HC Deb 14 February 1966 vol 724 cc1047-50

10.1 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. George Darling)

I beg to move, That the Weights and Measures (Solid Fuel) (Carriage by Rail) Order 1966, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st February, be approved. The House has before it tonight two Orders, which I understand must be taken separately. Although the Orders are as different as coal is from milk, both have the same purpose, which is to provide a commonsense solution to some trading difficulties without weakening in any way the protection against short weight and short measure which the Weights and Measures Act gives the domestic consumer.

If I may explain the coal Order briefly, hon. Members who were involved with the Weights and Measures Bill will remember that the coal trade came in for considerable discussion, and the Act was written finally to give the customer full protection from the trader who might be tempted to sell less fuel than the customer had paid for.

The rules for labelling solid fuel in sacks and containers with the proper weight, and so on, are very strict and tightly drawn, and, in general, the strict rules are carried back from the merchant to the source of supply—that is, in the case of coal, the National Coal Board. These rules, however, are unnecessarily onerous for certain types of bulk supply—for instance, to power stations and gas undertakings and to industrial concerns which regularly take in a whole train-load of coal wagons.

The Act as it stands requires that each rail wagon is to be tare weighed at the loading place before a seller may load it with solid fuel for despatch to a buyer, and requires him to ticket the wagon with particulars of its load as soon as he has completed the loading and knows who the consignee is to be.

The Coal Board has drawn our attention to certain cases where those requirements do not seem necessary for the protection of the customer and are, in fact, very difficult or inconvenient to comply with. In some collieries, for instance, special loading arrangements have been or are in the process of being introduced and these enable pre-weighed fuel to be loaded from overhead storage by automatic weighers which weigh the fuel net and automatically print the particulars for a complete train on one invoice. I am sure that the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) will agree that this kind of development is to be encouraged. It cuts out the use of paper and of manpower.

There are other cases where fuel is held at disused collieries or dumps where there is no weighing equipment, and where the fuel is to be loaded from collieries where there is at present no weighing equipment which does the job properly. There are cases where weighing at the point of loading is unnecessary because the Coal Board and the buyer have agreed that the weight of the fuel shall be determined at the wagon's destination. There are cases where the same wagons are repeatedly loaded with fuel for the same buyer and where the buyer would be prepared to accept the tare weighing at occasional intervals.

We have accordingly discussed this matter very fully with other interested organisations, and have found general agreement that there is a case for relaxing the Act, as the Order does, in relation to whole trainloads of fuel going to one industrial user. Therefore, the Order has been presented in this way. I think that its terms, with that explanation, are quite clear. For other consignments, including, for instance, all deliveries of fuel to coal merchants for domestic consumers, the Act will continue to stand as it does now.

As I have said, the Coal Board and its bulk industrial customers have asked us to relieve them of what are admittedly unnecessary administrative burdens, and I think this Order deals satisfactorily with the problem. I am sure that it will be generally acceptable to the House.

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Peter Emery (Reading)

Obviously we want to assist in getting this Order through the House because, as the Minister of State has pointed out, it certainly goes some way in reducing a fairly tedious amount of weighing of material which, with modern mechanised methods, need not and should not be necessary today.

There are about three questions that I should like to ask the Minister about this Order. First, he will see that there are three classifications in paragraph 1(ii) where it is possible for the tare weight not to be required. One of these is in sub-paragraph (ii, b), where the parties have agreed that the weight of the load shall be ascertained at the vehicle's destination. I accept that this Order applies only to the extent of a full train load departure, from one pit or one area of a pit to one consumer. However, will the Minister consider carrying the application of this Order a little further?

I cannot see any reason why this Order cannot be applied so that a customer—the consignee—agrees the tare weights once every quarter, or, as in this paragraph from which I have quoted, when the load reaches the consignee. In other words, it seems to me that the only thing wrong with this Order is that it has not been carried further. This is particularly true when one appreciates how little coal is moved by liner train or by the full train load and how much of the load in an ordinary goods train is made up of a multifarious amount of traffic.

Secondly, returning to the purpose of the Order, let us suppose that the National Coal Board wishes to move six or eight wagons from a pit which does not have this weighing equipment and marshal them at a certain point with another 30 wagons, or bring in three lots of 10 wagons, to marshal into a train load of 30 wagons. I am not sure whether one could then have a train bill for all three trains which, when they are marshalled together, could become a single train bill. It would seem to me that there might be times when it would be convenient to the Coal Board to draw on dumps or on other pits in order to make up a full train. If the purpose of the Order is to save manpower I am sure that there could be no particular objection to interpreting the wording of this Statutory Instrument as I have suggested. Perhaps I may have some clarification on those specific points.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Darling

The hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Peter Emery) has put forward a very pertinent point. He will appreciate that we have been very reluctant to depart from the strict rules of the Weights and Measures Act except where it is absolutely necessary, and I think the answer is that we have been very cautious and have considered that the best thing to do is to apply relief from the strict terms of the Act to full, complete, train loads. However, I give the assurance that we will look at this matter again. It has not been brought to our attention by the Coal Board or its industrial customers. They have been asking for relief to be given to full train-loads, but not to split train-loads, but I think that there is a pertinent point here and we will certainly look at it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Weights and Measures (Solid Fuel) (Carriage by Rail) Order, 1966, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st February, be approved.