HC Deb 14 March 1972 vol 833 cc299-302

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Weights and Measures Act 1963 to give power to the Secretary of State to require by order made under section 21 of that Act that goods should be marked with the price per unit of measure. This is a very short Bill, but I suggest that it is a very important one. The aim is simple. It is to help the shopper, and especially the housewife. No manufacturer or retailer who gives value for money need fear its provision or its consequences. I hope that the Government will give it their blessing and that the House will give it a speedy passage, or, even better, that it will be incorporated in the much-needed shoppers' charter which will give a fair and square deal to all consumers.

At a time when the curse of inflation is felt in every home, one of the fundamental aims of the Legislature should be to take all necessary steps to discourage and guard against unjustified price rises and to take any necessary Measures to enable the shopper to judge the true value, cost and content of his purchases.

In this country we have the traditional protection against deception of standard quantities, and many pre-packed foods have been required to be sold in standard quantities for some 50 years. This is the method which makes it easier for shoppers to make proper comparisons where various brands have many similarities, and standard quantities should be our aim wherever possible. But not all goods are suitable for packaging in this manner. There are technical difficulties in packaging to specified weights, especially where the products are packed by numbers or by volume.

Therefore, as an alternative to the standard quantity concept, consumer organisations here, on the Continent and across the Atlantic have for some time advocated unit pricing. There is now on the Statute Book in Germany a law from which perhaps I might quote a brief passage: Whosoever keeps filled packages for sale to the consumer must indicate on the package or on a price ticket on or beside the filled package, clearly visible and distinctly readable the price he asks for 1 kilo or I litre (basic price) of the product. In the United States of America and Europe there has been a lot of voluntary development along these lines. Even here the concept is familiar to those who shop in supermarkets and buy cheese or meat in pre-packaged quantities.

There are an awful lot of anomalies which need clearing up. At the risk of being accused of bringing offensive weapons into the Chamber, I have some samples with me. Here is a pack which looks like half a pound of biscuits. In fact, it is seven ounces, not half a pound. There is no indication on the packet clearly visible as to what the proper weight is, and it is difficult for a housewife shopping in a hurry to compare the value of this packet with the value of a packet on the next shelf. I have other examples. Here are two packets of instant mashed potato. It might seem that the larger packet is the better value. This is not so. The larger packet works out at 8p per pound, whereas the smaller packet works out at 4½p. Surely manufacturers would not suffer and competition would be sharpened if they had to give the unit price on such packets.

This applies not just to foodstuffs. Perhaps detergents are the examples which spring most readily to mind. It applies also to those things which in the current vulgarism are referred to as "toiletries"—toothpaste, after-shave lotions, perfumes of all sorts. I have four tubes of toothpaste here, Mr. Speaker; perhaps you would accept one afterwards with my compliments. One is marked 50½ millimeters, another 80 grammes, a third 83 grammes and the fourth 50½ cc. To the shopper, they are identical in size but, of course, they are not identical in content. The shopper should know, so that he or she can make a proper choice, what these packets contain.

What I am seeking to do is to make sure that all goods which are not sold in standard quantities have a uniform price on the packet. This price should be related to weight or volume. With the sort of differences we saw with the toothpaste, there should be a measurement common to all.

The Bill is not designed to hit the small shopkeeper by giving him a lot of extra work. The main obligation should lie with the manufacturer to put the recommended unit price on his product if he is not selling it in a standard quantity with a recommended retail price. This should help all manufacturers who provide good value for money—and many do—and it should stimulate genuine competition. It should, above all, be a much-needed death blow to those spurious "special offers" which delude so many housewives.

The Weights and Measures Act which I seek to amend is now 10 years old, and today's shopping conditions are vastly different. We should recognise this fact in the House. I therefore very much hope that the House will give me leave to introduce the Bill and that the Government will either incorporate it in major legislation or assist its passage this Session.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Cormack, Mr. Finsberg, Mr. Money, Mr. Michael Cocks, Mr. Luce, Mr. Janner. Miss Fookes, Mr. Peter Archer, Mrs. Oppenheim, Mr. Arthur Davidson, Mr. Hooson and Sir Bernard Braine.



That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Weights and Measures Act 1963 to give power to the Secretary of State to require by order made under section 21 of that Act that goods should be marked with the price per unit of measure; and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday, 28th April, and to be printed. [Bill 100.]