HL Deb 08 April 1963 vol 248 cc808-45

3.9 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I hope your Lordships feel you are welcoming an old friend. When the earlier Bill was before the House we spent seven days in Committee and three days on Report and a large number of Amendments were dealt with, some 280 in all in Committee and a further 140 on Report. The Bill as it left the House in February, 1961, did, however, reflect the results of your Lordships' consideration, since the No. 2 Bill which the Government introduced in another place in July, 1961, contained further Amendments of detail, a large number of which stemmed directly from proposals made in this House. Although, like other noble Lords at the time, I felt my time had been wasted—your Lordships will remember I was on the other side of the barricade at that time—I do not now think our time was, in fact, wasted. It is a much better Bill, largely, as I hope your Lordships will agree, because of what happened in your Lordships' House last time.


My Lords, I do not wish to pursue this question of wasting time, but does the noble Lord seriously think that this is the most efficient way in which we can use our time—to collect the views of the House? Does he really think it is necessary to go through hundreds of Amendments, many of which are rejected, on Committee and on Report in order to collect the views of the House? Surely some better way can be found.


My Lords, I am quite certain it is an inefficient way. I am merely saying for the comfort of the noble Lord, and for my own comfort, that all our words were not completely wasted.

The objects of the Bill, as your Lordships know, are really twofold. There is, first of all, the tidying up of the chaos in which the weights and measures law is at the present time. As an instance of how involved is this tidying up, your Lordships may have noticed that the date of the earliest of the Acts of which we repeal portions is 1796. We go back as far as that in our tidying up. That was the Hay and Straw Act, 1796. We are taking away certain sections of that Act. The other, and perhaps to many people more important, aspect of the Bill is that it is a more necessary part of consumer protection. Probably it is the part that ought to be dealt with first in legislation before other consumer protection legislation comes forward. That is just speaking generally.

I was in some doubt how to deal with this Second Reading. It is a long and complicated Bill, and one normally goes into great detail in describing the Bill. But your Lordships have had all this before—although, of course, I am entirely in the hands of the House in this matter. Unless any of your Lordships interrupts me, I intend—I think this should be adequate, although it will take some time, even in this form—to deal with this Bill Part by Part instead of clause by clause, referring to certain clauses in any case, because I think they ought to be referred to, but principally referring to changes which have taken place since the last Bill was before your Lordships. I hope that that will meet your Lordships' wishes. It will certainly curtail some of my discussion, though not, of course, necessarily on other points that noble Lords wish to raise.

Part I of the Bill deals with the basic units of weights and measures—the pound, yard, kilogramme and metre—from which all others are derived. Hitherto, the yard and the pound have been defined by reference to pieces of metal, the Imperial Standards, as they are called, which have been subject to minute changes over the years. Now, for the first time, the yard and the pound are defined by reference to the metre and the kilogramme, thus establishing a constant mathematical relationship between imperial and metric units. They involve very slight changes in the value of the yard and the pound, changes to which I hope your Lordships will not object. (The yard will be one ten-thousandth of an inch longer and the pound one-thousandth of a grain lighter.) But I do not think it is likely to worry your Lordships unduly. The Bill also provides for the maintenance and verification of physical standards representing these units both centrally by the Board of Trade and by the local authorities. Part I also sets up a Commission on Units and Standards of Measurement. The Commission's task is a purely scientific and technical one: it is to advise the Government on technical questions relating to the basic standards and on any changes needed in the definition by law of the units and standards, including new ones.

The only significant change since the earlier Bill was before your Lordships has been to define more precisely the tasks of the Commission on Units and Standards, and to ensure that any recommendation involving adding to or removing units in Schedule I will be subject to consultation with interests concerned, as well as to an Affirmative Resolution of both Houses of Parliament.

Part II with its related Schedules (if I may, I will take those together) deals with those units and types of weighing and measuring equipment which are lawful for use for trade. It prescribes the units which may be used, and some obsolete units are to be abandoned. I am sure some schoolboys will regret it, but the rod, pole or perch will be done away with, and, after five years, the bushel, peck and pennyweight. Part II also provides for Board of Trade approval and for local authority testing of equipment used for trade.

Now the changes in this Part of the Bill compared with the corresponding Bill last time. Clause 10(7) has been added to provide for a changeover to the use of metric units by pharmacists, whilst leaving doctors free to continue to prescribe in apothecaries' units. The Bill differs from the 1961 Bill in that all weighing and measuring equipment in use for trade—except where exempted specifically—will not have to be tested and stamped by an inspector, but only such classes as the Board prescribe under subsection (1) of Clause 11. Under existing law all weighing equipment and all measures have to be stamped, but only a few classes of measuring equipment, notably petrol pumps. The original Bill covered all the latter equipment; that is, the measuring equipment. It would not have been practicable to issue the regulations for inspectors' testing procedures within six months, and in any event it may not prove desirable to cover all the many different types in use in bulk transactions between manufacturers and processers. The intention is to cover by regulation under Clause 11 all those classes of equipment which are at present covered and then to consider, case by case, whether further classes of equipment should be brought in. This means, I think, that new processes coming in will have more flexibility.

Clause 14 now gives power—and these are further changes—to lay down by regulation the abbreviation of lawful units so as to protect the public from misleading abbreviations. Formerly, the permitted abbreviations were listed in a Schedule; which was the Fourth Schedule to the previous Bill and which has now disappeared. The revised procedure will give great flexibility. To meet criticism of Clause 16 in another place, it has been amended so as to provide a defence for an innocent employee—for example, a shop assistant in a grocery store—who unwittingly uses unjust weighing or measuring equipment.

Part III of the Bill deals with public weighing or measuring equipment, and it consolidates the various laws governing the provision by local authorities of public weighbridges. Clause 20 deals with the offences in connection with public equipment. The law here has been amended, first, to ensure that purported as well as actual weighings are covered by the clause; secondly, to require the name and address of the person bringing an article for weighing only if the weighing takes place; and, finally, to extend from one year to two years the period for which records of public weighing and measuring must be kept. The first and third of these changes have been made in order to deal with particular cases of fraudulent practices which have come to our notice—for example, where a weight ticket was issued but no weighing had, in fact, taken place.

Part IV, being, with its Schedules, a very detailed part of the Bill, I must go into slightly greater detail. This deals with regulation of transactions in goods. It provides for the use in everyday trade of the units and equipment defined and controlled by earlier Parts of the Bill. Its basic purpose is to ensure that buyers are provided with the most accurate information possible about the quantity of goods they are buying. Thus, Schedules 4 to 8, which are related to this Part of the Bill, lay down requirements providing for the various ways in which the quantity of various specified products shall be brought to the notice of the customer. Part IV itself brings these requirements into effect and gives the Board of Trade power by order to extend or modify them, or to apply them to products not at present covered by the Schedules. The Board may make such orders only after consultation with the interests concerned and with the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

The Schedules, 4 to 8, cover a very wide range of foodstuffs, household products and all types of solid fuel. Buyers must be informed of the quantity of these products, but the detailed requirements vary for different commodities. The requirements may be to sell by weight or measure, to mark the quantity on the container of pre-packed goods, or to "make the weight known" in some other way. Wherever practicable, the Bill requires that the weight to be given shall be the net weight, and this is the case for all those non-food products (except for large packs of fertiliser) which are required to be marked with their weight. Very many foodstuffs must be weighed net, or, if pre-packed, marked with their net weight; but this requirement would be impracticable for some goods; for example, meat, where, for hygienic reasons, it is necessary to weigh the goods on a piece of greaseproof paper, or for certain pre-packed foods, such as soft fruit, which are liable to heavy and unpredictable loss of weight by evaporation. These products, therefore, may be weighed gross with their container, provided that the container is within a specified limit. The Bill goes further with certain staple foodstuffs, and requires that they shall be pre-packed only in certain specified quantities, thus simplifying the shopper's task of comparing the value for money of different brands. These detailed requirements are to come into force two years after the passage of the Bill; of three years in the case of draught spirits.

Clearly, when a buyer knows how much he is buying, he must get the quantity and no less. This Part of the Bill includes, for the first time in national legislation, a general provision making it an offence to deliver short weight or measure. This is in Clause 24. There is also provision in Clause 23 for delivery notes to be given for a wide range of goods; and Clauses 25 to 28 provide defences and safeguards to traders in proceedings, if they have taken all proper steps to comply with the law.

My Lords, the main changes since last time are these. The powers in Clause 21 to make orders and regulations are somewhat extended. They now cover, for example, the sale of pre-packed goods from vending machines, and methods of calculating quantities for the purpose of the Bill; for example, the drained weight of fruit in a tin. Clause 33(1) and (3) have been added. Clause 33(1) deals with methods of sale by quantity and Clause 33(3) gives the Board power to provide by order (subject to Affirmative Resolution of Parliament) that for goods covered by the order a requirement to "make known" the weight of the goods may be satisfied by the retailer's providing weighing equipment for the customer to weigh the goods himself. The purpose of Clause 33(3) is to provide for the case of pre-packed foods—particularly fruit and vegetables—which lose weight by rapid and unpredictable evaporation, and for which it is not practicable, particularly in self-service stores, to require the weight to be marked or the goods to be weighed by the shopkeeper.

On the commodity Schedules the changes include Schedule 4, which deals with food; the "do-it-yourself" weighing provision of Clause 33(3) is allowed for fresh fruit and vegetables only. Secondly, pre-packed meat is no longer required to be marked with weight—because of difficulties for New Zealand packers—but the weight must, of course, be made known to the buyers. Thirdly, horse meat has been dropped from the Schedule altogether, since very little is now sold for human consumption. Fourthly, pre-packed butter and fats, dry fruits and other goods in Part IX are to be marked with their net weight instead of either net or gross weight. Fifthly, dried fruit and vegetables, flour products and coffee powder have been added to the list of goods to be packed in specified amounts. Fruits and malt loaves and large shortbread are exempted. Mushrooms have now been included. Spirits may still be sold draught in one of three measures, one-quarter, one-fifth, or one-sixth gill—




—but the seller must use one measure for all the four spirits covered, gin, rum, whisky, and, I know my noble friend Lord Jessel will be glad to hear, vodka.

Schedule 5, which deals with ballast, is now confined to sale and delivery and no longer covers carriage for reward as it did in the old Bill. Schedule 6 deals with solid fuel. First, 1¼ cwt. is permitted as one of the specified weights in which solid fuel may be bagged, provided that no other size is carried on the same vehicle. If coalmen are willing to carry 1¼ cwt. bags, as they are in certain parts of the country, they should not be prevented from doing so, especially in National Productivity Year. Secondly, securely closed packs of fuel of up to 60 lb. are exempted from requirement to pack in specified quantities, to enable customers to buy and carry away conveniently-sized packs from shops and machines. Thirdly, provision to allow coal distribution by new methods in specially designed vehicles—the "autobagger"—which carry the coal in bulk and weigh it at the customer's door. Fourthly, miners' concessionary coal is now exempted from the need to bag in specified amounts.

Schedule 7 deals with miscellaneous goods. First, perfumery and toilet preparations are now covered, which follows an undertaking given last time in this House. Secondly, tobacco is now excluded. Thirdly, anti-freeze, linseed oil and aerosols are now covered. Fourthly, nails may now be sold by count as well as by weight. Schedule 8 is now limited to mixtures wholly or mainly composed of scheduled goods, instead of relating to mixtures containing scheduled goods, which was the old wording. So much for Part IV.

Part V is concerned with the local administration of these provisions. Enforcement of weights and measures law will continue to be, as in the past, a matter for local authorities. The Bill provides for changes in the distribution of weights and measures functions among local authorities in view of population changes since the last century. In England and Wales the weights and measures authorities will be counties and county boroughs; non-county boroughs and urban districts with a population of over 60,000, if they wish; and smaller non-county boroughs and urban districts—and rural districts of any size—if the Board of Trade agrees. Non-county boroughs which are already weights and measures authorities may continue for a period. In London the existing weights and measures authorities will remain until changed by a Board of Trade order. In Scotland the existing pattern will continue.

As regards the changes in this Part, first of all Clause 34 has been altered so as to allow rural district councils (regardless of population) to apply to the Board of Trade for the exercise of weights and measures functions. Clause 35 has been altered to give the Board power to designate by order (subject to annulment by Parliament) the weights and measures authorities in the Greater London Area. In another place my right honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary said that it is the Government's intention to give the weights and measures function to the London boroughs, if the amalgamations proposed in the London Government Bill go through as planned.

Part VI deals with miscellaneous and general. This Part covers various matters such as powers of inspectors, offences, prosecutions and penalties, transitional arrangements about bread and milk—perhaps, for the sake of clarity I had better say milk and bread—the application of parts of the Bill to Northern Ireland, procedure on orders and regulations, interpretation, the repeal of existing national and local legislation and the date of operation of the Bill. The changes in this Part have been Clause 62(1), which allows the continued use in non-retail trade of certain customary units of quantity not in Schedule 1: for example the Petrograd standard which is used in the wholesale timber trade, or the pennyweight, after this is removed from Schedule 1. The other change in this Part is in Clause 61 which extends the existing law on bread and milk, which would otherwise expire in January, 1965, until the bread and milk Schedules come into force two years after the Bill's enactment.

That is the general description of the Bill. Your Lordships know its purpose. The most disagreements we are likely to have will probably be Committee disagreements; they may of course, be extensive. This Bill is necessary. It will tidy up the law and it will indeed be a protection to the consumer. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Derwent.)

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, we are most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, for his lucid statement of what is in this Bill and the ways in which it differs from the old Bill. I must confess that the celerity with which he delivered his brief will not embarrass those who are familiar with the old Bill, but may at least have given some difficulty to those who had not yet read the Bill; but I congratulate him on an extremely useful statement which we shall study with interest. I personally—I am sure he will agree—welcome the fact that we have a new team on the Government side to deal with this Bill; not that we had any complaint about the former noble team, but we shall have the particular advantage on this occasion that at various times we shall be able to quote in aid the views which were expressed on the old Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and I am sure that will greatly help in convincing your Lordships if any small disagreement should arise.

We also are very glad to note that the list of speakers to-day on this very important Bill is to be graced by the speeches of two Ministers, and therefore it is with some regret that we learn that Back Bench support on the Government side is left entirely in the capable hands of the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, to whom we are frequently grateful for filling this kind of gap because he always examines measures objectively and gives original comments on the matters to be discussed. I must, however, confess it sometimes puzzles me that when we are discussing Central Africa or Rhodesia or Kenya noble Lords opposite rally round in tremendous numbers—they even fly to this Chamber from distant parts to take part in the discussion; but when we have a subject such as we are discussing to-day, which is of immediate and important concern to all the citizens in this country, then we are not favoured with the same measure of influential advice.

Despite a number of criticisms, and the many further improvements we shall strive to make in it, the Opposition very warmly welcome and support this Bill. Indeed, it is one of our major criticisms of the Government that it has taken over thirteen years and three Bills to bring us in sight of the realisation of the major recommendations of the Hodgson Committee. As the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, has mentioned, and as he and I recall with some nostalgia, because we spent twelve Parliamentary days and many long nights on it, there was the first Bill—and fortunately, as he has said, and indeed I agree, the work was not wasted because all the improvements we then made are in fact still in the present Bill. The two noble Lords who then presided on the Government Bench are now doing other work. But it is still the case that, under the new Bill, the fishmonger who fillets your fish will not be required to pack the bones with the fillets or to make out a bill showing the weights before and after.

We failed to convince on the previous occasion when we applied the same arguments to poultry, but obviously over the years our words have been weighed and not found wanting, because the poulterer who eviscerates your poultry will not now by law be required to put the entrails back on pain of making out two weight tickets. It is also conceded that through a transparent wrapper the housewife is able readily to count six eggs or eight tomatoes. These apparently trifling points—and there are many which we corrected in the old Bill—are not unimportant to traders; they are important to them. On the other hand, in our consideration of this Bill we must bear in mind that, while we strive to give the consumer every possible protection, it is scarcely less our duty to ensure that the regulations are necessary, reasonable and capable of practical application. It is no service to the housewife to impose theoretical safeguards which increase the price beyond what she can afford or which make it impossible to continue a service which the retailer is willing to give and the housewife anxious to receive.

The Bill on which we laboured was dropped. Its successor was stillborn, published but not discussed. And now we have the third attempt, which has been the subject of considerable discussion and some improvement in another place. We on this side of your Lordships' House regard it as our first priority to get this measure on the Statute Book and we shall do all we can to assist in its progress. But as it may well be decades before further similar legislation can be considered by Parliament, we want this Bill to be as good and as forward looking as we can make it. We still think it is capable of improvement in many ways and we shall have quite a number of what we regard as constructive suggestions to put forward at Committee stage; and on a much smaller number of quite important points we shall endeavour to convince the Government that decisions they have made in another place are the wrong decisions.

We regard this—and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, made it clear that the Government also regard it—as a major Bill which provides an important part, but only a part, of the total service of consumer protection and advice that we want to build up. We in fact see this as a new service in this country, unifying and developing naturally out of existing services, which must, of course, be strengthened and augmented. But we in fact look ahead to a complete system of consumer protection based on the local authorities, who will administer it in a democratic way; and, so far as this Bill is concerned, the main instrument in this field will, in our view, be the weights and measures inspectorate.

Whether the right size of the unit of weights and measures inspectorate has been chosen so far in this Bill is something we can discuss at a later stage, together with the duties, status and prospects of inspectors. But, in any case, I personally visualise the weights and measures inspector developing into a sort of weights and measures Ombudsman, and his office developing into a clearing house for consumers' complaints and inquiries. Therefore, if the Bill is to operate in a matter in which I believe we all intend, immediate action will have to be taken to train a substantial number of additional inspectors. We are placing on their shoulders four entirely new additional groups of duties, every one of which involves a substantial volume of work; and there are ten other groups of duties where their work will be greatly extended. Obviously, the machine will become hopelessly overloaded and the Act almost a dead letter, unless enough inspectors are available for the efficient discharge of their responsibilities.

Sometimes I think, modestly, that the best we and some Governments can hope to achieve is not to make matters worse, and I think that is particularly the case in measures of this kind. Whereas we may remember gravely, learnedly and passionately discussing improvements, and we see a Bill receive the Royal Assent and go on the Statute Book, and we say "Ah, all that is a job of work we have done," how often did we sit back and think about the much greater amount of work that we had given to other people to work and pay for, and what good it does? I am quite sure that this is an important and invaluable Bill. But that will be true only if we provide the means for it to be carried out and administered. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that this point should be made.

Estimates vary, but it seems to me that by the time the clauses of this Bill become operative we shall need at least one-third more inspectors than the number we have now. I hope that, if not to-day, at some future stage during our discussion of the Bill, the Government will say what are their plans for meeting this need. We do not want to repeat the probation officers' pattern, where, despite the increasing duties that we heaped constantly upon them, it took us literally years to persuade the Government to agree to reasonable salary scales to facilitate the recruitment of the necessary additional officers.

In some cases we on this side of your Lordships' House will urge the retention by the inspectorate of duties which the Government, in the Bill as it stands at present, wish to take from them. A notable example of this is in the sales of fuel. For example, the sales of logs by weight are little more than a ramp; yet the Bill's provisions apply only to sales up to half a ton in weight. I was looking over the weekend at particulars of the recent weighings of logs on one public weighbridge, and out of 145 loads only one was under half a ton and thus would be subject to the provisions of this Bill, and the other 144 loads would all have been exempt. Yet I know of quite a number of prosecutions under other Acts which show frequent examples of four or five cwt. being sold as one ton, and of two tons being delivered and five tons charged for. It would be quite wrong if we let this Bill go from us without taking care of such things.

We shall also press the Government to reverse their present decision to withdraw the inspectors' present powers to stop coal delivery lorries and test the weight of sacks offered for domestic sales. This relates to a cruel fraud, practised usually against the poorest people who buy their coal only a sack at a time. It is a fraud to which the trader is usually not a party—indeed, a fraud of which he has no knowledge; and, as on so many occasions in this Bill, the Amendments we shall press will be designed for the protection of honest traders as much as for the protection of trusting consumers. It is indeed astounding that in this particular section, and in a Bill expressly designed to protect the consumer, the Government should wish to sweep away valuable legislation which has been built up painfully and expensively by local authorities during the last hundred years for the protection of the local citizenry against fraud.

I think that the Government have also blundered over the question of the net weight of pre-packed fruit and vegetables. The noble Lord, Lord Derwent, will remember that on at least a dozen occasions I raised this question—he probably thought ad nauseam; and the burden of the constant advice that I gave was that the only marking for pre-packed vegetables and fruit which would be practicable for the producer and at the same time fair to the grower and to the retailer, was a net weight at the time of packing, and I urged constantly that the inspection should be at the packing end, which would be much cheaper and much more efficient. The Government, however, did not accept my arguments then, and they have not accepted them now. They have in fact adopted what I regard as this fantastic suggestion, to which Lord Derwent referred, that these goods should be unmarked, but that retailers should provide a scale on which the housewife should be able to weigh her strawberries or her pre-packed mushrooms or her pre-packed vegetables, or what-have-you.

Just imagine the young housewife going through the self-service store, with little Johnny in one hand and a wire basket in the other, and having to halt at the stand with her punnets of strawberries, and then to let go of little Johnny and of her wire basket, and then herself weigh the punnet to see what the weight of the fruit is. I notice that your Lordships smile. It is, of course, laughable. We are a gathering of grave and sober men and women of judgment. There has been a much larger gathering of grave and sober men and women of judgment in another place, and no doubt the Civil Service have put their heads together before this. But we are asked to consider this as a proper, logical, sensible way of protecting the consumer. The Government's way of doing it is no protection whatsoever. It merely provides a convenient method for the trader to evade the basic provision of the Bill, that fruit and vegetables should be sold by net weight. It is something which I submit is quite intolerable in fact in this section the so-called "housewives' charter" bluntly tells the housewife to protect herself if she can. Quite obviously she cannot by this means. All this has arisen because the Government have run away from this difficult problem. The problem—and it applies to fresh fruit and vegetables far more than any other commodity I can think of—is that in a short space of time these commodities lose by evaporation a considerable portion of their weight.

I do not in any way budge from the figures which I have quoted before, and which were requoted in this House quite recently by the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald. One cannot, in my submission, insist that the packers should apply a net weight to the package, because owing to the particular humidity at the time and the length of time between packing and sale, both being impossible to forecast, the variation would be beyond the limits of tolerance allowed by this Bill. In this field an actual unqualified net weight is impracticable and puts impossible burdens on the packer and retailer. The Government suggestion, while giving carte blanche to the packers and retailers, gives no protection at all to the housewife. While I do not budge, and shall not budge, from what I have said before, we shall press again for this kind of sensible arrangement which we asked for in the old Bill.

I cannot understand the stand of the Government here when, as a result of our previous discussions, they agreed to net weight markings on other goods, like detergents, which lose weight by evaporation. Mention of detergents reminds me that we are still far from satisfied that the Bill, as it stands, will prevent deliberately deceptive packaging. It should not be necessary for the firm which sells its detergent in a smaller package to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to advertise the fact that their smaller package contains much more detergent than a much larger package. It would be much better if the detergent manufacturers played fair by the consumer, all saved money, sold their goods at a lower price and, indeed, made a donation to the Consumers' Advisory Council so that it could function properly, instead of struggling along on a miserable pittance provided by the Government. It is a "bit much" to suggest that this Council, in addition to carrying out the manifold important functions which were suggested by the Molony Committee, should also be expected to advise the Government on weights and measures matters. It will have neither the personnel nor the "know-how", as I am sure my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry will clearly demonstrate when she comes to make her speech.

Another point on which we shall insist before this Bill leaves us is that the wholesalers must sell fish to retailers by net weight. The Government reasoning on this point has been quite remarkable. In January, 1961, for example, the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, told us that the trade was virtually all conducted by net weight; and from that he reasoned that it was right for the Bill to say that transactions should be by gross weight. But in February of this year, in another place, Mr. Denzil Freeth indicated that not enough sales were made by net weight, and thus it was right for the Bill to say that transactions should be by gross weight. As they drew the same conclusions from contradictory facts, it is fair to conclude that they started from the conclusion and worked back to the facts. It is another example where, if I may say so, the Government seem to have forgotten that, "it ain't what you don't know that causes the trouble, but what you do know what ain't so". No doubt we shall have the opportunity to point that out to them at a later stage. We shall ask for a discussion on the basis of equity and true facts, and will even provide for the odd place where there is no weighing machine for fish.

Among many other improvements we shall seek will be the removal of the reproach that it will be possible for an Englishman to order a drink measuring one-sixth of a gill—which the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, once described as "no more than a dirty glass". We shall seek to allay the anxiety of precision instrument makers—and I think this may be a new point—who do not share the equanimity of most of us in regard to the increase in the length of the standard yard by one 8,000th part of an inch. This is a point which is likely to cause a difficulty with precision instrument makers. We shall also seek to demolish what we regard as the absurd suggestion that it will be possible to comply with the Bill's requirements in respect to the weight of loose sliced bread. There are many more things we can raise at the appro- priate time, and I hope we shall do so constructively and usefully.

This is a good, important and necessary Bill, but I am sure that before the end of this debate your Lordships will be convinced that it can be a much better Bill. We shall table constructive Amendments and support them with ascertained facts and sound arguments. If the noble Lords opposite are in a position to base their decisions on those arguments, we shall together, in the next few weeks, do a good job for consumers and honest traders.

4.57 p.m.


My Lords, yesterday evening I spent a long time reading the Second Reading speeches in the debate in your Lordships' House in November, 1960. I must confess that the more I read of this Bill the more complicated it sounded to me, as a layman; but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, that the most important thing is to get it on to the Statute Book, with improvements as necessary. I should like to thank Lord Stonham for the kind references he made to me in regard to the Second Reading debate. It may well be that when the Bill reaches its Committee stage my noble friends will have Amendments to put forward, and many of them are far more knowledgeable than I on this matter of weights and measures. As has been mentioned, the original Bill fell by the wayside because there was not time in the other place for discussion, but this time there seems an excellent chance that the Bill will get on the Statute Book before the end of the Session.

I should like to confine my specific remarks to three things: fruit and vegetables, washing powders, and cereals. So far as washing powders are concerned, I seem to remember that on the Second Reading of the last Bill my remarks attracted some attention from some sections of the Press; but I may say that they were taken completely out of context. My point now, as it was then, is that it is very difficult to sell washing powders specifically by net weight, because of condensation in the packets. I have checked this with a number of grocers and they all endorse those remarks. But what concerns not only me but many people is the surfeit of free gifts which now seem to be put in with various commodities. Admittedly these gifts probably weigh very little, but if only the weight corresponding to the value of the free gift could be made up—and I refer more specifically now to cereals—the general public would get a much better deal. These monster packets of detergent do not always give the marvellous value to the consumer which they are supposed to give.

I spent an hour last Saturday with my local greengrocer discussing fruit and vegetables. Here a great problem must arise, because the temperatures of the various greengrocers' shops must necessarily vary; so must the length of time in which vegetables and fruit remain on the counters of shops. One may have a very wet Saturday or a very wet weekday, when the housewife may say that she will not venture out until the following day, in which case the fruit is sometimes left for sale until the following day. Here the difficulty arises of how the question of weight should be dealt with, especially in pre-packed containers, because more and more fruit and vegetables are now being sold pre-packed.

Reading one of the greengrocers' journals which I was given, I noticed reference to the fact that there is in Cardiff a shop which is divided into two sections: one sells fruit and vegetables entirely without packing; the other section is entirely pre-packed. So that the consumer has a choice. But so far as the weight is concerned in pre-packing, I should have thought that one way out of the difficulty would be to stipulate the average net weight when packed. I wonder whether the Government would consider that a reasonable compromise. I am not at all sure that the current proposals by the Government, as I understand them, are entirely satisfactory, although to have a specific net weight when packed to be sold to the consumer may present difficulties both to the wholesaler and to the retailer. But that is something which we can thresh out properly on the Committee stage.

Now, my Lards, I turn to cereals. There is a rather curious proposal here: that cereal biscuits under a certain weight need not be sold by net weight. Cereal biscuits, I should have thought, more or less weigh the same. There is "shredded wheat" and there are the "shreddies", but there is not a great deal of difference in the weight—at least, I should not have thought so. I wonder whether that provision is entirely necessary. The local grocers and greengrocers are, on the whole, very honest traders, and they do their best to serve the public well. What this Bill needs to do—and I think, by and large, what it does—is to strike a reasonable balance between giving the shopkeeper a fairly rational run of the mill, so to speak, and allowing him reasonable leeway; and protecting the consumer, so far as can be done, without bureaucracy creeping in.

We are now in the era of the self-service store. Some people regret that, but I am the last person to decry the self-service store. But the small private store where one knew the shopkeeper, where one could discuss with him the best type of apple to buy, the cheapest type, and the best cut of meat, was appreciated very largely by the housewife; and also by the menfolk many of whom shop now, myself included, particularly on a Saturday morning. We learn to know these people and to go by their advice. But in the self-service stores one cannot quite get this service. Practically everything is pre-packed which makes it easier for the housewife, but I should have thought that at least some of the nutritive value is lost. However, we must move with the times and accept things as they are.

My Lords, may I turn now to another point which was discussed when the last Bill came before Parliament? That is, this question of fruit in tins. It is again mentioned in this Bill, but too many tins contain mostly juice and no fruit. Perhaps on the Committee stage we can discuss this matter further.


You can count on that.


But this is a Second Reading debate and it is not an opportunity to make long specific speeches. The Bill in itself is welcome. As has been said, improvements have been made in another place. When the earlier Bill left this House in 1961 it was a greatly improved Bill, and now comes our opportunity to improve it still more. But the Bill as a whole has been sensibly drafted; its provisions are in the main reasonable, and from these benches certainly we give it wholeheartedly a Second Reading.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, the Molony Committee spoke of the monumental delay which characterised the treatment of the Hodgson Committee Report, and I should hope, as a comparative newcomer to this House, that this delay is perhaps at last reaching an end. As we all know, the Hodgson Committee was set up in 1948 to review existing legislation about weights and measures, and produced its Report two years later. But, again, it was not until the autumn of 1960 that a Bill incorporating the main recommendations was produced. This was before I had the privilege of coming to this House, but I then followed with much admiration the detailed and knowledgeable work of my noble friends here. In fact, as has already been said, this was so detailed and so excellent that, after being heavily amended, the Bill was withdrawn in the summer of 1961 when it had become evident to the Government that there was no chance of its becoming law that Session.

I should like, if I may, to pay tribute to the work of my noble friends, and to quote what was said by the President of the Board of Trade when he moved the Second Reading in another place on November 12 last. He said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 667, col. 33]: I should like to say straight away that consideration of the earlier Bill in another place resulted in many improvements in the Committee stage there and I should like to place on record my appreciation of those who did so much to improve the Bill. My Lords, I am not quite as enthusiastic as those noble Lords who have preceded me in this debate. In fact, I find myself rather in accord with the feelings which were expressed by Mr. George Darling when speaking on Second Reading from the Opposition Front Bench in another place, when he said that there had been many kind promises and two false starts, but that now, seeing the promised Bill, he welcomed it, but with critical misgivings. It seems to me, looking generally at the Bill, that, broadly, it can be divided into three parts, the first part being concerned with securing uniformity of administration and, therefore, mainly of interest to local authorities and the 850 inspectors who enforce the law at present; the second part being related to permitted stan- dards of measurement; and the third part being that which will most interest the general public.

We have a long tradition of British legislation to ensure that the consumer gets fair weight for his money, but I think the whole House would agree with me that we are nowadays faced with the fact that much of this is obsolete because of the growth of pre-packaging and the tendency to sell goods by the package rather than by number or weight. I hope the Minister of State would not differ front me (and I do not think he would) if I said that the object of this new Bill is to ensure that the number or weight of the contents is set out on the package and that the consumer is given a fair chance of knowing what he is paying for and of comparing one price with another.


My Lords, if I may just interrupt the noble Lady, I would add "what he is paying for in quantity", of course. I must get that clear.


Quite right. Looking at the definition given by the President of the Board of Trade in another place, I should think there is not much between us on this aspect. There is one further quotation which I should like to give the House, and that is the broad summary by the President of the Board of Trade on Second Reading, at column 33: The subject of the Bill is technical, and its details are necessarily complicated, but in its application it is right down to earth. It seeks to bring together and modernise a great mass of out-of-date legislation and to give the consumer much better protection than present law provides. It concerns any of us who buy or sell anything—and even those who get their shopping done for them. This is a Bill which has something for everyone. I think we should all wish to be sure that the application is "right down to earth", and that we should agree that sometimes this is one of the most difficult things to achieve, certainly by legislators.

To-day I want to look at two main aspects in this connection and two important matters which arise from the Bill. As one of the previous speakers has said, in a Bill of this nature it is difficult not to make Committee points rather than Second Reading ones, but I will try in that respect. Speaking generally, there seem to be few major alterations in this Bill, now that it has passed all its stages in another place. This was my opinion at the end of the Committee stage—and I have all the reports of the Committee stages here. I agree with Mr. Darling when he said that the main Opposition complaint against the Bill was that in many important aspects it was too much concerned to protect existing trade practices, even when those practices ran counter to the basic principles of the Bill. I do not know what the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will say to this, but on reading through very carefully the Government's objections to many of the Amendments put forward during the Committee stage by the Opposition in another place I wonder whether the Board of Trade are not basing their arguments on opinions taken some twelve or thirteen years ago, when the Hodgson Committee was set up, because it has been on the files since then, and it seems to me that many of the objections put forward by the Government are better suited to retailing and horticulture then than to-day. I do not think that the Government realise that we now have retailers and horticulturists keenly alive to modern ideas and not nearly as antagonistic to progress as the Government imagine.

There are many comments that have come to me from consumer organisations and from the general public, knowing that I am interested in the consumer. I have been told, time and time again, that it seems that this is a traders' Bill, and I pass that comment over to the noble Earl. I think it is a useful one to note. Many people who have talked to me consider some of the omissions regrettable and one major inclusion—the wrapper allowance principle—to be quite simply an error. I should like to ask the noble Earl who is going to reply whether he can tell us why this wrapper allowance principle has been included.

Another general point which is troubling consumer bodies is the absence of anything definite in the Bill about advising the President of the Board of Trade on what the views of the general public are on weights and measures matters. On the original, No. I Bill suggestions were put forward for an advisory council, and, as the Minister knows, this was returned to when the present Bill was in another place. But the Government turned down the idea, saying that it would be one of the functions of the National Consumer Council to keep the President of the Board of Trade informed on consumer views.

Here I should like to say something about this Consumer Council and why I feel that it will not be able to do what we have all hoped. I want to say something, first of all, in all sincerity, to the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, opposite, because I think from what he had to say last week he does not quite understand the position in so far as I am concerned. He was not a Member of Parliament during the ten years when I was fighting this battle in another place. During those ten years in opposition against the Party of the noble Lord I fought for the establishment of a Consumer Council. I found it very hard to believe, when at last the Government agreed to set up the Molony Committee in July, 1959, that there had been a change of heart. I found it very difficult to believe because, aften ten years of going one way, such a sudden change of direction was a little difficult to understand, unless one assumed it was because of the pressure of public opinion and the advent of a General Election. Even feeling that, I tried not to take up too strong a position in my own mind but to wait and see whether really and truly the Government had had a change of heart.

I think the noble Lord would do me the justice to say that in the debate which we had in this House on November 14 last I went out of my way to say that I thought this Council must be made to work, if possible. I was anxious that it should work, and I was waiting to see the future actions of the Government to try to decide for myself whether or not they really meant business. I want to try to explain to the noble Lord—I am not asking him to agree with me—why I think this Government do not wish the Consumer Council really and truly to be effective. I do not propose to argue the points—I know that can he done after Easter—but I should like to set them out. The first is, it took the Government eight months to persuade anybody to act as Chairman. The second is this important announcement was made in a written statement. It is quite contrary to the wishes of Parliament in either House that important policy decisions should be announced by written statement thereby depriving Members of the opportunity of commenting on them at the normal time when statements would otherwise be made. I will come back to that, if I may, when I have outlined the seven points.

The third point is the matter of an honorarium—and I should merely like to quote to the noble Lord from Molony, on page 290, paragraph 882: The Chairman, particularly, will shoulder heavy and more or less continuous responsibilities and we consider he should be expected to devote half his time to the business of the Council. We recommend he should be paid about £3,000 per annum … Now I am going to leave out some words because they refer to the members of the Council and the last sentence relates to the previous quotation: We think that the independence and status of the Council which we deem all important would be enhanced by the salary arrangements we propose. I do not believe that the payment of an honorarium—and I am not concerned with the amount of the honorarium—is likely in people's minds to convince them that the Chairman of the Council is being expected by the Government to devote enough time to the work of the Council.

The fourth point is the appointment of a civil servant as Director. The noble Lord, when he replied to me the other day, implied that this really was in accordance with what Molony has suggested. With respect, I cannot see how the noble Lord can draw the conclusion that Molony recommended that the Director should be an undersecretary, seconded from the Government Department with which the Council will have to deal. If I might bring it to the noble Lord's attention, he quoted to me, as a basis for that fact, what Molony said: Our conception of his position can best be expressed by proposing that he should be styled Director rather than Secretary and should normally expect to contact Government Departments at the Under-Secretary level. Now, by no stretch of the imagination, can that be construed as saying that he should be an under-secretary.

The fifth point is the suggestion that the Director should be a member of the Consumer Council. I raised this point with the noble Lord last week, and I told him—I do not remember the exact words—that this was most unusual or quite extraordinary. Since I asked the noble Lord this Question, I have this week-end asked a great many people (and I believe all of them, without exception, were strong supporters of the Party of the noble Lord; and many of them were directors of industrial organisations); and not one of those people—and I asked them again this morning—had been able to give one example where a paid director was a member of the council of which he is the paid servant. This Government are in power and if they wish to make a change, obviously they are quite entitled to do so; but the point I am making is that if something quite unusual or extraordinary is done it will be better to say, "We are making a change, and we are doing this", than to imply that it is quite customary or that this Consumer Council is different from any other body—which it is not.

On the sixth point, I should like to ask whether it is the intention of the Government that the members of the secretariat should be civil servants or should be seconded from the Board of Trade; and I raise this matter because my information is that the one point on which the Government were quite decided as long ago as last summer was that the Director of the Consumer Council should be a seconded civil servant, and it seems to me that if we are to have a secretariat of civil servants this will become an appendage of the Board of Trade. On the seventh point, and on a lighter touch—although I do not feel very light-hearted about this—I gather that the Consumer Council is to be housed at Cornwall Terrace, which is the late home of the lamented Horticultural Marketing Council; and that I should not regard as a happy augury.

My Lords, those are the seven points. I do not ask the Minister to agree with them, but because of those points I find myself unable to feel that the Government really mean business on this particular matter. May I come back to what happened earlier this afternoon?—because I have no option but to do this. I am relatively new to this House, and I was quite shocked this afternoon at Question Time and I did not know what to say, because if such an Answer had been given to such a Question in another place this would have been called contempt of the House.


My Lords, might I ask, as the noble Baroness and I were in another place together, whether she would think the speech she is now making—and as she knows, I am interested in the points she is putting forward—would be in order on Second Reading of this Bill in another place?


Yes, they would, because I have based all my remarks—and I hope the noble Lady heard me, because I know she has not made this interruption in a spirit of animosity—on the way the President of the Board of Trade, in the Second Reading debate [col. 35] said that the Consumer Council would be in a position to keep him informed on consumer views on weights and measures, and I am giving my reasons why I think they would not be in that position. I know that the Rules in this House are more lax, but I should be in order in another place. I was careful to give that sentence first.

To come back to this afternoon. It is not easy for a Back Bencher, when confronted with a definite refusal by the Government to make a statement, to decide what to do; and I think the only thing I can do is to come back now—for the benefit of the noble Lady opposite—to the written statement made by the Government on March 26 last concerning the appointment of the Chairman of the Consumer Council. I am back to the question which I had hoped would be settled this afternoon, as to why and how incorrect information was given to the Press—and the most reputable Press. We all know that mistakes can be made. I think it is a good thing if it can be admitted: then everybody can leave the matter and get on. I think this is quite serious.

I asked the Government to-day whether, in view of the further information which had been given to them about this matter, they would make a statement concerning the details given orally to the Press on Tuesday, March 26 last, when the appointment of the Chairman of the Consumer Council was announced. I should be glad if I could have the attention of the Front Bench opposite; it is most tiresome when everybody is muttering. The information I gave to the Government, and which I thought was serious, I would now propose to quote. This information was from the Daily Telegraph of April 3. The heading at the top was "Misleading the Lords." The quotation is as follows: The present uneasy relationship between the Government and the newspapers will not he improved by a passage in yesterday's Hansard. Lord Derwent, Minister of State, Board of Trade, is stated as saying that, 'contrary to reports which have appeared in the Press', the Government have accepted the Molony Committee's recommendation to pay members of the Consumer Council £500 a year. As if to rub it in, he also said there was nothing to give a contrary impression 'in the information made available by the Board of Trade, whether written or oral.' Lord Derwent's Ministerial experience is not great but he must surely have known that both the information and the subsequent correction came from the Government. To talk as if the Board of Trade were a separate entity is foolish. Perhaps Mr. Macmillan should remind some of his colleagues that, while it is human to err, to mislead is intolerable. I sent that information to the Government. I tabled a Question, and asked them, in view of this report, whether they would make a further statement. Noble Lords who were present to-day will have heard the answer I got from the Lord President. He is the Lord President and I am a Back Bencher, but I think it was a shocking answer. I think it showed a supreme contempt for the rights of this House. And I have given in the details because I hope that when this is reported we may get a proper statement on this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Derwent, himself may well have made a mistake last week and not replied very wisely. It would have been much better if he had got up to-day and said so, and then we would have left the matter.

Now I come to the first of the two main aspects of the Bill at which I want to look. The first is a problem of net weight. Here I should like to ask the Minister three questions. I know that the Minister of State is not going to reply, but if the noble Earl who is could help me on these matters I should be glad. (1) Is it necessary to extend the principle of selling pre-packed goods by gross weight—that is, by weight including wrapper? The Government are extending this principle. (2) Is it correct that in the United States and in many other countries, including countries in the Commonwealth, the net weight has to be given? And that the Hodgson Committee recommended this, with only limited exceptions, and that the Institute of Weights and Measures are of the same opinion? (3) Why do the Government take a contrary view on this matter? I hope that the noble Lord has taken these points down, because they are important.

Apart from this indication of net weight, I feel that what we want is a wider power, because even if we get an indication of net weight I do not think it will be enough. It is one aspect of deceptive packaging. What about the excessive size of toothpaste cartons and other cartons to which the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, has referred? And I gather that men are also dissatisfied with the cartons in which shaving cream is often packed. Though stating the net weight would often help, what is really needed is a regulation to prevent sharp tricks such as false size or deceitful design. This has been put to me strongly by consumer bodies, who feel that the Bill is too literal in its limitation to net weight. I should be glad to know what the Minister feels about that.

Logically this brings me to the second of my main aspects—that is, the problem of packaging. Obviously the problem of deceptive packaging will require close attention by the National Consumer Council, but I want to stress to-day that it is little use for the public to be alerted to the tricks of packaging if the Bill contains inadequate powers for dealing with this trouble. Consumer bodies tell me that the present clauses will not be adequate. Some of them go so far as to say that it is something of a job to decide just how deceptive packaging will be controlled under this Bill at all. I would ask the Minister: could we not have a more extended sale by prescribed quantities? The Hodgson Committee recommended this for a long list of goods. I understand that it will still be possible under this Bill for the producer to mark on package goods the weight and price, but to do it in such a way that it will be very difficult for the shopper to find out whether that package costs more than another product. I should be glad to know what the Minister feels about that point.

Concerning the actual size of the print in any marking for the shopper the Parliamentary Secretary said on Second Reading that under Clause 21(4) the Board of Trade has power by regulation to prescribe the manner in which this information will be given. Furthermore, as I am sure the Minister of State knows, he said that this power would be used. I can only assure the Minister that it needs to be, because it is practically impossible to see the tiny print on some packages.

There is one particular clause about which very strong representations have been made to me—I am sure that the Minister knows which it is: Clause 33. I should like to say something about this. The point has been put to me that in Clause 31(1)(a) the price as well as the quantity should be made known to the buyer, and so should the price per lb. These are important, and those of us who take an interest in consumer affairs think that they should be clearly written into the Bill. Subsection (3) of this clause is entirely unsatisfactory. As the noble Lord knows, before the Report stage in another place it meant that such things as poultry, fish, cheese, fresh fruit and vegetables were included; but on Report stage poultry, fish and cheese were removed, and we are now left with fresh fruit and vegetables. I do not think that many people realise how stupid this is.

We are now left with the position that fresh fruit and vegetables may be sold by price without any reference to weight, provided that the shop keeper puts up a notice stating that a scale is available for the customer's use. Although the notice may be readily seen, I assure your Lordships—and I do my own shopping—that probably it will be seldom read. Do your Lordships visualise the customer reading, finding out where the scales are and then weighing the goods? I would ask the Minister whether he thinks that in a busy shop that is a likely proposition. In fact, I go further and say that it is a negation of consumer protection. It is a long way from sale by weight, and a longer way still, and the inadequacy all the greater, when it is operated, as it will be, side by side with a prescription that the same goods, if not pre-packed, must be sold by weight.

I cannot see why fresh fruit and vegetables must be left out. It seems to me obvious that our marketing methods are too inefficient to provide an alternative. At least, that is the only reason I can think of. I would ask why inefficiency should be covered up in this way. Why cannot fresh fruit and vegetables, along with any other commodity, be sold by net weight? I would point out to the Minister that the suggestion was made in another place—and I agree with it—that if we said this had to be done, and gave the marketing authorities a specific period of time to arrange it, then they would find an answer. I believe that to-day the up-to-date horticultural marketing people would be only too glad to find an answer to this problem.

I now come to something which I think is important, and on which I wish to declare a personal interest. On Report stage in another place, an Amendment was discussed to Clause 48, to which my noble friend Lord Stonham has already referred, giving inspectors of weights and measures power, for the purposes of carrying out their duties under this Bill, to stop at all reasonable times a vehicle carrying solid fuel for sale or delivery to a purchaser. This suggestion kept cropping up in another place through all the stages. It was turned down by the Government as recently as March 25 last, on the Report stage. A great deal of comment and criticism has come my way on this matter. It has come because of a general interest in the consumer and because of the interest I now wish to declare as Chairman of the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council. That Coal Consumers' Council comprises representatives of consumers of solid fuel, of distributors (both private and co-operative traders) of the National Coal Board and of the Gas Council. Among the consumer representatives are included a chief inspector of weights and measures and a number of local authority representatives, several of whom are in close touch with their authorities' weights and measures inspectorates.

In this Council nobody is in favour of the course of action that the Government, up to now anyway, have said they intend to pursue—namely, to withdraw from inspectors the right, which they have had in the past, to stop vehicles. I think it may help the Minister—because I am hoping he may be able to look sympathetically on this when the Bill goes to the Committee stage—if I were to say that one qualification felt was that it was certainly desirable that an inspector who is authorised to stop coal lorries in this way should have some means of identifying himself readily to the driver of a lorry travelling at normal speed.

The opinion of my Council, speaking generally over all this period of time, is that lorries should be compelled to stop for a duly authorised and clearly identified inspector, and I would put forward to the noble Lord two possible means of achieving this. As he knows, there is the procedure authorised by Section 224 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, under which a person authorised by a highway authority (not necessarily a policeman in uniform) may stop a vehicle for the purpose of having it weighed. For this purpose he uses a sign, authorised by the Ministry of Transport, which measures 20 inches by 30 inches and has on it the word "Stop" in red letters, four and a half inches high. These powers, as the Minister knows, are given for the purpose of checking overloaded vehicles rather than short-weight deliveries, but this does not affect the principle. Another method that is used, and which I thought might perhaps be useful to the Minister as background, relies on the fact that a weights and measures department's patrol vans, which may for example carry the crest of the local authority, are well known by appearance to coal dealers and their employees. Full regard has from time to time been paid by myself and by other people to the arguments put forward by the Government for the refusal of the Amendment put forward in another place. I hope, in view of what others and myself have said to-day—and perhaps I may call in aid the weight of opinion represented by a body like the Domestic Coal Consumers Council—that the Government will feel able to look again at this Amendment when we come to the Committee stage.

Now, my Lords, I want to conclude on one simple mundane matter, but it is one which affects millions of ordinary shoppers. I wonder if the Minister could tell me what is meant by "countable produce" in the context in which it is used in paragraph 3(1)(d), Part VII of Schedule 4, on page 73 of the Bill looked at this very hard, and I could not make head or tail of it. Is it implied that when shoppers buy, to take a few examples, carrots, leeks, onions, greengages or tomatoes, they buy these by asking for so many?—because I have never been in a shop and asked for so many carrots, leeks or onions. This is a perfectly honest query. If it does not mean that you go in and buy these goods by number, then what does it mean? It is this sort of phraseology that brings us all into contempt by ordinary people outside who cannot make head or tail of it. While it is a small point, I should be glad if the noble Lord could help me by saying what is meant by "countable produce". I am glad that we have this Bill; I hope that it will be improved in Committee and I thank your Lordships for your patience.


My Lords, I intervene for a brief moment to apologise to your Lordships for having made a misleading statement in the debate last Thursday in the House, when I said that two previous Weights and Measures Bills in this Parliament had been debated in your Lordships' House. In fact, only one Weights and Measures Bill has been debated in your Lordships' House, and I apologise for having made that misleading statement.


It seemed like two!

4.46 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend is extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate this afternoon, and I can assure your Lordships that everything that has been said will be studied with great care. It was particularly pleasing to hear the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, give such a welcome to this Bill, because it is a Bill which is going to tidy up, as it were, loose legislation and consolidate the situation for the future. The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, said that he was delighted to see a different team of people on the Front Bench, and would have great pleasure in quoting us against ourselves. If I may recollect my own contribution to the last Bill, which was before your Lordships two years ago, it consisted mainly of sitting on the Benches in wonder and amazement at the intelligence and wit of noble Lords in understanding such a complicated Bill, and, indeed, thanking various forms of goodness that I was not involved in it. It is, therefore, slightly odd to feel the mantle of responsibility, even if it is only diminished responsibility, perching itself rather warily on my shoulders at the present time.

This is a Bill which will have a great deal of effect. After all, one experiences the effects of weights and measures in various forms almost every time one goes into a shop and every time one has anything to do with any form of business. But it is not necessarily appreciated how legislation comes about which assures the consumers' protection. I would state, as briefly as I can, that the Bill as it is relies totally on dealing with quantity, and in no respects does it deal (I think I am right in stating this categorically) with quality. There are virtually three steps in this legislation. The first is to provide a common language of weights and measures; the second is to ensure that that language is used by traders—and that is, of course, done by seeing that they have accurate and efficient equipment; and the third is to ensure that this information is passed on to the general public, so that the public themselves know exactly what they are buying. It also consolidates past legislation. I would emphasise again that it does not, as your Lordships know, deal with quality, because that was dealt with by the Molony Committee, and must be subject to separate legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, has welcomed this Bill, and great note will be taken of all he has said. I would answer at least one point that he raised. He was rather worried about the powers of inspectors to stop vehicles—a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry. It has been suggested that the Bill should give to weights and measures inspectors powers to stop lorries. These powers to stop vehicles are carefully circumscribed by road traffic legislation for reasons of road safety, particularly from the point of view of security from theft of vehicles and of loads, and also from the point of view of operating efficiency, because clearly it is going to involve a certain disruption of traffic if lorries are periodically stopped and removed from the roads to be weighed. The Road Traffic Act, 1960, gives a general power to stop vehicles on the highway only to a police constable in uniform. This has been done for good reasons, apart from the dangers of hi-jacking which, unfortunately, seem to be rather on the increase. It is a difficult job to control traffic on the roads to-day, and those are the reasons why it has been considered up to now that it would be better not to involve weights and measures inspectors in the stopping of lorries and removing them to be weighed.


Will the noble Earl allow me to interrupt? What we are objecting to is the fact that the Bill removes those powers to stop lorries which weights and measures inspectors now possess as civilians. It has been built up by legislation that they have that power, and the Bill will remove it. That is what we are objecting to.


That is perfectly true, and if the noble Lord feels strongly on that lie can put down an Amendment later on. We are particularly grateful to the noble Lord for telling us exactly—or giving us an indication—of the lines which he will pursue on amending this Bill, because, obviously, it will assist us considerably.

Both he and the noble Baroness were concerned about this business of fruit and vegetable weighing and pre-packing. Certain goods, and particularly fruit and vegetables, are subject to loss of weight by evaporation. If they were to be marked with their net weight when pre-packed the only way of ensuring that this weight was accurate at the moment of sale would be to re-weigh the article. That is obviously not a sensible thing to do: it would be inconvenient, and very expensive. The alternative is to allow the goods to be unmarked, but to require that their gross weight be made known at the moment of sale. All retailers can then be required to make known the weight of these goods in the conventional manner, by passing them over a scale at the time of sale. That would be done in the customer's presence, and it would obviously involve a certain amount of inconvenience. But at least the customer would be able to know the weight at the moment he purchased the goods, as opposed to knowing the weight when they were pre-packed, from which a certain amount may have been lost due to evaporation.

To allow for the special position of the self-service store, while ensuring that the customer has the weight of these things at the moment of sale, subsection (3) of Clause 33 gives power by order to provide that a requirement to make the weight known shall be satisfied if the retailer provides special weighing equipment which customers themselves may use. The Bill applies this provision to certain fresh fruit and vegetables in Part VII of Schedule 4 as if the Board have made such an order. These are the only goods to which the provision is applied. If the Board at some future date should consider it necessary to extend the provision to other goods, they will be enabled to do so by an Order requiring an Affirmative Resolution. While on this point of fruit and vegetables, the noble Lady raised a point with regard to the procedure (I think she said) in the United States. There, soft fruit may be sold by capacity as an alternative to net weight. We will go into the difficulties of selling soft fruit by net weight when the Committee stage of the Bill comes about. That is the only information I can give the noble Lady at the moment with regard to the weighing of vegetables or fruit in the United States.

The noble Baroness also made the point, as I believe did the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, about wrapper allowances. There is no doubt that net weight over as wide a field as possible is a desirable objective, but the Bill requires this over a wide range of goods. There are, of course, certain goods for which it is not practicable to demand that the net weight should be given. The Schedule allows gross weight in these cases for two main reasons: first, some goods are moist or sticky, and when they are sold loose over the counter it is hygienic and necessary that they should be weighed on some kind of wrapper—for instance, a piece of greaseproof paper. Examples of this are well known to your Lordships, such as meat, ham, butter, lard and so forth. Soft fruit, such as raspberries and strawberries, if sold loose, also need to be put in a bag or other container when weighed to prevent the scales from getting sticky. Greaseproof paper or a like container is in these cases allowed to be included in the weight, because many shops selling these goods loose do not have weighing equipment which enables them to calculate the net weight accurately in those circumstances.

The second reason is that for some pre-packed goods there is again a serious problem of evaporation. Goods such as fresh vegetables and soft fruit, sausages, poultry and cheese, may lose weight rapidly and unpredictably by evaporation. More and more of these goods are being sold pre-packed; but unless or until the evaporation problem is solved—for instance, by new techniques in storage, or by the use of air-tight packing—goods will be liable to weight losses between packaging and sale and must, therefore, be weighed gross, including their container, at the time of sale.

I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, for his speech in which he gave the House the advantage of his careful study of cereals, fruit and household powders. All those points will be looked at with great care before the next stage of the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, did not give the Bill quite the welcome that other noble Lords have given it. But she thought it entrenched existing trade practices—those were not quite her words, but that was the impression she gave. I should not have thought that that was a fair criticism of the Bill. She thought that possibly it was about twelve years old, as it relied on the Report of a past Committee. In fact, although in the main it may have relied on the Hodgson Committee, it has been the result of a Bill which came in front of your Lordships about two years ago, and has therefore been brought considerably more up to date. Of course, the object behind it is to protect the consumer while at the same time being fair to the trader and giving him certain rights of self-defence.


My Lords, may I just say something, for I know that the noble Earl wishes to be fair? What I said was, not that the Bill was twelve or thirteen years out of date but that I thought that some of the objections put forward by the Government to many of the Amendments put forward by the Opposition were some twelve or thirteen years out of date and were based on objections that were made at that time.


My Lords, I see; but I am still working out where the objections are coming from or going to. But I am very grateful at least to the noble Lady for pointing that out, because she has cleared up a misapprehension in my mind. She did, however, take this opportunity of making a very violent—I should say, strong—statement about "her" Consumer Council, but I am quite convinced that she will not expect me to be drawn in on that.


My Lords, I am sorry to keep getting up, but I should like to get this right. It was merely a statement, put forward very calmly, as to the various reasons for which I thought the Government did not really mean business with the Council, and it was put forward in a perfectly amicable spirit.


My Lords, I did not mean to suggest that it was not amicably delivered, but the noble Lady is very persistent and does it with great charm. While she was making her speech she did rather remind me of a terrier with a rat in its mouth trying to extinguish its life; she did it so persistently. I should not like her to misconstrue that. I do not by any means wish to imply that the noble Lady is like a terrier, or the Government like a rat, but it was mainly the means of delivery which bore a similarity.


My Lords, does the noble Earl's statement mean that he now withdraws entirely the word "violent" and substitutes the word "persistent", which is surely a fairer word to use in connection with my noble friend's statement?


My Lords, that is perfectly true, but I thought that I had in fact removed the word "violent" after I said it because I did not quite mean to imply that. The noble Lady made a number of points, which I hope I have been able to answer in a certain degree with those made by the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, opposite, and we shall take very careful note of all that has been said in the Second Reading debate. It is very difficult, as the noble Lady herself said, to take a Second Reading debate like this without involving oneself in points of detail.

We are grateful to the noble Lords who have taken part, and grateful for the welcome given to the Bill for the Opposition by the noble Lord, Lord Stonham.

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