HC Deb 17 December 1975 vol 902 cc1600-7

1.57 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. Alan Williams)

I beg to move. That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Biscuits and Shortbread) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved. I do so, much as I dislike being controversial at this time of night. In view of the large number of hon. Members who obviously want to take part in this debate, I shall be untypically brief in moving the motion. I am sure that most of the points covered in the Order will be acceptable to hon. Members.

The object of the Order is to ensure that the prescribed quantities legislation applies to pre-packed biscuits. This will be the first prescribed quantity legislation since the 1963 Weights and Measures Act. It is therefore something of a landmark. It is interesting to note that, at that time and indeed earlier, it was thought that this was a product to which it would be virtually impossible to apply the prescribed quantities provisions, for technical reasons.

At the moment, biscuits may be pre-packed in any quantities. As little as ¼ oz sometimes separates packet sizes. Between the weights of 3 oz and 8 oz, there are 21 different sizes or weights of packets of biscuits on the market. Obviously, this makes it virtually impossible for the housewife to make valid comparisons, and it is difficult to distinguish one size of packet from another. This situation has arisen partly because of changes in the types of biscuit produced, but also as firms have, for legitimate reasons, chosen to shave small amounts off the quantities rather than raise traditional prices.

Section 54(2) of the Weights and Measures Act requires us to consult representatives of interests substantially affected by the Order. This we have done. Approximately 80 bodies representing manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers, consumer groups and enforcement authorities have been consulted. With some minor exceptions the industry has accepted the Order as fair and reasonable. Consumers have, in general, welcomed the proposals, though with some slight reservations about the number of packs permitted at the lower level, although I believe they realise the validity of the industry's argument that to make too radical a change in one step would add to the costs of the changes in machinery that would be required. I am sure, particularly in the context of inflation, that hon. Members would not want us to undertake measures which would unnecessarily increase prices when perhaps we can move to a further stage in the near future.

Therefore, I suggest that we examine this range of sizes as it operates and in the light of experience and any proposals that come from Brussels decide whether subsequently there is any need to amend the range offered. There is no EEC legislation at present on biscuits or shortbread.

In 1951 the Hodgson Committee reported on its review of the 1926 Weights and Measures Act. It quoted biscuits as an example. It said: … there are cases where manufacturing difficulties make it almost impossible to guarantee that a reasonable number of packages can be produced to a specified weight. This mainly arises where the package consists of a small number of large units, the weight of each of which is liable to substantial variation in the course of manufacture. It went on to specify biscuits as a prime example of a product where these difficulties arise. Therefore, it is a commendation of the co-operation that we have received from the industry that, despite the unpromising start, we have been able to bring this Order forward.

The main point of the Order, as hon. Members will appreciate, is that in future the weight of biscuits and shortbread will have to be declared when they are sold in quantities above 50 grammes or about 2 ounces. This is a slight improvement in consumer protection because at present it applies above 4 ounces. Therefore, there will be a declaration of quantity on small packs in the future. Above 85 grammes, which is about 3 ounces, biscuits may be prepacked only in prescribed quantities.

The upshot on the change that we envisage here is that instead of the 21 imperial pack sizes, which currently exist and to which I referred earlier, we shall have about six different sizes of pack. This will later become five. There is a dual range—an imperial and a metric range—because of the requirements of Section 10(10) of the Act, which at some later stage in the Session we hope possibly to amend. However, the industry has made it clear that it intends to produce from the metric range. That is why we have concentrated on making sure that it is the most convenient arrangement from the consumers' point of view.

Shortbread in pieces exceeding 200 grammes or 7 ounces need not be weight marked. This is to help the small producers. Whereas biscuits are, in general, produced by a few large manufacturers, shortbread is produced by quite a considerable number of small producers, many of whom are in Scotland. If we tried to make them conform to prescribed quantities unnecessarily, they would be presented with unjustifiable difficulties as there has not been any suggestion of any major abuse in this sector.

Hand-baked biscuits—those which are baked, pre-packed and sold by the producer on his premises—need not be sold in prescribed quantities but must still be weight marked if they are pre-packed and above 100 grammes in weight.

Wafer biscuits, of the sort which are normally associated with ice-cream, must be sold by count.

Finally, in Article 6(1) we have tried to make provisions for the multi-pack type of presentation of biscuits—as well as other commodities, but it is biscuits that the Order deals with—which we now find in the supermarkets.

Therefore, while perhaps not world-shaking in its immediate impact, the Order will have considerable value for the housewife and will be of help to many older shoppers. I commend it to the House.

2.5 a.m.

Mr. Norman Lamont (Kingston-upon-Thames)

I apologise for the formal nature of my dress tonight. From reading the history of the 1922 Committee the other night, I know that there have been many heated debates in the House whether it is proper for a Member to address the House wearing a dinner jacket. I apologise. No discourtesy was intended. Perhaps my post-prandial dress is appropriate to the subject we are discussing. I know that some people think that it is very appropriate to appear in formal dress. I heard not long ago that when one young Member arrived here he was told that if he had any confusion about how to vote he should always follow the black ties.

The Opposition welcome the principle of extending the prescribed quantities. As the Minister has said, this will be of valuable assistance in helping consumers to make comparisons. In extending it to biscuits we are extending it to an important area, because biscuits are quite an important part in households' consumption—more important, indeed, than some of the subsidised foods. We have debated prescribed quantities of salt and pasta, but those are very small matters compared with the importance of biscuits in the family budget.

There are a number of brief points that I should like to put to the Minister. He referred to the range of quantities in which biscuits are sold at present. As I understand it, it is normal, despite the range of quantities at present, for biscuits to be sold in, say 4 oz, 8 oz and 1 1b packs. We seem to be moving, for the sake of harmonisation, to rather unfamiliar sizes—3½ oz, 7 oz and 10½ oz—in order to get their metric equivalents. These seem to be rather unusual sizes simply to get the advantage of harmonisation.

I notice that the Explanatory Note says that no firm proposals have been put yet as regards the harmonisation of prescribed quantities on biscuits, but I imagine that the Government have had some discussions in this context and obviously have framed their regulations with eventual harmonisation in mind. I shall be grateful if the Minister will tell us a little about those discussions and what he anticipates.

The other point that I should like to make simply is that unless we get metrication fairly quickly, dual marking will exist despite what the industry may have assured the Minister and despite what its intentions may be. Therefore, we should like to know when we shall be hearing the Government announcement about metrication. We were told that we might get something in July, and then in November. We have been waiting with bated breath for quite a long while. If the Minister could enlighten us on that point, that would make this a worthwhile debate.

2.9 a.m.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Lamont) about metrication. The order is another indication of a somewhat piecemeal approach to this general problem. We had a debate on unemployment yesterday afternoon, and it occurs to me that the orderly changeover to metrication of a number of industries, including the food industry, could involve a number of important jobs on the engineering and technical side.

All industries will require a long changeover period, with plenty of notice. They require an orderly changeover period in which the alteration of wrapping machines, moulding machines and so on can be carried out. It will be a costly operation. The longer the lead time, and the more orderly the change, the better the consumer will be served ultimately. I hope that the Minister will give us a fairly decisive view on that tonight.

I must declare an interest in the matter, in so far as I am associated with a food manufacturer. The Order is the first to prescribe quantities in the non-subsidised food sector. It is significant, because it is part of the gradual transition to the implementation and harmonisation of EEC measures for pre-packed solid food to be sold in fixed weights. One can understand that this will be a long and gradual process.

The free-market man must weep a small tear at the loss of any manufacturer's individual capability to alter product sizes and presentations, but obviously the Ministry is right. There is a consumer benefit and a benefit in production and standardisation which manufacturers will readily accept.

I should like to make two basic points. First, the range of weights is accepted by the industry concerned. Although my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the omission of certain traditional weights, such as 8 oz. and 16 oz., I think that in general pre-packed biscuit weights tend to be rather peculiar or atypical. However, does the Minister agree that this should not be taken as a precedent in dealing with the decisions on fixed weights which will undoubtedly be made in other food sectors, where my hon. Friend's point about the 8 oz. and 16 oz. packets is significantly more important? I should like the Minister's assurance that he will have an open mind on this point when negotiating other fixed weight scales. We would not wish to see a plethora of different ranges. Where other weights are valuable to the consumer and traditional to consumer acceptance, they might be considered for suitable ranges of food products.

My second point relates specifically to the biscuit industry and the 175 gramme weight which it uses at present. I understand that this could have an important bearing on the industry's export potential. It is a weight which is readily obtainable on the Continent. I should like the Minister's assurance that although this is in the Order for expiry in, I think, 1981, he will review the matter. He might wish the industry to make representations to him on whether the weight of 175 grammes should remain or whether another weight should be substituted. It must be in the interest of the industry to retain its export market and to be allowed some flexibility within the scale of weights.

I hope that experience will show that this is a sensible measure, and that the consumer will ultimately benefit. Certainly we welcome the Order.

2.14 a.m.

Mr. Alan Williams

The appearance of the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Lamont) only helps to adorn our proceedings. If he is a little disturbed at coming here from a party, he is nowhere near as worried as I am, because those who advise me have also just come from a party. Therefore, this may prove to be a rather original winding-up speech.

The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) made a rather peculiar request. He asked me to give a fairly decisive view. It is beyond me why we should create a precedent at this time of night. It is a temptation that I find easy to resist.

The hon. Member for Pudsey asked whether these weights would be a precedent for other food sectors. I see no reason why they should be. After all, the Conservative Government, in a massive contribution towards the advancement of metrication, produced two little mice of Orders—namely, one on pasta and one on salt. Even those ranges did not agree. I do not see why we should assume that a range set in one respect should predetermine the range in another respect. In deciding any range there are technical reasons in regard to type of machinery and packing to be taken into account. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point and give him the assurance that he requires.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether I would review the position in regard to the 175 grammes. I have indicated that we are willing to review the range in the light of experience. Any review would probably further restrict the range. We are already cutting from a figure of 21 to an initial figure of six, and then we intend to go down to five. The packing involves weights of 3 oz and 8 oz. I would like to see it reduced further, and if any insuperable problems arise, I am willing to examine them. But I caution that at this stage I do not envisage changing the Order, but one cannot be sure what may happen.

Both hon. Gentlemen touched on the unfamiliar sizes in the imperial range. The reason why they are unfamiliar is that they will not be produced, but under Section 10(10) of the Act we have to include the imperial range. Industry will produce metric packs and the important consideration is to get convenient metric sizes that are easily identifiable to the consumer. This has meant the production of an artificial article which in practice will be unused in the imperial range.

Both hon. Gentlemen referred to progress in metrication. The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames said he had been waiting with bated breath to see what was to happen. I gather that on that score he was even bluer in the face than he is in politics. I assure him that we hope to bring forward an order to meet Section 10(10). I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree to act as teller for the "Ayes" when such an Order is produced.

With those near assurances, I hope that the House will feel able to accept the Order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Biscuits and Shortbread) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved.

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