HL Deb 15 December 1987 vol 491 cc698-9

9.55 p.m.

Lord Beaverbrook rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th November be approved [8th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the National Metrological Co-ordinating Unit is a non-departmental public body established by the Weights and Measures Act 1979 to co-ordinate local authority administration of the then new Community-wide "average" system of weights and measures control.

Just before the NMCU came into existence, the local authorities had set up their own co-ordinating body on trading standards, known as LACOTS, which co-ordinates local authority administration of most other consumer protection law on a non-statutory basis. LACOTS would have been the obvious choice for co-ordinating average system administration too, but it was felt then that a statutory body would be more appropriate to oversee the introduction of this radically new system of control by local authorities. That is why the NMCU was set up as a separate statutory body. However, it was agreed during the passage of the 1979 Act that the day-to-day running of the NMCU should be firmly in the hands of the local authorities. In practice, the NMCU shares membership, accommodation and staff with LACOTS.

The Department of Trade and Industry recently conducted a policy review of the NMCU which concluded that the unit should now be abolished. The reason for this is that after eight years the average system is now so well established that there is no longer any need for separate statutory co-ordination of administration. Instead, LACOTS has agreed to include the average system with its other work on behalf of the local authorities on a non-statutory basis.

The order which is now before your Lordships will abolish the unit and transfer its functions to the Secretary of State. However, this is only an interim measure. Apart from some minor registration required by EC law, the Government certainly have no wish to assume permanent responsibility for what is essentially a local authority function. Therefore, as soon as time can be found, we will introduce primary legislation to repeal virtually all the present statutory duties.

My department has had constructive discussions with the NMCU and the local authority associations during the review and on the implementation of its recommendations. During these discussions we confirmed that funding for LACOTS from the rate support grant should reflect its new responsibilities in co-ordinating average system administration.

Finally, I know that business has a high regard for the way in which the unit has overseen the co-ordination of average system administration since its introduction in 1979. I certainly endorse that view. On the evidence of its other co-ordination activities, I have no doubt that LACOTS will be able to maintain these high standards. From 1st January, I am confident that it will be "business as usual" in average system co-ordination.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments considered the draft order at its meetings on 24th November and 1st December. It drew attention to two points. Your Lordships will wish to note that my department has submitted a memorandum to the committee commenting on both points as follows.

First, the joint committee felt that while the overall effect of the draft order is within the powers conferred, by putting abolition before transfer its form does not follow the sequence in which those powers are listed in the Act. However, the form of the draft order is intended to reflect its primary purpose of abolishing the NMCU, with transfer of functions to the Secretary of State as a secondary effect. In practice, the stages of abolition and transfer are to take place simultaneously.

The joint committee's other point concerned the removal of the criminal sanction against disclosure of commercially sensitive information. It was concerned that this would appear to allow disclosure in future of trade secrets and other confidential information by former members and employees of the unit. However, having reconsidered the position and reconsulted the unit, I am satisfied that there is no realistic possibility of any improper disclosure. With that, I beg to move the draft order.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th November be approved [8th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Beaverbrook.)

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his very clear explanation of this order. I should like to say from this side of the House that we accept that the intention of the order seems a very reasonable and practical one. I note that the Minister has said that he may come back to the House with primary legislation a little later, so if there are to be any discussions or debates perhaps we can reserve them for that time.

I am also grateful to the Minister for having clarified what the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments said regarding the two minor defects in the order. He has given a full explanation which is very acceptable.

On Question, Motion agreed to.