HC Deb 17 June 1963 vol 679 cc177-87

10.14 p.m.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I beg to move. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Soft Drinks Regulations 1963 (S.I., 1963, No. 844), dated 22nd April 1963, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st May, be annulled. For the last six-and-a-half hours we have been listening to revelations of life in which I venture to suggest soft drinks play only a minor rôle. Indeed, this is something of an anti-climax to the stories that have been unfolded to us today, and one might well believe that to talk about soft drinks will help us to get a nasty taste out of our mouths.

I have to tell hon. Members that in our view the soft drinks business is not as pure as it often makes itself out to be in its advertising. In fact, most of the advertising and labelling is deceptive arid some of it, as I shall try to show, is downright dishonest. Our view of the Regulations before us is that, although they do improve things a little, they are still inadequate.

The purpose of these Regulations is to lay down new standards for soft drinks. The Regulations also have a very important secondary purpose; it is to control the labelling and advertising of these drinks. It is to restrict the scope of deceptive advertising, but not, unfortunately, to get rid of such misleading and deceptive advertising altogether. I will not go into the history of the Regulations. I am sure that we shall get all that from the Parliamentary Secretary, because I am certain that he will try to defend his Regulations with the claim that they are a big improvement in the consumers' interests on previous Regulations and he will try to prove his point by describing the Regulations in the usual Ministerial detail. I merely wish to tell the hon. Gentleman that we reject his defence of these new Regulations before he makes it. We do so on the grounds that I have already mentioned. First, that the new standards laid down in the Regulations are not good enough and, secondly, because the rules in paragraph 7 for labelling will still allow manufacturers to mislead the public about the composition of the drinks which they put into the bottles.

So that there will be no doubt about our attitude, let me say that most of the manufacturers of soft drinks in our view are good, reputable firms which wish to provide satisfactory drinks and no such firm objects to having standards laid down to control what they put into bottles and none of them objects to rules defining the terms which they may use and the terms which they cannot use to describe their products. But this business is highly competitive. It is a mass production business and each manufacturer, to increase his share of the market, goes in for mass advertising. This is where the trouble begins, and that is why we criticise the new Regulations. We shall have to demonstrate this repeatedly to hon. Members opposite and to the public in debates on these matters.

Advertising, like the monetary system, is subject to Gresham's Law. Bad or misleading advertising drives out good honest advertising, or at least debases it. It has done so in the case of soft drinks. A big business has been built up and manufacturers have a great deal at stake. They fear that if they tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the stuff they put into bottles their trade will decline. What they will be allowed to put into the bottles next year when the Regulations come into operation is defined in the Schedules, but the requirements of the Regulations will not appear on the labels on the bottles. Even after these Regulations have been passed, the labels may still be misleading.

Let me explain the point about which apparently the Parliamentary Secretary is worried. We are concerned with two main types of fruit drinks in the criticism we are making—squashes and fruit juice that are sold to be drunk straight or diluted with water. The minimum requirement of fruit juice as a straight drink which is not diluted is either 3 per cent. or 5 per cent. of the volume. Let us be frank. I think that most manufacturers will work as close as they can to the minimum fruit content which the Regulations will allow, so the customer will get for a so-called fruit squash 90 per cent. of 95 per cent. of water and about 5 per cent. or, in the case of some, 3 per cent. fruit juice and a collection of acids to give the drink some colour and flavour.

To be honest, such a drink should be described as a synthetic chemical drink flavoured with a small amount of fruit juice, but because Regulation No. 7 will allow the drink to be labelled as orange squash or lemon squash or to have some reference to some other fruit, the public who buy the drinks will not realise that even the most palatable drink will be nine-tenths water. If the rules in Regulation No. 7 are adhered to the label will not make any mention of the flavouring and colouring acids which go into the drink. In our view, the whole operation is misleading. These Regulations not only permit deceptive flavouring, but I think they encourage it.

The same objections apply to the other drinks which can be diluted, although in the case of those drinks the fruit content is of course higher. Even so, it is pretty low. It is 10 per cent. for non-citrous fruit squashes, 15 per cent. for citrous fruit squashes and barley water, and 25 per cent. for orange, lemon and lime squashes and cordials, but when the drink has been diluted the customer will have added water and reduced the fruit content. Nevertheless, even with those percentages of fruit juice added, those drinks will still be largely acidulated, if that is a permitted word—water, plus a small amount of fruit juice. To describe these drinks as fruit drinks we think unfair to the customer. It is true that the Regulations will limit the deception to some extent, but false labelling will still be permitted.

Incidentally, the Regulations refer to labelling, but make no reference to advertising. I have assumed that advertising in the Press, on the television and on posters will have the Regulations applied to it in the same way as to the labels on the containers. Most manufacturers make the same kind of drinks, and there is one I could pick out which I think is misleading in its advertising. This explains what I mean by the deceptive advertising which goes on. It merely says in a big advertisement with a picture of a bottle alongside—I shall not mention trade names because it would be unfair to pick them out—that "so and so's crush tastes of oranges, whole oranges and nothing but oranges."

Hon. Members will notice how cleverly the words are chosen to give the impression that the drink is made wholly from oranges and contains nothing but oranges. It is a misleading impression, because three-quarters of the drink, if it is made according to the Regulations, is water and acids. Some advertising copywriter is making a good living out of cleverly worded advertisements of this kind.

Hon. Members may think that we are making heavy weather of this matter. "After all," they may say, "we are dealing with reputable firms which apparently produce what their customers want. The customers are not complaining, so why should we? "We are complaining for three reasons. First, because we believe that truth and honesty is important. We object to people being deceived, even when the deception does not do any harm to anyone. I should have thought that after today's debate all hon. Members would not be exactly eager to encourage deception, even in the soft drinks advertising trade. The Regulations appear to be misleading, for Regulation No. 6, which deals with the addition of acids to soft drinks, says—and I paraphrase— …no soft drink shall contain any added acid… but that …any soft drink may contain ascorbic acid, citric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, nicotinic acid, tartaric acid and anyacid…that…is permitted by the Preservatives in Food Regulations…or the Colouring Matter in Food Regulations… I find the Regulation misleading. It is unfair, for example, to sell to children at the seaside a concoction of water and ascorbic acid, citric acid and other acids with a dash of orange juice and call it "orange squash" when they want, and should have, honest orange juice.

The second reason why we complain about the inadequacy of the Regulations is that we are concerned with costs and prices. How much does it cost to fill a bottle almost to the top with water, shake in a few drops of acid and squeeze an orange or lemon into it? I am not sure of the cost, but I know that it is not the amount that people have to pay for these drinks, even taking into account the costs of distribution. Thirsty children at the seaside are not only paying for the water and acids but for the monstrously expensive and misleading advertising; and I think that, in all the circumstances, they are paying too much.

Our third reason for wanting stricter Regulations is that we want to encourage the development of the trade in purer fruit drinks made from fruit grown in this country—from apples, pears, plums and other soft fruits grown here. We can help to do this by insisting on the honest advertising and labelling of all competing fruit drinks. We want people to be free to choose between honest apple and blackcurrant juice, for example, and the synthetic, chemical drinks which are slightly flavoured. If people prefer synthetic drinks, let them buy them, but they should know precisely what they are buying, and the Regulations before us do not lay it down that the contents in the bottle shall be accurately announced on the label.

If there is to be a raising of moral standards in our society, in public life, business, trade and industry, we should try to stamp out deception, even in the soft drinks business. We need a much bigger soft drinks trade based on the use of our home-produced fruit—honest fruit juices—if we are to develop to the full an efficient and prosperous fruit-growing industry in Britain, because that industry always has surpluses which could be effectively used in this way. To provide fair competition, we need stricter Regulations on labelling and advertising.

We shall not put our Prayer to the vote because, as the Parliamentary Secretary will soon be telling us, these Regulations do represent an advance in the direction in which we wish to go, and also because there is still a year for better Regulations to be considered—and it looks as though we on this side of the House will have the job of considering them.

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

Before putting the Question on the first set of Regulations, may I ask whether it is convenient to the House that the Soft Drinks (Scotland) Regulations, 1963, should be considered at the same time? I think that both Prayers may be taken together.

10.30 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

I am very glad that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) has taken this opportunity to raise these points in this interesting short debate. I should like to take up what he has said by saying that the Regulations with which the Prayer is concerned do mark a great improvement and a step forward in the protection of the consumer, about which he and I are equally concerned, by giving them protection in this rather narrow and restricted field—and I would make the point that we are here dealing with a very narrow portion of the drinks industry.

It may be for the convenience of the House if I very quickly mention how these Regulations came about. They were made under the Food and Drugs Act, 1955, which enables us to prescribe compositional and labelling standards for foodstuffs to ensure that foodstuffs on sale to the public are of a wholesome nature and true to their description. I think that they represent a marked improvement on the existing Regulations. In this way, Ministers and the enforcing authorities are able to protect the consumer from food which is not of the prescribed standard or is incorrectly labelled.

Before Regulations can be made, the Act provides that there must be consultation with all interested parties, including consumers and manufacturers. In this case, the consumers, the manufacturers and all interested parties have been given every opportunity to put forward their comments and suggestions, not only on the Food Standards Committee's Reports but also on our proposals for Regulations. In this way, not only do we take full account of consumer interests but also of the problems that manufacturers may have to face in complying with any new legislation. I can assure the House that this consultation procedure was followed very carefully, and that all the representations received were examined fully before these Regulations were laid.

The House will realise that the Food Standards Committee—which is an independent body appointed by Ministers to advise them on matters appertaining to the composition and labelling of food—reported in 1959 on the need for revised Regulations governing standards for soft drinks to replace the 1953 Order. I think that I should explain that we had directed that particular attention should be given to the quality of soft drinks because of the increasing quantities that were and are being consumed, and particularly because of their growing attraction to younger people. These are considerations which, as I am sure hon. Members will agree, justify the close attention that the hon. Member has given to this type of product.

The Committee recommended that the description and composition of soft drinks, which have been subject to some statutory control for nearly 20 years, should continue, and I can say at once that this view has always had the support of the trade and consumers. The Department has been greatly assisted by the co-operation of manufacturers, enforcing authorities and others in the framing of the Regulations. It has largely been a joint operation.

The detailed recommendations were fully examined, together with a large number of constructive comments from interested parties. These Regulations mark a considerable improvement on those they replace and have a large measure of agreement among all the parties concerned. Perhaps I might be allowed to give a very brief description of these rather complicated provisions.

First, they revise the present statutory standards of composition. Here, the hon. Gentleman was not quite fair, because the Regulations do lay down, clearly and definitely, an increase in the minimum sugar content and a reduction in the amount of saccharin that is permitted. In the case of comminuted drinks—that is, drinks made, not from the juice of the fruit only, but from the whole fruit—they extend the standards to cover all citrus drinks instead of orange only as at present.

Secondly, they lay down, for citrus drinks, standard descriptions which will enable the purchaser to distinguish the squash, which will be the fruit juice drink intended for dilution, the crush, which will be the fruit juice drink intended for drinking straight from the bottle, and the comminuted drink. Drinks which have the flavour of fruit but which are not actually made from the fruit, will have to be called lemonade, orangeade, and so on. This constitutes a fourth class of description, and drinks in this class will not be allowed to be labelled in such a way as to suggest that they are made from fruit.

The hon. Gentleman, I think, was a little unkind to the manufacturers when he referred to those drinks which are for use without dilution—that is, the second and third types that I mentioned—and said that only 5 per cent. consisted of fruit juice. This is the normal practice and it is, indeed, the type of drink that they are required to manufacture. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has noticed that any fruit juice, sweetened or unsweetened, whether concentrated or frozen or not, is exempted from these Regulations, because it is a different type of product. The person to whom the hon. Gentleman was referring, who wishes to have fruit juice, is drinking something quite distinct from what is dealt with under these Regulations. We are, as I said, dealing with a very narrow section of the drink industry.

The third point, which is new, relates to saccharin. If soft drinks contain saccharin they must be labelled in a specified manner to indicate this fact. The hon. Gentleman has made the point that the ordinary consumers will not know what they are buying, but I refute this suggestion. The new Regulations concerning labelling, together with the standards laid down in Parts I and II of the Schedule, will be made widely known. The consumers will be made aware of the type of drink they buy. They will know what a "crush", a "squash" and a "comminuted" drink are. The latter includes bitter lemons and bitter oranges. They will also know what "lemonade", "orangeade" and "barleyade" mean. Manufacturers will have the duty to label quite clearly, as is laid down in the Regulations, the type of drink which they are manufacturing and selling.

Mr. Darling

If, as the Minister says, the customers are going to learn what a squash is by somebody telling them—he does not say who is going to tell them—why not put the information on the label and in the advertisement?

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there is only a certain amount that one can put on a label with any chance of it being read. Some of the labels which are put on bottles are not very large. We are laying down in these Regulations the size of print in which we consider the important words should appear, so that the consuming public may be able to read at a glance what they are buying. It is up to the food and drug enforcement authorities to make certain, by spot checks and so on, that these products—be they squashes, or cordials, or orangeades or comminuted drinks-come up to the standards laid down in Parts I and II of the Schedule.

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman is evading the point.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

No, I think I am doing the opposite. These labelling Regulations are adding detailed requirements as to what must and must not appear on the labels of soft drinks and as to the size and presentation of these particulars. This is important. They must be easy to read and not, as at the moment, in various colours, with letters against various coloured backgrounds which sometimes make it difficult to read the lettering. Now, it will have to be either dark on a light background or light on a dark background.

I suggest to the House that, although the hon. Gentleman does not agree, the Regulations go as far as they can to protect the consumer from misleading labels. I have already said that they require certain positive information to be given on the labels, and I hope that this will go to a certain extent to meet the hon. Gentleman's point.

The Food Standards Committee recommended in its Report that Ministers should prohibit the use of testimonials or nutritional claims based on the carbohydrate content of soft drinks. The question of the control of claims goes, as the House will realise, much wider than just soft drinks or any other single commodity, and it is at the moment being studied by the Food Standards Committee as part of a general review of the whole of food labelling. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will go with me in agreeing that we must not deal with this point in relation to just one small section, because it has relevance over a much wider field. We thought it wise not to try to deal with this aspect of the matter in relation to soft drinks alone.

Apart from the question of such claims, there are other matters to be dealt with. At a late stage in our consultations, when the proposals had already taken shape, it was suggested to us that the Regulations should specifically provide for the manufacture of two fresh classes of soft drinks: one, the semi-sweet drink, and the other the low calorie drink, as they are now called. I am advised that there is a growing demand for them, some from people who wish to slim, some from people who seem to like that kind of semi-sweet drink.

We felt that it would be wrong to delay the introduction of these Regulations while we had detailed consultations on these points, but my right hon. Friend has agreed that we shall consider them and, if necessary, make further Regulations to provide for these two specific categories when the consultations have been concluded.

I hope that the House will agree that the Regulations go a great deal further than previous Regulations in giving more protection to the consuming public. They may not go so far as hon. Gentlemen opposite wish, but they go as far as we can with safety proceed at this moment, and they give a very much wider measure of protection than hitherto. The consumer can now know what he is buying, and the labelling and description requirements afford a great deal of added protection which has been lacking in the past. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will be ready to withdraw his Prayer.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

Will the hon. Gentleman satisfy me about this? I agree that there is an improvement as regards contents, about much of which the consumer will not know, and the additional protection which will be known to the consumer will be that which is on the label and in the proper description of the citrus drink, whatever it may be. But what about the labelling of the container?

On page 10 of the Scottish Regulations, after stipulations about the size of the print, we find in paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 2: Provided that where—

  1. (i) no words appear on the said container save on the cork, stopper or cap closing that container, or
  2. (ii) no words appear on the said container save for such words as are embossed or 187 fired on and signify solely any or all of the following:—
    • (aa)the name and address of the manufacturer of the soft drink contained in the said container;
    • (ab)the name and address of the bottler or packer of that soft drink;
    • (ac)the name of that soft drink;"
and there is then an indication of what the size of the lettering shall be, namely, not less than one-sixteenth of an inch.

Mr. Darling

One could not get it much smaller than that.

Mr. Ross

No. This is limited to the cap or something put on the stopper. What protection is there there for the purchaser in knowing what the contents are? Would it not be far better to stipulate that there shall be a label and on the label a declaration of contents which would be legible to anyone?

To my mind, if one is going to say that the labelling is so much better and at the same time give a "get out" that one does not need to put a label on but should just cover the cap with something and in doing so limit oneself to very small print, one is not protecting the public, and if one says that one is, one is deceiving oneself and not the public.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

This applies to a very small field—to a type of cordial which is sold in a rather small type of bottle. The size of one-sixteenth of an inch is not all that small. If one examines the matter, I think one can safely say that it covers the point. The hon. Gentleman will agree that there are instances where it is even more difficult to read very small type on labels. This is a great improvement on the existing situation.

Mr. Darling

The House will appreciate that I have not been convinced by the Parliamentary Secretary's explanation, but as these Regulations, as he says, are an advance on the previous ones, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.