HL Deb 28 February 1966 vol 273 cc457-65

2.42 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move the Motion that appears in my name on the Order Paper. Your Lordships may recall that under Part V of Schedule 4 to the Weights and Measures Act 1963 milk shall be pre-packed only if it is made up in a quantity of one-third of a pint, half a pint or a multiple of half a pint, and if the container is marked with an indication of quantity by capacity measurement. The way in which the marking is to be carried out is laid down in the Weights and Measures (Marking) Regulations 1964, which are applicable to all the various kinds of goods which have to be marked under the Act. Regulation 4 will require that, on or after July 31, 1967, the quantity indications on containers must be in colour—in distinct and conspicuous contrast to a plain background—unless the containers bear no wording in colour contrast to the background.

The dairymen and the bottle manufacturers have represented to us that on that date there will still be large numbers of half pint and pint milk bottles in existence which will fail to comply with these marking requirements, because they have colourless quantity markings but have, say, the name of the dairy in colour. As the law stands to-day these bottles would have to be scrapped and new ones provided. Many silk screens used for colour labelling would also need to be redesigned. We came to the conclusion that those points should be met. One possibility would have been to make special provision for milk bottles in the Marking Regulations originally. This, however, would have created an undesirable precedent for special exemptions from the Marking Regulations for goods of other particular kinds. Subject to certain transitional exemptions for all descriptions of food, these regulations apply uniformly to all descriptions of pre-packed goods required to bear indications of quantity, and we did not wish to depart from that.

The proposed Order therefore deals with the point in a different manner. It exempts pint and half-pint bottles of milk from the requirement in the Act that they must have a quantity marking. That requirement seems to us to be unnecessary when there will still be the requirement that pre-packed milk must be sold only in one of the specified quantities—namely, one-third pint, half a pint or multiples of half a pint and when any third of a pint bottles will still be required to bear quantity markings. This may sound rather complicated, which I suppose in a way it is; but this is a request from the dairymen and the glass bottle manufacturers who say that enormous waste would take place unless this was acceded to. We have agreed to do that, and I ask your Lordships to support it. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Weights and Measures (Exemption) (Milk) Order 1966 laid before the House on 26th January, 1966, be approved.—(Lord Rhodes.)

2.45 p.m.


My Lords, I very much hope that the Government will not press this Order and that if they do the House will not accept it. The Special Orders Committee considered this Order and reported on February 16: That in the opinion of the Committee the Order cannot be passed by the House without special attention ", because, they said: in their opinion the provisions of the Order raise an important question of policy and principle: namely the permanent exemption of half pint and one pint bottles of milk…from the marking provisions of the Weights and Measures Act 1963. I always understood that in matters of this kind the function of delegated legislation was to fill in details which Parliament had not dealt with, Parliament having laid down general principles. But this is not what is happening this afternoon. This is an Order laid pursuant to the Weights and Measures Act 1963 which, your Lordships may well remember, occupied weeks of time in this House and in another place. That Act dealt in the greatest detail with milk and milk bottles and the noble Earl, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, for one, did not allow this part of the 1963 Bill to go through unexamined.

As the Minister has explained to us, the Act laid down quite specifically with regard to milk bottles: Milk shall be pre-packed …"— that expression apparently escaped the scrutiny of the noble Lord, Lord Conesford— only if—

  1. (a) it is made up in a quantity of one-third of a pint, half a pint or a multiple of half a pint; and
  2. (b) the container is marked with an indication of quantity …"
Nothing could be clearer than that, and that was what Parliament decided, having given the closest scrutiny to the whole of this matter over days and weeks. The Minister now comes before your Lordships and seeks, in effect, to repeal that part of the provision of the 1963 Act; and the reason he advances is that representations have been made by the dairymen and the glass bottle industry; and, further, that by July, 1967, the Marking Regulations 1964 will have come into effect and there will still, according to the Minister, be bottles in existence which will not be complying with those Regulations. These milk bottles are only the ones which bear coloured markings, and they must surely represent a very small proportion of the total quantity of milk bottles in circulation.

Furthermore, by July, 1967, the glass bottle industry will have had four years notice of Parliament's requirement that milk bottles are to be made in a certain way with certain markings. So one would hope that ever since 1963 milk bottles have been manufactured which comply with the provisions of the Act and the provisions of the Marking Regulations, and presumably by July, 1967, we shall be dealing only with those milk bottles still in circulation which do not comply.

There is a precedent for this Order. The Minister did not quote it, but I would like to refer to it because it supports my case, though it does not support his. I refer to the Weights and Measures (Exemption) Order 1965, which dealt with a situation very similar to the milk bottle situation before us now. The position was that the 1963 Act had laid down that things like soap, which were to be sold pre-packed in wrappers, were to be marked with the quantities, but there were still in the shops old stocks of soap and other items pre-packed which did not comply with the provisions of the Act of two years previously. As a result, Parliament was asked for, and readily gave, permission for a year's exemption until next July, so that old stocks of pre-packed soap, and other goods, could be cleared before the provisions of the 1963 Act came into existence.

If your Lordships thought that by 1967, when these Marking Regulations come into force, there would still be, as the Minister assured us there would be, old milk bottles, presumably pre-1963 milk bottles, still in circulation, deserving of further reprieve, then I think that the proper thing to do nearer July, 1967, would be to grant a further reprieve to the old milk bottles. But by means of this Order, upon an afternoon when your Lordships have come here mainly to discuss other things, to make a Regulation which practically tears up a part of the 1963 Act which was passed after close scrutiny is, in my submission, quite wrong.

We understand that the custom is that normally we do not divide against ministerial Orders. But I would hope that there is a corresponding custom that Ministers do not seek, on that ground, to push delegated legislation through the House against the wishes of your Lordships, and particularly after the Special Orders Committee have switched on the red light, as they have in this case. I hope, therefore, there being absolutely no urgency about this matter—it can be dealt with at any time before July 1967—that the Minister will this afternoon decide to withdraw this Motion and will consider the matter further, with a view to coming back to the House with an Order which gives temporary exemption to old milk bottles and does not seek to repeal a detailed provision of an Act of Parliament.

2.53 p.m.


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will not take this matter to be as trivial as it may seem on first looking at the Order Paper. This Weights and Measures Act was conceived largely to protect the consumer and, in the case of milk bottles, particularly the housewife, so that she should see exactly what amount of milk she was getting. We now come to the position where there are thousands, probably millions, of milk bottles which have not got this marking on them. It would be unfair and extravagant to ask that they should be taken hack or smashed, and we are suggesting that they should be allowed to continue their normal life until, in the hands of the milkman or the housewife, that comes to an end.

But this Regulation, which says that after a certain date newly manufactured milk bottles should have this indication on them, surely has weight. Why should the new ones which are going to be made be exempted from having the weight or contents on them, simply because there are a lot of old ones? The point is, let the old ones die out; let us, if necessary, have a little further legislation to give them a shorter span of life; but it would seem most improper that we should go back on the Weights and Measures Act, passed by both Houses of Parliament, by repealing a definite Regulation that the housewife should be protected at some time in the future, not too far ahead, by being able to see exactly what is in the milk bottle.

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I quite see that in a matter of this kind there is a question of Parliamentary propriety. It seems to me, though, that it is not just a question of ensuring that milk bottles that are already in existence should be exempted from the provisions of the 1963 Act, whether for a period, or forever, or for their life. It is also a question of making it clear, if this is to be the case, to the manufacturers of milk bottles that they are not going to be compelled to comply with what the Act lays down to come into force at, I think it is, July 1967. Quite plainly, if they are going to be compelled to do it it is necessary to tell them now; there is no use in putting it off. From the point of view of Parliamentary propriety, I suppose it would be possible to comply with the request of the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, that this Order should be withdrawn, so long as the House was prepared to say in its turn that it was prepared to accept this principle; but otherwise, it would be quite impossible. I think this is case where we should weigh Parliamentary propriety against common sense, and I think that in a case like this the main point is to make it clear to the manufacturers that they can get on and produce the bottles, and that the Order will be coming into force in July, 1967.

I am told that if they are told that now, there is going to be quite considerable difficulty. I sympathise with the Government in the difficulty they are in, but I think it would be going a little far to expect a special Act of Parliament in order to deal with this matter. I would say that this is ade minimismatter and I would hope that the House so agrees.


My Lords, we do not want a special Act; we want to stick to the Act that has already been passed.


My Lords, I normally admire greatly the vigilance of the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, in these matters, but I have fetched the Act since he raised this matter, and what puzzles me about his point is that this Order purports to be made under Section 21(5), and, if it is validly made under that section of the Act, I find it a little difficult to know on what grounds he says it contravenes the Act. He will see that Section 21(5) reads—


My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to intervene? I must not speak twice on a matter of this kind, but I think the noble Lord asked me a question. I did not seek to suggest that this Order contravened the provisions of the Act in the sense that this Order wasultra vires.What I sought to say was that this Order purports to contravene paragraph (3) of Part V of Schedule 4 to the Act, which is part of the Act, which says, in relation to the milk bottle and not generally, that the container must be marked with an indication of quantity. This is what Parliament decided, and this is what this Order seeks to repeal.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord. I evidently misunderstood him. I thought he was saying that this was a wholly improper use of the provision under which it purports to be made. But I must at once disclose to the House that I do not take any great interest in milk, and therefore cannot say what would be the proper method of exemption. The noble Lord also in his speech said that the expression "pre-packed" apparently escaped my vigilance when the measure was passing through this House. To the best of my recollection it did not. Curiously enough, "pre-packed" does not mean quite the same as "packed". It means packed before a certain event. "Pre-packed", the noble Lord will find, is in fact defined in the definition section, which is Section 58 of the Act. I will read him the splendid definition. It reads: 'pre-packed ' means made up in advance ready for retail sale in or on a container…". There is a lot more, but I would only point out to him that this expression is defined in the Act, and it was passed by Parliament, in spite, I think, of my calling attention to it. I did not particularly object to it, because, provided that pre-packed "means something different from" packed "and the definition section points out what it does mean, I do not find it objectionable.


My Lords, I stand a confirmed milk drinker. It is not, however, on that account that I very much hope that Her Majesty's Government will see fit to take back this Order. To start with, whatever Lord Conesford may say—and legally, of course, he is perfectly correct—I feel that the Order contravenes the Act under which it is made; that is to say, it is completely contrary in feeling and intent from what Parliament had in mind when it passed the Weights and Measures Act. I, too, remember very well the long and detailed discussions on that measure. I regard this Order as tearing up completely a part of the Act and disregarding it.

I do not want to impose hardship on makers of bottles or on dairymen. I appreciate the fact that they have large quantities of bottles left on their hands which would have to be destroyed if it were not for this Order, or something like it. I would strongly recommend to your Lordships that, whilst the House makes it clear to Her Majesty's Government that this particular Order will just not do, we should on the other hand be prepared to agree to an Order which gave additional time to the bottle manufacturers and the dairymen to keep matters correct in relation to the Weights and Measures Act. It seems to me to be utterly and completely wrong that bottles should be manufactured at present without the mark which they ought to have on them when eventually they are sold to the public. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will reconsider this Order, will take it back and will bring us something better.


My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Rea, I do not consider this a trivial matter. It is very important. There is a matter of principle which was hammered out at the time the Act was placed on the Statute Book in 1963. If I remember correctly, during the debates in the House of Commons on the subject, particular reference was made to the difficulty of the labelling of milk containers. The arguments advanced were that if at that particular time exemption had been made for these easily definable milk quantity markings, then a whole range of commodities would have claimed something similar, and nothing would have been possible on lines which were hoped for by the Government of the day.

The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, referred to the comparison between milk containers and wrappings and containers for other sorts of commodities. The permissible quantities for milk are widely spaced in comparison with other sorts of food packings. The permissible quantities for some foods, for instance, are 2 oz., 4 oz., 8 oz., 12 oz., 1 lb., 1½ lb. and multiples of 1 lb. Nobody could mistake a half pint for a pint. We say that it is not necessary to mark a half-pint and a pint so that they may be identified by persons buying milk. But we consider it important that, where there may be a chance of somebody taking a third of a pint as a half-pint, the third of a pint should be marked. The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, put his finger on the whole question when he said that dairymen and the makers of milk bottles should know precisely where they are, so that they can get on with the job of continuing to make bottles, and so that the trade as a whole can do the same. An immense saving can be effected by this means. It is quite simple, there is no danger at all that

Resolved in the affirmative, and Motion agreed to accordingly.