HC Deb 22 January 1979 vol 961 cc59-103

Order for Second Reading read.

4.50 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is a reasoned amendment on the Order Paper in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), myself and other hon. Members. Can you tell us your decision on selection?

Mr. Speaker

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and to the House for not informing him that I have not selected the amendment. The hon. Gentleman can, of course, deal with the contents of the amendment during the debate.

4.51 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

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

As Mr. Gladstone observed 150 years ago, there is something of an anti-climax in Parliament moving from the government of people to the government of parcels. Notwithstanding that, my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) anticipated our debate during questions on Friday's Business Statement when he suggested that the Bill is no more than a device for fulfilling the United Kingdom's obligations to the EEC. My hon. Friend and I agree about many things, but not about the merits of British membership of the Common Market. However, while I accept that disagreement between us, I do not believe that this debate is a suitable occasion to pursue our differences. I offer the Bill on, if I may put it chauvinistically, its British merits.

Certainly, the principal provision of the first part of the Bill enables the United Kingdom to fulfil its obligations under two EEC directives, but I emphasise that I regard the Bill, including that item, as being in the interests of British industry and the British consumer. I have no doubt that none of us would wish to oppose a measure that was in the interests of British industry and the British consumer merely because, by coincidence, it also enabled us to fulfil our EEC obligations.

The Bill is a necessarily complicated expression of an essentially simple proposition. Its main purpose is set out in part I and its intention is to legalise—I use that word intentionally—the system by which fixed weight packages are sold according to their average content rather than according to their minimum content.

I say that the Bill is intended to legalise that process because there is a widespread misconception about the existing law. It is generally believed, perhaps inside the House as well as outside, that every packet sold must contain at least the amount specified on the container. That is not the law as it stands today. The Acts of 1926 and 1963 modified what we believe to be our pure minimum weight system.

The idea that every, let us say, quarter-pound packet of tea must contain at least a quarter-pound of tea for it to be sold legally is wrong. Let me demonstrate why by reference to the most recent Act, the Weights and Measures Act 1963. That Act provides that where similar packages are on sale at the same place and time a reasonable number of them must be tested and the court may not convict for shortage of weight until that reasonable number have been tested. Before conviction, the court must have regard to the average quantity in deciding whether an offence has been committed.

The average weight principle is already with us and the 1963 Act goes on to say that in the case of a prosecution concerning a single package, the court shall disregard any inconsiderable deficiency or excess. Here again, we already have embodied in our law the provision that a small deficiency in a single packet is not a sufficient ground on which to make a conviction.

When the Act was passed in 1963, industry, the courts and consumers found it difficult to give any precise arithmetical or legal meaning to that concept, which appeared to be minimum weight but was, in practice, average weight legislation. As a result, a code of practice was drawn up between weights and measures inspectors—trading standards officers, as I must learn to call them—and the CBI, which said that 2½ per cent. of production was to be allowed below the declared quantity before a prosecution could be mounted.

The principle of average weight, with variations either side of a stipulated amount, appears in legislation and in practice and is related to the manufacturing and packing process—exactly what the Bill before the House proposes.

That system, incorporated in the 1963 Act and given reality by the code, was intended to allow for the inevitable small errors in mechanical packing. It was intended to allow those small errors, without disadvantaging the consumer and without the additional cost that the consumer would eventually have to pay, that would flow from either the systematic overfilling of packages to ensure that every package was above the stipulated amount or the destruction of underweight packages which, I fear, is still too common a feature in manufacturing industry because of the present weights and measures legislation.

We have nothing like a complete minimum weight system. Other countries have come to weights and measures legislation and introduced it into the laws of their lands after the general extension of mechanical packing. Our weights and measures legislation preceded that process and attempted, not wholly satisfactorily, to accommodate it in the 1963 Act.

We believe that the time has come to accept the reality of that situation, to make the law more comprehensible in terms of how most goods are packaged and to make it more acceptable to consumers and industry. Part I of the Bill, which attempts to do that, applies only to what are called fixed weight packages, that is, packages sold by weight or volume which the packer makes up to predetermined quantities—for example, bottles, cans and packages where the weight or volume is printed on the container.

Therefore, the Bill does not and cannot affect goods weighed out or measured out to the consumer, such as fresh foods, fabrics or goods sold by numbers. Nor does it cover goods sold according to random weights or catch weights, the most common examples of which are cheeses sold at an established price per pound.

The Bill covers about half the expenditure by all households on products sold by weight or volume. But I concede at once to those who have put down the amendment that it does have some relationship to the average system proposed by the EEC and debated in the House five years ago, according to two EEC directives. That system is set out in the two directives which are commonly called, with an unusual and quite admirable simplicity, the liquids directive and the solids directive.

Those directives would enable the Government of the United Kingdom to establish what in Europe is called the E marking system, by which certain goods calculated and advertised and sold according to average weights obtain free passage and obligatory sale throughout the EEC. But I make it clear that the E marking system accommodated in the Bill, and incorporated in the liquids directive and the solids directive, is not an obligatory system on United Kingdom manufacturers and packers.

The Government have a duty under EEC regulations to set up a system of average weight control which enables companies which wish to do so to say that they are selling lawfully according to the average weight criterion, to mark their goods with the E mark and then sell them in Europe. But a company can, if it wishes, take advantage of the E mark regulations for goods it wants to sell in Europe and continue, as I hope to demonstrate, its present minimum weight procedures for goods that it simply intends to sell within the United Kingdom. I am sure that very few companies will choose to do that, but, as far as individual companies are concerned, the scheme incorporated in the directives is purely permissive.

These directives include a further provision which the Government regard as having very special importance to the consumer. Packages marked by the E marking system and governed by the regulation will have to conform to certain average standards. But they will also have a lower tolerance below which the individual package cannot fall without itself being illegal. Let me put it this way. According to the E marking system, it will not be an acceptable defence for companies to say "This is an average weight system and the appropriate proportion of the packages in this batch achieve that average weight" if some individual packages are grossly below it. There is a minimum below which the average packet must not fall in weight.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

I understand from the system that no package could be less than two of the permitted tolerances, with four standard deviations, I believe, below the average. As I see it, one item in 10,000, assuming the distribution is normal, would be of that type anyway. How is the manufacturer to overcome that problem?

Mr. Hattersley

I think that sometimes the manufacturer will be unable to do so, and presumably some would say that since that is the position it is unreasonable that he should be placed under the obligation to make sure that one in 10,000, or one in several thousand, was not twice below the accepted tolerance and therefore regarded as being individually unacceptable. But I think this is an area in which the law will err on the side of the consumer. If there is a very small error—it will be a very small proportion indeed that will fall outside that area—I believe that a reasonable court and a reasonable trading standards officer would bear that consideration in mind.

But the important point is that the idea that an average weight system means that some lucky consumers get packages grossly above the average weight and some unlucky consumers get packages grossly below, and the unlucky ones are not allowed to complain or to prosecute, is a misinterpretation of the system we are offering, as my hon. Friend demonstrates.

When the EEC regulation was promulgated, the Government set up a working party in March 1975 to consider how the new European system should be incorporated into our law, and the main recommendations of that working party are now the Bill. I think that there are three main recommendations. The first is the crucial one which made a Bill rather than two orders necessary.

The working party recommended that the Government should encourage the average weight system described in Europe as E marking over as wide a range of industrial production as possible. It said that to leave it purely permissive, with companies operating both systems simultaneously, would increase industrial costs and cause substantial confusion among consumers.

Secondly, the working party recommended the creation of a small national unit to co-ordinate the enforcement of the new scheme. Because much of the present weights and measures inspectorate is locally based, and it knew that an average system policed at the point of production and packaging would mean that goods sold in the North of Scotland might be made in London, Birmingham or Manchester, it recommended, therefore, that an element of national supervision was necessary to ensure that the consumer in one area was properly protected in another.

Thirdly, the working party recommended a further safeguard for the consumer in the setting up of a system of retail monitoring to ensure that when the primary point of monitoring was moved from the shop to the packing station or factory there was still some demonstration that the new method of monitoring was actually working in the shops in terms of the individual purchaser.

Mr. Spearing

My right hon. Friend has mentioned a working party, which I assume was a working party which his Department set up. Will he confirm that its terms of reference were to see how the EEC system could be used in this country? Why was that not mentioned in the explanatory and financial memorandum to the Bill? If it was to see how the EEC system could be used in this country, on what basis is my right hon. Friend producing this Bill on the merits? Did he have a working party on the merits as distinct from the application of the EEC system?

Mr. Hattersley

My hon. Friend is right. If I did not say it, I certainly implied that the working party was set up to consider the new European system. That point is implicit in the first recommendation of the working party, which I reported to the House. It was that the new European system should be used as widely as possible and not simply for those companies which wanted to institute it for their European exports.

An explanatory and financial memorandum describes a Bill on its merits, and, while my hon. Friend may argue that this stems wholly from the two directives, it is not the two directives and the two directives alone. Whilst he may disagree with my judgment, I must repeat that for industry and the consumer, and certainly for the authorities which must implement the weights and measures legislation, this scheme is better than the one at present followed, and if the Common Market did not exist—which I might regret more than he would—I should still be commending legislation of this sort.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain the process that will be gone through to bring a prosecution against someone? What tests will be done, what calculations will be made, to bring a prosecution against someone for something underweight?

Mr. Hattersley

I shall come to that. One of the errors one falls into by giving way is that points that are prepared for later in one's speech are anticipated.

Before I come to that point, I want to explain to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South and other sceptics why I believe this system is preferable. It is preferable in three ways. First, from industry's point of view it is less wasteful than the present system. It reduces, for instance, the number of rejected packages which are inevitably a feature of the present minimum system, and rejected packages are not a cost that industry bears. The cost is spread over the actual price of the packages which get into the shops, and therefore the cost is passed on to the consumers.

Secondly, the scheme enables the United Kingdom producer to operate a weights and measures system which is the same as that which applies in most of the countries to which we export—not only the EEC but other countries as well. It is clearly in the interests of an exporter to know that the regulations that govern his domestic sales are the same as those that govern sales when he is producing an identical item for export. I think that it is also very much in the interests of the retailer. At the moment, although there is a statutory defence, in theory at least retailers are primarily responsible for the contents of every package that they sell. It is clearly unreasonable, in these times, when many thousands of packages are constructed, hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles, away from where the small retailer—it may be the corner shop—passes them on to the consumer, for that small retailer to be responsible for their weight.

Under this Bill the small retailer has some responsibility, but that responsibility is moderated by the fact that he must have knowledge that the package he is selling is inadequate within the terms of the second clause. I know that the removal of the obligation on the shopkeeper to sell only goods of a certain weight is one of the issues that worry my hon. Friends. However, I believe, and if I did not I would not commend the Bill to the House, that this Bill is in the interests of the consumer, and it is also in the interests of industry and the retailer.

The Bill includes a minimum tolerance below which even a package which is part of an acceptable average batch must not fall if it is to be sold legally. That is a substantial protection. What is more—and I repeat it because it is an important factor governing all these matters concerning consumers and consumer costs, since it ought to allow industry to produce more cheaply, perhaps on some occasions only marginally more cheaply but more cheaply nevertheless—in a highly competitive industry such as food production and retailing, any reduction in costs ought to be passed on by a reduction in prices.

Besides those general advantages, I believe there are some specific features of the new system which are of direct benefit to the consumer. They are concerned, perhaps more in the negative sense, with the criticisms of the system which now applies. First, the present system is legally imprecise—so imprecise that it is wholly unsuitable for some commodities which are rarely if ever checked. There is a wide variety of products which come in tubes and bottles which are virtually uncheckable under the present system. They range from toothpaste to ketchup, and there are many products of similar viscosity and similar packaging which are largely outside the present law.

Secondly, the enforcement of the present law depends on the discovery of one package in one shop and it is normally followed up by a derisory fine which few people regard as a deterrent and few regard as a punishment. The average system, on the other hand, is applied at the point of packaging, and that is the enforcement point. In the case of the large packing organisation, it will amount to a legal supervision of its quantity control. I have no doubt that if, through the new system, the inspectorate is able to check about 5.5 million units, which is the number being checked today, it will constitute a far more comprehensive control of the full 180 million packages than the present system.

I think the new system makes possible the extension of quantity marking on items which at present are not subject to the law. I give as my obvious example materials which are subject to late weight loss through loss of liquids, such as tobacco and knitting yarn, both of which are excluded from the present law. They lose weight when they are stored or transported and therefore they are thought to be unsuitable for the provisions that now exist.

I know that the question of weight loss through dehydration is one of the factors which caused my hon. Friends to table their amendment. I do not minimise the problem that their amendment describes. It concerns a certain sort of commodity, in a certain sort of package, which may well be of the average weight when it is produced and packed in the factory but after it has been stored in the factory and transported to the shop, and perhaps stored in less than ideal conditions, loses weight and therefore does not conform to the standards of the Act.

That is a real problem, but it can be solved in a number of ways which can be incorporated into the secondary legislation which is an essential feature of this Bill, because it must accommodate different commodities with differing physical properties. Let me give three of the many examples. We could require the packer to maintain the appropriate average weight not just at the point of packing but whilst the goods in question remain on his premises, that is, while they remain under his roof before being dispatched to the retailer. We could oblige packers to include an increment on top of the stipulated weight during the packing period which was intended to allow, in the case of materials likely to be affected by dehydration, for the weight loss which was bound to come about between packing and selling. We could even, in the Bill, include an extra provision for materials of this sort which are subject to weight loss through dehydration, which imposed on retailers the obligation to check the weight of a specific product before it was sold.

All these are possible solutions, though I am not suggesting that we shall choose any one of the three or any one of the other five or six available. I simply give them as examples to demonstrate to my hon. Friends that we are aware of what is a genuine problem and to promise them that when the secondary legislation is put before the House we will certainly ensure that some solution to that problem is provided. We will not proceed on a simple take-it-or-leave-it basis where, in the case of soap, for example, which loses weight between production and sale, the consumer must accept that situation whether he likes it or not.

The problem of weight loss between packing and selling relates to the most common fear of the new system—the fear that the consumer, under an average weight system, will get less for his money. I do not believe that to be so. The consumer buying what is popularly believed to be a guaranteed half pint of liquid is usually getting a certain 9⅔ fluid ounces, though the present law allows variations even on that figure. I do not believe that the introduction of the new system will result in the consumer getting less in the half pint pack than he gets now, for reasons which I will try to illustrate by describing the options that the packer and producer have as the company moves from the present system to the new system.

As companies move to the new system, they must do one of two things. They must either allow the checking of the equipment by which they weigh out their packages to be subject to the supervision of inspectors and there is a list of prescribed equipment acceptable for these purposes; or if that equipment is not in use, or is not appropriate, they must keep detailed records of their own weights which are subject to scrutiny and spot investigation by the inspectorate at the point of package. There are substantial penalties for producing false returns as well as for not operating the appropriate equipment if that is the method of checking which individual companies have chosen.

Having chosen one of these methods, the company can then move from its present system of minimum weights to the new system of average weights in one of three ways. First, it can maintain the present filling level in each packet. It will not even need to adjust its machinery but can maintain its present quantity declaration. If, as a result, its half pint pack contains, and says that it contains, 9⅔ fluid ounces, which is what most half-pint packs contain today, the company will clearly be within the new legal limits, as it was within the old limits, and no adjustment to its procedures will be necessary.

Secondly, the company can maintain its present filling levels in each package but increase its quantity declaration from 9⅔fluid ounces to a full half pint. If it does that, it will be selling according to the popular perception of the quantity. It will need no change in practice, assuming that its equipment or records are sufficiently accurate to remain within the permitted tolerance. If they were not, the company was in severe trouble under the present Act.

Thirdly, the company can maintain its present quantity declaration but by a more sophisticated process, adjusting its packaging machinery, can change its filling level to a point nearer the average selling tolerance. If it continues to say on its packages "9⅔ fluid ounces", it can so adjust its machinery that the contents are only a little above or a little below 9⅔fluid ounces. If it does that, the adjustment in quantity will be very small. I am advised that it would certainly not be worth doing for companies that did not sell in such packages very high cost material.

In any case—I return to this as the really important point—the new system will allow individual companies to pack and market in a way which simultaneously reduces their production costs and makes it easier for the consumer to know what is in the package. If that is so, the consumer will benefit through competition in the retailing industry. Just in case that does not happen, Opposition Members will be pleased to know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has spoken to the Price Commission about its obligations under section 2 to keep an eye on how the new cost levels are being managed by industry and make sure that individual consumers are not being exploited by adjustments which come about as a result of the Bill.

I have concentrated so far on the background to the Bill, on the average weight system in substance, and the many clauses in part I which implement that proposal. Part I lays down companies' basic duties in instituting the new procedure, to be carried out mainly by packers and importers. It also establishes the small national co-ordinating unit of which I have spoken, the unit recommended by the working party, which ensures adequate nationwide supervision and some supervision and double-checking at the retail level.

The technical details of the new policy will be included in subordinate legislation, but two points are outstanding. The Government intend to apply the average system to as wide a range of packaged products as is possible, certainly to all products covered by the 1963 Act. They intend to include those things which it was difficult to include in the previous legislation for the reasons I have described, although of course the Bill wilt continue to exclude catch weights and other materials which are not subject to pre-packing of the sort I have outlined.

I want to make a second point which I know exercised the mind of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim), I think reasonably so. I have made the point several times already, but I want to make it to her again today in the words that I promised, which as I remember them were as follows. It has never been the Government's intention to force packers in practice to adopt average rather than minimum fill standards. Under the Bill, packers who wish to continue to adopt present minimum fill standards are perfectly entitled to do so, since they would obviously satisfy the average criteria. This is implicit in clause 1. Moreover, the anticipated statutory codes of practical guidance will make this clear.

Nevertheless, at present this is, as I said in the passage I read a moment ago, implicit. I understand that the Opposition wish to see the position made explicit in the Bill, thus overtly safeguarding the position of packers who wish to continue to adopt minimum fill standards. I willingly accept the suggestion, and an amendment to that effect will be proposed in Committee to spell out that option.

In short, when representations were made to me that there were aspects of the Bill which could be interpreted as a compulsory move to the new system, I gave the absolute assurance that that was not what I intended. The Opposition then said, as I believe it is reasonable for Oppositions to say, "If that is what you mean, include it in the Bill." As that is what we mean, we propose to include it in the Bill. That will govern the conduct of the packer and of the supervisory authorities under part I.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

My right hon. Friend spoke of secondary legislation. Is he referring to statutory rules and orders which will come before the House or to EEC legislation—regulations, for instance—which would not come before the House at all?

Mr. Hattersley

I fear that I am referring to a plethora of legislation, all of which can come before the House but some of which may need the initiative of hon. Members to bring it before the House. But all of it will be subject to debate, if that is what the House wishes.

Mr. Penhaligon

It is unamendable.

Mr. Hattersley

I need advice about whether it is all unamendable. Some of it certainly is. My hon. Friend who will reply to the debate will confirm or deny whether the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that it all is.

I want to make a passing reference to part II, which contains miscellaneous proposals relating to the marking of quantities and other amendments to the 1963 Act. Amongst all the proposals, the one which has caught most attention concerns the measurement of draught beer. It is governed by clause 18, the intention of which is to ensure that the standard measure of beer or cider is what we have always called "the pint" and that the pint, referred to in some places as 20 fluid ounces, shall always by law contain 20 fluid ounces of liquid.

Most people—the weights and measures inspectorate and drinkers—assumed for many years that "the pint" meant a pint of liquid. However, a court in Scotland recently held otherwise. The explanatory and financial memorandum talks about the gaseous portion of any foam on beer and cider", which I more normally call "the head", which according to the Scottish ruling is to be included within the full pint. That does not seem to the Government to be either reasonable or the traditional measurement of beer as understood in this country. Therefore, we propose to institute a system whereby "the pint" is a pint of liquid.

This means in many cases the replacement of the traditional brim measure with a glass which includes a mark up to which the liquid must go. I am assured by the industry that stories of the high cost of this transformation are very much exaggerated and that the new types of glass, allowing for wear, tear and breakage, can be assimilated into the public house system over a reasonable time. We propose to give a reasonable time for that change.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

What was the word the right hon. Gentleman used in speaking of the traditional measure?

Mr. Hattersley

"Brim", from where bubbling—I cannot remember the quotation, but Keats got it right. However, Keats could not operate the new Act, because the "beaded bubbles" would not wink at the brim they would have to wink at or around the pint mark about ¼ below the brim. But that is only a minor element of the Bill.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Can the Secretary of State be more specific about what he considers "a reasonable time"? A pub in a country village which may have a large collection of pint pots for dealing with, say, a local wedding, but a comparatively small turnover, will not get rid of that stock through breakages for much longer than a pub with a much higher average turnover and therefore a higher average of breakages. Yet that village pub is the sort that can least afford to throw away its stock and buy new, as an average on turnover.

Mr. Hattersley

I take that point. Perhaps I implied that I was relying on my own urban experience. There will be consultation about the introductory period. Although I cannot give a date or time, I understand the point. We shall bear it in mind in ensuring that in the transitional period no unreasonable costs are imposed on public houses.

The second part of the Bill, even including clause 18, is not the essential element of the Bill. The essential element is the transfer of our weights and measures system from a minimum to an average provision.

I end as I began. I believe that such a Bill as this is in the interests of British consumers. It would be absurd if we were to allow ourselves to be talked into believing that, because the minimum system has continued for a substantial number of years, even though it has not been a purely minimum system, there is something superior and preferable about it.

In a previous debate on this subject my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) spoke of the minimum weight system as having served the country well for over a thousand years.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Hattersley

The hon. Lady says "Hear, hear." However, my suspicion is that Ethelred the Unready did not insist that he should pay the Danes according to a minimum weight system. The minimum weight system has operated in this country for a comparatively short time. While it has operated it has been amended because, in its pure form—the form in which we pretend it exists—it is not a feasible proposition in modern industrial society. What we now propose is a positive improvement, and I commend it to the House.

5.32 p.m.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)

It has long been a tradition in this country that the very fundamentals of consumer protection are enshrined in our weights and measures legislation. In the last century there was a little grocer in a small village in Kent who was known as Mr. Nipraisin. He was so called because, as an ardent churchgoer with a stern conscience, and as a good business man, he faced a certain conflict. For example, when weighing out raisins, he would say "If I give one over, that is bad for business. If I give one under, that is bad for myself." The way in which he resolved the problem was to keep a sharp pair of scissors near his scales. He was often seen ceremoniously snipping the last raisin in half. I cannot help feeling that once the Bill is enacted our consumers will be sighing for the simplicity and exactitude of the "Nipraisin" philosophy of weights and measures.

The Secretary of State, however, has made clear that the Bill does not affect weighed-out foods. In the Middle Ages, bread and other products were controlled by individual authorities in each borough. It is only in comparatively recent times, namely, since 1926, that food has been controlled by national edict. Nevertheless, our weights and measures regulations are known, trusted and respected and any change is bound to meet with some concern.

We have before us a measure which, I believe, will lead to the introduction of a system that is more complicated and less satisfactory than the present one. Moreover, it is a system which we would not have chosen for this country if the decision had been ours alone. This was argued by a Conservative Government in Ottawa in June 1973 and by a Labour Government in Rome in June 1974. The right hon. Gentleman was right to point out that it was a decision taken originally by the United Nations in its Codex Alimentarius, rather than the EEC directives which followed, that was responsible for the change which we are now contemplating.

I carefully noted the right hon. Gentleman's remarks in introducing the Bill. Because of the distribution on emphasis that he has given to certain aspects of the Bill may have unwittingly misled some people, I want to ensure that the full significance of this legislation is under stood. I hope that I shall be a little franker than the right hon. Gentleman was about some of the disadvantages. I believe that his presentation of the average system and that given by his Department in its original memorandum have been, to put the matter mildly, somewhat euphemistic. Therefore, I shall attempt to put forward what I hope will be a more balanced view because it is important that the full implications of this are known and understood by the House and the country.

As the Secretary of State made clear, this is purely an enabling Bill. It will enable this or a future Government to introduce a new system of marking, monitoring and controlling the contents of pre-packed goods, most of which will be foodstuffs, based on the average system. This entails a switch from the present minimum net system—which has always been accepted as being a hybrid system, just as the new system will be hybrid—in which consumers can be reasonably certain, except to a negligible extent, that the quantity of goods which they are purchasing is the same as the amount declared on the packet. The variation at the lower end will be less than the variation under the average system.

In practice the present system has meant that, to be on the safe side, the majority of manufacturers have had to overfill. Therefore, in practice, consumers have usually received more. The Bill entails a switch to an average contents system, which means that some consumers could get less—not grossly less—than the amount on the packet—less than they are now getting—while others could get more. I suspect that, as every gambler knows to his cost, there is no such thing as a law of averages. I believe that by some peculiar quirk, which will be totally inexplicable, some people will consistently get less.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Surely the hon. Lady knows that distribution of this sort in life is normal. Therefore, what she said is absolute rubbish. This is what happens in a large number of cases.

Mrs. Oppenheim

I am pleased to note the hon. Gentleman's ardour for the measure and the average system. I said that this happened in life and that there is a distribution, but I made the point that, by some quirk, the same people always get consistently less. That is life. Consumers will be less certain than they are at present about the contents of pre-packed goods which they buy. The change will mean that the total contents packed will be less, and there could be some overall loss to manufacturers. The assumption in the departmental press release that this will automatically lead to a marginal reduction in price is not borne out by the information which I have gleaned, which is that any reduced fill will, in the short and medium term, be offset by the cost of new machinery.

Consumers throughout the country could be forgiven for concluding that we in this House, by considering such a step at all, have taken leave of our senses. It is a big step and will give rise to suspicion and concern. It is ridiculous to try to disguise this fact from the House or from the country. Regrettably, the House has never had an adequate opportunity to discuss the principle of the change. On a secondary basis, it now stems from the introduction of a group of EEC directives requiring harmonisation of systems of control for pre-packed goods for the importation and exportation of such goods. The requirement does not extend to internal trading, and this is a most important point to which I shall return later.

Unfortunately, the Government saw fit to present the relevant directives to the House in November 1974 at nine o'clock in the morning, following an all-night sitting. That debate was strictly limited as to time, there having been a short debate in another place at the unusually late hour for their Lordships of 7.30 pm. However, what has passed has passed. We now have a treaty obligation to make this change and a duty in this House to consider the measure before us which provides the framework for the control of the new system.

Mr. Spearing

Does the hon. Lady agree that on 28 and 29 November 1974 the measure was not passed in the sense in which she has just used the words? On that occasion the House took note of the two directives concerned. It was truncated because hon. Members did not want to knock out Friday's Private Members' business.

Mrs. Oppenheim

The hon. Gentleman has correctly summed up the situation. No vote was taken against it. When I said that what has passed has passed, I was referring not to the directive itself but to the events that have built up to the introduction of the Bill.

Having cleared the air and shed a little light into the darker corners of the Secretary of State's introduction, I turn to some of the advantages claimed for the new system. It is claimed that the main advantage will be to liberalise trade between this country, the EEC and beyond because most of the rest of the world uses the average system. This is the view of industry, particularly that sector which is engaged in the manufacture and exportation of pre-packed goods. Those affected have been concerned for some time that they may be involved in the expense of two kinds of packing machinery, one for the home market and one for the export market.

I always like to give credit where credit is due, and I give it now to the Minister of State. The Government and the Minister of State in particular, have consulted widely with industry and have taken careful note of the difficulties that would arise if there were to be a prolonged period of uncertainty or if British manufacturers were not permitted—again I emphasise "permitted"—to pack to the average system. I fully recognise that one cannot harm industry without harming the longer-term interests of consumers and of the whole country. But in taking full account of these considerations a balance must be struck which takes account of the overall interests of consumers themselves.

The Secretary of State has claimed that one of the main advantages to consumers is that the new system provides more widespread control with perhaps a smaller number of personnel. I hotly dispute that. The trading standards offices will have to provide more specially trained staff at different points in the country. The concentration of such staff will vary from area to area, according to the concentration of manufacturing industry. It will not necessarily conform to the existing availability of specially trained trading standards staff. Even in areas of average concentration more trading standards officers will be necessary.

As I have said on many previous occasions, trading standards offices personnel are under great strain at present because of the welter of extra regulations that have emanated from the Government, a number of which, I concede, have come from the Consumer Credit Act 1974 itself. I have this information from one of the most senior and experienced chief trading standards officers in the country.

It is also the opinion of the Association of County Councils, which is basically in favour of this measure, that the Government are being over-optimistic in thinking that there will be no increase in trading standards personnel. In a letter to me dated 23 November 1978, Mr. Hetherington wrote: Whether there will be a reduction in the volume of work that has to be done by the totality of all weights and measures authorities is debatable. But it will never be capable of being proved one way or the other as to whether the new system leads to less or more work … these points should be put on record. In another letter dated 29 November 1978 from the chairman of the executive council of the Association of County Councils, I take the following quotation: I understand that some local authorities have concluded that they will need extra inspectors to administer the average system. Finally, in a letter dated 4 January 1979 Mr. John Grugeon, who is chairman of the policy committee of the Association of County Councils, said: ACC do not accept the Eden report conclusion that the manpower needs for the new factory level inspections will be more than offset by a saving of inspection at retail level. So we can discount that little piece of optimism for what it is worth.

As to the claim that the new system will provide better consumer protection because consumer inspection will be more widespread, that argument tends to make a virtue out of necessity. Because of the complexity of the new methods of control, monitoring will have to be more complex and widespread. If any hon. Members doubt for a moment the complexity of the formulae which will guide the new controls, I suggest that they look at the patterns in the working party's report and, indeed, read the Bill itself. It is ridiculous for the Secretary of State to claim that our minimum system is less effective in terms of enforcement. Our present net or minimum system does not require such widespread or complicated control as the new system, yet there is little or no complaint about it.

It is also claimed that there will be competitive advantages for industrialists in this country because, when they are exporting, the total fill that they will pack will be less and there will be a reduction in costs. This is true, but it is hardly likely to make them more popular with British consumers. I cannot see that there is much competitive advantage for them on the home market if they are packing to average contents and consumers can still buy their goods packed to net contents.

I hope, therefore, that I shall be forgiven for expressing considerable scepticism about some of the advantages claimed for the new system. Because the relevant directives do not require the average system to be imposed internally, we do, fortunately, still have some freedom of choice. That choice should rest fundamentally with consumers and be reflected in the attitude of manufacturers. The Secretary of State has assured us that the regulations and codes of practice that emanate from the Bill will take full account of that. He rightly states that the Conservative Opposition wish this to be made explicit in the Bill. We believe that in introducing a measure which will make fundamental changes in some of the practices in this country, which will give wide powers, some of which will not be immediately subject to parliamentary control, and which many consumers will not like, the clear intention that these changes are to be permissive must be embodied in the Bill. Indeed, I make it clear to the House that our acceptance of this measure was dependent on obtaining such an undertaking from the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State has made it clear that as a result of our representations such an amendment will be moved in Committee, so that we can be certain that the average contents system cannot be imposed universally and that the regulations which ensue from the measure will themselves be entirely permissive as the directives intend. We welcome and are grateful to the Secretary of State for that commitment. He has correctly represented our position, except in one particular.

Mr. Spearing

The hon. Lady is talking about a question of which other hon. Members do not have direct knowledge. Is she saying that the Government have said that the important changes in the Bill are only optional; for instance, that a national packer who is not exporting can still stick to the existing system and will not be obliged to change to the new average system?

Mrs. Oppenheim

That is precisely what I am saying. That is the undertaking which we received in full from the Secretary of State—and he was quite explicit about it—which made it possible for us to accept the Bill.

The Secretary of State has represented our point of view in everything except one particular. That is that our main concern is not merely to safeguard the position of packers who may want to continue to pack to the minimum system. Above all, our aim is to preserve some freedom of choice for consumers, and I believe that where that freedom of choice exists there is greater certainty and greater consumer protection.

In the United States, which exports more pre-packed goods than we do, the average system has been accepted in principle, but for internal trade freedom of choice has been retained and packers of pre-packed foods are still packing to net quantities for the home market in an overwhelming majority of cases.

In this country, some manufacturers, especially non-exporting ones, will welcome this option, as will their customers, especially as there will be a considerable saving in costs on new packing equipment. It could be that a substantial minority of companies will keep to the existing system if this is what consumer demand decrees.

I cannot imagine, for example, that anyone faced with the choice between two ½1b packs of butter, one packed to an average weight and the other packed to a net weight, all other things being equal, would choose the average weight pack, which of course may weigh less than the stated nominal amount on the packet. Nor do I accept that there need be any additional confusion in comparing the values if the net system is retained. There will not be any more confusion than will in any case occur where there are several packs labelled with the same weight, all at the same price, which actually contain more or less than the advertised nominal amount on the packet. That will be the situation under the new system, despite the fact that the Secretary of State has described it as simpler.

As for the practicalities of having a dual system, the Department in its memorandum has accepted that spot checks will continue at retail level. The Consumers Association has made it clear that it is important that this should continue. It is also clear that the same factory checks as are applied in the case of average quantities could be applied to net quantities without manufacturers having to purchase any new packaging equipment. Indeed, it is of significance that a company packing to the net system will be well within the requirements of the average system, because it will be giving more than is given under the average system.

The person for whom I feel most sorry is the consumer who has a complaint under the new system and is persistent enough to take the package to his local trading standards officer. First, he will have to find a highly experienced trained officer, who will not merely be able to pop his ¼lb bag of jelly babies on the scale—which would have been the case under the present system—but will have to explain to him the vagaries of the system, the complex formulae, the patterns determined in the regulations, in which there are tolerance limits, an absolute tolerance limit at the lower end, a nominal quantity, and so on. In addition, there will be the explanation of how many thousands of packets in each production run fall into each category.

The only advantage in such a situation is for people like me who, when leaping on to the bathroom scales, will be only too delighted to find such distractions as minimum tolerance levels and things of that nature rather than have to face the reality of their weight. But for the consumer who genuinely seeks to know whether he has been given short weight there will be no easy answer and, in some respects, no satisfactory protection.

Mr. John Page

My hon. Friend has explained the Bill in crystal-clear terms to those of us who have not studied it. Can she explain the different permitted tolerances between potato crisps, jelly babies and sugar? Who lays down what the tolerance should be? Or is it automatically 2½ per cent?

Mrs. Oppenheim

It is not automatically 2½ per cent. In some cases it will depend on the tolerance levels laid down in the relevant EEC directives. These will vary, and they will do so for the reasons that the Secretary of State made clear. It has to do with the liquid content and dehydration of some goods. It also depends on the size of the pack itself. The tolerance level in a small pack is less than it is in a greater pack. My impression is that in some cases the absolute limit at the bottom end could be more than the 2½ per cent. which prevails at present.

The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. John Fraser)

At present, the tolerance level agreed with the CBI is 2½ per cent. of all packages. There is not a tolerance limit. The agreement with the CBI is that 2½ per cent. of packages may be below. The tolerance proposed, which will be the same for all products, will vary from 9 per cent. at a quantity pack between 5g and 50g, which is a minute quantity, to l.5 per cent. error at a kilogram, or 2.2 lb, which is a fairly fine error. The 2½ per cent. tolerance there is 1½ per cent. of weight. The 2½ per cent. under the CBI code is 2½ per cent. of all packages with a much wider degree of variation.

Mrs. Oppenheim

The Minister will also want to make it clear that there is an absolute tolerance limit below the tolerance limit itself.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

On the absolute limit to which my hon. Friend has referred, can she confirm that one can search the Bill in vain to find this? Wherever the absolute limit, it is not in the Bill.

Mrs. Oppenheim

I am beginning to feel that I am responsible for the presentation of the Bill. My hon. Friend is quite correct. It is not in the Bill. It will depend upon regulations which flow from the Bill, which is an enabling measure, and in some respects it will depend on the limits set out in the relevant EEC directives.

I turn to the proposal to set up a national metrological co-ordinating unit. This is not the brainchild of the Government but was recommended by the working party and is accepted by the ACC and the Institute of Trading Standards. But it will be yet another quango, let us make no mistake about that. It will give rise to more jobs for the Labour Party boys in local government, or at least for their "running dogs" as I believe they are called.

The Bill refers to 12 members of the unit's staff. Does that number include office and clerical staff? What about accommodation? Is some tower block to be obtained for this new unit? What about the other related expenses? The whole question of costs is unsatisfactory. The projected costs set out in the Bill's financial memorandum are optimistic, to put it mildly, as I have already shown in relation to the enforcement inspectorate. This is especially so as the nature of the co-ordinating unit is somewhat unstable—it can devour itself at any given time, or, on the other hand, it can grow new arms and legs at will. It is had to see how such a creature can be costed accurately.

The ACC, which supports the Bill in principle, has made some strenuous representations to me on this point. In the letter of 23 November 1978 Mr. Hetherington said: The financial memorandum to the Bill is misleading on the subject of costs. It states that after two years there will be a permanent annual saving of £0.2 million. This could give the impression that the Metrological Co-ordinating Unit will itself save money in some way. This is not so. The Bill is confusing the increase in direct Exchequer expenditure which will be necessary to set up the Unit (and this applies whether the Unit is funded directly by central Government or whether it is funded by way of a deduction from rate support grant) with the level of costs in local government as a whole. The increase in expenditure which is necessary to set up the Unit must continue. It has no independent source of revenue. Once brought into being it must be funded by central Government as long as it exists. In a letter dated 29 November the chairman of the executive council stated: On the question of cost, I am sure that one would be deluding oneself if one believed that the arrangements in the Bill would actually save money as the financial memorandum seems to suggest. We need to know more about the Government's proposals on cost and how the members of the unit are to be appointed. The ACC has said that membership should consist of at least five or six members from the ACC and that it should be based on as wide a geographic spread as possible rather than on density of population.

We shall seek clarification in Committee on a number of other matters. We shall want to amend some provisions substantially. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) wishes to raise the question of beer. It is claimed that that provision could help consumers. I see the point, but it is claimed that the cost will add significantly to the price of beer and we shall wish to examine that in Committee.

We do not seek to be disruptive, much as some of us personally regret the necessity for the change. We accept that it is a necessity. We accept that the Secretary of State has gone a considerable way to meet our objections. We are grateful for that. But we are determined the consumers shall be fully informed about the impending change. I regret certain passages in the working party's report which are patronising in that respect.

We intend to ensure that freedom of choice is maintained without detracting from the liberalisation of trade between here and elsewhere. I hope that we shall consider the Bill in a mutually constructive fashion and that both sides will take full account of the need to preserve the balance between consumer interests and international trade.

6.03 p.m.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

I have certain doubts about the EEC, but I do not share the anxiety which has been expressed about this enabling Bill. Problems are associated with the Bill but, on the whole, it will benefit not only British industry but the British consumer.

It is more efficient to have the type of inspection suggested carried out at the manufacturing rather than the retailing stage. The mechanism of the packaging lines and provisions for detailed control already exist at the manufacturing point. Electronic equipment is available to conduct a formal control of packaging production.

At present, we are dependent at the retailing stage on a random inspection. About 5½ million packages a year are tested on a random basis. I cannot therefore understand the argument that the proposal would add to the work of the trading standards officers. I think that their work would be reduced. I believe that between 180 million and 190 million packages a year are produced. It is obvious that the most efficient inspection would take place at the manufacturing stage. There is an overwhelming argument for that change on the ground of efficiency.

The changes proposed in the Bill would lead to a tighter system of control. I did not follow some of the arguments of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim). I understand that under the 1963 Act no more than 2½ per cent. of output can be excluded. Under the proposed legislation provision is made for a total limitation at twice the permitted tolerance. In pure statistical terms that means that even if the production is satisfactory, one item in 10,000 will fail to comply. The Bill will enable products outside the present legislation to be included in the controls. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned moisture loss in tobacco and types of yarn and how it can be calculated at the point of manufacture.

Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of the change is that it will enable a British manufacturer to compete on equal terms not only with EEC manufacturers but with manufacturers in most other countries. At present, because of the domestic control system, there is overfill. Let no one be misled into believing that the overfill is paid for by the manufacturer. It is not. It is always paid for by the customer. When sales are made in world markets, a higher price is charged as a result of overfill. The weight marked on a package might read 15½ oz. when the real weight is 16 oz. There is an enormous advantage in making business men more competitive in the way proposed in the Bill.

The Government must publicise the reforms. Hon. Members have doubts. There is a valid reason for the doubts. There is no danger involved in the changing of packaging machines. But when the weight on the package is changed from l5½ oz to 16 oz, for example, we must be careful that the manufacturer does not push up the price accordingly.

Clause 18 causes me some anxiety. Perhaps the figures have been exaggerated. But I have read that about £30 million worth of brim glasses circulate in pubs and clubs. If there has to be a line on the glass to measure a pint or half pint, the old glasses will have to be eliminated and replaced with glasses with a measure line. From our experience of brewers, the Secretary of State and I know that they do not pay for anything. They do not even pay for their contributions to Conservative Party funds. The drinker pays for those, too. So the brewers will not be paying for this exercise. It may be that if the process were carried out too quickly some publicans would be under some strain if they had to bear this cost. I should like my right hon. Friend to look carefully at the period allowed for this transition.

I ask the Minister to confirm that since this is a weights and measures provision—only an enabling measure at this stage—it will not apply to registered clubs, which supply beer and cider to their members rather than sell it to them. I understand that this is so.

In spite of my doubts about clause 18 and some of its provisions, the Bill is to be welcomed in general. It will benefit both manufacturers and customers, and although all manufacturers will not be forced to move immediately in the direction contained in the Bill, I believe that the advantages of the move are so great that remaining manufacturers will adopt this type of proposal within a short time.

6.11 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

In following the hon. Member for Can-nock (Mr. Roberts), and before coming on to the clause about beer glasses, I should like to make two points on behalf of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which contains most of the largest weights and measures authorities. The authorities are unhappy about the membership of the national metrological co-ordinating unit and seek an assurance from the Minister that there will be consultation with all local authority associations before that body is set up.

The metropolitan authorities feel that, as they are ultimately responsible for administration, nominations for membership of the body should be made jointly by the local authority associations. I should be grateful if the Minister of State could give any assurance on that matter.

The AMA is also worried about the cost. The authorities want some assurance from the Minister that goes further than that contained in the Bill. Clause 6(4) simply empowers the Secretary of Staate to make payments to the metrological unit to enable it to defray the whole or part of its expenses. The AMA asks for an assurance that the necessary financial provision for setting up and running the unit for as long as it is needed will be forthcoming from the Government, either directly or within the rate support grant. I hope the Minister will refer to this when he replies to the debate.

Turning to clause 18, may I declare my interest as parliamentary adviser to the National Union of Licensed Victuallers. I do not believe, either, that the National Association of Licensed House Managers would dissent from my remarks. There is a problem over lined glasses. Let me give the House some figures. In the year ended 31 March 1977, the total beer consumed was about 40 million bulk barrels, something like 268 pints per head of the total population. I realise that the Minister may not be able to reply to this tonight, but I should like to know what statistics exist of prosecutions for under-measure in the two years ended March 1977.

There is a problem. A difference apparently exists between those of us in the South and those in the North. In the South, we are apparently accused of drinking flat beer, but we do not necessarily like the small heads that appear on some beer. Those in the North, I fear, are sometimes fooled into thinking that a beer such as Federation is a good beer when it is just another type of keg beer. The stuff that we get in this House is not really good, traditionally brewed, beer. One day, perhaps, we might have some traditionally brewed beer and there will be a rapid move away from the cry for more and more "Fed".

What worries the licensed victuallers—I emphasise that I am speaking on their behalf and that I have no remit from the brewers—is that a drive for brim measures may give a greater impetus to the installation of more meter dispense points. It becomes difficult to gauge the pulling of a beer handle, whereas the operation of a meter dispense point is much more simple. The average cost of a meter dispense point is £180. An average pub would require eight points. There are some 40,000 public houses without this equipment, and therefore we are contemplating a capital cost of some £50 million.

As the hon. Member for Cannock rightly said, this would have to be reflected in the price of the beer to the customer. One needs to be certain that there is a real necessity for clause 18. I question whether there is a need, but if that need exists I want to raise another point. The brim measure ensures that customers are not served with a measure less than they are asking for. I would like the Minister to say when he winds up the debate, or, if time will not permit, to tell me afterwards, whether it will be an offence under existing legislation or under the Bill if more beer is supplied than less.

There is a myth among publicans that if they are caught serving an over-measure rather than an under-measure they risk prosecution. Is the Minister in a position to give some reassurance that if this were done he would advise trading standards officers that this was a foolish prosecution to undertake? I understand that since the Bill was printed and first seen there have been discussions with what is known as the legal metrology department of the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. I understand that the officials at the Department feel that the Minister may be able to accept that the specification for a lined glass should be redefined with the line being either ¼ in., as I prefer, or 5 mm below the brim. I would like the Minister to say today, or in writing to me before the Bill goes into Committee, whether that is a possibility. I remind him that beer is frequently served at waist level. It will be almost impossible to fill to an existing line because of the problem of looking down the whole time. The new design of the ¼ in. or 5 mm line would effectively make it easier.

The Minister will know that many people go to the same public house week after week. They have their own tankard hanging on a hook. Do they now have to replace that tankard, which may be a pewter one, by a lined tankard, or will they be permitted to have the measure put into their own tankard?

On the question of timing, I hope that the Minister will be able to give an assurance that there will be adequate time for the replacement of the old brim glasses and the introduction of the new glasses. In the 1963 Act, which is the principal Act we are considering, there is a precedent. Part VI of schedule 4 to that Act gave approximately two and a half years for this to be introduced. If we are to try to save as much cost as possible being passed on in all pubs—my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) pointed out that this is also a problem in country areas—much more time will be needed than seems envisaged at the moment.

I hope that the Minister has taken those points on board and I look forward to hearing from him, either in his reply tonight or in a note before the Bill goes into Committee.

6.20 p.m.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

The most interesting statement so far is the Minister's claim that too many underweight packages were being thrown away in industry. I do not believe that too many can be thrown away. Underweight packages should not exist. The Bill will allow the present limit of 2 per cent. of underweight packages to go by the board. Up to half the packages produced will be allowed to be less than the advertised weight without risking prosecution.

I asked the Minister how statistics would be acquired to justify a prosecution. He said that he would be dealing with that matter later in his speech, but unfortunately he never did.

What will be the sample size? There has been reference to the percentage of the weight which will be allowed as a standard deviation and to the four standard deviations that will be permitted, but what size sample are we talking about? In the classic sense, to get a normal distribution curve one should sample every manufactured article. Of course, no one suggests that, and therefore it is essential to know the sample size and how a prosecution will be made. I am concerned that, in a thinly-attended House, we are debating legislation which will make it legal for half the packages produced to be less than the advertised weight when sold to our constituents. I cannot be happy about that.

The source of my difficulties is the fact that this is a purely enabling Bill which gives few details of what the law will be. After four and a half years in this place, I know that enabling legislation usually boils down to a debate later on, after 10 o'clock, on a statutory instrument which one must either take or leave. It cannot be amended. I have often voted for things not because I thought that they were ideal but because voting against them was even worse. That is ludicrous and justifies my lack of enthusiasm about enabling legislation in general and the Bill in particular.

What job shifts will this change cause? It has been said that approximately the same number of people will be employed but that the inspections will take place largely within companies rather than shops. My part of the country has no food manufacturing industry at all. I have never been able to understand why, since such areas actually produce the food. Are we talking, therefore, about a transfer of employment from the outlying areas to the centre? I suspect that we are. That follows a trend of which I am only too well aware as a Member for a peripheral area.

I have little enthusiasm for the Bill, which reduces consumers' rights not just in terms of what they will receive when they buy their goods but in terms of their ability to initiate a prosecution on an individual underweight package. I know that such prosecutions can be launched now, because I have helped someone to do it. Whenever the vote comes tonight—at seven o'clock with a bit of good luck, at 1.30 a.m. with a bit of bad luck—my hon. Friends and I shall vote against it.

6.24 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) said that there would be a Division on the Bill, come what may. I fancy that it will be some time after 10 o'clock, unless there are some very brief closing speeches.

The difficulty is that when this subject came before the House on 28 November 1974 we had far too little time to discuss it. That is why I believe that the cause of open government has not been best served by my right hon. Friends.

The House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) for giving the wide background to this matter. The Secretary of State may have made the concession clear, but it was not easy to follow him on this very technical subject, of which some of us have no great background knowledge.

I do not agree that, on its British merits, this is a desirable Bill. It is clear that the Government have an awkward problem. The EEC says that to export one must abide by the average weight system, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) said, sets a problem for British manufacturers. The hon. Member for Gloucester said that that was also the view of the Conservative Party.

All that is being done is to make it optional, and that is a blessing, but it will mean an increase in bureaucracy, and almost certainly in the cost of inspection, and the consumer will not have the satisfaction of knowing, at least with the average weight type of packet, that he can seek a prosecution through the inspector of weights and measures.

There are even more complications. I suspect that, with the same sorts of food in the same sorts of size, some will be under the average weight system and some under our existing system. I applaud that possibility, but it makes things even more complex for the consumer. So today is a bad day for the consumer.

The reason, of course, is the EEC directive. My right hon. Friend tried to get out of it by saying that we would have done this anyway. When I challenged him about the terms of reference of the working party, he said that it was a working party to see how we could implement the EEC proposals. So I do not take seriously his protestations about British merits.

Nor do I think that the explanatory and financial memorandum has been at all helpful. I understand—since only a few hours ago—that the working party reported in Command 6805. Why was that not put in the explanatory memorandum? Why did not the memorandum list the EEC directives Com. (72/202) and R/2628 of 1973? They are the real authors of this legislation.

Mr. John Fraser

I hope my hon. Friend will acquit us of the charge of not giving full information. I went to considerable trouble, in case the explanatory memorandum was not clear, to have placed in the Vote Office a document which tries to explain the matter in lay terms by explicit reference both to the working party document and to the directives.

Mr. Spearing

I applaud my hon. Friend's industry and forethought in putting such a document in the Vote Office. I know that this debate is a week early and that we did not know until Friday that it was coming up, but hon. Members had no knowledge of this further explanatory material, and I was not handed it when I asked for a copy of the Bill. If my hon. Friend has felt it necessary to do that, it is clear that he must have felt that the explanatory and financial memorandum was lacking in some way.

Mr. Fraser

indicated dissent.

Mr. Spearing

My hon. Friend shakes his head, but that is the only interpretation that I can put upon what I know was meant in a kindly and helpful way.

Mr. Fraser

In case my hon. Friend thinks that I was trying to hide it away, I would say that I also annexed it to the press notice. I cannot do much more than that.

Mr. Spearing

I agree that my hon. Friend could not have done much more than he has done, but Her Majesty's Government, in their corporate sense, might have done a little more. Perhaps he is not responsible totally for that, despite the great collective trinity that exists.

Despite the derogation that we have achieved for domestic packers, this is really an EEC Bill. It is packed full of the complicated arithmetic contained in the EEC document which was published in 1973 and made available only in typescript. But the position appears to be a bit more dangerous than that. As so much will be left to be done by regulation, I suggest to my hon. Friend—perhaps he will confirm this when he replies—that any future self-enacting regulations by the EEC on these matters will become self-enacting in this country at least under the courts, although it may be that Her Majesty's Government will issue secondary legislation by statutory instrument in addition.

I understand that it would be open to the EEC Commission to promote further regulations amending the complicated mathematical formulae or regulations already issued, which will be directly applicable to those firms which choose to use this system. Therefore, whether or not Her Majesty's Government then table parallel statutory instruments, this House will have been bypassed. That is another reason why this is a bad Bill.

The change of principle which the Bill presages is one which is not helpful to the consumer in the end. Although I agree that bulk checking can perhaps be done more conveniently at the point of packing and, indeed, is done in that way—there are arrangements whereby, for practical reasons, it is done and I make no objection to that—the point of longstop application cannot now be in the shop, with the new average weight system, and that makes all the difference. I suggest that this removes, and must remove, from the consumer his option to prosecute at the point of enforcement, in the shop.

Clause 5 refers to the EEC mark. My right hon. Friend, in introducing the Bill, referred to this. I assume that it is an optional mark which must be made by those who are exporting to other EEC States or importing into this country. Is clause 5 applicable universally in this country, or will it come under the derogation which the Conservative Party has wrung from the Government?

The hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) has already mentioned the objections of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities to the metrological unit. These follow very closely, if not exactly word for word, those of the Association of County Councils. I draw attention to another paragraph in the AMA's letter: On Part I, the Association makes no comment on the introduction of the 'average system', since Parliament has already accepted that this system of control of packaged goods should be introduced in conformity with our EEC obligations. Certainly, the AMA has withdrawn from the argument about merits, on the ground that Parliament has already accepted that this system should be introduced. As I pointed out to the hon. Member for Gloucester in an intervention, Parliament has not accepted that this system should be introduced. The debate on 28 November 1974 was on a take-note motion. I made it clear on that occasion that, but for knocking out Friday's business, I would have divided the House. A take-note motion, as hon. Members know, does not commit the House to approval.

I do not know what correspondence has passed between Her Majesty's Government and the AMA. If either the AMA or anybody else has been given the impression that Parliament has agreed that the system in principle should be introduced, that is a bad thing indeed, because Parliament gave no sanction whatever to this system.

I do not think that this is a matter that we can clear up today, but I hope that the Consumers Association, or the weights and measures inspectorate, if they were told that that was so, would investigate it and let one of us in this House know whether any such impression was given, for clearly that was not the constitutional position.

My final points concern the deal, or agreement, which has obviously been made between the two Front Benches. I make no complaint about that, except that those of us who were not party to it were not able to know this before we came into the debate. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he thinks that much advantage will be taken of it in British circumstances. I think the hon. Member for Gloucester said that in America the net weight position has been retained. Perhaps the working party had some information, and my hon. Friend may be able to tell us whether the bulk of goods packed in this country will continue to retain the net weight arrangement. If that were so, it would meet some of the objections that we raised in our amendment concerning the loss of weight. Loss of weight will be a very important factor for goods commonly sold loose, otherwise we shall have a system under which somebody buying a pound of vegetables in a bag, which is able to breathe, will have a different rule applied to him from that which is applied when he buys a pound of those vegetables loose from an open stall.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

I should like to take the hon. Gentleman back to one of the points that he raised earlier about the number of manufacturers who retain the net system. I hope he will accept that this will depend very much on consumer demand. It is very important that the new system should not be misrepresented to consumers as being necessarily a better system if we are to ensure that consumer demand results in a fairly large number of manufacturers continuing with the present system.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. It will be particularly important in meeting the problem that we outlined.

The Bill is an unfortunate one. It reduces protection for the consumer, it increases the bureaucracy, and it probably increases the cost. It might be helpful to certain manufacturers in respect of their export bills, but I suggest that the arrangements in the Bill might be used in relation to that part of packaging which was designed or found to be particularly suitable for export. The Bill is one that we should not have had. It is forced on us by our accession, in effect, to the EEC, whatever my hon. Friend may say. It is a Bill which should have been presented in a better way and in a better manner. I have grave reservations, in principle, therefore, about the Bill coming before the House.

6.37 p.m.

Mr. Michael Neubert (Romford)

On a previous occasion when the House debated these issues, one of the more excitable of the anti-European Labour Back Benchers spoke of these proposals as overturning 1,000 years of history. I should like to think that at this point on a Monday evening I am present at a turning point in man's great adventure, but I fear that the truth is somewhat less flattering. I fear that when the dust is settled on this short debate the claims made, whether adverse or favourable, in relation to the Bill will be seen to be less significant than speakers asserted at the time.

We have at present a system which is familiar, adequately understood and able to meet the needs of the consuming public. The minimum contents regime has been the practice in this country since 1926. To claim that the measures now proposed turn that system upside down in favour of a system that would be adverse in its effect is to exaggerate by a very long way. As it is, the Bill as printed would leave half the expenditure by households, on products sold by weight or volume, on the minimum system, and therefore we are talking about only a very limited area of consumer transactions. The explicit undertaking given by the Secretary of State in his opening speech, that the system proposed will remain optional, will increase the area still further and allow that freedom of choice which we on the Opposition Benches think so important for consumers.

In a way, to have such a dual system operating is analogous to the present system on metrication. It was always argued that to have a dual system would be costly to industry and confusing to consumers. In my estimation, that argument is greatly overdone in that case and in this. The fact that there will be two systems available will enlarge the freedom of choice without massive confusion to the consumer, who is well able to cope with the different systems and already does. The consumer already copes with packages that are marked in two ways, both the metric and the traditional imperial system.

Naturally, if a more serious suggestion about reforming our way of life were proposed, for example, that we should move from driving on the left of the road to driving on the right, I should accept that if a dual system were to remain it might be rather dangerous. That I concede. But in these matters I think that we need have no fear.

On the other hand, although I have suggested by what I have already said that the issues are perhaps not as significant as they have been claimed to be, I should not downrate the importance of the subject of pre-packed goods, because we are given a figure of 30 billion pre-packs in a year, or one and a half pre-packs per day for each man, woman and child. That is not an inconsiderable subject for discussion tonight, and the system of packing those pre-packs is obviously of importance to every individual.

Complexity is also a factor in this debate, because the working party estimated that there were 25,000 separately identifiable articles. That, in some small way, is some justification for what we would otherwise regret to see enter on to the public scene, namely, the creation of the control unit. It will be necessary to have a strictly controlled unit, strictly limited in its expenditure, to ensure that there is co-ordination and standardisation when dealing with these matters.

Opponents of this measure ascribe its origins entirely to our membership of the EEC. The Secretary of State, on the other hand, went so far as to say that the Bill had nothing at all to do with the EEC. I believe that the truth will be found to be somewhere nearer the middle. It has been made quite clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) that the reason for this measure coming forward is to accede to United Nations measures and the working party within the Codex Alimentarius Commission. My sleep was broken during the night by those two words hammering in my head—"Codex Alimentarius"—Latin being the least of my languages, but I find that this commission is a constituent body of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation, concerned with food standards. It is from that body that these proposals have eventually come to us, although we are considering them, obviously, in the context of the European directive.

It is true that throughout the world other countries have adopted and practised the average contents system. The United States of America has such a system. Canada has such a system. Australia and New Zealand have such a system. South Africa, India, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Norway have an average contents system. Therefore, in at least one respect it is to our advantage to introduce such a system here, since it will enable our trade to develop and assist exporters of pre-packed goods.

At the same time, there will be many manufacturers who will not need to take advantage of such a system, who do not have a substantial export market or any export market at all and who will be content to continue with the minimum contents system. So what is now conceded by the clause which is to be moved in Committee by the Government is that the option will remain.

There is also some advantage in switching the checking from the retailer to the manufacturer. This reversal of liability is something to which we shall no doubt come in connection with product liability, where it seems that responsibility lies more heavily on the manufacturer than on the retailer. To achieve a check at the production or packing stage will obviously be more effective in terms of the same resources being used. The figures given are of 5½ million packages currently checked. With the same resources—not increased resources, as we feared—that would check, statistically, 180 million pre-packs. Therefore, there is also an advantage there.

It is, however, particularly important that we are reassured that this system will not lead to more resources allocated to inspection and to more inspectors being needed because in addition to the check at the packing stage there will still be a check at the retail stage. There is this double approach to inspection.

That is relevant because, by chance, and conveniently, I received in today's post the annual report from my own London borough of Havering's public protection division, in which the chief trading standards officer makes it plain that: In the past year Havering's performance in respect of weights and measures work presents a very dismal picture with the prevailing conditions not giving much scope for variation or improvement. Of the 3,255 premises liable to regular inspection, only 169 were visited during the year under review, with a correspondingly low level of inspection of weighing equipment and commodities … these statistics being regrettably the lowest on record. The reason for that is not negligence by the authority but the shortage of skilled, trained trading standards officers to carry out the work.

Therefore, if the implication of the Bill is that more trading standards officers will be required, the Government must explain where these trained men will come from. The present position is that local authorities are competing with each other for a very small number of trained men indeed. My own borough had, during the year, the equivalent of only one and two-thirds weights and measures inspectors—if one can understand the concept of two-thirds of a weights and measures inspector. Obviously, that borough cannot carry out its present duties, let alone the new duties that will be imposed upon it by the Bill.

It is also necessary to ensure that local government has sufficient financial resources for this task. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) is, like myself, a vice-president of the AMA—a more distinguished vice-president than myself—and he has already made the point that local government will need to be reassured that money will be made available, either by direct grant or by provision within the rate support grant. Nothing in recent months has given sufficient assurance that that new call on local authority resources will be recognised in an increased grant.

It has also been said that the control proposed in clauses 8 and 10 is so detailed as to be objectionable to local authorities, which are well used to this kind of work. Is it really necessary for the Secretary of State to exercise such powers over the authorities as are proposed in those clauses?

Having put those points of reservation about the Bill, and having heard the opening speeches and the few speeches that followed—which again did not demonstrate an acute interest in the issues raised by the Bill—I believe that there seems to be a danger of overstating the case. Certainly, to claim, as the Secretary of State did, that the Bill will be of advantage to the consumer is going far too far. That should be offset against the claim made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester that there is a danger that the Bill may adversely affect the consumer.

Probably the best estimate is that the Bill will have a neutral effect. To promise, therefore, that it will bring great advantage to the consumer, and in particular to encourage the thought that savings will be achieved by moving to the average contents system, is to encourage expectation amongst the public. As we have already been told that the public are not to be told by means of public information advertisements what is proposed but are to learn of the proposals perhaps from sensation-mongering journalists, it is imperative that the Government make absolutely clear what is proposed in the Bill and explain that it is likely to have not an advantageous effect, but at most a neutral effect.

After all, the amounts of tolerance are very fine. Competition in the grocery trade, which will account for most of these packets, is very intense. With inflation moving up by two-thirds of 1 per cent. a month anyway, any small savings will need to go to moderate inevitable price increases and cannot be looked forward to by the consumer as a great new era of consumer prosperity. That cannot be expected in the Bill, and it should not be promised.

6.50 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. John Fraser)

The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) puts the matter very clearly when he says that he believes that the effect of the Bill generally in relation to consumers will be neutral. Certainly, I think that it will be neutral in the perception that they have of the change.

We have two systems, both of which are hybrid. We have a minimum system at present, which has many aspects of the average within it, and inevitably so, and we are proposing to move to an average system, which has many aspects of the minimum within it. So far as perception by the consumer is concerned, I think that the effects will be very largely neutral, and perhaps they will not even be perceived by the consumer at all—although I agree that it is important that consumers generally should understand the nature of the Bill. I do not think that anyone could accuse my Department or the Government of not consulting very widely over a long period not simply trade organisations but consumers as well.

The report of the metrological working party is a learned document It goes into matters in great detail. Where there are difficulties, such as with desiccation, it clearly spells them out. However, at the end of the day we arrive at a general acceptance by trade, local authorities and consumer organisations, all of which were represented on the working party, of how the change should be brought about and how it will increase protection for consumers.

It is true that we might have delayed the matter had it not been for the EEC directives which were negotiated five years ago. But we must be clear about this. If the Government, after debate in Parliament—true, an attenuated debate—agree that there ought to be a derogation for a period of five years, during which we can work out the sort of controls that we want under the new average system, they have to accept the logic of that exercise, which is that at some time at the end of the derogation period there will come a time when we must put our obligations into effect.

We should do a great disservice to industry—many firms are represented in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)—and a disservice to consumers if we did not act during the course of this year and if industry, consumers and local authorities were in considerable difficulty and confusion as to what was the nature of the law when the directive came into force on 1 January next year because we had not legislated in the House and with the subordinate orders that are necessary.

Perhaps I may deal briefly with points mentioned in the debate. As regards staff, it is our judgment that we should not need any more, although there may be some redistribution. Of course, one will need more staff where goods are packed, and perhaps rather fewer staff where goods are sold. But that is a change which ought, perhaps, to be taking place at present. It is certainly a change that will take place as a result of the Bill.

There will have to be a different degree of training, but perhaps even that ought to be necessary now. However, our judgment is that after a running-in period of two years, there should be a permanent saving on cost.

As to the unit, this will be run by local authorities, and appointments will be made after consultation with them.

We shall have consultations about beer glasses. It will not be necessary to increase the cost of glasses.

A number of other points were raised in the debate, but hon. Members were kind enough to say that I could reply to them in writing. I propose to do that.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 198, Noes 41.

Division No.44] AYES [6.54 p.m.
Abse, Leo Dempsey, James Johnson, James (Hull West)
Anderson, Donald Dewar, Donald Jones, Alec (Rhondda)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Doig, Peter Jones, Barry (East Flint)
Armstrong, Ernest Dormand, J.D. Jones, Dan (Burnley)
Ashley, Jack Duffy, A.E.P. Judd, Frank
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Dunn, James A. Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham) Dunnett, Jack Lambie, David
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Eadie, Alex Lamborn, Harry
Bain, Mrs Margaret Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) Lamond, James
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) Leadbitter, Ted
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood) English, Michael Lewis, Arthur (Newham N)
Bates, Alf Ennals, Rt Hon David Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Lomas, Kenneth
Blenkinsop, Arthur Evans, Ioan (Aberdare) Lyon, Alexander (York)
Boardman, H. Evans, John (Newton) Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Ewing, Harry (Stirling) McCartney, Hugh
Boyden, James (Bish Auck) Faulds, Andrew McElhone, Frank
Bray, Dr Jeremy Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. MacFarquhar, Roderick
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Fitch, Alan (Wigan) McGuire, Michael (Ince)
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) McKay, Alan (Penistone)
Brown, Ronald (Hackney S) Foot, Rt Hon Michael MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Buchanan, Richard Forrester, John Maclennan, Robert
Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green) Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd) Mallalieu, J.P.W.
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Garrett, John (Norwich S) Marks, Kenneth
Canavan, Dennis George, Bruce Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)
Cant, R.B. Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Carmichael, Neil Golding, John Mellish, Rt Hon Robert
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Gould, Bryan Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Cohen, Stanley Gourlay, Harry Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby)
Coleman, Donald Grant, George (Morpeth) Molloy, William
Colquhoun, Ms Maureen Grant, John (Islington C) Morgan, Geraint
Concannon, Rt Hon John Grocott, Bruce Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
Conlan, Bernard Hamilton, W.W. (Central Fife) Morris, Rt Hon Charles R.
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Hardy, Peter Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Corbett, Robin Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Morton, George
Cowans, Harry Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Moyle, Rt Hon Roland
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Home Robertson, John Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick
Crawshaw, Richard Horam, John Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H) Noble, Mike
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Huckfield, Les Ogden, Eric
Davidson, Arthur Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey) O'Halloran, Michael
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Hughes, Mark (Durham) Orbach, Maurice
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Hunter, Adam Ovenden, John
Deakins, Eric Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Owen, R thon Dr David
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Padley, Walter
de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey John, Brynmor Palmer, Arthur
Park, George Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford) Weetch, Ken
Parker, John Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich) Wellbeloved, James
Pavitt, Laurie Snape, Peter White, Frank R. (Bury)
Pendry, Tom Spriggs, Leslie Whitehead, Philip
Perry, Ernest Stott, Roger Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Price, William (Rugby) Swain, Thomas Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Radice, Giles Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W) Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Roberts, Albert (Normanton) Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E) Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock) Tierney, Sydney Williams, Sir Thomas (Warrington)
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Tilley, John Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Roderick, Caerwyn Tinn, James Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton) Tomlinson, John Woodall, Alec
Rooker, J.W. Tomney, Frank Woof, Robert
Roper, John Torney, Tom Wrigglesworth, Ian
Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock) Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V) Young, David (Bolton E)
Sedgemore, Brian Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Selby, Harry Ward, Michael TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Server, John Watkins, David Mr. James Hamilton and
Shersby, Michael Watkinson, John Mr. Ted Graham.
Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Bidwell, Sidney Kelley, Richard Skinner, Dennis
Body, Richard Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Spriggs, Leslie
Cryer, Bob Litterick, Tom Steel, Rt Hon David
Edge, Geoff Loyden, Eddie Stewart, Rt Hon Donald
Fell, Anthony MacCormick, Iain Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Flannery, Martin Madden, Max Thompson, George
Garrett, W.E. (Wallsend) Mawby, Ray Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Grist, Ian Maynard, Miss Joan Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Heffer, Eric S. Molyneaux, James Welsh, Andrew
Henderson, Douglas Parry, Robert Winterton, Nicholas
Hooley, Frank Penhaligon, David Wise, Mrs Audrey
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch
Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Richardson, Miss Jo TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hughes, Roy (Newport) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Mr. A.J. Beith and
Hutchison, Michael Clark Ryman, John Mr. Clement Freud.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).