HL Deb 06 December 1989 vol 513 cc936-44

8.15 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I shall be brief because it is late in the evening and there is another Second Reading to follow. What I propose in the Bill is a small change in weights and measures legislation which I hope is non-controversial. It is designed to allow wine consumers the right to know when purchasing a glass of wine what quantity they will receive and what price they will have to pay. That is the sole objective of the Bill, no more, no less. It is only bringing the sale of wine legislation in line with that on beer and spirits.

In order to secure the approval of your Lordships' House I shall give a brief history of the problem and the need for the changes. In July 1982 the local authorities co-ordinating body on trading standards produced a report showing that house wines were sold by the glass in a confusing variety of prices and quantities. At that time the Government declined to introduce statutory controls. Instead they encouraged the Brewers' Society, the British Hotels Restaurants and Caterers' Association, the National Union of Licensed Victuallers, the Restaurants Association and others to co-operate in producing a voluntary code of practice designed to ensure that customers would know the quantity and the price of a glass of wine.

The code was published in May 1983 and came into full effect in May 1984. The voluntary code was recommended to all the members of the organisations that signed the code. The object of the code was similar to my proposed legislative change: that anyone wanting to purchase a glass of still table wine should know the quantity he would receive and the price that he would pay.

The volume of wine being sold in that way has increased to the point where it has become urgently desirable to find a means whereby that objective can be attained without causing undue expense to the trade, the consumers and the enforcement authorities. The Bill will achieve that objective. The present voluntary code clearly lays down that wherever wines are offered for sale by the glass, an indication will be given of the quantity or quantities of wine offered, together with the price, and that that indication will be clear and easily read by an intending purchaser and in the case of a bar or a self-service restaurant the indication will be where the customer orders his wine. That is all I seek.

LACOTS (the Local Authority Committee on Trading Standards), the Consumers' Association, the Institute of Trading Standards and many local authorities have been monitoring the progress being made by those in the trade in honouring the code. The many surveys carried out by those various watchdog bodies acting in the best interests of consumers have shown that after five and a half years 75 per cent. of those selling wine by the glass are still ignoring the code.

Fair trading is based on acceptable and clearly understood standards. They are essential to protect the consumer and the trader alike. To the consumer the ignoring of the code is not fair trading. That is self-evident. The code has been tried and has almost totally failed. There is now good reason to legislate so that in all places where wine is sold by the glass the measure and the price are exhibited. I do not specify the measure or the price. These will obviously differ from a four star hotel to a public house or wine bar, as they do now with beer and spirits. Therefore I ask: why should wine be an exception? Neither do I specify in the Bill that the measures should be in fluid ounces or millilitres, although one should recognise that metrication is with us and that by 1992 most of what we buy will be metricated.

Because of my age, I am still a fluid ounce and an imperial pint man, but the youth of today are fully versed in millilitres and metrication. However, I am sure that the trade will deal with that accordingly; or it may be necessary for me to move an amendment at the Committee stage, provided the Bill receives its Second Reading, specifically stating the measures. The most popular measures in the code of conduct are mainly 125 millilitres and 175 millilitres, which approximate to four fluid ounces and six fluid ounces.

The Brewers' Society and particularly the secretary, Mr. Tilbury, have been most helpful in providing the right guidance on the size of measures which would help the trade and the consumer. These measures would be their choice. Of course it is always possible that if the Government agree with the main purport of the Bill the Department of Trade and Industry could by order, and no doubt in consultation with the trade, specify what measures shall be exhibited.

I dealt with this subject at length on 17th May this year and I was encouraged by the response I received in all parts of the House. I particularly took note of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, when winding up the debate on behalf of the Government. He said: We remain concerned that more widespread compliance with the code's key quantity and price provisions has taken so long to achieve".—[Official Report, 17/5/89; col. 1274.] I believe that he meant "is taking so long to achieve". He revealed that even the Government accepted that only 27 per cent. of traders were found to be complying with the code.

More interestingly, he went on to say in col. 1274: While the Government would much prefer to see the trade put its own house in order, legislation always remains an option if it is unable or unwilling voluntarily to do so". The trade has had its chance and more than ample time to put its house in order. Meanwhile, I believe that the wine consumer feels that he is not getting a square deal and it is time that the situation was rectified. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Mason of Barnsley.)

8.23 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I am very pleased to support the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, in this Second Reading. I had the pleasure of many dealings with him in the past when we were concerned with another important and indeed basic product—coal. On this occasion it is a more liquid product but one might say it is just as basic.

In the briefing which I received from my friends I was reminded that in Magna Carta it was stated that there shall be but one measure of wine throughout the realm. It is now 774 years after Magna Carta and we have still not got there. That suggests that some legislative measures take a bit of time.

The code of practice to which the noble Lord, Lord Mason, referred has had a fair time in which to be tried out. It was introduced in May 1984 and all the inquiries made in Barnsley, Cumbria and elsewhere into its application have shown that it is very patchily applied. In the area where the code had the highest application the proportion was seen to be no more than 27 per cent., as the noble Lord said.

The code is very simple and it has the support of the industry. It could easily be introduced into legislation. Perhaps I may quote from the debate on the noble Lord's Unstarred Question. In his reply, from which the noble Lord, Lord Mason, has already quoted, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said: Wine is not the only alcoholic beverage which is not sold by measure and draught. Only beer, cider and the four major spirits—gin, whisky, rum and vodka—must be sold by the standard measure. All other alcoholic drinks …can be sold in any quantity".—[0fficial Report, 17/5/89; col 1272.] However, wine has now become one of the major beverages in this country. I put a query alongside that because it seemed to me that it was only proper that as these things develop—and after all how many of us in your Lordships' House go into our bar and buy some of the excellent wine?—we have good quality wine here at reasonable prices. I am not absolutely sure whether or not the code is adhered to. I should like to find out. I am quite satisfied with the product, I may say, so I shall not inquire too closely.

In any event, what I am trying to illustrate is that we are becoming increasingly a nation of wine drinkers as well as beer drinkers. Therefore I think that it would be wrong to leave wine out. There is a simple way of rectifying this. The noble Lord, Lord Mason, has drawn attention to it in this admirably short Bill. All the evidence has suggested that while the code of practice is supported in principle it is not supported in practice. Therefore it is time that this was put right.

I urge all your Lordships that, at the approach of the festive season when we shall no doubt indulge in more and more wine—though obviously not combining that with driving—we should recall the need for the situation to be put right once and for all. Therefore I very much hope that the Government will support this simple measure and enable us no longer to have to raise the matter, as it has been raised on a number of occasions in the past by the late Lord Chelwood and others. Had he been alive, I am certain that he would have participated in the debate. In the light of the situation, with all the accumulated evidence, I hope that the Bill will have a successful passage.

8.27 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I too wish to welcome the Bill and to congratulate my noble friend on introducing it. I do so for two very definite reasons. The first is because of the obvious, and in my view unequivocal, need for legislation to correct the present unsatisfactory position regarding the sale of wine by the glass. The second reason is that it would very directly affect me. Wine is the only alcoholic drink that I ever consume, therefore what happens to the Bill is of great personal interest to me.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said, it is also of interest to a growing number of people who find that a glass of wine is preferable to a pint or a half pint of beer or a glass of spirits. I tested the situation in the House to see whether there is rigid regulation here. However, I must admit that if one goes to either bar and asks for a glass of wine and one points out that the last time the glass was a little fuller, one is given a rather equivocal reason—that the staff are asked not to serve glasses too full. I wish to know what "too full" means. We do not have to go further than the Bishops' Bar to realise that there is a need, as the noble Lord, Lord Ezra said, for the simple Bill introduced by my noble friend.

There is little doubt that wine consumers are confused when they go to bars and pubs as there is such an enormous variety of glasses. The glasses look quite different and one has no idea how much they contain. That was clear from the Unstarred Question of my noble friend of 17th May, when speakers gave a long list of gruesome personal experiences at the hands of different publicans and bar owners.

Speakers also mentioned quality. I felt here that the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, about the similarity of wine and coal were rather unfortunate. From my experience of drinking glasses of wine in pubs, they might easily contain a small amount of coal, or even worse. On one occasion when I drank a glass of wine in a pub, I told my daughter that it tasted like vinegar. She told me that I should complain and tell the publican that the wine tasted like vinegar. I replied that he would tell me I knew nothing about wine, to which my daughter responded that I should tell him I knew an awful lot about vinegar.

Of course I was not brave enough to complain. But such incidents point to the necessity for some regulations to control the quality of wine. They could at least stipulate that wine must contain grapes. I believe that, in the case of beer, regulations stipulate that it must consist of beer and must not be watered down. I should have thought that a small regulation about the quality of wine could be introduced one day.

However, the issue before us today concerns quantity and price. Here there can be no doubt that standard measures should be stipulated, with the price clearly listed, as my noble friend has explained. Customers can then make up their own minds and if they consider they are not getting value for money they can go elsewhere.

On our previous debate on this matter, the Minister who replied, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, claimed that customers were intelligent enough to be able to judge for themselves whether they were getting value for money under the present system. That is a rather strange way of looking at this matter. It is certainly not as simple as that when wine is sold in such a bewildering variety of glasses and when prices can range from 65p in one place to £2 in another, irrespective of the quality of the wine. The customer cannot possibly know whether he is being treated fairly. I do not see why such a customer should spend his time wondering whether he is being fleeced when consumers of beer and spirits do not have the same problem.

Another point that the Minister made in reply to the Unstarred Question of my noble friend was that the Government did not wish to interfere in this matter. Again I felt that this was not a very good argument when seen in the context of the Government's policy to privatise water and electricity, among other services, and their claim that they are doing so in order to protect the consumer—not that the consumers seem very keen on that policy! But now the Government refuse to produce a simple measure which quite clearly would protect the consumer of glasses of wine.

We very much welcome from these Benches the Bill of my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley. As he has said, all the surveys indicate that the voluntary code of practice has failed. Therefore it must be time to give protection to the consumer and to ensure that he obtains a fair service and value for money in what is often a battle with the powerful licensed trade. I hope this Bill will have the support of the Government.

8.34 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the debate which has taken place this evening. I must congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mason, on the tenacity with which over the past five years he has pursued the issue of controls on sales of wine by the glass. I understand that during that period he has asked no fewer than 22 Questions both here in your Lordships' House and in another place. We also had the opportunity to debate this issue very fully some six months ago.

It is, of course, a measure of the noble Lord's passionate concern for the issue that he has chosen the highly unusual route of introducing a Private Member's Bill to amend a Statutory Instrument made by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I have to say at the outset that if the Bill were to become law in its present form it would have the highly undesirable effect of extending the existing legally prescribed range of quantities in which wine must be sold by the carafe to sales of wine by the glass. This would mean that the smallest glass of wine which the consumer could purchase would be one-quarter of a litre or nearly half a pint. That is equivalent to one-third of the contents of a standard 75 centilitre bottle of wine. By contrast, 25 centilitres is the largest quantity which is recommended by the voluntary code of practice to which the noble Lord made reference during his speech as appropriate for serving wine by the glass.

I recognise that many of your Lordships and perhaps especially the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, might indeed be extremely pleased to purchase a glass of wine to such a copious minimum quantity. That delight would almost certainly be shared by the wine producers and by the glass manufacturers, but I wonder whether licensees, who would be faced with replacing virtually all their glassware, and consumers, who would ultimately have to pay the cost of this, would also thank the noble Lord for his efforts.

The order which is being amended by the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Mason, defines wine in a way which includes fortified wines. My argument that the minimum size of glass allowed by the Bill would be inappropriately large applies even more strongly to the sale of, for example, sherry and port than to the unfortified wines. However, the noble Lord, Lord Mason, has suggested that amendments can be made to the Bill to specify the smaller quantities.

I also note that it is proposed that the provisions of the Bill should extend to Northern Ireland. I should remind your Lordships that the Province is in fact entirely responsible for its own weights and measures legislation. The Weights and Measures (Intoxicating) Liquor Order 1988, which the Bill that we are considering this evening seeks to amend, applies only in Great Britain.

Your Lordships might reply that these are detailed technical points which are capable of being resolved fairly readily. But they do raise the fundamental question of just how much consideration has gone into the preparation of this Bill and whether the consequences have been fully appreciated. However, a more serious point of principle is involved. The 1988 Intoxicating Liquor Order is made under Section 22 of the Weights and Measures Act 1985. Among other things, Section 22 gives the Secretary of State the power to make orders dealing with subjects such as the quantities in which intoxicating liquors must be sold, specifying them as appears to him to be "expedient". Section 86 of that Act also requires the Secretary of State, before making such an order, to consult such organisations as appear to him to be representative of interests substantially affected by its provisions.

So far, the Secretary of State has not deemed it necessary to propose that controls should be introduced on sales of wine by the glass. If the Bill were to proceed it would therefore override the discretion which Parliament itself has seen fit to give to the Secretary of State on this matter. It would also circumvent the statutory duty on the Secretary of State to consult with and to consider any representations made to him by organisations which would be affected by such controls.

The arguments for and against legislation to control sales of wine by the glass were debated very fully on 17th May. I do not wish to detain your Lordships by going over all the ground in detail again tonight. The general issue of principle raised by the proposal is whether there should be a further extension of regulation of prescribed measures for the sale of drinks on licensed premises. Measures are prescribed at present for beer, cider and the four major spirits, gin, whisky, rum and vodka, as the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said. But there are many more drinks for which no measure is prescribed: champagne and other sparkling wine, brandy, cola, fruit juices, mineral water and so on. The list is a long one. The logic of the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Mason, is that we should prescribe quantities for dispensing all those drinks. Indeed it could even extend to prescribing a standard sized cup of tea or coffee. That would be a major extension of regulations, with all the attendant costs of replacing glasses and of having them inspected and stamped by trading standards officers.

I would simply remind the House that virtually all the calls for statutory controls have come from the local authorities. There is no evidence whatsoever of widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo from individual consumers. Indeed the Department of Trade and Industry has received not one single representation in the last six months for controls to be introduced. That would be of some interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs. It is a measure of the lack of public concern over this matter. People are intelligent enough to be able to judge for themselves whether a glass of wine which they are offered represents good value for money.

I put it to your Lordships that the Bill which we are considering tonight would not help the consumer one bit. As I have said, the Bill is technically deficient. It also comprises the very important principle which has been a feature of weights and measures legislation over the years—namely, legislation through consultation and consent. The Government considers that legislation to control sales of wine by the glass is both unnecessary and inappropriate.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, in the light of the fact that, as we all know after four or five years, the code of practice is not being observed, is the noble Viscount going against what his noble friend Lord Strathclyde said on 17th May—namely, that legislation always remains an option? Will the Government continue to allow the code of practice not to be observed and do nothing? Is legislation not an option? Is that what the noble Viscount is saying to us?

Viscount Ullswater

No, my Lords. Legislation always remains an option but as there has been no complaint on the matter to the department there is no need for legislation.

I repeat that the Government consider that legislation to control sales of wine by the glass is both unnecessary and inappropriate. I therefore cannot recommend this Bill to your Lordships.

8.43 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Ezra—president of the Institute of Trading Standards Administration—for his contribution. He is well known for his work in pioneering just and better trading standards in this country. Therefore, I was very pleased that he found time to be present, to participate in the debate and to support the Bill.

I am also grateful to my noble friend on the Front Bench, Baroness Ewart-Biggs, who has for some years taken a keen interest in consumer affairs. I am most appreciative of her support. Her position as Front Bench spokesman brings with it the official support of the Labour Party.

As an indication of all-party backing I received a charming note from an authoritative source—namely, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, who, as a former publican, offered her wholehearted support.

I agree with the Minister that the measure implied in the Bill was a technical error. However, as I suggested in my speech, appropriate amendments can be moved at Committee stage. Therefore, if there were Government willingness, that should be no obstacle.

I was most disappointed that the noble Viscount recorded his opposition to the Bill on behalf of the Government. He gave a tedious repetition of what has been said over the past five years. I ask why it is in this stage of the parliamentary Session that the Government support everything that is unpopular and in this case unjust as well? Every national body which is concerned about fair trading, trading standards and justice for the consumer has called for this measure. It is obvious to all concerned with sales of wine by the glass that legislation is necessary to give the consumer a square deal.

I believe that, in view of the almost total refusal by individuals in the trade to accept the code of conduct, many of the trade organisations are prepared to see the code converted into law. I hope therefore that, if I am granted a Second Reading, before the Committee stage of the Bill, consultations will as the Minister suggested take place between the Department of Trade and Industry and the licensed trade to establish agreement. That would allow us to obtain the licensed trade's blessing to go forward, amend the Bill accordingly and after all this time recognise that the wine consumer deserves fairness and justice so that he can be assured of fair value for his money.

On that note, I ask that this Bill be given a second reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.