HC Deb 06 April 1973 vol 854 cc845-63


Mr. Emery

I beg to move, Amendment No. 80, in page 25, line 4, leave out paragraphs 1 and 2 and insert:

'1. The Council shall consist of not less than sixteen nor more than nineteen members.

2.—(1) Ten of the members of the Council shall be persons appearing to the Secretary of State to be suitably qualified by virtue of their knowledge and experience of hallmarking, and shall be appointed by the Secretary of State after consultation with each of the following Assay Offices, that is, the London, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices.

(2) Before making any appointment under this paragraph the Secretary of State shall invite those offices to submit the names of one or more persons appearing to them suitable for appointment, and shall take any such submission into account.

(3) If and so long as (he chairman of the Council is a member appointed under this paragraph the total number of members to be appointed under this paragraph shall be eleven instead of ten.

(4) Four, but not more than four, of the persons who at any time are members appointed under this paragraph shall be persons engaged wholly or mainly in trading in, or in articles made of, precious metals.

3.—(1) Six members of the Council shall be appointed by the Secretary of State in addi- tion to those appointed under paragraph 2 above.

(2) Three of the said six members shall be persons appearing to the Secretary of State to be suitably qualified by virtue of their knowledge of and experience in organisations established, or activities carried on, for the protection of the consumer.

(3) A person engaged wholly or mainly in trading in, or in articles made of, precious metals shall not be appointed under this paragraph.

4. Members shall be appointed by the Secretary of State under the preceding provisions of this Schedule to take office on 1st January in the year 1974, and in each third succeeding year, and members so appointed shall hold office for a term of three years.

5.—(1) Not more than two members of the Council may be persons appointed by the Council as co-opted members.

(2) A co-opted member shall hold office in accordance with the terms of his appointment.

6. A person wholly or mainly employed by an assay office, other than the clerk to an assay office, shall not be eligible for membership of the Council'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

With this amendment we shall take Amendments Nos. 81 to 85.

Mr. Emery

The amendment changes the arrangements for the appointment of members of the British Hallmarking Council so as to provide a different structure of appointments so that the appointments shall be overall in the hands of the Secretary of State. Assay offices will, therefore, no longer nominate members of the council with the certainty that they would be appointed. However, the Secretary of State is required to consult the assay offices before appointing 10 of the 16 and to invite them to submit the names of suitable persons.

The situation is quite clear. It is essential that in creating a body which will be able to exercise wide influence on policy and the hallmarking law we should ensure that it is not only independent but seen to be independent. The object, therefore, is best achieved by placing the appointments in the hands of the Secretary of State, so long as we ensure that the Secretary of State is required to consult, and also to call for persons and lists of names who are acceptable from, those listed in the amendment. This means consultation with the assay offices.

It is, however, also essential to ensure that the persons who are appointed to the council are qualified for the work and can bring to bear on their duties the necessary expertise. The amendment makes that absolutely clear, and it is to be a prerequisite of any appointment of the 10. Thus, before appointing the greater number of members the Secretary of State is required to consult the four assay offices and invite them to submit the names of possible members of the Council. Those 10 members can be appointed only if they appear to be suitably qualified by virtue of their knowledge and experience of hallmarking. These requirements are laid down in paragraph 2(1) and (2). In order to ensure that their interests are sufficiently represented, four of the 10 are required by paragraph 2(4) to be drawn from trade circles.

What I have tried to do in the structure of the Hallmarking Council is to ensure this fairly cleverly-agreed balance. I believe that it took a considerable amount of negotiation between the different assay offices so that a single person from within them, with some trade interests, could be provided under the schedule.

These members can bring one kind of expertise to the work of the council, but it is also important to bear in mind that the consumer has a vital interest in hallmarking. Therefore, in appointing the other six members of the council the Secretary of State, in accordance with paragraph 3(2), must appoint three persons with knowledge and experience of consumer protection. The other three members may be persons whom the Secretary of State considers can make a special contribution to the work of the council. But, lest it should be thought that the trade may assume too great an influence on the decisions of the council, paragraph 3(3) prohibits any of these three, or the three with consumer protection experience, from being members of the trade. So we are trying to ensure not only that the council is independent but that it will represent the consumer and have an independent approach.

Finally, in spite of the care which the Secretary of State can be expected to use in selecting these 16 members, it is possible that the council, once established, may wish to draw on other expert advice. In paragraph 5, therefore, the amendment also provides that up to two additional members can be co-opted on to the council. I believe that the assay offices and those concerned in the industry were very hopeful that we would be able to keep co-option within the structure. Therefore, I have reverted from some other ideas about which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) knows, we have been trying to come to some arrangement, so that we can keep the two co-options.

It will therefore be clear that we have not departed far from the Bill's proposals. The principles are the same. Broadly speaking, the type of members that the Secretary of State is likely to appoint will be substantially the same. So it is fair to ask, why change the Bill? The most important reason is to provide the absolute guarantee of independence being seen. It has been suggested that the constitution of the assay offices guarantees a vast degree of independence. This is doubtless so in many ways, but it is insufficient reason for us to fail to build independence into the British Hallmarking Council as well.

Furthermore, there is always the consideration that where persons are appointed to represent particular interests such nominees may think themselves obliged to adopt a doctrinaire attitude, which could frustrate part of the working of the council.

There is another point, which was made in Committee. In certain circumstances, the Bill provides, in paragraph 4(3), that an aggrieved person can appeal to the council against a decision of an assay office. It would be wrong to set up a body which consisted mainly of assay office nominees to act as judges in their own cause.

The Government are satisfied that, with the safeguards written into the amendment and the fund of good will and assistance which the Secretary of State can expect to receive from the bodies that he is required to consult the arrangements in the amendments offer the best chance of producing the sort of council we need to oversee the general hallmarking law and to make suggestions for its improvement.

It will be apparent from my speech that I have moved some way from the original amendment that we were considering in Committee. I hope that the House will realise that the Government are particularly keen to see that the council shall not only be efficient and well able to act as the governing body of this industry to carry out the work that the Bill will involve; we shall also ensure that, in the last resort, it can be claimed that this body is independent since everyone will realise that the assay offices will have a considerable influence in the appointments made by the Secretary of State.

Mr. David Watkins

Amendment No. 80 and the consequential amendments give the Government control over the appointments to the Hallmarking Council. The principle involved was the subject of a short but lively debate in Committee, when the Under-Secretary proposed an amendment, the only Government amendment which was moved in Committee, to increase the number of appointees so that they would be in a majority on the council.

That amendment was strongly opposed on both sides of the Committee, and it was withdrawn, largely in view of the time factor but also in view of the opposition. The Under-Secretary undertook to look at the matter before Report and he has done that, but in this amendment he is proposing to appoint not just a majority of members to the council, but all of them, with the exception of the co-opted members, who would be appointed by those whom the Government would appoint. The amendment is even stronger than the earlier proposition which was withdrawn.

2.0 p.m.

I accept that when the amendment was withdrawn in Committee, it was made clear that the Government would want to retain at least a majority of the appointments to the Hallmarking Council. I am even more strongly critical of this amendment than I was of the amendment in Committee. The Under-Secretary made the Government's position quite clear and has not involved himself in any sharp practice. But the amendment which was withdrawn in Committee because it was opposed has now been replaced by an amendment which is even stronger.

I must voice a protest at the manner of presentation of the amendment as a starred amendment. It appeared on the Order Paper only today. On this important and contentious matter, the amendment might at least have been tabled yesterday so that hon. Members could have had more notice and could have examined it.

The Standing Committee completed its business on Wednesday 14th February. That was seven weeks ago last Wednesday. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has done a tremendous amount of work. All his amendments were tabled in order that hon. Members could have due notice of them. With all the Government's resources, however, and after the specific assurance given in Committee, apparently they could produce the amendment only hours before the House commenced the Report stage.

That is another measure of not only the Government's incompetence, but their contempt for the House, an attitude to which we are becoming so accustomed.

Mr. Cormack

It was guile, not incompetence.

Mr. Watkins

Either is reprehensible, whichever view one takes.

The Government face a dilemma in this matter. They face a number, but this dilemma arises because the proposal for control comes from a Government hitherto supposedly dedicated to noninterference in the regulation of trade and industry. They were specifically elected to office on promises, among other things, of non-intervention.

But they have found that non-intervention by Government in the economic, social and political circumstances of Britain just does not work. They found that out when they had to nationalise Rolls-Royce and to introduce the Industry Bill and, more recently, with the subsidisation of building societies.

At heart, the Government may not want to intervene by controlling appointments to the Hallmarking Council, but they have found from bitter experience that laissez-faire does not work. We told them so years ago; they have found how right we were.

I recognise the reasons behind the amendment, which arise from the Government's dilemma. But although we recognise and understand the reasons, that does not mean that we give the amendment our wholehearted support. We are not opposed in principle to the idea of a Hallmarking Council so appointed.

In deploying his case, the Undersecretary made a powerful point when he said that the Hallmarking Council would be an important body and must be shown to be independent of the trade. But it clearly has to be recognised that the trade has regulated this sort of practice for many centuries with great success and outstanding integrity.

We are worried, however, that this proposal should come from a Government showing such an authoritarian approach to Parliament and the country. The Under-Secretary has already gone some way towards meeting the assurances that we require, but we want firm assurances that, although the Government are proposing to control appointments to the Hallmarking Council, the maximum advice and consultation will take place in making the appointments. We want an assurance that due regard will be paid to not only the interests of all branches of the trade but to consumer interests.

We want an assurance that the Hallmarking Council will not be a plaything of the Government and that it will not be the Government's policy to interfere in the council's work once it has been appointed. That is extremely important. The Under-Secretary pointed out that the Hallmarking Council must be seen to be independent. Equally, it must be seen not to be a creature of the Government. There should be no likelihood of the Government's interfering in its day-to-day work.

The Opposition's attitude will depend largely on the assurances we receive. We shall listen with interest to all the other points to be made in the debate.

Mr. Adam Butler

Two matters particularly occupied our attention in Committee. The first was that of millesimal marks, and the second was that of the Hallmarking Council. I support what the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) has said, but perhaps in somewhat milder language, about the late presentation of the amendment.

At face value, this is one of those cases where representation on the council could be completely satisfactory and acceptable to the trade. But this will depend on the decision of the Secretary of State. As I understand the amendment, the Secretary of State is not bound to accept any of the names put forward by the assay offices. Therefore, he would have complete power to appoint people who were unacceptable to the trade as a whole.

On this point it would be helpful to have an assurance from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that, other things being equal, the Secretary of State would accept names put forward by the assay offices and would tend to appoint to the council all the 10 members under the proposed paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 3 from names submitted by the offices.

My second point is about consumer protection. This is a vital factor and perhaps increasingly the Government are finding that they are having to take care of the consumer interest.

Surely in this instance it is the very hallmarking itself that gives the consumer protection. It has done so for over 600 years. Therefore, although what is being suggested for this council might be appropriate for other councils, I do not believe that it is so necessary in this instance to represent the consumer interest in such a specific way as is intended by the amendment. Indeed, I suggest that the assay offices have looked after the interests of the consumer extremely well in the past. I hope that there is no reflection on their actions in this respect during that time.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said that independence must be seen to exist. I believe that what is necessary to be seen is hallmarking in as clear and explicit a way as possible and that the independence of the council is of less importance. I support what the hon. Member for Consett said about the council, when it is established in whatever form, being allowed to get on with its job and being as independent as possible of the Government.

Mr. Wiggin

I should first say in a conciliatory tone to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that I do not think we are quite as far apart as may seem to be indicated by the tones of the speeches so far. Nevertheless, we have found it impossible to agree on a formula that is acceptable to myself as sponsor of the Bill. On behalf not only of the assay offices but of the various interested parties that I have consulted on this matter, I should inform my hon. Friend that the concession that he has described of allowing co-opted members to remain on the council is appreciated. However, to describe it as a concession is, I think, overdoing his position.

I turn now to the question of this being a starred amendment. The Committee stage took place on 14th February. I think that in all honesty I should make it clear, in defence of the Minister, that we have been trying to negotiate for at least the last ten days or as much as a fortnight. Originally our understanding of the Minister's requirement was that he should, so to speak, have an umbrella position over the whole council whereby he would adopt the numbers in the proportions stated in the original Bill, but that he required, in conformity with other legislation that was going through the House, to be able to say that he had nominated the whole council. I cannot for the life of me find any reason why he should wish to adopt this position.

I completely take the political point made by the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins). It is true that we have changed our view on a number of matters as a party, and perhaps it is reflecting this new position that makes the hon. Gentleman so persistent. However, I believe that the basic disagreement is about the way that the assay offices carry out their duties.

I can well understand a suspicion on the Minister's part that the assay offices are in cahoots with all aspects of the trade and that they are pressing the position that they want in their own interests against the possible interest of the consumer—that mysterious animal which apparently none of us is but who has to have special individual representation in the Minister's eyes. I think that this disagreement ought to be aired.

In Committee, as reported at column 50, the Minister said: I understand the argument that the assay offices have always been taken in the past as being the protector of the consumer, but I believe that it is only understood within the industry and the trade. It is not widely accepted."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 14th February 1973; c. 50.] I totally dispute that statement. For hundreds of years the assay offices have been seen by the ordinary man in the street as the protector of him and what he buys in the way of gold and silver. The Minister earlier described the hallmarking system as the oldest consumer protection in the world. I think that he could easily have added, "And the assay offices as the oldest institution for carrying out that consumer protection."

2.15 p.m.

I fully acknowledge that the assay offices, in carrying out this task, have built up a close relationship with all aspects of the industry. It is right and proper that that liaison should exist. How, after all, could we carry out our day-to-day business if on occasions the usual channels did not operate? It is exactly that kind of thing. It does not mean that our views are like theirs. They are not. I hear a voice from the usual channels agreeing with me. It is in this way that the assay offices have got to know the trade and what it wants.

I do not mean to be over-critical, but I am sure that my hon. Friend, before he was elevated to the Front Bench, would have taken the view, particularly outside this House, that the Department of Trade and Industry does not have the absolute 100 per cent. trust of all aspects of trade and industry in this country.

I should like to quote a letter from the British Jewellers' Association representing the manufacturers. The quotation is quite lengthy, but I hope hon. Members will bear with me. The Association says: We understand that there is a proposal to meet the objections of the Minister by the power of appointment of all members to the Secretary of State. Those were the objections raised in Committee by the Minister when he subsequently withdrew his amendment in the certain knowledge that he would not have carried the Committee with him. This, we feel, is not a satisfactory suggestion. The British Jewellers' Association has always accepted the fact that the provision of adequate trade representation on the Council is an extremely difficult problem and we have accepted the proposals in the Bill as at present drafted only because we have felt we could trust the Assay Offices to understand that reasonable representation of the trade interests was achieved by the nominations being in their hands. We have to say that the same trust does not extend to the Department of Trade and Industry. It is in that philosophy that the objections have arisen. Indeed, in another committee on another matter the Government found that their proposals to nominate the chairmen of the new water authorities were not acceptable to that committee. I have no doubt that on that matter the decision may be reversed later. But the feeling running through this side of the House—I think it is a fair reflection of public opinion—is that Government interference has gone deep enough and for long enough.

I must refer to trade representation. The National Association of Goldsmiths, representing the retail trade, has taken a very deep interest in the representation of its members on the council. Had the Bill been allowed to go through without the threat of this Government amendment, I should willingly have given an assurance that assay office nominees would include a representative of the retail trade. Even though unfortunately we may have to accept the amendment, I say equally that the assay offices will ensure that the retail voice is among the ten representatives that they will put forward. Therefore, that association can assure its members that its representations have been listened to.

Mr. Emery

I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want anything go out from this House which might be considered misleading. May I refer him to paragraph 2(4) of the amendment which reads: Four, but not more than four, of the persons who at any time are members appointed under this paragraph shall"— "shall" not "may"— be persons engaged wholly or mainly in trading in, or in articles made of, precious metals. I am delighted that we have been able to make that point without any assurance being necessary.

Mr. Wiggin

May I refer my hon. Friend to paragraph 1(2) of Schedule 3 as it stands? Virtually the same statement is made that one of the nominees of each assay office must be engaged in the trade. There is nothing particularly new in that concession. I accept that I may have slightly misled the House. What is different is that "the trade" should include a retail voice. It is fair to say that the retailer is close to the consumer and therefore to some extent he is a consumer. When he buys from his wholesaler or from his manufacturer he is representing the consumer, and therefore in this aspect it is right to make it clear that this part of the trade, or a part of a trade representation, must be a retail voice.

Because of the way in which the amendment has been negotiated behind the scenes and subsequently tabled so late in the day it is abundantly clear that if I were to call a Division I should lose the business remaining to be decided. Therefore I am to some extent faced with a Morton's Fork of either accepting the amendment without opposing it or losing my business and going down the list on a subsequent day.

I find this most unsatisfactory. I have been unable to summon to my support my hon. Friends and, for that matter, hon. Gentlemen opposite who might not agree with the Government's philosophy. I shall not be able to divide the House, but I wish to register my dislike of the Government's amendment and hope that my remarks will be noted in another place where I trust there will be a chance for the matter to be looked at again and, if necessary, restored to what it was originally.

Mr. Cormack

I shall be brief after that fine speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) which summed up the position admirably. I agree with him in all that he said. I could not help but wonder whether the Government felt it was necessary to hallmark the U-turn. I hope that further thought will be given to this matter. I am not persuaded that after several centuries of impeccable service to the consumer and the nation it is necessary to have this sort of council at all, and I wonder whether the slightly informal arrangements which now exist, might not suffice for the future. But if there is to be a council I do not accept that it should be dominated in this way by the Government.

Mr. Wiggin

My hon. Friend has raised an important point, which I failed to mention. It has always been clear that a new body should be set up, partly to give cohesion to the various assay offices. These offices are giving up a substantial amount of their autonomy, and it is their willingness to co-operate with it which the House should consider and for which it should give them credit.

Mr. Cormack

I accept that, as I do the fact that there will be a council, and I was not trying to suggest that the other place should delete the provision for it. I share my hon. Friend's unhappiness at the way in which this matter has been handled, and I support what was said by the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) about the timing of such a vital and important amendment.

It seems to me that after centuries of impeccable service it is unnecessary, if a council is to be created, that it should even appear to be the creature of the Government. That is why I have some misgivings about this proposal, as my hon. Friend has, and as I think the whole House has, with the single exception of our hon. Friend on the Treasury Bench.

Mr. Ronald King Murray

I share the feelings of the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) about hallmarking a U-turn, but beyond that I do not think that I agree with him.

The criticisms made by my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) about the circumstances in which the Government have put forward the amendment carry great force, but it would be a pity if nobody expressed some support for paragraph 3(2). There is much force in the criticism of the amendment, especially on the principle of appointment by the Minister. I find it difficult to follow the reasoning behind the Minister's view. I may be able to follow it better if I read the report of the debate.

Apart from that caveat, I express qualified praise for paragraph 3(2). It seems to be a definite stride forward to include in provisions of this kind the express concept that persons who come on to this council shall be suitably qualified by virtue of their knowledge of and experience in organisations established, or activities carried on, for the protection of the consumer". Even if others have difficulty with those words, to me they offer a definite advantage for the protection of the ordinary consumer, and that is something I welcome.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Perhaps I may intrude in this debate for the first and only time. I regret that I missed the Committee stage. I say that because I have found today's debate highly educational. When I listened to the hon. Members for Bosworth (Mr. Adam Hunter) and Cannock (Mr. Cormack) referring to confidence in the general acceptability of the lion, the thought occurred to me that if my wife were to say that she had bought something with a lion stamped on it I should accuse her of buying an elderly egg.

The debate has been reasonable, but I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) was right in what he said about the way in which the amendment has been brought forward, and it is for that reason that I have intervened. I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), that there was consultation with the Government virtually up to the last moment in an effort to find a compromise solution to the problem, but it remains a fact that the whole House has the right to know when a piece of legislation which has reached its final stage in this House is to have an amendment tabled to it, and also the nature of that amendment. At the time of leaving the House last night many hon. Members on both sides of the House, including some who gave up their time to serve on the Committee, were unaware that the Government intended to bring forward this amendment. As a practice this is to be deplored, and it is right that the House should put on record its condemnation of it.

The Government have had several weeks in which to have the necessary consultation. I should not have thought it unduly difficult for the Government to put down the amendment 24 hours earlier than they did, so that all hon. Members, ragardless of the question whether the majority were particularly interested, had an opportunity to take part in the debate if they so wished. I realise that converts are notoriously zealous, and that the Government are recent converts to interventionism, but now they seem incapable of keeping their fingers out of any pie, however small. The Government's view appears to be that the British Hallmarking Council is too dangerous to be let loose without ministerial control.

I am not surprised at the Government's approach. We have seen it with the Fair Trading Bill, under which a so-called Consumer Protection Advisory Committee is to be set up with no consumers on it as of right. Only the Minister can make the appointments. We see that philosophy repeated here—the Ministers and the Department know best. No minute crumb of Whitehall patronage is to be allowed to slip from the Minister's hands. I find it incredible that the Government should feel it necessary to intervene in this way. The Bill has been argued reasonably, and I think that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare and his supporters should be congratulated on the way in which they have not only presented the Bill, but conducted the proceedings. It is a pity that this note of acrimony has crept in at such a late stage.

As has been said, one recognises that there should be a consumer voice on the council. My regret is that that voice is not stronger than is envisaged in the amendment. The consumer remains very much in the minority on what is a consumer protection body, and I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare in his rather idealised view of a retailer who represents the consumer.

Only recently one of the Minister's colleagues and I debated the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Bill. That measure was propounded on the general principle that the retailer is not necessarily the consumer's best friend.

Mr. Wiggin

Lest I be misunderstood on this point, I should explain that I agree that if an unscruplous retailer felt that he could get away with offering to the public an article which was below standard, that would be the case. But hallmarked articles which have passed through the assay office have to be sold to the public, and no retailer would buy them unless satisfied with their quality. That is the point I was seeking to make.

2.30 p.m.

Mr. Williams

I was not making a major point. I could not allow the hon. Member's general comment to go by without making a remark, and I could not resist the opportunity to pull slightly on one leg. However, I want to ask the Under-Secretary why the consumer's voice is so weak on the Hallmarking Council, as envisaged, and why it is treated differently. Why is there consultation for certain members of the Hallmarking Council but not for the consumer? No consumer protection body has the right to put forward a list of nominees. There seems to be a definite downgrading of the relative importance of the consumer in this respect, and I hope the Under-Secretary will explain why that should be so.

Mr. Cormack

Does not the hon. Member consider that the assay offices are acting in the interests of the consumer?

Mr. Williams

The point remains that the generality of consumers have a right to participate more fully in this type of council, but I shall listen with interest to what the Minister says. I wish the Bill rapid progress through its remaining stages.

Mr. Emery

With the leave of the House, I shall deal immediately with the points raised by the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams). I have found that on this Front Bench it is impossible to win. If we had left the Hallmarking Council as it was in the Bill the Opposition would have asked us why we had left the matter entirely in the hands of the industry. Now we have taken it away from the industry we are asked why we have done that. I think that is fair comment on the hon. Member's question.

He raised the question of the consumer's voice. We are all consumers. What we have tried to ensure is that there should be some specialist representation from consumers. His next question was why had we not listed who should be nominated. If he would like to tell me which consumer bodies he would have left out from the consultation, I should be interested to hear. Do we put in the Co-operative movement and leave out certain other people? There are only three places to fill, and it seems to make much more sense to try to ensure that consultation takes place in order to obtain nominations. The hon. Member for Swansea, West has been a Minister. He knows that these matters are dealt with fairly thoroughly and I can give him an assurance that they will continue to be dealt with in that way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Adam Butler) asked whether the Government were in the position of not being compelled to accept nominations by the assay offices. That is indeed correct, because if the nomination is to be made by the Secretary of State his power overall is what matters. But in order to try to spell out the views of the Government we have set out clearly the way that the consultation should take place.

As the amendment provides, consultation shall take place with each of the following Assay Offices, that is, the London, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices. (2) Before making any appointment under this paragraph the Secretary of State shall invite those offices to submit the names of one or more persons appearing to them suitable for appointment, and shall take any such submission into account". That goes much further than most legislation in trying to write into the law the assurance that I am now willing to give my hon. Friend—that quite obviously it is the general desire of the Government to want to be able to accept the nominations which come forward. After all, we accept immediately that the assay offices have considerable experience in this matter. Nobody is trying to cast doubt on that. It is normal under our procedures concerning the appointment by Ministers to certain positions for the House to presume that the Ministers, in making such appointments, will go out of their way to secure the best and not the worst people for the job. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree with that.

Mr. Adam Butler

I am grateful for the assurance. I recognise that it is difficult to write such a thing into the Bill. Will my hon. Friend confirm that what he is saying is that, other things being equal, he will choose from the names submitted by the assay office, or will give them some preference over others?

Mr. Emery

I am not absolutely certain what "other things being equal" means, but if I may go even further, perhaps I could explain that unless there is an obvious reason for not wanting to accept nominations which have been put forward, those would normally be the sort of appointments that the Secretary of State would want to make. That is why we have written the provision into the Bill in that form. That is also why we have gone further than the original amendment sought to go.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) asked whether we would allow the Hallmarking Council to get on with the job once it was appointed. Of course we shall. That is the whole object of its creation. The whole idea of having it dealt with in this manner is that once appointed it could be left entirely on its own and could be seen as an independent body, not just as judge and jury in its own cause, but as an independent body which can deal with the matters which the Bill sets out as being its responsibility.

The hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) said that the Government had learned certain things by bitter experience. Certainly, we have learned by bitter experience how wrong and how terrifying was the inflation situation that the Labour Party left for us when we came into office. That is the sort of bitter experience we had. The hon. Member's speech turned a little back to the political knock-about stuff, and on that I am as good as the next. But I intend to concentrate my attention on the Bill.

I apologise to the House for this being a starred amendment. That is not how I should normally wish an amendment to come forward. I had every hope that it might be put down earlier in the week, but I have had a number of consultations on the matter. I had believed that it might well be tabled on Monday, but that was not how it worked out. I had to decide whether it should be tabled now or left to be dealt with in another place, and I thought that I should be open to more severe criticism if I took the latter course. I hope that the House will understand the problems that I face.

We come to the main contention over the question whether the amendment is better or worse than the original suggestions or our previous amendments. I think that it is much better than the amendment we considered in Committee. The hon. Gentleman suggested that there was hardly anything to choose between the two. We have kept to the size that the original Bill suggested. There was severe criticism that the suggestions in Committee took the size of the council up to, I think, 26. I accepted the criticism that that was too many.

We are having to decide whether the committee, which must act as judge and jury and regulator of the assay offices, should be, and should be seen to be, composed of nominees of the assay offices in a majority, whom the Secretary of State could overrule only by dismissing the whole council. I cannot believe that would be right, or that that is how anyone but the industry would expect such a governing body to be set up.

The Government accept that historically and in the method of inspection and control the assay offices have had a substantial place. We have improved the situation as compared with the original Government amendment, because that amendment made it absolutely clear that those who had come from the assay offices could never be in a majority in the council. Under the present amendment, while they still have to be appointed by the Secretary of State as the final stamp of their independence, the majority of the nominations will come through the assay offices and the trade via the assay offices. I am surprised that there has not been some criticism of that today, because it could be said that that may be a weakness. I was prepared to defend it if it had been criticised.

In view of the way in which we have laid down the nominations, have been willing to keep a fairly compact size and to keep co-option, and have spelt out consumer representation, I think that it will be a much better council, and will be judged from the outside to be likely to be a much better council, than that which was originally provided for.

Amendment agreed to

Amendments made: No. 81, in page 25, line 36, leave out from beginning to end of line 39.

No. 82, in line 44, leave out 'sub-paragraph (2) or'.

No. 83, in page 26, line 13, leave out paragraph 6.

No. 84, in line 30, leave out from beginning to second 'The' in line 32.

No. 85, in line 42, leave out: 'appointed by an assay office'.—[Mr. Emery.]

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