HC Deb 06 April 1973 vol 854 cc866-73


Amendments made: No. 72, in page 33, line 2, at end insert: 'Part I—Public General Acts '.

No. 73, in page 33, line 16, at end insert:

need for me to review the whole Bill, but I am sure that I shall be joined by other hon. Members if I thank a number of people who have assisted me in getting this far with this extremely complicated legislation.

First, I thank Mr. John Wharton, the Secretary of the Joint Committee of the Assay Offices, who has put aside his own business for many weeks and, regardless of the hour of the day or night, has assisted us in getting the draft as near perfect as we could manage. In that capacity Mr. Wharton has been most ably assisted by the professional draftsman from Dyson, Bell and Co., Mr. Francis, who also has burnt the midnight oil in doing his best to get the Bill this far. I also thank Mr. Prideaux, the clerk to the Goldsmiths' Company. The other clerks and assay masters at Sheffield and Edinburgh, as well as London and Birmingham, have been most helpful.

The trade has co-operated to the extent of at least on two occasions coming to meetings with us, the latter meeting being called at rather short notice. I do not wish to single out the various representations, but the British Jewellers' Association, on behalf of the manufacturers, and the National Association of Goldsmiths, in particular on behalf of the retailers, have given a great deal of helpful advice and co-operation, as have the antique dealers and the auction houses and various other interested bodies.

Perhaps I shall get into trouble with my hon. Friend the Minister for what I want to say next, but there was an interesting case in which a single civil servant was named for having assisted the Government by drawing up a scheme for family welfare benefits, or something similar. While attacking civil servants is out of order, praising them should not be, and I should be wrong if I did not say a word about the contribution that Mr. Budden, of the Department of Trade and Industry has made to the whole matter. He has made a study of it for many years, and I hope that when the Bill finally becomes law he will feel that he has made a major contribution to advising Ministers on the question.

Last, but by no means least, I thank my hon. Friends and other hon. Members who have taken an interest in the Bill, those who attended the Committee, and the other sponsors of the Bill, as well as my hon. Friend the Minister, who, despite many other commitments, has managed to absorb the important points and has gone miles out of his way in trying to negotiate those matters.

It is sad that we had to disagree on the last Government amendment. My hon. Friend made endless attempts to come to an agreement, and that was one of the factors that contributed to the late tabling of the amendment.

After 150 years, there now seems a reasonable chance that the law on the subject will be reformed. That is right and a good thing. I believe that it has made a sensible subject for a Private Members' Bill.

2.50 p.m.

Mr. Ronald King Murray

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has already been congratulated considerably on transacting a Bill. It is right that we should pay our compliments to him and to those who advised him. When he mentioned the Dublin Assay Office he inadvertently, I think, referred to the republic across the water as a foreign country. Technically it is not a foreign country. The Ireland Act 1949 specifically says that it is not a foreign country. I hope that he will retract what he has said about the Republic of Ireland in that respect.

I hope that the Government across the water will take note of the legislation which we are transacting and, I hope, passing today. I hope that they will endeavour to do something of a corresponding nature in respect of the Dublin Assay Office.

Mr. Wiggin

I have had to take so much advice from lawyers in the course of the last few weeks that it gives me no pain to take further advice. I willingly withdraw my erroneous statement.

Mr. Murray

The hon. Gentleman made his withdrawal very gracefully. Irish problems are always paradoxical. The major paradox is that the Republic of Ireland, while not being foreign, is not exactly British, either.

I add my congratulations to the hon Member for Weston-super-Mare and to those who advised him. I am satisfied that it has been possible to retain an assay office in Scotland. I regret that the traditional Edinburgh hallmark of the thistle has unfortunately been replaced by the hallmark of a rampant lion. Scotland has never been so traditionally minded as to be unprepared to make changes when changes do no harm. Possibly from an aesthetic and a national point of view, the rampant lion may be just as good an indicator of Scottish quality as the thistle. I am glad to associate myself with the moving of the Third Reading of the Bill.

2.53 p.m.

Mr. Cormack

I shall make a brief speech.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

Why not?

Mr. Cormack

I shall not respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Pell), who often comes to urge me to make long speeches on Friday afternoons. I associate myself with what has been said. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has performed a signal service in getting the Bill through the House. He steered it through Committee with masterly precision, and with considerable wit and good humour. He has exhibited the same qualities during a long Report stage for a Private Member's Bill.

Future generations, be they ordinary consumers or sophisticated collectors, will have cause to be grateful to my hon. Friend, as will be the consumer movement generally. He has performed a very real service. He could not have done it but for the basic sympathy shown to his aims and objectives by the Government. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Adam Butler) and I have had slight cause to feel a little put out at certain stages, we are both conscious of the enormous efforts that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has made. He has had a busy time during the last few months whilst dealing with this Bill and the Fair Trading Bill. He has assisted this Bill, and for that we are grateful.

I am only too happy to have played a small part in helping to get the Bill on the Statute Book. I hope that their Lordships in another place will remove the two blemishes that I consider to be present. If that is done, it will be a magnificent piece of legislation. When the Queen signifies her Assent the Bill will be worthy of the ultimate in hallmarks.

2.55 p.m.

Mr. Adam Butler

Together with some of my hon. Friends, I was responsible for the motion to ensure that Third Reading was debated. The basic reasons for doing so were simply that the Second Reading was taken as a formality, and because this is a complicated and lengthy Bill.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) on steering us admirably through all stages, despite the complexities and the length of the Bill.

We are now coming to the final stage. When that stage has been completed we can stand back and admire the handiwork. It has taken 150 years to put the Bill on the statute book. It is right that for a moment we should contemplate its future. It is essentially a consumer protection Bill. That point has been accented to a great extent in all our debates. There is no question but that the Bill's provisions will benefit not only the manufacturers but the retailers and the public. If a Bill can achieve those three objectives it is a first-class Bill.

I have indicated strongly my dissent on millesimal marks and the constitution of the council. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack), I hope that those two points will be rectified in another place. I had hoped that the trade's wishes about marks could be observed. Powerful arguments have been advanced and I hope that the trade's record of independent self-policing, and the fact that it was worked with the assay offices, would have been sufficient to persuade the Government to leave the control of the council in its hands.

All difficult debates have a silver lining and, as one of the sponsors of the Bill, I wish this measure a golden future.

2.58 p.m.

Mr. David Watkins

I sense that the House is anxious to make progress and to come quickly to its final decision. Therefore, I shall make my remarks suitably brief.

The Bill has been much amended both in Committee and on Report. However, its basic principles remain unchanged. A change has been made on the constitution of the British Hallmarking Council, but there has been no change in the function of the council. The overall principle of the Bill is the protection of the consumer.

The consumers whom we are seeking to protect are not the wealthy collectors. That point has been made during the earlier stages of the Bill. The Stone Committee reported in 1959 that 95 per cent. of all new gold and silver articles sold cost less than £10. Even allowing for the passage of time and the erosion of inflation, that situation will probably remain basically the same. We are protecting large numbers of people of modest means who buy things which are important to them which are made of precious metals. The House has produced a Bill which is as important to the purchasers of modest means as it is for wealthy collectors or dealers, whether private or public.

It is interesting to note the passage of time which has taken place in bringing about this legislation. There was an official inquiry as long ago as 1856 and another one in 1879. The Stone Committee produced its report in 1959. The thread running through those inquiries and reports was that hallmarking was in the public's interest. Whilst, for various reasons, the House has taken a long time to come to a decision, it has finally produced a good and widely acceptable Bill, notwithstanding the understandable reservations of some hon. Members. It is a Bill which will be an important piece of legislation for a long time ahead.

This is a very technical and complicated Bill, which is difficult for laymen to understand and appreciate. Its passage has been much facilitated by the able and courteous manner in which the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare has sponsored it and piloted it through all its stages. He has at all times shown himself most ready to listen to advice, both inside and outside the House, and, as I know, to discuss points at issue and to seek to reach agreement where that was possible. It should be recorded that his conduct has greatly facilitated the progress of the Bill. Great credit is due to him for having sponsored it and having conducted it in such a creditable fashion.

The hon. Gentleman is now well on the way towards joining that select group of private Members who have their names on the statute book. I must confess to being one of them myself. I want also to express my thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for the very courteous manner in which he has helped the House. Notwith- standing any criticism I may have expressed of him earlier, he has been most helpful. I again warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare and wish the Bill well on its journey to the other place.

3.0 p.m.

Mr. Emery

This is the final scene of the final act of the Bill in this House, I hope—from which it might be implied that I do not take the view that there should be amendments returning from another place proposed to stop or interrupt the uniformity of hallmarking which we have been able to achieve with the Bill.

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) on his handling of a Report stage lasting four hours with 85 amendments, three new clauses and a new schedule. He did it on his own without back-up from either civil servants or the Opposition's secretariat. That takes hard and dedicated work.

The present law has been criticised for well over a century. The first Select Committee to begin the criticism sat in 1856 and reported the same year, and a Select Committee in 1879 again recommended action, but we had to wait for Wiggin in 1972 before the action was begun. It is only necessary to look at the list of repeals in the Bill to see the complexity of the subject. We start with an Act of 1696, in the reign of William III, going on to another Act, passed in the time of Queen Anne, dealing with the assay of imported watch cases. Provisions of the Common Informers Act are also repealed, and there is even the repeal of an Act of George III dealing with Ireland. The law has obviously been completely out of date, unenforceable and unenforced.

I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend for his work, and I believe that we are sending to another place a workable and sensible Bill which will be understood and will protect the consumer. The Bill also protects the trade. By prohibiting the misdescription of substandard ware in all precious metals, I believe that we are taking a considerable step forward in the consumer protection in which the present Government are making a fine reputation—a greater reputation for consumer protection than that of any previous Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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