HL Deb 04 April 1979 vol 399 cc1931-9

Standing Order No.43 having been suspended, pursuant to Resolution of 2nd April:

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The main purpose of the Bill is set out in Part I. It is to introduce from 1st January next a new system of weights and measures control over packaged products; that is, packaged goods which are sold by weight or volume in predetermined quantities. At present in this country we operate what is referred to as a minimum contents system. Under this system the packer has to set his filling target above the declared contents in order to ensure that the vast majority of his production contains at least what is stated on the label; in other words, under the present system packers have systematically to over-fill.

However, I must stress that legally the present system is not as straightforward as is commonly supposed. Individual packages may be under weight, and in the case of a short-weight prosecution the courts have to take into account the average quantity in any similar packages and have to disregard any inconsiderable deficiency. The United Kingdom is among very few countries in the world which operate such a system. Most other countries operate some form of average-contents system based upon the practical recognition of quantity variations in modern mechanised filling processes, and enforcement at the packer's premises rather than at the retail shop.

We are an important exporter of foodstuffs, including both manufactured foodstuffs and processed foodstuffs, and very often they are prepacked. Different approaches to the whole question of testing of weights and measures can constitute a real and important technical barrier to trade, and it is vital in our trading interests that we seek a common approach, both with the member States of the EEC and with other countries in the world. That is what this Bill is all about.

The EEC system not only requires that packages must at least be right on average, but it also establishes lower tolerance limits. It therefore incorporates a purely minimum provision, which our own system does not have. The Directive of the EEC was made under Article 100 of the Treaty of Rome. It was a very liberal Directive. Under that Directive we must allow the average system of testing, but we could have side by side with it our own system; but in that case those that were subject to the average system would have to be marked with a small "e".

In view of that choice the whole matter was referred to a working party. That working party consisted of manufacturers, retailers, consumers, and enforcement officers. They have been studying this problem since 1975. They have reported, and they recommend that the average system should he applied across the board and not simply to "e" packages; that a small national enforcement coordinating body should be set up, and that a system of retail monitoring should be introduced to supplement factory checking.

This Bill is based largely on a combination of the broad obligations set out in the Directive and the recommendations of this working party. This Bill is urgent. Why? As I have indicated, the new system has to be implemented before 1st January. On 1st January the extra time which was granted to us by the EEC Commission will be exhausted, and we shall be obliged to make up our minds and to carry out the Directive in one way or another. We propose to carry it out in the way in which the working party recommended, and that is embodied in the Bill. However, there remains a great deal to be done if the changeover is to operate smoothly; if the industry is to be able to adapt; if enforcement authorities are to know what is expected of them, and if consumers are to enjoy a proper level of protection.

The Bill is a framework Bill. It establishes the basic legal obligations, but the technical detail and the practical procedures to be adopted are left to subordinate legislation and to the very important codes of practice which are being drawn up in conjunction with the legislation. The reason why it is so important that this Bill completes its stages during this Parliament is that all the time between now and the end of this year is needed for preparation.

For obvious reasons, industry needs to have the details settled in subordinate legislation and codes of practice as soon as possible so that it can prepare adequately for the new system. On the enforcement side the national co-ordinating unit also needs to be set up as soon as possible and to start its important preparatory work. There is also the question of the training of trading standards inspectors. This has already started, but this cannot be done thoroughly until the legislation is settled. Delay would now jeopardise an effective changeover in this country and could lead to confusion for industry and lack of adequate protection for consumers.

I touched on the importance of this Bill for British industry which, not surprisingly, is wholeheartedly in favour of it. But there are benefits all round; to retailers who will be relieved of legal burdens, and to consumers who will benefit from a much more satisfactory enforcement system. Enforcement also at the point of packing or importation will be more effective than enforcement in the retail shops and will be more efficient in the use of resources. That, my Lords, completes my review of Part I.

Part II f of the Bill is concerned with a number of miscellaneous matters which I do not think are of great significance in the Bill as a whole, and I have pleasure in commending the Bill to the House.

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

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, after the careful weighing and measuring that we are giving to this Bill I am sure your Lordships would not wish to delay it any further; therefore, I am not going to say very much about it. What I am going to say I shall put out of logical sequence in order to give the noble Lord as much time as possible to consider two particular points that I wish to put to him.

Literally within the last half-hour urgent representations have reached me from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. As I think is known to the Government, and as I imagine was raised in another place, they are very concerned about certain clauses which have gone through another place and which we certainly cannot seek to amend now. Accepting that that is so and that these will go on the Statute Book, the representations I have received have been to ask Ministers for two assurances. These assurances concern the conditions of staffing of the national co-ordinating unit, to which the noble Lord referred in his introductory speech a few moments ago concerned with Part I of the Bill.

The first assurance for which the Association of Metropolitan Authorities ask is that the power for the Secretary of State to vary the date of 1st April 1980 should be exercisable if, and only if, direct funding of the unit continues beyond that date, and that in no circumstances can it be exercisable when the unit is funded under Section 2(7) of the Local Government Act 1974. That is the first of the assurances that I am asked to seek from the Government.

The second is an assurance that in employing its staff the unit will have the same freedom of action as has a local authority as regards the numbers, gradings, et cetera, of the staff. I tried to pass a note across to the noble Lord while he was busily concerned with the previous Bill, and therefore I cannot expect him to have given it his personal consideration yet. Perhaps I may talk without undue length for another minute or two, and I know that my noble friend Lord Amory has one small point to raise, and that may give time for a little consideration and advice in the short time available to us.


My Lords, I have got the answer here.


Then I shall not delay myself unduly. As your Lordships will see, I have in the last few moments become a great expert on this Bill. Given another moment or two to consider it I would have kept your Lordships busy for a long time, asking many questions. I shall not overdo this because I have been assured by my honourable friend in another place, Mrs. Oppenheim, who was in charge of the Bill for the Opposition in another place, and by other honourable and right honourable friends in another place, that this Bill, having been amended as it has been, is one which I should freely commend to my noble friends on this side of the House. That I gladly do.

As the noble Lord has said, Part I deals with packaged goods and is mainly concerned with putting us in a position to implement the European Community Directives by due date; that is, the beginning of next year. I am bound to say, from the understanding I have acquired, that these Directives for once seem to be sensible ones where the EEC is really going to help the consumer on a European scale. We certainly welcome Government action to make sure that Britain can, on this occasion, implement those Directives in time.

I thought that the noble Lord dismissed Part II just a little too easily, although perhaps not in view of the Amendments which my honourable friends managed to wring out of the Government in another place. Part II is full of miscellaneous provisions. I am an old enough parliamentary hand to be deeply suspicious of any Government, even one of my own party, which introduces a part of a Bill of any length dealing with miscellaneous provisions. If one looks among them one usually finds something with which a citizen could well be without.

When we came to Clause 18 in this Bill we certainly found something which all the beer drinkers in the United Kingdom could well be without, done by a good, fatherly, do-gooding Government nominally in the interests of the consumer. Had that clause been allowed to go through it would have put up the price of beer to consumers and forced them to have their beer delivered in a form which at any rate large numbers of beer consumers do not like. While I do not go into pubs and drink beer as much as I did when I was, say, an undergraduate—at the same college, I might add, as the noble and learned Lord who now sits on the Woolsack—I was not alone in liking my beer handed to me full to the top and brimming over.

Had Clause 18 gone through, that is what beer drinkers would not have been allowed. However, Clause 18 has been dealt with in another place and, as a result, I am sure we can let even the miscellaneous provisions go through without demur. I therefore hope the House will allow the Bill to pass without any more delay than is required for any of my noble friends to make such points as they wish to put and for the Minister to give the two assurances which have been sought.

4.21 p.m.

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, I had not intended to delay this useful Bill for more than 1¼ minutes. Then my noble friend Lord Carr of Hadley passed me a message asking whether I could expand my speech to 1¼ minutes for the reason he gave. However, I understand that will not now be necessary and so, being as brief as I had intended, I can proceed to my work. I am told that some of the enforcement authorities are not altogether happy about the amendments to the statutory defence provisions of the Weights and Measures Act 1963 which are contained in Schedule 5(7) to this Bill. They feel that these amendments might somewhat weaken enforcement. I understand that under those amendments if a defendant decides to go for the option he has only to convince the court that he has taken care, and I am told that in many cases it is not difficult to convince a court that one has taken care if that is the only defence one has to make. I do not know about that because I have never pleaded that before a court, but I am told that in technical terms the amendment converts the offence from an absolute one to a mens rea offence. My noble and learned friend Lord Rawlinson of Ewell is, I know, intimately aware of what a mens rea offence is, but I have not had time to consult him, so that important question is one I shall leave with great confidence to the innate intelligence of the noble Lord, Lord Jacques. I am simply asking him, in view of the fact that no Amendments are possible now, if he will consider this point and see whether there is anything in it.


I welcome the Bill very much, my Lords. In this case the Government have done a good job in harmonising two systems which were very difficult to harmonise. It was important that we should get the average weight principle accepted. I remember debating it on a previous occasion with the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, and how emphatic he was in his support of that principle at the time; I do not suppose he has had an easy passage with it, but he has got his way now and for that we must be grateful to him.

I do not know whether Lord Jacques went beyond his brief—there may have been a little harmonising of briefs in this case—because he said the Government needed all the time between now and the end of the year to do the various things necessary to bring the Bill into operation. Had it not been for the Dissolution of Parliament he would not have got all that time because the Bill would not yet have gone through. It is perhaps a rather fortuitous gain for the Government that in this case they are getting the Bill through before they expected, bearing in mind the time it would have taken to get it through the Commons. I do not want to be niggardly about this in any way because I think it a good Bill and I wish it a fair wind.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, I wish first to reply to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn. I am sure he will admit that as a result of the General Election we are getting the Bill very much sooner than would have been the case if we had not taken it in this Parliament. If we had had to start the Bill afresh after the election, then it would have come into operation very much later.


My Lords, the noble Lord has not got the point. I was simply saying that, because of the Dissolution, the Government have got the Bill sooner than they would have got it had there not been a Dissolution; and that is obvious.


My Lords, we may be getting it a little sooner than we should have done had there not been an Election, and that gives the Civil Service a little more time to do the work that must be done; and they have little enough time to do it. I am simply saying that if we had not taken the Bill now, but it had come up in the new Parliament, there would then have been insufficient time for the Civil Service to do the necessary work before the end of the year.

As to Part II, it is fair to say that I slipped over it rather quickly because it is miscellaneous, supplemental and any other such words one might use. I had understood that the important point in which there was all the interest in Part II was the line on the glass. That provision has, by agreement, been withdrawn. Thus, as it was not before the House it would have been irrelevant for me to have dealt with it, so I feel I was justified in being brief about Part II.

I come to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, and I thank him for giving me notice of them; the notice came at the last minute but that is better than no notice at all. I am assured by my advisers that assurances were given by the Minister of State in the Commons during Report yesterday, and if I repeat those assurances that will probably be the best way for me to answer the noble Lord. First, the Government's intention is to give notice to members of the unit not only when they cease to be members of local authorities, as provided for in the Bill, but also if they cease to be members of the local authority's co-ordinating body on trading standards. Secondly, the Government will not use the power in Clause 10(4) to maintain control over the appointment of auditors and so on beyond 1st April 1980, except if, contrary to expectations, the unit is funded by grant in aid beyond that date. Thirdly, the provisions relating to staffing and conditions of service of employees of the unit are not designed to prevent the unit from having the same freedom of action as has a local authority. My advisers tell me that that covers the points in question and I am therefore pleased to put them on the record.

Regarding statutory defences, I am advised that the modern policy of the Home Office favours relaxation in that similar provisions in more important safety legislation have already been made. Perhaps we are being modern very suddenly and perhaps the noble Lord and I are a little behind the times because, like him, I do not readily agree with some relaxations that are made.

Viscount AMORY

I must challenge that last allegation, my Lords. Speaking from this side of the House my position ensures that I am up to date about everything. I am sorry I did not give the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, notice of the point I intended to raise and, as I said, it was only a point for him to consider. I did not dare go into it until I had found out the meaning of mens rea and, having taken counsel's opinion, I now know what it means.

On Question, Bill read 2a; Committee negatived.


My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Weights and Measures Bill, has consented to place Her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Bill read 3a, and passed.