§ Lords Amendment: No. 59, in page 25, line 9, column 3, leave out "and the figures 925."1036
§ No. 60, in page 25, line 15, column 3, leave out 'and the figures 958."
§ No. 61, in page 25, line 18, column 3, leave out 'and the figures 950."
§ Mr. Wiggin
I am pleased to move this amendment because it deals with one of the major issues in the Bill. In other respects one has heard the expression, "away with the damned dot", and we have also heard, "away with the damned decimal point". This issue has given rise to considerable thought among my hon. Friends and the Government as well as the assay officers which are interested in putting on their marks as cheaply and easily as possible.
As I know that some of my hon. Friends and the Minister wish to speak I shall, with the permission of the House, confine myself to a few remarks at the conclusion of this debate.
§ Mr. Emery
These amendments, which seem quite simple when read, provide that the only indication of fineness which needs to appear on articles of silver or platinum produced in the United Kingdom will be a symbol. The figure of a lion or Britannia will be used for the 925 parts out of a thousand and 958 parts of a thousand standards of silver, respectively, and an orb and a cross for platinum of the 950 parts standard. I have to point out that imported silver and platinum will, on the other hand, bear the appropriate millesimal symbols of fineness only.
It is important that the consumer should be able to know the fineness of the metal used in the article he is buying, and I believe that public interest demands the adoption of a readily intelligible system of marking to convey this information. The Government's view throughout has been that the simplest system for the consumer to understand is one which is standard throughout. The one system which would be standard throughout is the millesimal system for all silver and platinum, but we have no objection at all to the retention of the lion passant and the figure of Britannia in addition because this is something which the trade wishes to have.
It appears to have been accepted by the Bill's sponsors, even if these numbers are accepted in respect of home-produced silver and platinum, that all other articles will be marked in the millesimal way, 1037 but with the millesimal marks indicated on the silver it seemed difficult to the Government to justify on necessarily reasonable grounds the anomalous situation for which these amendments provide.
Perhaps I should recount to the House what has happened since our debate on Report and since the amendments were accepted in another place. It was important because certain evidence I then produced was criticised as being somewhat out of date, in that these were views which had been sought when the Government were considering what could be taken on the Stone Committee's Report. That evidence was criticised as being perhaps two years or three years out of date. I therefore thought it right and proper that I should try to discover and inform the House whether these consumer bodies still held the views about which they had previously advised the Government.
§ Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)
Apart from the need for people to use a couple of magnifying glasses to see the marks, and leaving aside that probably they do not even know what a millesimal mark is, is it reasonable to expect people once they get the information, to understand it? Is it not a matter of insignificant detail, however important it may be to give information to the consumer?
§ Mr. Emery
That was one of the arguments put forward previously. That was why I thought that it would be a good thing again to ascertain the views of the consumer bodies. It had been suggested that perhaps the Department or myself misunderstood the consumer bodies' views. Therefore, in order to ensure that the matter was understood, I asked the Department to contact them by letter and to send to them the reports of the debates on it in this House and in another place.
The Consumers Association replied that the millesimal system was in line with its support for informative labelling generally and that it was opposed to distinctions being made or maintained between ways of conveying product information as between home and overseas products. It believed that in the long term a common system of marking of fineness throughout the EEC would be necessary.
§ Mr. Loveridge
Is it not the case that in France and Holland, as well as in Ireland, for some objects, no millesimal mark is needed?
§ Mr. Emery
That is so. I shall refer later to the Convention on the Control of Marking of Articles of Precious Metals which resulted from the meeting in Vienna on 15th November 1972.
The Institute of Trading Standards Administration made it clear that the marking with symbols only would, in its view, be contrary to the consumers' interests. The inspectors, to whom we have paid tribute this morning, made it clear that they believed that few average buyers would be aware that the figure of a lion implied that the silver was of 925 standard whereas the advantage of the millesimal system was that the proportions of previous metal to base metal were made clear to the average purchaser.
I accept that not everybody will understand that, but there is a much better chance of it if the system of knowing the fineness, the quality, of the metal being purchased is set out arithmetically, with so many parts per thousand, and consistently across the board. The advisory committee of the BSI on consumer standards advised the introduction of the millesimal mark for silver and platinum as well as for gold.
§ 12.15 p.m.
§ The Association of County Councils in Scotland was in favour of anything which would make it easier for the uninformed to understand the significance of any marks. The National Federation of Consumer Groups made the point to my Department that millesimal marks should be introduced for all precious metals, with the retention, in addition, of the traditional mark.
§ However, two local authority bodies felt that there was no need to alter the situation.
§ I therefore felt it important that we should consider the matter again—
§ Mr. J. H. Osborn
Is it not a fact that other countries using millesimal marks do not have the standard of assay and independence in carrying out assays which applies in this country. My information is that it is normal for the manufacturer to do that and that there is no independent body, such as the assay 1039 officers, as there is in this country. In other words, millesimal marks may be of long-term validity. Are we certain that they are relevant at present as a guarantee of quality?
§ Mr. Emery
It would be unfair of me to say that there is any body better than the assay offices and, without wishing to give offence, may I say that certain countries greatly admire the way in which they have held to a standard.
The next point which was relevant and which was missed in the argument was that the standard for all silver in this country would be that judged by the assay offices. Imported silver has to be assayed by the assay offices. Therefore, all that the Bill, in the form that it was before it left this House, ensured was that there was a comparable standard situation for all silver which was more simple to understand and which applied to all silver, whether imported or home produced.
I am grateful for the way in which the sponsors of the Bill discussed this matter with me when I was able to produce the evidence about which I have informed the House. There is little doubt that this matter concerned the joint committee of the assay offices of Great Britain. The Committee, under the noble Lord, Lord Runciman, who had moved the amendments in another place, said that, while it accepted the views which I had put forward, doubts could be expressed by other people about the authority in dealing with silver and made the point which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst).
We were faced with the difficulty of knowing how to cope with an extensive Private Member's Bill which did a great deal of what we wanted to do when there was doubt in our minds about one particular aspect. It was pointed out in another place that the Bill contained powers to rectify this and that a statutory instrument could be laid to introduce millesimal marks if that were felt to be necessary.
I make it plain beyond peradventure that the Government would not wish to accept an amendment from the other place and immediately attempt to thwart 1040 it by introducing regulations to get round it because there was insufficient time to send the Bill back to the other place. We are coming towards the end of the Parliamentary Session and I had to bear in mind the possibility that if time were taken up in trying to reach absolute agreement the Bill might fall because of the operation of time.
I wanted to find a way round this and I believe that a fairly satisfactory solution has been found. I have received a suggestion from the sponsors of the Bill and by letter, signed by Lord Runciman, from the Joint Hallmarking Council that one of the first things that the new Hallmarking Council to be set up under the Bill should do is to consider the whole question of millesimal marking. The members of the council will include both consumer representatives and representatives of the assay masters. We shall be considering the exact composition of the council in a later amendment. It is suggested that in this way this useful reform could be carried through and the matter could be fully considered by the trade and assay office experts and consumers.
If the EFTA Convention were widely accepted by most European countries—indeed, all nations are being asked to ratify it—the situation would be entirely different. There are strong arguments in favour of a standard system for all forms of silver, whether imported or home produced.
We accept that there are differences of view. We accept the strength of the argument of the assay offices that they are the protectors of the consumer and have been protecting the consumer for many hundreds of years.
The Government are willing to go along with the amendments. They do not alter the present situation. The suggestion that this should be one of the first matters to be considered by the council makes sense. Although it is impossible to tie a body which has not yet been set up, I have no doubt that it would pay considerable attention to what has been said in this debate and to the views of the Government and the Joint Committee of Assay Offices in Great Britain. On that understanding, the Government are willing—
§ Mr. David Watkins
There is an irresistible feeling that we have all been here before. The millesimal markings proposal has been a matter of contention throughout the proceedings on the Bill, and was the subject of the only Division that occurred during the entire proceedings—a Division that took place in Committee.
It is interesting to recall that the proposal for millesimal markings was not included in the original Bill presented by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). He has conducted the Bill through the House with great skill and courtesy for which we are all most grateful. The amendment to insert them was moved by the sponsor of the Bill in Committee. He was strongly supported by the Under-Secretary of State. The amendment was opposed by hon. Gentlemen on the Government side of the Committee.
§ Mr. Wiggin
Before the hon. Gentleman, perhaps unwittingly, gives the impression that because I moved the amendment I am necessarily in favour of it, may I remind him that in Committee I made clear that I was ambivalent on this issue, but that, in view of certain trading that had gone on, I felt on balance that in the interests of the trade and the sponsors of the Bill behind the scenes it was right to do so. I do not want my position on this to be misinterpreted by the House.
§ Mr. Watkins
I have no intention of misinterpreting the hon. Gentleman's position. He has virtually anticipated my next remarks.
In Committee the amendment was strongly opposed by hon. Gentlemen on the Government side, and it was supported by my hon. Friends on the Opposition side. They were so impressed by the arguments advanced by the sponsor and the Minister that they supported the 1042 amendment and it was carried by the votes of the Opposition.
The matter was again contested on Report, when there was before the House an amendment to delete the amendment which had been made in Committee.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare agrees that he took an ambivalent attitude on this matter, and the Opposition took a similar view. Indeed I advised my hon. Friends in the earlier stages of the Bill to adopt a similar standpoint. I must confess that if the matter had reached the stage of a Division on Report, we would have remained consistently in support of millesimal marks. Those hon. Members who on Report sought to remove millesimal marks wisely did not force a Division on the matter because they obviously took the view that there was a real possibility that the Bill could have been lost, perhaps through lack of a quorum. It was made clear that hon. Members would seek to see that the matter was pursued in another place. But nothing happened in the other place which was not foreshadowed in this House.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State, in a detailed exposition of the situation, involving national and international factors, said that in another place the amendment to delete millesimal marks had been accepted. I read the proceedings in the other place with some interest. The amendment to remove millesimal mark figures was moved by the noble Lord, Lord Runciman, and was opposed in the other place by the Government. A Division was called by the mover of the amendment and the Government did not appoint tellers. Therefore, in a way it was accepted by the Government in default in view of the obvious hostility expressed in the House of Lords to the whole idea of millesimal marks.
§ I wish to express concern about the constitutional position when the non-elected House of Lords reverses decisions taken by this elected House on important matters of contention. It cannot be denied that an important principle is involved, and I at least register a protest that the non-elected House should seek to override the elected House of Commons. I am particularly worried about the situation because it seems to 1043 be the outcome of a successful campaign by an interested Lobby which, in the final analysis, is not publicly responsible in the sense that elected Members of the House of Commons are responsible. Therefore, I wish to express equal concern over that aspect of the matter.
§ The Under-Secretary of State rightly said that the consumer groups which he had consulted took the view that millesimal marks would be generally welcomed by consumers as an indication of the quality of the silver they were purchasing. The consumer organisations have indicated that this is generally in line with the important objective of informative marking of all goods sold so that the consumer can readily understand what he is buying and be given an indication of quality.
§ There is a strong feeling about, and even a certain amount of affection for, existing hallmarks and the important point is that nobody is proposing to do away with them. It has been repeatedly said that consumers understand the lion's head, the orb and cross and other familiar marks. However, I think that is open to question. My view is that millesimal marking has a great deal to be said for it from the point of view of the consumer and also bearing in mind international developments and our obligations as a signatory to the EFTA Convention.
§ I note with satisfaction the Minister's assurance that he will give this matter priority for reference to the British Hall-marking Council thoroughly to examine the desirability or otherwise of millesimal markings. If eventually the council makes a recommendation in favour of the suggestion, this would be dealt with by the introduction of a statutory instrument which will give this House—and this is the all-important constitutional matter—the final say in a matter which the House has already discussed at considerable length. It appears that the time scale will be lengthy and that it will be several years before there is any result from the inquiries which are to be made by the British Hallmarking Council and before any recommendation which it may make on millesimal marks is brought into force.
§ It is unquestionable that everybody wants this Bill—the Government, the 1044 Opposition, the industry and informed consumers. Therefore, I do not propose to do anything which would be likely to impede the Bill's progress. However, I thought that I should take this opportunity to express my views about the constitutional position between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. I do not propose to oppose the amendment or to advise my hon. Friends to oppose it, and I look forward with some interest to the further investigation which will clearly take place into millesimal marking.
§ Mr. Adam Butler
The hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) has expressed his views about the constitutional propriety of a decision by this House being reversed in another place. I must confess that I thought that that was the purpose of the other place, which, from time to time, reverses decisions taken in this House to give us an opportunity to think again about the situation. This is what has happened on this occasion, and the fact that Members of the other place happen to have agreed with my point of view is coincidental.
As a sponsor of the Bill, I pay warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. He has been exceptionally fair in the matter of millesimal marks. He has listened to the debates in this House and to the representations which have been made outside it, and has given this matter a great deal of his time. It is clear from my hon. Friend's remarks that he is not convinced by the arguments put forward by me and others of my hon. Friends or by those deployed in the other place. Nevertheless, he is prepared to accept these amendments and to put this decision to the judgment of a body of men who probably are the most qualified to speak on this matter. I thank my hon. Friend for his fairness and for the decision that he has just announced.
The hon. Member for Consett suggested that their Lordships were interested parties. It is clear from a list of those who spoke in the various debates that they had an interest. Equally, they were qualified to speak on the subject. However, in addition a number of laymen took part, and perhaps I might refer the House to a remark made by the noble 1045 Lady, Baroness Phillips, who said about millesimal marking:I must say, as a consumer representative, that I think we should be overstating the case if we suggested that it would make it any easier for the average consumers to understand what they were buying."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. House of Lords, 15th May 1973: Vol. 342, c. 704.]That is a view expressed by someone highly qualified to make it, and it is this which lies at the root of the matter.
I shall not rehearse all the arguments about millesimal marks being superfluous, and about the danger of their being less legible. We have been through those before. I make only a passing reference to the aesthetic quality of the marks and the drawing from that quality by the addition of numbers. At one time the Design and Research Centre was in favour of millesimal marks. I am glad to see that it has now come out against them on aesthetic grounds, as has the British Antique Dealers' Association. We have heard the arguments about the difficulty of application and about the possible additional cost resulting from having to use separate punches for these marks. Those arguments still stand. I do not believe that the force of them has been reduced by anything which has been said today.
That is not the crux of the matter, however. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said that the consumer should know the degree of fineness. The hon. Member for Consett said that the consumer should be able readily to understand. The point really is that it is not the consumer who reads these marks. I do not believe that the normal run of consumer is able or wants to know about the exact degree of fineness. In my view it will remain the case that when dealing with precious metals and articles made from them the expert will always be needed to judge the quality and, in these circumstances, to read or to understand the marks. If that is so, the lion or other marking will be adequate.
Another relevant point which has not been referred to is that Clause 10 requires a notice to be displayed permanently in retail shops and the like showing what these marks mean so that if there is any dispute or if the consumer is sufficiently interested to look at the marks and does not understand them, the notice will be there for him to consult. That 1046 is really the main answer to the arguments advanced from both Front Benches.
Previously, I have based my arguments solely on silver and have tended to disregard platinum. I have argued that the lion is well known the world over. But it is also an argument for saying that the orb or the orb and the cross should be allowed to stand without the fineness or millesimal marks being shown.
I conclude by again thanking my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I welcome his announcement that this matter is to be put before a council composed of a body of people very well suited to deal with it. I am certain that it will take account of the arguments of both sides of the House in this dispute.
§ 12.45 p.m.
§ Mr. J. H. Osborn
One reason why I have not been able to take an active part in the earlier stages of this Bill with my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) is that I have been away frequently on Council of Europe and other activities. But it is clear that everyone wants the Bill, and I have listened with great interest to today's exchanges between the two Front Benches.
I intervene today because, as a member of the Cutlers' Company, I have had drawn to my attention the objection of every one in the trade in Sheffield to the idea of adding millesimal marks to the hallmarks which we know and understand so well. In the past six months I have been questioned about this matter again and again.
In the course of these debates, one great difficulty has been that the imposition of another mark, the millesimal mark, on existing marks involves the problem of space and the problem of obtaining the right punches. There are practical difficulties involved in introducing yet another mark.
I welcome the decision of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to accept the amendments made in another place and his wise announcement that the Hall-marking Council, when it is set up, is to be asked to examine the position. It requires much careful examination because I sense that, in the years since the original Stone Report, this House has 1047 become much more conscious of the need to protect the consumer. This is a matter which needs looking at carefully from the point of view of the consumer.
I have a certain amount of sympathy with the point of view of the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins). But 1 am also somewhat perplexed. In terms of other industries in Sheffield, I have been a great supporter not only of national standards, but of international ones, and the British Standards Institution has an important rôle to play in this connection.
I am one of the few who supported the decision taken by the Labour administration, backed by the CBI and other bodies, that we should adopt standards similar to those elsewhere in the world. I have no intention of embarking upon a debate on metric standards, but they reflect themselves in the standards that we are accepting as part of the EFTA convention. For that reason I could be accused of supporting the introduction of metric standards elsewhere but of not being too enthusiastic in this connection. However, in the course of time the millesimal mark is one which may well be better understood in Europe. But it will be very confusing if we have two sets of standards on one article.
Nearly 10 years ago, on a Friday, I put through the Trading Stamps Bill. The problem with that measure was to let the consumer know how many stamps he would get for a given number of purchases. In Clause 10 of this Bill this point has been elaborated. There will be an increasing responsibility on those who retail and sell these goods to let the general public know what these marks mean. If we accept a new set of standards the consumer is likely to be confused so the task will not be made easier.
We are talking about a lion passant, a lion rampant, the figure of Britannia, an orb and a cross, which are well known marks outlined in books that connoisseurs are able to purchase to see these traditional marks for themselves. Therefore, I suggest that, although the Minister is accepting the Lords amendments for which I have been urged to press, in a changing world the Hallmarking Council will face a challenge.
I began my comments by saying that I was serving on the Council of Europe.
1048 The Under-Secretary quite rightly referred to the EFTA convention. I think it would be wise to find out more about the practices and methods of assaying in Europe compared with this country. As the Community and EFTA countries are involved, this might well be a task for parliamentarians from this country on the Council of Europe to consider. I think that I am on an appropriate committee, and I look forward to helping the Hall-marking Council and the Under-Secretary in due course.
We must know about the practices in other countries, and parliamentarians from European countries must know what the issues are, before we abandon traditional standards and adopt standards which may be more commonplace elsewhere. We should know whether those standards form a sound basis on which to look to the future.
§ Mr. Loveridge
The acceptance of these amendments by my hon. Friends shows them to be on the side of true love rather than greed. No longer, at least for the time being, will a girl be tempted to ask her financé whether his gifts are fully millesimalised.
These marks are ugly. It is almost impossible to imagine them being well designed, particularly on small pieces of silver. It was significant that my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Adam Butler) drew attention to the change of views by the Design and Research Centre and the British Antique Dealers' Association. Who could imagine making these long numerals on small pieces of artwork beautiful?
I appreciate what was said about the EFTA convention and the need for some world wide standards. This point was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) who spoke with knowledge about these matters. On the other hand, I cannot help feeling that a world-wide standard in art must inevitably lead to some dullness.
Is there not also a commercial aspect? If we keep to our famous British marks we will have the edge in exports over other nations sticking to a common standard. Ours will be more in demand by the connoisseur and the collector. None the less, I welcome that the council is to consider the reasonable suggestion put 1049 forward by the Under-Secretary that its first discussions should relate to this problem.
I end by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and the Under-Secretary for the way that they have worked on the Bill which we so much want to see go through.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
As a layman, I have listened with great interest to what the Minister said on this subject and on the Bill. I thought he made not just a convincing but an overwhelming case for the consumer. For that reason, as spokesman for the Opposition on behalf of the consumer, I am astonished that he has now felt it necessary to back down from the argument that he presented.
I should like to put forward what I think would be the view of the general consumer in this respect. Surely where there is a choice between imported and domestic products it is helpful to the consumer to have comparisons of equivalent form.
One hon. Gentleman said that the lion is well known to the connoisseur. The mark will not be a source of confusion to the connoisseur, but the lion is not known to the non-connoisseur. After all we must also think of the non-connoisseur. A quantitative comparison, as opposed to a symbolation's head on one product and a specific number on another—would seem to be more helpful to the non-connoisseur, so that he may compare like with like in terms of quality. I accept that the term "millesimal" will not be understood. Frankly, I do not understand amps and watts, but when I see them on a bulb I am able to understand which bulb will give me the greater degree of light. One does not necessarily need to understand the terminology to make meaningful quantitative assessments of the relative qualities of the products that the consumer is likely to buy.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Loveridge), in an interjection, said that France and Holland do not require millesimal marks. My comment is, "So what?". Must we always be the last? Must we wait until no hon. Member can find any one country that does not impose a requirement for millesimal marks? The Opposition, and the Government appar- 1050 ently from the Under-Secretary's speech, believe that the millesimal mark would be of assistance to the consumer. For that reason, I regard the activities of France and Holland as irrelevant, somewhat regrettably, and I hope that at some stage somebody in both the French and Dutch legislatures will say, "Everyone except France and Holland is imposing millesimal marks. They have now done it in Britain. Should we not do the same?".
§ Mr. Loveridge
My interjection was not designed to suggest that Britain should be last in the queue, but to show that other nations have wisdom as well.
§ Mr. Williams
The hon. Gentleman may interpret his remarks as he wishes. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) said that we would be abandoning traditional standards, but we would not. As I understand the Bill, there is no suggestion of altering the standards. We are talking about information. The hon. Member for Hornchurch said that we should keep our marks because they could conceivably be of advantage to us in the export market. There is nothing to prevent us keeping our traditional marks. All that is requested or required is that further quantitative information be given where possible.
§ Mr. J. H. Osborn
I stressed that consumer protection means that the consumer should be able to see in the shop information on what a mark signifies. Therefore, the consumer to a greater extent, as a result of the Bill, will have an opportunity of finding out what the marks signify and will know where he may see quality.
In Britain we have embodied in these marks standards that are second to none. They have a world-wide reputation, and if we adapt them and make them coincide with new standards which I am not certain have the reputation of our own marks that could be a retrograde step. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) in pressing for us to go ahead with metrication.
§ Mr. Williams
I shall be speaking about metrication in the debate next Tuesday. I spoke from the Front Bench on the last occasion when we debated 1051 this subject, and if I remember correctly the hon. Gentleman and I were in unison in attributing responsibility for the move towards metrication to the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. John Davies). There are many quotations from articles, and so on, to show that the right hon. Gentleman was the prime mover in the campaign for metrication.
The hon. Gentleman said that dealers would display the appropiate notice, but this is a trade in which there are a considerable number of private sales and transactions. In such transactions there will be no notice to which a member of the general public will be able to refer, nor will there be an expert seller who will be under an obligation under the Trade Descriptions Act to give authentic advice, because a private seller is in a privileged position.
But even if the point that has been made about purchases through legitimate dealers is valid there is still no protection for the person who buys privately, and our argument is that the extra information given by the millesimal mark will help a considerable sector of the trade. I regret that the Minister felt it necessary to back down on this issue, because the council will not be established until 1975.
§ Mr. Wiggin
There is a slight misunderstanding here. If the Bill receives the Royal Assent, the council will start on 1st January 1974. It will take a substantial time to equip all assay offices with new dies, and therefore the marks will not appear until 1975, but the council will start on 1st January 1974.
§ Mr. Williams
It will be several years before millesimal marking comes in through the use of this machinery. It is regrettable that, the House having given its decision on the first occasion when the matter was discussed, when the Bill went to another place and the Government were faced with a clearly interested lobby they did not see fit even to nominate Tellers to protect the decision of the elected House.
I do not regard the amendment as acceptable, nor do I see it as necessarily representing the overwhelming opinion in the other place. It was never put to the test by means of a Division. It is my conviction that the consumer 1052 groups which made representations to the Government represent public opinion and public interest far more than does the interested trade lobby that has set out to block this innovation.
§ Mr. Emery
I hope that I may have the leave of the House to speak again. I shall not detain the House for long, because I spoke for a number of minutes earlier in the debate.
There seems to have been some slight misinterpretation of what I said by the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Adam Butler). I should not want them at any time to be able to accuse the Government or myself of having misled them or the House.
I reserve the position that my right hon. and learned Friend may wish to consider the question of fineness marking, millesimal marking, or whatever one wishes to call it, when we give effect to the EFTA convention in connection with articles made of precious metals, or when we give effect to provisions in other treaties entered into under the EEC rules and accept for circulation in this country articles that have been assayed or marked overseas with millesimal marks.
It was suggested that the Government would act only on the advice of the Hall-marking Council. The Government will consult the council, as they have to do, but if the Government thought it right to do so they would reserve the position for my right hon. and learned Friend to be able to ensure that an order could be made if it was necessary for the carrying out of any international treaty obligations. That is one reason why the statutory instrument powers are laid down in the Bill.
§ Mr. Adam Butler
Is it only in that circumstance, and no other—that is to say, a legal obligation under the Community rules or under some other international agreement—that the Government would act in advance of any decision by the council?
§ Mr. Emery
My hon. Friend is a clever parliamentarian and a brilliant debater but I, too, have been here for a little while, and he is not catching me on that one—not at this time of the afternoon. How long is a piece of string? I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance that 1053 he seeks. I do not know what factors might arise in the future, but I compliment my hon. Friend on having wrapped up the question so nicely that I might have fallen into the trap.
I think that the hon. Member for Swansea. West (Mr. Alan Williams) slightly overplayed the argument about the views of this House and those of another place. It is my judgment that if there had been a Division on the millesimal marking amendment on that Friday the amendment would have been carried but the Bill would have been lost because there would not have been 40 Members present.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I think that the cogent arguments for and against millesimal marks have been very well put again this afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Adam Butler) put the case for them, while the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) to some degree put the case against them. I urge the Opposition not to make this a plank of Labour Party policy, because I seriously suggest that it is a small issue and I honestly do not believe that all the consumer bodies that have been consulted have had all the evidence placed before them. I do not think that the Consumers Association, as a council, has considered the matter, or even had the various arguments put to it in an understandable manner.
The hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) said that a private dealer would not have to exhibit the card that would be issued by the Hallmarking Council. As I read the clause, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right. Anyone who consistently deals in precious metals will have to exhibit the sign.
§ Mr. Alan Williams
That was not my point. There is a considerable private trade between individuals who are not traders. The information to which I have referred would not be available to them.
§ Mr. Wiggin
The hon. Gentleman will recall that we had a good debate about "the course of trade or business" in Committee. We have been over this matter pretty thoroughly in previous stages. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of light bulbs. Is a 12-volt light bulb of 100 amps brighter and more powerful than a 400-volt bulb of 30 amps? I do not know and I strongly suspect that only a scientist would be able to say which produces the most lumens. That is a good example of how to get confused by too many numerals. This matter should be studied and market research should be undertaken to discover what the man in the street thinks, as well as a retailer, who is involved at the point of sale.
I am glad that the Hallmarking Council will have this worthwhile matter to consider early in its existence. Lord Runciman gave some substantial assurances to the Government. I wish to defend the Minister against charges that he has backed down. He has proved to be inordinately stubborn over this issue. I am sure he will not take my observation amiss. He has stuck to his guns to make sure that the matter will be considered by a body of people who are well equipped to consider it.
It would be wrong to talk in terms of days, months and years. An assurance that it will be early in the programme is adequate. I do not jump to conclusions on what may be decided. It would be wrong to do so. We have come to a satisfactory compromise to expedite the Bill and to allow the matter to be investigated.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.
Lords Amendment: No. 69, in page 26, line 30, at end insert:
by regulations made by the Council (or, in relation to any single article, approved by the Council)—".
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this amendment we can discuss Lords Amendment No. 70, in page 26, leave out lines 40 to 46.
§ Mr. Wiggin
These amendments go together. It has been agreed that the regulations governing the use of base metal in the manufacture of an article of otherwise precious metal should be solely made by the Council and the Secretary of State should abandon the regulation-making power controlling the powers of the council for which provision was made in the earlier version of the Bill. This is purely a technical matter and is a right and proper function for the council to perform.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.