HC Deb 20 July 1973 vol 860 cc1027-32

Lords Amendment: No. 33, in page 10, line 19, leave out Clause 8 and insert:

"C.—(1) It shall be the duty of every local weights and measures authority to enforce the provisions of this Act within their area; and section 26 of the Act of 1968 (enforcing authorities) shall apply in relation to the enforcement of this Act, by such an authority, as it applies in relation to the enforcement of that Act.

(2) The Council and the assay offices may also enforce the provisions of this Act.

(3) Subject to subsection (7) below, the following provisions of the Act of 1968 shall apply in relation to the enforcement of this Act as they apply in relation to the enforcement of the Act of 1968, that is to say— section 27 (power to make test purchases); section 28 (power to enter premises and inspect and seize goods and documents); section 29 (obstruction of authorised officers); section 30 (notice of test and intended prosecution); section 31 (evidence by certificate); and section 33 (compensation for loss, etc. of goods seized).

(4) Any reference, in the provisions of the Act of 1968 mentioned in subsection (3) above (other than those of subsections (2) to (4) of the said section 30), to a local weights and measures authority and a duly authorised officer of such an authority shall be construed, in relation to the enforcement of this Act, as including respectively a reference to the Council and an assay office and a duly authorised officer of the Council and of an assay office.

(5) Nothing in this section shall be taken as authorising the Council or an assay office to institute proceedings in Scotland for an offence.

(6) Subsection (1) above shall not apply in relation to the enforcement of this Act in Northern Ireland but, in addition to the power given by subsection (2) above, it shall be the duty of the Ministry of Commerce for Northern Ireland to enforce this Act in Northern Ireland.

(7) For the purposes of the enforcement of this Act in Northern Ireland by the said Ministry, sections 27 to 29 and 33 of the Act of 1968 shall apply as if for references to a local weights and measures authority and any officer of such an authority there were substituted respectively references to the Ministry and any of its officers."

Mr. Wiggin

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

This constitutes a further part of the parliamentary counsel's redrafting of the Bill and effectively reproduces that part of the present Clause 8 which incorporates Sections 26 to 33 of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968.

The new clause provides for the enforcement of the Bill by the local weights and measures authority and by the British Hallmarking Council and the assay offices. It is appropriate to say here a word about the functions of the local weights and measures authority because the main concept of hallmarking has been altered by the Bill—that is, the concept that those who offer for sale in the course of trade or business articles of gold, silver or platinum and wish to describe them as such should have them hallmarked.

This means that if a weights and measures inspector inspecting a jeweller's window, for example, sees an article described as silver, gold or platinum, he can, by looking at the mark, ascertain whether the retailer is complying with the law. This means that throughout the country there will be more than 1,000 individuals who will have as one of their many tasks the carrying out of this law. It is a very big improvement over the previous arrangements, whereby the assay officers had to do all the policing themselves, and by the nature of their functions and the geographical spread of the retail outlets it was a hard task. I think that this will add little extra burden to the weights and measures inspectors and it is one of the strengths of the Bill that they will be helping to carry it out in practice.

The British Hallmarking Council will in the time available to it teach, or take steps to teach, the associations involved the minor technical things to look for in this matter. The process is not that complicated and I believe that it will prove a substantial safeguard to the average consumer, which is what the Bill is about.

Mr. J. H. Osborn

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State how this will work. When this went through another place and the Committee stage in this House, one or two examples were put to me. In Sheffield, for instance, we have an assay office of which the city is very proud and on the consumer protection side we have also perhaps one of the more vigorous and more ambitious weights and measures and consumer protection departments.

Mr. Wiggin

The House will be interested to know that the Sheffield assay office is shortly to celebrate its 200th anniversary, and I am sure that those of us interested would like to congratulate it on its long life and prosperity.

11.45 a.m.

Mr. Osborn

I thank my hon. Friend. I think that he and I will be travelling to Sheffield on Tuesday to take part in this important celebration, and I have every confidence that interference such as mine today will not hinder the progress of the Bill but, indeed, will ensure that it becomes an Act of Parliament.

In the years I have been in the House, consumer protection has been all important and the rôle of the weights and measures department in the local authority has also become more important. It means a bigger load on the weights and measures department, on consumer advice bureaux and other bodies within the town hall or the city hall. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will have to ensure that there is greater knowledge of what the marking is all about. It will mean training.

I am a searcher at the moment for a company of cutlers in Hallam which had the right at one time to search manufacturers' premises and to carry out much of the work which was moved to the assay office and now goes from the assay office to local authority support for the consumer. One of the purposes of the company with which I am associated is to maintain the quality and reputation of the products of Sheffield. Therefore, I feel that the new arrangement will be welcomed there at any rate, but it would be useful to know how the burden will fall on the weights and measures department.

Mr. David Watkins

I welcome this provision. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) has made a valid point. It will put a bigger load on the weights and measures departments not only in the volume of work but in the necessity to acquire a greater amount of technical knowledge. I believe that the departments will be able to cope. I think it a good thing that they should be so firmly brought into the work of protecting the consumer.

As has been said repeatedly, the overall object is the protection of the consumer. I think that the consumer has growing confidence in these departments. I accept at once that the assay offices have for centuries done an extremely good job, are doing it now and will continue to do so. But it is also a very good thing if there can be a system of spot checks by the weights and measures inspectors.

In the eyes of the consumer, this is another defence which I am sure will be welcome by the assay offices and all quarters where there is responsibility for this matter. Of course, despite the most careful checks at or after the point of manufacture, quite often goods of not the right quality can find their way through. The consumer will now know that he can bring in an inspector and the dealer himself knows that additional protection is afforded by a further check.

We have raised the question of deterrents to would-be frauds, who are thick on the ground in this business. This further check once the article is in the retail shop adds to the protection. The amendment is important in giving the ability to hold spot checks in order to protect the consumer at the point of purchase as well as at the point of manufacture. The amendment is very much to be welcomed.

Mr. Emery

Because I am not a lawyer, I feel strongly that it is highly desirable that legislation should be easily read and that one should not have to keep cross-referring from one piece of legislation to another, particularly when one is trying to find out how it is to be enforced.

Mr. Emery

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has succeeded in covering the whole of this subject by this series of amendments.

Subsection (1) ensures that the duties of enforcement are placed upon the local weights and measures authorities. Subsection (2) outlines provisions identical to those of the Trade Descriptions Act. It gives power to make a test purchase under Section 27; power to enter premises and inspect and seize goods under Section 28; deals with the obstruction of authorised officers in Section 29; notice of test and intended prosecution in Section 30; evidence by certificate in Section 31; and compensation for loss of goods seized in Section 33.

Subsection (4) confirms the powers given to a local weights and measures authority and its officers and the enforcement powers of the council and assay offices and authorised officers. This is of some importance. It was suggested that we should not have gone as far. This shows our confidence in the assay offices and the council.

Subsection (5) deals with the slightly different Scottish law, under which it is the procurator fiscal who institutes proceedings.

Subsections (6) and (7) outline the special provisions of the Minister of Commerce of Northern Ireland.

The clause is a much better arrangement. It shows clearly how these functions will be carried through and what prosecution powers will exist. I congratulate my hon. Friend on amendments making the Bill readily understandable.

Mr. Wiggin

By leave of the House; my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) must be cautious about the business of instruction. I may be at fault for leading him on.

The functions of weights and measures inspectors can be simple-that is one of the great virtues. It may be a question of showing whether an article offered for sale is of the metal according to the hallmark upon it. I suspect that the argument will be, as with the Trade Descriptions Act, that it is what is on the notice and not on the article that matters. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) for putting his finger on the point of reorganising the schedule and I welcome his support.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.

Forward to