HL Deb 18 July 1983 vol 443 cc1021-7

5.49 p.m.

Lord Lyell rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th April be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the draft order standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I should like to speak at the same time to the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Amendment of Schedule 3) Order 1983. If any of your Lordships wish to discuss these orders separately, of course I would accede to any noble Lord, but if I see no sign of disagreement I shall speak to them together.

These two orders do have one thing in common. They are both concerned with the trade in wine, a subject which I know to my cost from answering questions here about a year ago is very dear to the hearts of many of your Lordships. The growth in sales of wine over the past decade has been matched by a growing number of complaints about sales of table wine by the glass and the inability of consumers to know how much wine they are getting for the price they pay.

Your Lordships may recall that questions have been asked in this House from time to time, and usually these have been led by my noble friend Lord Chelwood, about proposals for introducing a voluntary code of practice to standardise the quantities in which wine is sold by the glass and whether this would be supported by prominent display—for example on a price list, a wine list or menu—of both the quantity offered and the price.

I am happy to report that plans for introducing such a code are now well advanced. The order to amend Schedule 3 to the Weights and Measures Act 1963 is designed to make it possible for the licensed trade to follow the voluntary code of practice. This has been prepared by a working group of the trade which has been chaired by the Brewers' Society, and it includes also organisations representing licensed victuallers, hoteliers, restaurateurs and caterers. This group first met in January 1983. All of this group quickly agreed that if they were to recommend to their members rationalisation of quantities of wine sold by the glass rather more flexibility than is currently provided by the law required. Schedule 3 to the 1963 Act does, among other things, specify those capacities measures which may only be used by traders in measuring out alcoholic drinks and other what we call non-prepacked liquid products.

The present list in the Act includes those imperial measures in which certain draught spirits, beer and cider may only be sold, as well as 4, 5 and 6 fluid ounces which could, if the trade so wished, be used for measured glasses of draught wine. The trade however have become accustomed to buying wine in metric quantities since bottles were first required to carry a quantity marking in the United Kingdom under EEC requirements in 1978. Many of their members are likely to want to standardise their sales of wine by the glass by using the same system of measurement; but they felt that the existing legal measures of 100 ml, 200 ml and 250 ml were either too small or too large for general use. I must say that the surprise that I see on the faces of noble Lords opposite is shared by me; when I ask for a glass I am very happy to receive any measure.

I am sure that your Lordships will agree that there are already too many legal options available in Schedule 3. It was this factor that attracted the only reservation entered by consumer interests in the course of the statutory consultations undertaken by the department preceding publication of the draft order. The initial proposal was to add just two sizes, 125 ml and 150 ml, to the list of legal capacity measures. The trade promptly responded to consumer reservations by recommending in their voluntary code that where retailers choose to dispense wine by the glass in more than one quantity they should restrict themselves to two sizes, drawn either from the metric or from the imperial range, and that there should be a gap of not less than 50 ml between sizes drawn from the metric range or not less than two fluid ounces in the case of the imperial range.

My honourable friend the former Minister for Consumer Affairs in the previous Administration wisely in my view, and I am sure in that of many of your Lordships, agreed to a further request from the trade working group to add a third size of 175 ml. I am afraid that I am not able to demonstrate to your Lordships the capacity of the glasses; I do not know whether it is in order to bring in the various liquids and consume them in your Lordships' House; but I am afraid I am not able to display the glasses of these particular sizes to your Lordships. The addition of the third size of 175 ml means that a retailer who exceptionally wished to offer two sizes could use both 125 ml—this already has strong support in the trade—and 175 ml, and at the same time he would observe the 50 ml obligatory gap.

The purpose of this particular order is to facilitate the adoption of the trade's voluntary scheme for table wine which is sold by the glass. Your Lordships may feel that such a code does not go far enough in that it does not include sparkling and fortified wines. I stress that this is a voluntary scheme and it reflects the very considerable increase in the consumption of table wine. There is no reason why any trader who wishes to do so should not adopt the same principles for other intoxicating liquors; the only constraint on him is that he must choose measures from the list in Schedule 3 to the Act, including of course the three new measures. The additional sizes are to be limited to sales of intoxicating liquor; there has been no pressure for their use in other circumstances. This restriction will avoid the need for local authorities to purchase separate standard measures in the three new sizes for other uses.

The order will not make it obligatory for the trade to sell wine by the glass by quantity or in a specified quantity. There is however wide support for the voluntary code of practice, and the Government hope that increasingly both members of the trade organisations which produced the code and other wine retailers will abide by its terms. It is the Government's firm belief that this voluntary approach could succeed in putting some much needed order into this trade where previous attempts to find a legislative solution have failed.

Discussions on technical regulations that will be needed to provide for the lining, testing and stamping of wine glasses to be used as legal capacity measures and to amend the intoxicating liquor measuring instruments regulations are already in hand. I hope that these will come into operation before 1st December 1983, which is the operative date for the draft order. It was originally thought that the operative date could have been brought forward to 1st November this year; that was the date which was given in the Department's Explanatory Memorandum. But on reflection this was considered to be unduly optimistic. I believe your Lordships will share my hope that lined glasses or suitable measuring instruments will become available in sufficient quantities to allow the trade to bring their voluntary code into operation early next year.

If I may turn briefly to the draft Wine and Grape Must Order, this is necessary to meet our obligations to the European Community to specify the quantities in which both what are termed "still" table wines and grape must must only be prepacked. The provisions of the order will take effect progressively between 1st January 1984 and 1st January 1989. The obligation derives from Directive 79/1005/EEC which was considered in draft—I spell it d-r-a-f-t—by the House of Commons Select Committee on European Legislation on 11th January 1978. Wine bottlers in the United Kingdom accept the need for standardisation of bottle sizes, and this order does have the support of both trade and consumer interests. In response to representations from trade organisations that special arrangements should be made for vintage and other wines, your Lordships will note that the order will continue to allow wines already bottled in other sizes before 1st January 1984 which have been laid down or are still in the distribution chain to be sold.

Finally I am sure that your Lordships will wish to know that both of these orders were considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments but the Committee did not draw the special attention of your Lordships' House to either order. My Lords, with that I beg to move the first order standing in my name.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th April be approved.—(Lord Lyell.)

6 P.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, may I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for a very full explanation of a complicated and potentially confusing matter. It is a matter which is of great concern to the consumer, and I fear that the confusion is likely to continue for a considerable period of time. It seems to me that the consumer can either enter an imperial measure wine bar or a metric measure wine bar. Therefore, he will be faced with four different amounts which he might receive in his glass of wine.

Can the noble Lord say how long it is proposed that imperial measurements and metric measurements shall continue to coexist side-by-side? At the same time, can the noble Lord tell your Lordships whether there is any intention on behalf of the Government to apply the requirements for metric measurements to the service and sale of beer and milk or whether these will continue to be sold in imperial sizes?

I was also surprised that these particular orders and regulations are not to apply to sparkling or fortified wine. This means—and perhaps the noble Lord will confirm this—that for the purchase of sherry or vermouth in a wine bar or in a pub there are no requirements laid down for the actual measures in which these should be served. This is slightly odd, in a sense, when the measures are to apply to the sale of grape must which, I understand. is hardly ever sold across the counter in the United Kingdom. Perhaps the noble Lord can say why the application of the order is restricted in this way.

I understand that brim-measure glasses are not allowed when wine is served. In view of this can the noble Lord say whether the Government have any intention of phasing out brim-measure glasses for the service of beer? These points need clarification on the coming into force of these orders. In other respects we welcome these two orders.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I come rather fresh to this subject although I have from time to time drunk wine by the glass. I listened very carefully to the introductory speech of the noble Lord and came to the conclusion that there is not much here to cheer or safeguard the simple consumer of wine. First of all, there is no obligation whatever, as far as I can see, on any seller of wine to use a standard glass at all. It is precisely those sellers of wine against whom complaints have been made in the past who will continue to sell short measures despite anything that the Government are doing, with the added advantage to themselves that the Government will be giving a false sense of security to customers with all this rigmarole which we have just heard about. Listening to the noble Lord, anyone might think that the consumer was being safeguarded, but there is nothing in what the noble Lord said which safeguards the consumer against the dishonest retailer. His words will, as I say, merely give a false sense of reassurance.

Let us suppose the customer was not reassured and that he was alert, he must still find his way between the imperial measure and the metric measure, between the 125 ml glass and the 195 ml glass.

Noble Lords

175 ml.

Lord Mayhew

We are already confused in this House, my Lords. Even noble Lords do not know the difference between 175 and 195 ml glasses. Again, listening very carefully to the noble Lord, another thing which struck me was that the group to which he referred—the trade—and the Minister had taken their decision about metric plus imperial measures after, and not before, the consumer interests had been consulted. I should like reassurance on this point. The consumer interest to which he referred and which was consulted has approved the final complicated conclusion which was put forward by the interested group. I have no doubt that the Government have the best of intentions, but I cannot say that anything in the noble Lord's speech convinced me that much is to be done for the consumer by this order.

6.8 p.m.

Lord Lye11

My Lords, I am very grateful for the interest shown by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, and particularly grateful for the close attention paid by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, to my remarks, which were complicated. I did not ask the indulgence of your Lordships to make them any easier. Indeed, your Lordships will be aware that consumer legislation, particularly in this area, which is so dear to our hearts as well as to other vital organs of the bodies of your Lordships, is complicated.

I shall first attempt to deal with the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. He, and I am sure, your Lordships, will be happy to learn that any set of measures, whether imperial or metric, which are to be used by sellers of open wine in glasses will, of course, be advertised so that the consumer or the customer who wishes to drink wine will know what he is getting and will be able to draw a comparison to know whether or not he is receiving fair value. Clearly, if the consumer feels that the seller of the wine is overcharging in any way, the consumer can take his custom elsewhere.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, asked about imperial sizes and metric sizes and, above all, whether any imperial sizes would be prohibited. Certainly there is no intention of imperial sizes being prohibited. Indeed, there are adequate imperial sizes in Schedule 3 to the Weights and Measures Act.

Among other things, the noble Lord also asked about grape must. I am no expert in chemistry or on the precise moment of time when grape juice ferments, but I understand that grape must—the substance set out in the order—is grape juice before fermentation is complete. So far as I am aware, grape must is not bottled in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the noble Lord may care to look at page 3 of the grape must order. The noble Lord mentioned vermouth. In (d) he will find the reference to: British wine (e.g. fruit or tonic wines)". Certainly the noble Lord and I have discussed the merits of ginger wine, elderberry wine, sloe wine and other extremely intoxicating brews not covered by the order before us this evening. I am able to tell the noble Lord with the full authority of the department that grape must is grape juice before fermentation is complete.

The noble Lord also asked about brim measures. We understand that it is not customary to serve wine in glasses filled to the brim for reasons which I am sure would be evident to the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede and Lord Mayhew, and indeed to all your Lordships. Very few serving people have steady hands to fill glasses absolutely to the brim without spilling any. I am not aware of whether this problem is prevalent in your Lordships' House. Certainly we tend to be satisfied with the measure of any glass of wine sold in your Lordships' House, as well as with the quality. The Government are aware that some people, and particularly enforcement bodies, are concerned about the allegations of other short measures in glasses, for instance, of beer. All the available evidence has recently been reviewed, and we have concluded that an overwhelming case for action at the present time has not necessarily been made out, but we shall keep the matter under review.

The noble Lord asked why the code did not cover sherry or vermouth. I understand that the reason is a question of demand. The main demand for action in the sale of intoxicating liquors by the glass has been on table wine, where, as I pointed out to your Lordships, sales have increased considerably since we joined the EEC. There are various small sizes in the list of legal capacity measures which are eminently suitable for sherry, vermouth and other similar liquors. Your Lordships will find that the capacities come right down through the range of 50 ml and a number of small imperial measures. I think it comes right down to 1 ml or one-sixth of a gill. One-fifth of a gill is placed up in various establishments in Scotland. They point out proudly that they are selling one-fifth of a gill, and even our side of the Border they are happy to do that. I hope that I have covered most of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede.

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, on his diligence. I am grateful to him for the close attention he paid to my remarks. I assure him that no false security is granted by the order. I stressed that it will, we hope, aid the voluntary code of practice which has been agreed by this joint working group. I am able to assure the noble Lord, as I hope I was able to assure the noble Lord. Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, that consumers of wine by the glass will find the measures which are sold in a particular establishment advertised. If a consumer wishes to adhere to an imperial or to a metric measure, he will be able to find out exactly what value he is getting, just as I, and, I am sure, the noble Lord, when we do our shopping are able to find the value we are getting. I have to do some nimble mental arithmetic to discover whether I should put one jar of coffee back on the shelf and take another because it is better value. I am sure that the noble Lord is able to do that before he takes his first, or perhaps subsequent, glass of wine in whichever establishment he would patronise.

The noble Lord may have heard about various measures of wine. He raised the point of 125 ml or 195 ml and expressed confusion as to which size was which. After we sit down, it need not take long for me to show the noble Lord the difference in capacity—what constitutes 70 ml. I believe that the customers will know this and that the trade would be happy to know it.

The major point put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, was that the Government had taken action on these particular measures by which wine is sold by the glass. He wondered whether we had consulted adequately. I hope that we have, but I stress that pressure was coming to the Department of Trade from various consumer interests. My noble friend Lord Chelwood asked me several questions starting in July last year, and the questioning process has gone on. My noble friend Lord Cockfield answered a number of Questions in written form later on in the year.

I hope that the noble Lords, Lord Mayhew and Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, and indeed all your Lordships, will agree that this is a valuable first step to regulating sizes of glasses of wine. Above all, we hope that the orders will assist the voluntary code of practice and will enable the consumer to know how much wine he or she is receiving and whether he or she is receiving good value. I stress, before we take this too seriously, that there is a valuable saying that the noble and learned Lord who normally sits upon the Woolsack has given me cause to think of many times: de minimis non curat lex, the law does not perennially concern itself with trifles. I believe this is a relatively important matter. I hope that it will aid the voluntary code. With that, I commend the first order which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

On Question, Motion agreed to.