HC Deb 13 March 1963 vol 673 cc1464-8
Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)

I beg to move, in page 57, line 15, after "1964" to insert: and to extend the use of one-third of a pint containers". I draw the attention of the House to a misprint in the names against this Amendment and the next following Amendment in line 36. It is the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) which should appear there, not that of the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. W. Wells). My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone apologises for not being here to move the Amendment himself. He has to be out of the House at this time, and I am acting in his stead.

In Standing Committee, we had a long debate about milk vending machines. It is not necessary to remind the House that the total number of machines involved is about 6,000. They cost, roughly, £365 apiece, and to alter each machine would cost probably £25 apiece. The total capital outlay involved exceeds £2 million. We had hoped that it would be possible still to buy milk by inserting 6d. in the slot machine, but our Amendment in Committee was not accepted by the Parliamentary Secretary.

There is a practical problem here. These machines exist, and, immediately after the Bill becomes an Act, certain action must be taken in order that milk is packaged in sufficiently small quantities so that it can be sold by inserting 6d. in the slot. We should bear in mind that it is impracticable or difficult to modify some of these machines and to incorporate the multi-coin mechanism which is practicable when new machines are being built.

All that we ask is that within a few months of the Bill becoming law it should be possible to sell milk in one-third pint containers in milk vending machines which are now in operation. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give the proposals of the milk industry his careful consideration and will accept the Amendments.

Mr. D. Price

The effect of the Amendments would be to allow the sale through vending machines of milk in one-third pint containers six months after the enactment of the Bill. The present law, which is to apply until the coming into force of the Fourth Schedule two years after the passing of the Bill, requires milk other than school milk to be made up for retail sale in half-pints and pints only.

The Amendments are unacceptable as they stand. When we discussed the problems of milk vending machines in Committee, I pointed out that there would be serious difficulties of enforcement if we attempted to distinguish between milk made up for sale in vending machines and mill made up for sale over the counter. For example, an inspector, on finding stocks of one-third pint containers in a retail dairy, might suspect that they were being sold over the counter, but it would be hard to disprove the shopkeeper's assertion that they were used only to fill his vending machine.

However, if it is the general wish of the House to allow the earlier introduction of the one-third pint as a permitted quantity for all retail sales, with there being no distinction between milk sold from a vending machine and milk sold over the counter or delivered to houses, I am prepared to consider the wish favourably with a view to ensuring that a suitable Amendment is moved in another place. This would allow one-third pints of milk, provided they were marked with their capacity, to be sold through all retail outlets, including sale through vending machines, six months after the Bill comes into force. The question is whether it is the general wish of the House to advance the time when one-third pints of milk can be sold legally.

As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) said earlier today, we want, as far as possible, to keep party politics out of this matter. I am in the hands of hon. Members. If it is their view that it would be desirable to advance from two years to six months the legalising of one-third pints, then I should be happy when the Bill goes to another place to ensure that the Government move a suitable Amendment.

Mr. Winterbottom

I appreciate all that the Parliamentary Secretary has said. The need of some old-age pensioners living alone for one-third of a pint of milk has been stressed an innumerable occasions.

There is one difficulty which I want the Parliamentary Secretary to take into consideration. It concerns the price of milk. Milkmen are like grocers. If milk is 8d. a pint and we divide that by three, then someone over the course of time will get some profit which he did not expect. Grocers reckon in a different way from economists in universities. They say that 6 and 6 make 12, and another 6 makes it 18, and 18 pence is 1s. 8d. We do not want that to apply in terms of milk. There is this problem of the division of the price of milk. It is simplified in half-pint terms, but it will be much more difficult with regard to one-third pints. So, while I have great sympathy with the proposals in the Amendments, I put it to the Parliamentary Secretary that there is this problem of price that has to be faced.

Mrs. Eveline Hill (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

This seems to me to be not an unreasonable request. If it costs a fraction more to provide milk in one-third pints, it will cost slightly more to pack it in one-third pints, and for that reason one can well understand there being a slight addition to the cost. If it is merely a question of time when this is to become operative, surely the best and simplest way of dealing with it is to bring it into operation in the shortest time and give people the benefit of these machines and old people the benefit of being able to buy small quantities of milk.

Mr. Darling

We are in something of a difficulty in that these are starred Amendments and we have not had time to examine their consequences.

I can see the point that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) has raised in regard to time. If we agree to the sale of one-third pints of milk, not only in vending machines, but generally, then the time factor is not an important matter of principle—it is a practical proposition. Hon. Members will be aware that in Committee some of my hon. Friends and I opposed the idea altogether of milk being sold in one-third pint containers. This was for the very good reason which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Winterbottom) put up, but did so the wrong way round.

I do not want to see milk supplies to old-age pensioners cut down merely because they cannot afford to pay for half-pints of milk. If old-age pensioners are to be in trouble, we should raise old-age pensions and not cut down the amount of milk that they can buy I cannot accept that argument.

I think that there is still a case for looking very closely at the proposition that milk should be sold in one-third pint containers. We lost that battle in Committee, and I do not think that it would be appropriate to go over it again. If we are still to lose that battle there is perhaps a good case on practical grounds for introducing the provision which the hon. Member for Hallam has asked for within six months instead of waiting two years. We are, however, in the difficulty that we have not had a chance properly to consider this.

Therefore, the best way out of the difficulty would be to allow the matter to be discussed fully again in all its aspects in another place. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not arrange for the Amendment in another place to be put down in such a way as to limit discussion. I am sure that that will not be his intention. In the circumstances, it is probably desirable to accept the Parliamentary Secretary's offer. I certainly oppose acceptance of the two Amendments tonight because we simply have not had a chance to consider them.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Goodhew

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn). It should be made clear that there is no suggestion from this side of the House of encouraging old-age pensioners to have their milk only in one-third of a pint, because they will still be able to buy it in half-pints or pints if they wish. Hon. Members opposite have raised a stupid red herring in making that absurd suggestion. I support the Amendment because it seems to me to be perfectly sensible and I cannot see that any real objection has been raised during the debate.

Mr. J. H. Osborn

I thank not only my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) for supporting the Amendment, but my fellow citizens, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Winterbottom), for their constructive contribution to the discussion of the Amendments. I would not describe them as starred Amendments. One of the difficulties has been to find a way of helping the milk distributive trade to solve its problems. I welcome the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that an Amendment should be put forward by the Government for consideration and full debate in another place. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.