a grain lighter. These changes are not, I am happy to say, of significance to most of us. Trade and industry will not, in general, be affected, but the more exact definition of the yard will help those engaged in such precision engineering as the manufacture of fine gauges.
I should add that the new definition of the yard and the pound in terms of metric units had been introduced following consultation with Commonwealth countries and the United States of America. Canada and Australia and the United States have adopted precisely the same definitions as we have in this Bill, and I understand that other Commonwealth countries are thinking of doing the same.
From these basic definitions, all others follow. The Bill maintains the use of measurements which are to be lawful, and there are provisions dealing with the maintenance of the physical standards which represent the basic units of measurements.
Finally, and this is an important provision, Part I of the Bill sets up a Commission on Units and Standards of Measurement. The Commission will advise the Government of any changes 38 needed in the definition by law of standard units of measurement to keep abreast of technical developments. If, in the future, legal definitions of, for example, units of time, heat, temperature, barometric pressure, luminosity, are needed the Commission will be able to advise about those as well. The Commission will thus have a specialised and very technical rôle, and will, accordingly, be composed of experts in this field.
I know that there is much interest in the House and elsewhere in the question of whether or not Britain will go metric. I should like to make it clear that this Bill does nothing to bring this change about. Metric units of measurement will continue to be lawful, as at present, so that it is open to any firm or industry to turn to the metric system if it so wishes. But the Bill does nothing to require the compulsory abandonment of the imperial system in favour of a metric system, nor does it give the Government powers to bring this change about in future. I am sure that the House will agree that if at any time such a major step as the compulsory adoption of the metric system were contemplated it would be right to seek fresh legislation.
Part II of the Bill is calledWeighing and Measuring for Trade",and, with its related Schedules, deals with units and weighing or measuring equipment which are lawful for use for trade. In prescribing the units which may be used for trade, we have done away with the rod, pole or perch. I do not think that it ever had many friends.
After five years the bushel, peck and pennyweight will also disappear, and the Board of Trade is empowered—again after five years—to ban the apothecaries system which, as hon. Members know, covers such things as the scruple and the drachm. So, in all, the Bill provides for some much-needed simplification in the Imperial system of measurement. Incidentally, "drachm" is spelt "d-r-a-c-h-m" and the "ch" is silent, as in Altrincham.
§ Mr. Rankin
When the right hon. Gentleman says that the Bill does away with the rod, pole or perch, why does it leave the ell? Is the Minister not aware that this measure has become so ancient that everyone has forgotten what it is all about?
§ Mr. Erroll
Well, there are two "ls" in my name, but this is a point with which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will deal when he winds up the debate.
It is no good defining a pound if the scales are inaccurate, and Part II of the Bill requires Board of Trade approval of types of weighing and measuring equipment to be used for trade, and the checking for accuracy of such equipment by local inspectors when it is installed. Part III deals with public weighing and measuring equipment and in this part the Bill consolidates a variety of laws governing the provision by local authorities of public weighbridges.
So far, the Bill has defined the units and prescribed the physical weights and measures which may be used for trade. It has also given the Government power to control the equipment used for weighing and now it can start to provide how they are to be used in every-day trade. This is where the Bill becomes the direct interest of the shopper and I hope that hon. Members will agree that it contains some significant improvements over present law.
The requirements in Part IV and in the related Schedules—Schedules 4 to 8—illustrate the way in which we have built on existing law and practice as the basis for new legislation with wider scope. These provisions are all concerned to provide the shopper in some way with accurate information on the quantity—and I emphasise "quantity"—of goods which he is buying and, thus, to enable him to exercise his own judgment more effectively.
Also, for the first time, there is a general protection for the consumer against short weight or measure in goods of all kinds. The lack of such a general provision in national legislation is an example of the incomplete protection given by today's patchwork law. The commodity Schedules which Part IV brings into effect contain detailed requirements applying to a wide range of goods far beyond those controlled under present law. There are, it is true, a good many commodities which our own and previous generations have thought worth legislating about. Our grandfathers laid down rules for coal and bread, our fathers for groceries, meat and milk, and, 40 almost in our own day, 1944, provision has been made for most prepacked foods.
The Bill contains, with some modifications, the requirements for commodities already more or less covered by present law; thus it covers all solid fuel, and not simply coal, and it adds new requirements for certain kinds of food and drink—fish, poultry, cheese, beer and spirits, fresh fruit and vegetables.
§ Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)
Will the right hon. Gentleman deal with the question of solid fuel in the context of the present regulations which necessitate scales being carried on coal wagons? Will he deal with that along with the new regulations in the Bill which impose a condition that the buyer must bear the cost of any coal weighing that is done?
§ Mr. Erroll
I do not think that I could deal with that in a Second Reading speech, because it is a matter of some complexity and would require my going into it in great detail. I am fully aware of the point, but I think that a satisfactory compromise has been worked out. However, we will be able to go into it in detail in Committee when we come to the Clauses dealing with the subject.
Bearing in mind the methods of selling and the fact that they have been and are changing—along with the methods of distributing goods—and that they are likely to change even more in the future, the Bill breaks new ground by extending consumer protection to a wide range of goods in everyday use, for example, cosmetics, soap and detergents, polishes, petrol, oil and anti-freeze, fertilisers and seeds and paint. I shudder every time I look at the Schedules and see how complex they appear—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—but this arises from the variety of methods of selling different commodities.
To require all goods to be sold in one particular manner would certainly simplify the Bill. But it would not result in greater efficiency for the producers or advantage to the consumer. So the requirements in the Schedules are varied to suit particular commodities and demonstrate the wide range and wide commercial retail transactions involved.
Some goods are required to be sold by weight, when not prepacked—for 41 example, meat, some groceries, some fruit and vegetables and coal. Others must be sold by capacity, for example, paint, or by weight or volume, for example, sand, or by length, for example, ribbon and elastic.
I now turn to one of the most important developments of the last few years—prepacking. When goods are prepacked the general scheme of the Schedules is to provide that the net weight or other appropriate measure of the contents shall be marked on the container. These "prepacked" goods—that is, goods made up for retail sale in any sort of container, box, tin, wrapper, and so on—have set us quite a problem. They include a vast and growing range of products. In the supermarket today, not only sardines, ketchup and beer come in cans or bottles, but meat, fertiliser, nails and flower bulbs are also prepacked ready for the customer to take off the shelf.
We are in the middle of a revolution in selling and buying, which will greatly benefit the consumer. While right hon. and hon. Members opposite, whose shopping excursions are confined to Fortnum and Mason's and Cartier's, may not recognise the extent of this revolution, my right hon. and hon. Friends are fully aware of the great developments that are taking place in terms of supermarkets and self-service shopping. We must, therefore, make sure that the customer knows how much is packaging and how much is product—whether it is at the co-op or at one of the shops of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Proudfoot)—and that he gets what he thinks he is paying for. The Bill goes a long way to meet this need and to take some of the guesswork out of shopping.
To take an obvious example to show the way in which we are working in this field the housewife buying detergent will no longer have to make a desperate guess about the respective contents of, say, the giant package, the family size, the economy size or the jumbo package. She will simply be able to read on each how much their contents weigh. It is as important that she should know that Brand X costs 1s. 6d. for so many ounces as that it washes snowier. Only when she knows how much she is paying per ounce can she decide whether snowiness is worth it.
42 To serve any useful purpose to the shopper the weight required to be marked on the packet must obviously be the weight when the goods are sold over the counter, and not when they are packed. In most cases the manufacturer and packers will be able to estimate possible losses of weight in transit or storage and make due allowance for them. The Bill provides defences and safeguards for manufacturers and traders which are designed, among other things, to protect the honest packer where abnormal conditions have upset his honourable calculations.
However, there are inevitably some goods within the scope of the Bill which are subject to heavy and unpredictable losses of weight in transit and storage. Sausages, some cheeses and soft fruit are obvious examples. Perhaps I might take one example a little further, namely, strawberries, which are particularly difficult to cover. It would be difficult for any packer to take account of all the possible variations in climatic and other conditions affecting the weight of his strawberries on their way to market and to mark the punnets with the weight in the confidence that they would state the weight correctly on the day when the strawberries are actually sold.
The defences and safeguards for traders in the Bill could not be widened to deal with this problem without widening them far too much for the generality of goods. Nor would it be reasonable to place the strawberry packer in a position where, owing to the vagaries of our climate, he found himself liable to criminal prosecution.
Therefore, what the Bill does is to provide that such goods, if packed in light containers, need not be marked with their net weight, but that their weight must be "made known"—that is a special phrase—to the customer by the retailer. This serves to illustrate that the Bill recognises the need for reasonable and practical requirements for sellers as well as the need to protect consumers.
For a limited range of basic foods, the Bill goes still further to ensure that the customer knows what he is getting by requiring that these foods should be sold or made up only in specified fixed quantities. Such requirements already exist for certain groceries and other 43 goods and the Bill repeats these. We have added certain other foods, such as jam, salt and breakfast flakes. This will help the customer to tell at a glance the difference between, say a 1-lb. jar and a 2-lb. jar and he or she will not have to struggle with varying and strange sizes in between.
I now come to a matter of some consequence to the House as well as to the public at large. In "pubs" and bars and wherever sold for consumption on the premises, whisky, gin, rum and vodka will be required for the first time to be sold in certain specified measures only or multiples of these. The specified measures are one-fourth, one-fifth and one-sixth of a gill, which itself is one-quarter of a pint. The seller will be required to display a notice clearly informing the customer which measure he is using.
While I would not claim that the size of a double Scotch has now been fixed to the satisfaction of all hon. Members, at least in future they will know how much they are getting and can order accordingly. For those who do not already know it, the measure in Scotland is bigger than the measure in the North-East Coast, which, in turn, is bigger than the measure normally used in London and the South. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] I am asked why that is. It is simply the custom which has grown up over the years and it seemed wise to make it possible for that custom to continue in view of local preferences. Londoners should, however, beware when they order a "double" in Scotland.
I would only add that these detailed requirements to which I have been referring will not come into operation until two years after the entry into force of the Act and three years in the case of spirits. Manufacturers and traders will thus be given ample time to adapt their trading methods to the new requirements. These requirements are, I consider, appropriate in today's conditions. For the future, however, Part IV of the Bill also gives power in Clause 21 for the Board of Trade to amend the detailed requirements of the commodity schedules and to extend them or similar requirements to other goods. These powers will be exercised by order sub- 44 ject to affirmative Resolution of both Houses of Parliament. This will enable consumer protection to be kept abreast of the new developments in materials, methods of packaging, methods of selling and the buying habits of the public.
Part V of the Bill is concerned with the administration of these provisions. Enforcement of weights and measures will continue to be a matter for local authorities, as it traditionally has been in the past. I am sure that hon. Members will agree with me in paying tribute to the efficient way in which local authorities and their inspectors have carried out their responsibilities in this direction in the past. Nevertheless, the Bill provides for changes in the present distribution of the weights and measures administration among local authorities in the light of changes in population since the end of the last century.
I have come to the end of my description of the various parts of the Bill. Hon. Members may recollect the severity of the weights and measures law applied to the "Merchant of Venice" in Act IV, Scene 1, where Portia says to the Merchant:… if thou tak'st more,Or less, than a just pound,—be it but so muchAs makes it light, or heavy, in the substance.Or the division of the twentieth partOf one poor scruple,—nay, if the scale do turnBut in the estimation of a hair,—Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.We have come a long way since then. The Bill covers a wide field and there are, no doubt, many points which the House will wish to discuss, but I commend it as a Bill which strikes a fair balance, providing good protection for the consumer without being unreasonable for manufacturers and traders. I ask that it be given a Second Reading.
§ 4.7 p.m.
§ Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
We must begin by congratulating the President of the Board of Trade for succeeding, where all his predecessors have failed during the last ten years in at last bringing to this House the new Weights and Measures Bill. I do not know whether this is due to the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has more persuasive powers with the Cabinet then his predecessors had, or whether this is the build-up of the new image of the Tory Party for the General Election.
45 The right hon. Gentleman paid tribute to the Hodgson Committee, which we on this side—of course, rather belatedly—support. He left out, however, one part of the Hodgson Committee's recommendations which is germane to today's debate, because the Committee urged in 1951 that immediate action was necessary and asked for legislation to be introduced within a year. Had that proposal been accepted, this legislation would have been introduced ten years ago. We have waited long and not altogether hopefully. We have had many fine promises and two false starts. Now, at last, we see the promised Bill, which we welcome, but with critical misgivings.
Even the President of the Board of Trade did not sound altogether happy about some of the Bill's proposals, although he and his predecessors have had ten years to produce an almost perfect Bill which would have gone through the House, if it had been better drafted, and on to the Statute Book very quickly. We must, however, spend some time in Committee on improving the Bill.
We know some of the reasons for the delay. I was glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that when the Consumer Council is set up he will look to that Council to make recommendations and suggestions for improving the rules that we lay down in the Bill and particularly suggestions for the regulations provided for in Clause 21. I am not altogether happy about this proposal, however—that was why we questioned the right hon. Gentleman—until we know the terms of reference of the Consumer Council.
It is a very big field that we are covering in this one Bill. We are laying down the rules for weights and measures for literally thousands and millions of trading transactions in the course of a year. We know that many of them are repetitions of previous transactions, but we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of shopkeepers and traders and their 50 million customers. This is a tremendously vast field, and there are omissions and confusions in the Bill.
I would have thought that the best way to have dealt with this matter, and to have made sure that proper regulations would come along in the future, and also to relieve the right hon. Gentleman's hard- 46 worked officers of those protracted negotiations which they have had to have with scores of trade associations, would have been to have set up an advisory council by this Bill to deal with weights and measures matters alone.
I will not pursue that matter because the right hon. Gentleman has suggested that the Consumer Council, when it is set up, might deal with this matter, and it is something which I think we may discuss again in that context, but I would make again this plea: I hope that he will not set up the Council till we have had an opportunity in the House of discussing, in a debate, perhaps, on the Molony Report, what the terms of reference and constitution of the Council and the duties of the Council might be.
As I say, if the Council is to be merely an advisory body in a general kind of way, dealing with the whole field of consumer trade, I question very much whether it will be an adequate body to give the rgiht hon. Gentleman the advice which, I think, he needs for the improvement of the Schedules, for the regulations, and so on, in this one field of weights and measures.
Because of the shortcomings in the Bill, I fear that we shall be involved for some time in Committee, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall not face this task, which he has imposed on us by not producing a perfect Bill, and having to put forward criticisms and Amendments in Committee, in any partisan spirit. We want the Bill. We want it to be a better Bill than it is, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman, on behalf of this side of the House, that we shall do all we can to make it the kind of Bill that we should have liked to have had.
§ Mr. Darling
I will not cover again the ground of the good parts of the Bill. I want the right hon. Gentleman to understand that, if I ignore them, it is not because I want to make a partisan speech, but because I want to make a short speech, so we will take it as read, I hope, that there are good parts of the Bill, even though I do not mention them.
47 However, I should like to praise Clause 1 and the first two Schedules dealing with the new units, not only because I understand them, apart from the technicalities, but because these are parts of the Bill which are very well written. I can understand them, apart from the technicalities. This is a part of the Bill which has been needed, of course, for a long time.
It raises some historical points which rather intrigue me, and I hope that at some appropriate point one or the other of the two erudite Parliamentary Secretaries will tell us who Mr. Baily was and why we shall refer to the standard yardstick as Mr. Baily's yard and to the standard 1 lb. weight as Mr. Baily's pound.
Now let me jump to Clause 21 and the Fourth to Eighth Schedules, because from the shoppers' point of view these are the most important parts of the Bill, and, in my view, the most disappointing. Here, I would say, was an opportunity to lay down for years ahead standards rules, in regard to weights and measures, for conducting trade in the shops. I think that the Government have, to some extent, wasted the opportunity. They have left us with some confusing and, in some cases, quite contradictory rules.
Let us take the Fourth Schedule, for instance, which, I think, will be the most controversial of the lot. I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, in these days of packaged goods and automatic weighing and self-service stores, and so on, we have got to provide rules for a new form of trading. The new form of trading, it seems to me, gives us an opportunity to lay down certain basic principles. The right hon. Gentleman himself has mentioned some of them, that packaged goods should be sold by weight or quantity, and that the weight or quantity should be clearly marked on the package; but, of course, we say that it should be net weight and net quantity, and that the customer should not, if the goods are packaged within a wrapper, have to pay for the wrapping; and that the weights or quantities used, and marked on the packages, should be weights and quantities in common use which ordinary people understand, ½lbs, ¼lbs., 1lbs., and so on, and not 5¾oz. 48 and 13½oz. which we get today on so many packages; and that we should have fluids marked in pints and gills and not in fluid ounces.
The Bill does not provide for this in every case. It is true that there are technical difficulties in applying this principle, that the net weight should be clearly marked on the packet, or that the quantity should be clearly marked on the container, in weights and measures we cam understand. It is true that there may be difficulties in applying this basic rule to all commodities, and I think we should need to make some exceptions to the rules, with proper safeguards; but what the Bill does, in parts of Clause 4, it seems to me, is to stress the exceptions and to ignore the rules.
Let us take meat, for instance, which the right hon. Gentleman himself mentioned. In the ordinary family butcher's shop, where the butcher is to cut the joint and weigh it in front of the customer, he has got to give the net weight: quite properly. If he was to put the paper on the scales, into the weight, he would be committing an offence. But if the joint is sold ready cut in a wrapper in a self-service store it need not be sold by net weight. As I read the Bill, the wrapper can be included in the weight——
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. David Price) indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Darling
Yes, the weight includes that of the wrapper.
This part is not altogether clear, and of the Parliamentary Secretary tells me I am wrong I am very pleased to know I am wrong, but I earn assure him that quite a number of trading interests are under the impression that in self-service stores, where the meat has been prepacked and exposed for sale, it can be sold gross weight and not net weight. If I am wrong about that I am very glad.
But there is another point, a very small one, but it indicates some of the contradictory features of the Bill. Take the butcher who bones a joint before delivery and does not send the bones along with the meat. He has to indicate on a piece of paper what the weight of the meat was before he boned it, but this requirement does not apply to fishmongers or to 49 people who bone poultry, if poultry do get boned. They are exempted from this rule. While still talking about fish, this is a point we cannot understand, that a wholesaler, in spite of the Hodgson Committee's recommendations, is not required to sell the fish to the retailer by net weight.
Then there is bread I am hurrying over many of the other contradictions and confusions in the Schedule. I personally am not very happy about our retaining the wartime rule that a 1 lb. loaf should weigh 14 oz. But let that go. We can come back to it in Committee. In parenthesis, let me say that I am very glad indeed that the right hon. Gentleman has found a way round that very difficult problem of how to weigh the average loaf. The point I really want to make is that there is still confusion even in this part about bread. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary, when he replies to the debate, and now that, I assume, he does some family shopping himself——
§ Mr. Darling
—to tell us the difference between a fruit loaf and a bun loaf. Under the Bill one will be sold under a marked weight and the other excluded from the provision. This kind of thing will cause confusion in the bakery trade and certainly among the customers.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to liquids. I will start with beer, which he omitted. I am glad that canned beer will have to be sold by quantity, by capacity. It will have to be marked on the can. But there is no indication that the quantity is to be one that ordinary drinkers understand—half-pint, pint, or whatever it may be. All the brewer needs to do is to stamp on the can so many "fluid ounces", which means nothing to ordinary beer drinkers, and he can get away still with the further misleading labelling that will go on the can to the effect that it is a "two glass" size when one can get only a glass and a half out of it or "two drink" size when the ordinary drinker can take it as one drink. I hope that these points will be cleared up in Committee.
I am sorry that the right hon. gentleman did not seize this opportunity to do something which ought to have been 50 done years ago, and make the brewers indicate the gravity of the beer on the container—the bottle, can, or whatever it is. As the right hon. gentleman may know, this is something for which the working men's clubs have been asking for about twenty-five years, and, as a stalwart member of the Working Men's Club and Institute movement, I shall see that its voice is raised in Committee.
I disagree with the right hon. gentleman that we need three different standards for spirits. Although he joked about the people who dived do the south of England having to be careful about the drinks they take in Scotland, I should have thought that the people who live in the south of England and have been deceived for so long by the quantities of small whiskies that they buy ought not to have that deception written into our law and made legal.
I should have said that for the sale of spirits we need a standard measurement for a small whisky or gin or a large whisky or gin throughout England and Wales, and, for convenience of measurement, it should be one-fifth of a gill; and because drinkers in Scotland insist on having value for their money, I would make a special rule for Scotland so that Scotsmen can stick to their quarter of a gill.
I turn now to fruit and vegetables. This is a section of the Schedule which will cause a great deal of trouble. We shall have representations—in fact, we have already received representations—from all kinds of people who are concerned about shopping and the way it is conducted. The general view is that the tolerances which the right hon. Gentleman is giving in the Bill for wrappings, particularly for soft fruits, are far too generous.
I can understand his problem and the technical difficulty of making sure—he took the example of strawberries, and I will do the same—that the strawberries which are packed on the farm and may then weigh with the basket exactly 1 lb. will still be 1 lb., even though nobody has taken any out or added any to the basket, when weighed in the shop. The weight changes with climatic conditions. But, while accepting that, I cannot see why he should allow the grower to put 7 oz. of strawberries in a ½ lb. basket 51 and say that it is ½ lb. of strawberries. I do not think we ought to depart from the principle of net weight here at all.
I do not want to go into too much detail, because these are really Committee points. I am merely expressing the view that I think it is a great mistake, even in regard to fruit and vegetables, for us to depart from the net weight principle. We ought to stick to that principle throughout the Bill and make exceptions only when it is technically necessary to do so, and the exceptions ought to be few.
I am also not happy about the proposal to make it legal to sell certain fruits by number instead of weight. I should have preferred to give further consideration to this. I am not convinced that even in self-service stores we ought to be selling bananas, apples, tomatoes, and so on, by number instead of by weight.
I should have liked to go into detail about the problem of solid fuels, but I am sure that some of my hon. Friends will deal with this subject. I am very unhappy about the whole section dealing with solid fuels, and particularly with what seems to me to be a most remarkable and reactionary proposal, that traders can go around the streets selling fuels loose by the bag without having any weights or scales—as an hon. Friend of mine suggests, leaving the customers completely unprotected. Clause 48 prohibits the weights and measures inspector from stopping a coal cart to find out whether the weights of the bags, and so on, are satisfactory. I think that, instead of improving the law on the side of the consumer and giving the consumer greater protection, the right hon. Gentleman is making the law weaker.
I am convinced that the majority of coal and other fuel traders are perfectly honest in this matter, and I think that we ought to pay tribute to the fact that the fuel trade organisations have recently set up their own voluntary organisation to deal, if they can, with the minority of unscrupulous traders who are earning their trade such a bad name. We ought to give greater backing to the Association of Coal Merchants and the Chamber of Coal Traders in their voluntary efforts to get rid of malpractices in the trade and of the people who persistently give short weight whenever the weights and measures 52 inspectors cannot get hold of them. We ought to support this voluntary action rather than weaken the law, for that will make their efforts far more difficult.
With regard to Clause 33, we can understand, I think, why the right hon. Gentleman has tried to help the supermarkets and self-service stores by allowing them to sell wrapped goods which are not a standard shape and size, with just a price tag on and not the weight. So that he will not be charged with being unfair to the ordinary shopkeeper and discriminating in favour of the supermarket—at least, that is how I read Clause 33—he has introduced the curious proposal that the shopper, if she thinks that she is paying too much for an article which has not got the weight marked on it, shall be able to weigh it on special scales. I do not think that this is a proposal that we can accept, because it is discriminating against the ordinary shopkeeper who cannot or does not wish to provide special scales. This is a Committee point, and I merely warn the right hon. Gentleman that it is something that we shall take up in Committee.
§ Mr. Loughlin
I cannot understand this constant reference to things being Committee points. Surely if we are debating whether we shall give the Bill a Second Reading it is important to discuss in detail some of its aspects anyway, so that we can make up our minds whether or not to give it a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Darling
That is perfectly true. I do not want to make too long a speech, but if my hon. Friend wishes to raise such points now he is perfectly at liberty to do so. I merely say that, as far as I am concerned, I shall raise these matters again in Committee, but if any of my hon. Friends want to raise them now I will cheer them on.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about Clause 24. It is a very complicated Clause, but if I understand it correctly I welcome it because it seems to be trying to make it an offence for a trader to deceive a customer about the quantity of the goods he is selling to that customer, and also because it brings in oral statements for the first time, which is an excellent innovation. I also think that the safeguards provided as a legal defence for the trader against any 53 charges which cannot be substantiated seem very satisfactory.
However, a difficulty has been drawn to my attention about imported goods, in that one may not be able to get the right kind of warranty for such goods which may be the subject of proceedings. I am not a lawyer, but it may be that we shall have seriously to consider dealing with imported goods in the same way as they have been dealt with in other legislation.
§ Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)
Those of us who are engaged in the export trade know that in shipping cloth, for instance, to America we have to declare the fibre content of each type of cloth in order to conform to United States law. If we have certain regulations in this country, it is not beyond the wit or purpose of exporters in foreign countries to know that they must apply those regulations when sending goods here.
§ Mr. Darling
Yes. That is the point we have to make in the Clause. But I do think that it is clear at the moment and I am also warned that it may be difficult for proceedings to be taken in the case of an offence committed by a Scottish manufacturer selling goods in England, because of the difference between English and Scottish law. This is a point we shall have to look into. I merely warn the right hon. Gentleman of difficulties which may be raised in Committee.
Our criticisms are mainly directed at the detailed Schedules and at the obscure and, I believe, confusing and, in some cases, conflicting language in the Bill. The Molony Committee, in its reference to the Merchandise Marks Act, said:… legislation affecting transactions of everyday occurrence and touching the interests of everybody, as shoppers or traders … should be … stated in language … plain and simple …The Bill falls far short of that criterion of good legislation. It can be improved, however, and on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends I make the right hon. Gentleman a very sincere offer of our services in Committee to effect this improvement.
§ 4.34 p.m.
§ Sir Hugh Linstead (Putney)
I join with the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) in congratu- 54 lating my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade on having brought this very complicated Measure before the House, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will have the satisfaction of seeing it on the Statute Book in spite of the omens to the contrary of previous Bills.
My right hon. Friend said that he was trying to bring some order out of chaos, and the one small section of the Bill to which I shall make a brief reference certainly amounts to that. It concerns the provisions in Clauses 10 and 54 for beginning the winding-up of the apothecaries system of weights and measures in this country. As my right hon. Friend has indicated, under Clause 10 the Board of Trade can appoint a date, which must be some time after five years from the date of the passing of the Bill, when the apothecaries system must be discontinued.
This is a system which has grown up with British medicine. It probably finds its origin in Arabic medicine, and I think that its main advantage, and the reason why it has had such a long life in competition with the much more scientific metric system, is that it so happens that the drachm roughly corresponds to a teaspoonful, and other measures also correspond to domestic measures. In these circumstances, it probably has continued very much longer than it would have done otherwise.
But, of course, with the internationalisation of medicine, with drugs being manufactured in every country for use in every other country, it has long been obvious that we cannot continue to use this old imperial system of weights and measures and that it must be replaced by the decimal system.
Indeed, the manufacturers themselves same years ago decided that they would abandon the apothecaries system and the imperial system, and now they all use the decimal system. The British Pharmacopœia, some years ago, also abandoned the apothecaries system and took the decimal system. But older doctors still find it convenient to prescribe as they were taught, and one will find prescriptions currently written in the apothecaries system and, in particular, doses still stated in it. It is rather interesting that, on the Continent, where the metric system is used regularly, doses are still prescribed according to domestic tea and tablespoonfuls.
55 There is a special provision in the Bill, which I very much welcome, in Clause 10 (7), whereby, as soon as the Bill becomes law, and without waiting for a period of five years, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be able to prescribe tables of equivalents, so that we will have the metric equivalents to the old apothecaries weights and measures made statutory. There will also be power, under Clause 10 (7, b) to make regulations at a certain time to make the use of these metric equivalents compulsory.
In Clause 54, which relates to the five-year period, there is a provision for consultation, before that period is fixed, by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade prior to making his order terminating the apothecaries system. There is no such provision in Clause 10 requiring consultation before the tables of equivalent are prescribed, I feel certain that it is the intention of the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland to have these consultations, and I would only underline here that it is essential that there should be co-ordination between what the Ministers responsible for health do in their regulations and what is done by the British Pharmacopœia, the British Pharmaceutical Codex and the National Formulary. We must see that they are telling the same story in relation to the same dates. The consultation which I am sure is intended will ensure that.
I have indicated, I think, that the table of equivalents should come out very quickly, because it will be quite important to have a running-in period, when it will be possible for a pharmacist dealing with a prescription prescribed in apothecaries measures to give metric measures or vice versa. But there is nothing like the same urgency about the second part of 10 (7, b) and there should be quite a long period allowed before the use of the metric system is made compulsory.
That is where consultation comes in. It is the view of the British Pharmacopœia Commission that about eighteen months may be necessary for the two systems to run side by side and I hope that there will be two sets of regulations under Clause 10 (7) and not one set as the Bill seems to propose.
56 Having made those few very detailed remarks, I welcome the passing of the old system, for which Clause 10 provides. It will lead to a certain amount of confusion, but the sooner we have the confusion and get rid of it, the better. I am sure that the younger generation of pharmacists and doctors will readily adapt themselves to the only sane and scientific method of prescribing and dispensing medicine which we have and which is the metric system.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Mrs. Harriet Slater (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I welcome the Bill from the point of view of the housewives. It has had a long and difficult journey. We had the Report of the Hodgson Committee eleven years ago, containing strong and determined recommendations, but when we have asked Questions about that Report we have been told that nothing could be done. That was because the voice of trade in the Board of Trade was heard much more than the voice of the housewife. It is amusing to see that the Bill contains many of the recommendations which we were told could not be put into effect because they gave rise to so many difficulties.
Although there are many questions to raise, we are glad that at least we have reached the Second Reading of the Bill, and we all hope that we shall finally arrive at its Third Reading and that the Bill will not be lost in the welter of business which the Government want to bring before the House. The right hon. Gentleman said that the Bill repealed or modified masses of legislation and local byelaws and it is interesting to see how many are covered. The present weights and measures law is based mainly on the 1878 legislation which, as the weights and measures inspector of my own district said in his last report, was haphazard and out of date and needed to be razed. It must be replaced by new legislation and I hope that the Bill will go some way towards that end.
The language of the Bill has been criticised. The Molony Report, speaking about merchandising, said that legislation dealing with problems of this kind ought to be in language as plain and simple as modern draftsmanship could provide. The draftsmen have had a long time to prepare the Bill and it was hoped that they would use simple modern language 57 and not hang on to the terms which we continue to use in our legislation. The Bill has to be understood not only by housewives, but by shopkeepers, who may be prosecuted. As the Hodgson Report said in 1951, there is the common language of policy between buyer and seller.
I think that much more simple and understandable language could have been expected and I hope that when the Bill is passed the President of the Board of Trade will issue a memorandum for the convenience of housewives and shopkeepers setting out the Bill's terms in simple and understandable language, and that he will issue the memorandum as quickly as possible. The weights and measures inspectors who will have to operate the Bill have a public relations job to do. As the right hon. Gentleman did, I pay tribute to the inspectors and to their Institute which has done a tremendous amount of work on the Bill which went through the other place last Session and on other similar proposals.
My own inspector told a good story about the public relations aspect of his department when, in his annual report, he said that on one of the few sunny afternoons of last summer the peace of the weights and measures office was upset when six drunken men came in. Apparently, they had been arguing about who was the heaviest. The inspector said that, without a flicker of an eyelid, one of his men put each of the drunken men on the scales and so settled the problem. That is an example of public relations between a weights and measures office and some awkward folk. The simpler the language of this legislation can be in its reference to many commonly used commodities, the better will be the state of public relations in weights and measures offices.
It must also be remembered that the Bill is likely Ito last for the next fifty years and not just for the next ten. Some of the things which are not now included may have to be included in Committee. Let us take the example of prepacked food, fruit and vegetables. Market research has discovered that during the last six months the total turnover of fresh fruit and prepacked vegetables increased generally by 1.4 per cent., but in supermarkets by 8.4 per cent. We are living in the age of supermarkets and prepacked foods and other commodities, 58 and it is important that the woman who prefers to buy her fruit and vegetables in the supermarket should be protected against short measure.
We shall be told about the difficulties of lass through evaporation and I have no doubt that women will be sold trimmed sprouts and apples slightly bruised underneath. I have no doubt that we shall be told that it is difficult to make sure of the weight rather than the numbers of these commodities. But we have the same argument about detergents. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the story of Portia and Shylock.
At a recent conference of the Weights and Measures Institute there was a speaker on behalf of the supermarkets and the prepacking organisations who said how difficult it was to prepack bacon and to prepack meat net weight because of the blood drip. The chief weights and measures inspector of the L.C.C. at once said that many respectable and well-known firms had been prepacking meat that way for a long time and had had no difficulty about meeting the requirements. He said that he had not been able to find any fault with the marked net weight and that not one prosecution had been initiated in that respect. It is, therefore, possible to get over even the difficulty of the loss of weight through blood drip.
The Bill deals with units of weights and measures and the Commission which is set up under Clause 7 is to make recommendations. However, I understand that the Commission will not be able to make recommendations about the metric system. The Hodgson Committee said that the Government should at once take steps to introduce the metric system. It said that it was in common use in countries near ours and that it was easily understood. As time has moved on, and as we now have a proposal that we should enter the Common Market, the need for the introduction of the metric system is even greater. Thirty years ago. I would have been very glad to have been teaching the metric system rather than all the bits and pieces of our own system.
I shall be glad when the rod, pole and perch have disappeared; and I got the impression that even the right hon. Gentleman did not know exactly what 59 the terms were—although the Parliamentary Secretary will have to have that information before half-past nine tonight. This would have been a glorious opportunity to introduce the metric system, at any rate into our measurements, and I hope that even now, if the right hon. Gentleman does not introduce the system in the Bill, he will take steps to make provision for its introduction later.
Clause 24 deals with short weight and I want to know whether it is to be applied to the protection of the retailer against the packer or wholesaler. The Hodgson Report spoke of the mass of evidence that retailers often found that they had been given short weight. Among example are boxes of tomatoes, which ought to weigh 20 lb., being anything from 3 to 5 lb. short and boxes of apples in some cases being as much as 30 lb. short.
Who pays for that short measure in the long run? I do, and so do other consumers. The retailer who receives short weight is bound to pass on the cost to the consumer and the retailer ought to have some protection against the wholesaler or packer, although I do not know how this can be done. I was recently in a shop when a sack of potatoes was delivered and emptied into the bin. The manager of the shop scooped up 14 lb. of earth. Prepacked potatoes are washed before they are packed and I do not see why potatoes sold in bulk should not be washed. The retailer could then be sure that if he paid for 1 cwt., he would get 1 cwt. of potatoes, instead of having to pay for soil sold to him with the potatoes.
Again, at the Institute conference there was a great argument on the prepacking of potatoes. The prepacker said that the housewife got a good commodity when she bought prepacked potatoes. But the good housewife would not buy twice from the person who sold her rotten potatoes or heavily soiled potatoes, even if she was buying them in bulk. I should, therefore, like to know whether Clause 24 with Part 7 of the Fourth Schedule covers the retailer as well as the housewife.
Part 3 of the Schedule on page 70 covers cheese. Can the Parliamentary 60 Secretary tell me why, in the name of fortune, Cheddar and Cheshire cheese is to be excluded? They are both very nice cheese. Why is prepacked cheese to be excluded from having any weight marked on it at all? Again, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we are living in the age of prepacked commodities. One has only to go into any supermarket or any of the food halls of the very large stores in London to find on the cheese stall, which always fascinates me, more and more prepacked cheeses being sold.
Some of them are very well advertised—the small packs, the small fancy shaped blocks and even the small pre-packed cheese which looks like a whole one in miniature. To me, it does not seem to be fair to the consumers—and cheese is a very large part of the diet of the people—that when they buy pre-packed cheese, Cheshire or Cheddar, they should not be entitled to know the amount of cheese which they are buying. I do not see why those have been left out.
I reaffirm the point made by one of my hon. Friends on bread. During the war, we reduced the weight of the 1 lb. loaf to 14 oz. to save flour and, presumably, to encourage people to eat less in wartime. But we have kept bread to that weight ever since. I guarantee that the average housewife does not realise that she is buying only 14 oz. and not a 1 lb. loaf, especially my generation, because we ask for a 1 lb. loaf or a 2 lb. loaf. There seems to me no reason why, when we are having this revision, we cannot go back to the 1 lb. loaf and the multiples of the 2 1b. loaf.
I am glad that breakfast cereals are now to be included and have their weight shown. For too long they have been sold by the giant size, or the family size. Some have give-away cut-outs, so that the children will persuade their mothers to buy them because of Red Indians on the package one week or ships on them another week. It was about time that this measure was included, and I am only sorry that it will take so long before the Bill becomes operative.
May I put one question on this? As in many other cases, small packs and small amounts are to be excluded. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman, or the Parliamentary Secretary, 61 knows that there is a growing custom in the breakfast cereal trade to pack in small individual packets. One gets them in hotels, and lots of children like their mothers to buy them because they get half a dozen different little packs. I should like to weigh one—I did not have one in the house this weekend—to see whether it is 2 oz., but I imagine that it is under 2 oz., judging by the amount which one sees on one's plate when one empties one of these packets.
I should like to put in the plea that even these small packs should bear the weight on them. Very often in the Bill small amounts are excluded from having to have the weight on them. It means that old and very poor people, who often can afford to buy only a small amount: at one time, will be the ones who will not he sure of the weight of the goods they buy. I see no reason why on small amounts the weight should not be included.
The story of detergents is a wonderful one. The factories said that they could not put the weight on these packs owing to evaporation, shake-down, and all sorts of reasons. For too long the housewife has been forced to buy them by size rather than by weight. In that connection, may I also mention soap. In my younger days we used to buy 1 lb. of soap, and expect 1 lb. of it, and every good housewife kept a stock of household soap because it hardened and, therefore, lasted longer when she started to use it. Soaps are to be included in the Bill, and I hope that the weight shown will be the net weight of the soap, and not the weight including all the wrappings.
If I buy a tablet of, for example, white Windsor soap, which is a kitchen soap, I get only a thin wrapping on it, but if I buy a tablet of toilet soap I get all sorts of wrappings. I get not only the tin foil, but a wrapper showing a pretty young woman with a schoolgirl complexion, or something like that.
§ Mrs. Slater
I thank the hon. Gentleman.
My other point is that, in spite of having to give the measurements of these commodities, there is nothing in the Bill to prevent deceptive containers being used. One still finds women who look for the "bigger and better" advertisement, and until we have trained people properly many of them will buy by that advertisement rather than by weight. I know that one Clause says that no deception shall be carried out, but so long as the deceptive packages are permitted it will be quite easy to deceive the housewife who is not perhaps as discerning as she should be.
§ Mr. F. Noel-Baker
I did mumble while my hon. Friend was speaking. I was trying to draw attention to the fact that when she buys toilet soap and a wide range of other commodities she is paying not only for the commodity, but for a tremendously inflated advertising budget as well in many cases.
§ Mrs. Slater
If my hon. Friend is able to catch the eye of the Chair, because of his interest in this subject he will no doubt have something to say about that. We all know that the more a thing is advertised the more the cost of the advertising eventually falls on the housewife, and I hope that we shall rear a generation of women who will not, to use a slang word, be "kidded"——
§ Mrs. Slater
That is the word. I hope that they will not be as easily brainwashed as some folks are.
Dealing now with tinned fruit, for a long time the Weights and Measures Institute, housewives, and women's organisations, have been asking the Board of Trade to ensure that the solid content of a tin of fruit is clearly marked on the tin. There is a lot of competition in tinned fruit in the supermarkets. One can get as much as 3d. off a tin of fruit in one place compared with the price in another, but it is not a saving of 3d. if, when the tin is opened, one finds only a small quantity of pears or peaches, and if one had paid the extra 3d., or bought another brand of tinned fruit, one would have had more fruit, which is the reason for buying the tin. I know 63 that we shall be told what we were told about detergents, but I do not think that it is beyond the wit of us in this generation to make sure that a tin of fruit is clearly marked to show the amount of solid fruit actually in the tin.
Knitting wools present another problem. They are not included in the Bill, but the Hodgson Committee dealt with this and said that it was necessary that wool should be sold not by purported weight, but by actual weight. In some shops the label says, "approximately 1 oz.", but, particularly in the shops which sell a lot of cheap wool, wool is sold by the hank, and many of these hanks weigh far less than an ounce. I do some knitting in my spare time, when I get it, and there is nothing more annoying than to be told that one needs 16 oz. to knit a cardigan, and one then buys 16 hanks, only to find that because the hanks do not contain an ounce of wool one has to go back to the shop to try to match the original wool for colour, grade, and quality.
Every marking on an article should be in a special place where it can be clearly seen. If a housewife buys a packet of biscuits, on turning it round she sees in tiny letters, "Approximately 6½ oz.", or "Approximately 7¼ oz." A busy housewife—and, after all, a lot of women go to work and the shopping has to be done in a hurry—cannot turn over every purchase to read the fine print which shows the quantity she is buying. The quantity should be clearly shown in an easily noticeable place. I hope that we shall try to do something about this. It is all right to say that we hope that the trade will co-operate, but it has not readily co-operated in the past by putting the weights of commodities on the wrappings.
Biscuits provide a good example of how the weight has got progressively less rather than approximating more to the half lb. of biscuits which ought to be sold, and which every housewife thinks she is buying when she buys a packet of them. I guarantee that the average housewife thinks that when she buys a packet of biscuits she is getting ½ lb. of biscuits, but included in that weight are all the lovely wrappings that one gets in the packet.
§ Mrs. Slater
I agree with my hon. Friend, and if we had the necessary regulations it would be easy to ensure that that were done.
Next, I come to the question of coal and solid fuel. The Bill says:Any person who with intent to defraud or deceive damps any solid fuel shall be guilty of an offence"Which?" not long ago carried a report on solid fuels, and it was interesting to see how much moisture there was in some smokeless fuels, and, therefore, how much more the housewife was paying for her commodity in the final analysis.
My other point about fuels is that of the coal dealer not having to carry scales. When a weights and measures inspector has trouble, he is very often concerned not with the small things, but with coal. If any hon. Member looks at the reports of the weights and measure inspector for his area, he will find that in nearly every report the largest number of convictions and prosecutions has been in respect of coal and solid fuels.
The right hon. Gentleman did not seem to think that this happened. Even in the best regulated shops and organisations there is always a coalman who will try to make 21 bags out of 20 bags There is always someone who, if he gets a ton of coal on his van, which means that he has 20 bags and is supposed to deliver that number, will quietly take one off and sell it elsewhere. If any one doubts this, he need only ask anybody in the trade, or any weights and measures inspector, and he will find that that is so.
The only protection the housewife has is that she can demand that the coal should be weighed. It is easy to tell us, as I am sure we shall be told in Committee, that not one woman in a million asks for it to be weighed, but if we take that protection away we will make it much more difficult for the housewife to ask for her coal to be weighed. The Bill provides that she must pay the cost of having the coal weighed if she is suspicious about it. How much might that cost be? She may have to pay the cost involved in the 65 coalman's fetching the weights and measures inspector, and perhaps even the time lost in delivering the coal as a result.
The housewife could be faced with a considerable bill if she were forced to pay the cost of exercising her rights to have the coal weighed. If the Minister needs to look at one part of the Bill more than any other it is the Sixth Schedule which deals with solid fuel. It needs a lot of alteration, and the provision of more protection for the housewife. Ask the Weights and Measures Institute; ask the housewives' organisations; ask anybody—they will all agree that this is the part of the Bill where greater protection should be given.
At the next General Election we shall be told that the Government have introduced the Bill as the housewives' charter. We are very glad to see the Bill; it is a long time since we had a charter, although we have been demanding one for years. But unless some of the changes which have been recommended are made it will not be the sort of comprehensive housewives' charter about which some of us have talked for so long. We ask that in respect of those points to which we have referred today the voice of the consumer shall well and truly be heard, and that, in the last analysis, it is the request of the consumer and not that of the trade which will be satisfied.
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) probably takes the view that most hon. Members will take, in welcoming the Bill as it stands but requiring certain improvements to be made. When she said she welcomed it on behalf of the housewives I thought that she was a little meagre in her praise. On many occasions it will also help the opposite sex. In particular, from now on men will be assured of the measure of short drinks that they are receiving.
My disappointment at some of the Bill's omissions were to some extent assuaged by the fact that my right hon. Friend has announced that he is creating a Consumer Council—presumably as a matter of urgency. I am sure that that will help to put right some of the omissions that some hon. Members now feel to exist. The newspapers heralded the Bill almost universally as a housewives' 66 charter, and in doing so they rather overstated the facts. We often find that there is some disappointment when a Measure is introduced, but that, as a result of what takes place in the Committee and other stages, improvements are made which satisfy most of us. This Bill could be no exception. As it now stands it leaves a lot to be desired for the most important of all shoppers—and on this point I agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North—the housewives who are buying on a weekly budget.
For instance, it does not contain the badly-needed provision that all goods sold in small packets, including all manufactured foodstuffs and many other household goods, should show the price per pound. That is a general yardstick by which most people do their shopping. If they know the price per pound of an article they can much more readily assess the value that they are receiving. With our extremely difficult coinage and imperial system of weights and measures it requires almost a mathematical genius to work out some of the pricing problems posed in relation to packaged goods.
From the housewife's point of view there is much to be said for the old days, when purchases were weighed before her from bulk carried by the shopkeeper. At least she knew what she was buying, how much she was getting, and how much she was paying per lb. I know that the standard of hygiene was not as high as it should be; certainly, today, it is a very important factor in our control of food, and that is a good thing. In this connection, prepackaging has brought tremendous advantages. But it has also brought its disadvantages, and the Government must take steps to ensure that unscrupulous traders do not use the subterfuges in packaging by which they can exploit the public.
Most Governments have said—and this one is no exception—that we can trust the shopper to buy good value. It is becoming more and more difficult for the shopper to know what is value, and the Bill provides a good opportunity for the Government to re-establish the situation in which the shopper can shop prudently. That would be welcomed by every housewife. In relation to some provisions of the Bill manufacturers, and perhaps retailers and others, have, presumably, said that it is impossible to show the 67 price per lb. for certain articles, for a variety of technical and other reasons.
This statement—that technical reasons now make it quite impossible to print on the packet the price per lb., or the recognised measure of the commodity—is becoming a new feature of our civilisation. With all the scientific devices now available for weighing articles and assessing the amount of loss through moisture, etc. it should not be impossible for this to be done, especially in the case of manufactured articles, if the desire to co-operate is there.
I do not wish to generalise; I realise that, if pressed, most manufacturers would welcome the establishment of the excellent customer relations that I believe would follow from better marking and pricing, so that people could assess value against price per lb. weight. I know from my own experience that many manufacturers who say that it is not possible to give the price per lb. in this country do precisely that when they export their goods. They have to do it. They cannot get their goods into the various markets without taking these steps, and declaring what materials are used in the manufactured article. They are not called upon to do that when they sell those goods at home. If they can do that for their exports, they can also do it for their home trade. If the Government show that they are determined to enforce this provision I am sure that it would not be found beyond the ingenuity of manufacturers.
In any case, why should they confuse the home customer more than the export customer? Surely the customer has a right to be told the quantity of the goods that he is being offered, so that he can judge whether he is getting good value for his money. If a manufacturer is providing good value for money, he should be all the more concerned about making that clear to the public, and the best way to do so would be by showing plainly what members of the public are getting for their money. It is a simple thing to ask of the honest retailer and the manufacturer who would have nothing to hide. But the provisions in the Bill at present fall far short of that ideal and I believe that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend will take steps to ensure that matters are tightened up.
68 I am sorry to have to emphasise this, but I think it important. How can a consumer judge what is value for money unless he knows the price per lb. of the article? It is so often the practice in the selling of many kinds of foodstuffs merely to give the weight. Under the provisions of the Bill the total cost of a joint of meat can be given on the joint together with the total weight. But that leaves too much to be worked out by the housewife. A busy housewife has not the time. If the final value of the joint has been assessed at the price per lb. by the shopkeeper why should not that be indicated and not merely the total weight?
Take cheese, for example. It can be delivered to the customer in such a way that the weight is of no guidance. A grocer also may be permitted to display portions of pre-cooked chicken, the weights of the which may differ but the prices can be all the same. This causes confusion and should be put right in the interests of the shopkeeper as well as of the customer.
The Bill is further weakened by exemptions of a variety of goods including prepacked cheeses, poultry under 1½ lb. in weight and cooked poultry. The weight of many goods includes the wrapper allowance which is something the Minister should look into. It means, in effect, that the declared weight may include the weight of the wrapper. The Hodgson Committee commented on this and stated that wrapper allowances were always undesirable and nearly always unnecessary. Even though we accept that they are nearly always unnecessary it should not be beyond the ingenuity of Board of Trade to ascertain where such allowances are unnecessary and to exclude them.
Are the Government really satisfied that the powers of the Bill prohibit the use of deceptive containers? It is a fact that when people are shopping their first impression of goods they may desire to purchase is a visual impression. The eye takes in the appearance of the pack and this has a greater effect than the possible assessment by a cold and calculating brain of what is contained in the pack. I suggest that the description displayed on the packing should be sufficiently bold so that the overall impression created by the appearance of the 69 pack does not exclude from the consideration of the prospective purchaser the information given about the contents of the pack.
There are some packages which have false insides. Some have concave bases——
§ Mr. Burden
Some have recessed bottoms. There are thick glass containers which are designed deliberately to mislead.
Consider the problems created by the packaging of detergents, soap powders, cereals, spirits, wines, foodstuffs and cosmetics. The packages which contain these goods give a clear indication of the way in which the eye may be deceived about the contents, by the appearance of the package. I believe that there should be a general prohibition imposed by the Board of Trade on this sort of packaging. I understand that there are powers to issue regulations and I hope that the regulations which are made will be kept up to date.
There is the question of the giant package. The package itself may be a "giant", but the contents are often unworthy of its size. There are many instances today of the packages remaining at a standard size, but the contents have diminished. I am quite sure that the Minister is aware of this and it is something over which he should exercise his mind. Why are these things done? It is deliberately intended to mislead the public into believing that they are getting more for their money than is actually the case. Why are goods packaged at odd weights unless it is to mislead the public, because it is appreciated that the average woman shopper has not the time or, in many instances has not the brain, to work out the fractions shown on the package and arrive at an estimate of the weight of the article she is buying?
The Bill falls short of requirements in that the provisions do not lay down that the Weights and Measures Act should be applied with equal effect throughout the country. Too much is to be left to the local authority and this may mean that the present state of affairs may continue. A perfectly good system may be in operation in the area of one local authority, but in the adjoining area the weights 70 and measures service may leave much to be desired. The Bill certainly gives increased powers to the Board of Trade. But such powers are not much use unless the Board of Trade is prepared to enforce them. The real measure of the intention of the Government and of the Board of Trade will be the way in which the provisions in the Bill are enforced.
I have been disappointed in the past at the apparent reluctance of the Board of Trade to take proceedings against firms which have clearly breached the the requirements of the Merchandise Marks Act. The Retail Trading Standards Association has jealously protected the public by prosecuting firms which have sold goods under misleading descriptions. I emphasise that I hope that When the Bill becomes an Act the Board of Trade will show that it means business in enforcing its provisions.
As has been mentioned by hon. Members, there is an odd provision in Clause 33. This apparently provides for the operator of a self-service store, provided that he has a weighing machine tucked away somewhere, not to indicate the weight of a lump of meat in a deep freeze cabinet provided that a customer can take it after it has been sold, go to the weighing machine and weigh it, and presumably have a dispute in the middle of the store. This just is "not on". Imagine the circumstance's which might arise. This is just a subterfuge. There is no basis for it in logic.
I put it to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry for Science that if he went into a self-service store and bought a lump of meat out of a deep freeze cabinet he would not have the effrontery to march down the store with it, plonk it on the scales and then have an argument with the proprietor. We cannot put the housewife into the position of doing that. The timid housewife would not do it and imagine what the others would do. They would spend their time putting cuts of meat on the weighing machine and having altercations with the shopkeeper.
The Bill includes provision for the Board of Trade to issue regulations in respect of various other matters. It is highly desirable that the Board should have the benefit of the advice of independent committees comprising equal 71 numbers of trade representatives, experts and independent members working through sub-committees to whom particular points may be put from time to time. The hon. Lady said that this legislation will probably cover weights and measures for the next fifty years. I believe that we have only started to move into the prepackage world in trade. I do not think the Consumer Council would be sufficient to deal with the problem. A tremendous amount of work could be thrown on to officials of the Board of Trade and the position in another ten or fifteen years could be as bad as it is now unless there were means to keep the Bill up to date with the march of events.
The Minister will have powers under the regulations, but the regulations will not be enough unless he can keep abreast of the movement of trade throughout the country and abroad. How important that will be if we go into the Common Market. The principle of the expert committee has been well tried in the control of food and drugs, in which the Food Standards Committee has done excellent work.
I know that hon. Members opposite will not take what I am about to say kindly, but the point is meant in no way other than an objective one. The future of local government in the London area is likely soon to be changed. Would it not be wise to co-ordinate the administration of weights and measures in the London area with a general reallocation of duties following the creation of the new local government units in the area?
I believe that this is a good Bill. It is necessary and I welcome it. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not think that I have been unduly critical. That has not been my intention, but I believe that desirable as the Bill is at present it is expedient that the problems which still beset the housewife should be looked into. That is emphasised by what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North said about the Bill controlling our weights and measures procedure for a long time. As the Bill goes through Committee we should not only look into what is necessary now, but also project into the Bill provisions which will help to control future movements of trade to make it a much better Bill and really create a housewives' charter.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Holt (Bolton, West)
I agree with quite a number of points made by the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), particularly his remarks about the need for enforcement. I think, however, that he will look in vain to the Board of Trade for that, because in the past it has had a peculiarly bad record in that matter.
I also very much agree with the hon. Member about the need for seeing that on packages the price per unit, the price per lb., or capacity measurement should be stated. As to the announcement by the President of the Board of Trade at the beginning of the debate that he would be shortly setting up a national Consumer Council, I reinforce the plea which has been made that we should have a debate on the Molony Committee's Report before the Government announce the setting up of that Council.
The main initiative for better consumer protection has come from other than Government sources. It has come from a number of M.P.s, among whom I do not particularly include myself, who have made a great study of consumer protection needs and have been cease less advocates in this House. It has also come from private groups outside, such as the consumer associations. It would be absolutely monstrous if the Government announced a decision on the national Consumer Council before this House had an opportunity of discussing the whole problem and making its views known on the form which such a Council should take.
Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Bill, such as it is. There are weaknesses in it which no doubt can be amended in Committee. It extends the scope of legislation into spheres where I am sure it is necessary. I specially welcome the provisions against short measure, which will apply to practically all sales in terms of quantity. As others have said, I think perhaps the greatest weakness in the Bill is that it has not gone over to the metric system.
Taking the Bill as it is, the most important thing is to see that this legislation is efficiently administered and properly enforced, because that has been a great weakness in this type of legislation before. I am sure that the House will have noticed that, although many 73 hon. Members who have spoken before me do not seem to have commented upon it, inspectors now have very sweeping powers indeed. I think that they are necessary and inevitable in this kind of legislation once we have embarked upon it in a comprehensive way. Inspectors are authorised to check and inspect to enforce the regulations, to seize documents, to order the unloading of vehicles—there may well be some trouble, initially, with some of these measures—and to have these vehicles check-weighed.
The inspectors can also make test purchases, and this is perhaps the biggest single improvement of all in relation to the inspectors' powers. I understand from them that there is nothing which has frustrated their work more than their inability to do this, or the refusal of the local authority to aid them in doing it. They can also enter premises for the testing of machinery. These are very sweeping powers, but I hope that they will be used as Parliament will intend that they should be used.
Clauses 25 to 28 afford the necessary safeguards and defences for traders, which I hope will be adequate enough to protect citizens who are normally law-abiding, but who may come under the inspectors' critical scrutiny from time to time. I am not clear on one point, and it may be that I have missed something here, but I wonder whether these inspectors will also be allowed to check the quantities provided under National Health Service prescriptions. This is a matter which was recently brought to my attention. Some chemists are not always either as scrupulous or even as careful as they might be, particularly in the counting out of the number of pills which have been prescribed. This may be a very small matter——
§ Mr. Holt
—but it is a matter of considerable importance when, in some cases, these pills are of considerable value. I should like to know whether I am right in thinking that it will be the inspector's duty, where he thinks it is desirable or when he thinks something may be going wrong, to check the quantities provided under National Health Service prescriptions. It is most impor- 74 tant that, in zealously endeavouring to protect the consumer, we do not make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding traders, who may—and there are lots of regulations nowadays—by inadvertence more than anything else, make breaches in the law.
Having said that, we come back to the fact that enforcement is the vital matter. It is vitally important for the successful working of the Bill when it reaches the Statute Book. In the past, enforcement of the law by the different local authorities has been very uneven, and the public generally have been unaware of their rights, and, in any case, are hesitant to take action. In practice, the initiative is largely left to officials, and even a zealous official may find it difficult to induce the local authority employing him to take the appropriate action. Where an official prefers to "let sleeping dogs lie", very often he does so.
That is certainly the view of a consumer report published recently by my own party after extensive investigations, and it is also the view of the Molony Committee. In paragraph 679 of its Report, the Committee says:We are firmly of the opinion that the number of prosecutions undertaken bears no relation to the number of offences committed. The most effective prosecuting agency in terms of cases conducted is those local authorities that interest themselves in enforcment of this branch of the law.In the next paragraph, the Committee says:As matters stand, there is no effective enforcement of the Acts"—This point was made in relation to another Act—the Merchandise Marks Act, but it applies to the same kind of thing that we are discussing now. In para. 682, the Molony Report says:We have no doubt that the proper course is to lay the enforcement duty on local authorities; by which we mean the imposition of an obligation to enforce"—I am not a legal man, but am I not right in thinking that the imposition of such an obligation to enforce is not contained in the Bill? We might well get some local authorities continuing to be as negligent as they have been in the past.
I suggest that one way to ensure that local authorities do the job which Parliament is obviously asking them to do is to give executive responsibility for 75 instituting proceedings to the chief inspector of weights and measures of the local authority. Sensible local authorities will probably delegate this power to their chief inspector, while some others try to handle it themselves, either directly or through their clerks. The danger of not delegating the power to a chief inspector is that of allowing popular suspicion to arise that decisions whether or not a particular prosecution should be proceeded with have been influenced by the political power in the authority or by the presence of individual traders who may be members of the council.
It is important to remember in this respect that there are a lot of traders on many local authorities. In the interests of the traders on the local councils, it should be possible to avoid this suspicion being raised against them, and that is an added reason why the ability and the authority for making prosecutions should lie with the chief inspector.
I welcome the provisions of Clause 37, empowering local authorities to combine. I am sure that the larger authorities will be able to do their jobs in this respect more efficiently and get a more even administration of the law, while the same result can be achieved by the smaller ones through two or more combined.
I should like to know what are the intentions of the President of the Board of Trade about the standards of general education which he is to demand of inspectors and chief inspectors. As I understand, the Board of Trade examinations or tests are concerned with the law and practice of weights and measures, and that is the only test, as it were, which an inspector has to pass. But what about his general standard of education? I understand that some chief inspectors are qualified engineers as well, but others are not. Again, if we are to get uniformity of enforcement of the law, and if it is to be carried out by so many different local authorities, it seems to me to be most important that we should have a more or less even standard of qualifications of these people, because, in practice, chief inspectors are to initiate enforcement.
I do not think that the President of the Board of Trade had enough to say to the 76 House today in opening the debate as to why he has not taken a bigger step in regard to the metric system. After all, this agitation has been going on for a long time, and there are obviously moves going on all over the place. Even the B.B.C. has now started to give us the temperature figures in centigrade degrees instead of Fahrenheit, and I should have thought that in the Bill the Government would have made a much bigger move over to the metric system.
After all, the Bill will mean a number of changes in standards of measuring, measuring equipment, packaging, and so on. Why could we not have taken steps now to go over to the metric system, and not only because of the negotiations which are going on across the water? Obviously, it would be advantageous when these are brought to successful conclusions, which I hope will be soon. Why could we not have taken these steps not only for that reason, but because the metric system is now generally recognised as being far more convenient and suitable for us?
There was a great deal of discussion in another place about the Commission on Units and Standards of Measurement and its composition. I agree that it is largely concerned with highly technical matters. I do not disagree with the Government's approach in the selection of most of these people, but a great point was made in another place about having somebody on the Commission who knew about public administration or who might keep these gentlemen on the rails in seeing that they described anything which affected the public in a way which the public could easily understand. I believe that the Government accepted an Amendment along these lines in another place in a previous Bill. I should have thought that they ought to have included somebody who had knowledge and experience of public administration and also an ordinary honest-to-goodness consumer.
There is nothing specifically in the Bill to deal with deceptive packaging, to which the hon. Member for Gillingham referred. There is nothing to deal with the giving of a false, misleading impression of the contents in the package. The need for this was also argued out in another place and, I thought, agreed by the Government. Am I to understand 77 that the Government now feel that they have provisions in the Bill to take care of this by regulation? There is one group of articles which I think is particularly guilty in this respect. They are cosmetics. There is a provision in paragraph 5 of Schedule 7 about cosmetics, but it allows for exemption of articles which contain less than 20 cc. No doubt the President of the Board of Trade is very generous in the size of bottles of perfume which he gives his wife from time to time, but some people will not be able to afford to be so generous. A great deal of perfume must be sold in small bottles. I think that 20 cc. is about 1 sq. in. I should have thought that there are plenty of small bottles of that size. These are among the greatest offenders in this respect. It seems to me rather absurd that we should have exempted the very small articles of cosmetics in this category.
Another matter which the hon. Member for Gillingham rightly raised was sale by price per unit. Something must be done about this. The goods must be marked clearly with the price per lb., or the capacity measure, as well as the actual price. This is a matter which will be of increasing importance, particularly in self-service stores. For example, if two joints of meat are marked respectively "2 lb. 12 oz." costing 4s. 1½d. and "4 lb. 4 oz." costing 5s. 8d., no doubt the senior wranglers in the House will be rapidly able to calculate that this is a price of 1s. 6d. and 1s. 4d. per lb. but not, I should have thought, the ordinary housewife.
It is absurd for us to talk about having a housewife's charter when we expect her to do mental arithmetic of that kind to see that she buys the right one of two alternative articles. The Institute of Weights and Measures Administration has advocated this provision. This is the view of many of those who are at present employed in enforcing the present Acts. One of the inspectors at a conference in Shrewsbury last year said:You are being swindled, twisted and diddled every day because there is no weight mark on some goods.Wrapping allowances are permitted over a wide range of food under the Bill. This means that goods can be sold by either net weight or gross weight. In the case of soft fruits the packing may 78 be 1¾ oz. per 9 oz. of fruit. The Hodgson Committee, in 1951, thought that packing allowances were unnecessary. It is now 1962 and I should have thought that everything since then has reinforced that feeling. The modern techniques of packing allow for the weight by net weight to be known. I understand that most other countries enforce sale by net weight.
§ Mr. Burden
What the Hodgson Committee said was not quite what the hon. Member represented it to be. The Committee pointed out that wrapping allowances were always undesirable and nearly always unnecessary. It said "nearly always" and not "always". There is a difference there.
§ Mr. Holt
If we could make an allowance for the special exceptions aid deal with the rest, that would be a good way out.
I welcome the Bill, as most other speakers have welcomed it, and I hope that it will have a speedy passage. I hope that it will help to remove some of the fog which, through no fault of consumers, at present surrounds many of their purchases. If it does that, it may well herald a period of more discriminating buying by the consumer, which, I should have thought, was in the interest of every good trader.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
I rise to speak with a certain amount of trepidation, because it was perfectly obvious even before the ominous words of the hon. Member for Sheffield. Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) that the Committee stage was going to be a long and arduous one and was bound to take many of us into the upper recesses of the House until, perhaps, Easter at the earliest.
The general principles behind consumer protection in parts of the Bill are fairly straightforward. I suppose that all hon. Members present will agree that the housewife ought to be given the maximum amount of information about the weight, number and size of the things she buys. That is what the Bill is largely about. Equally obviously, if the laws are too inflexible, a considerable amount of damage can be done to the best interests of the housewife by 79 increasing the cost of retailing, and pushing the natural course of trade into unnatural channels. It is, therefore, necessary to try to strike some sort of technical compromise. This inevitably means that the main part of the Bill becomes a mass of Committee points, many of which are dull and some of which are totally incomprehensible.
There are Committee points in almost every one of the 116 pages of the Bill. Just glancing at paragraph 1 (2) of Part I of the Fourth Schedule, one finds that, oddly enough, it lays down that mule meat must be sold by net weight unless… sold in a container which does not exceed the appropriate permitted weight specified in Table A of Part XII of this Schedule, either by net weight or by gross weight.That is laid down for mule meat. I suspect that more venison than mule meat is eaten in this country but venison is not included here. One could have a fairly lengthy discussion on that point, if and when we reach the Fourth Schedule——
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. David Price)
I can tell my hon. Friend that the definition in that Schedule comes from the definition in the Food and Drugs Act, and that the Department is being consistent here. I may say that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade has eaten mule meat.
§ Mr. Goodhart
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has clearly survived with a reasonable amount of good health, which I hope he will retain during the Committee stage.
We find that paragraph 3 (7) of Part XI of the same Schedule exempts iced lollies from the requirements there laid down, but if we look at paragraph 3 (10) we see that only single toffee apples are exempted, which seems to ensure that the toffee apple manufacturer will be faced with great competition from the iced lolly maker. Almost every page contains Committee points, some of greater seriousness than others.
80 I want to follow what has been said by the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Holt) about enforcement. Like him, I believe that one of the most important parts of the Bill relates to the weights and measures inspectorate. Here I should like to see a change, first, in the size of the weights and measures authority that is proposed; second, in the power of the inspectorate, and third in the title.
Ten years ago, the Hodgson Committee recommended that while the weights and measures inspectorate should most certainly remain part of local administration, there should be a considerable consolidation of the number of weights and measures authorities. Broadly speaking, the Committee recommended that the smallest unit for weights and measures administration should be one with a sufficient number of electors—presumably about 100,000—able to maintain three inspectors.
The Hodgson Committee realised that in this sphere too much local knowledge can be almost as damaging as too little. On this point, it said:Quite a number of the smaller authorities employ one inspector only; and it is obvious that local knowledge as to his movements, office days, holidays and illnesses can detract from the effective performance of his duties. Secondly, the costs of the service have risen considerably, owing to the increased responsibilities laid upon local authorities and to the more complex types of equipment which the inspector has come to require to discharge these duties effectively.I believe that a multiplication of small units of local administration is a curse; and that the Government are mistaken when they suggest that the minimum size of a weights and measures unit should be one having same 60,000 electors. The Hodgson Committee was right in recommending a larger unit.
As the hon. Member for Bolton, West has said, the Bill greatly increases the powers of the inspectors but I should like to see them increased still further because, just as weights and measures legislation must be the foundation for all consumer protection legislation, so I believe that the weights and measures inspectorate must be the foundation for all enforcement of consumer protection legislation. Indeed, at this moment, in a number of areas the inspectorate plays a major part in the enforcement of the Merchandise Marks Act. It does not 81 seem to concern itself with this problem in other parts of the country, but in a number of progressive areas it has done extremely good work in helping to enforce this Act.
I should like to see the interest of the inspectorate in respect of the Merchandise Marks Act become general throughout the country. I should also like to see the authority of the inspectorate extended to the Sale of Goods Act as well, because this, which is the central Act protecting the shopper today, is quite largely inoperative because the average housewife or average householder does not have the money, the time or the energy to enforce the very considerable rights that he or she is given under it.
The Act itself is good, but its enforcement is inadequate, because most sensible people are not prepared to defend their rights at law when the purchase is small. I should like the inspectorate to have the power to go ahead itself in certain cases where it thinks it necessary, or to maintain in the legal sense other peoples actions. As the hon. Member for Bolton, West has already pointed out, the inspectors now have the right to make test purchases.
I should like to see the weights and measures inspectorate become the foundation of a genuine local consumer protection service, but if that is to happen we shall need a stronger inspectorate than we now have, and if we are to have a stronger inspectorate we shall, on the one hand need to raise the pay—which I feel is at present inadequate—and, on the other hand, we shall also have to do something to raise its prestige.
I was interested to note that a London headmaster not long ago said he thought it a great pity that so many school children seemed to lack ambition. Having asked a number of them what they wanted to do on leaving school, some had replied that they would rather be hairdressers than Prime Ministers. It is in this light that I consider the title "Weights and Measures Inspectorate" a hindrance to the necessary increase in the prestige of this service.
After all, a youngster at school asked what he wants to do when starting work 82 is unlikely to reply, "I want to be a weights and measures inspector," which sounds intolerably dull, as does the title of the Bill. If the name were changed to the "Consumer Protection Service"—which is what it should become—it would encourage people of the right calibre to become inspectors. I hope that before the Bill becomes law there will be a certain change in nomenclature.
Some hon. Members said that they thought it great pity that the Bill had been delayed for so long. I am inclined to agree with them, but I understand that the reason for others, including past Presidents of the Board of Trade, Leaders of this House and Chief Whips, shoving it aside—in the words of the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, "Wait until next year"—is that this type of Bill is a sort of legislative quicksand from which, I hope, most of us will emerge in due time.
Regarding any partisan advantages that may be concerned, there is not more than a quarter-of-a-pound of shredded suet in advantage to one side or the other but this is an important Bill which can be improved in Committee and I hope that hon. Members will give it a Second Reading.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)
I wish to begin by commenting on the closing remarks of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) when he said that there had been complaints that the Bill had been long delayed. The hon. Gentleman then went on to explain why, upon examination, one could understand the reason for various people having delayed it.
In his introductory speech, the Minister preened and prided himself on having introduced what had become known as a "housewives' charter". But, in the ensuing discussion, we have heard one reference after another to the types of rackets that have been going on, in prepacking, wholesale and retail enterprises. The Hodgson Report was published in 1951, and these rackets against housewives were going on before that document was published, and since. Despite that, this Government since 1951 have been charged with the responsibility—and heaven knows, 83 considering their General Election literature, they have made all sorts of promises—of ensuring the protection of housewives. They have done nothing about this responsibility but have sat tight until we are approaching a General Election. Only now have they produced a Measure which may, in part, eliminate some of the injustices which have been practised against the housewife.
Like other hon. Members, I took home a copy of the Bill and tried to digest it over the weekend. I have come to the conclusion that—if I have a fundamental criticism of it—it will not be an earthly bit of good talking about protecting the housewife if the Measure will not be fully enforced. Considering the multiplicity of traders and goods—and I have no doubt that the supermarkets and co-operative societies will abide by the regulations—there is an enormous number of small traders who may find great difficulty in complying with the regulations in their present form.
I hope that between now and Third Reading the Minister will reconsider all the Clauses to ensure that when the Bill reaches the Statute Book the small trader will be able to keep within the law as laid down by the regulations in the Bill. Unless we make sure that the law is respected by those who are in duty bound to abide by it, it will be of no use whatever.
I have no doubt that the regulations we are now considering will be enforced, and I do not have the same apprehension as some hon. Members. I agree that to have a written guarantee of enforcement—and I am referring to the enforcement of every single item in the Bill, including the enormous number of wholesale and retail outlets—one would need a hoard of inspectors. However, the enforcementt of the law is, in the main, guaranteed by a ready acceptance of it on the part of those to whom it applies. If we accept that as a basis, then, on the past record of our weights and measures inspectors and public authorities—naturally, with one or two exceptions—there will be no great difficulty regarding the enforcement of the Bill.
When the Minister was delivering his introductory speech, I raised with him 84 an issue relating to coal, and he replied, in effect, "It is a Committee point." I want this on the record, because I am a little tired of Ministers trying to ride off objections raised during Second Reading speeches on the ground that they are too complex to deal with but should be handled in Committee. Frankly, there is no point in introducing a Bill on Second Reading unless all hon. Members can receive the fullest information and can thereby assess Whether or not it should be given a Second Reading.
Like most hon. Members, I wish to refer to certain Clauses, but before doing so I would add my plea to that of the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) that before the Bill becomes law we should further consider the question of sale by pound weight. It is one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Bill, and I hope the Minister will look closely at this to see whether the issue can be dealt with.
I turn now to the point I raised with the Minister when he was introducing the Bill—the question of the housewife having the coal weighed on scales which should be on the vehicle delivering the coal. Under the Bill that will no longer be possible, because there will now be no obligation on the retailer to have scales on the vehicle. The Fifth Schedule says in paragraph 9:Where after any weighing in pursuance of a request under paragraph 7 of this Schedule the weight of the solid fuel is found to be not less than that marked on any container in which the fuel was made up or than that stated by the seller in any document delivered to the buyer at or before the delivery of the fuel to him, the buyer shall be liable to repay to the seller all costs reasonably incurred by the seller in connection with the weighing.Here is a fantastic situation.
I do not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) who gave the impression that malpractices in this regard are a little more prevalent than they are. I am sure that it is only a minority of coalmen who, by the expedient of making ten bags into eleven and sometimes four bags into five, defraud the customer.
Let us assume that a customer has been defrauded on a 5 cwt. load. Hon. Members may buy their coal in loads larger than 5 cwt., but it is taken 85 in the trade that a 5 cwt. load is very nearly the average. Let us suppose that a housewife is suspicious that she has been defrauded on such a load. There may be a half cwt. loss to her. That may mean 3s. 6d., 4s. or 4s. 6d., depending on the grade of coal. In a transaction of this kind, 4s. 6d. may not sound very large, but the housewife may be an old-age pensioner, or the wage earner may be in a very low income bracket, and the 4s. 6d. may be of great importance.
The housewife may say, "I am not sure that you have 5 cwts. in the quantity that you are going to deliver to me and I want the load weighed." The coal wagon may then be taken back, with the customer, to some point to do the re-weighing. It is usual to have two men with a coal delivery wagon, and if the re-weighing occupies half an hour it will mean to the employer the loss of an hour's time. That being so, the woman will be involved in more than the 4s. 6d. loss that she suspected on her load. Incidentally, it is very doubtful whether any skilled person in the trade could get more than a half cwt. out of a 5 cwt. load. Even if the employer decides to charge only half an hour's time for each man, he will be able to add to the cost of the inspection and check weighing the cost of the use of the vehicle for that purpose.
Is there not a danger here that a retailer may impose excessive charges? What is "reasonable"? Is it reasonable for the retailer to say that the re-weighing operation has cost him half a gallon or a gallon of petrol and half a pint of oil, or is it reasonable for him to make an omnibus assessment of the cost to him and include depreciation at so much a mile? This is an impossible piece of legislation. The situation here is that the man who has committed the malpractice, or is suspected of having done so, will be the one who will enforce the costs of the checking against the person who suspects him.
§ Mr. Darling
Is not the situation even worse than my hon. Friend suggests? As I understand it, the aggrieved person need not go back with the wagon to see the coal re-weighed, and it can be re-weighed without that person being there.
§ Mr. Loughlin
Yes, that is so, but I was assuming that the aggrieved person would insist upon seeing the coal re-weighed. My hon. Friend's point is a very valid one.
This means, in effect, that the average housewife will no longer have any redress against those who attempt to filch some of the coal she has ordered. I believe that these are only a minority of those concerned. I want to make it perfectly clear that in making this criticism of the Bill I am not making any criticism of the great majority of coal traders and others engaged in coal delivery. I am merely making reference to a small minority.
With regard to the provisions relating to fish, I am not sure from my reading of the Bill whether the wholesaler and the persons at the ports are covered in respect of weights. We have to remember that the ultimate price to the consumer is determined by the three points of distribution—the primary point, the wholesaler and the retailer, assuming that there are no agencies involved. The Fourth Schedule states, in paragraph 4 (2) of Part II:The following shall be exempted from the requirements of paragraph 2 of this Part of this Schedule, that is to say— … (c) any sale of fish made otherwise than from a market, shop, stall or vehicle.Does this include wholesale markets? Does it include the premises of a wholesaler who is not at a market, does not operate from a shop, stall or vehicle? Does it include the premises of the wholesaler at the port, who by no stretch of the imagination has premises at the wholesale fish market? There is also the question of processing, which applies equally to fish and poultry. In some of the inland wholesale markets one of the biggest rackets has been the practice of selling fish on the bone and then processing it for the customer. The fishmonger with a fish and chip shop has been milched year in and year out in processing. At no point in this Bill can I find a safeguard for any type of customer where the fish is sold on the bone or with the head or otherwise and is processed by the seller.
The argument is that one does not know what loss of weight there is in filletting. That is nonsense. Anyone with knowledge 87 of the trade can tell, by and large, what weight is involved in filletting, whether one takes the head off first or not.
§ Mr. Wilfred Proudfoot (Cleveland)
I am a little mystified, because people fillet cows as well before they sell them. I cannot see that this makes any difference. If a person buys the whole fish or the whole beast, the seller will take off what the customer does not want. The price varies according to what is sold.
§ Mr. Loughlin
The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. I appreciate that he knows more about cows than he does about fish. It is common practice for the fish to be delivered to the customer after it has been processed. When I say "processed" I mean, in the main, the processing to which even this Bill refers—the filletting of fish, whether it be flat fish or round fish, like cod or haddock.
§ Mr. Loughlin
The hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) should know that most fish, with the exception of dog fish or sea bream, are gutted shortly after they are taken from the sea, so the question of gutting does not arise in this instance. I hope that he will not ask any more silly questions.
Why has the Minister been unable to solve this problem of determining the amount of loss by the process of filletting? Why has it not been included in the Bill? Does he not know that, if one fillets ex-nape, one can get a little below 50 per cent. and if one fillets with the skimmed nape—that is, part of the body wall—one gets 50 per cent.? If the right hon. Gentleman wants that type of information, he should look for it. He should consult the trade associations.
One of the biggest rackets at Christmas time is selling poultry rough-dressed. In case I get another silly question, I should explain that "rough-dressed" means that the feathers are taken off, with the exception of a little amount of feather at the back of the neck, a little at the top of the legs and perhaps a little on the hind quarters, and the bird is not drawn.
The practice is to sell the bird rough-dressed and then offer to draw it for the customer. Thus, if it is a 12 lb. bird, 1 lb. may be added on the rough dressed 88 weight, and 2 lb. in the case of a 14 lb. bird, so that if the bird is 14 lb. the selling weight is 16 lb. to the customer—and at 4s. 6d. a lb. it is no end of a racket. The customer cannot check because all she receives is the bird and the giblets, which most housewives use as the basis for gravy.
But all this is usually ascertainable as well. If one had 2¼ lb. loss of weight on a 12 lb. bird, one would do exceptionally well. But even if one gave a generous allowance for loss of weight, it would at least ensure that the present 2 lb. addition put on a rough dressed bird was stopped.
I must emphasise that I do not charge the whole of the wholesale and retail trade with these malpractices. In practice, one finds that most wholesalers do a fair measure of retail selling of polutry at Christmas time. But I say there is also an element in the trade who work rackets of the kind I have described. As far as I see, this Bill does not in any way obviate that difficulty.
There is also the question of the 16 oz. loaf. Since this is a comprehensive Measure, it really is time that we got away from the 14 oz. loaf. I asked my wife on this occasion how much a lb. loaf weighed. She said, "Don't be a fool, it weighs 16 oz." She was assuming that a lb. loaf meant a lb. loaf. I suggest that the majority of housewives do indeed buy a lb. loaf believing that it weighs 16 oz. There is no reason why we should stick to the silly idea of a 14 oz. loaf.
Reference has been made to the marking of prepacked commodities. The way in which some containers are marked is a scandal. But apparently the Bill, so long as the weight of the quality inside the container is stated on the container, is satisfied. It does not even seem to matter in the Bill if the amount is printed at the bottom of the container or, indeed, if it is printed in the smallest possible type.
It is impossible to give the potential buyer too much information. We all know about the way in which containers are distorted in order to convey a wrong impression. We know that a great deal of buying by housewives is done on impulse. Most multiple traders and supermarkets arrange their shelves in 89 such a way as to attract the housewife. She buys a commodity off a certain shelf one week, but when she returns the following week to buy the same commodity off the same shelf, it is no longer there because the supermarket "smart Alecs" have the idea that, if they mix the shelves up a bit, the housewife will walk round the shop more and be tempted to buy more goods.
§ Mr. Proudfoot
The hon. Member is completely wrong. All that is done if products are moved about is to annoy the customers. I speak from personal experience.
§ Mr. Loughlin
I, too, speak from personal experience. I have been associated with the distributive trade as actively as the hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Proudfoot), who is the owner of a supermarket. Supermarkets have practiced impulse buying since they began. If there is distorted packaging and containers with false bottoms and the measure is not printed on the container in such a way that it is easily discernible, housewives can be subjected to the usual racket when they are impulse buying. Will the Parliamentary Secretary draw this to the notice of his right hon. Friend and see whether some means cannot be found by which to enforce not merely the printing of a label, but its clear marking, so that the housewife can see for herself at a glance what its contents are?
Finally, I want to refer to selling by bulk when the trader is made responsible for having scales available, without charge, to the prospective buyer, who wants to see if she is getting a fair amount for the price asked. This is largely a matter of evaporation. But evaporation, even of most vegetables, is ascertainable. I know that there are difficulties. The Minister quoted the example of strawberries, and it may be that variation in climatic conditions is such that it is impossible to ascertain the average deterioration.
Statistically we can do almost anything, but not if it is for the benefit of a housewife. I argue that it is possible statistically to discover the average evaporation for almost anything, and I place the onus of that responsibility on the supplier of the commodity and on no one else. By this provision the Government are ridding the supplier of that re- 90 sponsibility and imposing an additional responsibility on the retailer who will have to have a set of scales for the benefit of the customer.
Scales of the correct type will cost about £70. An enormous number of small traders will have the obligation of buying scales worth £60 or £70 which will hardly be used, for even in the local shop it will be a very brave woman who will challenge the weight of an article. I wish that more women were like my wife in this respect. I remember an occasion which to me was embarrassing when I was in a butcher's shop with my wife. She was purchasing some meat at about 5s. 6d. a lb. The butcher—it was not my own—put some meat on the scale and found that it was just short of a pound, and so he took a piece of fat weighing about 2 oz. and put that on top of the meat. My wife said that she did not want that fat and when the butcher said, "Everybody has a piece of fat", she said, "I will buy that fat, but I will pay for it at the appropriate price and not at 5s. 6d. a lb."
I was somewhat embarrassed, but my wife knows how to deal with traders. However, not many housewives will do that, and after that incident I deliberately took notice when I was out shopping with my wife and I did not see one housewife complain about that piece of fat for which she was charged an excessive price. Can hon. Members imagine a housewife in a supermarket or shop or anywhere else taking the commodity which she wants to purchase and putting it on the scales and then arguing with the shopkeeper afterwards?
If we allow this provision to remain, we shall be imposing on the retail distributor something for which the customer will have to pay, because in the last analysis the £70 cost of the scales will be added to the price of the commodities he sells. An onerous burden will be placed on the small shopkeeper who will ultimately charge it to the consumer, and it will all be for scales which nobody will use.
§ Mr. Loughlin
I will deal with other parts of the Bill if the hon. Member is interested.
This is supposed to be a housewives' charter and I welcome it, but it will need 91 a lot of fashioning to make it a workable proposition, especially for the retail distributors. The Government must not take too much credit, because they have sat by for eleven years doing nothing and now they have brought up legislation which needs refashioning if the housewife is to have a charter.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Cooke
—Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin)—my grandfather having been born in the district, I have always referred to it as the Forest of Dean, but I bow to the hon. Member's information. He began with coal and took us through a wide number of products, including wet lettuce and fish, with or without scales, and ended by describing his wife's activities and saying something about the world of fashion. All I hope is that he does not want to tie us all so much that those people whom I have heard described as linen drapers will have restrictions placed upon those garments which they sell and which are designed to change the contour if not actually to conceal the contents.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), whose speech I much enjoyed, is technically much more able than I on this subject, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Proudfoot) is also sitting close to me and I hope that the House will have the benefit of his expert advice on the Bill. I welcome the opportunity to intervene on the Second Reading because my limited knowledge of the subject will not enable me to take part in the Committee stage very effectively.
§ Mr. Loughlin
There is no reason why the hon. Member should be modest about this. I can assure him that in the last Committee which I attended no hon. Member on the Government side was allowed to speak anyway.
§ Mr. Cooke
Unlike the hon. Member, I believe that if one is taking part in proceedings, one should endeavour to say something, and also to have something worth saying.
92 We have long waited for the Bill, and I can remember that in my early days in the House when we were promised such a Measure it was said that there were great difficulties about producing it. I am glad to think that it is a Measure for consumer protection, but I do not suppose that many words will be said in the House today on the subject of producer protection. It is always fair to look at the other point of view and not all producers, by any means, are out to defraud the customers. I hope that the Bill contains sufficient safeguards in that direction.
Perhaps they would find it easier to defend themselves if they were accused of fraud, even fraud by accident, if they took steps to mark their products in such a way that they could prove when they were actually packaged and produced. Most producers do, and even the label on the bottle of wine has marks, indistinguishable to the ordinary customer, which can tell the producer when the wine went into the bottle. Liquids and soap powders and so on will evaporate if they are kept too long by the retailer, and it is important that the producer should be able to prove when they were packaged.
The Bill contains a vast number of provisions and I do not want to detain the House for very long because I can see that other hon. Members want to speak, on the other side of the House if not on my own—no doubt hon. Members on my own side are satisfied with the Bill.
It is a pity that the Bill does not give some indication that it is still very difficult to buy milk in one-third pint bottles. I know that this is an old complaint and that there are various reasons for it, such as the fact that schools have milk in bottles of this size and that other people might tend to pilfer it if the size were generally available. However, again I make the plea for old people who find that one-third of a pint is exactly right for their daily requirements while half a pint is too much.
§ Mr. D. Price
Part V of the Fourth Schedule will make the sale of one-third pints as legal as the sale of half pints and whole pints.
§ Mr. Cooke
I had seen that reference, but I was saying that it will not be easy 93 for people to buy it in that size even if it is legal to produce it.
The Bill also deals with the sale of intoxicating liquor and refers to the size of spirit measures to be used in public houses and hotels. It also says that there is to be displayed on premisesin such position and manner as to be readily available without special requesta notice indicating which measure is to be used. I cannot see any reference to the size of the notice. We can all remember having seen notices which are legally necessary but which are written in such small writing that very few can read them. Pehaps there could be a provision rather like that which says that the "L" plate on one's motor car must be of a certain size. Perhaps our publicans can be encouraged to make the notice of a right and proper size.
I see from the Bill that the sale of beer does not solve the tiresome problem which many beer drinkers find. I can speak from other people's experience only not being a keen beer drinker, but I gather that there is great disturbance because it is legally necessary to fill a pint tankard right to the brim, so that the contents overflow on to the bar, in order to give legal measure. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I hear hon. Members say "Hear, hear". I quite agree that we should not be defrauded but, on the other hand, would it not be possible for the tankard to be of such a size that it would take a pint comfortably rather than uncomfortably? I have a horrible suspicion that some of that beer that overflows finds its way by subterranean channels into someone else's tankard. It is a pity that the Bill does not deal with that.
I leave the question of liquid fuel and come to that of solid fuel. I see that coal is fairly satisfactorily described, but I cannot see any reference to peat. Is peat, in the eyes of the Government, a coal derivative, because it is widely sold as fuel in many parts of the British Isles, and it is notorious for the amount of water it can contain? Surely there ought to be something in the Bill about that.
Then there is the question of wood fuel. The question of weight is dealt with. There is something in the Bill to deal with that, which will be of some help, but nowhere can I see in the Bill 94 anything about the necessity for a description of the type of firewood offered. Hon. Members will know that there are certain types of firewood which may look all right to the housewife, but which are quite unburnable. We have all, I think, had the experience of buying a load of logs and discovering that they are wet, green elm, unburnable in anything except a blast furnace. Possibly the Bill could have done something about that, and it may not be too late to write in something about it.
The provision with regard to paper and envelopes, I am sure, will be welcome, because we have noticed in recent years with the rising cost of paper the shrinkage of the writing pad and the number of sheets vanishing almost before one's eyes.
Finally, there is the question of ways of deliberately misleading the public used by some traders, although, I am sure, never by the hon. Member for Cleveland. A price can be displayed such as this: Mushrooms, 1s. 6d., then the word "quarter" in microscopic letters and then the word "1b." in letters three inches high. That is the sort of sign that draws people into a shop, thinking that they are going to get a bargain and then finding that it is just the ordinary price.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Sir H. Linstead) told me of an even worse deliberately misleading sign to do with parking. A sign stated, "Polite notice", which when read from a distance looked like "Police notice", and underneath it said, "Cars parked here will be towed away". It had no legal force whatever.
It will still be possible under this Bill, unless it is altered in Committee, for the producer to mark on package goods the weight and the price, but to do it in such a way that it will be very difficult for the purchaser to find out whether in fact a bargain is being obtained or whether that package costs more than another product. For instance, if one is offered ½lb. for 1s.7½d., ⅓ of a lb. for 1s. 1¼d. or 1⅔ lb. for 5s. 2d., which one gives the better bargain? I must confess that I do not know the answer because I made the figures up myself, but that is the sort of thing that one sees in almost any shop any day.
95 I welcome the Bill because it has many virtues, but I think that some of the points that I have raised could be put right in Committee, although I have not the technical ability to do so myself.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Francis Noel-Baker (Swindon)
I listened with attention to the speech of the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke), but I am puzzled to understand how he can claim not to be qualified to speak in Committee and yet make such a ready speech in the House. I have no doubt that the Government Whip, who is sitting attentively on the Front Bench, will have noted that many of the points which the hon. Member raised would be better raised in Standing Committee. I hope that I shall not see him there myself, but if that is what is in store for us, I shall not be surprised.
I intervene briefly in the debate mainly because I am personally interested in and connected with one aspect of consumer protection, namely, the interests of the consumer with regard to advertising. Like a number of other hon. Members, one of whom is the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), I am a member of the Advertising Inquiry Council. One aspect of consumer protection merges into another, and we are very much interested in the Bill.
I very much hope that the President of the Board of Trade—or the Parliamentary Secretary—will take an early opportunity of allowing the House to hear more about his intentions with regard to the Consumer Council which he said today he is going ahead and setting up without legislation; what its terms of reference will be, what kind of constitution it will have, and what sort of persons he thinks will be represented on it. The Advertising Inquiry Council to which I have referred hopes very much that some of its members will be qualified to watch over consumer protection in that field, and that its tems of reference and members and staff will be such as to help them.
I join my hon. Friends in complaining that this is a very complicated Bill indeed and in asking whether it needed to have been drafted in quite such a complicated manner. I hope that it will be improved in Committee. I sus- 96 pect that the voice of the producer and the voice of the vested interests have been heard rather louder than the voice of the consumer during the preparation of the Bill, and I hope that some of this may be corrected when we discuss it in further detail.
It is clear that this Measure needs support and reinforcement in many other ways. We need more legislation on other aspects of consumer protection, and we need the Consumer Council, when it comes into being, to be an effective body with powerful people on it and a real opportunity to act.
I refer to pages 60 to 62 of the Bill on which are listed the units of measurement which may still be used, some of them only for another 5 years, and the remainder indefinitely. I am disappointed, as are I think a goad many hon. Members on both sides of the House, that we are apparently to retain indefinitely such anachronistic, medieval, units of measurements as furlong, chain, gill, and even quart, stone, quarter, dram, grain and ell. I doubt very much whether if the Parliamentary Secretary were asked to define a dram or a grain he would be able to do so.
The hon. Member for Putney (Sir H. Linstead) spoke about the inconvenience suffered by chemists and their public by using the out-of-date apothecaries system. There are many other sections of the business community and large numbers of the public who suffer a similar inconvenience by the retention of anachronistic categories of measurements, and it is time, whether or not we are on the verge of going into the Common Market, that we took the plunge and went into the metric system.
I understand that a recommendation has been made by a body set up by the Government in respect of decimal coinage. Nothing has been done so far about metric weights and measures. There may, however, be talks going on in private at the moment about a change over from the curious units we use in this island to what the rest of the world is using, and I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to say a word about this. I very much hope that this matter is being studied and that we are not going to be left behind for very much longer.
97 I turn now to Clause 24 (2), which says:… any person who … in exposing or offering goods for sale … makes any misrepresentation either by word of mouth of otherwise as to the quantity of the goods, of does any other act calculated to mislead a person buying or selling the goods … shall be guilty of an offence.Is the Clause drafted in such a way and is it intended to be used for the protection of the public against misleading advertising claims? If it is, it will be widely welcomed by many people in this House and outside. Looked at by an un-technical eye, it seems as though it will give very wide latitude indeed, but how it will be enforced is not at all clear.
In passing, may I say how much I agreed with the hon. Member for Beckenham when he suggested that a consumer protection service should be set up and that the present inspectorate of weights and measures might be the nucleus of that. I am not sure how easy it would be to absorb weights and measures inspectors into such a service, but I am sure that many would welcome the beginning of the establishment of a consumer protection service to work under the new Consumer Council and at its direction.
The Bill as drafted has a number of provisions which seek apparently to make known to the shopper the quantity of the goods he is buying, but, as many of my hon. Friends have said, it has many loopholes, and it would be quite ridiculous if this Bill left the Standing Committee without the possibility of the size and the position of the inscription being clearly specified.
The Parliamentary Secretary probably knows that there is a big gap in the legislation covering pharmaceutical products. Many of them must have the prescription on the bottle or the container, but there is no provision as to the size of the inscription, there is no provision as to the place, and one even has the ridiculous situation where often one has the formula inside the outer wrapping so that one has to buy the article and then discover what it is made of. It is not impossible that some unscrupulous retailer or wholesaler of prepacked goods might play the same trick on the customer unless that were provided for. I therefore join my hon. Friends in begging the Parliamentary Secretary to give some assur- 98 ance that during the Committee stage it will be made quite plain in the Bill that the intention is that when weight is stated it is stated clearly, plainly, and legibly on the outside of the container and in a way that really will help the customer.
The hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), in an excellent speech which we all appreciated, said that if a manufacturer wants to help customers it is easy for him to do so. A manufacturer of prepacked goods who wants to help shoppers will ensure that the inscription is legible, where the customer can see it, and where he will understand it, by using units of measurement which make sense to him or her at first glance.
Why is it that so far the Bill has rejected, out of hand, apparently, the possibility of specifying that the net rather than the gross weight should be stated? I understand that similar legislation in the United States refers only to net weight. It should be possible to work out a reasonable relationship between the contents and the container, and, following that, I should like to ask whether it is the intention that something effective will be done about the swindle being perpetrated on housewives by the use of giant packs and other similar fraudulent containers. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will have a good look at Clause 24 and the other Clauses which deal with this matter to see what can he done to improve them. What did the inspectorate of weights and measures say about this Bill when it was in preparation? Was it consulted, and have its views been taken into account by the Government?
We are glad to see this Bill at last, but we do not think that it goes far enough. I think that it needs reinforcing in a number of ways by more legislation and by an effective Consumer Council, and I end as I began, by asking the Parliamentary Secretary to ensure that we soon get another opportunity of hearing more about his right hon. Friend's intentions with regard to the Consumer Council.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Wilfred Proudfoot (Cleveland)
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker) because he mentioned the question of decimal coinage and asked my hon. Friend to let him know what progress 99 had been made. I have followed this matter very keenly, and I can assure the hon. Member that I intend to ask the House to give a Second Reading to my Decimal Coinage Bill again. I can also inform the hon. Member that the Decimal Coinage Committee is still sitting, and my last Question on the subject elicited the information that its report should be out in January.
I speak in the debate with some hesitation, because I have some experience of weighing products. As far as I understand the debate, that has not been the usual experience of other hon. Members. What staggers me about the Bill is its scope. It covers so many articles—and rightly so. I have no intention of talking about such things as dried dynamite: I shall stick to the commodities about which I know something.
First, I want to correct the impression given by the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin). I have met his wife on several occasions, and I can assure hon. Members that she is a charming lady. I hope that the House will think twice about the hon. Member's remarks about her methods as a shopper. I welcome shoppers of her kind; they do a job of work.
§ Mrs. Slater
I hope that the hon. Member is not saying that an awkward shopper is not a charming shopper.
§ Mr. Loughlin
Since the hon. Member has referred to my wife as a charming lady, I can assure him that I think she is more than charming.
§ Mr. Proudfoot
After that declaration, I had better carry on with my speech, and say that the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West is completely wrong about supermarket operators moving their stocks around. If they do that weekly they get into a lot of trouble with their customers, and earn their bad will. This practice also adds to their labour costs.
Competition is the best safeguard for the housewife. As long as there is honest competition between one retailer and another the housewife will get a good deal. If anybody wants to succeed in the 100 retail business he must never give short weight. I am sure that that is a thing of the past. Nobody today would attempt to do it and hope to succeed in business. The best way to succeed is to give value for money.
I remember one gentleman—I am afraid that he is now dead, and I hasten to add that he died from natural causes—who used to come into my shop in the days of rationing, when we served such things as 2 oz. of butter. He often insisted that the butter had been wrongly weighed, but every time we checked it—and we were conscientious about it—we found that we were right. Apparently he had an ordinary spring balance at home, whereas we had a pair of scales which had to be stamped every year. Nevertheless, we enjoyed his visits, and we got along with him quite well. I mention this to show that people should be careful when checking weights at home on the kind of scales often found in the home. Business scales have to be stamped, by law, as a result of the previous weights and measures legislation.
Since that last Measure was introduced there has been an incredible change in the weighing of goods. Many products were at one time weighed in store—dried fruit, dried peas, and virtually everything in the grocer's store. The grocer's store has since gone through a complete revolution. From being a place where the grocer weighed up products from sacks and barrels and put them into twisted pieces of paper, it has changed to a place where goods are in cans, frozen packs and bottles. Weighing and packaging is now an industrial process.
I am glad that the Bill provides for metric weights as well as our own weights, but I ask the President of the Board of Trade to take this process a little further and to insist that the metric weight as well as the usual weight should be shown on products. I am sure that our food industry could export to a much greater extent, and it could easily print the metric weights on its labels.
Most of these products are now machine packed, and many of them are checked by radio-isotopes in order to see that the packs are full. We must be careful to see that our regulations do not add to the cost of manufacture. This is a real fear when packs are produced in millions. When an additional process 101 has to be gone through it sometimes causes difficulty. I hope that the tightness of the regulations which we are about to provide for will not have this effect. This is a reasonable fear, and we might do more harm than good by insisting on accuracy to minute fractions. Some weighing is still done in the store. Here again, we must try to avoid adding to costs. We must not impede technical progress. In the last ten years the methods of packing in store have changed incredibly, as have the materials. We now use cellophane, and are going on to use types of cellophane which allow the product to breathe, in order that it can be kept in good order. Polythene and other materials are being introduced daily, in the business of packing goods in store.
In every American supermarket there is a weighing machine which weighs articles to the 100th part of an ounce, computes the price, and prints it legibly on a ticket. I do not know whether it would be possible to use such a machine in this country, or to provide for it in the Bill. We might examine that point in Committee. As soon as decimal coinage is introduced retailers will probably want to introduce this type of scale. For the information of the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West, I should point out that the machine costs £600. Nevertheless, it will be subject to a 55 per cent. investment allowance, as we learnt last Monday, as will the £70 scale. Therefore, perhaps we ought not to be too pessimistic about its introduction.
Vegetables have been mentioned, in connection with the rate of evaporation. It would be absolutely impossible to lay down any standard rate of evaporation. One has only to think for a moment of conditions in this House. The Chamber is air-conditioned but the Tea Room certainly is not, and their respective rates of evaporation must differ enormously. Similarly, without refrigeration in the Members' Tea Room, lettuce curls more quickly, because it dries out more rapidly than is normally the case. When we are legislating we must not legislate away technical progress.
Wet lettuces have been mentioned. We must accept that green vegetables will be sprayed with water while in the 102 shop, in order to keep them fresh. Lettuces, together with some other commodities, are sold by count and not by weight. The new technical processes which have been introduced will enable housewives to get better quality.
I agree about the need for legibility on various packages. America has legislation to make sure that one can even read the price of a motor car. That sounds rather far-fetched, but I believe that some smart salesmen in America were writing out their tickets in such a way that people could not even be sure of the price of a motor car. But I warn hon. Members to be careful about such a sign as "1s. 6d. a half-pound". I hate that sign, but if we go too far in this direction we may find ourselves providing that snuff should be sold at £900 per oz., and I cannot imagine a retailer putting up a sign saying "Cut-price snuff—£899 an oz." We must be careful about this. It is obvious that pepper, for instance, should be advertised as sold by the ounce. On the other hand, we would not want to know the price of an ounce of potatoes. I deplore the practice of selling tomatoes in half-pounds——
§ Mr. Loughlin
Before the hon. Member leaves the subject of snuff, will he tell us whether he meant to say "£900 an oz." or "£900 a lb."?
§ Mr. Proudfoot
I am sorry; I meant "ton". I cannot imagine anybody in his right mind wanting to buy a ton of snuff. I once worked it out and said that I would not mind owning a ton of snuff, because I should be far better off if I did than I am now.
The remarks which have been made about poultry and the evisceration of poultry are correct. But I should like to add one point. Technical progress is overcoming these sort of things. Most birds get into the shops by improved business methods and tens of thousands of them are deep frozen. The seasonal "hump" for turkeys is becoming a thing of the past.
I wish to say something now about one or two things which are not in the 103 Bill but which should be. I do not believe that the question of aerosols is dealt with. I have been unable to find any reference in the Bill to aerosols, although I thought that the most likely place would be in the Schedule dealing with perfumery and toilet preparations. Aerosols are used for many different purposes. They include air fresheners, fly-killers, a white substance to be used for inscribing on windows and for putting "snow" on Christmas trees. No one can decide what is the content of an aerosol. In America the legislation on this subject is incredibly complicated. Commodities which are packed in aerosols vary in density and tackiness and the amount of propellant which is needed to force them out of the aerosol. I am sure that it will not be long before it is found necessary to introduce legislation to control the weight of commodities sold in aerosols.
I mentioned this to a well-known figure in the trade only a short time ago, and he said, "My goodness, I never thought of that." He took from his pocket a tiny aerosol for which he had been charged 10s., and which had been designed to be used by sufferers from asthma. I had never seen that type of aerosol before and I am sure that as more different kinds of aerosol commodities come on to the market—and they are increasing at a fast rate—it will be necessary to devise legislation to deal with them.
This question may sound slightly comic, but why are fish and chips not an item dealt with under the provisions in this Bill? A lot of people eat fish and chips which is a "convenience" food and a "take home" food. There is no method of weighing the amount of fish and chips which is received for a given price, and this amount varies a great deal. Last year during the period when potatoes were at a high price some surprisingly small amounts of chips were received by some customers.
I can assure hon. Members that no one would welcome the abolition of trade packages of unusual sizes more than the traders. Tall thin bottles break easily and they are easily knocked over. A little latitude must be allowed to producers in the way they package and present their goods because the goods must be dis- 104 played to the best advantage. But every trader would prefer to have articles in packages which can be stacked easily and are not easily knocked over. They would like to see some of the tall thin packs eliminated.
I am disappointed that the question of drained weight has not been dealt with by the provisions in this Bill. It is something which could be checked by people interested in consumer protection. The expression "drained weight" may be new to some hon. Members. The drained weight of a tin of canned peaches, for example, is represented by the solid food left in the can after the fluid has been drained away. Hon. Members who use canned foods would find considerable differences between the weight of different packs, and this is another thing which might be controlled by legislation within the weights and measures legislation. Canada has legislation of this kind and I hope that before long we shall deal with the matter in this country.
I have received correspondence from a constituent who finds that he may have up to 12 per cent. water in the coke which he purchases from the Gas Board. He is obviously a gentleman who knows a little about the matter. He knows the size of the coke he wishes to buy and he wishes to purchase it by cubic measure. I am mystified by the fact that the provisions in the Bill allow solid fuel to be sold by volume in parts of Scotland but do not permit that to be done in other parts of Britain. I should like to know the reason. If it is possible to purchase solid fuel by volume in a manner which is fairer to the customer—I do not know the technicalities in connection with this—I should like to think that people in all parts of the country could enjoy that advantage.
I cannot understand why Post Office weights do not have to be stamped. I imagine that it may have something to do with the old tradition that the Crown could not be prosecuted, and as the Post Office is a Crown office, its weights cannot be touched. The local weights and measures inspector cannot check them.
Generally speaking, the people that I know who are in trade welcome this Bill. I hope that some of the things which have not yet been dealt with will be added to the provisions already in 105 this Bill, or will appear in later legislation, in order to add to the protection afforded to consumers.
§ 7.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward Milne (Blyth)
I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Proudfoot) and I am sure that his expert knowledge will be made available to the Standing Committee which considers this Bill. I was interested in what he said about the air conditioning of this Chamber. I have been a Member of this House for only a short time but not until tonight did I discover why Members in this Chamber do not "dry up" earlier.
The price of snuff was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cleveland and I think that it has some relation to weights and measures legislation. Even where the weight of the product is displayed on the package there will be need in some cases for consumer protection. Recently I took my breakfast in a Lyons corner café and was served with Kellogg's cornflakes. The package I was given was stamped as containing ¾ oz. According to my rough calculation, the price of 1s. for ¾ oz. indicated that the product would cost well over £100 per cwt. and over £2,000 for a ton. This makes the price received by miners in my constituency for digging coal look pretty poor; and it will be realised that Kellogg's cornflakes are manufactured under much better conditions than those in which miners in my constituency have to work.
There are aspects of the Bill which I consider need the close attention of hon. Members. One is that the legislation has been so late in arriving, welcome though it is in some respects. Secondly, it reflects in some ways the general attitude of the Government towards consumer protection. Hon. Members opposite have asked for a producers' charter instead of a consumers' charter. I consider that the producer has been very well looked after, particularly in the post-war period. The Molony Committee's Report contained the following statement:Amidst all the clamour, the consumer was strangely silent … it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that on the whole the consumer does not think he, or she, is ill-served … (no doubt) from time to time the shopper is grievously and justifiably disappointed in his, 106 or her, purchases. A common reaction, we surmised, is to accept the disappointment philosophically, to ascribe it in part to the shopper's own misjudgment and to write it off to experience.I do not think any of us would accept the idea that this in itself is enough. I am certain that there will be criticism of this Bill from people engaged in distribution, the consumer organisations and the housewife. As was said earlier in this debate, very close attention will have to be paid to it because it will not be legislation only for a decade, but may well be legislation for the next half century.
As we shall endeavour to demonstrate, the Bill is in some ways excellent, but in many ways it is inadequate and it needs to be strengthened and improved. We feel lucky that we have a Bill on weights and measures from this Government at all. As the President of the Board of Trade will know, the first such Measure was introduced in 1878. I believe the law on this subject goes back to the eleventh or twelfth century, which was some little time before the President of the Board of Trade. The Hodgson Committee, set up by a Labour Government in 1948 and reporting in 1951, had this to say on the question of local authorities, and I feel this is a factor we should look at against the broad background of the details of the Bill:We consider that any future legislation should contain a general provision, which is absent from the existing law, to the effect that local Weights and Measures authorities should provide and maintain an efficient and well-equipped service.While I join with my colleagues and with hon. Members opposite who have praised the excellent work which is being done in some areas, I am sure that there is a great need for many areas to be brought up to the standards of the best. In dealing with weights and measures we are dealing with a vast retail trade, in which something like 3 million people get their living. If we lump together retail trades and services we are dealing with an industry which is responsible for something like £8,000 million of trade in a year. Therefore, any legislation of this kind must provide a framework for fair dealing and assist in informing and protecting the consumer. That must be the aim and purpose of a Weights and Measures Bill.
107 There has been ample proof over the years that ordinary shoppers are beginning to feel the need for help, protection and advice. That is why I trust that the President of the Board of Trade and others responsible for this Bill will do what they can to accept much of the advice offered them in this Second Reading debate and also that which undoubtedly will be offered to them in Committee. The Economist of 28th July said this of the housewives of Britain:The housewife industry, 15 million women strong, has one of the least trained, least organised and least effectively informed labour forces in the land".This is not surprising when it is appreciated that in consumer expenditure as a nation we spend over £500 million a year on advertising, which is as much as we spend on education.
The hon. Member for Cleveland, who has since left the Chamber, said that the consumer should be free to learn from his own mistakes and free to shop in his own way. The whole history of distribution in this country flies in the face of that statement. There is an opinion and impression abroad that only a small section of people are agitating for a Measure such as this and for consumer protection. That most grandmotherly of newspapers, The Times, had this to say on 26th July, 1962, following the publication of the Molony Report:The report should help to dispel the impression sometimes created by the knight errants of consumer protection that the retail trade is riddled with exploitation, consumers being forced to pay excessive prices for shoddy goods and continuously misled by false claims and false descriptions.Even the Government have recognised in this Bill that we are dealing to a large extent with false claims and false descriptions. Even the Board of Trade asked the Central Office of Information in April, 1959, to undertake a social survey into the habits and needs of housewives relating to weights and measures legislation. I hope the report of that survey will be made readily available to the House.
There are a number of factors in this Bill which I think can be conveniently left to Committee. Some praise has rightly been expressed of the clarity of certain of its Clauses. I join in extending that praise to those who drafted the Measure, but, as hon. Members know, 108 I have a particular interest in the question of solid fuel because I represent a mining constituency. I was rather disturbed to find on page 84 of the Bill one of those hideous examples of drafting Which in a single sentence provides only two brief pauses for breath by way of commas and takes up twelve lines of print. If we read from line 24 on that page we find:Any byelaws made by a local authority for any of the purposes aforesaid under any enactment repealed by this Act, being byelaws which, immediately before the commencement of this Schedule, had effect for any of those purposes in relation to solid fuel or any description thereof, shall, so far as they make provision for any of those purposes, continue in force with the like effect until revoked by the authority by whom they were made whether or not that authority are for the time being a local weights and measures authority and notwithstanding the repeal by this Act of the enactment under which the byelaws were made of of any other enactment by virtue of which the byelaws had effect with respect to solid fuel of any particular description.I hope that the House will not ask me to explain what I have read. The President of the Board of Trade must be glad that the Parliamentary Secretary is to wind up the Second Reading debate. I certainly would feel that way if I were in the position of the President. I did not pick out that sentence intentionally for there are one or two others which are almost as "good". I hope they will be rectified later.
The consuming public of Britain need a Weights and Measures Bill. I do not think that this Bill adds up to the type of Measure which is needed or indeed is adequate for Britain in 1962, but we shall be better able to judge that when we deal with the Bill in Committee and in its subsequent stages.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)
I listened to the hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Proudfoot) with great interest. I thought that his speech was most arresting, because he started by telling us that he did not have as much faith in the Bill as he had in competition, which, he said, was the best safeguard for the shopper. He overlooked the fact that the Bill is being introduced in an age of competition and after more than a century during which people have had the advantage of a competitive system. Yet, despite this, all the dishonesties which 109 are mentioned in the Bill are still so prevalent that it has fallen to a Tory Government, admittedly after a long delay, to introduce the Bill.
The hon. Member pledged his faith to competition. Then he proceeded to keep the Minister so busy that he hardly had time to look across at this side of the House; for he spent the rest of his speech telling his right hon. Friend about all the things which were missing from the Bill and which might have been introduced.
One of the interesting features of this Second Reading debate has been the criticism of this Measure. Criticism comes naturally from this side of the House—how could it be other than natural with a Government such as the present Government?—but it has been interesting to observe that not a single speech has been made from the Government side of the House which has not been very critical of the Bill. I hope that the vow of silence which the Whips impose on Government Members in Committee will be removed in respect of this Bill. I trust that hon. Members opposite who have chosen to sit on the Committee will be able to speak as freely there as they have spoken today and, when the chance comes, as it will, that their feet will follow their voices. If that happens, then the Bill which emerges from the Committee will be very different from that which went in.
For instance, we may have fish and chips dealt with in the Bill, which at present does not mention them. For this popular dish, the eye is the unit of measurement. We must remember that there are not only fixed units of measurement; there are variable units of measurement still in operation, and the eye is one of them. The girl who usually serves the fish and chips uses her eye as her unit of measurement, and she gives the customer what she thinks he ought to have for the money which he is paying.
The eye is still widely used as a measurement. The newspaper reporter uses it as a unit of measurement when reporting the length of a putt in the open championship, and the distance varies from newspaper to newspaper. The golfer uses another variable unit, the length of his step, when he is judging 110 the distance of his drive, especially if it is a good one. If he wants to make it seem longer, he shortens his step. He says, "It is 250 yards, or even 300 yards", and he does this by varying the unit which he is employing.
From these units have arisen the fixed units which we have today. The yard is now to be related to the metre and the metre to the wavelength of Krypton-86 light. I do not know what that means, and the Minister did not seem to be too clear about it either. But in practice it will still mean exactly the same thing in the future as it means now. Because in my view that distance must be transferred to a platinum bar, and there must be two gold marks on that bar, as there are now on the standard platinum bar, which I believe is kept in the British Museum. The distance between those two gold marks will still represent the standard yard, which is the basis of all our measurements of distance. If I am wrong in that interpretation, the Minister will no doubt correct me.
It may be that this linking of the British unit with the metric unit is one of the short, initial, hesitating steps towards the Common Market. I believe that these steps are not big enough for the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Holt), who wishes to see longer steps taken; but they are too long for any which I wish to see taken, unless they are taken backwards.
The problem of short weight has been the subject of a good deal of debate. Clause 24 (2) has been widely recited, and I do not propose to repeat the recitation, but it seems to me that the Clause is quite strict, and if it can be interpreted properly, in the way in which it appears to require interpretation, and acted upon, it should prove helpful in overcoming these flagrant pieces of dishonesty.
I was almost a victim of it not long ago when I went into a fruit-and-vegetable shop to buy some boiled sweets—because in many areas which are not large shopping areas fruit-and-vegetable shops stock confectionery. I asked for a quarter of black-striped balls—the kind of sweets which I understand the Minister likes very much. The girl who was serving in the shop took down the bottle 111 and poured the sweets into the balance. I happened to be near the balance pan, and in it I saw a considerable amount of dirt, arising from the fact that the purchaser before me had been buying potatoes. My predecessor had evidently paid for her potatoes and the dirt, and now, if I had agreed to the transaction, I was going to pay for the dirt, too, plus my "sweeties."
All that might well have been carelessness, but it is the sort of thing that can go on and is going on, and indeed, as I have said, I myself on that occasion was very nearly the victim of paying for striped balls and dirt. Of course, I rejected any further connection with the bargain, and left the shop. Some of it may be due to lack of thought; I am not quite sure, but in the case of fruit generally, and, I do not think this has been commented upon tonight, in the selling of bananas, apples and grapes, common sales that occur every day amongst millions of people, there is a very nice little trick worked.
Bananas are sold by the pound. A buyer asks for a pound of bananas, and is told "It is just a little short of 1 lb.", but the price charged, being just a little bit short, is for the pound. The same thing can be worked when the weight is over the pound and when it is calculated—if the purchaser has the time to work it out—that the extra bit works out at between 3d. and 4d. an ounce for the overcharge. That goes on every day, and it means that there is a considerable dishonest benefit to those traders who are acting in that way. It applies equally to grapes and to apples. I do not think that all that kind of commerce is merely accidental. In my view, it is dishonesty, and it is part and parcel of the stystem under which we are living.
I want to see all this terminated, and the only way of terminating it is by legislation. That is the reason why this legislation is before us. Of course, if the legislation is to be effective, it must be enforced. It would seem, so far as I could follow the right hon. Gentleman's introductory speech, that the efficiency of the methods is somewhat in doubt. We shall need a great deal of power, either in the hands of our local authorities or in the hands of the standards department of the Board of Trade, to enforce this 112 legislation, and that means inspectors and sufficient of them. If I have to take as a sample of what happens after necessary legislation has been passed by this House, there is sometimes not proper enforcement of that legislation, because of the fact that the inspectors, the men on the spot in the local areas, the men who do the work, are not sufficient in number. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will see to it that there is enough power, backed up by an efficient and sufficient inspectorate to give reality to this legislation.
The proof of what I am saying lies in the operation of the Food and Drugs Act. It is nearly five years since we entered that into the law of this country, and, from my own observations, the handling of food in Britain, as I have seen it in different parts, still leaves a great deal to be desired; despite the fact that Parliament has passed legislation that should terminate the use of unclean methods in the handling and serving of food. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will take note of that fact.
Then there is another point, to show that we are serious about this legislation. We have to make the law known. We have been told tonight by various hon. Members on both sides of the House of the large numbers of persons who are concerned in this—not merely those who are retailing, but those who are producing. Millions of traders and buyers are concerned in it. Are we to make sure that the legislation dealing with short weight will be made known to all those who are engaged in the business of selling? I hope we will get some information about that. What steps are to be taken to make the provisions of this Bill known to all those who will be concerned in carrying them out?
There is a difficulty about making that knowledge widespread. It is the complicated nature of this legislation and the obscurity of the language in which it is expressed. We have just had an example from my hon. Friend. Will it not be necessary if we are to make this Bill, when it becomes an Act, as widely known as we want it to be; and as clear as is necessary? That onus rests on the right hon. Gentleman and his staff in making those Clauses which are obscure and complicated so simply worded that those who have to administer them will know 113 exactly their meaning and will understand clearly and precisely what they have to do.
Like everyone else, I welcome the Bill, and, as I have indicated, we shall have a great deal to say about its improvement when we reach the Committee stage. There is one strange omission from the Bill. We are talking about traders who devalue length, capacity, and all sorts of measurements, but there is never word about the greatest sinner of the whole lot. Who has devalued more than the Government? They have devalued values themselves. They have devalued the value of the coinage, and although coinage is dealt with in the Bill, there is never a word about devaluation by the greatest sinner of all—this Government.
Perhaps it would be wrong, in debating a measure of this type, that Satan himself should rebuke sin, but during the Committee stage it might be possible to secure an Amendment which would ensure that in future, just as we are to try to make length something that will have the same value throughout the whole country and be uniform, we might be able to manage an Amendment which will in the future give money a more stable value than it has had in the past. That is the recommendation that I make to the right hon. Gentleman tonight, and of which I am sure he will take very careful note.
§ 8.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
It is quite obvious from today's debate that the Bill in its present form is a very inadequate Measure which will require some very extensive amendment as we go along. The President of the Board of Trade breezily described it as modernising our legislation, but the trouble is, as any number of speeches from my hon. Friends have shown, that the right hon. Gentleman's rather belated enthusiasm for consumer protection has been dimmed by his timidity for all the various vested industries involved. It is very unlikely that the housewife will get from the Government of the party opposite a real charter such as has been spoken of today. Indeed, so small is the enthusiasm of the party opposite for consumer protection that it seems to have been a little difficult for the right hon. Gentleman to get any of his hon. Friends to speak on this 114 subject today. Not merely has no back bencher opposite given wholehearted support to the Bill, but very few have been willing to say anything whatever about it.
If anyone doubts the tepid enthusiasm of the Government over this whole businessc, they have only to look at the incredible record of delay which stands behind the production of the Bill. When it is a matter of altering the boundaries of the L.C.C. to benefit the electoral chances of the party opposite, they rush ahead with quite remarkable speed. When it is a matter of protecting the consumer, it takes eleven years before they even tiptoe forward.
The Hodgson Committee was set up in 1948 in the days when there was some enthusiasm for reform. It reported in the summer of 1951, making a whole number of positive and unanimous recommendations. There was then prolonged silence from the Government of the party opposite, even though from 1945 to 1951 they had been protesting the greatest possible ardour for the interests of the housewife.
That deep silence was next broken, so far as I can discover, only in December, 1957, by the then President of the Board of Trade, who is now Lord Eccles, who since the Prime Minister's massacre last July has been translated to a higher sphere in the City. It is interesting now to note that he said this in December, 1957, in introducing the Import Duties Bill:This Bill represents the kind of unspectacular reform which it is one of the functions of the Board of Trade to bring before this House. Last year, copyright; this year, tariff structures; next year, maybe weights and measures. Such is the pedestrian road along which the Board of Trade advances cheerfully."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd December, 1957; Vol. 579, c. 44.]That was said in 1957. Then the silence continued until the autumn of 1960, nine years after the Hodgson Report, incidentally, when at last a Bill was introduced into the House of Lords. It was severely criticised there as inadequate. It was exhaustively debated, but, despite what the right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon, the Government accepted very few of the Amendments put forward in the Lords.
In the summer of 1961 that Bill mysteriously disappeared. A little later 115 a No. 2 Bill was published—but just published. No further legislative step was taken. That Bill failed to appear in the Session which began in the autumn of 1961.
Now finally, after eleven years, this rather inadequate Bill is at last introduced to this House. Incidentally, after having taken eleven years to produce the Bill, the Government have left the House not much more than eleven days in which to digest and study it before taking the Second Reading today. This whole story adds up to a tale of delay and vacillation which is typical of the present Government.
Today's debate has also shown what a very limited part of the whole field of consumer protection is covered by the Bill, even now that we have it. It is limited, after all, to weighing and measuring, which are very important; but there are more things in heaven and earth—indeed, there are more things in Marks and Spencer—than can be weighed, counted or measured. There is quality. There is design. There is, indeed, the whole field of resale price maintenance, restrictive practices and all sorts of things of that kind which the Bill does not attempt to cover. All we try to achieve here—of course, it is important—is to ensure that the shopper gets the quantity and weight that she thinks she is getting, not that she gets it at a fair price, not that it is of fair quality, or anything of that kind. A very great deal needs to be done in all sorts of other ways before the consumer is adequately protected.
However, deplorable as have Ministers' records been for vacillation and delay over this, the House might spare a passing thought and tribute, in view of the nature of the Bill, for the officials and experts and the weights and measures inspectors who must clearly have put a vast amount of labour, if unrewarding labour, into the technicalities as opposed to the policy of the Bill. A mere glance at the Schedules shows what a very great deal of effort must have been involved.
I am reminded here, since the President of the Board of Trade quoted The Merchant of Venice, of Anthony Trollope's novel The Three Clerks, which, as the right hon. Gentleman may 116 know, was devoted largely to a department called "The Weights and Measures." As the right hon. Gentleman quoted one passage, I will quote one. Anthony Trollope says this of this excellent department:It is generally admitted that the Weights and Measures is a well-conducted public office; indeed, to such a degree of efficiency has it been brought by its present very excellent secretary, the two very worthy assistant-secretaries, and especially by its late most respectable chief clerk, that it may be said to stand quite alone as a high model for all other public offices whatever.Mr. Trollope then compares it favourably with a certain other department, but not, I may say, the Admiralty. Perhaps, in view of what the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Holt) said about the metric system and his desire to move in that direction, I may inform him that one of Mr. Trollope's assistant-secretaries was deeply interested in that question. Mr. Trollope says this:One of the worthy assistant secretaries, the worthier probably of the two, has already grown pale beneath the weight of this question.Perhaps it was Mr. Baily of whom we read in the Schedules to the Bill. He vowed to destroy the shilling or the shilling would destroy him. It seems that the shilling has triumphed. I am not sure, subject to our later discussion, that on the whole my sympathies are not with the shilling.
While I think we must give some praise to the Herculean labours of those who constructed this work, I agree with my hon. Friends that we are bound to ask whether the final result need have been so complicated. It needs three Ministers to understand it, one of whom has some connection with science, and one of whom we have been told feeds on mule meat. I wonder whether all this is necessary. I realise that life is very complicated. Oscar Wilde said so rightly that life is "seldom pure and never simple". Therefore, we must not try to over-simplify things too much. After all, this is a matter which is supposed to assist millions of shoppers and hundreds of thousands of shop workers, most of whom would not lay great claim to intellectual eminence or scholarship sublime. If we cannot simplify the Measure to some extent in the course of its passage, I hope that the Board of Trade will consider at the end of the 117 story issuing some plain guide or shoppers' guide which will hold out some hope of people understanding the Measure which they have to operate.
The debate today has brought out one disquieting fact in that in some respects the Bill, so far from strengthening and, as the President of the Board of Trade said, modernising the protection offered to the consumer, actually will leave it weaker than it was before. I will mention several respects in which this appears to be true.
Firstly, I understand that it has been a basic principle of weights and measures law for the past thirty years that, anyway, many foodstuffs must be prepacked only in prescribed quantities. But the Bill, as we understand, so far from extending that principle actually restricts it. It will now be possible for more goods to be sold in odd quantities so that the housewife, who is not always a human computer, cannot make easy comparisons. Is it right or necessary to weaken the existing protection in that respect?
Secondly, many experts maintain that the provision in the Sixth Schedule on solid fuels will be even less effective in preventing fraud than the present law. I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary would deny this. One example quoted today has been the power of stopping vehicles containing solid fuels. That method is to be taken away in the Bill, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) said this afternoon, frauds in the sale of solid fuels are more common than almost any kind of offence in this field. Can it really be wise to weaken further the defences of the consumer in this way?
Clause 33 (3), which has been mentioned by several speakers, will enable pre-packed horticultural produce, fish and poultry now to be offered for sale with no indication of weight, provided that scales are made available in the shop on which the customer, if she understands how to do it, may weigh the goods for herself. I realise that this is intended to make life easier for those who run supermarkets and self-service stores, but it would surely also weaken still further the protection which the customer has enjoyed even up to now on quite a wide range of goods.
118 Almost the only hon. Member opposite who seemed to understand the Bill described this new provision as a subterfuge. This was pretty strong language to use about the Bill. Is it not really true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) said in his comprehensive speech, that this will tip the balance still further in favour of the supermarkets and against the small retail shop? Nor does it seem to me that convincing answers have been forthcoming so far to the main criticisms made of the Bill during the debate. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will attempt some now. I will mention five or six of the main points that seem to me to have emerged today and which require an answer.
First, is it really necessary to extend the principle of selling prepacked goods by gross weight, that is, by weight including the wrapper? We all agree that this issue is becoming more and more important as more goods are prepacked and this whole principle extends in the retail trade. Unfortunately, in too many cases with prepacked goods the weight consists too much of the packing and not enough of the goods which the consumer wants. It is rather like a Tory election manifesto which is all packing and very little substance, or like a speech by the Lord Privy Seal on the negotiations in Brussels—almost all words and practically no meaning.
If other countries with highly developed modern distributive systems insist on sale by net weight, as all the evidence shows, why cannot we do so? Does the Parliamentary Secretary deny that in the United States, which after all pioneered these supermarkets and similar devices, and in many Commonwealth and other countries net weight has to be given and is the criterion in virtually all cases? The Hodgson Committee recommended in this direction, with only limited exceptions, and so does the Institute of Weights and Measures. Why have we to lag behind both the recommendations of the Hodgson Committee and the present practice in the United States?
Many hon. Members have asked for more extended sale by prescribed quantities. Should there not really be a wider extension of the rule that goods must be prepacked only in simple prescribed 119 quantities? Here again the Hodgson Committee recommended this for a long list of goods, and it seems to me quite clear, and half-a-dozen hon. Members have made the point, that if something is sold at 1s. 1½d. for 6¾ oz. the purchaser is much less able to judge whether she is getting, value for money than if it is so much per pound or per half-pound. What good reason is there for refusing to extend that principle more widely?
Thirdly, why should the purchaser in most cases not be able to tell the simple price per unit of the goods on sale? I understand that that principle is generally enforced on the Continent of Europe. Does not this clearly make a comparison much easier, and do not traders have to calculate the price per pound themselves in the great majority of cases so that they could perfectly well inform the consumer what it is?
Next, cannot the Bill do something more effective to prohibit packages which even though they may state the quantities are nevertheless false or misleading? We have had a lot of evidence today, and it is in various other reports, that outsize containers, half-filled packages with a false inside or packed with padding are still being used. I think that the President of the Board of Trade was still thinking of the Tory manifesto when I mentioned "padding", but I did not have that in mind at that moment. These devices are being used to exaggerate the real contents in the case of cosmetics, soap, detergents, powder and breakfast cereals. Surely, at the least, the Board of Trade should be given power to make regulations in the case of these deceptive packages.
In addition, why cannot we have more safeguards against frauds in the delivery of solid fuels? There does not seem to be any doubt that here they are very necessary and also practicable. Why cannot it be laid down by law that every container of solid fuel should be marked with a statement of the quantity in it? That seems practicable and not beyond the resources of the trade.
Finally, why should not the regulations affecting fruit and vegetables apply at the wholesale as well as the retail stage? Why should not the retailer have the same protection as we are seeking to give to the customer in the shop? One 120 could go on with many other points. The trouble about the Bill is that every point is a Committee point. I could go on for much longer but these questions, and, far more, those raised by my hon. Friends in the course of the debate, show that the Government have rather sadly missed a fine opportunity here to strike a real blow for the consumer.
Once again, I am afraid that it looks as though Ministers have allowed themselves to be cowed by the spectacle of the various trade interests. This Bill clearly needs a great deal of drastic amendment, and between now and August we shall propose many Amendments in Committee to reshape it in accordance with the criticisms we have made today. We shall not vote against this Measure tonight because, quite apart from the heinous delay it has already suffered, the good and bad parts in it are so inextricably mixed up that it seems to us to need reconstruction rather than outright rejection.
I deeply deplore that so good an opportunity has been missed. We live in a time when the processes of distribution are rapidly changing and becoming more complex, when the goods sold are more varied and sophisticated, when advertising, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker) pointed out, is more insistent and all-pervading, and when the ordinary shopper is faced with ever-bigger trading combines both in the distributive and manufacturing spheres. I should have thought that, for all these reasons, the consumer needs in this age much more protection, in all sorts of ways, rather than less, but I am afraid that it is all too plain from this debate that, however drastically we amend the Bill, the whole job of consumer protection will never be done properly by the present Government.
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. David Price)
First of all, I can assure the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) that I am not easily cowed, nor is my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. I would, at the beginning, like to join in the very proper congratulations that the right hon. Gentleman gave to officials, and particularly to those of the weights and measures department, 121 for the very great deal of work that has gone into the preparation of the Bill.
Before I attempt to answer the debate, I should like to clear up a point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) when he interrupted my right hon. Friend and made reference to ell or hell, or something. I can assure the House that the ell is an ancient Scottish measure of length which has been illegal for trade for very many years. I do not know whether Scottish Members will feel that this goes against the Act of Union, but I assure the House that it has been illegal for trade far a very long time and, therefore, is appropriately not in the Schedule to the Bill.
I shall endeavour to answer as many of the points that have been made in this debate as the patience of the House will allow, and if I do not cover them all tonight I hope that hon. Members will not be too disappointed. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, we have plenty of time in Committee to answer them all, and we can answer most of them. In any case, as has been rightly pointed out, many of the points made have been in the nature of Committee points rather than Second Reading points, but I make no complaint about that because it is inevitable in a detailed Bill of this nature.
Before I attempt to root around the shelves of detail—and the Bill is a veritable supermarket of detail—I wish to add a little to what my right hon. Friend said in his introduction about the general philosophy behind the Bill. As the House knows, the regulation of weights and measures in some form or other has existed in this country from the earliest days. There was, for instance, in Anglo-Saxon times the Statute of King Edgar which provided as follows—and this may interest the right hon. Gentleman:And let our money pass through the King's Dominion; and let no man refuse; and let one measure and one weight pass, such as is observed at Winchester.As a Hampshire Member—and I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will join me—I will be excused in seeing merit in the simpler approach adopted by King Edgar to weights and measures.
Throughout the Middle Ages, authority concerned itself with weights and measures. It is worth looking for a moment as to reasons why authority 122 found it necessary so to concern itself. The basic reason lay in the concept of the "just price" and the rôle of legitimate authority, local and national, in ensuring an equivalence of power between buyer and seller.
As St. Thomas Aquinas expressed it in the Summa Theologica:Purchase and sale are seen to have been introduced for the common utility of both parties, since one needs the goods of the other…But what was introduced for the common good ought not to be more of a burden on the one than on the other; and so the contract between them ought to be established according to an equality.This equality is derived in the open market: what the Schoolmen called "The common valuation of the market" —communis aestimatio fori".
In all their regulations about weights and measures, the sale of goods, the control of markets, and so forth, our mediaeval ancestors were concerned to maintain an equivalence of power between buyer and seller.
I believe that this Bill makes an important contribution towards this aim by ensuring that just and known quantities are offered for sale. Of course, market conditions have changed vastly over the centuries. The range of consumer choice is far greater. The quality is far higher. Marketing is a highly complex and integrated process. It is right, therefore, that from time to time we should review our legislation on weights and measures and attempt to bring it up to date.
In the Ninth Schedule the House will see the many current enactments which stand to be repealed by the passing of the current Bill. The principal Act is the Weights and Measures Act of 1878, but one goes back as far as the eighteenth century. But the philosophy remains the same—to ensure an equivalence of power between buyer and seller. Those of us who read economics at university and studied the economics of "imperfect competition", know that even conceptually this equivalence of power is hard to achieve. Nevertheless the ideal of the equivalence of power between buyer and seller must be our continuous aim in mankind's long journey towards the good and the just society.
123 Up-to-date weights and measures legislation is an essential feature of that aim. Molony called it:… part of the basic vocabulary of consumer protection.I would go further and call it part of the basic vocabulary of the just price, because the just price must be fair to seller as well as to buyer.
If any hon. Member doubts the necessity for weights and measures legislation, let him recall the comment of the Psalmist:As for the children of men, they are but vanity, the children of men are deceitful upon the weights, they are altogether lighter than vanity itself.My right hon. Friend referred to the distinction between weights and measures, which are the subject of this Bill, and other aspects of consumer protection, about which we have heard a lot in the course of this debate and upon which the Molony Committee in its comprehensive and extremely valuable Report has made a number of important recommendations. Since a number of hon. Members—and, in particular, the hon. Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) for Bolton, West (Mr. Holt) and for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker)—have asked about the Government's intentions regarding the Molony Committee recommendations, perhaps I might add a little to what my right hon. Friend has already said.
The Report of the Molony Committee, for Which the Government are most grateful, covered a great deal of ground and put forward a large number of recommendations, many of them involving legislation on matters of great technical complexity. The Committee cleanly did not expect that it would be practicable for all those recommendations to be put into effect overnight or, indeed, in a Parliamentary year. It would be quite wrong for any Government to reach firm conclusions on these matters without careful consideration of the policy and legislative problems involved. In particular it is obviously necessary that we Should have full consultation with the large number of interests, many of them representing consumers, who have special knowledge or experience in this field.
In fact, my right hon. Friend arranged, immediately the Molony Committee's 124 Report was published, for all interested parties, including those organisations which made representations to the Committee, to be consulted about its recommendations. I am sure the House would agree that this was a necessary stage in the process of deciding what action should be taken on a matter which affects so many aspects of our national life.
§ Mrs. Slater
Since the President of the Board of Trade has invited other people for consultation, would not the Parliamentary Secretary agree that the House should at least debate the Molony Report so that hon. Members Who are in close contact with everyone concerned in this matter could express their views before the Government decide on anything, instead of the Government taking a decision after having listened to only a weeny little group of the people?
§ Mrs. Slater rose——
§ Mrs. Slater
With respect, I agree that the President of the Board of Trade or any other Minister does not decide the business of the House, but surely the Minister concerned could put pressure in the right quarters so that, through the usual channels, this vital matter could be debated?
§ Mr. Price
I am not cognisant of any pressures which my right hon. Friend puts or does not put in any direction. However, I have some interesting information to show the hon. Lady and hon. Members generally that we are indeed doing something. The Board of Trade has already consulted at least 200 responsible organisations and has had meetings with many of them. Obviously this takes time and, while these consultations are now almost complete, my right hon. Friend will obviously want to consider carefully the points made to him before he decides what action he 125 should recommend to the House, other than the setting up of a Consumer Council which, as my right hon. Friend said in his opening speech, does not require legislation.
The establishment of this Council was the central recommendation of the Molony Committee and that Committee clearly gave it priority in time. We can claim that we have acted promptly on this main recommendation. The Molony Committee clearly envisaged that the Council would have a part to play in advising the Government in the application of many of the other recommendations in its Report, including any regulations we may make in this Bill, if it becomes an Act. The Committee considered that after the establishment of a Consumer. Council, its recommendations relating to hire purchase deserved the first priority, and then there should follow amendment of the Merchandise Marks Act and the Sale of Goods Act.
The Government have accepted in general this assesment of the relative order of priorities and are giving particularly close attention to the Committee's recommendations on hire-purchase law as it affects the consumer. There will not be an opportunity for a Government Bill this Session on hire purchase but we hope to be in a position, before the end of the year, to have reached conclusions on this part of the Molony Committee's Report.
The Molony Committee's recommendations on amending the Merchandise Marks legislation, as the Committee recognised, are rather far reaching and if they were accepted would involve a completely new piece of legislation. This is clearly something which needs detailed study and preparation and is an operation on which we should not embark in too great a hurry. Nor does the Molony Committee itself suggest that we should, and the same is true of its recommended amendment of the Sale of Goods Act. We shall press ahead with the study and the implementation of these recommendations, but it would be unrealistic to think that we could put them all into effect at once. My right hon. Friend and I look forward to many years of following up these problems and we have no doubt that, in due time, we shall see the whole of the Molony Committee's recommendations through the House.
126 Many hon. Members have raised the matter of the metric system and several pressed the need to change to it. Hon. Members know that, while the majority of countries now use the metric system, a great deal of the world's trade—I am told about a half—is still conducted in terms of the Imperial system, in particular, trade in the United States and in most of the Commonwealth countries.
It is interesting to note that the British Standards Institution is at present conducting a wide-scale survey of the advantages of adopting the metric system in particular industries. Meanwhile the Government are keeping the question under review, both in relation to overseas developments, including our possible entry into the Common Market, and trading practices at home. But while the Bill does nothing to compel the adoption of the metric system either generally or in individual industries, it leaves industries free to make the choice for themselves. The system has been lawful for use in trade in this country for many years, and will continue to be so. So any manufacturers or industries can change to the system if they wish, and some have done so.
Reference was made by the hon. Lady the Member for Stoke on Trent, North and the hon. Member for Bolton, West to the membership of the Commission on Units and Standards of Measurement referred to in Clause 7. They suggested that membership of the Commission should be drawn partly from people representative of administration or consumer interests. In the Government's view, it would be wrong to regard the Commission as a body to which members are appointed in a representative capacity. As my right hon. Friend stressed, this is a commission of experts which will be dealing with very highly technical subjects. The House will have noticed the relation of the yard to the international metre, which is itself based on Krypton-86. I have a very large brief from the National Physical Laboratory which we shall no doubt go through in Committee. If one studies it, one sees that one has to be fairly technical to understand what is referred to.
It may well be that appointments made under Clause 7 will include scientific people who have experience of 127 public administration or consumers—though there must in any case be consumers, because we are all consumers. The key factor in their appointment should be whether their own experience and qualifications make them the most suitable people for the job, and the method of appointment provided for in Clause 7 will, in the Government's view, secure the best possible balance of membership which is appropriate to the type of work which the Commission will have to do.
The right hon. Member for Battersea, North and a number of other hon. Members spoke on the very important matter of net weight and gross weight. The general principle of the Bill is that where goods are required to be sold by weight or marked with weight, this shall, so far as practicable, be the net weight. I am sure the House will agree that this is a desirable objective. Nevertheless, there are some cases where it is not practicable, or reasonable, in the present state of trade, to insist on net weight. For example, when goods like butter and lard, bacon or ham are sold over the counter it is obviously hygienic and, indeed, necessary that they should be in some form of wrapper. These goods and some others are accordingly permitted to be sold or marked by gross weight. But wherever this is allowed, the weight of the wrapper or container is strictly controlled.
If hon. Members will study the Schedule they will see that the tolerances allowed are extremely narrow. In the case of fresh meat the tolerance is under 1 per cent. of the weight sold. That in practice merely enables the butcher to put a piece of greaseproof paper on his scales before weighing the meat. I can assure the House that the reason for that is one of hygiene.
§ Mr. Price
We will go into that in Committee, but I do not think that the tolerance allowed—less than 1 per cent. on a joint of meat—is anything to make a great fuss about.
128 The hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North referred to cheese. I do not think she had correctly read the wording in Part III of the Fourth Schedule. I appreciate that Measures of this nature are difficult to read. All cheese sold loose is to be sold by net weight and Cheddar or Cheshire type cheese must be sold by net weight even when pre-packed; but pre-packed natural cheese can be sold by gross weight when it is not Cheddar or Cheshire. I inquired closely into this drafting, and the reason for this is that Cheddar and Cheshire types form the vast majority of cheeses, and they are cheeses which cannot easily lose weight; but if one tried to do it with some of the runny cheeses, particularly the French cheeses, one would get into many difficulties. We will go into this in more detail in Committee.
I want the House to know that, under this Bill, although of course there are quite a lot of articles which we are intending should be sold by gross weight within the tolerance allowed in the package, nothing that was previously sold by net weight has been taken out, while there have been substantial additions. Again, as we go through the Schedules in Committee, I will be able to give a good many more examples.
The right hon. Member for Battersea, North and other hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), who constructed his speech around it, raised the question of a requirement to sell in specified or prescribed quantities. The requirement to sell in specified amounts is a tight form of control and is attractive to many shoppers, since it undoubtedly produces excellent consumer protection for some kinds of goods. It helps the shopper to recognise by the size of the pack what the weight is, and it can help in comparing prices of different brands if they are all packed in the same range of sizes.
This Bill prescribes the form of protection for a number of basic commodities. Coal, bread, milk, potatoes, tea, coffee, sugar, breakfast flakes and jam are examples. Some of these are already required to be packed in specified amounts under present law, but the Bill adds to the number of goods to be treated 129 in this way. In Committee we will discuss this in relation to a lot of other goods, and I hope to be able to show hon. Members then the reasons why certain goods which I know some would like to see covered have not been covered.
We are taking powers under Clause 21 to be able to make changes as practice develops, so the list of goods we are treating in this manner is not definitive for ever. A number of hon. Members have spoken as though we only had a weights and measures Act about once a century, so that anything we do not put in the Schedule now will not go in at all. But this is one of the subjects on which I hope the Consumer Council will give us advice, considering how other goods which are not included can be brought in to the satisfaction of consumers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Proudfoot) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) referred to drained weight. This is a question of requiring that certain canned foods should carry a marking on the container of the drained weight of the contents—that is, excluding syrup. Some food packers already do this, particularly where the food is packed in brine. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent them continuing to do so, provided that where the liquid is also a food a statement of the total quantity of food is also marked on the container. Sometimes liquids themselves are food—one thinks of herring in tomato sauce, for instance.
But the Government have not included any general requirement for goods to be marked with their drained weight. This is not a matter for which it would be appropriate to lay down a requirement of universal application. For example, the hon. Lady referred to canned foods. Among these, distinction is almost impossible. In the case of raspberries, for instance, who can distinguish between raspberry juice and the raspberries proper, unless the raspberries have been completely dehydrated? Raspberries have to be dehydrated if one is to get them without moisture. I wonder if any hon. Members have attempted to eat a dehydrated raspberry, as I did once. Some interesting experiments were done at the Ministry of Agriculture's Food Research Establishment.
We recognise that this is a field in which the consumer can in some circum- 130 stances be given misleading information of quantity, and the Bill empowers the Board of Trade to require by order that the drained weight should be marked and it also empowers the Board of Trade to prescribe the way in which the statement of drained weight is to be checked by inspectors. When we examine it in Committee, hon. Members will see that we have gone a bit further than we have been given credit for. This is the sort of matter where we should like continuing guidance from the Consumer Council, particularly as trade practices alter.
Quite a number of hon. Members have mentioned inadequate marking and said that it is all very well to say that the weight has to be put on the container, but that if it is in minute print, nobody can read it. I can assure the House that we have thought that one out and that under Clause 21 (4) the Board of Trade has power by regulation to prescribe the manner in which information is to be given. We have been criticised for going into too much detail in the Bill, but this is one of the matters in which we have taken general powers and have not put them in detail in the Bill. But the power is there and I can assure hon. Members that we have no intention of allowing traders to get round it.
§ Mr. Loughlin
Clause 21 gives the Board of Trade power to make certain provisions. Paragraph (2, b) says:…only if the container is marked with such information as to the quantity of goods…The Bill constantly refers to marking, but not to how the marking is to be done. That is the point we are making.
§ Mr. Price
The hon. Member has not got the point. We have power under this Clause, and we intend to use it, to make general regulations in detail about marking. We could not make a general provision specifying, how each container should be marked, but we have power when it becomes necessary in any case. If it comes to our attention, or if an hon. Member brings it to my attention, that 131 efforts are being made to get round the spirit of the Bill by using absurdly small marking, then we have power to take action.
Clause 24 deals with short weight, to which the right hon. Member for Battersea, North referred, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin). This is the corner-stone of the consumer protection provisions of the Bill. The short weight provision makes it an offence to give short weight measure or number in any transaction, or to give a lesser quantity than corresponds with the price charged, or to mislead anybody about the quantity sold or offered. The Clause also establishes the principle that where prepacked goods are required to be marked with the quantity of their contents, that quantity must be accurate when the goods are sold to the shopper and not merely at some earlier time, for instance, when they are packed.
The answer to the hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North is that the Clause covers virtually all goods, whether wholesale or retail, except certain goods sold for industrial or constructional purposes about which we will go in detail in Committee. These provisions considerably strengthen the existing law. At present, short-weight protection is given in national legislation only for certain goods—coal, sand, ballast and retail foods—and some local legislation goes beyond this to give wider short-weight protection, but it varies in scope from one place to another.
Some local authorities rely on the "false trade description" provisions in the Merchandise Marks Acts in proceedings for short weight. This lack of uniformity causes difficulty and confusion and in our view there is a need for a uniform law covering all goods and all areas of the country. The House will recognise that Clause 24 provides both clarification of the law for the trader and a fundamental safeguard for the consumer.
§ Mr. Price
It is, but in some ways this provision goes a bit further than the Food and Drugs Act in certain cases. I should not like to answer that question without going into some detail, as no doubt we will in Committee.
In these short-weight provisions we will make certain that that unhappy state of affairs which led G. K. Chesterton to write his "Song against the wicked Grocer" cannot arise in our modern society. The House will recall his words:But now the sands are running outFrom sugar of a sort,The grocer trembles; for his time,Just like his weight, is shortTime is getting short.
The hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent asked about the exclusion of knitting wool. The Hodgson Committee recommended that knitting and other wools customarily sold by approximate weight should be required to be sold only in terms of net weight, but the Government came to the conclusion that a requirement to give accurate weight would be extremely difficult to enforce and in any event would not form a worthwhile protection for the consumer. The weight of a hank of wool varies enormously according to the humidity of the atmosphere at any time. Any hon. Members who play cricket in England and wear woollen sweaters know how much absorption of water they can take.
A meaningful statement of weight would have to be related to a standard moisture content, and to determine whether the weight of a hank was correct would involve the determination of its oven-dry weight and a calculation to reduce that weight to agreed conditions. That is the difficulty. Again, hanks of woollen yarn, although normally sold by approximate weight, are made up by length, and it is easy to see that accurate control of an article whose thickness is continually varying and which is made up according to a pre-determined length is extremely difficult. The fact that wool has elastic properties and can stretch during the winding does not help us any further.
133 There are many more points which hon. Members have raised. I told the House that I hoped I would not exhaust its patience too far, but I think that I have just about expended its patience, and I apologise to hon. Members whose points I have not yet covered. As I said at the beginning, we shall have ample time in Committee to discuss them.
On the question of the coal scales, there is more protection in the Bill than many hon. Members' reading of it suggested. A person who feels that he is getting short weight of coal can get an inspector of weights and measures to inspect it, and it is not necessary for him to go down, as an hon. Member suggested, with the load. He can get the inspector along to measure it on the spot.
§ Mr. Loughlin
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made this point. But let us assume that the inspector of weights and measures is some 25 miles away from the point where the inspection is to be made. Does the consumer then have to pay the cost of the labour and retention of the vehicle in that spot until the inspector can get there?
§ Mr. Price
Then one cannot be having a new load in.
On the point of carrying the scales on the lorry, it was a recommendation of the Hodgson Committee that the supplier should not be asked to go on doing that. But we shall come to that.
This is a very detailed Bill. I am afraid that it may appear to lack the political sex appeal of harshly drawn party controversy, but I believe that it is, nonetheless, an important Bill. I spoke 134 at the beginning of the "just price" and the "equivalence of power" between buyer and seller. These are concepts about which I shall speak much to the House, because I happen to believe in them. In my view they are basic to commutative justice in trade and I believe that justice is no less important and applicable to trade as it is to any other field of national life. It is because I know that hon. Members are dedicated to the ideal of the "just society" that I commend the Bill to the House tonight.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).