HC Deb 20 July 1973 vol 860 cc1055-64

Lords Amendment: No. 72, in page 27, line 30, leave out from beginning to end of line 12 on page 28 and insert: 2.—(l) Ten of the members of the Council shall be appointed by the Secretary of State.

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

(3) Four of the members appointed by the Secretary of State, but not more than four, shall be persons appearing to him to be suitably qualified by virtue of their engagement wholly or mainly in trading in, or manufacture of, articles of precious metal.

(4) Before making any appointment under sub-paragraph (3) of this paragraph the Secretary of State shall consult the assay offices and such bodies representing persons engaged wholly or mainly in trading in, or manufacture of, articles of precious metal as he thinks appropriate.

3.—(l) Six of the members of the Council shall be appointed by the assay offices as follows, that is to say—

  1. (a) two of those members shall be appointed by the London Assay Office;
  2. (b) one of those members shall be appointed by the Edinburgh Assay Office;
  3. (c) two of those members shall be appointed by the Birmingham Assay Office; and
  4. (d) one of those members shall be appointed by the Sheffield Assay Office.

(2) Any person appointed under this paragraph shall be a person appearing to the assay office appointing him to be suitably qualified by virtue of his knowledge arid experience of hallmarking.

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

Mr. Wiggin

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this amendment we can discuss the following Lords Amendments: No. 73, in page 28, line 13, leave out "by the Secretary of State".

No. 75 in page 28, line 39, leave out from beginning to end of line 46 and insert:—

"9.—(l) The Council shall elect a person to serve as chairman from among the members of the Council and notice of his election shall, as soon as is reasonably practicable, be given in writing to the Secretary of State by the secretary or other person for the time being authorised by the Council in that behalf."

No. 76, in page 29, line 4, at end insert: (3) If any member appointed by an assay office is elected as chairman of the Council, paragraph 8(2) of this Schedule shall have effect as if that member had ceased to hold office otherwise than upon the expiration of his period of office.

Mr. Wiggin

The House will recall that on Report there was considerable debate about the composition of the council. The matter was then fully covered, and as a result there were further consultations with interested parties. In the end an extremely reasonable compromise was arrived at, whereby the Government will continue to nominate 10 out of the total membership of the Hallmarking Council, three of whom will be specifically interested in consumer matters and four specifically interested in trade matters. The assay offices will be consulted about the four trade members.

It is important that in the Hallmarking Council all those deliberating on these matters should have some knowledge of them. No one who has interested himself in the passage of the Bill will need much convincing that this is a technical matter and one in which it is necessary to have considerable expertise. The assay offices should be able to give their opinions. There will be three totally independent nominees. The assay offices will nominate six, and two will be co-opted. If the chairman is a nominee of the assay offices, the assay offices will have the right to nominate another to fill his vacancy, to ensure that the offices have full representation.

I thank my hon. Friend for the way he has tackled this problem. I know that he felt strongly about it at one time. The compromise is sensible. The assay offices gave up a considerable amount of their autonomy in this matter. It is probably correct that consumer organisations as such should be singled out but I am rather doubtful about "statutory consumers" for there are arguments for saying that everyone is a consumer in these matters.

1.15 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I join my hon. Friends. n congratulating the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) on bringing forward the Bill and I hope that it soon reaches the statute book. However, I must express concern about the amendments, particularly No. 72. This rather long amendment seeks to replace paragraphs 2 and 3 of Schedule 3 with some other way of constituting the British Hallmarking Council. My criticism which I hope can be removed by my hon. Friend, or the Minister, is that, while a compromise may have been reached, the position of the council is vague, imprecise and may cause trouble. This part of the constitution, setting up the council is, to say the least, rather cumbersome.

As I understand it, the council shall consist of not fewer than 16, or not more than 19, members. I was doing my arithmetic in the previous amendments and the total came to only 18. That point has been solved by my hon. Friend because in addition to the 10 nominated by the Secretary of State and the six from the assay offices two can be co-opted. If the chairman happens to be one of the assay offices' nominees then an additional person can be nominated in his place. That explains what I thought was a rather vague position.

The addition to the Schedule states that of the 10 members who shall be appointed by the Secretary of State, three shall be versed in the protection of the consumer and four shall be suitably qualified in the trade or manufacture 91 articles of precious metal.

I notice, from the next paragraph, that before appointing these four people the Secretary of State has to consult the assay offices. It is rather vague as to what happens if the assay offices and the Secretary of State do not agree. Obviously the Secretary of State has the last word, but this paragraph is rather meaningless. Since the assay offices between them can nominate six people to serve on the council, this requirement is not needed, although I see the diplomatic point for introducing it.

It is stated that the Secretary of State can nominate 10 people and we are told how seven of these are to be appointed. What about the other three? Are they deliberately not to be versed in the protection of the consumer, or are they to be people never thought of by the assay offices? This is imprecise and vague.

I do not wish to be churlish. I was not happy about the original position of the council before the Bill was amended. The new method of appointing people to the British Hallmarking Council could cause trouble. It could be made much simpler.

This is a technical and complicated Bill. Surely it is the duty of the House to see that complications and technicalities are reduced to the minimum. I fear that the proposed new part of the schedule will have the opposite effect.

Mr. David Watkins

I very much respect the reservations which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hands-worth (Mr. Sydney Chapman) expressed. I respect the formidable way in which he put his reservations and the series of formidable questions which he has put to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare.

The hon. Member for Handsworth made the point that there was bound to be some argument. Of course, three already has been a great deal of argument. I am certain that he is right in saying that there will be further argument. Argument has arisen to a considerable degree in this House and in another place because of the proposed composition of the Hallmarking Council. That was the only great issue of contention in the whole of the Bill.

I regret that a non-elected House has to change the decisions of the elected House of Commons on important issues such as these. Nevertheless, I at once acknowledge that the amendment from their Lordships meets most of the objections to the original proposals which the Opposition made in this House.

I remember that the Opposition thought that the original proposals made in Committee by the Government were authoritarian and gave the Government too much control. We thought that the amendment which was brought by the Government on Report—it was tabled supposedly to put the situation right—was even more authoritarian than that which it was supposed to remedy.

I accept that the amendment goes a long way towards meeting all the objections which were made in this House. I recollect that I said on Report that the Opposition would want three assurances relating to the Hallmarking Council. First, we required that the Government would take the maximum advice and engage in the maximum consultations when making appointments to the council; and second, that the council would be an independent body when it was appointed. By that we mean independent of day-to-day Government interference. That point is made all the stronger by the discussions which we have had about millesimal marks, which is put as the first priority for the council to consider.

The third assurance which the Opposition wanted was that the council would be represented not only by all branches of the trade but by consumers. I think that the Lords amendment meets all those assurances.

I recognise, as I have already said, that the assay offices have done a good job for centuries. I recognise and congratulate them upon the graceful way in which they have acceded to what might be felt to be some derogation from their previous responsibilities. Above all, I welcome the appointment—I see that that is a matter of some amusement to the Minister, Perhaps I am being a little too kind in presenting the Opposition's view of this matter. If so, I stand corrected because of the Minister's inside knowledge, which I do not share.

I believe that the proposed composition of the council meets all the objec- tions which were made in this House. It meets the assurance which the Opposition requested. I welcome the appointment of three members specifically from consumer organisations. With those words I welcome the amendment.

Mr. J. H. Osborn

I, too, welcome the amendment. As this will be the last time on which I rise to speak, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) on piloting the Bill through to this stage with considerable skill. For years the assay offices, the United Kingdom Silverware and Cutlery Manufacturers and the Company of Cutlers, of which I am a searcher, have been pressing the Government to introduce a Bill of this type. However, there has never been enough time for the Government to do so. My hon. Friend, who has an interest in these matters, has found time. It is a great achievement to have piloted a Bill through what I can describe only as tempestuous seas riddled with many rocks. This is one more example of reaching a compromise with those who are interested. It is one more example of the co-operation which has been achieved with the Government of the day.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and I will be going to Sheffield on Tuesday for the 200th anniversary of the Sheffield Assay Office. That assay office, like the Company of Cutlers in Sheffield, has been engaged in establishing and maintaining quality. It has been by maintaining quality that Sheffield, and other cities, but Sheffield particularly, has maintained its reputation over the years.

The Sheffield Assay Office, like other assay offices, is an autonomous body. The fact that it must lose some of that autonomy is obviously of concern. However, many changes will take place. I refer to these matters only because I want to draw out that the amendment at subsection 3(d) says: one of those members shall be appointed by the Sheffield Assay Office". There are 30 Guardians. They have been responsible for maintaining reputation and quality in Sheffield as have other Guardians in other assay offices. I welcome the amendment. I welcome the fact that a Guardian can appoint one person to the council in consultation with the Minister. That reflects itself in the whole orientation of the council. It is a suitable compromise which I endorse.

Mr. Emery

I recognise that a considerable amount of suspicion was expressed in Committee and on Report about the Government's wish that all the appointments to the council should be made by the Secretary of State. I do not believe that there was any justification for that suspicion. The Government's intention throughout was to provide for the creation of a strong and independent council whose members would be and will be suitably qualified for the job which they will have to do.

The basis of the Government's attitude was that in the creation of the council it would be necessary to exercise wide influence in the hallmarking of articles of precious metal. It was essential not only to ensure that it was independent but to ensure that, like Caesar's wife, it was seen to be independent. Some independence could have best been guaranteed in such a way. We took such a view to begin with. The present amendment gives the assay officers the right to appoint their own six members to the council. It would seem rather unnecessary to have such a provision but if that pleases them, fair enough. The Government have no strong feelings.

It has been possible to make it clear that the assay offices will not represent only vested interests or the interests of the trade. As long as that is the case the Government have no power to intervene. But if ever it should not be the case, the Government and the Secretary of State will be able to take specific action.

I believe that it is right that the Government should accept the position which has been put forward by those who have done so much for the trade in the past and who now in some ways will be losing some of their traditional rights in having to be subservient to the Hall-marking Council. The spirit of the council is to regulate the whole of the hall-marking business and the business of the precious metal industries within the country in a way which is not one-sided but which is to the benefit of the industry, the assay officers, the trade and the consumer. That is what I have every hope will be done.

1.30 p.m.

As a little bird has whispered to me that perhaps all the other Lords amendments will be put formally en bloc, I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare on the way in which, in guiding the Bill through the House, he has dealt with a number of highly independent organisations with very strong views and a great deal of history on which to base them. By any standard, the Bill is a substantial achievement. I had a rough count made. This House in Committee and on Report dealt with some 200 amendments while the other place made another 97. That is the sort of standard of a Government Bill, and not of a Private Member's Bill.

I do not think that I can be described as entirely content with the Bill, but, generally speaking, it is as near perfect as we can make it with these amendments today and it would be foolish to allow differences of opinion about the fineness of silver marking to overshadow the substantial achievements of the Bill.

It is noteworthy that a comprehensive law on hallmarking is now being put on the Statute Book for the first time in well over a century, and therefore our work has put a hallmark of considerable importance on the Bill. Much praise is due to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare.

Mr. Adam Butler

The composition of the council is the second point of contention but I shall not add much to what has been said. I think that in the end there has been a happy compromise. It has recognised the responsible rôle which has been played by the assay offices in the past and the way in which they have worked with the trade throughout their long history. The hallmarking they have carried out is probably the earliest form of consumer protection to have been introduced. The compromise is also a recognition of the fact that the assay offices will be meeting the full expenses of the council, and therefore perhaps it is just that they should have this say in the selection of a number of members of the council.

I am certain that the present Secretary of State would in any case have chosen similar or perhaps the same people who will now go on the council as representatives of the assay offices, out one was worried earlier and was perhaps right to maintain a slight suspicion not about the motives of the present Secretary of State but of a future Secretary of State. However, the amendment provides the safeguard.

Four members of the council are to be appointed from the trade by the Secretary of State. It is probably fair to say that the assay offices have been closer to the manufacturing side of the business than to the retail side, for obvious reasons—it is the manufacturers who send in articles for assay. If the assay offices; were to lean in any direction or more to one side of the trade, then it would be the manufacturing side. I asked my hen. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to ensure that as far as possible the retail end of the trade is represented in this category of members of the council.

As this may be the last opportunity on the Bill, I add my tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). It will be much briefer and less eloquently phrased than that of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare is to be congratulated on putting on the statute book a measure which is probably long overdue which will be on the statute book for very many years and which will be of tremendous benefit to the consumer and the trade alike.

Mr. Wiggin

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Adam Butler) is treading on rather dangerous ground if he says that assay offices are closer to one part of the trade than to another. While they may be in daily dealing with manufacturers, the slightest divergence from the competence of their function would affect: the retailers much more closely. The assay offices have taken substantial steps to see that official bodies such as the Guardians in Birmingham, Sheffield and the Goldsmiths Company in London do have ail sections of the trade at heart. I know that the voice of the retail trade will be heard when it

"15 Geo. 2. c.20 The Gold and silver Thread Act 1741. The whole Act"

comes to selecting members for the Hall-marking Council.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Sydney Chapman) represents a distinguished constituency which was once called South Staffordshire and was represented by my great-grandfather, who was a guardian of the plate at the Birmingham assay office. My great-grandfather would not be happy, nor would some of my hon. Friend's constituents who work in assay offices, to hear my hon. Friend suggesting that consultative powers which have been written deliberately into the Bill will be denigrated. It is very important that they should be in the Bill. The Secretary of State has indicated that of course he will consult. We asked him why, in that case, consultation could not be written into the Bill, and, sensibly, it was. After all, the present Secretary of State will not be in office for ever and perhaps a successor might take a different view. But now that we have it in the Bill he will be forced to consult, and that is the right way to do it.

I was asked about the position of the three independent members. To some extent they may be lobby fodder. I think the Government felt it right that their own nominees should have a majority if the assay offices were ever to turn nasty or some other eventuality arose. I do not think that it is intended that these three independent members shall be people who will necessarily know nothing of the industry. Indeed, the reverse may be the case. I think that it is wise to have three people on the council who do not have any specific function but who represent the interest of the Government.

I would point out to my hon. Friends that I do intend to speak to Lords Amendment No. 90 and I shall respond to other matters when we come to them.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.

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