HC Deb 13 March 1963 vol 673 cc1384-91

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Darling

I beg to move, in page 46, line 11, to leave out subsection (1) and to insert: (1) A local weights and measures authority may appoint under section 41 of this Act an inspector to act under the supervision of a chief inspector for the area as an adjuster of weighing and measuring equipment of any description, save as is provided for in section 5 of this Act, and such additional inspectors as may be required for this purpose, and after two years from the commencement of this section no person holding office as an inspector of weights and measures shall act as an adjuster of weighing and measuring equipment except under the supervision of a chief inspector or deputy chief inspector and with the express authority in writing of the Board. We propose that this new subsection should be substituted for the subsection now in the Bill because, in Standing Committee, we quarrelled about the use of the word "organisation" in the Bill, and we had fears about what the word might imply in this part of the Bill dealing with administration, the duties of inspectors, and so on.

On that occasion, the Parliamentary Secretary tried to reassure us with his own interpretation of the word "organisation" and with the Government's intentions in this respect. He said that it was not the Government's intention to separate in each locality the two functions of testing, weighing and measuring equipment and adjusting weighing and measuring equipment. He said that they did not visualise that any weights and measure authority would set up two organisations, one for testing and one for adjusting. On reflection, we are not satisfied with the hon. Gentleman's explanation.

Part of the trouble arises still from the use of the word "organisation" and part of it arises because we think that the Board of Trade has been looking at the problem through the eyes of a large urban authority. The Parliamentary Secretary has just given way on the last three Amendments and accepted something which I think he should not have accepted, and he is prepared to allow rural district councils to do all sorts of things which I consider they have not the scope to do.

While we accept the Hodgson Committee's view in principle that inspectors should not themselves adjust weights and equipment which they find defective, we suggest that this principle has to be set down in practical form. In the rural areas, in particular, it will be very difficult for a weights and measures authority to follow the terms of the Bill as they now stand. We quite agree with the Hodgson Committee's view and the principle which has been laid down that the same inspectors should not both test and adjust weighing and measuring equipment.

I visualise that it would be fairly easy to have the two separate functions organised within the weights and measures department of a large town, a county borough, but we are concerned with the difficulties which, we believe, will arise in the county areas where, periodically, the county weights and measures department will set up a, so to speak, temporary one-day office in a school room to examine the weights and scales of the local shopkeepers. This is where we think the Bill falls down.

As I understand, a cavalcade of inspectors may descend upon the unsuspecting villagers. There will be a chief inspector to supervise the proceedings. There will be an inspector, perhaps with an assistant, as is the case now, to test the weights and scales, there will then be an organisation to adjust them. The Bill is silent about the composition of the organisation.

As I read it, if the testing inspector, to call him that, finds any weights deficient, he will have to make out a chit and give it to the shopkeeper together with the deficient weights and tell the shopkeeper to move four paces sharply to the left or to the right and hand the chit with the weights to the adjusting organisation. The Parliamentary Secretary said that the organisation at this stage would probably consist of one inspector, but all the Bill speaks of is an organisation. When the "organisation", the adjuster, has put the weights right, he will have to give the shopkeeper another chit, return to him the weights which have now been adjusted, and tell him to move smartly to the right or the left and give the chit and the weights to the first inspector so that the first inspector, whose job it is to test them—this duty has not been taken from him—may test the work of the adjuster and pass the weights as fit to go on the shopkeeper's weighing machine.

We think that this complicated procedure is quite unnecessary in the rural areas of the country. Indeed, it is quite unnecessary anywhere. We can see how the two organisations can work inside the weights and measures department of a town hall, but, when the job is to be done in a country village, then we think that this procedure is far too complicated and far too costly.

As I understand, what happens at present under existing legislation is that an inspector from the county authority, with an assistant, books a room in the village and lets all the shopkeepers know beforehand the day and time that he will be there. The shopkeepers then come along with their weights and scales to be tested, and the inspector and his assistant do the job between them and check each other's work. Surely that is all that is needed.

The Parliamentary Secretary says, or more or less hints, that that is all that is to be done under the terms of the Bill. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that the county inspectors are scared stiff of their interpretation of the words in the Bill. They think that they have got to go through all the complicated procedure which I described a moment ago. Therefore, we have drafted, perhaps not very successfully, a new subsection which we think covers the points that, we understand, the Parliamentary Secretary wants to put before us. We feel that the wording of the Bill is rather complicated.

/ do not think that there is anything between us on the point. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee want a simple administration here, but in the way that subsection (1) of the Clause now reads we certainly cannot have a simple organisation. As I have said, we think that is is far too complicated. Even if the Parliamentary Secretary is not prepared to accept the wording of our suggested subsection, I hope that he will arrange for the subsection to be looked at again in another place so that it can be made much clearer and so that we can assure county inspectors that they will not have to travel round their counties with two organisations.

Mr. D. Price

As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) very rightly pointed out, I do not think that there is very much between us on this matter. It seems that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues place greater weight on the word "organisation" than we do. The hon. Gentleman seems to envisage a vast cavalcade proceeding round the counties of England in order that the provisions of the Clause can be implemented.

It is perfectly true that in Standing Committee hon. Members opposite expressed doubts whether the wording of the Clause—it seems that the word "organisation" was the sticking point—would allow a continuation of the existing practice under which an assistant responsible for adjusting the equipment and the inspector responsible for certifying it as correct could work side by side.

As I said at the time, I am quite persuaded that the Clause as worded would allow this, and quite obviously this is what the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends want, and what I want. We do not believe that it requires the adjusting and the testing to be done in different premises by physically separate organisations. I hope that what I am saying today will reach out to the weights and measures inspectors in the counties and will make it quite clear to them that we do not mean that. The work can be done in the same room.

What the Clause does prevent—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with this—is an inspector, who is adjusting equipment, being asked later to certify it as correct. This is what the Clause tries to prevent it also tries to ensure that a separate person shall certify as correct the work done by the person adjusting. This, as the Committee will recall, was a recommendation of the Hodgson Committee. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee recognise the importance of it.

I, personally, am satisfied—I have looked into the matter since we discussed it in Committee—that the Clause as worded is reasonable, and I still do not accept the need for the hon. Gentleman's Amendment. As he very modestly pointed out, if we wanted to accept it there might have to be an adjustment in the wording. I say to the hon. Gentleman, however—being, I hope, a reasonable person—that I am quite prepared to have a further look at the drafting of the Clause to see whether an alternative to the word "organisation" can be used to make the intention even clearer, but, of course, there is no real difference between us as to what we want.

At the same time, having had one go at it, I do not promise the hon. Gentleman that I or my advisers will be able to find a superior form of words. None the less, I am quite prepared to have another shot at it, and, if we are able to find a better form of words, to undertake to put forward an Amendment in another place.

Mr. Bence

I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) is intending to withdraw his Amendment, but this is an important matter, because the interpretation which he has put on the wording is the one that is accepted by the weights and measures inspectors. It would be rather unfortunate if a Bill passed from this Committee and was reported to the House containing a Clause with the wording with which the Minister was himself satisfied and which his advisers told him was wording with which he was quite right to be satisfied—that the interpretation of the word "organisation" meant this or that—whereas out in the country, where it would have to be acted upon, every weights and measures inspector understood the wording to be something else. It would be very unfortunate if that happened.

I have had reported to me, and from my own experience in this field I know, the dangers which may be created in this way. It is a very dangerous thing to suggest that a local authority may set up an organisation under the supervision of a weights and measures inspector. What do we mean by setting up an organisation? For instance, could a county council appoint as a place of inspection in a part of the county a small garage or a small workshop and circularise the shopkeepers and traders in the area to the effect that if they brought their weighing machines and equipment along to that place then, under the supervision of the weights and measures inspector, this organisation would adjust their weighing machines and equipment? This is how some weights and measures inspectors look at it.

Surely the Parliamentary Secretary realises that the adjusting of weighing machines—not in all cases, but in many cases—means a technical operation. It is not just a matter of turning a screw, or of putting in a bit of lead, or of taking out a bit of lead. Very often, it is quite an expert operation. We are to set up an organisation which is responsible to the weights and measures inspector. If the person carrying out the adjusting of a weighing machine found, perhaps by chance or by inadvertance, that the machine had been tampered with, he would condemn it and would try to rectify it. I could give the Committee information concerning lots of wangles that can be employed. These are things which have been done from time immemorial, and any weights and measures inspector will know of the dodges employed by weighing machine mechanics quickly to adjust an instrument by means which are certainly unscientific and which do not conform to sound engineering practice.

Under the Bill, an inspector of a county has the responsibility placed upon him by an organisation which he himself has not set up, but which the weights and measures authority has set up—an organisation, it may be, in another part of the county. He is not an adjuster; he is an inspector. It is clearly laid down that the inspector must not adjust that which he is to inspect. But an adjustment is often part of the inspection, and many weights and measures inspectors adjust a machine when they are inspecting it. There is a spirit level in some modern weighing machines by which one can tell whether or not the machine is level, and he may have to adjust that. That is an act of adjusting the machine. If one alters the level of the machine, one may make it inaccurate.

5.0 p.m.

Here we are making weights and measures inspectors responsible for all sorts of people who may be established in the organisation to adjust weighing machines throughout the county. This is a frightful and most dangerous situation, particularly in view of the fact that weighing machines which are coming on the market these days in ever-increasing numbers are highly complex scientific instruments. They are not the simple manual balances of forty years ago

I have seen weights and measures inspectors making adjustments when they are inspecting weighing machines. Why should they not do that? They are often more expert at the job than some of the weighing machine mechanics. Some weights and measures inspectors have been drawn from the weighing machine industry and were first-class mechanics long before they became inspectors. They have been trained in the job, and they have trained their assistants to do the job properly.

In the interests of the efficiency of the weights and measures service and of the weights and measures inspectors, I hope that it will be made clear before the Bill becomes an Act what is meant by an "organisation" and that we do not open the door to the creation of a conglomeration of organisations in the interests of easy administration in county areas making weights and measures inspectors at the centre responsible for amateurs fooling about with very complex machines.

Mr. Darling

We must accept the Parliamentary Secretary's offer to look at this matter again. I hope that he will take into consideration the powerful representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) and our proposal to make it clear that the weights and measures inspectors can adjust their own equipment and the equipment in the local authority. In view of the Parliamentary Secretary's assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended (in the Standing Committee and on recommittal), considered.