HL Deb 03 May 1973 vol 342 cc223-48

5.13 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In doing so I am very conscious of a strong sense of trepidation and humility, since the Bill marks the first time in no less than 700 years, since the Statute of 1238, that an attempt has been made to codify or consolidate the law on hallmarking. What is the law on hallmarking, my Lords? There are no fewer than 66 Acts of Parliament on this subject up to 1900, many of which are now defunct; and, as we shall see, 32 Acts are to be repealed either wholly or partly in the course of this Bill.

About twenty minutes ago the Leader of the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, mentioned the danger of instant legislation, and it is interesting to note that there is an almost precisely opposite danger: that of legislating too slowly. Because more than a century ago, in 1855, a Select Committee was set up to examine the question of hall-marking and to report, which it did in 1856. A Bill was prepared in 1857 and was allowed to lie on the Table. Then there was a pause, as indeed there always has been a pause, it seems, with regard to hallmarking, because once again a Select Committee was appointed, in the year 1878. This Committee reported in 1879 and once again the matter slipped from the grasp of the Government of the day. Nearly 80 years passed and a Departmental Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Leonard Stone, was set up by the Board of Trade in 1955 and this Committee examined a very lengthy and detailed number of Acts—all those on the Statute Book—and reported on the subject in 1959. Once again the matter could not be included in Government time for the usual reason, that it was not the right moment to legislate on hallmarking. I am very glad to say that at last, in 1973, due to private enterprise and initiative, this measure is now before your Lordships' House.

What are the purposes of this Bill? They are four within the central and essential aim of the protection of the public from fraud. The first purpose is to consolidate the existing laws; the second, to bring up to date the exemption list; the third, to bring platinum within the ambit of hallmarking and the fourth to set up a Hallmarking Council to take the place of the unofficial joint committee of assay offices. I should like to pay tribute to those who have produced this measure because it has been produced without the aid of that admirable but very overworked body of people, the Parliamentary draftsmen. It is due to the skill, the expertise and, if I may say so, the absolutely firm reluctance of those responsible for the Bill to be pushed out of the Parliamentary programme, that this measure is now before your Lordships. I should like to pay tribute to them, and especially to our legal advisers.

My Lords, I am a layman and not a lawyer, and I share with many of your Lordships, who also are not so qualified, a desire for clarification which is not always apparent in definitions. So I turned to your Lordships' Library and a copy of the Oxford Dictionary to discover a definition of the word "hallmark". I found the following definition: An impression stamped on gold, silver or pewter article without which it may not legally be sold. (In the United Kingdom stamped in Goldsmiths' Hall or at various Government assay offices) and consisting usually of four marks indicating respectively the town where the metal was assayed, the standard of fineness, the maker's initial and the date. I think that is a clear definition of a hallmark. We shall find a very much more sophisticated and legalistic definition in the Bill which I will not attempt to inflict on your Lordships at the moment.

The second aim of the Bill is to bring up to date the exemptions. The whole history of hallmarking ran into trouble in 1738, when a Statute was enacted bringing in exemptions for the first time. From that date there has been a very long list of exempted articles, articles which were either too small to carry a hallmark or which for some other reason are not suitable for that purpose. The list is set out in Part II of Schedule I to the Bill. I will not go into that Schedule in any detail, except to say that the list has been restricted to essential exemption, such as bullion, coinage, goods in transit to an assay office and so on. However, all existing articles which are exempt under present law will for the time being be allowed to be sold under the description of "gold" or "silver".

My Lords, the third aim of this Bill is to bring platinum within the ambit of hallmarking. Platinum is not a very familiar metal because until three years ago it remained on the restricted list from the 1939–45 War. It is a metal which, as your Lordships know, is a chemical element, a precious silver, white metal. But it did not receive the recognition of those in ancient times because it was hardly known. The 16th century Conquistadors in South America, the Spaniards, found large deposits of this precious metal in the Rio del Pinto; they named it platina del pinto, and we now call it platinum. I think it may be of special interest to your Lordships to know what the relative value of platinum, gold and silver is to-day, because herein lies one of the principal reasons why we must bring platinum within the ambit of hall-marking. The current market price of silver, give or take a very small amount, is 2.8p per gramme; gold is 89p per gramme, and platinum no less than 193p per gramme. So one can say straight away that platinum is more than twice as valuable as gold.

Why has platinum lacked attention from both the jewellery and the antique trades? I think it is largely because it is extremely scarce, due to being on the restricted list; and, naturally, it has been restricted by the price and also by Government intervention. But in the handling of precious metals as a whole there are indefinable areas of human conduct—questions of fashion, custom and so on: at one time in history a metal is considered very precious, and at another time less precious. I can give what I think is a good example from the Bible, in the First Book of Kings, chapter 10, verse 21, where we read: All King Solomon's drinking vessels were of gold, all the vessels of the house of the forest of Lebanon were of pure gold: none were of silver: it was nothing accounted of in the days of Solomon. That takes one's breath away, but this chapter of the First Book of Kings, containing a very graphic account of King Solomon's domestic organisation, gives one a totally different impression of the scale of values between silver and gold in ancient times. We are now introducing platinum to hallmarking and it is more than timely that we should do so. I feel sure there is no need to press the argument further.

Fourthly, there is the question of the Hallmarking Council, of which we hope the existing joint committee of four assay offices will become a part. The original suggestion put forward was that 10 members should be appointed directly by the assay offices, four of whom should be representative of the trade. Here I pause, because I think it is extremely significant that these assay offices, in each case founded by a Royal Charter or a Statutory Instrument several centuries ago, are willing to give up a high degree of independence and authority which they have within their own sphere for the benefit of managing and organising hall-marking in the future. I speak before your Lordships as a guardian of the standard of wrought plate in Birmingham. This year we are celebrating our bicentenary. This, however, is a relative newcomer as an assay office compared with London, where the Charter dates back 700 years: but the London office, which has enjoyed special privileges and has taken such a significant part from the very beginnings of the organisation of the trade in England, is prepared to submerge its identity in a Hallmarking Council. I would press my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn on this point. There is a willingness among the offices to co-operate and to submerge their identity, and I hope that at the same time there will be a willingness on the part of the Government to recognise this fact and to accord to those offices a degree of right to nominate those persons whom they think desirable. This point has been brought up and discussed at considerable length in another place, and I do not feel that I should continue with it any further at this stage.

My Lords, before I conclude I should like to draw attention to certain clauses in the Bill, and particularly to Clause 1, which is an important clause. On April 6, the Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Emery, made particular reference to this clause when he said, in col. 802 of the OFFICIAL REPORT (Commons): I am glad to note that in the new clause"— that is, Clause 1— the basis of the law is to be the prohibition of the use of the descriptive words 'gold', 'silver' and 'platinum', unless the descriptions are supported by a hallmark. The problems which the definition of these terms created formed one of the features of the Stone Report. I am glad that the Bill abandons the principle that it is illegal to produce goods which fail to meet the minimum standard of the metal concerned. The reason for this is that such provision is clearly ineffective in preventing circulation of such wares, coupled with the provision of sub-standard wares that applies to many pieces of historical or artistic merit, or even of sentimental value, which would be at quite unjustified peril of destruction. No doubt other speakers will identify the other clauses of the Bill, but I should like particularly to draw attention to Clause 22, which proposes the repeal of a number of enactments. Here I will close as I opened and comment on the fact that either the whole or part of thirty-two Acts is going to be affected. I would recall a conversation some years ago with the late Lady Swanborough, who, as a layman like myself, said: When we are participating in the legislative process of your Lordships' House, surely it is our duty when we make a new enactment to tear up at least a dozen old ones. This is one of the purposes of the Bill before your Lordships, and in tearing up at least a proportion of the enactments—certainly twenty—we shall be fulfilling this task. I beg to move.

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

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, for introducing this Bill and for having explained it in such a splendid way. I should also like to thank him personally, because the fact that I agreed to take part in this debate has enabled me to look up the very fascinating history of goldsmiths and silversmiths in this country. I believe we are all fascinated by precious metals, whether or not we can afford to own them and certainly our language is filled with expressions such as "silver-tongued" (though that usually refers to a rogue) and "as good as gold". There is no doubt that the history of precious metals goes back a very long way. Apart from the sheer beauty of the metals themselves, the skill of the craftsmen in fashioning them has provided many people with objects of beauty.

We congratulate the noble Lord on, as he so rightly said, tearing up so many old Statutes and bringing up to date some very archaic laws. The system of hall-marking has been jealously guarded and strictly enforced by Governments and Guilds alike. The first record I could find of Guilds was in the 12th Century, and it is a rather interesting reference. We learn that a number of goldsmiths in London were fined for having established themselves into a Guild without Royal authority—not quite like the Dorchester Martyrs, my Lords, but a similar penalty. Then in the 13th century the Goldsmiths were required to appoint six of their number to superintend the craft and their authority was confirmed and they were ordered to assay every piece of plate and, if worthy, stamp it with the leopard's head. So there is little doubt that we are here talking about a very ancient form of consumer protection.

I think there is little doubt that the average shopper knows that the hallmark brings a measure of protection, without always completely understanding what exactly the hallmark means. I understand that the trade, particularly, have been asking for some time for the implementation of the Stone Committee's recommendations, and, so far as I can see, the Bill has very largely followed many of those recommendations. What the consumer always wants in descriptions and in the protection of a mark is the guarantee that the goods which carry this mark will have some reliability, whereas goods which do not carry such a mark may well be as good but in fact there is no way in which their reliability can be established.

I think the reference to the use of the words "gold" and "silver" is identified with the use of the word "wool". The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, will recall that some years ago we had a long discussion about the way some garments were described as being "wool-style" but which on investigation proved to contain no wool at all. I have often been puzzled by the use of the words "rolled gold". Though I understand that such an article does contain gold, it would be interesting to know exactly how much.

It is also obvious that it is necessary to have this Bill, since I understand that certain parts of the Trade Descriptions Act confuse the issue in relation to hall-marking. As regards the Hallmarking Council, I noted that in the other place there was a great debate which resulted in some consumer representatives being named as Council members. I understand that certainly one of your Lordships feels that at least one place should be reserved for a retailer. As a great supporter of consumer representation, I certainly feel that there should be no objection to this, if the Government see fit to accept an Amendment which may be presented.

The debate in another place also seemed to range around the use of the word "millesimal". I understand that a pure article is represented by one thousand and anything less being a fraction of a thousand. I realise that this is much simpler, just as we realise that the decimal system is simpler; but I wonder what meaning the average customer attaches to the word "carat". Again, I feel that the customer will be a little confused about this word, as against the use of a word which he understands. However, I would make no attempt to oppose something of this nature. This is a splendid little Bill, long awaited both by the customer and by the trade, and I wish it a fair passage through your Lordships' House.

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, it may be convenient if I intervene at this stage to indicate the attitude of Her Majesty's Government towards this Bill and perhaps to sketch in also a little of the recent background. First, on behalf of the Government, I should like to congratulate Mr. Jerry Wiggin on having introduced this Bill in another place and my noble friend Lord Sandys on bringing it before your Lordships to-day and on introducing it, if I may say so, so agreeably and clearly, as befits a guardian of the standard of the Wrought Plate of Birmingham.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, has said, there can be few traditions in the United Kingdom with so long a history as hallmarking. Indeed the very word "hallmark" has long been a synonym in the English language for a guarantee of quality. But hallmarking is not only a tradition: it is also a form of consumer protection, as she said, which is thoroughly modern in concept. For a hallmark not only gives the consumer a concise description of the type of metal from which the article is made, together with an indication of the standard of fineness of that metal it also provides an independent certification that this information is correct. In the United Kingdom an additional mark is added to indicate the year in which the assay and marking is carried out—a kind of birth certificate. And since the hallmark is stamped upon the article in question, the original purchaser and successive purchasers are provided with a virtually permanent piece of informative labelling, coupled with certificates of both age and accuracy.

With such an exemplary system in operation, one might well ask, "Why is this Bill necessary?" I think that my noble friend, Lord Sandys, gave the answer very successfully when he pointed out the necessity for clearing the decks, as it were, and getting rid of old lumber in this matter. The answer is, quite simply, that, satisfactory though the system may be in principle, the law itself is sadly out of date. Moreover, good though the informative labelling may be, there is still some scope for improvement to make it easier for the ordinary consumer to understand.

The law, as my noble friend said, is spread over many Statutes extending back over many centuries. Not only is it confused; in some cases it prevents quite reasonable activities. Let me give a few examples of its present defects. The law differs in different parts of the Kingdom; it puts pieces of some artistic, historical or other merit in danger of destruction simply because they happen to be slightly below the legal minimum standard of fineness set out for the metal; it prevents United Kingdom manufacturers from producing wares containing precious metals to lower standards acceptable overseas; it even prevents our manufacturers from exporting gold or silver wares unhallmarked, whether or not an overseas buyer wants them hallmarked. In fact in many cases overseas buyers are not only willing but eager to have a United Kingdom hallmark; but if for some reason hallmarking is not wanted it seems absurd that such export orders have to be turned down because our law requires them to be hallmarked for export. The present law also fails to cover articles made from platinum, which is considerably more valuable than gold and is in these days quite often used for jewellery. Lastly, the present law is often regarded overseas as a deliberate attempt to erect a barrier against the overseas producer seeking to enter the United Kingdom market.

It was my noble friend Lord Thorneycroft who took the first step to be taken in recent times towards reform of the hall-marking laws when he decided some seventeen years ago, as President of the Board of Trade, to set up a Departmental Committee to examine the law and make recommendations for revision. The work carried out by this Committee under its Chairman, Sir Leonard Stone, was invaluable in highlighting the bad features of the present law as well as the good. Unfortunately, as my noble friend has said, it was not then possible to act on that Committee's Report. But rather more recently, as the House will be aware from the interest which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, has shown in the subject, the Board of Trade, and latterly the Department of Trade and Industry, have been reviewing the Committee's proposals with the assistance of the assay offices and in consultation with many other interested parties. Indeed the Department were about to issue their conclusions in the shape of a consultative document when the opportunity came to Mr. Jerry Wiggin to introduce this Bill in another place. The Government willingly put the results of the review at his disposal, and many of the ideas which were distilled from the large number of very detailed replies the Department received have found their way into this Bill.

Perhaps the most important change which the Bill would make to the present law is to abandon the concept that articles which contain some precious metal but not enough to make them of hallmark-able standards should be treated as prohibited goods. The present prohibition has led to endless difficulties without producing commensurate benefits. Coupled with the exemption given to articles for export and the powers to recognise marks applied overseas, to which I shall come back later, this new approach would dispose of the defects in the present law to which I have referred. For example, if the Bill is approved sub-standard pieces of jewellery will no longer be in danger of destruction; they will simply be denied the description, "gold" or "silver". Our manufacturers will be free to make whatever their customers overseas want to buy, and to have such articles hallmarked or not as their customer wishes, subject, of course, to the requirement that the articles are of a fineness which can be hallmarked. As has already been said, the Bill extends to platinum, and there is provision to accept hallmarks applied overseas.

The Government welcome the line which the Bill has adopted as a considerable improvement on the present situation and I am sure that this line will prove equally welcome to traders and to consumers. The Bill in our view does a great deal for consumers as well as for traders. It offers protection against deception by providing that, apart from a very few exceptions, any description, "gold", "silver" or "platinum" must be accompanied by a hallmark. The consumer can, if he wishes, be his own policeman; for in future he will be able to verify for himself quite simply whether the description used by the trader is correct. He will be able to compare the markings on an article with a standard notice for which the Bill provides and which dealers will be obliged to display in their shops or trading place.

However, the Bill does not leave it to the customer alone to ensure that descriptions are honest. For the first time in this kind of legislation, it provides the means of effective nationwide enforcement through the local weights and measures authorities, who are already providing the public with an excellent service in enforcing consumer protection legislation; and I am sure that they will not resent the added duties which this Bill imposes, but rather welcome the Bill as yet another weapon in their armoury. I have already referred to the view sometimes held overseas that hallmarking systems such as ours act as a barrier to trade. Perhaps this is sometimes exaggerated. But we have to recognise that international trade in articles of precious metal is expanding; and a trading nation such as our own must always be on guard against accusations of unfair practices restrictive of international trade. As the House will know, the United Kingdom, together with six of its former partners in the European Free Trade Association, drew up a convention to facilitate trade in articles liable under the domestic law of each country to be hallmarked. The convention provides that articles of gold, silver or platinum assayed and marked in accordance with agreed standards in a participating country, including a common convention mark associated with the fineness mark, are to be exempt from further assaying and marking on importation into another participating country. I am glad to see that the Bill would make hallmarks applied overseas in conformity with this convention acceptable in the United Kingdom.

There are two other provisions of the Bill on which I should comment. They are provisions to which my noble friend has drawn attention. First, Clause 12 and Schedule 3 provide for the establishment of a new body to be called the British Hallmarking Council. This has no parallel under the present law. There is, of course, the Joint Committee of Assay Offices but that is hardly compare- able, but the Stone Committee recommended that some such body should be set up. In brief, its function will be to co-ordinate the activities of the individual assay offices, all four of which will remain, as now—I stress this to my noble friend because he quoted the Master of the London Assay Offices as referring to submerging its identity in the Council—independent bodies under the control of their hoards of guardians or other governing bodies.

It was a Government Amendment introduced on Report in another place that provided that all appointments to the Council will be made by the Secretary of State, apart from two additional members which the Council, once it is established, may co-opt. The Government attach particular importance to this, since the Council is thereby shown to be an independent body; its members being chosen by virtue of the particular contribution which each can make to the efficient running of the Council and the discharge of its functions. If your Lordships will look at Schedule 3 you will see that ten of the members have to be suitably qualified by virtue of their knowledge and experience of hallmarking and are to be appointed by the Secretary of State after consultation with each of the four assay offices, and the Secretary of State will invite those offices to submit names of one or more persons appearing to them suitable for appointment and shall take any such submission into account.

The second provision is the one in Schedule 2 requiring that all indications of fineness must be expressed millesimally; that is, in the number of parts per thousand. Some may think that the long tradition of indicating the fineness of silver by symbols should continue, at any rate in regard to silver produced in the United Kingdom, and be extended to platinum which is coming within the scope of the law for the first time. The Government's view of this matter has been influenced a good deal by the representations made to the Department by consumer interests. Almost without exception these interests took the view that indications of fineness should be expressed in a single uniform manner throughout, and that, of the methods available, the millesimal system is the best. The Government agree with this view. It would be quite absurd to perpetuate the present, confusing systems of indicating fineness which is shown in one way for one metal and in a different way for another, depending on its origin. In the case of silver, at present imported articles are marked millesimally, but home-produced silver bears only a symbol. However well this symbol may be known to the initiated, it is unlikely to have much meaning for the vast majority of shoppers. The Government therefore welcome the provisions of the Bill requiring millesimal marking of fineness for all three precious metals, while allowing the traditional symbols to continue to be used on all articles of precious metal which can be shown to have been made in the United Kingdom. My Lords, I hope your Lordships will welcome this opportunity to reform a branch of the law. It is not just a consolidation; it is very much a reform of a branch of the law which one hundred and seventeen years ago was pronounced to be in a most confused and unsatisfactory state, and I hope, too, that you will agree that the proposals are on the right lines and will support my noble friend in giving the Bill a Second Reading to-night.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, at the outset I must declare an interest in this Bill, not indeed a pecuniary interest but one which arises from the fact that I am at this moment the Chairman of what may be described reasonably, but not very accurately, as the London Assay Office and also Chairman of the Joint Committee of the Assay Offices of Great Britain to which both my noble friends have already referred. If I pass over some of the ground which both noble Lords have so well and so expertly covered I hope your Lordships will forgive me. If I speak, as you may think, a little one-sidedly from the point of view of the assay offices it is because such knowledge as I have of these matters derives from the offices which I have just declared to your Lordships.

As must be clear from what has already been said, the assay offices welcome this Bill of which they may justly claim to have been the sponsors. We are extremely grateful to Mr. Jerry Wiggin in the other place and the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, in your Lordships' House, for bringing this Bill forward, and, indeed, to Her Majesty's Government for their ready co-operation and help in all the discussions which led to the extremely rapid preparation of the Bill.

The Bill is necessarily technical and may appear complicated; but its object is extremely simple: I do not think I am re-stating it too tautologically if I say that for some 600 years or so, and increasingly in the past 200 years, the assay offices have had the task of ensuring that gold and silver wares offered for sale to the public conform to proper standards of fineness, and of certifying by hallmarking them that they are in fact what they purport to be. That is why the offices claim with some pride to be the oldest bodies in existence set up expressly for the protection of the consumer.

With the passage of time, as has already been said, the relevant Statutes have inevitably in many respects become out of date; nomenclatures have changed, techniques have advanced, and so on. The result is that over recent years it has been difficult for the assay offices to make sure they were carrying out their duties under the law. This Bill, as has been said, is designed to put all that right, to introduce certain new and valuable provisions, and also (which I do not think has been mentioned) an element of flexibility for the future so that it may be possible to obtain any necessary changes which experience may show to be desirable without waiting another hundred years for them.

Hallmarking may appear a limited and even rather esoteric affair, but it affects an enormous number of people. Almost everyone these days owns, or wants to own, some article of gold or silver, however small—wedding rings, for example. In so doing, they want to be assured that it is gold and silver and not something different but that looks like it. Perhaps I might illustrate this by giving your Lordships a few simple figures. They concern the work of the London Assay Office with which I am most familiar. In the year ended March 31, 1973, that office marked well over 4,600.000 articles of gold, and nearly 1,200,000 articles of silver. The weight of the gold from which the gold articles were made was over 20 metric tons, and that of silver over 30 metric tons. The London Assay Office marks under half the articles marked by the assay offices of this country as a whole. So, if you double these figures and add a bit you get a rough idea of what is involved. I have not tried to estimate the bullion value, but it must be very great indeed. The value of the finished articles, especially the silver ones where the workmanship bears a higher proportion to the total value than it does with the more precious metal, gold, is greater still.

It follows from these figures that the average weight per article is very small. Indeed, in London for gold it is about five grammes per article. If your Lordships find it difficult, as I do, to translate grammes into something more familiar, the present 5p or old shilling piece weighs just a little more than five grammes; so it will be seen that the greater proportion of these articles is very small indeed. In the case of silver the average weight is about 30 grammes per article. This means that the price per article is also relatively small. It has been estimated (though it is possibly not much more than a fairly good guess) that for the greater proportion of gold and silver articles sold in this country the retail price will not exceed £25. So we are not dealing with a small number of wealthy, well-informed people who might be able to look after themselves, but overwhelmingly with those of limited means and limited knowledge.

If I might give your Lordships a simple example: the small yellow crosses, which are frequently to be seen suspended from the necks of young ladies, if made of brass, as they sometimes are, will sell for about 80p—anyhow, well under £1. If the same crosses were made in 22-carat gold, as they sometimes are, their value in the shop would be probably over £15. So you have a large difference in value between articles which superficially look very much the same. That is where the extreme importance of a proper system of hallmarking comes in. Without it, there could be great profit to the dishonest dealer, and great temptation to deceive the ignorant. But I should like to say at once that where the assay offices meet with infringements of the law these in the great majority of cases come from ignorance of what is required rather than from dishonesty. Of course the public are equally defrauded whichever may be the cause.

The objects of the Bill are to protect the consumer and in so doing to maintain the high reputation which British gold and silver pieces enjoy, not only at home but also—which is not unimportant—throughout the civilised world. We are grateful to the Government and all who have helped to bring this Bill before your Lordships. I am sorry to feel bound to mention two points on which some considerable disagreement still remains. They were both touched upon by my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn.

The first concerns the precise marks to be put on wares under the Bill; they are called the millesimal marks. I should like to make only one short observation on this, for it is possible that it may be discussed later in Committee if your Lordships give the Bill a Second Reading to-night. It is said that it is easier to distinguish things by numbers than by symbols. But if you take three not dissimilar metals such as silver, white gold and platinum, you would under this system have a mark which said 925 on silver, 325 on white gold, if it were of 9-carat standard—and correspondingly if it were higher—and probably a different symbol for platinum. How on earth does any one looking at three apparently identical pieces of metal bearing different figures know which is the more precious and which is the less precious? You may know what the fineness is if you know what the metal is. If you do not know what the metal is, the fineness is not helpful. There is some clearing up to be done there, and I hope that your Lordships will be prepared to give that further consideration.

The second point concerns the Hall-marking Council. My noble friend Lord Drumalbyn has just said that under this Bill the assay offices remain independent. That may be so in name, but I have some doubts as to what that independence is going to be worth, or might be worth, under the system of appointment which the Government put through in another place. It is about ten years since the assay offices, who until then had been operating independently and sometimes, in the ambiguous state of the law, inconsistently, set up the present joint committee to co-ordinate their activities in the interest of uniformity and, should need arise, to speak with one voice to the Government or other outside bodies; and it is now proposed, as your Lordships have heard, to set up the Hallmarking Council as a formal body to take the place of this committee.

So far, so good. But it is also proposed, as your Lordships have also heard, that all the members of the Council except two, whom the Council itself may co-opt, should be appointed by the Secretary of State, and that the assay offices, although they are indeed to be consulted and invited to submit names, shall have no right to direct representation upon it. They are nevertheless to provide from their gross revenues for the whole of the Council's expenses, and those revenues are themselves to be governed by the Council which is to direct what charges the assay offices may make for assaying hallmarking. Therefore, while the assay offices are to remain responsible for their own costs they are to have no direct say in determining the charges for their services from which those costs will have to be met, or, for that matter, in anything else which the Council appointed by the Secretary of State may see fit to require.

Why the Government have adopted this attitude I do not presume to understand. I suppose it could stem from a conviction that the public are best served, even in these small matters, by concentrating the maximum possible power in Whitehall. If that should be so I shall make no further comment, except to say that it is a proposition that I find it exceedingly difficult to agree to. But if, as I think was clear from what was said in the other place and, if I heard him aright, from some words which fell from my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn this afternoon, it is believed that unless all the members are Government appointees the assay offices might be, or might seem to be, judges in their own cause, surely that is based on a misconception of the relationship between the Hallmarking Council and the individual offices, and indeed between the individual offices and each other. For 600 years the offices have had only one main purpose, that for which they were appointed —to protect the public—and to imply that they are no longer fit to do this, or that they might not seem to be fit to do this, or that they might be in some sort of unholy alliance with the trade, is to shoot very wide of the mark. The trade have indeed always been represented on the governing bodies of the assay offices, and it is proposed that they shall continue to be represented on the new Council—and very useful they can be. But they have never been in the majority and there has never been any doubt whatever of the assay offices being independent and impartial in their judgments. Whatever your Lordships may think of the Government's proposal in this matter in principle I find it hard to believe that in practice—which is what really matters—it is the best way of securing an economical and efficient system of hallmarking.

I will say no more on the subject now, since if your Lordships give this Bill a Second Reading it can be more appropriately discussed in detail at the Committee stage. But, having said so much, I should like only to add that I hope your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading. In almost every respect it has secured the support not only of, I believe, the Government, but of all other interests concerned, and when it is enacted it should prove to be greatly to the benefit of the public at large.

6.4 p.m.


My Lords, having had some experience of law reform I am interested in this Bill from two points of view. The first is because it has become obvious in the last two or three years that nearly all those fields of law which now require reform are fields for which the Department of Trade and Industry claim responsibility—company law, substantive insurance law, consumer credit, in particular the very important Crowther Committee recommendations, bankruptcy law (we have been waiting now for 15 years for the Ministry to implement the recommendation of the Blagden Committee), and then hallmarking. The second is because I think that the honourable Member for Weston-superMare, Mr. Wiggin, and the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, have made a striking contribution to what an individual can do towards law reform. Some of us are used to thinking that if you have a Private Member's Bill you do not stand much chance unless the Bill is very short and is about a subject that is fairly simple and that can be explained to ordinary people. It is therefore an act of outstanding courage to have taken on this Bill.

When Sir Leslie Scarman was Chairman of the Law Commission he referred to the history of our hallmarking law. The early ordinances of the 13th century, before there were Acts of Parliament, were in Latin, and the legislation of the 14th and 15th centuries is nearly all in Norman French and contains words of which nobody to-day can understand the meaning. The Act of 1300 is the only Act I have come across in the Statutes at large which has been provided with little footnotes querying whether the meaning of a particular phrase in Norman French might be this or that. After mentioning the ordinance of 1238 and the Statute of 1300, Sir Leslie Scarman said: These two ordinances—for Parliament had as yet hardly aspired to the production of Statute law—were the forerunners of long and confused strands of Statute law regulating the standards to be observed in the manufacture of gold and silver. So confused had the law become that in 1855 a Select Committee was appointed to inquire into the offices assaying silver and cold wares in the United Kingdom. This Committee reported in 1856 that the law as in a most confused and unsatisfactory state and strongly recommended that its anomalies and confusion should be ended by consolidating into one Statute all the provisions requisite to the establishment and regulation of assay offices throughout the United Kingdom. The Ministry did nothing at all. In 1878 another Select Committee looked into the matter and reported the existence of considerable uncertainty in the application of the law in consequence of the number of Statutes in which it is found, and expressed the opinion that consolidation and amendment should be carried out without further delay. The Ministry did nothing at all.

In a case Westwood v. Cann in 1952, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, said: I would observe that in 1856 and 1879 select committees said that the law as to hall-marking was uncertain owing to the number of Statutes in which it was to be found, and they expressed the opinion that the consolidation and amendment of the law should be carried out without further delay. Now, 73 years later, in 1952, I may perhaps be permitted to express the same opinion. The Ministry did absolutely nothing at all. In 1959, a departmental committee under the chairmanship of Sir Leonard Stone took another look at hallmarking and reached the by now hardly original conclusion: That the numerous Statutes that touch upon hallmarking and the protection of the public against the flood of adulteration in purchases of wrought gold and wrought silver are so confused and obsolete as to be incapable of being patched up by amendment so as to form a workable and enforceable code. They then went on to recommend the substitution of a consolidating Statute in place of the existing confusion.

It is a remarkable record for any Government Department to have survived 116 years of procrastination and delay. The introduction of this Bill reflects, if I may say so, the greatest credit on Mr. Wiggin and the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, and great discredit on the Government Department which has left to a private individual the introduction of a Bill covering such a difficult field after so many years. Had the Minister not already spoken I should have inquired whether perhaps if I introduced a Private Member's Bill on bankruptcy before the next Session I might be equally successful. To my mind it is rather pathetic that this one Department—and it is not true of any other Department—seems to find it impossible to do their own law reform: a noble spirit like the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, must take on the task for them. In the circumstances I do not propose to raise any technical points on the Bill. I hope that your Lordships will soon give it a speedy Second Reading.

6.10 p.m.


My Lords, this afternoon I can claim only a layman's interest in the matter before your Lordships. I should certainly like to thank my noble friend Lord Sandys for the very careful and rather exciting way in which he introduced the matter before your Lordships. Having become interested, one finds that delving back into the books and histories of the plate manufacturers, the plate markers, back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, provides a fascinating history. It is in order that some of the fascination of that history should not be destroyed that I hope to draw your Lordships' attention to at least one aspect of hall-marking which could very well be left alone.

The hour advances, and it would not be helpful were I to say all that I had intended, save perhaps to emphasise so much of what the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman of Doxford, has already said, particularly in relation to the role of the Assay Office. My interest has been bolstered somewhat by correspondence and discussion with the National Association of Goldsmiths and various other people, including other retailers of precious metals, and some who auction used and secondhand precious metals. No official body, no trading interest, so far as I can find out, has found any quarrel whatsoever with the Assay Office. That is an extraordinary thing, because the offices are self-governing and self-elected, and have been for hundreds of years, and it is extraordinary that an organisation so made up can for so long hold the confidence of the consumer and the customer—the customer being the manufacturer sending his goods for assay, the consumer being the retailer buying those assayed goods. Any diminution of their standing in the world of precious metals, I believe, should be reasonably resisted. If any change is to come about there should be given some very sound justification.

I should like quickly to move specifically to parts of the Bill, although I do not intend to deal with it in detail. The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, inferred that one of your Lordships would raise a point regarding the Hall-marking Council. I shall be doing that. If I am to take the argument logically, I should perhaps turn quickly to Clause 4 and Schedule 2. That is the clause and the Schedule dealing with the new hallmarking, the millesimal marking. The noble Viscount illustrated the numerical point of marking of the precious metals. I recall that two years ago, during the passage of another Bill on driving licences, we were all required to put down names, initials, dates of birth, and so on, so that we could be enumerated upon the computer record. I complained then of the over-interest in numerical identification. I do so again in this matter. A letter from the Chairman of the National Association of Goldsmiths sent to me about three weeks ago tells me that if you placed on a counter a silver-gold ring, a platinum ring and a silver ring with some numbers inside, it would be the sterling ring which would carry the higher number and it would be that ring which the uninitiated would plump for.

Because of the increase in value in precious metals, particularly silver, much secondhand silver is to be found in auction rooms. I understand that because of the method by which the millesimal number will have to be applied to the article, with continued usage and cleaning in the case of silver that number will fast disappear, whereas gold, and silver-gold as well, is not cleaned nearly so frequently as sterling silver; nor in fact is platinum. So one can see that for practical purposes the millesimal marking can confuse a would-be purchaser and that after a very short while it will disappear. My friends in the National Association of Goldsmiths, who, incidentally, represent the vast bulk of retail outlets both in new and used products, write and say: Retailers are much more concerned with the consumer than other bodies, and we do not therefore favour millesimal markings on silver and platinum"— particularly, for those reasons. They go on to say: We do not mind millesimal marks being used for gold and white gold, but consider that their use should be excluded from silver and platinum. That is a very large body of people which is daily coming into contact with the consumer for whom this Bill is attempting to add further protection.


My Lords, will my noble friend forgive me for interrupting for a moment? He suggested that millesimal marking would disappear in a short time, but I am sure he realises that other countries abroad are firmly committed to the millesimal marking, so it certainly would not disappear.


My Lords, I understand exactly what my noble friend on the Front Bench tells me but I fear that he has misunderstood what I was trying to say. I was trying to suggest the physical disappearance of the number by usage and cleaning, to which silver is more prone than is gold and platinum.

I turn now to Clause 12 and Schedule 3 which deal with the setting-up of the Hallmarking Council. This is quite new and, so far as I have been able to find out from manufacturers and retailers, in principle there is absolutely no objection to this at all. It is rather surprising that for all of the 600 or 700 years that the Assay Offices, the Goldsmiths Company, London, the Wrought Plate in Birmingham and, I think it is, the Mystery of Goldsmiths in some other place, who have had control of these matters, there has been no firm connecting link with the precious metals industry and Government, and as I understand it, this will be the first time. I believe that everybody is really quite happy about the functions.

The unhappiness comes about because of the constitution of the Council. In reading the debate in another place it struck me as being quite extraordinary that there should be a complete about-face on the part of the Government regarding the constitution and the method by which persons shall be appointed to the Council. I am not sufficient of a Parliamentarian to argue the case for the starred Amendment that appeared two hours before the matter was to be debated. It appeared to catch Mr. Wiggin's friends a little on the wrong foot. Perhaps that is a Parliamentary way of doing it; I do not know. What I do know is that it seems absolutely wrong that the Bill provides for the Secretary of State to appoint his own, as it were, nominees in all of the 16 places that the Council provides, bearing only in mind that he has to pay due regard to various submissions that may be made to him. This seems to me to be pushing Governmental influence much too far. While I appreciate that the Council may be accountable to the Secretary of State, or whichever Minister it may be, I really do not think that he should direct even who their chairman shall be. It seems to me that if sixteen deemed good and faithful men or women are to settle down to oversee this very important business, at the very least they should be allowed to work under the direction of their own nominated chairman.

I would close my comments on this part of the Bill by suggesting that a little later, on Committee stage, we look at the method of appointment and the kind of people to be appointed. It seems reasonable to me that, while the assay offices should be represented and the consumer interests are certain to be interested, the retailer also should have some kind of interest in the making of the forms in which the Council will work. Apart from these two matters, the Bill seems to me tremendously exciting, as I say, in so far as it covers matters stretching over so many hundreds of years. I hope it will have a comparatively easy passage and an early enactment.

House adjourned during pleasure, and resumed by the Lord Chancellor.

6.24 p.m.


My Lords, I would thank each one of your Lordships who has so kindly taken part in the Second Reading debate here this afternoon. I think that the twin objectives of protection of the public and promotion of trade, from what your Lordships have said, have been clearly demonstrated as being fulfilled by the Bill as we see it at this stage. Nevertheless, there will be a full opportunity at Committee stage for further discussion and no doubt amendment. I would particularly thank my noble friend Lord Runciman for so clearly setting before your Lordships the enormous amount of hallmarking which is carried out in the City of London alone, and also comparing it with that in the country as a whole. This by itself justifies very early consideration of this matter. I was particularly grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, the father and progenitor of the Law Commission, for what he said in regard to the law reform aspect of this Bill.

I would stress particularly that I associate myself most closely with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth. He directed our attention to the question of confusion on millesimal marking, and I think demonstrated the difficulty of both the public and the retail trade generally in assimilating this for practical reasons. These are the practicalities in day-to-day living which we shall be encountering. As the time-scale of this Bill is a long one, we hope that, if it reaches the Statute Book, which we trust it will do before very long, it will have an enduring nature. I ask my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn to consider most carefully and weigh in his mind the special and particular views of the retail trade and many others which have been laid before him.

There can be no doubt whatsoever of the interest of the public in gold and silver and platinum, and I think this was more than anything demonstrated by the prodigious interest in the Tutankhamun Exhibition at the British Museum only a matter of a few months ago. We live in an age of inflation, of throw-away substances, and things which we can see, touch and feel have an enduring value which is of special importance—my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth mentioned in his closing remarks the question of the sustained standard. He referred to the role of the assay offices in this respect, and this will be noted with particular pleasure by all the offices who work and who direct their efforts in this particular regard.

I do not wish to lay more stress on the assay than perhaps I should on the trade, and once again may I bring to your Lordships' attention the promotion of trade which this measure seeks to achieve. The question of reproduction silver which the trade feel is most significant and important, particularly for export, is one matter on which the question of millesimal marking bears very closely. The artistic merit of particular marks is something which is cherished by people both inside and outside the trade. Special merit has attached to these marks over the centuries, and I would draw your Lordships' attention to an exhibition currently being held at Goldsmiths' Hall in the City of London by a British craftsman, Mr. Benney. In the course of his career as a craftsman, he has made a special effort to make a feature of these marks. These are things which he feels should be used in an artistic manner. For the life of me, I cannot see how millesimal marks, even with the greatest discrimination, can be so used. This is a matter to which we shall direct our attention at Committee stage. Meanwhile, I would ask your Lordships to give this Bill a Second Reading in the sure knowledge that we will seek amendment in due course.

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

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