§ Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified]
§ 3.34 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. David Price)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I imagine that by now many hon. Members are rather weary of this Bill. I confess I sympathise with them. A Bill of 116 pages is always a demanding proposition. However, I am glad to say that we have nearly reached the end of it. By its very nature it has been inevitably a very long Bill. In Standing Committee and on Report we have examined this Bill very thoroughly. This has inevitably taken time, but I believe that we have got through it without unnecessary delay. Indeed, throughout our proceedings we have maintained a constructive and purposeful approach to the Bill.
Although it is plainly invidious to mention names when so many hon. Members have contributed to the examination of the Bill, I cannot ask the House to take leave of it without referring briefly to the outstanding contributions made by some hon. Members, even at the risk of being invidious. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) has impressed us all by his detailed knowledge of the Bill and by his determination to make it work. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for Science and myself have received great personal courtesy from the hon. Member. I should like to pay him our thanks in public.
The hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) has made a number of helpful and constructive suggestions during the course of our proceedings, especially on legal matters, some of which at least we have been able to incorporate into the Bill. I can say that as far as I am concerned he has been a most helpful lawyer. The hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) has, if I may say so, played a determined part in all stages of the Bill. On this side, I confess, we have not always agreed with the hon. Lady, and I think that she 956 would have been surprised if we had agreed with her on all occasions, but her extensive knowledge of and deep concern for the average shopper has impressed us all. But I still cannot agree with her that the average shopper is necessarily always a she. It is no longer "square" for dad to do some of the family shopping.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) has been tireless in his efforts to champion the cause of the lady drinker and to ensure that she should not be compelled to drink one jot too much. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. E. Taylor) has put his considerable technical knowledge, especially on baking matters, at our disposal and, I believe, to our advantage. It is unfortunate that by the rules of order we have been unable to sample some of the products under discussion, especially, in his case, baking products.
To these and many other hon. Members my hon. Friend and I are very grateful for their knowledge, their interest, and, above all, for their personal courtesy. They have made our task in handling the Bill not only tolerable but also agreeable. I wish also to thank my officials in the Board of Trade and the parliamentary draftsmen far the formidable task which they have so successfully fulfilled. Any success which my hon. Friend and I may have achieved has been due to them, and any failure entirely our own fault.
In moving this Motion I should like to mention some of the main points which have emerged during our discussions and to remind the House how these fit into the framework of the basic principles of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for Science will reply at the end to any specific points which hon. Members may wish to clarify, and I anticipate a few; but, first, we must be clear about the Bill's task. It is to regulate those aspects of buying and selling which are concerned with quantity.
I am satisfied that on those basic principles, the broad structure of the Bill, and the necessary powers of national and local government involved in this task, there has been and there is very little disagreement between the two sides of the House. Our discussions have concerned the very important 957 details of how to put those principles into practice and of the exact limits to which these powers should extend. In other words, we are all agreed on the desirability of protecting the consumer as far as is practicable, bearing in mind the whole time that retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers and producers have their rights, too.
What we have discussed and, in general, are now agreed on is the definition of "practicable". In some cases it is not practicable to do as much to protect the consumer's interest as one might at first have thought or intended. Other considerations, usually technical ones, override it. In Standing Committee and on the Floor of the House we have tried to explain these other considerations, and where relevant, the detailed reasons for following one course rather than another. Sometimes the reasons have, I fear, been very detailed.
Hon. Members, I hope, now appreciate why the Bill is so long and so complex, but, as became very clear in our debate on points of detail, both attitudes and circumstances in this field can vary widely. One of the most important features of the Bill is that while it unequivocably embodies certain basic principles it allows for flexibility in their application. It provides for two sorts of changes: first, changes in public attitudes towards the subject of consumer protection; and, secondly, changes in methods of production, distribution, marketing, retailing, and so forth.
This is, therefore, in some ways an experiment in legislation, but I am sure that it is an experiment on the right lines. No more than could the drafters of the 1878 Act, or even of the 1926 Act, have foreseen the nature of trade today, changes in methods of retailing, packaging, and so forth, no more can we forecast precisely how goods will be bought or sold in forty, fifty or eighty years' time.
We have endeavoured to make allowance in the Bill for the fact that we are not prophets; we have recognised that change is not merely possible but certain. Examples of this are the powers given in the Bill to make orders varying or extending the provisions of the commodity schedules, both in the details of their requirements and in the goods to which they apply. The Commission on 958 Units and Standards, which the Bill sets up, will keep under review the basic definitions of the units of measurement. When the fourth dimension becomes assessable in trade, we shall no doubt be able to adapt the marking regulations to take account of it.
I should like to mention one or two of the main issues which stood out in Committee and which formed the background to our discussions. I repeat that the Bill deals only with quantity. But within this field it ranges very wide. For example, hon. Members have complained that it does not deal with the problem of deceptive packaging. But, although the Bill does not contain the phrase "deceptive packaging", it deals with this problem in a general way, as the Molony Committee recommended.
It does this by requiring, first, that prepacked goods should be marked with their quantity—and this marking will, of course, have to be clearly legible; the House will recall that there are in the Bill powers to make regulations to ensure that this is done—and, secondly, that many staple commodities should be prepacked only in specified quantities. I realise that some hon. Members would like even more articles to be subject to this requirement, but, again, I remind the House that there is power in the Bill, by order, to extend the range of products which will have to be packed in specified quantities.
Then there is the question of weight at the time of sale. The basis of all the Bill's requirements to provide information for the buyer is that this must relate to the weight of the goods at the moment he or she takes possession of them.
The Bill further requires information about net weight wherever possible; but it recognises that gross weight is sometimes unavoidable. This is connected with the previous point; if the customer is to learn weight at the moment of sale—and we believe that this is the right point at which the customer should know the weight—with prepacked evaporable goods we must, in a number of cases, allow gross weighing. This has been the subject of considerable discussion during the Committee stage of the Bill. Clearly, this exception from the net weight provision must be strictly limited.
959 In response to very constructive and persuasive arguments, we have amended the Bill as originally drafted to exclude from the gross-weighing provisions pre-packed butter, cooking fat, margarine, dried fruits, oatmeal, sugar and a number of other products. I hope that one day it will be reasonable to insist that all products be sold by net weight—even fresh fruit and fresh vegetables when prepacked. The only point that has divided the hon. Member for Hillsborough and myself has been the tactical one of when it would be right to insist on this; there has been no strategic objection to this being done.
I should mention another alteration which we have made at the instance of hon. Members. This was to restrict the provision that customers might weigh certain goods for themselves—the famous Clause 33 (3)—only to those products where the difficulties of loss of weight were greatest, namely, fresh fruit and vegetables. These two Amendments made should ensure that the shopper gets the most precise and reliable information possible about weight. I am grateful to hon. Members for the constructive way in which they have argued their case.
Finally, I should perhaps say something about the orders and regulations which the Board of Trade will be issuing after the Bill is enacted. A number of regulations, concerned mainly with the construction, testing and stamping of weighing and measuring equipment will be issued within six months of enactment. In the main, these regulations will be a reissue of existing regulations made under Acts to be repealed. There will be neither time nor need for detailed consultation with those concerned. An order will also be issued within six months giving an authoritative translation into English of existing international definitions of metric and electrical units.
As soon as possible after enactment, the Board will also issue the various regulations affecting the commodity schedules of the Bill which come into force two years after enactment. These will be fairly lengthy and complicated. For example, regulations will be issued under Clause 21 (4) about the manner of marking containers with required information. It is the Board's intention 960 to consult interested parties about the substance of these regulations in good time.
In addition to the orders and regulations which the Board will issue under the powers conferred by this Bill, it intends also to issue explanatory memoranda to weights and measures authorities about the provisions of the Act. I hope that this will be a help to weights and measures authorities in the formidable task which they will have in altering, in some cases, their procedures and bringing them into line with the Bill when it becomes an Act of Parliament.
It is not my intention to speak at any length today. As I said, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for Science will be here to take up specific points which hon. Members make. I hope, therefore, that with these few introductory remarks we may move on. Those hon. Members who have laboured on the Standing Committee will doubtless join me in hoping that we have here a Bill flexible and forward-looking enough to last through our lifetime at least, and I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
§ 3.47 p.m.
§ Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
I should like to thank the Parliamentary Secretary for his kind remarks about my part in the discussions on the Bill. Strange as it may seem, I have thoroughly enjoyed the work in which I have been involved. Whatever credit goes to me should, I think, be shared with my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and other hon. Members who have worked very hard. I have very often been their mouthpiece after they have done the work.
We should particularly thank those weights and measures inspectors and leaders of trade associations who have willingly given us all the advice and information that we needed, advice and information which we regularly asked for. They did a tremendous amount of work for the whole Committee, not just for ourselves.
This is not the last time that we shall be talking about the Bill. I think—at least, I hope—that in a week or two we shall have Amendments from another place to consider—that is, if the Government do not drop this Bill when it gets 961 to another place, as they have done on other occasions, though I think that this Measure has gone too far to be dropped at this stage.
I think that we shall have to deal with Amendments because the Bill, in our view, is still defective in some matters—there is that last chance to amend and strengthen its weaknesses—but this is the last opportunity we have to comment on the principles of what is a major piece of legislation. The Parliamentary Secretary has made a rather short introductory speech. I well appreciate that, because he was faced with a difficulty. He could either be short, just mentioning the main principles of the Bill, or he could go into a great deal of detail about it, and I imagine that he would have been speaking for the next hour if he had attempted to do so. However, I must point to what we consider to be the Bill's weaknesses.
In doing so, we have to emphasise again that this is a major piece of legislation, because it will lay down some of the rules for the conduct of trade in this country not only for the next ten years but, we hope, well into the next century, as we repeatedly said in Committee. It is, therefore, important to housewives and shoppers generally, because it seeks to ensure that they get honest weight and measure when they go shopping. We should not forget that it is also tremendously important to traders, because it seeks to protect the honest trader from the unfair competition of the unscrupulous and dishonest operator who may be engaged in trade at the moment, the minority of dishonest traders.
Obviously, the provisions of the Bill must be made known to the public and particularly to weights and measures inspectors and to traders, and so on, who are to operate the new rules to be laid down. I hope that I shall be in order in making a complaint against the Press, the radio and television for paying so little attention to the Bill and our discussions about it. We are often criticised for sparse attendances in the Chamber and it is not often that we get a chance to hit back, but the Press, radio and television have not treated us fairly in this matter.
They have a cock-eyed sense of news values when they ignore what Parlia- 962 ment does to improve the legal protection for millions of shoppers and hundreds of thousands of shopkeepers. But I will not go into it any further. I am an old reporter myself and I can explain why it is that news editors have such a poor sense of news values.
The Bill brings our weights and measures legislation up to date, or it would do it if were slightly better and if our Amendments which were designed to improve and strengthen it had been accepted. We have succeeded in persuading the Government to accept many of our constructive proposals, as the Parliamentary Secretary said. It is, therefore, a somewhat better Bill than, when we first received it and it has an honoured background, if I can put it that way, for its antecedents go back to the eighteenth century, as the Ninth Schedule explains. We are breaking with the past to some extent and any weights and measures Bill which comes before Parliament today ought to be forward-looking so that no mare legislation of the kind is needed at least until well into the twenty-first century.
Our main complaint against the Bill is that in many important aspects it is too much concerned to protect existing trade practices, even when those practices run counter to the Bill's basic principles. The Bill could have been better used to put pressure on traders to accept changes and modern ideas and modern methods, but Conservative opposition to change is not confined to weights and measures legislation.
We want changes which will lead to progress, desirable changes in techniques and methods. Some countries can teach us a lot about modern weights and measures legislation and modern methods of consumer protection. There are some countries which have made changes by measures which we would not like to operate. I call the attention of the House to a report which recently appeared in The Times about a case in the Soviet Union.
I read with some alarm that a Soviet district court had sentenced two men to be shotfor saving fat on the frying of pirozhkis (pies) and pocketing the money saved from not selling them at lower prices.The two men who organised the pie fraud were the director of the governing body of the station restaurant at Sverdlovsk in the 963 Urals, 850 miles east of Moscow, and the restaurant manager.The director invented an automatic fryer which saved two to three grammes of fat on each pie compared with the amounts laid down in the regulations. This saving, however, was not passed on to customers in lower prices but was shared out among the director and 55 accomplices. The inventor pocketed 400 roubles (about £158) a month.Other members of the 'gang' received prison sentences ranging up to 15 years.That lamentable experience in another country proves the need for protective legislation, but I think that we would all agree that the sentences were rather harsh.
The basic principle of the Bill is that customers shall know the weight or the measure of the goods they buy. To make sure that they are not misled, the Bill lays it down that what they buy shall be sold only in specific weights or quantities, except where that is technically impossible. The principles are simple enough, but the trading operations with which we are concerned are now so complicated and the range of goods sold to domestic and other consumers so immense that the rules we have had to lay down are inevitably complex, which is why we have such a difficult and complex Bill.
We recognise and accept the complexities, but we see no reason why we should depart from the principle, for instance, to satisfy the out-of-date methods of fruit and vegetable marketing which the Parliamentary Secretary mentioned, the out-of-date methods from which we suffer in this country. I raise the matter again because we have been repeatedly told that it is impossible to sell soft fruits and vegetables by net weight and in pre-packed containers. During the last few weeks, because of the severe weather which we have had and its effect on crops in this country, we have been importing vegetables from the United States of America—in packs, prepacked and marked with the net weight. They have come all the way from California and weights and measures inspectors here have opened the packs and found exactly the net weight. If it can be done for journeys of that description, I fail to see why it is impossible in this country.
I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to face up to this again, because if we start importing soft fruits, for instance, from the Continent in net weight containers, 964 what answer are we to give to housewives who ask why it cannot be done here? Is the answer to be that we must continue giving a premium to our growers for their inefficient methods?
I have asked this question half-a-dozen times and I finally ask it again, hoping that the Parliamentary Secretary for Science will at least try to give an answer. If he cannot do so, I hope that somebody else will—I want somebody to tell me and I do not care who it is. Why is it impossible to put 9 oz. of strawberries into a basket at the grower's end, transport them quickly in cooled wagons or trucks to a modern wholesale market and to the shops, so that the loss of weight is so small that the customer can rely on getting ½ lb. of strawberries when she pays for ½ lb.? I have many times asked for an answer to that question, but I am still waiting for a reply.
I know the beginnings of the answer which I shall get. We shall be told that because our wholesale marketing and methods of transport are about half a century out of date, we cannot lay down rules for soft fruit and vegetables which we can lay down for meat and cheese and even for apples and pears and potatoes. I see no reason why, just because our marketing methods are so inefficient, we should give a dispensation to growers and marketing authorities who have failed to do their job.
Suppose we laid down that there was no dispensation, as in the notorious Clause 33 (3), and we insisted that the fruit and vegetable marketing business in this country had to become efficient; how long would it take to get modern, regional wholesale markets and cool containers and better methods of transport into operation? Shall we say three years?
Would it not be better to insist that fresh fruits and vegetables—along with all the other commodities; meat, fish, apples, potatoes, and so on—should be sold by net weight and then delay the operation of this rule for, say, three years so that an opportunity could be given, to the Ministry to begin with, to lay down plans to the marketing authorities which could be passed on so that, in that time, the growers could set up co-operatives to ensure that the job was done properly? The Government have made a grave mistake in giving this 965 dispensation in the Bill, and there are other defects which we are sorry we were not allowed to remedy in Committee.
The wholesale supply of fish raises a number of questions. We know that most of the modern suppliers of fish at the ports supply this commodity on a net weight basis to the retailer—the fishmonger. We are told, however, that we cannot write anything in the Bill to make that sort of operation general because, heaven help us, some ports are without weighing machines. For this reason, simply because adequate weighing machinery does not exist in some ports, the Government have allowed the dispensation in the Bill.
The Government must be aware that most of these ports—or the fish sections of them—are run by the local authorities. If a local authority cannot install a weighing machine and put the cost on to the rent charged to the fishermen for the services provided, that is quite beyond me and I cannot understand why local authorities cannot take that step. Here again, the Government are not prepared to act and, instead of making a constructive step forward, they give a dispensation; merely because some ports are inefficient. This is a great mistake.
It is not only in defence of inefficiency that the Government have departed from the principles of the Bill. They appear to have departed from them for reasons which my hon. Friends and I still cannot understand. There is the question of whether or not weights and measures inspectors should be allowed to stop coal carts, as they have done since, I believe, 1878. Why should they not be allowed to stop coal lorries to check the weight of the coal being carried? Provision to do that was contained in the old legislation. It has worked well over the years, but, for some reason which we cannot understand, the Government have decided to dispense with it now.
It has been suggested that the Government are afraid that if that old provision were carried forward into the Bill people would dress up as inspectors and hijack coal lorries. Is that the real reason? And will the inspectors go about in plain clothes? We accept that the majority of coal merchants are honest and perform a good job for the customer. There are 966 others, we are told—a minority—who are not so honest. I have been told that notes have been pinned up in the cabs of some lorries with the registration numbers of the inspectors cars' printed on them so that lorry drivers can tell whether an inspector is coming their way.
The story goes on to explain that the registration numbers have even been printed in reverse—mirror style—so that the lorry drivers can see, from a glance in their driving mirrors, whether an inspector's car is following them. Thus, the dishonest boys are able to get away.
§ Mr. Darling
A very good one, too.
In his speech, the Parliamentary Secretary mentioned deceptive packaging. Both he and his hon. Friend assured us in Committee that Clause 21 (4) would give adequate protection against the practice adopted by many manufacturers of putting too little into too big a package and labelling it "giant size", "jumbo", "large economy pack" and other phrases designed to deceive the customer. The Parliamentary Secretary considers that because a package must now be marked with the net weight of the contents the customer can look at the net weight and so will know, whatever the size of the packet, that if "½ lb." is marked on the packet ½ lb. of the goods in question will be inside. The hon. Gentleman went further and said that, in any case, the marking on the packet would have to be clear and legible.
I regret that an Amendment moved by my hon. Friends on this matter was rejected in Committee, because I am still not convinced that Clause 21 (4) will give adequate protection against deceptive packaging. I hope that the Government spokesman in another place will be more forthcoming than was the Parliamentary Secretary in Committee on this subject. Despite the assurances we have been given to the effect that deceptive packaging will not operate against the consumer, we still believe that the housewife will remain open to exploitation by some traders, despite the admittedly good provisions in the Bill.
It has been explained why, for good and technical reasons, some manufacturers pack their goods in what are called "odd weights" and these include such 967 weights as 5¾ oz., 7¼ oz., 10⅜ oz., and so on. These are confusing weights and a housewife faced with discovering the value of goods marked "5¾ oz. at 1s. 6d." as against "7¼ oz. at 2s." cannot be expected to work out in her head which one is better value than the other. The only way for her to know whether she is getting value for money is for the price per unit to be marked on the container or the goods.
We have heard a lot, on Second Reading and in Committee, from the Parliamentary Secretary about fair prices. In fact, we received almost a theological lecture on the subject. However, the Government have taken great care to weaken this principle in the Bill when dealing with the subject of odd weights. This is a weakness which I regret we have been unable to remedy.
All hon. Members are generally agreed that it is a good Bill. Clause 21 contains some excellent principles to govern the weighing and measuring of goods and to ensure that the customer and the honest trader are both fully protected in the complex system of trading which now exists. The regulations which will flow from Clause 21 will be watched with great care. I have no doubt that if, as, I suppose, they must be, they are based on Clause 21, and on the relevant Schedules, they will be extremely good and will take us a long way towards the goal of complete consumer protection for which we are all aiming.
Much depends on the machinery for administering the regulations, through the local authorities, being effective. The first thing we need to ensure that it is effective is an advisory council to regularly advise the Board of Trade on how the regulations are working, what changes are needed in them, and so on. We were told in Committee that rather than have a special advisory council on weights and measures, this advisory task would be given to the Consumer Council, whenever the President of the Board of Trade gets round to setting it up. The delay really is intolerable, especially since we were told by a Government spokesman in another place that the Government should be commended for acting so promptly in accepting the recommendation of the Molony Committee to set up a Consumer Council.
968 That was last November, or earlier—last July, I think; a long time ago, anyhow. Since then, we have not seen a Consumer Council. We have put down Questions to the President of the Board of Trade asking whether he could, perhaps, announce the name of the chairman he might appoint, or tell us the terms of reference. We cannot get anything out of anybody on the Government Front Bench.
I do not know to what timetable the Government are working on the Bill—when they expect to see it passed—but if we get it on the Statute Book, and the Board of Trade is expecting to have advice from a Consumer Council of some kind and no such council exists, we shall have further delays in producing the regulations. I therefore hope that the Parliamentary Secretary for Science will not skate away, as did the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, by saying that some time soon we shall have a Consumer Council. We want to know today when we shall get it, and what its terms of reference will be.
The other aspect of administration that gives us a great deal of concern is the Weights and Measures Inspectorate. We are all agreed that this Bill is only the beginning, although a very important and major part, of the local administration of what, for the sake of brevity, we call consumer protection; and that other things will be brought into the purview of what is now the work of the inspectors—the Merchandise Marks Acts, Food and Drugs Act, the Sale of Goods Act, and the necessary regulations flowing from them. Those are all outside the scope of this Bill, so I shall not go into them now but it is expected that the inspectorate will grow in this way.
Further, by the Bill we are widening the scope and activities of the inspectors with regard to weights and measures. I am told, and I think that there is much substance in it, that not only are there not enough weights and measures inspectors for the job but that too little is being done to train new inspectors. Obviously, on Third Reading, we cannot go into this in great detail, but there are problems here, not only of status but of training, qualifications, and so on, and I hope that the Government will look very carefully into this aspect.
969 We want to simplify the administration. We want a local office in each district where customers with grievances can seek advice or lay complaints, if they have any, or ask that some sharp practice of which they have been the victims be investigated—and, perhaps, if it leads to legal action, to get the weights and measures inspector to take up the prosecution. Housewives, ordinary shoppers, have an understandable dislike of going to the police and getting themselves involved in courts of law, but there is no reason why traders should be allowed to take advantage of this reluctance.
We want everyone to look on the local weights and measures inspector as a friend in need, but there is a great danger of this legislation breaking down because the inspectorate is not numerically strong enough to carry the burdens we are putting on it. I hope that the President of the Board of Trade will consult the local authorities concerned and the Institute of Weights and Measures Inspectors to make sure that we have an inspectorate capable of effectively carrying out the administrative duties we impose on it.
We have pointed out some of the defects and weaknesses of the Bill, but let me say again that, despite its weaknesses, this is a very welcome Measure. It is good in most parts because the Hodgson Committee did such excellent work in its inquiries, and in its Report and recommendations upon which the Bill is based. I do not think that there can be many technical Reports that have been translated into legislation so effectively—or so belatedly. It has taken thirteen years to get this Measure almost on the Statute Book, and such delay is indefensible. It is, of course, a typical example of this Government's ham-handed and dilatory approach to their duties. But we have the Bill at last, we approve it as far as it goes, and hope that it may yet be further improved.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Mr. A. J. Irvine (Liverpool, Edge Hill)
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) that the Bill contains many very useful provisions, and I was grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade for his courteous references at the outset of his speech. None the less, it is important that the House should 970 realise the limits of the Bill's effects after the long travail it has gone through.
The House should be aware, for example, that the effect of Clause 9 is to exclude exporters, in transactions with customers abroad, from the obligations that the Bill imposes on traders for the home market. We were told that the reason for this was that some foreign markets traded in units of measurement not acknowledged by the Bill or of general application in trade within this country, but a moment's reflection reveals that this element of non-standard units of measurements in overseas transactions is not a logical reason for exempting traders in exports from the obligations relative to weighing and measuring equipment in Part II of the Bill.
Part II deals with the equipment and instruments to be used, the stamping of them, and matters of that kind, and to the consumer and to trade generally it offers valuable protection. It is unfortunate that equivalent protection—and I should have thought it was a matter for wide agreement—is not explicitly conferred to safeguard the position of purchasers overseas. For the Bill to have overcome the difficulty that units of measurement are not equally applicable at home and abroad would no doubt have meant a good deal of work and fairly elaborate provisions, but there May be some regret that more has not been done under that head.
It is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough indicated, that weights and measures comprise only a small portion of the field of consumer protection. We have, therefore, found in the course of our consideration of the Bill that our endeavours to improve consumer protection have been somewhat circumscribed. In some cases, however, consumer protection and weights and measures overlap. It is important to realise that what Parliament is doing here is simply to confer order-making and regulation-making powers on the Board of Trade. That must be recognised. Although it would have involved a good deal of work, the House of Commons could have and, I think, should have gone much further in the elaboration and spelling out of the provisions that are to govern those matters in respect of which order-making and regulation-making responsibilities are placed on the Board.
971 Although I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a useful Bill, I think that we should have gone further in the Bill itself in terms of definition and precision, and by the same token somewhat reduced the area of the Board of Trade's discretion, because the two things go together. I have in mind as an example of this the question of regulations under Clause 21 (4) which deals with the conditions to be satisfied when marking a container with the weight of the goods it contains. This is of importance at the point where weights and measures impinge unmistakably on the field of consumer protection. It is a power which is exercisable by Statutory Instrument, but an affirmative Resolution of Parliament is not required in respect of the matter to which I have referred although the regulations covering this point will be subject to annulment on a Prayer.
I think that in this instance, therefore, we have conferred, probably without sufficient safeguards, too wide a discretion on the Board. I feel that in the course of the proceedings on the Bill we should have gone further in defining and giving precision to the requirements which we think should be fulfilled. In other words, there will be a good deal in the orders and regulations when they come to be made which some of us think ought to be in the Bill itself.
We on this side of the House are committed to the view that in the world of today, bearing in mind the complexities of modern society, there should and must be large-scale safeguards against the abuses that can, and do, creep into an uncontrolled market. We go further in this respect than hon. Gentlemen opposite. This is one of the differences between us; but to the extent that that is our belief—and I think that this must be remembered and recognised in the country—we are the more vigilant to ensure that on every occasion when the issue arises safeguards are written into the law to protect the people from the risk of any oppressive use of the powers which we confer.
Such oppressive use will not often occur in the way we run our affairs, but it may sometimes occur, and provision must be made for the rare case. Much of our work in Committee upstairs was directed to this, and it is fair to say— 972 and for this I am grateful, as I am sure my hon. Friends are—that in some important instances the Government met our points. I have in mind the Amendments to the Bill designed to protect the innocent shop assistant or the errand boy whose anxieties caused us to spend a good deal of time considering this point in Committee and also other persons who, in other respects and performing other duties, might, unless proper safeguards were spelt into the Bill, suffer unjustly and unfairly from the fact that their employers were guilty of contravening the law affecting weights and measures. Both the Parliamentary Secretaries were attentive to our arguments in this respect and constructive in their thinking on the problems raised in many instances.
We are nearing the end of a long-drawn-out legislative exercise. Let us on Third Reading acknowledge the improvement in the law which this Measure achieves. Do not let us exaggerate what the Bill does, nor minimise the extent to which it confers on the Board of Trade powers to make orders and regulations which we might in some instances have done better to spell out ourselves.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)
I welcome the Bill as far as it goes, in that it gives some protection in some way both to traders and consumers in the business of weighing and measuring things for trade. But I have one regret, in that there seems to be an idea that we could not go as far as we would have liked to have gone because the industry was not capable of producing the machines and equipment to enable us to have a far greater degree of precision in the selling of goods by weight and numbers. The weighing machine manufacturing industry could raise its standards and produce equipment to measure to whatever degree of accuracy the legislature decided was required.
Another regret is that when we were discussing pre-packed soft fruits there seemed to be a failure to recognise that new artificial materials, such as polythene, are capable of holding soft fruits of all kinds without their suffering any loss of moisture. This can be seen in supermarkets on the Continent, where goods are kept for four or five days without any loss of quality, and I see 973 no reason why the Bill is tied down to the provisions that we can use only outdated forms of packing and packaging for soft fruits. Scientists have given us new moisture-resisting materials, and I think that the difficulties which were referred to in Committee could be overcome.
I am glad to see that in the Bill as amended a Commission is to be appointed, and that there will be no danger of any irregularity in its appointment. I was glad, too, of the assurance that copies of the standards to be considered by the Commission would be widely distributed. I hope that a copy will he given to Edinburgh, which is the capital of Scotland.
Clause 62 (2) says:Subject to subsection (5) of this section, nothing in this Act shall affect any rights of the mayor and commonalty and citizens of the City of London …This is in respect of the gauging of wine and oil. Will the mayor and commonalty of the City of London be able to apply the powers given to them under their charters? I ask this because the Charter of 1311 says that the Lord Mayor of London and the commonalty can employ a Vintner who has power, on behalf of the Lord Mayor, if he finds a wine merchant selling bad wine, or giving bad measure, to force that wine merchant to drink all his bad wine and to pour the rest of his wine over his head, and according to subsection (4) of this Clause the Lord Mayor of London will retain his power under this old charter.
Am I to understand that a vintner employed by the Lord Mayor of London will be able to visit the taverns of London where they are selling cheap, inferior wine—and it should be noted that the charter refers to Bordeaux wine, with a different spelling—and force the taverner to drink his bad wine and pour the rest of his wine over his head?
Clause 62 (3) provides thatSubject to subsection (5) of this section, nothing in this Act shall affect the rights granted by charter to the master, wardens and commonalty of the mystery of Founders of the city of London.Surely, when used in this context, the word should be the Norman form—"misterie". I understand that these founders are coppersmiths who, operating under various charters, have their own 974 weights and measures. They even make them themselves, and inspect them and pass them. No doubt this is how they made their fortunes in the Middle Ages. But have they still got these powers? How much longer shall we preserve these oligarchical rights of the City of London?
The Parliamentary Secretary may tell us that they do not use these rights—but they have them. If they are not used, why should they be preserved? The City of London has been excused from the operation of the provisions of another Bill which is going through the House. Why should the City be excused again here? What does this "mystery of Founders" consist of? Apparently it is an ancient guild, but I doubt whether there are any coppersmiths in it; they are probably all wine merchants, or large importers. I should like to know why the Lord Mayor and the commonalty should have their own charters, together with the mystery of the Founders of the City of London.
I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary has not seen fit to give weights and measures inspectors the power to stop lorries. I do not want to go all over the argument we had in Committee, but this is a very had element in the Bill. We are taking away a right which weights and measures inspectors have had for many years. This was a protection for the housewife and the consumer of solid fuel. The reasons given in Committee for taking away this right were hopelessly inadequate. I cannot see how the Parliamentary Secretary found it possible to base his case on the possibility of persons disguising themselves as weights and measures inspectors and hijacking lorries, lorries. This was the lamest reason that I have ever heard in my life for taking away this right of the inspectors. It was absolutely fantastic.
Nevertheless, there is much in the Bill which commends itself to all those who are interested in protecting both the consumer and the trader, although I would have liked to see more protection given to the trader and distributor, because they have to take things from producers which are not subject to strict regulation in the matter of weights. Many traders who have suffered because of losses due to short weight in their supplies have been tempted to indulge in practices 975 which are not to be commended, simply to try to recoup those losses. Sometimes such losses are unavoidable, because of antiquated marketing systems and equipment, but this Bill could have taken some account of the fact.
At the conclusion of his speech, the Parliamentary Secretary said that he hoped that the Bill would last for our lifetime. I hope to live longer than that. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary hopes to live longer than that. The techniques and equipment involved in all the complications of measuring and weighing are changing so quickly that it is difficult for housewives to judge properly whether they are getting value for what they are paying for. This type of legislation for consumer protection must be progressive. It may be that in the next two decades we shall have to bring in new or amending legislation because certain practices have ceased and new ones have taken their place. I fail to understand on what ground the Parliamentary Secretary assumes that this is such a wonderful Bill and it will outlive us.
I am sorry that so few Members appear to be interested in this subject. I am also surprised, because we hear so many complaints about the need for consumer protection. I would have thought that much more concern would have been felt about this very important Measure.
I conclude by expressing my thanks to the weights and measures inspectors for the help that they gave us and the mass of literature that they sent us. Many of their observations were objective and informative. As a member of the Standing Committee, and having the opportunity of meeting weights and measures inspectors, I was glad to learn that there has been a revolution in the practice of local authority weights and measures departments in the last forty years, in the techniques employed and the way in which the inspectors carry out their work.
I hope that as a result of the Bill and the orders which the Government are to bring in—if the Government ever do bring them in; I do not think that they will remain long enough to do so, because they have let so many consumers down over the last decade, and consumers will probably appreciate that 976 another Government can bring in the necessary orders just as efficiently as or more efficiently than the present Administration—consumers generally will have a better deal.
I am glad to be able to welcome the Bill, and I trust that the manufacturers of weighing and testing equipment will be able to meet whatever demands this legislation, or the orders to be made under it, may make of them. There is no reason why our weighing machine industry should not be able to equip our shops, supermarkets, stores and everything else with the finest possible equipment in order to ensure that not only the consumer, at every level, but also the wholesaler, receives justice in the matter of weights and measures.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Mrs. Harriet Slater (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I wish to thank the Parliamentary Secretary for his references to myself and to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) who did a magnificent job during the Committee stage of the Bill by collecting information and ensuring that hon. Members from this side of the House who served on that Committee did their job.
I found this a very interesting Bill and that there was a considerable measure of good will in the Committee. Hon. Members were not constantly quarrelling with each other; they argued in a good-natured way. We were able to get some concessions from the Government and although, occasionally, we were very angry with the Parliamentary Secretary, there was, generally speaking, good will and good-tempered discussion.
This is a Bill for which hon Members and housewives have waited far too long. The absence of many hon. Members from the Chamber during this debate does not indicate a lack of interest in the Bill among people outside this House. I have found that shoppers—in the majority of cases they are "she's" and not "he's"—are greatly interested in the extent to which they are protected by weights and measures regulations and by merchandise marks and other forms of protection.
The Parliamentary Secretary has described the Bill as revolutionary. There has been a change in the methods of retailing which has made such legislation 977 necessary. Now we have supermarkets and mail order firms which were unknown twenty years ago. Merchandise is retailed by means of coin-in-the-slot machines, even within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster.
I do not think that the provisions in the Bill go far enough to afford protection against the sale of goods which are packaged in a deceptive manner. A great many people are prompted to buy articles because of their appearance rather than after taking the trouble to check the weight. While travelling in by train this morning I went to a buffet for a cup of coffee and I found that the very energetic man in charge was displaying plates of biscuits, with celery cheese and butter. I had not intended to eat anything. But they looked so attractive that I bought a plate full. Fortunately, I got my money's worth.
But I still maintain that many people buy such things as detergents and cereals because of the appearance of the packet and pay no regard to the weight, unless it is prominently exhibited on the packet. The traders who still pack the "bumper" and "better" packets of cereals and detergents "get away with it", and will continue to do so, despite the fact that in the provisions of the Bill we have tried to ensure that some of these commodities shall be sold by weight.
The Parliamentary Secretary for Science will tell us that housewives must learn, or that they should have learned by now. Goodness knows, housewives have been "done" enough times by their purchases of "bumper" and "jumbo" packets to make them cautious. But it is the duty of this House to protect consumers so far as possible, and hon. Members on this side consider that the provisions in the Bill could have been designed to give more protection against deceptive packaging.
There is provision to deal with articles sold at odd weights, such as 4 oz., 6 oz., or 8 oz. Here I make the point which I made on many occasions during the Committee proceedings and with which the Parliamentary Secretary must be "fed up". I wish, again, to refer to biscuits. Since the introduction of the Bill I have received more correspondence and representations about the sale of biscuits than about any other commodity. 978 It is amazing how many people do not realise—just as they did not realise that they were buying a l4-oz. loaf instead of 1-lb. loaf—that many packets of biscuits which appear to be 8 oz. in weight are not.
I was told by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Dr. D. Johnson)—and I receive correspondence from manufacturers in his constituency—that it is almost impossible to retail biscuits in ½ lb. packages. When I visited a branch of the co-operative society, in my constituency, I found packets of biscuits which weighed 6½ and 7¼ ozs. But quite a lot of the packets, especially those containing the better quality biscuits made at the new co-operative factory, weighed 8 oz., and I maintain that if this can be done at one factory, it can be done at others.
I went into a shop which does not sell only co-operative biscuits, and weighed four different makes of cream crackers. These packets all looked the same, and if I had not examined them carefully I should not have known that the contents of some did not weigh 8 oz. But I took the trouble to weigh them on the scales in the shop. I did not rely on my household scales, which might not have been as correct as shop scales have to be. I found that one packet weighed 6¾ oz. net and another 7½ oz. A packet of Crumpsall biscuits weighed 8 oz. and retailed at 10d. The other two packets each cost 1s. In the Bill we have tried to ensure that the price per unit shall be indicated. But there was a glaring case of housewives getting less for a higher price.
I still think that it is possible for machines to be adjusted so that commodities which are widely bought, such as biscuits, may be packaged at the right weight. To continue retailing them at odd weights provides another way in which housewives may be deceived. Pre-packed fruit, particularly apples and bananas—in respect of which provision is made in the Bill—is often sold according to number. Particularly in supermarkets, shoppers will find four or five bananas in a package—with no indication of the price per lb.—being offered for sale at 1s. 2d., 1s. 8d. or 1s. 10d. Unless a housewife takes the trouble to weigh the fruit, she has no idea whether she is getting value for money. I am very definite about this. Pre-packed goods of 979 that kind should have the weight marked on them. We should not allow them to be sold by count.
I have no hesitation in coming back to a question which we "flogged" in Committee, and which has been mentioned by my hon. Friends today. That is the question of the sale of coal and other solid fuel. There was a story in the evening newspaper in my constituency last week about two people being fined for this kind of thing. In one case 10 bags of coal were concerned and not one of the bags contained the correct weight. The short weight varied from 11 lb. downwards. That is a lot in weight for a person to be short of when paying the present prices for coal.
The only way in which the public can be protected against this sort of thing is for the weights and measures inspector to be allowed to stop coal lorries and to check up immediately. There are many ways in which the coalman who deliberately sets out to defraud the customers can do so. Sometimes he goes round a corner and makes six bags from five, or 21 from 20. That is a common practice because the lorries are loaded with a ton of coal and all the driver has to do is to put on an extra bag. Unless the weights and measures inspector can stop him anywhere and check up there are many ways in which the delivery man can slip away.
After the Report stage of the Bill I spoke to the weights and measures inspector from my district, who had been in the Strangers' Gallery. He said, "You do not know by half the dodges some of these people get up to." When my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) spoke about lorry drivers having the numbers of cars belonging to weights and measures inspectors pinned up in the cabs of their lorries, I thought that he was "pulling our legs".
§ Mrs. Slater
He scored a bull's eye, because that has actually happened. Weights and measures inspectors have told us that it is a common practice. The numbers of the inspectors' cars are permanently in the cabs of the lorries. When they see an inspector stop at traffic lights they recognise his car and 980 slip away. They often go out of his area into the area of another inspector. To say that we can get the police on to the matter quickly is mere eyewash. It is not always possible to persuade the police in another area to catch up with a lorry which has slipped out of the inspector's area. I hope that the Board of Trade will look into this matter.
The Parliamentary Secretary said that regulations are to be made. He should see how far this problem can be dealt with. Coal and other solid fuel is an expensive item in the budget of any housewife. It has a great bearing on the standard of living of many poor people. We ought to allow nothing to escape our notice by which we can prevent fraud. I hasten to add that it is not all traders who do this kind of thing, but it is the job of legislation to protect the public against those who attempt to practise fraud. This is not protection against the good traders, but against those who deliberately set out to practise fraud. For the latter a fine of £10, £20 or even £50 is very little if they are continually getting away with this kind of thing.
I turn to the question of tinned fruits. The Parliamentary Secretary for Science told us how difficult this is. I hope that his wife—
§ Mrs. Slater
Then I hope that someone else will tell him about this matter. It is one in which the consumer can be very much defrauded. In a supermarket one may buy a tin of fruit for 2s. 6d. for which, in an ordinary shop, the housewife would pay 3s. 3d. If, when she opens the tin, there is very little fruit in it but a large amount of juice, it may be all right to say that she can make jelly from the juice, but it is the fruit that she wants to serve to her family or to visitors. It should not be beyond the wit of legislators to find some control over the amount of solid fruit contained in tins.
§ Mrs. Slater
For 4d. one can buy a glass of grapefruit juice which has come out of tins in which there is very little fruit.
981 Another question I want the Parliamentary Secretary to look at concerns blankets, sheets, towels and such commodities. I understand that representations have been made to him by an hon. Friend of his who is in the textile trade. These commodities should be subject to measures giving protection to the public. It is amazing to find how many blankets or sheets are short in the length or the width. When a housewife buys a double-bed or a single-bed sheet she rarely opens it out in the shop because it is nicely packed in cellophane. When she gets home she finds that it is 70 inches by 100 inches instead of 90 inches by 108 inches, or, if it is a single-bed size, it is short in the width or the length.
I agree that there might be difficulty over the size of towels, but I see no difficulty over sheets, blankets or bedspreads. The actual measurement in inches should be stated on them. The same applies to made-up curtains. As I suggested in Committee, they also should have the length stated on them because a shopper might buy curtains and then, when she takes them home and places them against the window, she finds that they are inches short and of not much use. Nowdays when such a tremendous amount of this business is done by mail order, the housewife finds that it is too late to get the goods exchanged, or she does not want to send the goods back, especially now that postal charges are going up. I ask that this matter, also, should be looked into.
We welcome the Bill. We think that some improvements could have been made in it. We hope that when the regulations are introduced some of these matters will be put right. The Parliamentary Secretary suggested that when it becomes an Act it would last for our lifetime. It might last for my lifetime, but I do not think that it will last for his; he is very much younger than I am. As new needs arise we should take every step to see that new measures are taken to meet them. I hope that the Board of Trade will take every step to help weights and measures inspectors in their work and to give all the assistance they can to their training. I hope that in the schools careers masters and mistresses will help in this problem. There should be women weights and measures 982 inspectors because they know more about some of these things than some of the men know.
I hope that something will be done to encourage more people to take up this job in view of the present shortage, which is in the region of 400. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretaries will do all they can to see not only that provision is made for more inspectors, but that they have better remuneration for doing this important job. We welcome the Bill, but we hope that further improvements will be made to it in another place before it becomes law.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary for Science (Mr. Denzil Freeth)
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade and I feel rather sad as we approach the end of the passage of the Bill through the House. I should like on his behalf, and on my own, to thank the House for the kind words which have been said about us. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) emphasised the importance of the Bill, which he called a major Measure. Our debates have shown that it has great relevance to contemporary life. It is possibly a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, did not mention it in his letter to The Times today.
A number of matters have been raised which are not actually in the Bill and I am not sure in answering them how much I shall trespass upon your patience, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The first, which the hon. Member for Hillsborough raised, was the question of selling soft fruit by net weight. It is worth while stating that other nations have found this to be an equally difficult problem. I understand that in the United States, taking the country as a whole, fresh fruit is generally not packaged. The practice differs from State to State. Very often open containers are used with a capacity measurement as opposed to a weight measurement—half a dry pint or a dry quart.
It must be remembered that strawberries evaporate, not merely on their way to the ships, but actually in the ships. Even though there were to be cooling compartments at the markets, in the vans bringing the fruit from the markets to the shops, or even in the 983 shops, it might still not be possible to insist that they are sold by net weight.
The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) referred to polythene, but it must be remembered that fresh fruit must be given air. Therefore, one runs the danger either that the fruit will evaporate and get lighter or alternatively that it will not be able to breathe and will go bad.
§ Mr. Darling
I did not go into detail, but what we were asking for was that net weight plus a tolerance, which could be worked out, should be in the basket at the grower's end. We are not asking that the net weight should be the net weight in the shops, but that this arrangement should be made. Then, if the customer is getting a basket of fruit which has been in the retail shop for a considerable time, she can complain to the retailer. We would hope to have the net weight made up, as with other things—for example, detergents—at the packing end, plus an allowance.
§ Mr. Freeth
We should have to be a little careful because the Bill makes it an offence to sell overweight just as much as to sell underweight. Further, weight when packed is a concept which we generally agreed, as we studied the Bill, was infinitely inferior to the housewife knowing exactly what it was that she was buying at the moment that she took possession of it.
The hon. Member for Hillsborough, then mentioned the fact that the Bill did not insist upon wholesale fish transactions being undertaken on a net weight basis. The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East wanted more protection for the retailers. Our reluctance to put wholesale fish on a net weight basis in the Bill does not merely spring from the fact that some ports may not have weighing machines. The detailed provisions of the Bill are mainly concerned with the protection of the shopper, male or female. Traders have their own means in general, through their trade associations, through their legal advisers, or alternatively by means of the contracts they have.
I must re-emphasise, as I said in Standing Committee, that it is absolutely vital that fish should reach the housewife as soon as as possible after it has been 984 landed. The Government are not satisfied that the retail fishmonger is, in practice, in need of greater protection from the wholesaler than the various provisions against short weight in Clause 24, for example, already provide.
We also had another run on coal inspectors not having the power under the Bill to stop coal wagons. The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East and the hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) also mentioned this point. We dealt with this fairly fully in Standing Committee and also on Report. There is nothing more I can add to what I said on those two occasions. The power to insist upon inspecting what is on the lorry remains when the lorry is stopped. It would be an offence to drive away. Sooner or later the lorry has to stop to sell the coal which may have expanded during the journey.
The hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) and the hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North spoke about deceptive packaging and did not seem to consider that Clause 21 (4) goes far enough. As I said in Standing Committee, the powers are, in fact, very wide under Clause 21 and it will be possible for regulations to state the size of the letters, where they should be put, and so on, in order to make certain that the housewife can easily see the weight of a package when that package is not required to be in a number of prescribed weights.
The hon. Lady gave us a little more biscuit lore and once again regretted that there was no price per unit and no set quantities in which biscuits had to be sold. I must say that I remain impenitently of the belief that it would be too much to demand that biscuits shall be sold in 4 oz. or 8 oz. packets, because some of them are large and relatively heavy and it is an offence to give overweight as well as underweight, as I said a moment ago in relation to another commodity. I understand that even the biscuit manufacturer which she has praised during the course of the Bill—the Co-op—manufactures biscuits in 5½ oz., 7½ oz. and 9d. sizes.
Although I think that, on reflection, the hon. Lady is probably right in saying that with the age of the supermarket and price 985 reductions people no longer wish, as they used to, to have 6d. and 1s. packets, which we discussed in Standing Committee, I still believe that it would be demanding too much to set these particular 4 oz. and 8 oz. sizes and to insist that all biscuits should be sold in those quantities, and those alone.
With regard to the difficulty of comparing one package costing 10d. and containing 6¾ oz. of biscuits with another package costing 1s. containing 7½ oz. of biscuits, I read in the Statist on 16th November last year that the American shopper can now carry a shopping meter in the palm of her hand. This useful device, which was invented by an accountant, an operational research analyst and a lawyer, enables the shopper, by means of concentric logarithmic scales, to compute whether 5¾ oz. of toothpaste sold for 83 cents is better value than 4⅝ oz. sold for 69 cents. Significantly, the originators of this shopping meter have in preparation a model for use with sterling currency and imperial measures.
The hon. and learned Member for Edge Hill said that he wanted to have an advisory committee. In the Bill we have the Commission on Units and Standards, and my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has announced that he is to announce the chairmanship and membership of the Consumer Council. Of course, the Consumer Council is not mentioned in the Bill and, therefore, it makes it rather difficult to say anything very much about it in a Third Reading debate, but I can assure the hon. and learned Member that my right hon. Friend will announce the names of the chairman and of the members of the Consumer Council literally as soon as he possibly can; and I do not think that the hon. and learned Member will have very long to wait.
As regards the advisory centres to which the general public may go in order to know their rights under the Bill, we look to the local citizens advice bureaux to help, and I know that we shall not look in vain. The hon. and learned Member for Edge Hill complained that Clause 9 excluded exporters from the operation of the demand to use certain weights and measures, and so on. The reason is that exporters are having to sell to countries which use different weights and measures, and the hon. and learned Member will remember that I 986 referred in column 87 of the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Standing Committee to the fact that in Hong Kong we have the Pikul, which weighs 133⅓ lb. and the Hoon, whereas in the Sudan we have the Oke and in Burma the Kati. This is the reason for that exemption.
The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East referred to the City of London vintner who had the right to force the taverner to drink bad wine. Of course, the quality of wine is not a matter for a weights and measures Bill.
The hon. Member referred to the spelling of the word "mystery" in the phrase the "mystery of the Guild of Founders", which are, as he said, brass-founders. The word in the Clause, as the hon. Member stated, is spelt "mystery". On the other hand, other bodies spell it "misterie" and "mysterie". I think that it is probably fairly reasonable to spell it in the modern way in the Bill. The hon. Member was, I think, wrong in saying that the word came from the French. My understanding is that it comes from an Italian word meaning "craft, calling or employment". I think that I have dealt with the point of the City of London, which we discussed in Standing Committee.
The hon. Lady the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North referred to drained weight. The powers are in Clause 21, but there are certain difficulties in applying them, one being what we might call the disintegration of fruit within the tin after the tin has been soldered. But I can assure the hon. Lady that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade will pursue this point with enthusiasm.
The hon. Lady also referred to the fact that sheets and towels can be sold without the dimensions being stated. I have every sympathy with her. I very much wanted to get into the Bill a requirement that sheets and blankets, and possibly towels and curtains, should have to be sold with their dimensions stated. Unfortunately, it appears that such an Amendment which dealt with dimensions and not with weights and measures would be out of order, and that is why it does not appear in the Bill.
The hon. Member for Hillsborough also spoke about the administration of the Bill, if Parliament enacted it, on the question of the number of inspectors. 987 pay conditions and status of the inspectors. I fully agree with him that the Bill will increase the duties of inspectors, but, on the other hand, many inspectors of weights and measures now carry out other duties, such as checking the poison registers at chemists and shop inspection, which, in future, might be done by a less qualified staff. It is very possible that the amalgamation of the various weights and measures authorities may enable economies to take place which will mean that the same manpower can do more effective work.
There are at the moment, I think, 202 weights and measures authorities, and it looks as though, with the procedure under the Bill where some 45 non-county boroughs stand to lose their weights and measures functions, and with what is likely to happen when the London Government Bill becomes law, whereby some 32 new London boroughs will merge as weights and measures authorities, we shall end with about 200 weights and measures authorities again. At the moment, there are 843 weights and measures inspectors and, in addition, there are 25 men who have qualified as weights and measures inspectors during the past ten years, but who have not taken up any employment in this country.
It is possible that some of these may return, and, of course, the Bill will make it possible for people to take the examination of the Board of Trade and become qualified weights and measures inspectors without first having to get the certainty of a job from a local authority, which is the position that attains now.
The pay position is rather complicated, because there is a basic scale which runs from £770 to £995. Almost every local authority pays its senior weights and measures inspectors more than this. I am told that the chief inspector of a large urban county gets just over £3,000 a year, that the chief inspector of a large Midland county borough gets nearly £2,200 a year and that the chief inspector of a metropolitan area county borough gets £1,620 in one case. There is an enormous amount of variation, and, of course, to some extent the attractiveness of the career will depend on what local authorities are themselves prepared to pay.
I have done my best—
§ Mr. Darling
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, he will remember that I asked him to make clear, when the regulations came along and the scope of the work of weights and measures inspectors is widened, whether before that time his right hon. Friend will discuss the question of whether we have enough inspectors of weights and measures with the local authorities and the Institute. May I also ask him—we welcome the statement he made about the reduction of the number of weights and measures authorities—whether he will take any notice of the Amendment about considering applications from rural districts which was agreed on Report?
§ Mr. Freeth
I carefully said that it looked as though we might end up with about 200, and as there were only about six rural district councils which could be considered eligible, bearing in mind our 60,000 population guiding light, I think that the answer is likely to be about 200. I will certainly bring to my right hon. Friend's attention the hon. Member's other suggestion. Naturally, my right right hon. Friend is always pleased to enter into consultations with people who have these matters very much at heart.
§ Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield, Brightside)
Will the hon. Gentleman correct me if I am wrong? I thought that he conveyed the idea that qualified inspectors in the main would be taken off the duty of going round the shops in terms of first-hand inspection. If my impression is right, what would be the qualifications of those who go round the shops for this purpose?
§ Mr. Freeth
No. I was saying that at present large numbers of weights and measures inspectors carry out other duties which are not connected purely with weights and measures and that some of these other duties might be delegated to other staff, so that as the work increases, which it will do in the first few years after the Bill becomes law, the inspectors will be able to devote more time to weights and and measures duties, of which going round the shops to see the weighing equipment in operation is a most important element.
My right hon. Friend, within six months of the Bill becoming law, will issue a large number of regulations. I 989 have with me a list of eight which are really re-enactments of present regulations. We also hope, within the first six months, to be able to issue a further eight containing such things as the manner of marking the purported value of equipment for the use of trade, and the marking of divisions and sub-divisions of linear capacity measures. Other regulations will be issued as soon as possible, bearing in mind that consultations have to take place on a number of occasions. We have also very much in mind that one of the most important regulations which we shall hope to issue fairly soon after the Bill becomes law will be one concerning the marking of containers of goods, prepacked and otherwise.
The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East said that he wanted to give the consumer justice by weight and measure. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade said on Second Reading, the aim of the Bill is to try to establish an equivalence of power between the person who buys and the person who sells. This is what we want to do—not to give a shopkeeper's charter or a housewife's charter, but a charter which can enable both to trade together fairly, honourably, justly and profitably. I commend the Bill to the House for Third Reading.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
Can the hon. Gentleman give us an explicit assurance that the Government will not drop the Bill in another place, or even before it gets to another place?
§ Mr. Freeth
The first thing to do is to have the Third Reading here so that their Lordships can have the Bill.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.