HC Deb 30 January 1974 vol 868 cc570-8
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

There are no amendments for consideration.

10.1 p.m.

The Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am extremely glad that the Government's initiative in bringing forward the Bill has been widely welcomed at all stages. I am grateful for the interest and enthusiasm with which the progress of the Bill has been followed by its godfather, if I may describe him in that way—namely, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack). My hon. Friend has tried on at least two occasions to introduce legislation to substantially the same effect. He knows, as does the whole House, that the Bill will lead to significant improvements for the consumer. It is designed to facilitate the making of orders requiring unit pricing for such commodities as appear to be appropriate for such treatment. As I explained on Second Reading, it is likely that such orders will be made first for fresh foods such as meat, fish, fruit and vegetables.

The Bill will restore to those who are old enough to remember a situation in which commodities of the kind which I have mentioned will be generally available in shops with the price displayed per pound or whatever the unit might be for such commodities. Having said that that is one of the welcome developments which the Bill will facilitate, I hasten to point out that there are limitations. The concept of unit pricing has limitations and cannot usefully be extended to every commodity. In some cases the cost of effecting it may exceed the value of so doing to the consumer, and in other cases it may not be as valuable to the consumer as the alternative approach of specifying standards or prescribed quantities. For example, we find it easier to purchase regular commodities such as butter and sugar in units of 11b, 21b, or ½1b. Most consumers are agreed that it is preferable to deal in prescribed quantities rather than unit prices for such commodities.

One effect of taking the powers which are conferred by the Bill to require unit pricing is that the willingness of manufacturers and retailers to consider and accept the use of prescribed quantities is likely to increase. It is with those facts in mind that the House will be glad to know that consultations are proceeding urgently with representatives of food retailers large and small as well as with representatives of consumers. That will place us in a position to press ahead with the use of the powers conferred by the Bill where that is judged to be appropriate. I hope that the House will maintain its signal and sustained enthusiasm for this legislation sufficiently to enable the Bill to have its Third Reading.

10.4 p.m.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I shall not attempt to make a Second Reading speech. If I remember correctly I have already made three such speeches.

I too am glad to see that the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) is present. The Bill would have been on the statute book already had not an over-enthusiastic Conservative backbencher blocked the Bill last year by shouting "Object" instead of objecting to the Bill that immediately preceded or followed it. The hon. Gentleman's baby looks like arriving. It has been a long labour, and those of us who sat through the labour with him feel that we have some adoptive relationship with his baby. I hope that it succeeds finally in reaching the statute book.

In Committee, a series of questions were asked. Some were only partially answered, and I take this opportunity to obtain the latest information on them.

The first relates to the fact that this legislation is an amendment of the Weights and Measures Act and that the enforcement officers will be the Weights and Measures Inspectorate. There is a severe shortage of weights and measures inspectors in London, South Wales and elsewhere in the country. Under last year's Fair Trading Act we imposed a considerable additional work load on the inspectorate. Currently we are completing the Committee stage of the Consumer Credit Bill which again imposes a considerable additional set of duties upon the inspectors. The result is that there is grave doubt whether the present establishment of the inspectorate is sufficient to ensure that there will be proper vetting of the regulations when eventually they emerge.

I have put this point to the Minister on two previous occasions, and one or two of his hon. Friends referred to it in Committee. It would help greatly to know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman has had further consultations to establish the capacity of the Weights and Measures Inspectorate to deal with the extra work.

Secondly, I ask when we are likely to see the regulations. After all, it is seven months since we were first told by the Parliamentary Secretary in July that consultations would be necessary. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has now given us to understand that consultations have started. It was my hope that they would be near completion by now. How soon does he hope to see completion?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that the Opposition are a little suspicious that there has been some dallying because of the relationship between the Bill and metrication. In Committee the Parliamentary Secretary made it clear that the Bill would not be used extensively except in the context of metrication. Since we know that the Government are not excessively enthusiastic for their sponsorship of metrication to be too widely understood by the public, we suspect that this may be the reason why the regulations are seeing an inordinate length of consultative procedure.

I echo the right hon. and learned Gentleman's set of priorities. I agree that the immediate need is to give some regulation especially in relation to foodstuffs. It is a highly appropriate area in which to start at a time when the price of corned beef is reaching that of prime steak. I have no doubt that in a day or two we shall be told that one measure of the success of this Government is that the working man can now buy steak at the same price as corned beef.

On Second Reading, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food expressed her regret that the ordinary butcher's shop had shown such reluctance to undertake the voluntary implementation of a scheme of unit pricing. She said that 75 per cent. of our meat is bought over the counter at the ordinary butcher's shop. I would therefore expect that the first area in which one would see regulations applying soon would be the butchery trade. It is no good the Government expressing their regret if they do not back up that regret with action when we approve legislation giving the Government all the powers they need.

Thirdly, what is the latest stage in the Minister's consideration of exemptions? What range of turnover, if any, is he envisaging shall be exempt from the provisions of the Bill? I ask the Minister to bear in mind the point we put to him in Committee, that all too often the very small shops are those to which the elderly and the infirm have to go because they are nearby rather than their being able to shop around and go to supermarkets where, under this legislation, unit pricing will automatically be introduced.

I agree completely with what the Minister said about prescribed standard quantities being perhaps the most valuable piece of armament in the protection of the consumer. I hope that when the Minister is pushing ahead with the Standardisation of Quantities Bill he will remember the need for small sizes as well for the average family size. This is to help people such as pensioners, those living alone—young men and women, widows, widowers, the many people who want to buy in small quantities. It is important that they should be able to obtain small quantities when prescribed standard quantities are introduced.

Does the Minister envisage any acceleration in the rate of introduction of his regulations as a result of the present scarcity of packaging which is reflected in emptying shelves in the supermarkets? Does he envisage that the shortage of packaging materials will increase the need and the scope for unit pricing or the opposite? Will it in any way influence the date at which he intends to introduce his regulations?

Finally, what consideration has the Minister given to the sanctions which are to be applied? After all, the Bill is only an enabling one. It is not designed to make anyone do anything. It merely allows the Minister to do something if he wishes to do it. Its effectiveness will depend on the determination with which it is applied. That determination is not reflected only in the production of the regulations. The Bill will be effective only if there is adequate staffing of the Weights and Measures Inspectorate to supervise its operation and if there are proper sanctions to deter those who may think it worth taking a chance on being caught and who may therefore deny the public the protection which unit pricing would otherwise give.

This is only stage 1 of unit pricing. The Bill is saying that there can be unit pricing. It is now up to the Minister to say that there shall be unit pricing and that the system shall be effectively administered.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) for their kind personal references to my past efforts. There was a time when I thought that we should not reach the end of the road. In Committee a fortnight ago when everybody was talking of a General Election, it appeared that this Bill perhaps had a jinx on it and that it would fall at the third fence as it had fallen at the first and second fences. I realise that we are not quite there yet, but I am delighted that the winning post is in sight and that the Bill is about to complete its passage through this House.

I wish to pay a heartfelt tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend and to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and also to the hon. Member for Swansea, West. There is always a nice partisan touch about his speeches, but he has been truly helpful to me over the past two years with this legislation, and for that I shall always be grateful.

Obviously, this Bill is not a panacea for all ills, as we have said many times. Standard quantities are, of course, preferable and I have never sought to pretend anything else. However, it is a small but significant weapon in the housewife's armoury in the battle against inflation and in the struggle to get the best value for her money. There is certain information to which she is absolutely entitled when on shopping expeditions, and the proper price of the article per unit is one of the pieces of information that she should have. If the Bill, which is, as the hon. Gentleman has said, an enabling measure, is followed by enforcement over a fairly wide area, the housewife will be helped. I hope that it will be so enforced. The fact that we are here this evening is a tribute to the persistence of Members on both sides of the House, Front Benchers and back benchers, who have recognised the importance of the consumer interest over the past few years.

This is not the prerogative of Front Bench or back bench or of either party, but, just as the hon. Gentleman could not resist a slight partisan touch in his speech, I cannot resist saying that the present Government have recorded more consumer legislation to their credit than any other Government in history. That is something for which the people of this country will be grateful for a long time. In his relatively short period in a new rôle, my right hon. and learned Friend has impressed himself upon the public mind as somebody who has the interests of all consumers at heart.

Here, then, is another Bill that the Government have piloted through the House. Procedural devices and the fact that I was not successful in obtaining a ballot place frustrated it on its two previous outings. This time it has all the official authorisation of the Government. I am grateful for being called the godfather, but on this occasion the father is certainly my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs. This is indeed a further measure for which the country thank him. I hope that we shall have many more from him in future.

With those words I bid the Bill every success. I hope that it will complete its remaining stages in the other place very quickly, that it will soon be on the statute book and that every housewife in the land will soon begin to benefit from its enactment.

10.18 p.m.

Sir G. Howe

I wish to comment on one rather curious feature about this institution. It is that we invent the Second Reading Committee as a device for transplanting from the Floor of the House substantial debate on legislation of this kind and we do our best to stifle Third Reading by other procedural changes. But in fact, the capacity of hon. Members to disport themselves in the main arena for cabaret on these premises is uncontrollable, so we find my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) and the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) both expressing their pleasure that the Bill has finished its course in this place: so plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, except that we have a Third Reading in place of the Second Reading and vice versa. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock for his appreciation of the part played by Front Benchers in securing the passage of legislation. It is something that sometimes has some value. It is unusual and gratifying to have the part played by Front Benchers acknowledged.

I was interested in the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock could not resist one partisan observation when he pointed out the capacity of the hon. Member for Swansea, West always to succumb to wholly irresistible impulses to observations of the same kind. It is a remarkable and agreeable change to find two such effectively and agreeably partisan Members being as non-partisan and non-controversial as they have been this evening.

I turn to the questions raised by the hon. Member for Swansea, West. Of course I take seriously the point about the shortage of weights and measures inspectors. As the hon. Gentleman said, we have been giving those inspectors important additional work. I explained in Standing Committee that my statutory powers and responsibilities in respect of the establishment are limited, but I have certain capacities in that area.

I shall do what I can to see that the problem is properly considered. I cannot promise to generate extra qualified bodies in sufficient numbers in the right places as though by magic. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point seriously.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that consultations are proceeding apace with representative organisations of large and small traders. I thought that I had explained in Standing Committee, but if not I will do so now. Consultations for the making of orders under the Bill have to take place, at least the concluding stages, after Royal Assent, otherwise, there may be some question of our vires to make the orders. There must be an interval between Royal Assent and the making of regulations—whether that will be a decent or indecent interval remains to be seen.

The hon. Gentleman had his little dig about metrication but there is no necessary connection between the merits of the Bill and metrication. It can play an important part, as the Metrication Board's Consumer Safeguards group points out, in relation to metrication.

We have made it plain that meat is one of the priorities. We made that plain in the beef inquiries at the beginning of last year. Exemption is one of the matters that is the subject of consultation. It may not be necessary to have total exemption. It may be possible to provide for a display of unit prices on shelves, as opposed to on packaging, but that is the kind of question on which we are consulting before reaching conclusions. Certainly on the subject of prescribed quantities we take seriously the hon. Member's point in favour of retaining small size packs as far as possible.

It is not something on which the Government have wide or total powers of legislation. It is something about which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security and I have had discussions with Age Concern, or its representatives. It is something of which we recognise the importance, and we shall certainly bear it in mind when preparing orders under the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.