HC Deb 14 February 1966 vol 724 cc1050-60

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Darling

I beg to move, That the Weights and Measures (Exemption) (Milk) Order 1966, a draft of which was laid before this House on 26th January, be approved. Hon. Members may recall that under Part V of Schedule 4 of the Weights and Measures Act, 1963, upon which, if I remember rightly, we spent weeks and weeks of discussion, milk, to quote the Act …shall be prepacked only if—(a) it is made up in a quantity of one-third of a pint, half a pint, or a multiple of half a pint; and (b) if the container is marked with an indication of quantity by capacity measurement. The way in which the marking is to be carried out is laid down under the 1964 regulations which are applicable not only to milk but to all the various kinds of goods which have to be marked under the Act. Regulation 4, that is the 1964 Regulation, will require that after 31st July next year the quantity indication of containers must be in colour in distinct and conspicuous contrast to a plain background.

I have been informed that on that date there will still be immense numbers of half-pint and one-pint milk bottles in existence which will fail to comply with the marking requirements. As the law stands these bottles will have to be scrapped and new ones provided. In addition, the silk screens now used for colouring the labels on milk bottles will need to be redesigned. When representations were made, we decided that something must be done to meet the problem, because if bottles had to be scrapped and screens redesigned, in the end the customer would have to pay for the unnecessary expense.

One possibility to get out of the difficulty would have been to make special provision for milk bottles in the marking regulations, but it would have created an undesirable precedent for giving special exemption from marking regulations to goods of other kinds for which a case might be brought forward, but not with the same force. This would have landed us in difficulties because, subject to certain transitional exemptions for descriptions of food, these regulations apply uniformly to all descriptions of prepacked foods that require descriptions of quantity, and we did not want to get away from that general provision.

The proposed Order provides a sensible solution to the problem. It deals with the milk problem alone and in a different manner. It exempts half-pint and one-pint bottles of milk from the requirement in the Act that they must have a quantity marking. The requirement for quantity marking in the case of pints and half-pints seems to us quite unnecessary because there is no danger at all of these sizes being confused. It is like saying to the housewife, who knows precisely what a pint bottle of milk is, that a pint bottle of milk is a pint bottle of milk. There is no need to write it on the bottle. She knows also that a half-pint bottle is about half the size of a pint bottle of milk, and she does not require to be told that.

It seemed to us, therefore, that the requirement to show the quantity marking in these two cases was quite unnecessary. When one-third pints are sold, on the other hand, they will have to carry the indication of quantity because there would be a possibility of confusion.

What we are doing is to preserve the requirement in the Act that prepacked milk—I am sorry to speak of "prepacked" milk, but it is a convenient shorthand expression covering all the rules in the Statute—must be sold only in one of the specified quantities, one-third of a pint, half a pint and multiples of a half a pint. Buyers will be able to distinguish what they are, however, because the one-third bottle will still carry the marking that it is one-third, and the half-pints and pints will not be required to carry a quantity marking.

It seems to us that this is a sensible solution to the problem. It will save dairymen and distributors unnecessary expense, and it will achieve the purpose intended.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)

In principle, I think that the Minister is taking the right decision here. The amount of waste which would have arisen if the regulations had been brought in in full would have been very great, and it is right in this particular case that an exemption should be made. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman is stretching the point a little when he says that there is no question of the principle being infringed here. In fact, it is, and, if the hon. Gentleman is honest—I know that he always is—he will admit that a special exemption for a particular type of product is being made and a precedent is thereby being set.

How long does the hon. Gentleman intend that this exemption in respect of pint and half-pint bottles of milk should last? The main argument is that a vast number of pint and half-pint bottles would have to be destroyed if the regulations came into specific effect at 31st July, 1967. The hon. Gentleman will concede that the original weights and measures marking legislation is right in principle, and he argues merely that this Order is necessary because of the waste which would otherwise occur. But for how long does he envisage that it will be necessary to continue the Order in force? Will there be a period of grace of one year, two years, or four years? I should much prefer a definite date to be laid down so that the trade would know that, by a certain time, the regulations would come into full effect and there would be a requirement to mark all containers.

I can well imagine the very same argument being put forward by whichever hon. Gentleman might be standing at this Box in four, five, six, seven, eight or nine years' time. I should regret it, and I am certain that the Minister himself would regret it. Will he consider bringing in a final date and announcing either tonight or by some suitable method the time by which he would expect and wish the Order to expire?

There is a difficulty as regards vending machines. The exemption from marking is not to apply to vending machines. As I understand, most vending machines supply milk in cartons, not in glass bottles, and in that case the Order would not apply. But it will be difficult for the dairyman to know into which type of sales outlet particular bottles of milk he is distributing are likely ultimately to go. I can imagine a great deal of confusion arising at this stage.

I should like to know how the hon. Gentleman thinks he will be able to apportion blame if a dairy has a man who is unable to say that a certain bottle is going to a machine and another is not. This is a point of some substance. I do not know how the blame will be apportioned. How does the hon. Gentleman see it happening? Presumably, there will be prosecutions under the original Acts if there are in vending machines glass bottles which are not marked. If an unmarked bottle which the dairyman thinks is covered by this exemption order gets into a vending machine and he has to be prosecuted, what will be his defence? We ought to know the answer to this, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell us.

My last point concerns the confusion which may arise in respect of the one-third pint bottles. The Minister was right when he said that there will be no difficulty at all in the consumer distinguishing between pint and half-pint bottles. But the difficulty may arise in distinguishing between half-pint and one-third pint bottles. The one-third pint bottle is not excluded by the Order and has to be marked, but confusion on the part of the consumer could well arise. No doubt the Minister will look at this point again. As the one-third pint bottle is not exempted, but the half-pint bottle is, I feel that there could be some difficulty in that the consumer could be buying the wrong measure.

In principle, however, I welcome the fact that the Minister has brought the Order before the House. I am certain that he is right. However, I should like him to put a definite date on the length of time to be given to the dairying industry, for it wants to know how long it has got. There is a high percentage of wastage of glass bottles—30 per cent. or so—every year, and we should, therefore, like to know the definite period. We should also like to have answers to all the other points which I have mentioned. I trust that the Minister will reply to our remarks about details which will cause difficulty, but, basically, I think he is right to bring the Order forward.

10.22 p.m.

Mr. Peter Emery (Reading)

I want to draw the attention of the House to one or two other aspects of the Order and elaborate somewhat more fully points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins).

Perhaps we may clear up one thing at the start. I think the Minister can do this without difficulty. There is obviously some confusion over one point. As I read paragraph 1, the Statutory Instrument will give exemption only to pint and half-pint bottles but not to one-third pint bottles.

Mr. Darling

indicated assent.

Mr. Emery

The Minister nods, and so that appears to be the answer. I think that meets the point made by my hon. Friend. If a one-third pint bottle is being marketed—I do not know about the term "one-third of a pint", the gill seems to be much more applicable—it is not exempted by the Order, and so the regulations would apply to it.

I also want to follow the argument by my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North about exemption. In this attempt to protect the consumer—the consumer is the ordinary individual, the ordinary shopper; not a company or a manufacturing combine—we do not want to see exemptions to what I regard as a fairly good Bill. It took a long time to get through Committee. We do not want to see the general principles being broken. However, there is one thing which makes a difference, and that is the number of bottles which have a form of printing externally for it can be argued that when the regulations come into operation these bottles will be void.

There are two considerations. First, the industry orders 30 million bottles every six weeks. That is a vast number of transparent glass bottles. If the silk screening on certain retailers' bottles is to be continued, the cost over such a vast turnover is negligible. It is not something that must be taken into account.

Most transparent bottles are in any case embossed with their measurements. If a firm wishes to put on the words "Buy our butter" or "Our creamery's cream is better",—not very original advertising but it often appears on bottles and there is no reason why it should not—I cannot see why, as with any other retailer or wholesaler or manufacturer, the measurement to be shown should not be applied in the new silk screening.

I support the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North that perhaps we should urge the industry to follow the general line of this regulation from which exemption is being given, so that, in a matter of two or three years, exemptions of this sort will automatically not be necessary. Surely this is something that could easily be complied with.

It is all very well for the Minister of State to say that anyone can tell the difference between a pint and a half-pint bottle. I wonder how he felt the first time he went to Europe and had to buy a half litre of milk.

Mr. Darling

I have never bought milk on the Continent.

Mr. Emery

This is exactly the point I am trying to make.

Mr. Darling

I have bought wine.

Mr. Emery

I am not talking about wine, although I know the hon. Gentleman is a great expert on that side of agriculture and we hope to see certain exemptions concerning wine. But if I continue on that line, I shall be out of order.

To anyone coming here who is used to the metric system, it is not clear what a pint or a half-pint may or may not be. There is there a reason for a small exemption. This reinforces the general argument that the principle of the regulation was right and that, as long as we do not have wastage, it will be worth while to return to the principle in two or three years time.

The worry of my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North, about vending machines can be and probably is being overcome, but nevertheless I want to question the Minister about it. I understand that regulations for sale by vending machines are entirely different from regulations under the Weights and Measures Act. In other words, an intending purchaser has to know what the machine is offering. But if a vending machine clearly states on the outside the weight or measurement that is being disposed, is it necessary that the measurement be on the bottle itself?

On the window of a vending machine the item for sale is clearly marked. In the case of a milk vending machine, there is a sign in the window stating the amount of milk to be supplied on the insertion of the appropriate sum of money.

Therefore, I would ask the Minister, is it not the case that the problem envisaged by my hon. Friend can be overcome so long as the vending machine clearly states to the intending purchaser the amount of milk he will be purchasing through the machine? If that is not the case, then the point made by my hon. Friend is very pertinent and I would ask the Minister whether he would look at the Orders and regulations affecting vending machines and whether he would clarify this point.

It would be a nonsense if a dairyman could use half-pints when using bottles in a vending machine, but could not use other half-pints. My hon. Friend suggested that much of the milk is sold not in bottles, but in cartons, but there are vending machines, as everybody knows, which use bottles.

I come to one other point, and this, again, affects the future. With the wastage of transparent glass bottles, which cost approximately 4d. each, there must be a great urge in industry to find some other packaging in order to cut the cost—perhaps by use of once-for-all, disposable units. I think that it is quite within the realms of possibility that there may be a transparent plastic container, similar perhaps to a bottle, though perhaps of a different shape; a container whose colour can be injected into its mould, and without anything like the complication involved if this were done with the ordinary glass bottle.

Would it not be in the interests of this legislation that we should immediately revert to the requirements of the 1963 Act? I realise this would apply to wax paper containers, or something like that, but the words in the Order are "transparent bottle" and it may be possible to have transparent plastic bottles. This is a factor which may arise in the future.

We on this side are prepared to meet the objection of the Dairymen's Association, and some of the farming community, and we are delighted to see what is here being done, but there are problems which we can see arising in the future, and if without harm to the dairymen and the people marketing milk we can return to the principles of the regulations, we on this side would want to do so.

Mr. Darling

To take the last two points first. I think the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) was under some slight confusion. The rules for vending machines are laid down in the Act.

On the last point, we know very well that a great deal of research is going on into new forms of packaging. From many points of view the glass bottle is archaic. It is heavy, and the milk roundsman has to make many journeys because of the weight, not of the milk, but of the containers

We hope that research will eventually provide a suitable container, much lighter in weight, but which can be used as far as possible with existing machinery. This is where most of the containers other than glass have failed. If other forms of container are devised, they will be covered by the Act. We might need—I do not say that we shall—new regulations to deal with them. This is a matter which we will look into, and if we have to provide new rules, we will come to the House and discuss them.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) asked how long the Order will apply. It will apply as long as the dairymen sell milk in pint and half-pint bottles and as long as their customers are satisfied with the terms of the Order.

I made it clear that the Act specifies that it is illegal to sell milk, leaving out for the moment thirds of a pint, except in multiples of half-pints. Therefore, it would be illegal to put anything but a pint of milk in a pint bottle. The housewife is, therefore, unlikely to be confused. Neither is the foreign visitor when he has found that we sell things in pints instead of litres. That is clear.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

The hon. Gentleman is saying, therefore, that he will not specify a time limit. Is he saying that he does not want the weights and measures marking provisions to be applied to pint and half-pint bottles?

Mr. Darling

I thought I had proved that marking is quite unnecessary. One cannot legally put anything but a pint in a pint bottle. It would be illegal to put anything but a half-pint in a half-pint bottle. Therefore, because a pint is a pint and a half-pint is a half-pint, there is no need to go to all the expense of marking the bottles.

A different point arises with thirds of a pint because there is a chance of confusion. The position, however, is clear. If the smaller bottle is unmarked, it will be a half-pint. If it is marked, it will be one-third of a pint, and it must be marked as one-third of a pint. That applies whether the one-third of a pint comes out of a vending machine or not.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North said, and the hon. Member for Reading repeated, that if the exemption were not applied to vending machines the dairyman would get into difficulties because some of his half-pints go into vending machines and must, therefore, be marked, whereas others go to domestic consumers and do not need to be marked. If hon. Members can find me any vending machines dispensing half-pint bottles of milk, or if there is any likelihood of this occurring, we will consider the matter again. The dairymen assure us, however, that this is a remote possibility.

In any event, we have accepted the view of the dairymen that to exclude the one-third of a pint measure will not cause confusion. They are in favour of it. They think that it is absolutely right that the one-third-pint containers should be marked. There will be no confusion because, I repeat, if the smaller bottle has no mark on it, it will be a half-pint, and if it is one-third of a pint it must be marked.

I agree with the hon. Member for Reading that we do not want to break the basic principles of the Act. That is why we have narrowed the Order to milk rather than apply it to a wide range of products. For all the reasons I have given, I do not think that the Order breaks the basic principles of the Act. From the viewpoint of practical trading, it enforces it.

As for the silk screen argument, where we are dealing with advertisements on the bottle or the name which is to be printed in colour, there is a technical difficulty here. It was explained to me at great length, and I shall not weary the House with the explanation, but as long as we say that the quantity marking—assuming that we had stuck to the original regulations—has to stand out, it has to be in a different colour. The complexities of marking two colours on one milk bottle are so great that the operation would not be worth it. In any case, I am sure that I have proved to the satisfaction of the House that one pint and half-pint bottles do not need to be marked with the quantity.

Mr. Peter Emery

I hope that I may have the leave of the House to ask for clarification on one point. It concerns the undertaking given by the hon. Gentleman at the beginning of his opening speech. I want to have it clearly understood that if people who are experimenting on new packaging for milk, especially with transparent containers, make a reasonable case for their use, the hon. Gentleman will be willing to introduce new regulations, or indeed a new Statutory Instrument, to help them.

These people are trying to find a replacement for the present archaic form of packaging, and I hope that they will not be limited in their endeavours by having to look at the law and say that they must comply with it. If they put forward suggestions which abide by the principles of the Weights and Measures Act, will the hon. Gentleman be willing to bring forward a new Statutory Instrument to cover the new form of packaging?

Mr. Darling


Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Weights and Measures (Exemption) (Milk) Order 1966, a draft of which was laid before this House on 26th January, be approved.