HC Deb 13 March 1963 vol 673 cc1393-400
Mrs. Harriet Slater (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I beg to move, in page 12, line 40, to leave out from beginning to second "and".

This is an Amendment similar to one which we moved in Committee. We then left out more words than it is proposed to leave out by this Amendment and the Parliamentary Secretary suggested that if we left out the words "which remains undefaced" we should be making a great mistake. We took notice of what he said and we now find the words in the Bill, about which we feel very strongly, otherwise than by reason of fair wear and tear". In Committee we argued what would be fair wear and tear. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) gave us a great speech on "spit and polish", saying that it was possible that if the plug had not been put in securely a wrong weight would be given. The other argument was that if the plug had not been put in properly and there had been too much spit and polish the plug could wear away. We had a long debate on this. I still maintain the point that I made in Committee, namely, that in the main the Bill is to protect the consumer. I agree that the trader has also to be taken into account, but the purpose of the Bill is fundamentally to see that the consumer gets a fair deal. We maintain that there should be no loophole by which there could be short measure. In Committee an Amendment was accepted by the Parliamentary Secretary which, unless the trader is made responsible, would make it difficult for the weights and measures inspectors who check whether short weight is being given.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. G. Elfed Davies (Rhondda, East)

I support the Amendment because I believe that it could have far-reaching consequences. If the subsection is not amended the responsibility of deciding whether a stamp is defaced by reason of fair wear and tear or by some other means will be placed upon the inspector of weights and measures. This would be both unnecessary and unjust.

In Committee, I drew attention to what I considered would be the effect upon a very young inspector, starting out on his first job, who was called upon to make a decision in such a case. Assume, for instance, that he honestly feels at the time that the defacing of the stamp was not by fair wear and tear but by some deliberate act. He decides to prosecute the trader and, after the case has been heard by the court, it is dismissed. In that event he would be very loth to take a similar case to court on a future occasion. If he did so and the court again dismissed the case, I suggest that it would be the last time that he would institute such a case. At least, he would not be anxious to repeat that experience. Such an experience could have a bad and lasting effect upon the future of any young inspector. The burden of taking the responsibility of deciding whether the defacing had been deliberate or by means of fair wear and tear is unfair to the already hard-worked Inspectorate of Weights and Measures.

I maintain that the responsibility should be placed upon the trader himself. Would it not be a better solution to place upon the trader the onus of informing the weights and measures inspector when he sees or believes that a stamp is becoming or has become defaced? If he did this, he could then request that the machine or other weighing instrument should be renewed forthwith by the Inspectorate. By so doing, he could absolve himself from the risk of prosecution under the Clause, and responsibility for the renewal of the stamp would be for the weights and measures inspector or the department.

The Clause as it now stands is a let-out for arguing fair wear and tear if a trader is confronted by an inspector who finds the stamp defaced. Since this was discussed in Committee a number of traders in my constituency have told me that they would prefer a provision such as this rather than the uncertainty that now exists under the Clause. It would be far more satisfactory for the decent and honest trader who, under the present arrangements, could become the innocent victim of the existing uncertainty. It would also be more likely to curb the activities of the dishonest trader. The Clause as framed is a complete let-out for the trader who makes a virtue out of dishonesty, and it makes it easy for him to get up to all sorts of dodges to sidetrack the law. Whatever the reasons for the defacing of the stamp, fair wear and tear will always be the excuse in these cases.

The law-abiding and honest trader, who I recognise is in the majority, will always have the uncertainty of not knowing whether he will be believed or prosecuted for a dishonest act. Too heavy a burden will be placed upon the weights and measures inspectors.

We should say that if the Bill is intended to give a measure of safeguard to the consumer, the responsibility in this instance should be placed upon the trader. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to consider what we have said and to see whether he cannot find a way to meet the wishes of this side of the House in this important matter.

Mr. D. Price

The Amendment is similar to one moved by the hon. Lady the Member for Stoke on Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) in Committee and upon which we had a fairly lively discussion. This Amendment is an improvement upon the earlier one, but I still cannot advise the House to accept it.

The discussion in Committee was confined almost entirely to the stamps on the lead plugs which are found in most weights and weighing machines. The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence), who gave us the benefit of his experience in these matters, pointed out that in these instances the surface of the lead on which the stamp is placed is normally below the surface of the surrounding metal and the stamp is, therefore, not normally susceptible to wear through cleaning or abrasion in use.

Weights and scales are not, however, the only weighing and measuring equipment used by traders. There are measures of capacity and of length, on which the stamp is sometimes placed directly upon the outer surface of the measure and sometimes on a blob of solder on the surface. In such cases, as well as with brass weights which are not required by existing regulations to be provided with adjusting hales, there is a strong likelihood that the stamp will get worn.

The general principle of the law is that equipment may remain in use for trade so long as it remains accurate. It is quite possible for equipment to remain accurate although the stamp has become partially defaced by fair wear and tear, especially by cleaning. If the Amendment were accepted, many items of equipment which enjoy a long and useful Fife would have to be submitted for retesting and restamping at frequent intervals. Since every stamping would involve payment of a fee and would cause inconvenience, the owner of equipment would be put to much unjustifiable expense.

The hon. Member for Rhondda, East (Mr. G. Elfed Davies) raised the question of an imaginary young inspector who tries to bring a prosecution under the law and fails. That is simply a hazard of being an inspector. If we were to say that every young policeman should be able to win every prosecution for a parking offence, because if he lost it he would lost heart in his duties, the administration of the law would be brought to a state of affairs that all hon. Members would find objectionable.

The possibility of failing in a prosecution would apply not only to this Clause, but to many other Clauses of the Bill under which an inspector has the duty, where appropriate, to institute proceedings. That is simply an occupational hazard of being an inspector. The fact that a young inspector's early enthusiasm—like, perhaps, undue enthusiasm by young policemen in parking offences—may be conditioned somewhat by the fact of learning that magistrates require to be properly satisfied as to evidence does not seem to me to be an entirely undesirable experience. I should have thought it a rather healthy one unless the administration is to be turned upside down in favour of young inspectors who might lose heart by losing prosecutions. The hon. Member for Rhondda, East is a reasonable man and is always solicitous of people's liberty. If he thinks the matter over, he will, I think, realise that he rather overstated the case of the young inspector.

In reply to the hon. Member's second point, the responsibility for maintaining measures accurately falls upon the trader. This responsibility is not changed by the Bill. The position is merely that if the trader can show that the mark is defaced by fair wear and tear, but the measure is still accurate, that would be acceptable. If, however, the stamp is defaced and, in addition, the measure is not accurate, the young inspector's prosecution would in all likelihood succeed. The emphasis is upon the fact that the measure must remain accurate. I hope that with this explanation, the House will realise that it would be right to reject the Amendment.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)

The Parliamentary Secretary is attempting to tell the House that fair wear and tear does not matter. If a lead plug on which the stamp is usually printed is below the surface of the machine, obviously it would not be affected by ordinary wear Arid tear and, therefore, the stamp wound remain for anyone to see. There is, therefore, no necessity to include the reference to fair wear and tear within the Bill, because there would be no wear and tear on the stamp.

The hon. Gentleman has stated that the stamp is normally below the level of the surface. It can, however, be on the surface and by continual rubbing it might be removed. For a long time it might continue to be used even though it might be imperfect. Until an inspector came to examine the machine, no action would be taken. When the inspector came, the trader might claim that the stamp had been removed by ordinary wear and tear. This position sounds farcical.

We are not troubled about the stamp which is below the surface, because it cannot be affected. If it were rubbed out below the surface, obviously it would be because of unfair methods, either cleaning or trying to remove an essential part of the weight. This would make the machine imperfect. The inspector would point out that there was no reason for the stamp to be removed if it was below the surface and did not come into contact with anything. Therefore, there is no reason for including in the Bill the reference to fair wear and tear. If a stamp which was below the surface was removed, I should say that it was because of unfair wear and tear.

The Parliamentary Secretary has not made his case. I hope that he will reconsider the Amendment, which is an attempt by this side of the House to make it more difficult for any trader to deceive and defraud the public.

Mr. Darling

I take the point made by the Parliamentary Secretary that the Clause goes wider than merely weights in a normal weighing machine and deals with other kinds of weighing and measuring equipment. For that reason, the words otherwise than by reason of fair wear and tear should be deleted from subsection (2).

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) has frequently pointed out, we are dealing with complicated and, in many cases, delicate machinery, of which it would be difficult for an inspector who found it to be deficient to say that the deficiency had been caused by tampering or by wear and tear which had not been fair and that therefore the trader with this kind of equipment should do something about it. The inspector would need to satisfy himself whether the deficiency was caused by fair wear and tear or by action on the part of the trader.

5.30 p.m.

This will be an extremely difficult decision for the inspector if he is called upon to take it in the form in which the instruction is given in the subsection. If the Clause were left to read like this, leaving out the qualifications: No person shall use any article for trade as equipment to which this section applies"— that is, weighing and measuring equip-ment— unless that article or equipment has been passed by an inspector as fit for such use and bears a stamp indicating that it has been so passed which remains undefaced. I do not think anything more would be needed. We ought not to put in the subsection a provision enabling a trader who has tampered with his equipment to say, "I have not tampered with it. It has gone out of balance through fair wear and tear."

Mr. D. Price

Perhaps I might help the hon. Gentleman. I think he is reading a good deal more than is justified into "fair wear and tear". This is only in relation to defacement of the stamp. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will think in terms of a half-pint pewter pot, which doubtless he has used. It could still give a half-pint measure although the actual lettering on the stamp had become defaced through fair wear and tear. That is an instance. If someone removes a bit of lead in a plug, that is not fair wear and tear.

Mr. Darling

I was coming to that point. I agree that what we are referring to is the stamp on the equipment. This may be something which could be tampered with—I do not know—but even in that circumstance I do not see why: otherwise than by reason of fair wear and tear should be included here. We are giving far too much away and not allowing the inspector to carry out his duties properly where he finds that weights and balances have been tampered with and stamps defaced in the course of the tampering. We are making it much too difficult for the inspector in deciding whether the tampering was done by the trader or by reason of fair wear and tear. I cannot see why these words need to be included.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

I hope that my hon. Friend will not give way to the pressure from the Opposition. I fully appreciate the anxiety of hon. Members opposite to ensure that the consumer is not "done" at any time, but I feel that they may be a little oversensitive about this. I cannot help feeling that the point at issue is whether the measure is correct or not. That is all that the inspector will have to worry about. If the measure is accurate, the fact that the stamp may have become worn through the cleaning of a pewter tankard is probably a sign that the tankard is clean and not unhygienic. I feel that the difficulties of the inspector have been exaggerated, and I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will resist the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.