HL Deb 06 May 1976 vol 370 cc684-9

6.3 p.m.

Lord ORAM rose to move, That the draft Weights and Measures (Pre-packed Milk in Vending Machines) Order 1976, laid before the House on 23rd March, he approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the order standing in my name on the Order Paper be approved. The order concerns the sale of small quantities of milk from vending machines. It is difficult at present for traders to conform with the various regulations involved. This has probably been the reason why the use of these machines has declined considerably over the past two decades. In the late 1950s they were very popular, and there were from between 2,000 and 3,000 machines in use. Today there are as few as 470 machines in use. These are mainly in factories and holiday camps. If Parliament approves this order, the legislative barriers to the use of these machines will be removed. What these barriers are and how they have developed, is rather a complicated story but it should not take me too long. Perhaps I should first indicate three main threads which are interwoven through the history of this matter since the early 1960s.

First, there has been the general question of inflation, including of course rises in the price of milk and the need from time to time to adapt the quantities packed and the prices charged for milk sold through these machines. Secondly, there was the decimalisation of the coinage and the fact that existing regulations related to the sixpence which has now largely gone out of circulation. The third thread is that in the 1960s and 1970s there has been a growing consumer consciousness and consumer organisations have been vigilant to ensure that if changes in the regulations are to be introduced, the consumer should be made clearly aware of the relationship between the quantity and the price.

Perhaps I should begin with the Weights and Measures Act 1963. This Act restricts the sale of pre-packed milk to quantities of one-third of a pint, half a pint, or any multiple of half a pint. In 1963, when the Bill was before Parliament, pre-packed milk was being sold from vending machines at a cost of sixpence (that is, 2½ new pence) for half a pint. It was clear that this price was becoming uneconomic and would soon have to be increased. The trade argued at the time that the cost of converting the coin mechanism on the vending machines from use with the old sixpenny piece to a multi-coin mechanism would be too high for some dairymen and would result in the withdrawal of some machines. Also, they maintained at that time that there were mechanical difficulties about conversion and that consumers were accustomed to buying sixpenny worth of milk from vending machines.

They wanted to be able to make a small reduction in the quantity of milk sold from the machines rather than increase the price when it inevitably rose. For this reason, Parliament decided that the Act should allow sales of pre-packed milk from vending machines in different quantities from those prescribed in the Act, provided that the selling price was sixpence and that the container was marked with a statement that it was not to be sold otherwise than by means of a vending machine, in addition to showing the quantity of sale on both the container and the vending machine.

In 1971 the coinage was decimalised and it was found that the new ½p coin was too light to trigger the coin operating mechanism in the vending machines. They were therefore converted to take the new 1p and 2p coins. Since the price of milk had also increased, pre-packed milk was sold in half-pint containers from vending machines at a price of 4p. It became uneconomic to sell any quantity for 2½p (the old sixpence) and there was a possibility of a further price increase, so the dairymen pressed the Government to increase the prices exemption from 2½"Ep to 4p and thus restore the flexibility that Parliament had allowed earlier. In other words, they would then be able to charge 4p but to sell in quantities other than those prescribed under the Weights and Measures Act.

From some points of view it would be desirable if sales from vending machines could be limited to prescribed quantities; but the difficulty arises from the limitation of the coin mechanism. Were the price of milk to rise, the dairymen would have to increase their prices in steps of 1p. This would leave them with two options: either they would have to sell at an uneconomic price, or they would have to charge the consumer more than was justified and more than they would wish to charge.

In 1972 the previous Government decided, rather than face Parliament with the prospect of constant updating of the price exemption in what is after all a rather limited area of trade, to offer to consider making an order to remove restrictions altogether from sales of small quantities of pre-packed milk from vending machines, provided that the trade was prepared to indicate the unit price on the machine on a voluntary basis. The diarymen were not prepared to do so, and, not suprisingly, consumer organisations made this a condition of their agreement; so there was a dilemma. We have been able to overcome the dilemma, and we have now obtained the agreement of the dairy trade to display prominently on the machine the price per pint of pre-packed milk sold from vending machines in all cases where the quantity of sale is less than half a pint. Under Section 21 of the Weights and Measures Act, it is necessary to carry out consultations before an order can be made under that section, and when we held these consultations consumers agreed to the lifting of the price exemption on the understanding that the Government would use their powers under Section 4 of the Prices Act 1974 so as to make unit pricing compulsory in respect of all sales of less than half a pint. Subject to the order before your Lordships being approved, we intend to lay before the House the necessary price marking order, to ensure that consumers have all the information they need before committing themselves to a purchase. This information will, of course, include the quantity of milk in each container in the machine. I believe that this order will rectify the rather complicated situation I have described and that it will do so to the satisfaction of all concerned. I therefore commend the order to the House.

Moved, that the draft Weights and Measures (Pre-packed Milk in Vending Machines) Order 1976, laid before the House on 23rd March, be approved.—(Lord Oram.)


My Lords, I think we should be very grateful to the noble Lord for giving us such a clear and concise explanation of something which, as he said, is very complicated. I know only too well the problems of coin mechanisms, having had to employ them myself, and the problem of trying to use a halfpenny and getting it to work a machine is totally insoluble.

I know this order is welcomed by the trade. It is extremely sensible. I am also delighted that we are to have unit pricing, because this will make it far easier for consumers to see exactly what they are buying. There is, however, one point about this which is rather sad: because of inflation and vandalism problems, the number of machines has dropped from about 2,000 in the 'sixties to about 300 which at present exist. Perhaps in the future more machines may be made although unfortunately, so far as I can tell at the moment, these machines are no longer being manufactured and the machines that do exist are using cannibalised parts from old machines. However, these machines are used quite extensively in factories and I hope that this order will make the matter clearer for those who use such milk, and that more machines will be used in the future. I should like once again to thank the noble Lord for putting this forward and to assure him that we support the order wholeheartedly.


My Lords, a little earlier a noble Lord from the Benches opposite referred to "the Party opposite", and as I was the only Member at that time I had to take responsibility for my Party. Some reference has been made to the consumer, so I should like, if I may, to speak on behalf of the consumer. The noble Lord may not be able to answer immediately the question I am going to put to him. He referredx2—rather as in a sort of saga entitled, "The Queen and the Dairymaid", but in this case it was the dairyman—to the fact that the container will now be marked with the quantity sold. This is very desirable; indeed it is essential. I should like to ask my noble friend: will it be marked with the designation of the milk?—because it was the pre-packed milk in vending machines which was the cause of a complaint I received about untreated milk being used in vending machines. This was not in a factory but at a seaside resort.

As I understand the Act, it does not prohibit the use of untreated milk, but merely requires that it shall be designated. When I was told that it was only about 3 per cent. of the total output, this did not seem a lot, but one has to realise the large quantity of milk which flows—if that is the right word—into our homes every day. Therefore I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he can let me know later about the designation or, in other words, what is to be put on the package. Of course the quantity is important and so is the price; but equally important is the need to know the kind of milk we buy through vending machines.


My Lords, first may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his welcome of this order. The only point he raised, which was a new one, concerned the manufacture of the machines. It is true, as the noble Lord said, that they are no longer being manufactured—largely, no doubt, because of the falling off in their use owing to the difficulty of the situation. One can only expect that if this order makes the situation less complicated and if the market opens up, either the firm which originally made the machines, or other firms, may find it possible to enter into manufacture again.

My noble friend Lady Phillips asked whether the marking would include the designation of the milk. I believe I am right in saying that it will not include that. This information may disappoint my noble friend, but what is required is the quantity and also the statement that it will not be for sale except through vending machines. I will look into the point she has raised and, if necessary, I will write to her later.

On Question, Motion agreed to.