HC Deb 13 March 1963 vol 673 cc1407-33
Mr. A. J. Irvine

I beg to move, in page 29, line 21, after "person" to insert "resident in Great Britain".

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The next two Amendments may be discussed with this, if that is convenient; that is to say, the Amendments in page 29, line 37, after "inaccurate" to insert "and" and in page 29, line 38 to leave out from "and" to the end of line 42.

Mr. Irvine

This covers a matter to which we gave some consideration in Committee. Clause 25 provides for a defence in proceedings under Part IV, namely, the defence that a person charged may show that he bought the goods from some other person as being of the quantity referred to in the first subsection of the Clause and that he so bought the goods with a written warranty from that other person that they were of that quantity or, as the case may be, did so conform. Our view is that it is not desirable that this defence should go too wide and encourage any degree of casualness on the part of the sellers of goods.

Our Amendment would have the effect of confining the defence of the warranty to the case of a warranty given by someone resident in Great Britain. The result would be that the trader who sold imported goods in this country would be under the duty and obligation of making his own investigation and inquiry when receiving from an exporter the kind of warranty mentioned in the Bill.

It seems to us appropriate that he should have that duty, and we are asking in such cases only that the importer should have the duty of ensuring that any undertaking which he has received from a foreign seller of goods is fulfilled in the consignment, and that the quantities are what they have been represented to him as being.

Mr. D. Price

The Amendments are identical to some which were moved by the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. W. Wells) in Committee. As the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) has pointed out, they would have the effect of depriving any trader who imported goods of the defence of warranty in any proceedings for an offence relating to the quantity or pre-packing of those goods.

During our discussions in Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) referred me to what he called the Public Health (Preservatives in Food) Regulations, and the Public Health (Anti-Oxidant in Food) Regulations, claiming in support of his argument that those regulations threw the onus on the importer of proving that the goods he was selling complied with the terms of the regulations. I assume that the hon. Member was referring to the Preservatives in Food Regulations, 1962, which is a Statutory Instrument, and the Antioxidant in Food Regulations, 1958, also a Statutory Instrument. I have studied those regulations carefully and I have consulted the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which is responsible for them. As a result of those discussions, I must disagree with the hon. Member's interpretation of those Statutory Instruments.

Under both sets of regulations, importers have the same defence of warranty as any other traders, and that defence is to be found in Section 115 of the Food and Drugs Act, 1955, under which both sets of regulations were made. To all intents and purposes, the provisions of that Section, particularly subsection (2), and of this Clause are the same.

As I said in Committee, the Government believe that it would be an unreasonable discrimination against an importer to withhold this defence from him. He would have the whole burden and responsibility of ensuring the accuracy of quantity and compliance with the prepacking requirements of the Bill. The Clause already provides that a defendant who is relying on a warranty from an overseas supplier has to meet all the conditions set out in subsection (1) for those relying on a warranty from a British resident. In particular, in the words of subsection (1), the person charged has to show that he had taken reasonable steps to check the accuracy of that statement". We believe that those words are also a sufficient requirement in respect of imported goods. A person who imported without taking reasonable steps to check the accuracy of the statement of weight would not be able to plead warranty as a defence.

I believe that this means that the difference between the hon. and learned Member for Edge Hill and myself would be a rare case. The vast majority of cases, which he clearly has in mind, of the importing of goods, particularly from a slightly dubious foreign source where there might be doubt about credentials, would be caught by the wording which I have just read to the House. But in the odd case in which there has been a reputable overseas supplier and over the years the importer has done his sample checking, but in which the rare case arises where there is short weight, warranty is a reasonable defence in answer to a charge of short weight. This is allowed at home, and I see no reason why it should not be allowed for the importer of foreign supplies, bearing in mind that there is the additional requirement in Clause 25 (1, c). This is a sufficient additional requirement in respect of imported goods and I ask the House not to accept the Amendment.

6.0 p.m.

Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield, Brightside)

The net weight of the contents may vary by reason of the fact that the container may vary. Would a test case on one article be sufficient to clear the importer in a court of law in respect of the whole consignment?

Mr. Price

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find this dealt with in other Clauses of the Bill where we deal with the whole question of whether, if one article in a large consignment is found to be of short weight—perhaps one article out of a few millions which the man is producing—he can plead as a defence that the sample is not sufficient to prove the offence.

With regard to net weight or gross weight, when we get to the Schedules the hon. Gentleman will see that the treatment of whether it should be net or gross weight, or whether it should be a specified quantity, varies according to the products, and these elaborate Parts of Schedule 4 relate to that matter.

With regard to whether an article has to be sold by specified quantity or sold by net weight, there is no distinction between produce which has emanated from a foreign source and been imported, and produce emanating here. A person exporting to this country has to abide by all our regulations when the produce comes here.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

The Parliamentary Secretary said that in the earlier stages of the Bill my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) quoted other legislation and argued that what we were here proposing was embodied in other legislation. The Parliamentary Secretary assures us that this is not so, but our case does not rest wholly on quoting other legislation.

This really is a matter of commonsense. There ought to be an obligation on the trader in this country to satisfy himself that there are no inaccuracies, instead of merely producing a warranty from somebody outside the United Kingdom who is not subject to our courts. The hon. Gentleman says that this is not really necessary because there is an obligation on the seller of the goods in this country to show that he has taken steps to check the accuracy of the statement. He says that this really means very little distinction between what we are proposing and what is contained in the Bill. If this is so, what is his objection to going what he regards as a small step further and accepting the commonsense suggestion of my hon. and learned Friend and laying on the seller of imported goods the same obligation as lies on the seller of goods which are not imported? If the Bill says that the person must have taken reasonable steps to check the accuracy of a statement, then what my hon. and learned Friend is proposing is not far different, and I do not see the reason for objecting to it.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker rose

Mr. Jay

I do not know whether any other hon. Member wishes to take part in the discussion, or whether we are to have an answer from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Wainwright

I am concerned about what may happen if an importer, in collusion with an exporter from another country, makes arrangements for the delivery of goods which are not of the quality, size, or weight specified on the container. If such an arrangement is made, it will be extremely difficult to prove that the importer in this country is playing fair and square and being just to the person to whom he in turn passes those goods.

The final purchaser of the goods is the consumer. If he discovers that the goods are lacking in quality, weight, or quantity, it will be extremely difficult for him to discover who in the first place was responsible for producing faulty goods. The retailer, the wholesaler, and the importer, will in turn say, "I accepted in good faith what was stated on the package". The importer will be absolved from any blame because he will be able to say, "The person from whom I purchased the goods indicated to me that the quality was as stated". I therefore think that we ought to make certain that the importer bears some responsibility for checking the quality of the goods.

Some importers are genuine people, and, as I said in Committee upstairs, it is not the genuine people whom we are seeking to prevent from carrying on their business. We are after the small minority of people who, by various methods, defraud the public. For this reason I do not accept the view that the importer should not have placed on him the responsibility for checking the goods. If the person from whom the wholesaler has purchased the goods is resident in this country, should those goods prove defective, the responsibility can be traced back to him, but if the business is transacted with an exporter from some other country, the Bill as it stands leaves the public wide open to fraud. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will look into this more seriously than he has done so far.

It is our duty as a House of Commons to ensure that no one can easily defraud the public. If the hon. Gentleman does not accept the Amendment, there will be an easy loophole in the law for the public to be defrauded.

Mr. D. Price

With respect to the hon. Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright), I do not think that he has studied the wording of this Clause very carefully. This is not an easy loophole. We are dealing with the pleading of warranty as a defence. This means, in the first instance, that a person is being prosecuted. Therefore, prima facie blame has been pinned on a person, and we are dealing with the excuses, if I might so call them, which a court can take into account when that person is pleading his case.

It is not correct to suppose that if a chap says that he merely imported the goods he will get away with it. He has to satisfy paragraphs (a), (b) and (c), and paragraph (c) requires that the person charged had taken reasonable steps to check the accuracy of that statement".

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

What does that mean? What does the whole of paragraph (c) mean? It concludes with the words quoted by the hon. Gentleman, but a wily bird could get away with murder under this paragraph.

Mr. Price

I should be happy if the hon. Gentleman could explain to me how he reckons somebody could get away with it.

Mr. Loughlin

I am asking what it means.

Mr. Price

During the proceedings in Committee upstairs I gave examples of the sort of steps a person would be expected to take. The most obvious one is a sampling technique, preferably on a statistical basis. One could take a sample based on the best statistical recommendations.

Mr. Wainwright

The hon. Gentleman may remember that I referred to collusion between the exporter and the importer into this country. If collusion takes place it is quite easy to provide the necessary defence as the Bill stands to be absolved from all blame.

Mr. Price

I think that the hon. Member has a very low opinion of our magistrates' courts and our High Court if that is his view when there has been real collusion. All our laws are passed on the basis that those who administer them judicially are intelligent people. I should have thought that the number of hon. and learned Members in the House would have provided the hon. Member with adequate evidence that our courts are extremely well manned. I do not share the hon. Member's view. If he goes on the basis that our laws are not properly administered and our magistrates and judges are complete fools, it makes nonsense of a great deal of the legislation which we put through the House.

Mr. Wainwright rose

Mr. Price

I must move on to the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) who was arguing a different point, which I would also put to the hon. Member for Dearne Valley. The right hon. Gentleman was arguing that in view of subsection 1 (c) and the words at the end of it there was little in common sense between the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill and myself in this matter and that it was a very small step forward from the case that I have been arguing to that which the hon. and learned Member had been arguing. I believe that there is a very real further step. I have listened with care but I still advise the House not to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Jay

What are the reasonable steps which the hon. Gentleman has in mind and which he thinks the importer

could say he had taken in a case of this nature?

Mr. Price

The most obvious is a proper system of sampling, based on statistics.

Mr. Wainwright

I think that the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Member will remember that we are a House and not in Committee. If he wants to ask a question let him do so by all means, but he has already made one speech.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Wainwright

May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary where he obtained the information that I have such a low opinion about persons connected with the law of the land? If that is his view he ought to tell me how he has arrived at it. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that anybody who indulges in collusion with another person will divulge that collusion, he is adopting a supercilious manner at the Dispatch Box. Is the hon. Gentleman also saying that, in spite of the excellent representatives of the law we have in this country, people have never got away with collusion? If he thinks that he should have another look at the many relevant cases which have come before the courts.

Question put, That those words be there inserted in the Bill:—

The House divided: Ayes 170, Noes 217.

Division No. 74.] AYES [6.16 p.m.
Abse, L[...]e Castle, Mrs. Barbara Gourlay, Harry
Ainsley, William Chapman, Donald Griffiths, David (Rother Valley)
Albu, A[...]sten Cliffe, Michael Griffiths, W. (Exchange)
Allaun, [...]tank (Salford, E.) Collick, Percy Gunter, Ray
Allen, Scholefield (Crewe) Corbet, Mrs. Freda Hamilton, William (West Fife)
Bacon, Miss Alice Cronin, John Hannan, William
Barnett, Guy Crosland, Anthony Harper, Joseph
Baxter, William (Stirlingshire, w.) Crossman, R. H. S. Hart, Mrs. Judith
Bence, Cyril Cullen, Mrs. Alice Hayman, F. H.
Bennett, J. (Glasgow, Bridgeton) Dalyell, Tam Healey, Denis
Benson, Sir George Darling, George Henderson, Rt. Hn. Arthur (Rwly Regis)
Blackburn, F. Davies, G. Elfed (Rhonnda, E.) Hill, J. (Midlothian)
Blyton, William Davles, Harold (Leek) Hilton, A. V.
Boardman, H. Dempsey, James Holman, Percy
Bottomley, Rt. Hon. A. G. Dodds, Norman Houghton, Douglas
Bowden, Rt. Hn. H. W. (Leics, S.W.) Ede, Rt. Hon. C. Howell, Denis (Small Heath)
Bowles, Frank Edwards, Rt. Hon. Ness (Caerphilly) Hoy, James H.
Boyden, James Edwards, Robert (Bilston) Hughes, Cledwyn (Anglesey)
Braddock, Mrs. E. M. Edwards, Walter (Stepney) Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.)
Bradley, Tom Evans, Albert Hunter, A. E.
Bray, Dr, Jeremy Fernyhough, E. Hynd, John (Attercliffe)
Brockway, A. Fenner Forman, J. C. Irvine, A. J. (Edge Hill)
Broughton, Dr. A. D. D. Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton) Irving, Sydney (Dartford)
Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.) Ginsburg, David Janner, Sir Barnett
Carmichael, Neil Gordon Walker, Rt. Hon. P. C. Jay, Rt. Hon. Douglas
Jeger, George Oliver, G. H. Soskice, Rt. Hon. Sir Frank
Jenkins, Roy (Stechford) Oram, A. E. Spriggs, Leslie
Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S) Oswald, Thomas Steele, Thomas
Jones, Rt. Hn. A. Creech (Wakefield) Panned, Charles (Leeds, W.) Stewart, Michael (Fulham)
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Parglter, G. A. Strachey, Rt. Hon. John
Jones, Elwyn (West Ham, S.) Parker, John Strauss, Rt. Hn. G. R. (Vauxhall)
Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) Parkin, B. T. Stress, Dr. Barnett (Stoke-on-Trent, C.)
Jones, T, w. (Merioneth) Pavitt, Laurence Swain, Thomas
Kelley, Richard Pearson, Arthur (Pontypridd) Taverne, D.
Key, Rt. Hon. C. W. Peart, Frederick Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)
King, Dr. Horace Pentiand, Norman Thomas, Iorworth (Rhondda, W.)
Lawson, George Popplewell, Ernest Thompson, Dr. Alan (Dunfermline)
Lever, L. M. (Ardwick) Price, J. T. (Westhoughton) Tomney, Frank
Loughlin, Charles Pursey, Cmdr. Harry Wainwright, Edwin
Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson Rankin, John Warbey, William
MacColl, James Reynolds, G. W. Weitzman, David
Mclnnes, James Roberts, Albert (Normanton) Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
McKay, John (Wallsend) Roberts, Goronwy (Caernarvon) White, Mrs. Eirene
Mackie, John (Enfield, East) Robertson, John (Paisley) Whitlock, William
McLeavy, Frank Robinson, Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.) Wigg, George
MacPherson, Malcolm (Stirling) Rodgers, W. T. (Stockton) Wilkins, w. A.
Mapp, Charles Rogers, G. H. R. (Kensington, N.) Willey, Frederick
Marsh, Richard Ross, William Williams, W. R. (Openshaw)
Mellish, R. J. Royle, Charles (Salford, West) Willis, E. G. (Edinburgh, E.)
Mendelson, J. J. Shinwell, Rt. Hon. E. Wilson, Rt. Hon. Harold (Huyton)
Milne, Edward Short, Edward Winterbottom, R. E.
Mitchison, G. R. Silverman, Jullus (Aston) Woodburn, Rt. Hon. A.
Moody, A. S. Silverman, Sydney (Nelson) Woof, Robert
Morris, John Skeffington, Arthur Yates, Victor (Ladywood)
Mulley, Frederick Slater, Mrs. Harriet (Stoke N.)
Neal, Harold Slater, Joseph (Sedgefield) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon) Small, William Mr. Redhead and
Noel-Baker, Rt. Hn. Phillp (Derby, S.) Soreneen, R. W. Mr. Charles A. Howell.
Agnew, Sir Peter Dalkeith, Earl of James, David
Altken, W. T. d'Avigdor-Godsmid, Sir Henry Jenkins, Robert (Dulwish)
Allan, Robert (Paddington, S.) Donaldson, Cmdr. C. E. M. Johnson, Dr. Donald (Carlisle)
Allason, James DrayBOn, G. B. Johnson, Eric (Blackley)
Arbuthnot, John du Cann, Edward Johnson Smith, Geoffrey
Ashton, Sir Hubert Eden, John Jones, Arthur (Northants, S.)
Awdry, Daniel (Chippenham) Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton) Kerans, Cdr, J. S.
Balniel, Lord Elliott, R.W.(Nwcastle-upon-Tyne, N.) Kerr, Sir Hamilton
Barlow, Sir John Emmet, Hon. Mrs. Evelyn Kershaw, Anthony
Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton Erroll, Rt. Hon. F. J, Kimball, Marcus
Bell, Ronald Farey-Jones, F, W. Kirk, Peter
Bennett, F. M. (Torquay) Fell, Anthony Kitson, Timothy
Bevins, Rt. Hon. Reginald Finlay, Graeme Leather, Sir Edwin
Bidgood, John C, Fisher, Nigel Leavey, J, A,
Biffen, John Forrest, George Leburn, Gilmour
Birch, Rt. Hon. Nigel Freeth, Denzil Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry
Bishop, F. P. Galbraith, Hon. T. G. D. Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)
Black, Sir Cyril Gammans, Lady Lilley, F. J. P.
Bourne-Arton, A. Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk Central) Lindsay, Sir Martin
Box, Donald Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Linstead, Sir Hugh
Braine, Bernard Glyn, Sir Richard (Dorset, N.) Litchfield, Capt. John
Brown Alan (Tottenham) Goodhart, Philip Longbottom, Charles
Buck, Antony Goodhew, Victor Longden, Gilbert
Bullard, Denys Gower, Raymond Loveys, Walter H.
Grant-Ferris, R. Lubbock, Eric
Bullus, Wins Commander Eric Grosvenor, Lt.-Col. R. C. Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh
Burden, F. A. Gurden, Harold McAdden, Sir Stephen
Butcher, Sir Herbert Hall, John (Wycombe) MacArthur, Ian
Campbell, Sir David (Belfast, S.) Hamilton, Michael (Wellingborough) McLaren, Martin
Campbell, Gordon (Moray & Nairn) Harris, Reader (Heston) Maclean, Sir Fitzroy (Bute&N. Ayrs)
Carr, Compton (Barons Court) Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye) McMaster, Stanley R.
Carr, Robert (Mitcham) Hastings, Stephen
Cary, Sir Robert Hay, John Maddan, Martin
Chataway, Christopher Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Lionel Maginnis, John E.
Chichester-Clark, R. Hlley, Joseph Maitland, Sir John
Clark, William (Nottingham, S.) Hill, Mrs. Eveline (Wythenshawe) Markham, Major Sir Frank
Clarke, Brig. Terence (Portsmth, W.) Hill, J. E. B. (S. Norfolk) Marples, Rt. Hon. Ernest
Cole, Norman Hirst, Geoffrey Marshall, Douglas
Cooke, Robert Hobson, Sir John Mathew, Robert (Honlton)
Cooper, A. E. Holland, Philip Mawby, Ray
Cordeaux, Lt.-Col. J. K. Hollingworth, John Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.
Corfield, F. V. Hopkins, Alan Maydon, Lt.-Cmdr. S. L. C.
Coulson, Michael Hornby, R. P. Mills, Stratton
Craddock, Sir Beresford (Spelthorne) Hornsby-Smith, Rt. Hon. Dame P. Miscampbell, Norman
Crawley, Aidan Howard, John (Southampton, Test) Montgomery, Fergus
Critchley, Julian Hughes-Young, Michael More, Jasper (Ludlow)
Crosthwaite-Eyre, Col. Sir Oliver Hurd, Sir Anthony Morgan, William
Cunningham, Knox Hutchison, Michael Clark Morrison, John
Curran, Charles Iremonger, T. L. Nicholson, Sir Godfrey

weight from one basket to another so that at the retail end he is selling 8 oz. We put all this in to encourage an inefficient system of marketing. With an efficient system of marketing, with an efficient transport system and with proper packing and containers, there would be far less loss of weight. Some experiments which are being conducted by sending pre-cooled fruit by special rail containers show that there would probably be no loss of weight if the job could be done quickly. The Parliamentary Secretary will know of these experiments carried on by the now defunct Horticultural Marketing Council in conjunction with the railways and certain growers' co-operatives. If this system were common throughout the country, it would be possible to get fruit and vegetables into the retail shops with practically no loss from dehydration, because they would get there much more quickly.

I speak from experience, because the only city in this country with a sizeable modern wholesale fruit and vegetable market is Sheffield. I have had opportunities to study what goes on there. Sheffield has a wholesale market with rail connections. Many markets have no rail connections. This is one of the problems. Because there are proper cold storage facilities at Sheffield, strawberries come from Norfolk overnight to Sheffield and are sold in the retail shops in the middle of the next morning. In such trans-shipments there is no loss worth noting. Sheffield can do it because it has a modern market.

The Parliamentary Secretary is writing something into the Bill which is contrary to the whole principles of the Bill. He is doing this merely to defend an inefficient system of marketing. I am sure he would agree that the sooner we clean up the wholesale marketing and the general arrangements from growers to retailers the better. Everybody wants this, and there is no dispute between us about this.

Surely the way to do it is to say that the operation of the principles of the Bill in relation to fresh fruit and vegetables shall be delayed until marketing has been reorganised. In the meantime, let us take even the rewritten Clause 33 (3) out of the Bill, because it is contrary to the whole spirit of the Bill and it should not be there.

Mr. Bence

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling). I have heard it argued that this provision must be in the Bill because it is impossible to pre-pack fruit and vegetables and state their net weight, especially with certain kinds of fruit and vegetables. I cannot accept this contention. For years I have bought in retail shops all kinds of pre-packed fruits and the net weight has been stamped on the package. In supermarkets the weight is stamped on. I have bought grapes, strawberries, currants, plums, figs and peaches in France. One can go right down the Mediterranean coast, through Spain and right down the Italian Riviera to Rome and find supermarkets in which any fruit imaginable can be bought. It is all pre-packed and the net weight is stated on the packet.

However, we are back in good old England, where it is argued that this legislation cannot be passed because we have Smithfield Market, and that market has not got this or that. It is also argued that this has never been done before. We have Covent Garden, and we never know where that is going to be. The same applies to Billingsgate Market and the rest of them. We are refusing to realise that the world is marching on. We are passing legislation which will make this country remain, from the marketing point of view, in the nineteenth century.

This is a tragic and shocking thing. Everyone knows that machinery and equipment is being manufactured throughout the world—it is even being manufactured and exported from this country—which is capable of pre-packing, folding, boxing and packaging almost everything imaginable. These machines do the job efficiently and effectively and give the customer a clean, wholesome product to its accurate net weight. But no. The Government must consider the merchants and shops and retard progress.

We have passed a number of Acts in recent years, including the Clean Air Act, forcing a lot of people to go to considerable expense for the good of the country. Many people have had to take out their fire grates, install central heating and do other things, perhaps having to spend £100 or more on their homes to bring them into line with new legislation. Despite all this the Government are pandering to certain marketing ideas and will not do the right and logical thing.

A lot is said about entering the export market. I recall a friend of mine telling me that had we gone into the Common Market there would have been tremendous openings in Europe for our products. I can assure hon. Members that if those products had been delivered to the French, German and Italian markets—and I am thinking of products like raspberries and strawberries—in the same condition as they are sometimes delivered to the retail markets in this country, not a single one would have been sold. The shopper in those countries would not accept our products if they were packed and handled in the way I have described.

Even some of the back street markets in many European countries ensure that their products are displayed in a way superior to some of our best shops in this Metropolis of London. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough will continue to protest about Clause 33 (3) because some of the ideas it contains are almost amazing. This idea that a person can go into a large store, buy some strawberries or raspberries and then go to another part of the store to a weighing machine to check the weight of the purchased product is most unacceptable and I am shocked that in a Bill of this sort, which contains so many good things and a number of progressive moves, there should be a Clause of this nature.

The Bill in effect calls on those who are marketing goods to pull their socks up, install better equipment and arrange more hygienic conditions. In the last few years several Measures have been passed in which food is sold and distributed, improving all the time the conditions in which food is sold and distributed. In Clause 33 (3), however, we are stopping that progress. We are clinging to the marketing conditions of the past, and I hope that my hon. Friend, whose strong feelings on this subject I share, particularly as to the Government's pandering to a marketing system which does not fit into the twentieth century, will press the Amendment. In these more enlightened days we have the speedy delivery of goods by air, rail and other methods. Yet, despite the advances that have been made, the Government seem determined to ensure that marketing goes on under conditions only fit for the nineteenth century.

Mr. Edward Milne (Blyth)

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) has said, for in a Bill which contains a number of improvements and has many admirable features the Parliamentary Secretary has not seen fit to deal efficiently with this controversial Clause 33 (3). This subsection violates an important principle of consumer protection, namely, the disclosure of the weight of pre-packed foods to enable the customer to assess if value for money is being obtained. Thus it shifts the onus from the retailer or seller to the purchaser.

Not only is the subsection reprehensible in character but it carries many complications for the consumer and the retailer. I am not giving away any secrets when I say that a good deal of consternation was expressed by hon. Members on both sides when this matter was discussed in Committee. During those discussions one of my hon. Friends revealed some information he had received on this type of selling from the Oxford Consumer Group. That group instanced an important example; a supermarket in Oxford that had tomatoes, carrots, apples, bananas, onions and other commodities being sold in packages of from 12 to 17 oz. each package which the customer assumed to contain 1 lb. in weight. When the prices of the articles were measured against the prices being charged by other establishments in the town, it was discovered that the price per lb. was considerably higher than elsewhere.

I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to consider what would happen in a busy supermarket or self-service store on a Saturday morning, with customers scurrying here, there and everywhere, many of them having to weigh products themselves to see exactly the amounts they are receiving and then having to calculate the price of their purchases. For the small shopkeeper the expense of additional scales for the use of the public would amount to between £70 and £100.

When this matter has been discussed by the trade the question of shoplifting has always come into it. Shoplifting is, naturally, a greater temptation to certain people when shopping in supermarkets and self-service stores. Under the Bill it will be made easier, with customers walking to and fro with articles, purporting to be looking for scales on which to weigh their purchases. On the other hand, the flustered shopper, not in the least thinking of shoplifting, will be wandering about looking for scales on which to weigh the purchases and trying to find out precisely the price of the goods being bought.

When one considers shopping practices at present and the practice of marking down prices by competing supermarkets in the same area one can see, particularly under the Clause as drafted, why some people have fears about sharp practices entering into the trade. Customers may be buying goods which have been marked down in price, totally unaware of the fact that in addition to the price having been reduced the quantity in the packages may also have been reduced. The Parliamentary Secretary should look closely at the Clause because my hon. Friends and I believe that it violates an important part of consumer protection.

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Loughlin

I do not wish to reiterate what has been said. But the Parliamentary Secretary has, at least in part, accepted some of the many objections to this provision in that it is to apply solely to fruit and vegetables. Here we are attempting to safeguard the consumer against receiving goods which are underweight. I do not for a moment think that the Minister is not attempting to meet a situation which he thinks may arise. But hon. Members will know from practical experience that this provision will result in a burden being placed upon a large number of retailers and no useful purpose will be served. There are small retailers who may think that they have a responsibility to provide scales or weighing equipment for the use of customers and that there must be a notice exhibited in their shop indicating to customers that the equipment is available for their use. Many small shopkeepers may regard this provision, when the Bill becomes an Act, as making it mandatory on them to purchase such equipment at a cost of £70 or, as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne), at a cost of £100. I do not think that the average small shopkeeper should be placed in such a position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) said that this provision would safeguard the inefficient marketing system of the horticulture industry. It is my view, which I hope I may present to the Parliamentary Secretary in a reasonable manner, that scales will be bought by small retailers who can ill afford the expense. This equipment will not be used by customers. It will merely be a wonderful monument to the good intentions of the Minister. In many instances, although customers may suspect that the goods they have purchased are under weight, they would not dream of weighing those purchases. There is a psychology of trading in these matters, particularly in respect of transactions with small shopkeepers. The customers would never dream of questioning the actions of "Mr. Johnson", "Mr. Jones" or "Mr. Brown"—or whatever may be the name of the small trader. I do not see the point in wasting the money of these tradesmen by creating the impression in their minds that they must have this equipment.

If the Minister is of the opinion that the horticultural industry has inefficient marketing methods, instead of safeguarding them by placing responsibility on retailers, he should consult his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in order to see what may be done to improve the methods of marketing horticultural produce. I beg the hon. Gentleman to look at this matter again to make sure that he is convinced that this provision should apply even to fruit and vegetables.

Mr. D. Price

Perhaps it would be convenient if I now attempt to answer one or two of the questions which have been asked, and particularly to reply to the helpful comments of the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin), who, I think, is under a misunderstanding, or, if he is not, is under the impression that shopkeepers wilt misunderstand this matter.

I wish to make clear that if this Amendment be accepted a small shopkeeper would satisfy the obligation placed upon him by the provisions in this Bill if he did what is laid down in subsection (2) where it states: For the purposes of this Act and any instrument made thereunder … the quantity shall be deemed to be made known … (a) if the goods are weighed or otherwise measured … in the presence of that person … This would mean that the local fruiterer could do what my local fruiterer does and place purchases on the scales in the presence of the purchaser. There would be no need for someone who was not running a supermarket to instal scales.

Mr. Loughlin

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is trying to meet the point. But I submit that a number of small fruit and vegetable retailers now sell goods which are pre-packed, including potatoes, carrots and all sorts of fruit.

Mr. Price

The hon. Member would agree that even if the retailer were selling pre-packed goods he could still satisfy the requirements of Clause 33 by putting the goods on the scales in the presence of the purchaser. As I visualise it, this will apply only in the case of the supermarket. The object of the exercise in the supermarket is not to have the shop assistant actually present. The business is done at the far end by the exit, where everything is totted up and one pays at the desk. It is the object in this type of retailing that there should not be a shop assistant present.

Different considerations apply to the small shop where one deals direct with the shop assistant. I know very well that there is an increasing amount of trade now in pre-packed fruit and vegetables. For instance, this winter I have seen a lot of cranberries coming in pre-packed. The shop assistant would pass such a pack over the scales, as many of them do now, in front of the customer, and this would satisfy the requirements of subsection (2).

The rather quaint procedure provided for in subsection (3) had to be created, as it were, because of the problem of the supermarket. There is no reason why the small shopkeeper who continues to serve his customers direct, weighing the things in front of them—as my fruiterer does where I live--should have the fear expressed by the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West that he will have to spend £70 on scales to satisfy a provision which, in fact, does not apply to him because he is not indulging in the supermarket form of trading.

Mr. Darling

There is a contrary point here. The hon. Gentleman is preventing the small greengrocer from setting up inside his shop a series of shelves from which customers may help themselves to pre-packed vegetables or fruit, handing the money to the shopkeeper as they go out. This is a very convenient method of trading inside a small shop. The hon. Gentleman is saying to the small trader that he may not do this unless he spends £70 on providing another scale on which customers may themselves weigh the goods.

Mr. Price

If the place is small enough, the shopkeeper can weigh the goods when they come to the counter where his scales are.

Mr. Darling

No, that will not do.

Mr. Price

Another point which hon. Members have not appreciated arises in this way. Particularly in the type of shop to which the hon. Member for Hillsborough refers, a problem is created by the evaporation from soft fruit which takes place during the course of the day. The hon. Gentleman will say that when we have absolutely up-to-date shops with all the proper equipment the shopkeeper will put his punnets of strawberries, for instance, on a properly cooled shelf and this will reduce greatly the likelihood of evaporation. I accept that this would be so in the sort of retailing which he and I would dearly like to see, but I suggest that the small shopkeeper is the one least in the position to provide such facilities for laying out his fruit. Even if we had the changes in horticultural marketing which the hon. Gentleman would like to see—he knows that I have considerable sympathy with his views—it would still be very difficult to overcome the problem of evaporation from soft fruit, particularly during the course of a hot summer's day. I am perfectly prepared to accept from the hon. Gentleman that one day it should be possible to do so.

The hon. Member for Hillsborough made the general point that this is giving a premium to inefficiency in horticulture. I do not consider that it is appropriate in this Bill to tackle the whole business of horticultural marketing. It would be unfair to retailers, to wholesalers and, above all, to producers if we laid down stringent conditions when the marketing system was not yet adequate over the country as a whole for them to be able to comply with the conditions relating, let us say to the selling by net weight which, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman would like. He said that we are legislating for a long time. Equally, as I said in my introduction, we are, under the Amendments, taking order-making powers so that it will be possible gradually to reduce the number of products covered by Part VII of Schedule 4 to which this will apply.

7.15 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman took exception to the fact that these powers, which we all admit have a very restrictive application, were put in the main body of the Bill. Subsection (3) is governed by the order-making power, and it is this order-making power which the hon. Gentleman and I hope will be used to reduce the number of products covered. I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept—I say frankly that it makes no difference to me personally whether it goes in the Schedule or in the body of the Bill—that it is more proper that this provision should go in the main body of the Bill when in it is involved an order-making power, and that one should not tuck order-making powers in the Schedules if one can avoid it. This is not my own invention. I am advised that that is the proper way to do it, and I like to do things in accordance with the practice of the House.

I hope that, after these few further words of explanation, the House will accept the Amendments.

Mr. Darling

May I, by leave, explain the difficulty which we are in on voting here? Some of my hon. Friends do not, I think, quite appreciate that, if we vote against what we regard as a quite inadequate subsection and series of Amendments, we shall, if our vote is carried, go back to the original subsection (3) and this would be even worse than what is now before us. Therefore, under protest, we have to accept what is proposed.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 38, line 7, leave out from "of" to "any" in line 8 and insert "weighing for himself".—[Mr. D. Price.]