§ 10.30 a.m.
§ The Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)
I beg to move,That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Unit Pricing Bill ought to be read a second time.I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) in his place as he has displayed more than a passing interest in the subject of unit pricing during the last two Sessions. He has introduced a Bill with the same objective in each of those Sessions. It has received increasingly benevolent 580 approval from both sides of the House but has not been able to complete its passage through the obstacle course which is what we design or allow to persist as the vehicle for the making of laws in this country. However, he now has the pleasure of seeing this Bill introduced by the Government to give us power to introduce important unit pricing measures.
Unit pricing is the way in which prepackaged goods on sale in shops are marked with their price per unit of quantity—Xp a pound or Yp a pint, or whatever it may be. Many goods, fresh foods, 581 particularly, are commonly unit priced at the moment. For example, apples are often unit priced. Various fresh meats are often unit priced. The question is whether we should by this Bill give to the Secretary of State the power to require unit pricing as a matter of routine in relation to any particular commodity; that is the power which we now seek.
It is important for the Committee to understand that there are real limitations on the value of unit pricing as a technique. Some people are so attracted by the idea when they first comprehend it that they regard it as the answer to every conceivable consumer problem, to be used in every possible circumstance. It is not as easy as that. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock, when discussing the matter previously, acknowledged that in many cases prescribed quantities are a much better consumer safeguard. There is a safeguard in the familiarity whereby one knows that one buys butter or sugar in half-pound, one-pound or two-pound units, and the familiarity with which one can choose a certain quantity, knowing that the pack in the familiar size is of the familiar weight and one can merely look at the price at which it is being sold to compare different prices in relation to the same prescribed quantity. Nobody who has considered this matter rejects the proposition that, where possible, prescribed quantities are preferable.
One other limitation to the unit pricing system, as the publishers of Which? frequently point out, is that, although something may be the cheapest by reference to the unit price, it is not necessarily the best. Unit pricing cannot reveal the variations in quality that may underlie variations in price per unit.
While my hon. Friend has been introducing his various attempts at legislation on this matter, officials of my Department and of the Department of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Fenner) have been carrying out studies of the extent to which unit pricing is used and is useful in other countries. The report which resulted from that analysis was published in the Consumer Information Bulletin in August this year. I arranged for it to be published so that there should be even better informed discussion of the whole question by consumers 582 and suppliers throughout the country.
The lessons which emerge from that report and from the study of the scene in other countries can be shortly summarised. In Western Germany and Switzerland unit pricing is required for goods which are not made up in prescribed rounded quantities. So it is there as an option where the better alternative is perhaps not being employed. In Sweden, unit pricing is strongly recommended by the Government. As I recollect it, the option of standard quantities is not as readily available for Sweden because it imports many commodities from many different countries in different pack sizes. Unit pricing is therefore potentially capable of playing a larger part there.
In the United States there is no national legislation about this, but in a number of states and cities there is legislation requiring unit pricing in relation to some or all commodities, generally exempting the smaller retailers from the obligations so imposed. There have been examples of voluntarily adopted unit pricing by the larger supermarket chains operating across state boundaries. In various parts of the world, therefore, the objective is recognised as worth while and experimentation and obligation have gone some way.
As I said a moment ago, in the past in our country it has been generally used in relation to the sale of fresh foods. I mentioned fruit and meat; it is also still frequently used in relation to such foods as cheese.
There has been a generally favourable response to the measures introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock. It is for that reason that we seek these powers today. That does not imply that we have reached a clear and final view of the commodities in relation to which the powers should be exercised. Clearly we shall want to consider with manufacturers, retailers and consumer organisations in what respects they should first be exercised. We shall want to listen to the views of hon. Members today. Some of the possible candidates are clearly on the fresh food front guarded by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture. She, I am sure, will say 583 more about the details of that if she catches your eye, Mrs. Butler, towards the end of this morning's proceedings.
On the non-food front, candidates do not offer themselves so readily. Detergents have been suggested as a possible candidate, but there are complications about detergents which hon. Members will no doubt appreciate. Although a reference to units of weight can be specified, one finds that the detergent capacity or washing quality of the detergent varies significantly: weight is not a true measure of its strength or effectiveness. We have now secured agreement from the manufacturers to the use of standard volumetric packs so that they will be the same size in four different ranges. That is the first step and may be almost more helpful than unit pricing, which would be misleading if it were made solely by reference to weight.
There are other candidates in the range of toilet preparations—toothpaste, for example. We have now secured some agreement on the standard use of the same measurements of capacity by reference to cubic centimetres. It may be that from that we shall be able to contemplate some kind of unit pricing there.
However, in many of these territories problems still arise because of the variations in strengths or quality of what may be the same in volume, size or weight. One of the alternative ways of dealing with variations in size, weight, strength and packing for some toilet preparations could be by standardisation of containers. We have achieved it voluntarily in relation to detergents. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price) has introduced a Bill which is due to be debated on Second Reading in the House later next year entitled the Weights and Measures (Containers) Bill, and the powers given in that Bill might, in some cases, be more appropriate. Powers to specify container sizes may be of equal value for some toilet preparations. Those are some of the matters we shall have to consider when we exercise the powers which we now seek.
I have mentioned the difference in treatment accorded in the United States to the large retailers and the smaller retailers. Everyone who has considered this subject recognises that it is easier to secure unit price labelling, if that 584 is the way it is to be done, if one is selling own-brand products labelled, stamped and priced by a large organisation because the mechanics can be more expeditiously done. The further one moves away from that, in a world where one does not want to reintroduce resale price maintenance, the cost of unit pricing must rise.
We would not want to limit the field within which the benefits of unit pricing can be made available and deprive any given group of consumers of those benefits. At the same time, we would not want to add significantly to the cost of goods sold as a result of introducing unit pricing too widely. Again, we have no preconceived ideas, although there are various examples to be looked at in other countries, and we would wish to have full consultation.
§ Mr. Dick Douglas (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
Am I to understand that it is in the Minister's mind to exempt retailers below a certain level of turnover? If so, does he have a level of turnover in mind?
§ Sir G. Howe
I should not wish to be precise now. That is one of the methods that has been adopted in some parts of the United States. It was, I think, referred to by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary in an earlier debate as one possible way through. But one would want to have the widest possible consultation to arrive at the best answer. It is one of the reasons why we would also wish to consult about the way in which unit pricing should be required.
In Clause 1(3) there is power to be conferred upon the Secretary of State to prescribe
the manner in which …
as well as—
the units of measurements by reference to which, any unit price required to be marked …
§ is to be marked. That would give options as between individual labelling of each item, which might be appropriate in some cases, or adjacent labelling on the shelf where the items are displayed, which is another basis, or the display of comparative lists at the entrance or adjacent to the place where the brands of goods are on sale. There are those three different methods which can be used, 585 and different methods may be appropriate in different circumstances, just as different approaches may be appropriate for different kinds of retail outlets. We have power to prescribe the method or methods there. That, too, will be subject to consultation, and, of course, subject to the negative resolution procedure.
§ The Bill is an example of pure textual amendment, which means that it is difficult for people to understand it without having before them the original Weights and Measures Act being amended. If one reads them alongside one another, one sees that the substance is all contained in Clause 1. Subsection (1) is the principal enabling power, subsection (2) defines "unit price"; subsection (3) I have already dealt with; subsection (4) gives power for regulations to be made in imperial or metric units or both; subsections (5) and (6) contain the important provision that any food regulations made should be made jointly by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is upon that basis that, if the Bill is given a Second Reading today, we shall be engaging in detailed consultations with the organisations I have mentioned to decide what further steps should be brought forward in this field.
§ I may have misled the Committee about the procedure on the orders. I should make it clear that the main order-making power is subject to affirmative resolution. The regulation-making power is subject to negative resolution.
§ I commend the Bill to the Committee.
§ 10.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
The Opposition support the Bill. Indeed, my hon. Friends and myself pressed for such legislation during the Committee stage of the Fair Trading Bill. The hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) will confirm that he, too, had our support at that stage. I regretted for his own sake that his Bill did not complete the course last year because he had done a great deal of work on it, as had those who were also interested. It is one of the misfortunes of this place that a somewhat tardy Member on his own side, to make the anguish even greater, happened to shout "Object !" to the hon. Member's 586 Bill when he meant to oppose the previous one. All the work that had gone into it was therefore lost. I am glad to see the measure come forward again so soon, but I regret that the hon. Member has not got the credit for it in his own name.
The main issues are clearly understood and were debated in adequate detail last Session. The need is well established. I think that the Government have come—and do not mean this in any snide sense—rather reluctantly to recognise the need, because during the debates on the Fair Trading Bill there were even greater reservations than have been expressed today or in the Committee stage on a similar Bill last Session of the limitations which are involved.
We recognise that this is not a panacea but at best an aid to the housewife, but we feel, as we felt formerly, that it is an aid which the housewife could well do with, particularly in these days of mass marketing. It really needs a computerised housewife to decide what is the best buy when she is confronted with 7½ oz. and 8½ oz. packets with different prices and brands. It is even more difficult now because of the confusion in the use of metric and imperial measures. In many instances this has made comparison virtually impossible. All too often this has come about through sheer thoughtlessness on the part of suppliers, but there is no denying that on occasion there has been a deliberate attempt to confuse the housewife and to prevent her from making value-for-money judgments.
The hon. and learned Gentleman himself made the point that standard quantities are in general a better aid to the housewife. I do not challenge that as a basic proposition. I simply point out to him that in the notorious example of jars of jam, where it is possible by clever design of the jars to produce a visual misrepresentation, many housewives pick up a 12 oz. jar of jam thinking they are getting a cheap one pound jar and it is only perhaps when she arrives home that she discovers the quantity is not what she expected. So even the standard quantity does not make up completely for the existence, or the non-existence, of unit pricing. It is helpful to have both pieces of information available to the housewife in certain instances.
587 Far too many firms, particularly in the toiletry line, have been deliberately confusing not only metric and imperial but even using different types of measurement within any one system so that a housewife may look at what is said to be a cheaper range produced by one manufacturer and find imperial weight being used for that range and when she looks at the dearer range of a product she finds that metric volume is being used. So even within a system it is extremely difficult for her to make proper comparisons.
Metrication is giving rise to many complaints and abuses. This is where the Government have been remiss in not doing more to advise the consumer on the use of the metric system. In the debate on metrication, I pointed out that before the beginning of this year the Metrication Board asked the Government for two budgets. One was to persuade industry to use metrication, and the other was to educate the consumer in metric quantities. The Government approved the first budget to persuade industry to go metric, and refused the second budget to advise the consumer how to contend with metric conversion.
The need for consumer awareness is quite clear. It was stated by the Under-Secretary in the proceedings of the Weights and Measures Bill Standing Committee on 4th July 1973, when he said:The change from a largely imperial to a wholly metric environment is bound to be difficult for the consumer and the retailer, but particularly for the consumer.This we would all accept to be the case. He went on to say, when talking about how to make a comparison between the two systems, that this should be donein a gradual manner, which is the only way that this can be brought about sensibly."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 4th July 1973; c. 14.]Information on the impact of metrication should take place over a time, and it should take place concurrently with the introduction of metrication. Metrication is giving rise to many abuses which are leading us to say that there should be unit pricing, and the Government deliberately refuse to budget for consumer education in the use of metric quantities. There is a disparity between what the Government said overtly in Committee on the former Bill and what they do 588 in a more concealed or furtive manner in relation to consumer education on metrication. It led to allegations from both sides that the Government were introducing metrication by stealth. But the person losing as a result of metrication by stealth is, of course, the housewife, who is not receiving the advice and information which the Metrication Board said the Government should give to the housewife. It is the Government who have vetoed the advice of the Metrication Board, which will no doubt be made the Aunt Sally if public disquiet becomes too open.
Having established that we think that unit pricing should also, concurrently with metrication, have a publicity programme as recommended by the Metrication Board, I wonder when the Government intend to implement the Bill. Implementation, like the publicity campaign which the Government vetoed, will focus housewives attention on the changeover to metrication. That is what the Government do not really want. I suspect that we may find considerable stalling in the implementation of this legislation, even when it has reached the Statute Book.
On 4th July the Under-Secretary said:In theory, it would be possible to introduce a unit pricing order once the enabling powers were available. But, because of the consultation I have mentioned—the statutory consultation procedure as well as the voluntary—it is unlikely that effect would be given to such an order, until the consultations are fully completed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 4th July 1973; c. 13–14.]One could understand that as a defensive position in July, but it is now five months later. The Government indicated that they would produce such a Bill. In the last Session they made it clear that they supported what hon. Members on both sides of the Committee were trying to do. Why, then, do we hear yet again today that there have to be consultations? Why have the consultations not taken place in the five months which have elapsed between debate on the earlier Bill in Committee and today's Second Reading? Surely we should now be much nearer to implementation than we apparently should have been if the Bill had gone through in the last Session.
I should welcome an assurance from the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary. I have not served in Committee 589 with her before and I do not mean any disrespect to her by raising these points in a critical fashion; I know that she will deal with them as best she can. But I hope that she will give the Committee some guidance on the time table envisaged by the Government for the implementation of this legislation.
I equally wonder, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas), at the extent of implementation. I am an avid reader, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, of his and the Parliamentary Secretary's words. I find it interesting to read their further words when they try to reconcile their points of view. The Under-Secretary said on 4th July on the very point which my hon. Friend raised:It should be noted that businesses with small turnovers have been exempted from unit pricing regulations in the United States of America. This raises many problems, and I do not want at this stage to commit the Government on this matter, but it is conceivable that we could follow a fairly good example by exempting stores whose turnover fell below the VAT levels."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 4th July 1973; c. 11.]The Government were therefore thinking about the matter in July, and they are clearly thinking about it deeply, because they are still thinking about it in December. I hope that the thoughts will come to fruition before one o'clock today and that the hon. Lady, on whom I am imposing terrible burdens, will reveal the outcome of the profound contemplation which has been taking place during all these months in the Ministry. I am sure that minds have been concentrated on this matter and that clarification is about to be achieved.
In any case, I should question the basic proposition put forward here. If I understand him correctly, my hon. Friend would probably take the view that he is not at all convinced that there should be exemption. There is a good case to be made that there should be no exemption. I shall not bring up again the elderly widow whom Members of Parliament usually produce at a suitable emotive occasion during a debate, but it is a real point for elderly or infirm people who cannot go far and have to do most of their shopping at the small corner shop. It is no consolation to them to be told that, if they go to a supermarket, not 590 only might they be able to get things more cheaply but all this information would be available; if they are the trapped customers of a shop whose turnover is below a certain level, advice and information on good buys is to be denied to them.
I am sure that the right non. and learned Gentleman wants to be fair in the way that this will eventually be implemented and I would ask him to take this point on board. This may well have been considered during this lengthy five months, and the Government may be able to explain what the balance of decision has been here.
Of course, it can legitimately be pointed out in defence that, with the present and presumed rate of inflation, the £5,000 turnover, which is in any case weekly, brings more and more firms within the compass of VAT and that, if the VAT formula were applied, it would also bring them within the compass of the Bill. There is, further, the decision arrived at in the Common Market this year which could mean that, for the small firms anyhow, the threshold level could actually be brought below the level at which it now operates for VAT.
However, we should take a lot of convincing that there should be exemptions from the application of the Bill, and it is up to the Minister to justify any exemptions that he may have in mind. I said that I thought the Government's objections had weakened somewhat by last July, as compared with the earlier stage of the fair trading legislation. Even so, having listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's reservations today, I am still not convinced that the Government's hearts are in this legislation. We want more than presentational achievement of a statute; we want practical implementation.
The Under-Secretary said last July:It is not envisaged that the power could be used extensively, except perhaps as regards metrication."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 4th July 1973; c. 12.]After all, metrication is well through its allotted five-year span and if the Bill is to help in relation to metrication its implementation is needed very rapidly indeed. Consequently, if it is not envisaged that it is going to be used much other than in relation to metrication, and if metrication is already so well advanced that it is near complete achievement at 591 the consumer level, then, of course, one is left wondering whether we are here passing a piece of legislation that will not see much implementation or much action from the Government. I think it is a case of the Government equipping themselves with a consumer armament after the consumer has already lost the battle with the retailer.
I recognise that this is somewhat outside the hon. Lady's field, although it relates to foodstuffs, but the Government ment will have seen in The Times Business News on Monday that:A number of producers have introduced rationing.The article from which I quote goes on to talk about the impact of the shortage of containers, bottles, cans and other forms of container. Unit pricing is inevitably linked with the pre-packaged presentation of goods in the supermarket. This is where we see it used most extensively.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)
The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that I introduced, for the second time, a Container and Packaging Control Bill yesterday. I hope I shall have his support on that also.
§ Mr. Williams
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am essentially fairminded and co-operative with any measure that will assist the consumer, as indeed are all my hon. Friends. I am glad to say that our enthusiasm for many of these measures has been apparent long before the subsequent enthusiasm which has now emerged from Ministers. However, many products in short supply have now become scarcer.
The Times Business News goes on to say:Most food and toiletry manufacturers, including H. J. Heinz, Gillette and Cadbury Schweppes, together with many alcoholic drinks producers, have been affected by shortages of packaging and raw materials.I have to take the word of the writer of the article about the alcoholic drinks but I am sure all hon. Members will confirm the points made about the food products.
How do the Government, faced with a unique crisis for this country—a conceivable shortage of food supplies in the shops because there are not sufficient containers and bottles in which to put the products—envisage unit pricing working 592 against this background, or do they envisage it working at all? Will there be any discussions between the Government and the supermarkets?
As the hon. Member for Cannock knows from discussions in the House last year on packaging, one of the reasons why returnable bottles, for example, have gone out of use and we now have the wasteful throw-away bottle system at the very time when there is a scarcity of bottles, is that the supermarkets refused to take returnable bottles, as it was an administrative inconvenience to them to have to deal with paying back deposits. It is a funny thing about the supermarkets that they are quite happy to take 2p off one's bill as one goes through the pay desk on receipt of a manufacturer's voucher, but they find it an intolerable burden to take that same 2p off when one happens to return a Coca-Cola bottle or something of that sort. Faced with something that could undermine the intentions of the Bill, and, far more importantly, cause an absolutely unnecessary scarcity of foodstuffs in our shops, the Government should have urgent consultations with the supermarkets to see whether their policy in relation to the use of returnable containers can be changed.
In Committee in July, the Under-Secretary indicated, and I would not dissent from that intention, that the enforcement of unit pricing legislation would become the responsibility of the weights and measures inspectors. As I know the right hon. and learned Gentleman will immediately acknowledge, considerably greater responsibilities were imposed upon the weights and measures inspectors last year as a result of the fair trading legislation. We are this year making them responsible for the enforcement of the consumer credit legislation when enacted. One would assume that when the network of consumer advice centres, to which both parties are committed, is set up throughout the country, that will again cause an additional workload for the weights and measures inspectorate. The enforcement of unit pricing, when the Bill becomes law, is another job to be carried out by the weights and measures inspectorate.
It would be interesting to know, if the information is available, what the 593 current shortfall is in the establishment of the weights and measures inspectorate. The last time I spoke to officials in South Wales they gave alarming figures of the number of vacancies which existed for weights and measures inspectors. In other words, the existing establishment, which was decided before all the extra legislation put an additional workload on the inspectorate, has not been fulfilled. There appears to be a shortfall there. Is it as high as 20 per cent. or is it lower than that? Perhaps we could have some indication of its magnitude, if not precise figures.
How does the Minister envisage the inspectorate in its present form carrying out the extra work? Are the Government considering increasing the establishment? Since there is, in any case, a shortfall in the number of weights and measures inspectors, one would suspect that there is probably a remuneration inadequacy anyhow, that the rates of pay in our cities are inadequate to attract suitably qualified people into the weights and measures inspectorate. How exactly do the Government intend to overcome those problems?
Finally, I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman visited the United States to look at consumer protection practices there. I am sure that he obtained a great deal of valuable information. How does he intend to overcome the various difficulties which the Americans have found in the application of unit pricing? One might say that these are administrative problems, but they are nevertheless important to the housewife.
There is a complaint, for example, that, where computer printouts are used for labelling they are almost indecipherable for the housewife anyhow. Very often they are hard to read not only because of the way in which they are printed out but also because of the very small print. One would assume that, as with his parallel legislation on consumer credit, the Minister intends, when he makes his regulations, to require certain standards of legibility, to be able to specify size of print and so on, so that the effectiveness of unit pricing is not lost simply through bad application at shop level.
The Minister made the legitimate point that, in some cases, it may be reasonable for the unit price to be marked on the 594 product, whereas in other cases it may be on a rack containing just the one product. One of the complaints in America has been that many firms put the unit price information at the very bottom of a series of shelves so that it takes a very industrious and determined housewife with the gift of long vision to discover it. Does he envisage his regulations dealing with this type of abuse—perhaps it is just neglect by certain shopkeepers—as has happened in America?
Those are the points which we particularly want covered. I imagine that the Committee stage of the Bill need not be a particularly lengthy occasion, as most of the ground has been covered previously. As I have said, we support the Bill. Our worry is that we are not as yet convinced that the Government's intentions on enforcement are as clear as their intentions just to produce the legislation.
§ 11.14 a.m.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)
Hon. Members will not be surprised that I welcome the Bill. I should like to begin by thanking both my right hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams') for their very kind references to my previous efforts. We certainly seem to have come a long way since I gave the Speaker a tube of toothpaste in March 1972 when I first introduced this as a Ten-Minute Bill. In fact, this is the third time that we have been in a Committee Room discussing it. We got it through Committee in 1972, but at that stage the Government were not prepared to give it a fair wind, and of course Parliamentary time was short. We got it through Committee last Session and the Government were indeed prepared to give it their blessing, for which we were all grateful, and then, because of the fatuous procedure to which the hon. Gentleman so accurately referred, my hon. Friends dozed off, objected at the wrong moment, and the Bill did not become law. It could have been law by now.
However, there is always some advantage to compensate for a disadvantage. I think that this is a better Bill than the one which I produced, and it was amended with the advice of my hon. Friends as recently as July. It is slightly more comprehensive; it gives proper scope for dealing with fresh foodstuffs and so on, 595 and I think it represents a gain. All I am bothered about is that it should become law and that it should be implemented as quickly as possible. In that context I endorse what the hon. Gentleman has just said.
My right hon. and learned Friend was absolutely right when he said that this legislation was not a panacea for all ills. Of course it is not, and I have never pretended anything else. It is a small, but, I suggest, significant, weapon in the fight against inflation and gives the discriminating shopper some more information to which she is absolutely entitled. Just as the shopper is entitled to know the ingredients of foodstuffs when she is buying a bottle of, say, sauce, so she is entitled to know what weight she is getting for her money.
Some shoppers are not discriminating, are not discerning, they do not care what is in the sauce or what the weight is, but most of them these days do and they are entitled to that information. As a result of the Bill, they will be able to have it.
I do not want to make a long speech because so many of these things have been said before by others and myself, but there are difficulties for a housewife in a hurry in a supermarket. To go into a supermarket—this is essentially a Bill that affects the supermarket—is almost like going in for shoppers' roulette. The poor housewife, often harrassed by children, pushing a trolley and trying to decide what is the best value and confronted with jars some of which are 12 ounces and some of which are one pound, and with an amazing complexity when she reaches the so-called toiletry section, is at a great disadvantage. It is essential that she should be given further help.
With regard to the small shopkeeper and the valid points made by the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) I would say only that I should like them brought within the scheme but we shall have to think carefully about where the responsibility should rest. Manufacturers should not be entirely absolved of responsibility; it should not be put entirely upon retailers because—I am sure the hon. Gentleman would endorse this—there are many small retailers up and down the country who are performing a real social service and making very little money. Often the corner 596 shop or the village shop is operating within a very tight budget and the proprietor gets little out of it, but it does provide a real social service.
It has never been any part of my endeavours or intentions to make life more difficult for those shops, or for the customers whom they serve. In industrial areas like mine there are many corner shops which are highly valued and in many of my villages there are small shops which are also highly valued. They cannot carry the range of goods which the supermarket carries. They cannot even begin or pretend to compete, but they offer a personal service without which this country would be much the poorer. So I hope detailed thought can be given to this.
It is within the fields of fresh food, detergents and toiletries that the maximum advantage of the Bill will be gained. Tremendous advantage, too, will be gained during this period of metrication. I was delighted to receive this morning, as I believe did all hon. Members on the Committee, the communication from the Consumers Association in which it welcomes the Bill,particularly so on the eve of metrication. Consumers will be confronted with unfamiliar weights and measures and it will be even more difficult to relate 148 g and 173 g to a price and assess whether the product is 'cheaper' or 'expensive.' Fixed benchmarks of quantity or price per quantity will be even more desirable.Perhaps it would be appropriate at this point to pay a well-deserved tribute to the work of the Consumers Association in this field and in many others over a long period. It is as much as anything else the pressure from this and other kindred bodies that has created a real awareness of consumer needs within Parliament. We should none of us omit to mention that. Succeeding administrations have become more and more consumer conscious because of the work of bodies like the CA.
But, just as it would be churlish not to mention that or to pay tribute to the work done by both the previous Government, with the Trade Descriptions Act, and the work of many private Members, so it would be extremely churlish of me not to pay particular tribute to the work of my right hon. and learned Friend, who has done a great deal in a short space of time to help the consumer. The Fair Trading Act, which is now on the 597 Statute Book and the consumer credit legislation which is going through now are indicative of the very real importance attached to consumerism. Indeed, the appointment of my right hon. and learned Friend was, in itself, perhaps the greatest tribute that a Government could have paid to the importance of this subject.
So I sincerely congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on what he has done, and thank him for bringing this forward. At the same time, I want to refer again to what the hon. Member for Swansea, West, said—that passing the legislation is not enough. There has been a great deal of time for consultation and I know that there have been many consultations, over two years now, since I first introduced a Ten-Minute Bill on this subject. I hope that such consultations as must inevitably and properly follow from the passage of this Bill will not be unduly protracted. I hope that it will be implemented as soon as possible, and that this session of Parliament will see the first effects in the shops of this Unit Pricing Bill. Then the shopper, particularly the housewife, will have this extra small, but potentially very effective, weapon in her armoury against inflation. It will assist her to make more discerning, discriminating choices and it will give her cause to be thankful that it is on the Statute Book.
With those words, I give the Bill every possible welcome and thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who have assisted me in my endeavours over the last two years.
§ 11.22 a.m.
§ Mr. Dick Douglas (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
I agree tentatively with the remarks of the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack), who has done so much in his own individualistic way to bring this type of Bill to the Committee. However, there are one or two things that I wish to say particularly to the Minister. It is really an enabling Bill. We really will not know what the Government have in mind until we see the regulations and it is important to note that the Minister was extremely reluctant to give us much indication of what he had in mind in terms of regulations.
Unit pricing it really a second-best alternative to the packaging of goods in 598 specific rounded quantities as a means of helping the consumer. This is not the best thing that the consumer can have. Therefore, with all the welcome we give the Bill, we ought to be exerting pressure. This is why it surprises me that the Government bring forward the Bill but bring forward very little to do with pressure and legislation about quantity. Perhaps the Government might think, even during the passage of the Bill, of looking at the quantity side and we might have suitable amendments to bring some specified commodities within the orbit of specified quantity.
The experience we have had in this country because of pressure is that the large retailers have already adopted, in their own way, unit pricing. This is an indication of the monopsonistic power they have vis-à-vis the manufacturers. There are advantages in this, but there are also disadvantages. The disadvantages relate to the structure of retailing. It we are going to have large chains putting pressure on the manufacturers so that their own brands of commodities are unit priced in one way or another, then there is a possibility of getting resale price maintenance by the back door.
I should like to know what the Government have in mind in relation to the Bill and the Fair Trading Act, particularly with regard to a review of resale price maintenance. How do they reconcile the definition of unit pricing, which is a recommended price, with the abandonment of resale price maintenance, except through the gateways of meritorious consequences that flow from the particular sections of the Fair Trading Act? This is something which the Government have to answer.
§ Sir G. Howe
It is more on my patch than on that of my hon. Friend. Does the hon. Member not accept that there is a difference when unit prices are fixed by a large retail organisation in relation to its own brand products? It is not thereby introducing resale price maintenance; it is merely determining the prices at which those goods will be sold at its outlets. It is perfectly possible to have that going on by one retailer on one line of goods; it is quite distinct from the fixing of retail prices across the board by a manufacturer who is making for seven different retailers. Philosophically they are reconcilable.
§ Mr. Douglas
I accept the philosophical reconciliation. What troubles me is the economic impact, which has to be looked at searchingly. The advantage of unit pricing, as far as we can see, is in relation to the own-brand commodity. If one has that, there is a possibility that those organisations which are not in voluntary chains, co-operative societies or multiples, will find it difficult to sustain competitive advantages when they have to sell goods that are not their own brand. I am indicating—I hope clearly—that I am in favour of the Bill, but also that there are certain difficulties that the Government must attempt to reconcile.
Second, on whom will rest the liability for unit pricing? Will it be the manufacturer or the retailer? What sanctions do the Government propose to have? Do they propose to impose fines for failure to display goods in terms of the manner of unit pricing that the Government want to produce? Do they propose, for instance, to say that unit pricing will be on the shelves, on the package, or on window boards? Have they had any investigations into which of these methods of unit pricing is most advantageous for particular goods? We require a little more information on these matters than we have received from the Government so far.
The experience of other countries cannot be duplicated here. The European Community seems to be in the process of devising regulations to govern unit pricing. At present there is no suggestion that unit pricing should be mandatory within the Community, but proposals have been made for its study. How will the Bill fit into the framework of any regulations that are likely to emanate from the Community? We have to import large amounts of foodstuffs and other commodities. How does the Minister propose to communicate with the importers as to the method of unit pricing which should be adopted?
What astounds me about the whole procedure is that unit pricing keeps a set price. The problem arises with regard to special offers. What devices does the Minister have in mind so that unit prices can be altered speedily, quickly and effectively without infringing the law, so that the housewife and the consumer get the benefit of the possibilities of reduction in 600 prices? Is this not something that comes urgently to mind in these days of excessive and pressing inflation?
§ Mr. Cormack
The hon. Gentleman will realise that, although there are difficulties such as he suggests, the Bill will do away with many of the spurious special offers, and this will be of further help to the housewife.
§ Mr. Douglas
I am grateful to the hon. Member, but I, perhaps in my naïvety, having sat through the Fair Trading Bill, thought that the Director General of Fair Trading would have powers to investigate spurious special offers or have them drawn to his attention. I am not saying that the Bill would not help in that connection.
However, is it the Minister's intention to ask the Director General of Fair Trading to comment on regulations that he might wish to bring before the House in consultation with the Minister of Agriculture?
What is the position of the Secretary of State for Scotland in this? The Bill refers to a Secretary of State. I assume that that is the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The Secretary of State for Scotland is, in effect, his own Minister of Agriculture. Therefore, is the Bill comprehensive enough to embrace these relationships?
§ Sir G. Howe
I can deal with that last familiar chestnut. Legislation normally refers to "the Secretary of State" without qualification and that means any holder of the office of Secretary of State. That includes the Secretary of State for Scotland and, indeed for Wales and any other stray Secretary of State who happens to be passing by. It is one of the curious oddities of our parliamentary draftsmanship system.
§ Mr. Douglas
I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman's comments. I am not a distinctive imbiber of the product myself, but I get very worried about whether whisky should be sold in standard containers or whether it should be unit-priced. I am worried about this type of commodity because, if a unit price is fixed without giving the consumer adequate information as to the quality, my constituents might suffer a great deal; there is more whisky in my constituency than in any other part of the United Kingdom.
§ 11.34 a.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)
May I apologise for my late arrival? I have been in another Committee, also dealing with consumer problems.
There are two points that I should like to raise on the Bill. If they have already been covered, I apologise. When we were last going through the Bill on 4th July 1973 two points worried me. One followed the remarks of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in column 11 of the Standing Committee report of the Weights and Measures Bill. He was talking about the powers that exist under Section 21 of the Weights and Measures Act 1963, and about whether, for example, jams or pet foods sold at local Labour or Conservative Party bazaars could be exempted from the provisions of unit pricing. He appeared to feel that they could be exempted, and I am sure that would find support in many quarters, but I should like an assurance that further reflection has not shown that a difficulty would arise on this particular point.
He then went on to talk about the fact that, in the United States, small turnovers had been exempted. I should like to know whether the regulations which are contemplated would give a suitable power to exempt small shopkeepers in this country, perhaps using the VAT level or any other figure. If it is possible to exempt them, would he contemplate sending a circular to small shopkeepers pointing out that, although they are exempt by regulation from unit pricing, none the less it would be right if they could, on a voluntary basis, go as far as they can? Small shopkeepers frequently have small shoppers and they might require the assistance that the Bill could provide.
The second point on which I should like an assurance is perhaps more esoteric. It relates to Clause 1(4), which states:Regulations made by virtue of subsection (4)(h) of this section may require any unit price to be expressed by reference both to imperial and to metric units of measurement or by reference to one or other only of those kinds of units of measurement.I was not completely satisfied on the last occasion as to whether, in layman's terms, this meant quite simply that the measurement of unit would be imperial and/or metric. On that occasison my hon. Friend said, at two o'clock in the morning, 602 that he wondered whether one needed to add at the end of that clause the words "or both". I am wondering whether the words "or both" are covered by the current wording before us.
There would, on this occasion, be slightly more time if one decided to put down an amendment. I was warned off an amendment by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) on the last occasion. Alas, if I had put down the amendment and it had been carried it would have made no difference because the Bill never received the Royal Assent. However, I should like a firm assurance that the wording in the Bill as drafted gives a very clear option that the measurement can be in metric or imperial or both.
§ 11.38 a.m.
§ Mr. Alec Jones (Rhondda, West)
I join with all hon. Members who have spoken in welcoming the Bill. However, there is a danger, because we are all in general agreement, that we may fail to say the things which ought to be said if this measure is to have any real impact upon consumer protection generally in this country. From that point of view, it is interesting to note how the Bill has "just growed", almost like Topsy in "Uncle Tom's Cabin". The first Bill, in 1972, had 11 lines and that was considered a commendable Bill; I too commend the hon. Gentleman for his efforts. By July 1973 it had grown to 20 lines and was now, apparently, to the satisfaction of the Government. Now, in December, 1973, it has changed its name slightly and has become a massive Bill of 46 lines.
All hon. Members who have spoken have said that they welcome the Bill. The hon. Gentleman, in the previous Committee in July 1973, said that he felt that unit pricing would have a small role to play in consumer protection, but, nevertheless, a significant and helpful one. It is our job, I take it, to ensure that the Bill is significant and helpful. The hon. Gentleman said that it would be "a tool to help the housewife"; therefore, we must be sure that it does, in fact, help the housewife.
603 The hon. Gentleman said that it was essential that we should be able to provide the necessary information through unit pricing to the discriminating shopper. We must do all we can to make this available to all shoppers, because the discriminating shopper usually has sufficient ability to work out the mathematical calculations. However, many of those whom I would have hoped that unit pricing would benefit will be people perhaps not quite so discriminating as he and I might wish. We must try nevertheless to ensure that when it is introduced unit pricing will help all those people.
§ Mr. Cormack
It will of course be available to everybody, but, clearly, the more discriminating the person the more help it will be. That was the only point I was making.
§ Mr. Jones
I am not disagreeing. I just wanted to be sure that we were not saying that this basic help of unit pricing would be for a select group only. I am sure that we intend to make it cover as many as possible, although if people then chose to ignore the information there is nothing anyone can do about that.
In making sure that it does help, I should like to refer to a letter from a lady in Eastbourne who says that she has tried unsuccessfully to interest the Minister—she does not say which Minister, so no one need feel embarrassed—the Consumers Association and a number of others inan aspect of retail trading which is increasing.This is the growing practice of fresh food shops, including one of the big supermarket chains, of failing to indicate the price per lb. of goods offered for sale, and sometimes of failing to price any of the goods so offered in some cases.From the fatuous answers I have received "—presumably from the Minister!—I have come to the conclusion that no one wants to know or to do anything in the matter, possibly because no resultant publicity will result! The insidious nature of the practice is psychological, namely to get the public into the shop knowing full well that few will have the courage to walk out even when they know they are being fleeced."—I am not quite so sure about that—and she concludes by saying:The aged, the infirm and the disabled are particularly vulnerable.In introducing unit pricing, we must try to ensure that, whatever means we 604 use, we so fix the way in which it is carried out that that group—the infirm, the disabled, and particularly the elderly—is given adequate protection.
The Explanatory Memorandum says thatPower is also given to make regulations providing for the manner in which unit prices are to be marked.I should have thought that by now we should have had a clear, or at any rate clearer, idea from the Minister as to how he sees this part of it, how the unit prices are in fact to be marked. It seems that we now have a choice of imperial units, metric units, or both. We must aim to ensure that the way in which the prices are indicated is clear and fairly uniform, and certainly it must be easily understandable to the majority of people.
That is a lot easier said than done, but I think we could certainly aim for some sort of uniformity. We have some experience already with the warning on cigarette packets, which has to be of a certain size. It seems to me that we should be looking at that side of it—the size of the notice as well as the kind of information is should contain. After all, one could easily put the unit price on a commodity or container but tuck it away in such a position that no one would even see it. That would not be the kind of help that we should seek to provide in the Bill.
Secondly, on, the question of metric units, I well recall the debates in the House on the decimalisation of money. I recall that I voted for it. But a good many people outside the House are not sure that we helped the housewives when we introduced decimalisation of money. Although it was being almost acclaimed in the House as a giant step forward, I suspect that a good many ordinary housewives wish they were back with the old old pounds, shillings and pence.
We should take warning from that experience. I was therefore glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) raised the question of the introduction of metrication. I should like to know how far we are committed to metrication. How far do the Government intend to take us along that road and at what speed? If we are to go along that road at all, it is absolutely essential, if unit pricing is to mean anything, if it is to be carried out in 605 metric units, that there should be a massive scheme to educate the people of this country as to what metric units are.
I taught—or rather tried to teach—mathematics for some 13 years before I became a Member and I am sure that the majority of the boys and girls whom I taught knew as much about metric units at the end as they did at the beginning. This may be a reflection on my teaching ability, I admit, but it indicates that we would be moving into a completely new field for ordinary people. Therefore, if metrication is to be tied up with unit pricing, we must ensure that people are given sufficient time, information, education and skill.
1 was rather alarmed at my hon. Friend's suggestion—indeed allegation, for it was not refuted by the Government—that the Metrication Board's request for a budget of spending money for consumer education had been turned down. I hope that we shall have some extra information on metrication when the Minister winds up.
Finally, on the question of exemptions, I take the point of the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg) about Labour and Tory Party fetes selling dog food. I should have thought that rather more appropriate to the Liberal Party, but I am sure that whatever party is selling dog food at a bazaar we need not be unduly worried by unit pricing there.
The point about exemptions generally was raised in the debate on 4th July. There are three basic categories. There is the category in which unit pricing would lead to nonsensical decimal points. I think that might be so. If I were to put down ".0063 ", for example, probably very few people would know what it was all about. Instead of being a help, such a form of pricing would be a handicap which none of us would want. I accept the exemption of a charity, although sometimes we might want to define what some of the charities are.
I come to the third category—those with a small turnover. This causes me some concern. I see the point of the small shopkeeper, but the people who go to the small shops are small shoppers and if it comes to the crunch and one has to come down on one side or the other I should prefer that we came down 606 in favour of the small shopper—the elderly person who is forced to go to the shop on the corner or across the road—rather than the shopkeeper. I am sure that the trade could find some way of helping out the small shopkeeper, but if we are concerned here with consumer protection—and I take it that the Bill is a part of consumer protection—our chief aim should be to give maximum protection to the shopper.
§ Sir G. Howe
If I may emphasise the hon. Gentleman's point, I do not underestimate the important part played by the small shop in meeting the demands of many consumers and, in particular, as he says, those of the small shopper. But in considering the balance between those demands and what is provided, one must bear in mind that it has been found in other countries that placing an obligation on the small shop run by one man or one family to unit-price every article can raise the price of the goods being sold, to the disadvantage of the small shopper.
It may be possible, even in the small shop, to go a long way towards helping the small shopper by shelf display of unit prices, which is not very expensive. That is one of the options to be considered. Of course, one of the advantages of the small shop, by contrast with the supermarket where the small shopper quite frequently can find nobody to ask to get information on a human basis, as it were—one cannot ask a check-out point—is that in the small shop frequently one still has the retailer himself or his family whom one can ask, "Now, how do these compare?". All these factors must be balanced very carefully. I am sure the Government have firmly in mind the needs of the small shopper and the rôle to be played by the small shopkeeper.
§ Mr. Jones
I take the point that there must be this balance. But if one has to come down on one side or the other my inclination would be to come down more on the side of the shopper than on the side of the shopkeeper. I take it that we would all agree that there should not be any blanket exemption right across the board at this level. Even the small shopkeeper should be encouraged to do everything possible to introduce as much unit pricing as is reasonable.
607 When the Minister opened the debate he told us that he welcomed the Bill. He then spent a lot of time talking about the limitations, the difficulties and the exemptions. He got me a little worried because I thought he was speaking more against the Bill than in favour of it. Taking into account all the time that has elapsed since the hon. Gentleman first introduced the Bill, we ought to be in a better position than we seem to be at the present moment. We all say we welcome it. The Minister is saying that we will have all these consultations again. In fact what we are saying is that we welcome the Bill but we do not really know what we are welcoming; we do not know how we will introduce it; we are not sure when it is to be introduced or what is to be the extent of its coverage. But with all those qualifications, we welcome it. This seems to me to indicate some lack of urgency. I would urge the Government to be at least as pressing in this matter as the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) has been in the past.
§ 11.52 a.m.
§ Miss Betty Boothroyd (West Bromwich)
A good deal has been said in the Committee about welcoming this type of legislation, and I certainly join in the warm reception that the Bill has been given. The need is well established, and has been for some time, for a form of consumer protection of this type. I call it "consumer protection" rather than "housewives' protection" because I do not look on it as a "housewives' charter". I think it goes further than that. As somebody who has always been particularly concerned about getting value for money, I welcome it too.
Although I cannot boast of having to do a good deal of marketing to feed a large family, whenever I go to the supermarket, about 50 per cent. of my time is spent in trying to calculate how I am to get that value for money. This is particularly so when it comes to liquids, such as orange juices. As I am not good at mental arithmetic, a good deal of my time is spent on trying to work these things out to see how I can get the best value.
The Minister mentioned this morning that he felt that prescribed quantities were preferable and much has been said 608 about this, particularly in relation to jams and marmalades. I should like to make a point here about detergents. A prescribed quantity of detergent is sold in a particular prescribed package but one often finds that there is not the amount of detergent inside the package which one was led to believe was there at the time of purchase.
It seems that the legislation is directed particularly at chain stores and supermarkets. The Minister has made the point that unit pricing is working in America. I happen to have been a consumer in America for a little time and I know that it works well for the consumer, but I have little knowledge of how it is enforced there. It is important that the small shopper be taken care of in this legislation.
I want to make a plea here for the older families, the single-unit families, those who live alone. They very often find that particularly dry goods cannot be used up within a week or two. The package is too large; the quantity in the package is much too large for the pensioner or the one-person family. I shall not go on to advertise the various detergents or types of cornflakes, but quite often the quality and value has diminished within two or three weeks. I therefore make a plea for smaller packaging for the single person and for the older consumer.
I am not clear about the enforcement of this legislation. It seems to me to lack a great many teeth. I do not know whether fines will be imposed or exactly how it will work. Although I welcome the Bill, I feel that there will have to be a good deal of reconciliation so as to deal with some of the difficulties and anomalies in the legislation. However, in general I give it a warm welcome.
§ 11.56 a.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)
I am very pleased to be winding up this debate. Like the hon. Member for West Bromwich (Miss Boothroyd), I am a consumer, and, as a housewife, I hope to benefit directly from the Bill in due course. It shows that the Government are serious in their determination to help consumers to shop more intelligently. I personally have benefited greatly from 609 listening to the debate this morning and from the contributions made by members on both sides of the Committee. All that has been said shows the great interest that hon. Members have been taking in the ways that we can help people to judge value for money more easily and directly.
A number of points have been raised and I should like to deal with them. The hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) referred, as did a number of hon. Members, to metrication. Hon. Members will have noticed that Clause 1(4) gives power to require imperial or metric units of measurement or both. The Consumer Safeguards Group of the Metrication Board has reported on the advantages and the difficulties of unit pricing in metric change. We will explore the use of powers in the metric changeover in detail. In some cases it will be particularly valuable.
The hon. Member made a point about advertising and information on metric change. The Metrication Board has been discharging its continuing responsibility for disseminating information on metrication and its programme of advertising is under more or less continuous discussion with Ministers. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Swansea, West shops very often for food, but if so he would know that metrication has yet to begin for food standard quantities. This will be introduced from 1974 onwards.
§ Mr. Alan Williams
I do not want to break the pattern of the Minister's speech, but I should like her to confirm that this year the Metrication Board, in addition to a budget for industrial publicity work, asked for a consumer budget and the Government have not given it a budget for advice to the consumer. This is my criticism. The body set up to advise the Government on how best to implement metrication has said that the consumer campaign should already have started, yet the Government have refused to give the money for which the Metrication Board has asked.
§ Mrs. Fenner
No, on the contrary. The consumer advertising will take place within the next year, during 1974. As the early metrication orders come into effect they will proceed with special 610 advertising in the popular Press during 1974, with particular emphasis on basic information about metric unit pricing. Does that satisfy the hon. Gentleman?
§ Mr. Williams
I am sorry. The hon. Lady is in a difficult position. She is not in the Department responsible for metrication and I do not want to press her into making statements which we can perhaps show not to be quite accurate. The fact is that, for this current year, the Metrication Board asked for a budget for consumer education. I know that this is outside the hon. Lady's remit and we shall not take her to task if there is any slip here, but the Committee must understand that this money was asked for for the current year and the Government did not give it.
§ Mrs. Fenner
I have nothing further to add but if the hon. Gentleman puts down a Question on that my right hon. and learned Friend will answer it.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned, as did several other hon. Members, the five months that had elapsed since the Bill which was introduced by my hon. Friend. I should like, too, to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) who first introduced the Bill on Unit Pricing. His skill in advocacy has greatly contributed to the Government's decision to introduce their own Bill. My hon. Friend may have lost his Bill but he has certainly gained his point. I realise that five months have elapsed, but there has been a great deal of consultation.
As hon. Members will be aware, under Section 21 of the Weights and Measures Act 1963 powers are given to the Secretary of State to make ordersto ensure that in such cases or in such circumstances as may be so specified the goods in question are sold …or marked in a particular way. And Section 54(2) of that Act required the Secretary of State to consult about the subject matter of any order. It would have been premature to consult about individual proposals until the limits of power were known.
Furthermore, I noted with some delight that the hon. Member for Swansea, West quoted the enthusiasm of the Opposition for all the measures. But the Government have carried out a large number of consumer measures, probably more than 611 any Government before, in the light of increasing knowledge and support of consumerism in the whole of the Western world. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that we certainly cannot do it all at once. Nevertheless, the Bill is before hon. Members today.
Another point to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and which was referred to again by his hon. Friend, was his concern about the shortage of inspectors. He will know that staffing is entirely a matter for the local authorities which employ them. We have no national figures available, but we know that, in some of the existing boroughs, there are serious shortages in the weights and measures department, particularly in South Wales. But he will recognise that, with the reorganisation of local government, the number of weights and measures authorities will be reduced from 230 to around 85; this will enable local authorities to concentrate staff more effectively and more efficiently.
§ Mr. Alan Williams
Before the hon. Lady leaves that point—again I realise it is outside her departmental remit—the fact is that it is no defence to say on the one hand that the staffing of the weights and measures inspectorate is a matter for local authorities when, on the other hand, Parliament—the Ministry—is imposing the extra workloads on the weights and measures inspectorate. It did so under the Fair Trading Act, it will do so under consumer credit legislation and it is now intending to do so under unit pricing. I find it incredible to have the admission today that the Department, in imposing all this extra workload, does not have the information on the capacity of the weights and measures inspectorate to do the work which we are being asked to give it. The reorganisation of the local authorities will make no difference to their ability to recruit weights and measures staff because in many of the larger authorities there are already serious shortages.
§ Mrs. Fenner
I know the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to ensure that there is staff to enforce the legislation.
§ Mr. Cormack
Perhaps I can help. I think it is true to say that the inspectorate has indicated not only its willingness, 612 but its eagerness to police such legislation.
§ Mrs. Fenner
If we could leave that point—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will set down any Questions to the appropriate Ministry.
§ Mr. Finsberg
Would my hon. Friend tell her right hon. and learned Friend that there is a real problem on this, particularly in London, which has been reorganised, where there is a desperate shortage of weights and measures inspectors? We understand full well that the inspectorate wants to do these jobs. The real trouble is that not enough recruits are coming in. If she would tell her right hon. and learned Friend this it would be of some help.
§ Mrs. Fenner
I will, of course, ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend's attention is drawn to my hon. Friend's observations.
The hon. Member for Swansea, West mentioned visual misrepresentation by jam manufacturers in 12-ounce containers. I should point out that jam manufacturers have now deliberately changed the shape of the 12 ounce and one pound jars to ensure that the consumer is no longer confused. It may well be possible to deal with this, if it happens again, under the Fair Trading Act or even under the Trade Descriptions Act or the Food and Drugs Act in order to protect the consumer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock, whom I again congratulate in passing, referred to the small retailers. My right hon. and learned Friend has referred to them particularly in regard to what exemptions there will be. I am sure hon. Members will recognise that we wanted to hear the contributions made by hon. Members on both sides today and that we are taking the closest consultation on and consideration of any areas of exemptions. We have had the opportunity to see the experiments and the research carried out into these techniques both at home and abroad. We have been considerably helped by studying the published results of this work and from seeing unit pricing schemes in operation in various countries and in shops in this country. I should like, too, to pay particular tribute to the valuable 613 experimental work that has been done in this country over the last two years by the Consumers Association and the Metrication Board, as well as a number of retail firms which joined in these experiment.
The hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas) asked who was responsible for ensuring that the unit price was on the goods. I would draw his attention to the fact that, under the Weights and Measures Act, the requirement is on those who sell, or offer for sale, at the point of sale. Clearly they will still be able to make special offers. There will be no inhibition on proper, authentic, special offers.
The hon. Member was concerned about the quality of that great indigenous product from his constituency. Perhaps he will take the point that it is only as a result of listening to the contributions about quality and the concern of hon. Members about specific parts of the Bill in this debate that we can value the importance of considering other things beside the straight unit price. We are most conscious of this in the food sector covered by the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg) referred to the home-made jam which could be sold in the Labour Party or Conservative Party bazaars. This is one of the areas we shall have to study closely.
§ Mr. Fenner
My hon. Friend referred to jam, but I noted with what dexterity the hon. Member switched to dog food, because it made his point very well indeed.
We shall, of course, be debating the Bill in much more detail in Standing Committee, but since it is short, straightforward and not basically controversial, I think we shall be able to make speedy progress. May I direct my remarks particularly to the hon. Member for Swansea, West who was a little pessimistic about the swift progress of the Bill? The sooner the Bill is on the Statute Book the easier it will be for us to ensure that implementation of unit pricing in suitable areas is not too long delayed.
614 In this connection hon. Members will have noticed the important difference between the present Bill and the earlier Bills on the same subject. Our Bill provides that, where unit pricing is to be applied to foodstuffs, the order will be made jointly by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. So my Department will thus be closely involved with the implementation of any unit pricing schemes for food. I can assure the Committee that the special knowledge of the food industry will be brought to bear fully in the framing of the orders.
Hon Members have, fairly naturally, displayed an interest in knowing which products may be early candidates for unit pricing orders should the Bill become law. There may, of course, be products on which consumers now have difficulty in judging value for money, and the fact that these order-making powers exist will encourage traders to introduce unit pricing voluntarily. It is always helpful to make progress by voluntary means. We are seeking to do this in my Department in relation to date marking prior to the legislation, and we find that many sections of the food industry are moving into voluntary date marking in advance of the legislation. It is useful that this sort of approach is possible.
It is agreed by consumer representatives and others with an interest in this subject, as we have agreed today, that standard quantity packing is usually the best and most easily recognisable method of helping consumers to judge value and that products in standard packs do not need to be unit priced in addition. It is the quickest way for the housewife and the consumer to make a judgment of value for money on a standard pack. The Government are currently engaged in discussions about the possibility of extending the list of items which must be packed in prescribed standard quantities. For example, my right hon. and learned Friend and his officials are in touch with the food trade about the possibility of prescribed quantities for biscuits, a matter which has been giving housewives and consumers a great deal of concern. In conformity with the recent EEC directive on cocoa and chocolate, prescribed quantities will also be introduced for chocolate bars. That is another 615 matter that I have often heard referred to in the House.
There are, however, a number of goods for which standard packs are impractiable and for which unit pricing is the most suitable alternative. In fact, many countries which have experimented with unit pricing have a combination of both—as many standard packs and prescribed quantities as can practicably be managed, and unit pricing for those that cannot. Unit pricing in this country is already a widespread practice in many shops selling fresh foods such as meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. My right hon. and learned Friend has referred specifically to apples, which are always quoted in price per pound. But I am bound to say—and I have expressed my disappointment publicly on many occasions—that, following the beef inquiry and the preparation by the Meat and Livestock Commission of a wallchart which would have enabled butchers to do their own unit pricing of the various cuts, this was, regrettably, taken up by too few butchers. One knows well that many supermarkets already prepack meat and that this is unit-priced; cheese and other food items in supermarkets are often unit-priced. But 75 per cent. of meat is sold over the counter of what we call the High Street butcher as opposed to the 25 per cent. from supermarkets which is unit-priced.
Unit pricing or a system of that kind is, therefore, of great value to the housewife in choosing meat. It is suggested that it can be on the article, adjacent to the article or on a wall within the shop. One could ensure that there was an MLC-type chart on the wall showing the unit price under this legislation.
§ Mr. Alan Williams
As the hon. Lady has expressed her profound disappointment that this was not taken up, and as she has said that 75 per cent. of meat is sold through those stores which have tended to be the most reluctant to take it up, are we to understand that meat will be one of the priorities on which the Government will require action? If not, what is the point of the consultation?
§ Mrs. Fenner
That is my point. We are particularly considering whether fresh foods such as meat, fish, fruit and vegetables 616 are good candidates for orders on unit pricing. My right hon. and learned Friend has already indicated the sorts of non-food candidates for early consideration of unit pricing orders.
My hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite have referred specifically to small retailers. I emphasise that we shall not use the order-making powers without the fullest consultation with all the interests affected. There will always be a number of points on which we shall wish to satisfy ourselves before an order is made. One of the most important clearly will be the possible cost implications. The hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire said that he was thinking particularly of the shopper. When one is looking at the candidates in the fresh food range for unit pricing one must consider not only the shoppers and the shopkeepers but the relative value of a unit price for any fresh food to the shoppers and the degree to which that might need to be reflected in prices. That we do not wish to see.
We also must consider the extent to which consumers will be able to understand and use the unit marking on a particular commodity and what, therefore, will be the best way of marking the goods. All these aspects are important and that is why, before making orders, we shall consider very carefully the advice of those with practical shopping experience—consumers, retailers and manufacturers.
This has been a very interesting debate. I hope that, with the support of hon. Members opposite, we shall soon see the Bill on the Statute Book in order to enable us to make the orders at the earliest possible date and to ensure the implementation of unit pricing where it will most benefit the housewife and consumer to make value-for-money judgments.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Committee rose at seventeen minutes past Twelve o'clock.
|THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:|
|Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Chairman)||Harper, Mr.|
|Boothroyd, Miss||Hiley, Mr.|
|Cormack, Mr.||Howe, Sir G.|
|Cox, Mr. Thomas||Jones, Mr. Alec|
|Douglas, Mr.||Luce, Mr.|
|Ewing, Mr.||Milne, Mr.|
|Fenner, Mrs.||Stott, Mr.|
|Finsberg, Mr. Geoffrey||Williams, Mr. Alan|