HC Deb 17 January 1967 vol 739 cc106-20

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

I beg to move Amendment No. 6, in page 8, line 27, after "undertakings", to insert "other than travelling shops".

To put it in very simple language, we seek the exemption of travelling shops from any of the schemes that the Commission might bring in. My reason for moving the Amendment is that unless it is accepted the Clause will not be a practical proposition. Indeed, it will make nonsense so far as travelling shops are concerned.

We on this side of the House want the Clause to work, for it will certainly be of help to the consumers. After all, some consumers may have had a raw deal in the past from some butcher's shops over labelling, and so on—not very many. We want the Clause to work, and we do not think that it will work unless travelling shops are exempt.

There is a very real difference between mobile shops and static shops. Even the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has to-admit this. During the Committee proceedings he said: I turn to the point made by the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith). Obviously, the problem of the delivery van is different from that of the static shop. This will be taken into consideration by the Commission in the scheme which is submitted."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A, 12th July, 1966; c. 185.] So even the Joint Parliamentary Secretary admits that there is a difference.

But, on reflection, I think that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is wrong here, because there is a vast difference between a delivery van and a mobile shop. The delivery van may be taking out joints already bought, while the mobile butcher's shop is seeking to sell meat to customers on their doorsteps. I stress this very real difference.

This problem concerns not only rural areas where mobile shops visit outlying farms and cottages because the occupants cannot get to the shops. The practice of having mobile shops has stretched now to housing estates, and so one sees mobile butchers' shops in the streets in the urban areas.

Some people may not have encountered a mobile shop, so I will describe one. It may sometimes be very small. It may be just a van with a wooden slab, and the carcases may be carried inside. It may be a much bigger one with a step on which the customer is allowed to climb so that he can see what may be bought. There are very large numbers of mobile shops operating at present, far more than most people think.

Many mobile shops are attached to static shops. Butchers in towns have their mobile shops to go out into the countryside. It will be very strange if we have a large notice in the static shop stating the prices and then another large one in the mobile shop as well. Obviously, there may have to be differences in the prices. There was a little argument about this in Committee. It is true that the prices in the mobile shops may be higher. So there may be some argument as to the differences in price between the static shop and the mobile shop.

Many people like this type of buying. It is attractive to the person in the countryside. The pattern of buying is changing. Many butchers with mobile shops do a very excellent job and give a very good service to the community.

My first reason for wanting the exemption of travelling shops from the provisions in the Clause is the very limited space in the mobile shop for displaying bulky and comprehensive price lists. The number of different prices could be very large—100 or more. It would not be practicable for all those prices to appear on the list in a small mobile shop.

Does the Minister realise that mobile shops do not have to conform to the rules and regulations that static shops have to? Are we to carry this argument further and say that these mobile shops have to have washing facilities, display cabinets, toilets, and so on as one has in a static shop? Of course not. So why should we not have exemptions for the mobile shops as regards price lists? The marking up of every joint is not practical in a mobile shop, either. A three-section price tag is just not on. One can imagine a small van festooned with tags. It is not a practical proposition. That is why we feel so strongly about the Amendment.

Thirdly, butchers using mobile shops usually cut the joint out of a carcase or a lump of meat on the spot—on the doorstep, as it were. This is quite different from a static shop, where the joints are already cut up with nice pieces of string tied round them and price tags easily put on them. This is an entirely different proposition in a mobile shop. If mobile butchers' shops had to conform to the proposed regulations, it would be extremely difficult and time wasting.

I believe that this is a valid Amendment. It is a practical one. Unless this is written into the Clause, it will be most unsatisfactory for mobile butchers' shops. Indeed, those concerned will just not take any notice of it, and the Clause will not be put into practice at all. Certainly, butchers with mobile shops to whom I have spoken have told me in very strong language—which I certainly could not repeat in the House—what they feel ought to be done if this is enforced. One can imagine a mobile shop on a dark, wet night and the man having to write out the price tags and stick them on the joints. If hon. Members had the experience of going out with a mobile shop on a wild night they would know what I mean.

I know that the Minister's argument will be that the Commission "may submit" or "may not submit" a scheme. But I do not believe that this is good enough. We should write into the Clause a provision exempting travelling shops.

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)

My hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) has done the House and the rural community a service by moving the Amendment so vividly.

My hon. Friend pointed to the difference between the delivery van and the mobile shop, and explained that the mobile shop can serve different types of areas. The important point is not so much the mobile shop which goes round housing estates as the mobile shop which serves the far-flung rural communities. As the Minister will appreciate, my constituency depends very largely on the service given by mobile shops of this kind to the people in the outlying villages. I know from experience how valuable the service is, and I appreciate it.

There are times when I feel that the Government have no comprehension of the importance of this type of selling to life in the country districts of Scotland. We have seen the rise in the cost of licenses for these vehicles, the imposition of Selective Employment Tax and the increase in the price of petrol. It seems that everything has been done to drive the small country van out of existence. Fortunately, although some have been withdrawn as a result of the Government's measures, the service by and large still continues. But it would be asking too much if a scheme put forward by the Commission under this Clause were to apply to travelling shops.

The sort of shop I have personal knowledge of is something more than a van. It has, as my hon. Friend said, very often a large hunk of meat in the back which is cut from by the butcher, who is also the man who drives from house to house. He gets out, chats with the housewife and discusses with her what he has to sell and cuts off the meat she wants. The whole thing is conducted in a friendly and free and easy manner which would be impossible if the Commission insisted on the ponderous requirements of the Clause being applied to such transactions.

I agree that the protection afforded by the Clause makes a lot of sense in the High Street, where a team of butchers is behind the counter and where there is a constant business. But it makes no sense in the case of the small man driving a van and acting as salesman and butcher combined. A scheme may require a price list to be displayed and … the use of prices attached to or displayed with the meat, … and may require that … the prices of particular pieces of meat … should be shown, and so on. Finally, there can be a regulation about the language used for description of the meat.

I can well imagine the sort of language used by a driver if he has to go through a ponderous and pointless exercise like this. Both the Secretary of State for Scotland and the two Joint Parliamentary Secretaries know the Scottish countryside and the service that these small vans render the community. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary who is to reply will not say that there is already provision in the Clause for providing exemptions from a scheme. That is not enough. The exclusion must be clear from the beginning. I urge the Government to accept the Amendment and exclude the travelling shops from the Clause, for they perform real service, often in conditions of hardship, to the country communities.

Mr. Stodart

When we discussed this matter in Committee upstairs, the Government were having a rather rough morning. My hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) had asked, "What about my brisket?" The Joint Parliamentary Secretary had to say that he could not answer that off the cuff. The hon. Gentleman had been asked what a Jacob's Ladder was and was unable to tell us. Altogether, things had been too complex for the Government that morning. That may have been why the hon. Gentleman, although he accepted that there would be difficulties for the travelling shops, said the matter would have to be left to the Commission, which he was sure would be reasonable.

I dare say that that is one way of approaching the matter but it would be more sensible to grasp the nettle of the travelling shop here and now. Not even the Secretary of State for Scotland, with all his debating powers, could convince the House that it would be a practicable proposition to include the travelling shops, particularly after the description given by my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) of shopping on a cold night with cold hands while the shopkeeper attempts to carry out all the tasks that will be placed upon him under the terms of the Clause without this Amendment.

7.15 p.m.

I have made no secret of the fact that I think that it will be extremely difficult for any shop to comply with these terms—and this applies particularly to small traders—in putting labels on every piece of meat. Admittedly, one label will show the price per lb. and presumably this will be static because it will not matter how often the meat is cut for the price per lb. will remain. But the second label is to signify the weight of the meat itself and will have to be rewritten every time a cut is taken off. This will cause enormous difficulties in ordinary shopping let alone travelling shops.

Many butchers boggle at the idea of having to administer this provision and what is difficult in an ordinary shop is without question enormously more difficult in a travelling shop. Indeed, the Government are in fairyland if they think that such a thing can be done in a travelling shop.

Mr. Hoy

This has been an interesting debate following the one we had on the subject in Standing Committee. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) got himself a little mixed up about the mornings in which we were in difficulty. I was in no difficulty. I remember the morning in question perfectly well. For the first time, so I am assured by the Press, the contents of a sausage had been defined by a politician in the House of Commons. If one achieves that great distinction one must have been thinking very hard.

The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) said that one of the difficulties would be the difference between the small and large travelling shops. He was not thinking so much of the very big ones but of the small ones which travel around his countryside. We have heard some very descriptive examples.

The hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) gave us an assurance that these shops travel on wheels and that they are driven along. He pointed out that one goes up steps and into them. I agree with that description. Indeed, that is the only kind of travelling shop I have seen in my journeys and I assure him that we should like to keep them going. I said so upstairs when I pointed out that the Government have a certain sympathy for any difficulties that may arise from the Bill.

But the hon. Member was going a little too far when he sought to convey that, every time a travelling shop goes round, it is wintertime and dark. He need not exaggerate his case. Let us be quite clear about this and about the labelling of meat. Both sides of this House have said that they approve the labelling of meat. When it was proved to them that their own proposal meant another price list, the only claim that the Opposition could make was that their labels would be smaller. That was the only difference between us.

This Amendment would exempt travelling butchers' shops from the provisions of any retail meat price marking scheme made under Clause 8. We fully accept that there could be requirements under a scheme under Clause 8 which could be entirely inappropriate to the conditions and circumstances of retailers operating travelling shops. That is one of the reasons why paragraph (a) of subsection (3) provides that a scheme may contain provisions conferring such exemptions from the requirements of the scheme as may be specified by or under the scheme. I am surprised that the hon. Member should take exception to that, for I think that it is a very good proviso. We do not think that at this stage it would be advisable to say that no requirement of any kind to give any sort of information about meat prices would ever in any circumstances be appropriate to travelling shops, which is what the Amendment would mean.

In preparing a scheme under Clause 8 the Commission is required by Clause 2 to consult the interests concerned, and it is quite clear that with price marking schemes there will have to be very close and continued consultation with the retail trade to consider the many practical difficulties which will have to be overcome. It may well prove that no price marking requirements are appropriate to travelling shops. I am not prepared to say now that they will be; but neither am I prepared at this stage to say that nothing can be done to help the considerable number of rural consumers who buy some or all of their supplies from travelling shops. I am prepared only to say that we ought to be able to do in some way for the rural consumer what we hope to be able to do for the urban dweller. It should be remembered that on some housing estates there can be seen travelling shops of a considerable size, and in such cases we would expect customers to get services similar to those which would be obtained in a static shop.

Mr. Stainton

I very much sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, would he not concede that the distribution of meat by travelling shops is probably no more than 12 or 14 per cent. of the market? I am sure that it is in that band. Therefore, would not the back of the problem be broken by enforcement of the price regulations in static shops only? The housewife is not all that isolated that she never makes a trip to town.

Mr. Hoy

I would not say that she was as isolated as that, but even if this trade constitutes only 12, or 14, or 15 per cent. of the total market, its customers are entitled to some assistance in the same way as we propose to give it to the urban dweller. All I am asking is that this possibility should be left open.

In case there is still some doubt, I remind hon. Members that any scheme under Clause 8 has not only to be prepared in consultation with the interests concerned, but must also subsequently be approved by Ministers and may be annulled by Parliament. All these precautions have been taken. I hope that what I am saying will convince the hon. Member for Torrington, who had good reason for moving his Amendment, that we have gone a long way to meeting his case. I hope that he and other hon. Members will agree that we have gone a considerable way to protect both the consumer, urban and rural, and the travelling shop.

Mr. Peter Mills

I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary cannot accept the Amendment, but I understand his fears. However, I would have thought that something could have been written into the Clause so that the Commission clearly understood the problems for the mobile shops which the new regulations will entail.

I was not exaggerating and did not suggest for a moment that every night was dark and windy and wet, but it is a fact that there are many occasions when there are those conditions and I still maintain that a mobile shop and a static shop in a town are two entirely different propositions. I forgot to mention that the customer of a mobile shop sees the piece of meat being cut and put on the scale before her very eyes so that there is no chance of her being cheated. I am sure that the fears which I have expressed are well grounded, and I hope that, if nothing else, the Commission will take note of our fears and will ensure that mobile shops are helped to deal with this very practical problem.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Hoy

I beg to move Amendment No. 7, in page 9, line 6, at the end to insert: (b) conferring powers of entry on officers of local weights and measures authorities appointed, or deemed to have been appointed, under section 41 of the Weights and Measures Act 1963. During the discussion of Clause 8 and, later, of Clause 23, in Standing Committee, there was a measure of agreement among hon. Members on both sides that weights and measures inspectors of local authorities should be enabled in appropriate cases to enforce the provisions of any scheme made under Clause 8. The matter was raised when we discussed the original Bill and in Standing Committee my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Conlan) moved an Amendment, dealing with this very point, which was supported by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. We then undertook to see whether any reference could be added so as to underline the powers of weights and measures inspectors to collaborate with the Commission in this matter. The present Amendment is to achieve this purpose. Perhaps I should repeat what was said in Committee—that under the Bill as drafted there is nothing to take away the right of anyone in England and Wales to prosecute for an offence against a scheme made under Clause 8. It could be the Commission, or a weights and measures authority, or an aggrieved consumer. We think that only in exceptional cases would a prosecution be called for and we do not see the Commission going out of its way to create an inspectorate for this purpose. No doubt the Commission would welcome co-operation from weights and measures authorities in taking up appropriate cases under a Clause 8 scheme and the Amendment would ensure that there was no technical obstacle to prevent these inspectors from entering premises for this purpose.

I hope that the Amendment will meet with the approval of the House.

Mr. Stainton

I regard the Amendment as wholly salutary, but what has surprised me is that the Parliamentary Secretary has not referred to any consultations which he may have had with, I imagine, the President of the Board of Trade, who is responsible for the enforcement of the Weights and Measures Act, 1963. I regard that as a considerable omission. My impression is that the weights and measures inspectorate is very heavily burdened with multifarious duties. Indeed, it seems to accumulate duties in an extraordinary way, as can be seen from studying the annual reports which the most progressive boroughs and county boroughs put out.

I repeat my question of whether the Parliamentary Secretary has consulted the President of the Board of Trade and, as it were, got a clearance from him for this proposal. Otherwise, this is a most salutary proposal. The lack of enforcement measures envisaged by Clause 8 as it stands gives cause for misgiving which the Amendment goes some way towards meeting.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Bernard Conlan (Gateshead, East)

The acceptance of this Amendment will remove an anomaly from the Bill. It will ensure that there is no duplication of visits to shops by different types of inspectors. I know that when the Amendment is written into the Bill it will be widely acclaimed by the local authorities and also, in spite of what the hon. Gentleman has said, will be welcomed by the weights and measures inspectorate as well.

Mr. Hawkins

I would like to support my hon. Friend in what he has said about the weights and measures inspectorate. This is a very overworked department in the County of Norfolk. I am on the committee of the county council which deals with this department and I hope that we are not giving it another job which it will not be able to carry out without extra staff.

I wanted to ask about the words "deemed to have been appointed". Any inspectors entering shops are somewhat liable to be looked at with distrust by the shopkeeper. I want to be quite certain that people concerned are duly authorised and appointed and have some certificate which they can show to people. We have too many bogus inspectors and others going around the country, often defrauding people. What do these words "deemed to have been appointed" mean? It seems to mean that they have not been appointed but might be at some future date.

Perhaps this can be explained, because it seems that these inspectors should have something to show that they are authorised to inspect and to enter shops.

Mr. Stodart

I should perhaps congratulate the hon. Gentleman the Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Conlan) on his persistence, which we supported in Committee, and in having this Amendment drafted. I would like to raise one point about it. Section 41 of the Weights and Measures Act, which is referred to, appoints the inspectors and Section 48 of the Act gives them their powers. The powers given under Section 48 are very much greater than the powers given to inspectors under the Bill, that is to the enforcement officers of the Commission.

Will the officers of the weights and measures authority divest themselves of these excessive powers when they are undertaking this particular work? Under Section 48, an inspector within his own area can inspect and test weighing or measuring equipment, he can enter any premises other than a house where such equipment is kept. That is not very excessive. He can then do much more. He can seize or detain any article liable to be forfeited; he can seize or detain any document, or display relating to price or quantity of goods.

Merely on a point of information, will these inspectors carry powers which are greater than those proposed in subsection (2) of Section 8? I do not think that this was intended, nor do I think that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East intended there to be an elite corps of inspectors who could enter, armed with greater powers than those proposed under that particular subsection of Section 8.

Mr. Hoy

The hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) wanted to know whether we had consulted the Board of Trade. One does not get up and say that one has seen such and such, and so and so, but in a matter of this kind we did consult with the Board of Trade. This provision was pressed upon us by the local authority association, it is not something which the Government were compelling it to undertake.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) asked what did the word "deemed" mean. I am told that in this case it covers inspectors appointed under the earlier Act, repealed by the Weights and Measures Act, 1963. This gives them all of the legal powers necessary. There will not be first or second class inspectors performing this particular job.

The hon. Gentleman said that under Section 41 of the Weights and Measures Act the appointments have been made in this way. It will not in any way weaken or strengthen the powers.

Mr. Stodart

May I ask for further clarification, because, with respect, the hon. Gentleman was not entirely clear? Do they carry the powers given to them later in the Weights and Measures Act into the enforcement of this particular Bill.

Mr. Hoy

I would not like to go as far as that at the moment. It is a legal point of which I have not thought. I shall inquire about it, but I would have thought not.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Hoy

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 9, line 12, to leave out from 'accepts' to end of line 13 and to insert 'for any meat a price in excess of one displayed in connection with it'. Clause 8(4) would permit a scheme under Clause 8 to make provision in relation to offences against the scheme, and in particular to make a person guilty of an offence if he demands or accepts a price in excess of a price displayed. As the subsection is at present drafted it refers to prices displayed, "by him". That must mean by the person committing the offence.

The purpose of this Amendment is to alter this so that it refers to demanding or accepting a price in excess of a price displayed, whether or not the price was actually displayed by the person committing the offence. We think it right to make this change because without it there would be an offence only where the person who demanded or accepted the excessive price was the person who had displayed it. In any shop where more than one person worked, provided one person displayed the price and another sold the meat, prices in excess of the displayed prices could be charged with immunity. This was not, and clearly should not be, the intention of the provision, and it is to avoid this that the Amendment has been brought forward.

Mr. Jopling

There is one small point which I should like cleared up. I am not too sure what the hon. Gentleman means by the word "price". If he means the total price of the piece of meat, then I follow him and I am sure that he is quite right. However, if he also means the price per lb. of that piece of meat, then we are in some difficulty.

I do not want to cause confusion but I cannot find anything in the Bill suggesting that the word "price" does not also mean the price per lb. May I explain the difficulty in which I think we may find ourselves if the word "price" also includes the price per lb. of a piece of meat? Let me take as an example a piece of meat consisting of pork chops under which there was a kidney and the meat was advertised at so much per lb. Suppose that a lady says, "I should like that. May I have it at the price per lb. advertised?". The butcher then puts it on the scale and the lady says, "Oh, there is a kidney underneath. We do not like kidneys. Will you take it out?". I understand that the price of kidney per lb. is less than the price of pork chops per lb. The butcher would want to charge more per lb. for the meat without the kidney in than he would if the kidney was sold with the pork chops. One could make the same argument about a piece of sirloin beef which was advertised at so much per lb. The housewife might say, "I do not like all that scrag end on it. Will you cut it off?".

I hope that I have been able to explain to the Minister the difficulty which I foresee may arise from this Amendment. If the word "price" means the price for the whole piece of meat and nothing else, it is all right. But if the word "price" means the price per lb. we could be in a muddle. I hope that the Minister will consider the point I have raised.

Mr. David Mitchell (Basingstoke)

Contrary to the point raised—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not speak until he is called.

Mr. Mitchell

I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker.

Contrary to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling), would the Minister say what would happen when a housewife goes into a shop, looks at a piece of meat which has a price for the piece of meat on it and says. "That is all right, but I do not want as much as that"; or who says when it is put on the scales, "I do not think that that will be enough for Sunday. Give me a bit more", and another piece is cut off and put on the scales? There is a considerable need for clarification of the Amendment, and I should be grateful if the Minister would give it.

Mr. Hoy

Certain of these points were bound to arise. We are not saying in the Bill that it will be either the price for the carcass or the price per lb. We want to ensure that people do not pay more than the price marked. The pricing scheme will be settled by the Commission in consultation with all the interests concerned. All that we are seeking to say is that people should not have the right to abuse it. What is provided about price is for the scheme, which, as I say, will be drawn up by the Commission in consultation with the interests concerned, subject always to Ministerial and Parliamentary approval. When the schemes are drafted they must be submitted to Ministers and Parliament.

I hope that the Amendment speaks for itself. Its purpose is to safeguard housewives against being abused in the shops.

Mr. Jopling

I do not think that the Minister has answered my point. Unless I have become stone deaf, I do not think—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has made his speech. He has forfeited his right to make another without the leave of the House.

Amendment agreed to.