HL Deb 02 December 1976 vol 378 cc471-94

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to move That this House takes note of the Thirty-ninth Report of the European Communities Committee of last Session on Measuring Systems for Liquids other than Water. It does not sound a very enticing subject, but I believe it to be one of very considerable importance in the sense in which the Directive is drafted. The views I give are generally those held by Sub-Committee B of this House's European Committee. The draft Directive on the approximation of laws relating to measuring systems for liquids other than water is one of a number of Directives in the field of legalised metrology; in other words, what we in this country call weights and measures. The purpose of these Directives is to diminish barriers to trade, one of the basic concepts of the Common Market. Currently, measuring equipment for liquids manufactured in different countries of the Community may not be exportable to other countries simply because the various authorities for certifying this equipment differ in their requirements from country to country; some countries will not accept the sort of certification given by the authorities of another country. If, however, this draft Directive came into force, then equipment approved under its general provisions by the specific national approval board of a particular country may not be refused entry or use by other Member States.

The draft Directive is lengthy, detailed and highly technical. It was in the course of compilation before the United Kingdom joined the Community, and it could not have been produced without a considerable contribution of thinking and detail from the manufacturers of measuring equipment in the Community countries. The nature of the Directive is such as to give rise to a question of general principle which your Lordships are now invited to consider. The question is this: is it desirable that Directives prescribing uniform principles of design—and I underline the word "design"—and construction should be the basis of legislation which seeks to establish uniform standards of measurement? The approach adopted by the United Kingdom, and indeed by the International Organisation of Legal Metrology, has been to base its international recommendations on requirements of performance and of operation rather than on details of design and construction.

The Community draft Directive contains 29 pages, most of the content of which is concerned with design rather than performance. Against this EEC Commission approach there are two main arguments of a general nature. The first is that such Directives may tend to freeze design at its present level and inhibit the development of better designs based on alternative concepts. It is true that within the machinery of the Commission there is a Technical Progress Committee to which appeals can be made if technical developments make a given Directive out of date. But appeals to allow of inventive steps which, by their very nature, might menace the competitive designs of manufacturers in other countries and which may in fact be covered by patents are likely to be long-drawn-out. They are therefore likely to delay innovation or even prevent it. Anybody who has had experience of trying to get alteration in the specifications of goods through the NATO COCOM committee—which is the committee which has to agree any changes in the list of goods that can be sent to Eastern Europe and China—knows what an infinitely prolonged experience it can be. Although COCOM is not analogous to the Appeals Committee of the EEC there is a certain similarity which causes me concern. Your Lordships may consider therefore that Directives drafted in a form which use the accuracy of the measurement as the criteria of approval rather than the details of construction would be preferable, particularly as such Directives would obviate the necessity for appeals to introduce new types of design.

The second argument against the drafting of Directives in this form—that is, drafting the Directives to look almost like a manual of specifications—relates to patents. Common practice for manufacturers of all types of equipment is to apply for and often to be granted patents covering even the smallest details of every advance design which they believe to be novel. Thus banks of patents are built up. Sometimes simply to prevent other manufacturers from claiming monopoly rights, but more often to secure monopoly of an idea for the patentee.

I believe that it is almost inevitable that some features appearing in the 29 pages of the draft Directive on construction of this measuring equipment are already covered by patents. I have raised the matter of patents with the Department of Trade, who in turn raised it with the Commission. I am informed that the burden of the Commission's reply was that two instances had occurred of the existence of patents which had been noticed, and the position created during discussion of Commission working groups. It is not on this Directive but on previous Directives. They further made the point that if a particular proposal favoured one firm its competitors would not be slow to point this out. This is a totally unsatisfactory and unrealistic reply from the Commission, because to establish if patents exist a lengthy and very costly search in the Patent Offices of every country in the Community would be required.

Look at what manufacturers are asked to do. They are asked individually as manufacturers to discover the patents of every other company manufacturing measuring equipment for liquids in every country in the Community. To have to do this because the Directive is drafted in a particular way is not onerous; it is virtually impossible. I am already informed by the Department of Trade that it is the view of the United Kingdom Comptroller of Patents that an EEC Directive would not override patent rights in the sense of giving others an automatic right to manufacture or to use without payment.

There is no need for me to comment at length on the advantage accruing to a manufacturer who possesses monopoly patent rights over some feature of construction embodied in an EEC Directive, or the disadvantage accruing to a manufacturer who could not get a licence under that patent to manufacture equipment which was being generally used in accordance with the Directives throughout the Community. Your Lordships will observe that I am advancing these two arguments as general principles. I do so because prudence requires us to look ahead.

In the evidence heard by Sub-Committee B of the European Community's Committee no mention was made of objections by United Kingdom manufacturers to the provisions of this Directive. Extraordinary as this may seem, I personally believe that this may have been because the point had not occurred to them. It had not occurred, so far as I could gather, to the Department of Trade. If it had occurred to manufacturers I cannot conceive that they would not have been very troubled.

Looking to the future, I submit that if it was to become customary for design specifications to be embodied in Directives, then the whole question of patents becomes very important. Speaking generally and not in the specific context of this Directive, if there are patents relevant to a particular design, and if the holders are unwilling to license all who wish to use such patents, the effect would be to limit the number of manufacturers able to comply with the Directive. In that way a Directive which is designed to diminish barriers to trade might unintentionally have the precisely opposite effect.

I am bound in fairness to say that there is one possible safeguard for a manufacturer denied a patent licence by some other manufacturer who possesses that patent. Under United Kingdom current law a foreign holder of a United Kingdom patent covering an article which is not being manufacturered in the United Kingdom can, under certain circumstances, be forced to give a licence to a United Kingdom manufacturer on terms adjudicated by the Patent Office. I think I am correct in saying that. Perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am not. This is termed a licence of right. But the procedure to obtain such a licence is arduous, and success may not be achieved if goods are able to be imported at a reasonable price level. So the licence might be refused and thus exclude any United Kingdom manufacturer from making the equipment covered by that patent.

I may have exaggerated the danger of this patent issue. It is all too easy to do that when one has to pick out a particular point which has perhaps not received the attention it might have received in previous study, and I am open to the suggestion that I am exaggerating the danger. But I am bound to bring it before the House as a very serious point, and one to me that strikes home because in my industrial career I have had a great deal to do with patents and I know how damaging they can be.

Is it possible to suggest an alternative method for drafting such Directives as this one? The suggestion which Committee B considered was that such Directives should not prescribe design standards, but standards of accuracy in performance. It would then be for the competent authority in each country to certify that equipment manufactured within its jurisdiction complied with these standards of accuracy. There should be no impediment to the sale in any Member State of equipment so certified by a national authority. I can conceive that objections might well be raised to a re-formulation of the existing draft Directive in the form I have proposed, because I understand that years of work have gone into its preparation. But even if noble Lords do not wish to withhold approval of this draft Directive, they may nevertheless wish to put down a marker that this one should not constitute a precedent for the drafting of future Directives of this kind.

I shall now ask the noble Lord, if he can, to provide answers to the following questions: first, what is the current attitude of manufacturers in the United Kingdom to this Directive? If it has changed since the original evidence that we received, what is the current attitude of the weights and measures inspectors and the relevant section of the Department of Consumer Protection? Will the noble Lord give the House his best estimate of what might be the future position with regard to licences of right under prospective European patent legislation? Lastly, can the noble Lord say where the draft Directive stands at the moment in terms of the Commission's timetable?

In conclusion, if your Lordships agree with the points that I have made, you may consider it advisable to invite the Minister to ensure that they are borne in mind by United Kingdom representatives who take part in any future discussion on this draft Directive and of laws relating to the measurement of liquids, or in discussion of analogous Directives in the future.

5.53 p.m.

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, the subject matter of this report was not debated in another place, so we are particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brown, for having raised the subject today. For the second time this afternoon, I must thank my noble friend Lady Tweedsmuir and her Committee for once again producing a document which I can only call a "child's guide to Directives", because it certainly helps us to understand what we are talking about, whereas the draft Directive and particularly the annexe to which the noble Lord, Lord Brown, referred are very much more difficult to comprehend.

As I understand it, there is no disagreement as to the objective of the draft Directive. It is, to establish minimum standards of accuracy in measurement and so protect the consumer. On the contrary, this is surely desirable and should contribute to increased trade between the Member States. One has only to think of the amount of inter-State tourism and the use of petrol pumps throughout the Community to accept that a minimum standard of accuracy should be a right and that, where there is not accuracy, the consumer, in whichever Member State he may find himself, may rightly complain.

The draft proposal does not go all the way to meet this desirable objective since it is optional; that is, it will affect only the export of meters and not those that are retained in the country of origin. It should be clarified for those who might have some doubts on this matter that the use of old measurements is not prohibited so that we shall not immediately have to measure in litres as opposed to gallons.

Standardised equipment and methods for measurement purposes undoubtedly help our export trade and the noble Lord, Lord Brown, himself quoted from paragraph 17 of the report evidence showing the barrier set up by the United States on account of non-conformity in regard to pressure vessels. This is a very real problem of which the noble Lord, Lord Brown, is well aware. The noble Lord has, however, raised one important matter which does not appear to have been satisfactorily answered, at any rate in the evidence so far available. Does the specification as to the construction of the meters refer to instruments already being produced in the Member States and which may be covered by a patent or patents? There seem to be at least three possible ways of answering this. First, it may not be known whether or not patents are in existence; I do not know how easy that is to find out. If the answer is in the affirmative, the specification might be very much to the advantage of a single Member State. If a patent or patents exist, clearly there must either be modification of the description to allow for variation in design or else withdrawal of the detailed description and retention of only a list of objectives to be attained, as the specifications were set out in the original draft Council Directive of 1971—No. 319. This annexe is very much less tight and restricted than the final one with which we are now presented.

While accepting the answer given in evidence in paragraph 41 of the Report, that the document's intention is manifestly not to be restrictive, and accepting the Commission's desire to identify technical criteria as relevant, it is not clear to me from the evidence how far these restrictions do restrict the mechanism to only one design. Of course there is also the point that this design may be patented. These things do not come out clearly from the evidence, so the question that I ask the Government is whether, in the opinion of the technical experts in the Minister's Department, it would be possible under the draft specification to have a variety of designs and to develop new designs and new types of meter? If the answer is, Yes, I see little cause for concern, but if it is, No, perhaps the Minister would look at this again as the noble Lord, Lord Brown, has suggested, and certainly I hope that he will ensure that in future Directives of a similar nature restrictive practices such as these will be excluded.

The noble Lord, Lord Brown, has done a service in raising this point, which has been brought to your Lordships' House for, I believe, the first time. In particular, I should like to mention the letter from the Committee on Legal Affairs of the European Parliament dated 20th January 1976 in which it was stated that the Committee found that the proposal raised no particular legal problem. The noble Lord, Lord Brown, has raised a very particular legal problem—the question of patent law, which is a very difficult and complex subject and one which might have very serious consequences on, for instance, the production of meters in this country. I therefore express my gratitude to the noble Lord for raising this matter and, with him, I would join in asking the Minister to ensure that those in the Commission and in the other institutions of the European Community are made aware of this very real problem.

5.56 p.m.


My Lords, I have studied the report of your Lordships' Select Committee with great interest, as also the documents to which it relates. I have much agreement with many of the things said in the course of the collection of the evidence, some of which were underlined and endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Brown, today. I believe that he is entirely right to direct our attention to the fact that the draft Directive is apparently rather more preoccupied with the apparatus whereby liquids are delivered than with the end result—that is, the actual measure.

I also very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brown, in what he said about patents. There, I can confirm what the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, has said. I do not believe for a moment that the noble Lord exaggerated the difficulties here. I am quite sure that, unless further steps are taken and safeguards introduced, very great and highly complex difficulties will arise in the field of patent law.

I believe that we must accept that this is consumer protection legislation and the consumer is very interested in the end result rather than the complicated apparatus and the way in which it is designed. He is concerned about the quantity of liquid that is ultimately delivered and about getting the correct amount. However, since these Directives concern hydrocarbons and therefore petrol, it is perhaps worth mentioning that consumers are also interested in quality. It may interest your Lordships to know that some years ago I was concerned in an investigation into the octane grades of petrol. In connection with a television programme, we took innumerable samples of five star, four star and so on. These were analysed by official sources and the amount of so-called five star petrol that was not five star but which turned out to be two star, was considerable and rather worrying. On the other hand, there were not many worries about the actual volume and the measuring side of things, whereas these draft Directives are of course concerned with measurements and are really weights and measures legislation rather than dealing with quantity.

I should like to raise the question of the future of beer. I know that it is not referred to and that in the Directives hydrocarbons and milk are specifically mentioned; but the general provisions are intended to cover all liquids other than water, so one supposes that, in the fullness of time, these draft Directives will apply to beer. Beer is of course delivered in many parts of this country and of the EEC by the kind of apparatus that is considered in these Directives. It is carried by tankers, delivered to an entirely closed circuit system, into tanks, and ultimately dispensed, metered and so on. We are not at all clear about what is to be the future fate of the pint. I understand that a Question on this matter was asked in another place recently, and perhaps the noble Lord who is to reply to this debate will be able to confirm my belief that the answer given was that it was the present intention to retain the pint. I have no doubt that many people will be glad about that; nevertheless this is a factor which we must consider.

I believe that we must also consider the possible relevance of these draft Directives to British manufacturers and therefore potential exporters of the metering and dispensing apparatus for beer which is now manufactured in this country. We have come a long way with regard to beer in recent years. Professionally, as a doctor, I was concerned some years ago in investigations into the possibility of the transmission of certain infectious diseases through contaminated beer. This arose in those days through the almost universal use of what was known by the euphemism "overspill", which is what poured down the outside of the glass. In some cases, as was shown in one prosecution, it was what was poured from the tray into the glass. I am delighted to say that we have now largely done away with the use of overspill. Indeed, I believe that the breweries are wholly opposed to it. This has been brought about very largely by the use of the marked glass which is oversized, with the metered equipment which delivers an exactly measured pint or half pint; thus there is no need for overspill. It will not have escaped the notice of your Lordships that it is impossible to put a pint of good beer in good quality into one of the old kind of Board of Trade stamped pint pots. If there is a froth on the top you must leave about a quarter of an inch, which is about a fiftieth of a pint.

Therefore, by introducing these kind of systems, the serving of beer by apparatus which delivers a measured pint or half pint into an oversized glass with a mark, one first of all does away with the possibility of serving dirty or contaminated beer, which certainly was a possibility in the past, and, secondly, one also does away with the possibility of serving short measure, which is not without some significance. We have in this country manufacturers of this equipment. They are manufacturing highly sophisticated and efficient brewery equipment—metering systems—many of which do away with even the need for a stamped glass, because now some of these meters are certified by the Board of Trade and they deliver an exact pint or an exact half pint. In those circumstances, the beer can be served not into a stamped glass—as the law otherwise requires—but it can be served also into a plant pot, flower vase or such because everybody knows that the measure is exactly right.

But how are those who are manufacturing this equipment in this country—and there are many firms making excellent equipment—to benefit from export opportunities while we retain our own measures? Their concern is not only with the transfer to a new measure other than the pint, but with the point which has already been made in the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Brown, that the draft Directives are very much preoccupied with the apparatus rather than with the end results. It is most important that we ensure that in the end our manufacturers have to comply with unified and harmonised regulations throughout the whole of the EEC, whereas at the moment West Germany has, I believe, regulations regarding the diameter of pipes which are used in beer measuring and beer dispensing systems, rather than with the end results. Again, we come here into the field of patents, into the field of designs. I believe that some of our brewery equipment provides excellent export potential, and indeed, with unified systems, in the end would provide real commercial advantages to this country, and to West Germany, the Netherlands and many other parts of the EEC. But I am not at all sure how these people will react at the moment to these draft Directives, or to what extent they help in any way at all. Indeed I have my doubts about whether they really do help.

So we come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brown. We have to concentrate a little more on the end result rather than on the intermediate means, and we have to concentrate on a unified system throughout the EEC, dealing with one specific factor which can easily be complied with, rather than try to get the satisfactory end results which we all want, by attempting to unify a whole range of different regulations in different fields, covering design and covering manufacturing processes in another way. Therefore I very much endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Brown, said about the need for a careful look into these draft Directives and about the need for caution with regard to their implementation. Nevertheless, anything which can be done to unify measuring systems and to protect the consumer on a unified basis throughout the EEC will be of tremendous advantage to EEC consumers, wherever they happen to live. It will also be of great advantage to manufacturers of certain equipment in this country, who are at present denied export opportunities because of the com- plexity of regulations now existing in different Member States of the EEC which make it impossible for them to comply with each and every one of them.

If we have one set of regulations governing the lot, even if we retain the pint, it would probably still be possible to adapt the machinery so as to comply with that one set of regulations. I believe that at the moment we are losing export opportunities which could possibly bring great benefit to this country. With those few words I of course support at least the aim of the draft Directives, if no more than that.

6.6 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brown, posed quite early in the debate a question to the noble Lord. Lord Oram. He asked whether the Minister could say to what extent United Kingdom manufacturers have knowledge of this Directive. He doubted that they had much knowledge. I doubted that they had much knowledge, so in preparation for your Lordships' consideration of this measure I went to see some manufacturers and I met something of a blank wall. They really did not know very much more than I did, which was precious little. So I then thought that perhaps it is not the manufacturers we should be worrying about; perhaps we should be thinking about the people who are going to invent the machinery. So I went to a number of companies and to one particular technical research and development company, privately operated, who gave me the benefit of their advice. In fact, that company knew nothing about the Directive until I talked to them about it, and they, all of them very eminent, highly professional qualified engineers and scientists, were somewhat horrified.

The Directive is written around presently known types of equipment, and conformity to the criteria set down in the Directive would, I believe, inhibit innovation and enterprise. I should like to remind your Lordships of something which my noble friend Lady Elles said. I do not wish to pick her up on a particular point, but she referred fairly constantly to metering of measurement. But we are not really concerned with meters. We are concerned with measuring devices. I will refer to this a little later and give a particular example. In the minds of almost everybody the term "a meter" supposes a set of wheels going around and a physical clock showing a result. I shall come back to that because we are not concerned with meters; we are concerned with measuring of liquids.

With those introductory remarks, I should like to seek by question of the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, a clarification of the rather unhappy point he made about petrol. Your Lordships will remember that I have to be a little on guard when people say things about the dispensing of petrol. The noble Lord said that certain investigations were carried out and that there were a great number of errors as between two-star and five-star. However, he also said that there were very few errors in the quantities which were dispensed. I would ask him by way of question whether perhaps the errors as between grades were not more physical than mechanical.


My Lords, I would certainly accept that. I did not say "a great number"; I said "a small number but nevertheless a significant number", which is rather different from "a great number". But I should think that what had happened was something totally beyond the control of the apparatus. It was something which had happened under the control of the people who happened to be working the apparatus in those particular cases.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord because that is precisely the kind of answer for which I was looking. I said that the Directive as written around the known pieces of equipment was restrictive; and in today's Daily Telegraph there is, unhappily, a report that the £25,000 annual McRobert Award for British engineering innovation is not being awarded this year. Presumably nobody has come up with an engineering innovation that warrants the award. If engineering scientists are going to be inhibited by this kind of Directive, I think it is a very sad thing. The Directive goes into a great number of quite useless, in my view, details. For example, it says at paragraph 175 on page 8—and I am merely going to pick out one little piece: No pipe is to be connected to the blow-off arrangement". My Lords, why not? It really is rather stupid to set down in a specification a blank statement of that kind without giving a reason. An inventive engineer may require a pipe to be affixed to the blow-off arrangement, but here he is prohibited from so affixing it. Throughout the Directive there is a great number of details, which are unexplained, which I believe would tend to restrict the inventive genius of engineers and scientists.

My Lords, design criteria, in engineering terms, should lay down as a basic specification only the minimum standards of accuracy, reliability, performance and repeatability, but not the method by which they should be achieved. In fact, this is exactly what has happened here. As an example, though perhaps something of an over-simplification, suppose that 25 years ago there had been a Directive of this nature concerned with the simple domestic radio receiver. Broadly, a specification might be given to a radio engineer to make a device sensitive to radio waves within a given range and subject to some selective tuning arrangement within that range. That is the basic requirement. The engineer will take that basic requirement and use his inventive genius, his skills and his knowledge to produce an article to meet those design criteria. How he achieves it is his business. But if we go a little further and say, "And such device shall have valve sizes of 75 millimetres by 25 millimetres", he is immediately restricted. That is what he has to put in. As I say, if a Directive written in those terms had been in force 25 years ago, I doubt whether today we should have transistors and all the benefits that flow from them.

My Lords, I want to finish by returning to the comment about measuring devices. Currently, static liquid levels can be measured by ultrasonic devices. To my mind, there is little doubt that in a very few years' time such devices could easily be employed to measure flowing liquid volumes. The noble Baroness will now appreciate, I think, the point I made when I referred to her discussing the devices always as meters, because an ultrasonic device could hardly fall into that category. My research development engineer friends (who, incidentally, have not found the answer yet, I hasten to tell your Lordships) are very concerned because, were they to offer this under the terms of the Directive, they would be out of court. They say so.

Were they working on this problem today, and were this Directive compulsory—I appreciate it is only optional, but that is only one stage removed from unification—they would abandon the work completely because they would be stuck, notwithstanding the safeguard to which the noble Lord, Lord Brown, referred in the Technical Progress Committee. If one reads the evidence as given to the Sub-Committee, it is quite plain that access to that Committee and the workings of it are very involved. They must by the very nature of the system be longwinded; and no engineer is going to work under constraints of that kind. I believe these are real problems, my Lords, and I believe that, however difficult it may be to modify the Directive, certain modification is needed and perhaps should be put in hand straight away.

The last and overriding point that I should like to make—and I fear, my Lords, that it is not original, because somebody else said it only a short while ago in a medical programme—is that legislation of this kind should not be used to stifle engineering or, indeed, any other science. That, I fear, is what is likely to happen with this kind of Directive.

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether I might answer what he said in reference to my comment about meters. I should perhaps say that I mentioned meters only once, as far as I can check with my own bad writing; and I said, "the construction of the meters as referred to in the specification". In the annexe which I have, which gives the specifications, it refers to meters the whole time. It says, in fact, that where there are "several meters intended for a single measuring operation, the meters are considered as forming a single measuring system". Throughout this document, as I understood it, the word "meter" was a general word taken to cover the measuring system. I absolutely appreciate what the noble Lord is saying, that a meter as such, in ordinary common parlance, does not cover all the various attachments or different forms of measuring system, but so far as concerns the specification to which I was referring, it refers the whole time to meters. So I hope the noble Lord will accept that I mentioned it in these terms.

6.19 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for intervening in this discussion without notice, but there is one point which has so far escaped me. That point is the desirability of timely and adequate consultation between the Commission of the European Community and other authoritative organisations which are simultaneously doing work in the same field. The importance of this point was stressed in this House on 1st July this year by the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, in connection with the hall-marking of precious metals.

My noble friend Lord Brown mentioned that there is an International Organisation of Legal Metrology which does work in this field. He mentioned that its work is based rather on the specification of minimum performance standards—which is the way in which my noble friend, Lord Brown and Sub-Committee "B" would prefer to see draft Directives formulated. I believe that the Commission is in touch with the International Organisation of Legal Metrology, but in the evidence received by the Committee it was not clear that there had been timely and adequate consultation before the drafting of the Directive was completed. It is a point of some substance and I hope it will not be lost sight of in the drafting of future analogous Directives.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Brown for initiating this debate this evening. We are also grateful to him and his colleagues in the Select Committee Sub-Committee for the work they are doing in examining from the British point of view proposals such as that we are now concerned with—and not only this one, but a whole variety of subjects, some very technical, as this is, and others perhaps less so. There has been much public debate in recent weeks about the usefulness of your Lordships' House and I am sure that if those here present were to embark on that subject this evening it would be a very interesting discussion and with varied views. I feel sure that no one who approaches with a fair mind the work of the Committee that scrutinises the Directives that come from Brussels and which makes the kind of criticism that has been voiced this evening, can deny the usefulness of at least that part of your Lordships' House. The Government, and indeed industry, in the United Kingdom are hopeful that a Directive can be adopted in this area of measuring systems for liquids other than water because we all believe it will be of benefit to United Kingdom industry and also to the consumers to have common standards in the Member States of the EEC. I was glad that both the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, and the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, indicated their agreement with that main objective.

I note that the Select Committee took the same view before indicating its reservations; but it is important that we note not only the unanimity in approaching the general purpose of the Directive but also the very strong reservations that the Committee have expressed in their Report and which have been voiced so effectively and strongly again here this evening. This particular proposal for a Directive on measuring systems for liquids other than water—and my noble friend Lord Brown said that this was not a very engaging subject and was a rather intricate phrase, so perhaps in future I may call it "measuring systems" for the sake of brevity—will be the third in a threefold approach to this problem. The other two were adopted by the EEC in 1971 before our accession to the Community and they have already been implemented in our own legislation. Those two are the Directives on meters and on ancillary equipment for meters for liquids other than water. All three of these Directives stem from a programme drawn up in 1969 which sets out those subjects on which progress should be made for the elimination of technical barriers to trade in measuring instruments.

It was first of all necessary to lay down a general framework applicable in all Member States for the control of measuring instruments in order to ensure accuracy and to protect the consumer. That general framework was set out in the Directive of 26th July 1971. The framework has three principal components: first, a system of pattern or type examination for new designs to assess their general suitability in accordance with whatever requirements might be laid down; and, secondly, once pattern approval has been obtained, a testing procedure which is called "initial verification" on each and every instrument to see that it is both accurate and constructed in accordance with the approved pattern. Both these procedures are analogous to existing procedures under our own Weights and Measures Act 1963. Patterns are examined by the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection and then equipment from the production line is submitted to weights and measures inspectors for testing and for stamping as fit for use in trade.

The third component is what has come to be known as the Technical Progress Committee. It was this to which my noble friend Lord Brown and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred. This Committee has no counterpart in our domestic legislation and is a procedural device for the up-dating of technical annexes without the necessity of Directives going through the full Council machinery. It is therefore somewhat easier and quicker to operate; although I note the fears expressed this evening that any such machinery inevitably is capable of being a delaying mechanism.

I think it would be appropriate to give a brief outline of the scope of the draft Directive on measuring systems. The scope of the Directive covers two particular areas. First, it covers liquids such as hydrocarbons, milk and wine. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, was wondering about beer. He raised the matter with some anxiety in his voice. He seems to have a particular affection for this subject. I can tell him that the Directive would apply to beer delivered by road tankers but not to the operation to which he was mostly directing his remarks, the beer meter on the bar for serving pints. There, it is a question of first pre-determining quantities; and that is not appropriate for the kind of measuring systems covered in the Directive. However, he is quite right in thinking that beer being delivered in tankers comes within the scope of this Directive.

Secondly, such systems may be either static, such as petrol pumps, or mobile as mounted on lorries delivering domestic fuel oil for central heating systems. It is envisaged that whatever the system, it will probably contain one or more meters for the measurement of the quantity delivered or received together with ancillary devices such as ticket printers or price-computing mechanisms. These will derive from the other two Directives I mentioned earlier. The measuring system will be subject to pattern approval in one of the Member States. The work of examining the pattern will be carried out by the designated metrological service of that Member State, and it will be their task to judge the system against the requirements in the Directive.

Once that hurdle has been passed, measuring systems from the production line will be able to be manufactured and submitted for initial verification. This will mean that they will then be able to be marketed and used in any Member State of the Community without further metrological processes, and this, of course, is where the barriers to trade come down. No longer will it be necessary for the United Kingdom manufacturer to apply in each of the Member States for their separate approvals according to their own laws. Such procedures are obviously not only tedious but expensive, and it was on this basis that I know the Committee was able to agree that a Directive in this area would be of advantage to the industries concerned.

Since I am referring to the industries, may I take up a point which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, mentioned when he doubted whether, from his experience, manufacturers know or knew about this Directive. I assure him that consultations between the Department, a whole range of manufacturing trade associations and individual firms have taken place. I have a list of 25 associations and important manufacturing firms, so I think that he will recognise that there are some people, at any rate—and a wide range of people—within the industry who are well informed on this matter. He happens to have been a little unlucky in those whom he approached.

There were, as indicated, a number of points which the Committee reported on as causing them a good deal of concern. The first main point was that the detailed technical specifications set out in the annex might inhibit or even prevent technical improvements based on new concepts. This was the point which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, was making in his discussions with inventor friends. It is true that the annex to the Directive contains a considerable quantity of detailed technical provisions, and I do not dissent from the arguments which have been put forward that these could have an inhibiting effect on innovations.

But there are two points that I should like to make in this connection. First—and the point has been made before—one must bear in mind the Technical Progress Committee, which I also mentioned. I should like to stress this, because noble Lords will not have found the Committee referred to in the measuring systems document itself, but it does exist. It is the task of the Technical Progress Committee to examine suggestions for updating the technical parts of Directives, not just on these measuring systems but on all the other categories of weighing or measuring equipment for which Directives have already been adopted. There is therefore a procedure which would enable technological progress to be taken account of.

Secondly, I can tell your Lordships that the Government are equally concerned with these technical specifications and they are already seeking to get the proposal amended in Brussels. The report of the Committee is very helpful in this respect. We hope that it will be possible to have the Directive referring mainly to performance requirements instead of technical specifications. That is the main point. Performance requirements would enable the manufacturer to use his initiative and innovate in whatever direction he chose, provided the result will meet the requirements on performance. How far the Government are successful in changing the character of the draft Directive in this way will depend on the progress of negotiations in Brussels. I am able to tell your Lordships that already in the discussions in Brussels which have taken place since June (when the Committee reported) the Government have been successful in getting certain technical details deleted and performance specifications put in their place. I hope therefore that this indication of the way in which the Government are proceeding in this matter will be of some assurance to noble Lords.

The second main point brought out by the Committee arises from those same technical specifications. The Committee feared that there might be a patent covering the only design of equipment which could meet the specification laid down. The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, referred to this. The company holding such a patent would therefore be in an advantageous position, and it might be possible for them, so to speak, to corner the market or possibly make it very expensive for their competitors. The Government have considered this potential difficulty and have also discussed it with representatives of United Kingdom industry and the EEC Commission. The general consensus is that such a situation is unlikely to arise. United Kingdom industry has examined the proposal as it stands in some detail; and while they cannot say with definite conviction that there are no patents covering particular items, they do feel that problems connected with patent infringements are unlikely. The EEC Commission also feels that the possibility is remote.

I recognise that my noble friend Lord Brown has this evening brought forward some additional strong arguments in this connection, and I can assure him that I will have his additional remarks closely examined in this respect. He asked me, among a number of matters, a question about licences of right. I am afraid that I cannot at this stage give him what he requires about future legislation. He referred to future European legislation, but there is of course, as mentioned in the gracious Speech, a Bill pending in this House, and I will write to him on the point he made in connection with patents.

But if I now turn back to the first main point of concern, noble Lords will agree that the further we are able to move the Directive away from detailed technical specifications and towards performance requirements, the less likely we are to meet any difficulties on patents. By putting our efforts in that, we are at the same time—in so far as we are successful —lessening the real problem concerning patents. However, should the remote likelihood occur of difficulty arising over a patent, I am advised that it would be open to any Member State—which of course includes ourselves—to remedy the situation by asking the Commission to submit an amending Directive with the minimum of delay through the Technical Progress Committee procedure.

I have already given what I hope is a suitable reply to my noble friend on his question concerning patents, and I should now like to turn to the three other points which he raised. He asked about the current attitude of manufacturers, and I have already indicated the degree to which they have been approached on this matter. They are interested in the adoption of a Directive, so that it completes what I would call the three-fold Directives in this connection. There are for them prospects of easier exporting to other Member States once they have obtained their EEC pattern approvals.

My noble friend also asked about the attitude of inspectors: they will be responsible for the process of initial verification of each individual measuring system which has received EEC pattern approval. But if what my noble friend has in mind is the attitude of the Weights and Measures Service of the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, I can assure him it is that Service which is leading the negotiations in Brussels, on behalf of the United Kingdom. I indicated earlier that they are fighting the battle mentioned to us by the Sub-Committee. That team are hopeful of achieving a satisfactory Directive which will eliminate the technical barriers to trade in this area, which will be to the benefit of the United Kingdom industry.

I hope I have answered the main points that have been raised, but we shall listen with interest to what my noble friend has to say in summing up the debate. I hope that what I have said about the line that the Government are taking in Brussels, and what all concerned feel about the possibility of patent difficulties, will give sufficient assurance to the House so that we may be able to look forward to a successful outcome of the negotiations in Brussels and the eventual elimination of technical barriers to trade in that sector, with the prospect of increased export business. I am sure that should be our major objective.

6.43 p.m.


My Lords, it is later than I expected and therefore I shall be brief. I am grateful to noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, which has been most interesting and, I think, very useful. I hope all those who have spoken will excuse me from mentioning their contributions individually, because that always takes time and I am not sure that they would not rather get away this evening fairly quickly.

Turning to the points put by my noble friend on the Front Bench, it must be said, first, that I think we are all grateful for the general assurance given that we are fighting now against the particular form of this Directive. No doubt we shall continue to try to prevent similar practices being adopted towards analogous Directives in future. That is very good news and I personally am very pleased to hear it.

Turning to a slightly more critical note—not necessarily implying criticism of the Government themselves—when industry says it is reasonably satisfied, or words to that effect, about the patent situation, I think they are indulging in wishful thinking. I know a great deal about patents from an industrial point of view, and I cannot conceive that they can be satisfied. They are running risks. Those who are aware of the complexity of the banks of patents held by their own competitors right across Europe know very well that they cannot possibly be aware of whether any of those are going to become mixed up with the specifications in this Directive.

Equally, the Commission are indulging in extreme wishful thinking. I have used the word "absurdity" in connection with the Commission's response. They are saying that they have put into a Directive a particular design specification for some measuring equipment—which is presumably the best that their experts advise them is available. Then subsequently it comes to their notice, after the Directive has been passed, that the particular equipment is the subject of patents held by some manufacturing firm. What do they propose to do about it?—to alter the Directive so that they get a less good design of measuring equipment, in order to avoid the specification. Can your Lordships think of a more absurd result? If they did not do that, they would have to take overriding authority to abolish the patent or to insist on free licences all round. That is the difficulty one gets into with Directives of this sort, based on design; so I think they are indulging in wishful thinking. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will go on using this patent argument, which is probably the most powerful one against the use of design specifications of this sort.

I am grateful for the attitude that has been expressed by my noble friend Lord Oram, and for the assurance that our officials are fighting this hard in Brussels. I hope they will be successful.

On Question, Motion agreed to.