HL Deb 15 January 1976 vol 367 cc334-7

6.10 p.m.

Lord JACQUES rose to move, That the draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Biscuits and Shortbread) Order 1975, laid before the House on 2nd December, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper be approved. The prime purpose of this Order is to require biscuits, when prepacked, to be put up in prescribed quantities. Biscuits will be the first product to be added to those which must be sold in prescribed quantities. At present as little ¼ oz separates pack sizes of biscuits and there are no fewer than 21 pack sizes between 3 oz and 8 oz. So consumers have little chance of making value for money comparisons and cannot readily identify one pack size from another.

Some 80 bodies representing manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, consumers and enforcement authorities have been invited to comment on our proposals. With minor exceptions industry have accepted the proposals as fair and reasonable, and have said they can implement them without raising the unit price of biscuits. Consumers have also generally welcomed the proposals, but some organisations have expressed reservations over the number of quantities permitted at the lower end of the range. Industry, however, have said that a radical change in pack sizes would be costly to implement and would inevitably lead to higher prices. All parties have agreed that it would be fair to review the position again in the light of experience with the proposed quantities and of whatever proposals might subsequently emerge from Brussels. As yet there is no EEC legislation on biscuits or shortbread, but the Commission has stated its intention of making proposals for biscuits in a draft Directive on prescribed quantities. The opportunity is also being taken to state the provisions for the sale of biscuits and shortbread in metric units. Both these products may already be sold in metric but so far only a few manufacturers have elected to market metric packs.

The main provisions of the Order may be summed up as follows: first, in future the weight of packs of biscuits and shortbread will have to be declared if above 50g (which is approximately 2 oz). At present the weight must be declared on packs of 4 oz (113g) and above. This is an important improvement. Secondly, above 85g (about 3 oz) biscuits may only be prepacked in prescribed quantities. Because of the limitations imposed by Section 10(10) of the Weights and Measures Act we have included an imperial range, but the industry has advised us that it intends to adopt the metric range only. To give some idea of the effect of the metric quantities we propose to prescribe, the 21 imperial pack sizes I mentioned earlier will be replaced initially by six,and later by five metric quantities.

Thirdly, shortbread in pieces exceeding 200g in weight need not be weight marked. The present concession is given at 8 oz (225g) and here we have metricated down rather than up to save the small baker—particularly in Scotland—. the expense of changing existing moulds. There are to be no prescribed quantities for shortbread. Fourthly, hand made biscuits (those baked, prepacked and sold by retail by the producer on his own premises) are not included in the prescribed quantities provision but they must be weight marked if prepacked above 100g. The present weight marking exemption limit is 4 oz (113g) in common with all other biscuits.

Fifthly, wafer biscuits—the type used with ice cream—are to be sold by count. Sixthly, special provisions have been made for the multiple prepacks so often seen nowadays in supermarkets. In this we have taken account of modern packaging techniques and marketing practices. Finally, I should like to say a word about the effective date of the Order, 1st January, 1978. As biscuits and shortbread may be sold now in metric quantities the importance of the date is that from then only the quantities prescribed in the Order will be permitted. The industry must therefore have completed its rationalisation by that date. I commend the Order to the House.

Moved, That the draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Biscuits and Shortbread) Order 1975, laid before the House on 2nd December, be approved.—(Lord Jacques.)


My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships' House will thank the noble Lord for his precise and detailed explanation of this document that we have before us, and I do not wish to follow him in such detail. It seems that we shall be straining at a gnat if we spend too long on it, although I understand the movement was initiated some two years ago at the request of consumer bodies and, at the end of two years, the manufacturers feel that useful negotiations have been completed in so far as that is possible. I observe that we are beating the European Economic Community to the "draw "by about 12 months in making our Regulations. I cannot help wondering whether this little instrument will be overtaken in all its complexity by another little instrument coming from across the Channel. Whether or not the noble Lord will feel a certain amount of time has been wasted on this, and a little money wasted in the rejigging of the cardboard boxes, I do not know. Your Lordships will not wish to discuss the complexities of packs of mixed biscuits, some of which are and some of which are not cream filled, at this late evening hour, and therefore I will not object in any way to this instrument.


My Lords, I must declare an interest as Director of the Cake and Biscuit Alliance which looks after the interests of the cake and biscuit manufacturers. We have, as my noble friend said, no objection at this stage, but I should like the assurance from the Government that they appreciate that in this country we shall be much more tightly regulated in relation to biscuits than any other country in Europe; and, furthermore, if as the years go on the Government see fit to reduce yet further the number of weight points which are allowed within the regulations, that will start to have a serious effect on the exporting of biscuits, both to the United States and also to Europe. It would be helpful to know that the Government are aware that we have gone just about as far as is reasonable in the form of restrictions on how biscuits should be sold.


My Lords, two points have been raised. First, in relation to the EEC, there are occasions when we should lead and not wait for others to lead; and here we are leading. It may well be the EEC will take as a guide what we arc doing in this country. I certainly hope they will. The second point was whether I could give an assurance that the Government appreciate that the industry has gone as far as it can. I think I will give the assurance in another way: an assurance that, in the course of time, we will make a review, in consultation with the industry and the consumer organisations, of our own experience arising from this order, and anything that might come from Brussels. In that review we shall certainly take both sides, industry and consumers, into account before we take our decision. In the same way as we have been able to reconcile the interests of both sides on this occasion, we are confident that we shall be able to do so in the future.

On Question, Motion agreed to.