HL Deb 15 July 1926 vol 64 cc1163-71

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill originates in your Lordships' House. It is based on the recommendation of the Food Council, presided over by a member of your Lordships' House, Lord Bradbury. It follows very closely, and with few exceptions only, the Report of that Council on short weight and measure in the sale of food. Legislation of the nature contemplated by the Food Council has been recommended or supported by the County Councils Association, by the Association of Municipal Corporations, and by different individual county and municipal local authorities, including, particularly, the London County Council. The Incorporated Society of Inspectors of Weights and Measures and the Parliamentary Committee of the Co-operative Congress were consulted by the Food Council and expressed their approval of legislation being framed upon these lines, and the main principles of the Bill have also, I believe, been approved by different trade associations. So that this Bill comes before your Lordships with a good deal of qualified and instructed support.

There are at the present moment no legislative enactments applicable through the whole of Great Britain preventing short weight and measure in the sale of foodstuffs, except in the case of tea and bread. There does not seem to be any general requirement that goods, though nominally sold by weight and measure, shall actually be weighed and measured. Under the existing law it is an offence to use in trade any unstamped instruments, weights or measures, or, where the appliances are themselves correct, to commit wilful fraud in their use. But in practice it has been found exceedingly difficult to obtain any conviction under this head, because it is very nearly essential that the inspector or the other expert witness shall have witnessed the fraud in the manipulation of the apparatus. The giving of a quantity less than that demanded or represented to be supplied is not generally speaking a statutory offence, and such remedies as may exist are under the Merchandise Marks Act or at Common Law. These put an individual complainant to an amount of trouble which is entirely disproportionate to the sum involved, and really are quite impossible and impracticable for the smaller consumer.

There has been for some time a good deal of complaint as to the practice of giving short weight or measure in the sale of foodstuffs, and this practice has been made easier by the use of prepacked foods, and the necessity for some strengthening of the law has been pressed upon the Board of Trade by the County Councils Association and the Association of Municipal Corporations. The Food Council, after taking a great deal of evidence and after a very exhaustive inquiry, came to the conclusion that, though these malpractices are certainly not generally prevalent in the retail food trade, yet they occur with sufficient frequency to render some action necessary particularly in the interest of the poorer class of consumers. They think also that such action would be supported by a majority of the reputable traders. Objections that have been taken have rather been directed towards points of detail than to the general principle of the Bill itself. Great difficulties have been exerienced in trying to apply, or in considering how to apply, the measure to wholesale dealings in agricultural and horticultural products, and these have been in general temporarily excluded from the operation of the Bill, though there are in Clause 10 some provisions that in certain eventualities may bring such dealings within its purview.

I will give a very short account of the different clauses of the Bill, because I think it may assist your Lordships when we come to deal with them in Committee. Clause 1 makes it an offence to give short weight, measure, or number in the sale of any foodstuffs. Clause 2 prescribes that markings of weight or measure on pre-packed articles shall be deemed to refer to net weight or measure, unless otherwise specified. Clause 3 prohibits misrepresentation of weight, measure or number by any means whatever, and Clause 4 prescribes that certain scheduled articles of common consumption shall be sold exclusively by net weight. When sold in packets they are to be made up in certain definite quantities and unless they are made up on the premises where they are retailed they must be marked with a statement of their net weight at the time of packing or at the time of importation. The articles may, however, be made up in any desired quantity if they are weighed in the presence of the purchaser and delivered to him forthwith or if they are accompanied on delivery by a statement of their net weight.

Clauses 5, 6 and 7 prescribe the general conditions to be observed on the sale of butchers' meat, bread and milk respectively. Clause 5 provides that butchers' meat shall be retailed exclusively by net weight and, unless weighed in the presence of the purchaser and immediately delivered to him shall be accompanied by a statement of such net weight. Clause 6, in conjunction with the subsequent clauses of a general nature, incorporates the provisions of the existing Sale of Food Order in respect of bread, with certain modifications which have been introduced after agreement with the Scottish Office. The clause provides that bread shall be sold, except where supplied by contract under certain specified conditions, exclusively by net weight and in loaves weighing one pound or an integral number of pounds. Fancy bread, as it is called, and loaves of twelve ounces or less are exempted, and the conditions are laid down as to the methods of weighing or inspecting the bread. Clause 7 confines the retail sale of milk, except dried or condensed milk, to quantities of half a pint or multiples of half a pint. But Clause 8 exempts from the provisions of Clauses 4, 5, 6 and 7 food sold for consumption on the premises or sold in the small quantities denned in Clause 14 as "petty amounts."

Clause 9 empowers the Board of Trade to make Regulations for the purpose of adding to or varying the list of articles scheduled to be sold only under the special conditions mentioned above with or without the modification of such conditions, and also prescribes the manner in which indications of net weight shall be marked on packages. These Regulations will be subject to the approval of Parliament and will not come into force until six months after they are made. Clause 10 empowers the Ministry of Agriculture, after consultation with the Board of Trade, to make Regulations prescribing the units of sale to be employed in whole- sale transactions in fruit, vegetables and so on, and fixing the dimensions of containers that can be used for the purpose. Pending the issue of these Regulations the provisions of the Act will not apply to finch transactions unless there is actual representation of weight, measure or number. Clause 11 confers on inspectors of weights and measures the powers of inspection and entry and purchase necessary for the execution of the powers conferred by the Bill on the local weights and measures authorities, with particular reference to the inspection of pre-packed articles.

Clause 12 lays down the penalties and Clause 13 safeguards traders from prosecution in respect of deficiencies due to causes beyond their control, such as the unauthorised acts of servants and bona fide mistakes or accidents, and generally safeguards them against vexatious prosecutions of any kind. It applies also to defence by warranty, and provides time limits for the institution of proceedings and the notification thereof. Clause 14 defines the expressions used in the Bill or limits their application, and Clause 15 provides that the Act shall be construed as one with the Weights and Measures Acts. The effect of this is that the local administration of the Act will rest with the local weights and measures authorities. The clause provides also that there shall be a period of grace of not less than six months in respect of the provisions relating to pre-packed articles. As to the schedules, the First Schedule sets out, as your Lordships will see, a list, beginning with bacon and ending with potatoes, of the articles required by Clause 4 to be sold by net weight. The Second Schedule sets out the safeguarding provisions in respect to defence by warranty which are applied by Clause 13, and the Third Schedule deals with the enactments to be repealed. That, very shortly, is a summary of the detailed provisions of the Bill.

I should like to make one or two remarks about points in which the Bill differs from the advice given by the Food Council. First of all, jam and marmalade, owing I believe to considerable technical difficulties which connot at present be met, are excluded for the time being from the schedule of articles which are only to be sold by net weight. Then, as regards pre-packed goods, they are allowed to be sold in net quantities of twelve ounces, which was not to be permitted under the advice of the Food Council. I believe this change was largely made owing to the considerable trade in packed peas which were generally sold in packets of twelve ounces or so, and it was felt that it would be impossible to give this special privilege of being sold in twelve ounce packets to packed peas and not to other articles of a like nature. Under other provisions of the Bill the packets would bear a clear indication of the net contents. I have already mentioned in reference to fruit and vegetables that wholesale transactions are excluded from the operations of the Bill for the time being. The Ministry of Agriculture, of course, will have power under Clause 10 to make Regulations prescribing the units of sale that may be adopted.

There are only two other points which may call for some detailed criticism when we come to the Committee stage. One is in regard to what is known as Scotch fancy bread. I understand that this article is sold in units of 1 lb. 12 ozs. and that, though it is called fancy bread, some 30 to 50 per cent. of the usual household consumption is in this fancy bread. It is urged that this trade is a long established one and that it would be much disturbed by the laying down of units of 1 lb. and 2 lbs. There have been many representations from the local authorities insisting that there should be no exception in the case of this particular class of fancy bread and, therefore, we propose in this case to follow the advice of the Food Council. One point remains, and that is as regards selling sugar by net weight. There is some fear among the makers of the heavier paper bags that then trade would be a good deal dis- turbed because, under these provisions, it may be more difficult for the traders to use these heavy paper bags. That has been very carefully considered by the Board of Trade and they have come to the conclusion that on the whole it is better to follow the advice of the Food Council. They find it very difficult to advise another proposal that has been made, that these paper bags should be standardised. Your Lordships will see that there is a good deal of detail in the Bill which may, and no doubt will, be examined on Committee stage, but I do not think your Lordships will find it difficult to give this Bill a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a — (Viscount Peel.)


My Lords, there is one small point to which I should like to direct the noble Viscount's attention. We are all glad to see him back and, possibly owing to his absence, he may not have observed this point. I am proposing to suggest an Amendment on the Committee stage of this Bill, in Clause 12, which deals with penalties. I dare say this matter has come to the attention of the noble Viscount, but I thought I would make certain and call his attention to it now. The Amendment is to the effect that the conviction should be posted in the shop of the offending tradesman. I will not enter into the merits of it now, but I think it will be a proposal well worthy of discussion by your Lordships. It will be a case of making the punishment fit the crime. No doubt, when the time comes, the noble Viscount will be able to give us the views of the Government on the matter.


My Lords, I ought to tell the noble Viscount that, although I have no objection to make to the Bill, there is one Amendment that I myself, or one of my noble friends, will propose to move, and that is in regard to the application of this measure to Scotland. It is a matter which has been considered by one or two Committees, and one at any rate, the one presided over by my noble friend Lord Rathcreedan, reported against including Scotland in this Bill. I do not propose to go into it now, because it is obviously a Committee point. I mention it in order that the noble Viscount may know that an Amendment is impending.


May I ask the noble Earl this? Is he directing himself solely to the point about fancy bread, or is it his intention to leave out Scotland generally?


No; it is the question of fancy bread.


My Lords, as I was Chairman of an Interdepartmental Committee which dealt with the whole question I should like to appeal to the noble Viscount in charge of the Bill to accept one small Amendment. Perhaps he may be able to do so when the Bill goes into Committee. If it is made it will make the Bill entirely acceptable to Scotland. I may point out that we had called before our Committee experts in the bakery business from all over the kingdom and one fact stood out prominently: that was the admirable manner in which the bakery trade is managed throughout Scotland. It was evident that it is managed in a manner far better than is the case in any other part of Great Britain. For generations it has been the custom in Scotland to sell bread at 1 lb. 12 oz., that being the standard loaf of ordinary bread. No less than 75 per cent. of the product is in this form. The other 25 per cent. is in what is known as fancy bread, this fancy bread consisting of what is known either as the tinned loaf, the Vienna loaf or crusty bread. Therefore the public is amply protected and they are perfectly satisfied. I need scarcely toll noble Lords that when either a Scotsman or a Scotswoman has made a bargain and that bargain is acceptable to them the chances are a hundred to one that the bargain is a good one.

All that Scotland demands is to be left alone. They find that the present system answers admirably and the proof is that between 1917 and 1921, when food control did introduce this matter, the immediate effect upon the fancy trade was a fall of 33 per cent., showing that the people in Scotland did not approve of the change which this Bill is to bring about. Again, the co-operative societies throughout the whole of Scotland are strongly in favour of things being left as they are. Another matter was this. To standardise bread at one point would be detrimental to the bakery trade in Scotland. I will not enter into detail, but all their bake ovens, utensils and so forth have been put up on the basis of producing this particular bread, and if you make this alteration you will inevitably throw a great expense upon the bakery trade because they will have to scrap much of their machinery and utensils. The result will be not only a rise in the price of fancy bread but in the price of all bread throughout Scotland. Therefore it will be seen that this is a matter of importance.

The only objection that I have heard raised is that it might occasion some difficulty to the inspectors. I do not think there is any difficulty whatever because, even to those who are not accustomed to deal with bread, the differences in shape, in size and the general appearance of the so-called fancy bread are such that it is easily recognisable. I wish to appeal to the noble Viscount in charge of the Bill to introduce—though it may be a matter for Committee—the following slight Amendment, which would meet the views of Scotland: In Clause 14, subsection 3, after the words "similar character," add the words "which alternatively, may be weighed at one pound and three-quarters." The result of that small Amendment, which the noble Viscount might easily introduce before the Bill goes into Committee, would meet with the entire satisfaction of the bakery trade in Scotland and of the general public.


My Lords, I think even in the elastic procedure of this House we rarely deal on Second Reading with Committee Amendments. We do not, I think, take the Committee Stage before the Second Reading, but I am very much obliged for the observations made by the noble Lord. I only wish to say this, that although he and the noble Earl have both spoken about Scotch fancy bread, not a single Scotsman has got up and objected to this Bill and they are very well represented in your Lordships' House. I do not know why the cudgels on behalf of the Scotch fancy bread are taken up by two Englishmen.

I do not want to deal with the details at this stage, but I am not quite sure from the evidence before me that the Scottish housewife is really so capable of making a good bargain as she has been represented to be. There is a good deal of evidence to show from samples that have been taken, that the 1 lb. 12 oz. loaf of fancy bread does not weigh anything like 1 lb. 12 oz., but in fact sometimes weighs as little as 1 lb. 6 oz. That seems to contradict the noble Lord's evidence. The only other point he mentioned was this. He said it would please the whole of Scotland if I accepted his Amendment. All I can say is that a great many municipalities in Scotland have strongly pressed this question of the standardisation of fancy bread. I do not know what evidence the noble Lord can bring forward, but I think his statement that the whole of Scotland would be gratified is perhaps rather a large one in the circumstances.


My Lords, I should like to repair the omission mentioned by the noble Viscount and to say as a Scottish Peer that in Scotland we do want this change, and I hope it may be made.


My Lords, the noble Lord said there was no information that they did want it. When the conference of the Scottish Co-operative Societies assembled in Glasgow on March 27 they unanimously pressed for it.

On Question, Rill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.