HL Deb 20 December 1960 vol 227 cc848-61

3.4 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be again in Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Dundee.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD MERTHYR in the Chair.]

Fifth Schedule (continued):


Fresh fruits and vegetables

1. References in this Part of this Schedule to fruits or vegetables of any description are references to such fruits or vegetables either—

  1. (a)in the state in which they were harvested; or
  2. (b)in the said state apart from cleaning or trimming or

2. Subject to paragraph 4 of this Part of this Schedule, potatoes

  1. (b)shall be pre-packed only—
    1. (i) in one of the following quantities by net weight, that is to say, eight ounces, twelve ounces, one pound, one and a half pounds or a multiple of one pound and

(2) On a sale by retail of any goods to which this paragraph applies which are not pre-packed in a container marked with an indication of quantity, being quantity by net weight or, in the case of countable produce, quantity either by net weight or by number, the quantity of the goods sold, being—

  1. (a)quantity by net weight or, in the case of countable produce, quantity either by net weight or by number; or
  2. (b)if the goods are sold in a container which does not exceed the appropriate permitted weight specified, in the case of soft fruits, in Table C or, in any other case, in Table B of Part XIII of this Schedule, quantity either by net weight or by gross weight,
shall be made known to the buyer at or before delivery of the goods to him.

(3) Goods to which this paragraph applies shall he pre-packed in a container which exceeds the appropriate permitted weight aforesaid only if the container is marked with an indication of quantity, being—

  1. (a)quantity by net weight; or
  2. (b)in the case of countable produce, quantity either by net weight or by number.

4. The following shall be exempted from any requirement of this Part of this Schedule which would otherwise apply thereto, that is to say—

  1. (c)a pre-packed collection of not more than six articles of countable produce within the meaning of paragraph 3 of this Part of this Schedule, if the container is such that the nature and number of those articles can be clearly seen by a prospective purchaser;
  2. (d)bunched carrots;
  3. (e)any goods in a quantity of less than one ounce.


The Committee will no doubt remember that, when we adjourned last evening, we were engaged in debating Amendment No. 124, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Stonham.


I had thought that the discussion on this particular Amendment would be quite short and had indeed, hoped so. I think it appeared likely to become prolonged because the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, in his reply, did not quite appreciate the reasons why it was proposed to insert the words the removal of inedible or extraneous matter, or cutting, dicing or slicing". This wording is exactly the wording used in the Board of Trade's own Regulations, namely, the Weights and Measures (Pre-packed Food) Marking Regulations, 1957. They are the latest regulations on this particular subject and it was mainly for that reason that that wording was used in this particular Amendment. It appeared likely last night that we might have been going to have a discussion on "net weight at the time of packing", which I should have regretted, because, in the hope that we might proceed with rather more expedition, I should prefer not to have this discussion on this particular Amendment, or on the following two Amendments with regard to potatoes, which deal in fact with a particular aspect of that problem. I should prefer to have the main discussion on Amendment No. 128—that is, on the principle of net weight at the time of packing. I hope the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, is now in a position to agree that the point I have now made regarding the wording of this Amendment was not fully appreciated by him last night, and that he will give an assurance that he will look into that point. If so, we might end this particular discussion.


if tried to make my reasons for resisting the noble Lord's Amendment, on the information that we had, quite clear last night. The noble Lord is quite right in suggesting that there is now a system of packing diced, cut-up vegetables, of which at that time I had no knowledge at all, though I imagine he had. With that sudden piece of new information, I think it only right that I undertake to look at it anew.


I am most grateful to the noble Lord, and I ask (leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.7 p.m.

LORD STONHAMmoved, in paragraph 2(b), after "weight" to insert "at the time of packing ". The noble Lord said: I beg to move this Amendment, standing in my name and that of my noble friends. This Amendment, which I hope we can take with the next one, No. 126, since they are both on the same point, deals with potatoes. As the Bill stands at present, potatoes are the only example of horticultural produce which must be marked with a net weight statement. I should have thought it most desirable that there should be as little differentiation as possible between similar types of produce, and that identical reasoning applies to pre-packed potatoes as to other fruits and vegetables, referred to in a later Amendment concerning the necessity of a "net weight at the time of packing" being permitted. It is for that reason that I should prefer to defer until we come to the later Amendment discussion on the principle of net weight at the time of packing.

However, with regard to the particular position of potatoes, which I hope the noble Lord will bear in mind, the net weight marking is required under existing legislation—that is not disputed. But it is already causing very considerable difficulty among retail traders, particularly where potatoes are pre-packed in a damp state after washing. Anyone who has been to a pre-packing plant knows that that is inevitable, because the potatoes are sorted, graded, the waste ones thrown out, and then they are washed and dried on a conveyor and, after weighing, are put into the polythene bags. It is recognised that they lose weight fairly rapidly as they dry out and overweight packing is the rule. They are, in fact, packed overweight to the extent of 5 per cent., but even that is not normally sufficient. For example, on Saturday, just to make a personal test, I went to a greengrocer's and bought a package of potatoes which had been packed by one of the leading houses, a house of the very highest repute. On the package appeared the statement: "Minimum net weight, 5 lbs." I took it home and weighed it, and I found that the actual weight was 4 lb. 11 oz. I am not suggesting that it is the case—in fact I know it is not—that there was any dishonesty whatsoever on the part of the firm. They had, in fact, packed the potatoes quite substantially overweight, and, so far as they were aware, there was no likelihood that when the potatoes were actually sold they would be underweight. I mention that illustration merely to emphasise this particular difficulty.

To-day something like 280 million packs of pre-packed potatoes are being sold every year. Their popularity is increasing weekly. But, under the present regulations, a large number of them have to be check-weighed at the retail end, even though they lose weight much more slowly than other fruits and vegetables. Therefore, I submit this Amendment for the consideration of the Government. Experience over the last four days has taught me not to expect acceptance, but I ask the noble Earl to look at the point and, in conjunction with the other Amendment which I shall move later, to see whether we can come to an agreement about it at a later stage. I beg to move.

Amendment moved—

Page 66, line 9, after ("weight") insert ("at the time of packing").—(Lord Stonham.)


As the noble Lord has explained, the combined effect of the two Amendments would be that packers would be under no obligation, when packing potatoes to one of the weights specified in subparagraph (b) (i) of paragraph 2, to make any allowance whatever for loss of weight due Ito evaporation during distribution and storage, and would be required only to mark the packs with their weight "when packed", instead of with their net weight at the time of their subsequent sale. According to our information, which appears to disagree slightly with that of the noble Lord, potatoes are not subject to a very rapid rate of loss by reason of evaporation, and packers should be able readily to assess the probable loss of weight over an average period and allow for it in packing. As the noble Lord himself has pointed out, ever since 1926, potatoes have been required to be sold by net weight, and when they are pre-packed, the containers have had to be marked with the net weight of their contents. We are not aware that this has in the past occasioned any great difficulty to packers or consumers.

While appreciating and being very ready to meet the noble Lord's wish that the main argument on pre-packed weight should be left to a later Amendment, I think that in asking the Committee to resist this Amendment. I am bound to say that it strikes at the roots of the principle of weight marking—namely, that when anyone consults a statement of quantity on a pre-packed article he should be able to be sure that, except for a loss of weight which could not reasonably be anticipated by the packer, the goods are not less than the quantity stated. That is not the argument for our point of view; it is our point of view, which I thought I was bound to mention in resisting the Amendment.


I would only say that for many pre-packed commodities marking weight subject to evaporation is now extremely common. I do not know whether the noble Lord intended to say, on the question of principle, that even that kind of marking, equally with the one I suggested, would be wholly contrary to the Government's view.


With the noble Lord, I do not want to enter into the main argument at this stage. The point is that we believe that the weight at sale should be estimated and marked, while the noble Lord thinks that the weight at packing should be marked. We shall have to discuss that later, but I mention it in order to say that, within our own convictions on the wider matter, of course, we will examine the points that the noble Lord has made.


I do not think that the Government have got the point yet. There is now a sharp expansion in self-service stores, and to make them fully successful we must not suddenly increase the number of staff. The remark just made about pre-packed potatoes having to be weighed and marked at the time of sale interrupts the whole process of the consumer in a self-service store, whose shelves are stocked with pre-packed goods ready to take away. I can see no reason why the Government should not accept this Amendment. They can leave it to the officers who conduct the administration of these stores to estimate the amount of tolerance and say whether the tolerance which is being followed by the salesmen is too high. I cannot understand the Government on this matter.


On the assurance given by the noble Lord to look into this, I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.16 p.m.

LORD STONHAMmoved, in paragraph 3 (1), to leave out sub-paragraph (b), relating to soft fruits. The noble Lord said: Your Lordships will recall that during the discussion on Clause 22 I moved an Amendment which was designed to exclude soft fruits from the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, in replying to the case I then put forward, said that the Amendment would be much better in place where I am now moving it. We have secured agreement so far. In refusing the previous Amendment, the noble Lord pointed out that, as drafted and in that place in the Bill, the Amendment would take out of the Bill canned and bottled soft fruits, which certainly was not my intention. Therefore, I accepted his criticism. Now I am moving this Amendment with the express intention of removing soft fruits from the provisions of the Bill.

I do not want to go over again the arguments that I previously adduced, but I want to summarise them briefly in this way. Almost everywhere soft fruits are picked and packed in the field in punnets. They are mostly grown by quite small growers, many of them working collectively or adjacent to each other. They are put straight on to transport and sent to the market. They are subject to loss by evaporation, spillage and pilfering. The present method of packing direct in the field in punnets is an immense improvement on the system of years ago, when larger containers were used and fruit had to be tipped out before being sold, and was thus greatly deteriorated. The effect of the Bill, as it is at present, would be to disrupt the whole industry and, in my view, would in large measure finally ruin an industry Which, without dispute, is the most depressed industry in the country.

We have accepted the principle that, while it is our desire in every possible way to protect the interests of consumers, we do not wish to impose on industry restrictions which are so impracticable as to be impossible of observance and which will seriously damage the industry. I would remind your Lordships that the Government have taken this view of other industries. They have decided, for example, that imported cheeses should be virtually excluded from the provisions of the Bill. The noble Lord said only yesterday, and quite rightly, that the main reason for that was because they were subject to evaporation. Equally, these articles are subject to evaporation. I am submitting to your Lordships that what can be done for foreign cheese producers ought to be done for the home-growers of soft fruit. The cases are virtually parallel, except that the case for the soft fruit growers is infinitely stronger than that of the producers of foreign cheese, although the foreign cheese producers lobby and their pressure may, like their cheeses, be stronger than that of the soft fruit growers. I ask the Government to examine this particular case, with which I dealt at length a few days ago, and to compare it with the decision which has already been taken, quite rightly, in my view, in relation to the importers and distributors of imported cheese. I invite them to take the same action in regard to soft fruits, to accept this Amendment and to exclude soft fruits from the provisions of the Bill.

Amendment moved—

Page 66, line 18, leave out sub-paragraph (b).—(Lord Stonham)


This Amendment would mean that loose sales of soft fruits would not have to be on a weight basis, and although, in practice, most loose sales are by weight it would enable the retailer to sell them by dry measure, if he so wished, which would not be desirable from the consumers point of view. Quite naturally, the noble Lord has related his Amendment to the sales of these fruits when pre-packed—that is, when packed in the traditional punnets or baskets. This, as the noble Lord has appreciated, touches upon one of the most difficult questions with which the Bill attempts to deal. At the moment the public are open to serious fraud in this trade, because the punnets are not completely enclosed, since the fruit needs air to preserve its quality, and since traders along the line of distribution may justifiably take out the odd fruit which is going bad so as to preserve the quality of the others. This does, however, also enable anyone who wishes to help himself to a strawberry or two before the punnet reaches the shop. Further, these fruits themselves are liable to a considerable loss of weight by evaporation. So that, as the noble Lord said, when these goods are offered for sale, as they usually are in ½lb. or 1 lb. punnets, the public have no assurance as to the amount of fruit contained in them. We accept, all the same, that it would not be equitable to require the packer to mark these punnets with the weight of their contents.

With all the foregoing considerations in mind, we have come to the conclusion that the only solution fair to the public and growers alike is the one described in Part VII—namely, that the buyer shall be entitled to know from the retailer the gross weight of the fruit and the punnet and will have the assurance that the weight of the punnet itself shall not exceed a certain limit. We appreciate that any requirement which the Bill imposes on the packer, the wholesaler or the retailer in the fruit trade is likely to have some repercussions upon the relations in one part of the trade with the others, and that some readjustment of the old-established ways of doing things may have to be made. In the present case, nevertheless, we feel sure that the packer, the wholesaler and the retailer of these soft fruits, which everyone enjoys, will work together in co-operation and goodwill to implement this form of protection, which would equally be to the benefit of the public.


I am sure they will work together, as they do now, and serve the public; but the Government are putting on them a quite impossible task. All that the noble Lord said about the defects of this system that I propose applies with equal force to the imported cheeses, it somebody buys a packet of imported cheese that is enclosed in a container, it need not be marked with the weight, either net or gross, and the purchaser does not know until he opens it what is inside. But with the open punnet people can at least see what they ere buying, and in some cases can almost count the berries. I am only asking the noble Lord now to look at that parallel within the next week or so; and if he does, I think he will come to the conclusion that, in order to be consistent, the Government must, in the case of soft fruit, take exactly the same decision as they already have taken in regard to cheese.


I want to say only a few words on this matter. This is one of the most important subjects that we have to deal with in this Bill. I spent some time talking with the chief inspector of my own authority on this subject, and he assured me that in the self-service stores and supermarkets they have behind the scenes quite a large staff continually weighing this perishable stuff daily and remarking the prices. I should be in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, if it put the onus on the pre-packer; but it does not. As my noble friend Lord St. Oswald rightly said, it puts the onus on the retailer. I think the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, said tit would put the retailer in an impossible position in the big service stores. The inspector assured me that they re-weigh these things very often because of their rapid deterioration. I think it is important that it should be said, for the protection of the consumer, that though a few strawberries may be pilfered on the way, they are made up again to the correct weight.


When I used to market blackcurrants I never found any difficulty about filling the punnets with the correct weight at my end, and a little over. Any difficulty that may arise must arise in the retailer's establishment. I cannot see, from reading the Bill, whether or not the pre-packed goods have to be re-weighed for the consumer or whether the fact that they originally weighed 4 lb. or 12 lb. is sufficient. The consumer has of recent years been more and more swindled over strawberries, and I hope that the provisions of this Bill will help to remedy this state of affairs; though I do not believe there has been any degree of misrepresentation over the other fruits. Could my noble friend tell me what happens at the retail end to what has been properly weighed at the despatching end?


I have told noble Lords that the buyer will be entitled to know from the retailer the gross weight of the fruit and the punnet and will have the assurance that the weight of the, punnet itself will not exceed a certain limit. I hope that that satisfies my noble friend. That is what the easterner will have to be told when he buys the fruit.

The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, compared the discussion on cheese on another day with this one. I should like him to know that the exempted cheese represents only 20 per cent. of the total sales; whereas he wanted to exclude all soft fruit., Much of that cheese is sold loose or used by manufacturers, and the amount of pre-packed cheese not covered by Part III of the Schedule is very small indeed. We seem to be talking a lot about foreign cheese, as if the whole 20 per cent. were covered; but in fact not all of it by any means is imported. As regards the last question the noble Lord asked me, obviously I always read his words with great care, and if I can find anything in them on reading them through to make me think that I am wrong in this regard I will certainly bring them to the notice of my right honourable friend.


I am grateful to the noble Lord for that assurance. I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.30 p.m.


This Amendment merely proposes that mulberries, which I presume have been excluded in error, should be included among the list of soft fruits listed in Part VII. Although I agree that they are one of the less common fruits there is, nevertheless, a substantial sale, particularly in some parts of the country, and in order that we should be consistent I think they should be inserted in the Schedule. I beg to move.

Amendment moved—

Page 66, line 21, after ("loganberries") insert ("mulberries").—(Lord Stonham.)


The noble Lord's powerful argument on behalf of the mulberry has entirely convinced me, and I readily accept his Amendment.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

LORD STONHAMmoved, in paragraph 3, to leave out sub-paragraph (2) and insert— (2) Any sale by retail of any goods to which this paragraph applies, other than countable produce which may be gold either by net weight or by number shall be by net weight only, the weight for pre-packed goods shall be net weight at the time of packing.

The noble Lord said: This is the Amendment to which I referred earlier, which covers the whole principle of our argument for net weight at the time of packing in connection with pre-packed vegetables. I would ask your Lordships to note that with this Amendment we reject as quite unnecessary the need for a container allowance. The container allowance comes out, and we ask that the net weight in pre-packed goods should be the net weight at the time of packing. This Bill is designed to cover practically all consumer goods, but in its effect it takes no account whatever of the fact that pre-packed fresh fruit and vegetables are staple goods purchased in large volume and goods which, above all, contain from 70 to 90 per cent. of water. They are all losing weight continuously, often rapidly, and certainly unavoidably.

Although we agree that weighing is essential at some stage, the weight of these goods will inevitably vary if they are weighed repeatedly, as they must be, under the terms of the Bill at present. We submit that the quantity of pre-packed produce must be defined at a given point of time. When produce is packed it is made up in quantities as determined by the packer for sale to the public. It is only at this point that the quantity of produce intended to be purveyed can be identified. It will inevitably change subsequently, but the quantity remains the same. If there are fifteen Brussels sprouts packed in a net or polythene bag, and two days later those sprouts are 10 per cent. less in weight—and that does happen—nevertheless they are the same fifteen sprouts. The quantity, so far as the housewife is concerned, is the same. But as drafted the Bill maintains that quantity can be defined only in terms of weight. Therefore, if the packer is going to be within the terms of this Bill, he must pack substantially overweight.

I know the noble Lord will say, quite rightly, that the packer does not have to mark these goods and, therefore, he does not have to pack them overweight. But what happens in practice is that the retailer will, say, buy 50 pre-packs of Brussels sprouts and ask the packer the weight, because obviously that will determine the price he pays. The packer tells him the weight. They are 1 lb. packs, and he sells them as such, or wants to sell them as such. When self-service stores are handling 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 of these bags a day, it is absolutely necessary that they should not be under the necessity of this constant weighing. Therefore, the retailers will demand to know the purported weight. This is necessary because subsection (4) of Clause 25 will interpret their weight at any time in the future—that is the extraordinary thing—as being the same as the weight when they were packed.

With horticultural produce, this is manifestly absurd. Of course it cannot be the same as when they were packed. The Government cannot, in all honesty, deny this absurdity. If the packs are not marked, the packers retailer customer will nevertheless insist upon substantial overweight, and the cost of this will have to be added to the cost of the pack and be passed on to the housewife who, in effect, will be paying for so much evaporated water. Even if the packer does pre-pack overweight, there can he no guarantee whatsoever that when the goods are actually sold they will not be underweight, because it depends upon how long after they are packed they are sold, and also on the atmospheric conditions—whether it is a hot, sunny, time—and even on the temperature in the shop.

What are the safeguards afforded to traders? The packer in most circumstances can get off scot free, but the retailer is almost always going to be in trouble, because Clause 27 (1) (b) requires that retailers take "all reasonable precautions". What are "reasonable precautions" in handling goods which lose weight minute by minute? Certainly every pack will have to be weighed when received, and again at least once a day if unsold. The volume of pre-packed produce in larger stores and supermarkets would make it utterly impracticable, because it might involve 2,000 or 3,000 weighings daily, which again would have to be paid for by the housewife.

There is one certain and easy way in which the retailer can safeguard himself. Every night he can dip unsold bags in water; he can soak them in water, and they will probably be overweight. But, surely, it is not in the interests of the housewife that the retailer should give all his unsold pre-packs a drink in order to satisfy this requirement—because that is the only change that has happened; some of the weight has evaporated out of them. All he has to do if the Government insist on this provision is to drop them in a tank overnight and take them out in the morning. There is a safeguard for the retailer in Clause 26 (1), where some protection is given to him where goods are found to Abe below weight through no fault of the retailer. But subparagraphs (e) and (f) remove the defence of warranty from the retailer's reach in the case of pre-packed produce. Obviously he must be aware that the weight of the pack has altered from what is stated in the warranty unless they were packed to a superior weight. His only defence is in Clause 27 (a), that the offence was due to some other cause beyond his control. Weight loss is indeed beyond his or anyone else's control, so he is thrown back again on to "reasonable precautions", and the burden on the retailer is almost intolerable.

The Bill attempts, and it fails, to provide a workable method of consumer protection by enforcement of a known weight at the time of retail sale, and I submit that the only possibility, other than excluding these pre-packed vegetables from the Bill, which I do not think anybody wants, is to say that the net weight shall be the weight at the time of packing. There are only a few hundred of these packers. Very little inspection would be needed to do the inspecting at the packing end instead of thousands of retail points. It would be much easier and much more reliable. It would certainly save the retailer from an unjust and an impossible position, and at the same time would help the industry that we all want to help to expand, and to expand the pre-packing of vegetables, which is the one real hope of horticulture for the future. I hope that I have made this case clear and that the noble Earl will seriously consider it. I beg to move.

Amendment moved—

Page 66, line 30, leave out sub-paragraph (2) and insert the said new sub-paragraph.—(Lord Stonham.)


Before we discuss this Amendment I think it might be convenient that your Lordships should now hear the statement from my noble friend Lord Perth. I therefore move the House do now resume.

Moved, That the House do now resume.—(The Earl of Dundee.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and House resumed accordingly.