HL Deb 17 May 1989 vol 507 cc1260-74

8.36 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they intend to take to implement the code of practice on the sale of wine by the glass in licensed premises.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in July 1982 the local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Trading Standards, LACOTS, produced a report showing that house wines were sold by the glass in a confusing variety of prices and quantities. The then Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Dr. Gerard Vaughan, declined to introduce statutory controls, but encouraged the Brewers' Society, the British Hotels, Restaurants and Caterers Association, the National Union of Licensed Victuallers, the Restaurants' Association of Great Britain and the Scottish and Northern Ireland licensed trade 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 to come into full effect in May 1984.

The voluntary code was recommended to all the members of the organisations who signed the code. The object of the code was to ensure, so far as possible, that anyone wanting to purchase a glass of still table wine should know the quantity he would receive and the price he would pay. The volume of wine being sold in this way had increased to the point where it became desirable to find a means of attaining this objective without causing undue cost to the trade, to the consumers and to the enforcement authorities.

The 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, that this indication will be clear and easily read by an intending purchaser and that in the case of a bar or self-service restaurant the indication will be where the customer orders his wine.

Late in 1984, LACOTS asked local authorities to carry out a survey of wine bars and other licensed premises to ascertain the levels of compliance. In 1984, 4,573 premises were visited; 470 were in full compliance with the code: that is, 10.2 per cent. The Minister described the results as quite shattering. Only one-third of premises were aware of the code and only one in 10 complied with its provisions. The Minister hoped that a LACOTS survey planned for May 1985 would demonstrate considerable improvement and said he would await the results before considering the issue further. In a reply to me in another place in January 1985, Mr. Fletcher, Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Department of Trade and Industry, said: When these results are available, we shall be better able to judge the success of the code and decide what further action … is necessary".—[Official Report, Commons, 22/1/85; col. 369.]

The second survey was then carried out by 71 local trading standards authorities in the period May to August 1985. Some 5,144 wine bars and licensed premises were visited and the detailed findings revealed only a marginal improvement over the levels of compliance in 1984. Only 656 out of the 5,144 were fully complying with the code: 12.8 per cent. The results of the survey were very disappointing, with abysmally low levels of recognition of the code. I again questioned Mr. Howard, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to the Department of Trade and Industry, in January 1986 in another place. I asked him whether he would not introduce legislation to give statutory effect to the code of practice. Referring to the 1985 survey results, he said: Whilst this showed an improvement in adherence to the code's provisions it has still not been adopted as widely as had been hoped. The Department is considering whether further action is called for".—[Official Report, Commons, 27/1/86; col. 383.]

The LACOTS second report stated: The code has not found favour with the licensed trade and has been extensively ignored".

On 15th December 1987 the Institute of Trading Standards issued its report. Trading standards officers from 71 local authorities across England and Wales had visited 400 pubs and hotels. The report revealed that 25 per cent. of pubs and hotels complied with the code—not fully but with the key components. The chairman of the ITSA's Metrology and Quantity Standards Committee said: We believe this is the largest survey into the licensed trade ever carried out by Trading Standards Officers.… The sale of wine by glass has not improved despite this being the third survey to show that the licensed trade is largely ignoring the voluntary code of practice to which it is a party.… There is no way customers can know the amount or quantity of wine they are purchasing by the glass.… I feel they are entitled to know".

In the meantime I had been pressing Trade and Industry Ministers on the issue. In replying to me again, on 3rd March 1986, Mr. Howard said: legislation would not be justified until the possibility of a voluntary solution has been exhausted".—[Official Report, Commons, 3/3/86; col. 42.]

I questioned him again on 28th October 1986. In a Written Answer he replied: The Department has discussed with the code's trade sponsors the options for controlling sales of wine by the glass and has invited them to suggest ways in which voluntary adherence to the code can be improved".—[Official Report, Commons, 28/10/86; col. 78.]

That is the gamekeeper asking the poacher!

Once more, on 5th May 1987, I asked him whether he would legislate. In a Written Answer he replied: adherence to the code is gaining momentum. Legislation would not therefore be appropriate at the present time".—[Official Report, Commons, 5/5/87; col. 319.]

That was in spite of a doubtful 25 per cent. fully complying and after an agreed code by all the trade six years ago. What a catalogue of ministerial complacency.

In June 1987, Which? magazine introduced its report on the issue. Its inspectors visited 200 pubs in England, Scotland and Wales. Its inspections showed that the code of practice was displayed in only three pubs and only one pub in seven displayed clearly both the quantity and the price of wine to be sold. Fewer than one pub in five gave wine in quantities laid down by the code. The inspectors went on to say: The results of this survey confirm other survey findings and show clearly that the code is not working. We have said from the start that the Government should legislate for standard quantities of wine just as it has for beer and spirits. The case for legislation in the case of wine is even clearer".

On 31st March 1989 the Director of Consumer and Environmental Services in Barnsley, Mr. Bob Wright, presented his most recent survey of Barnsley's recognition of the code dealing with sales of wine by the glass. It was his third report, two surveys having been conducted in 1986. His team visited 24 licensed premises. The report stated: In almost all licensed premises visited there was a complete failure to satisfy the code of practice which has been laid down to ensure the protection of the purchasing public. Quantity indications were virtually non-existent and customers had no opportunity of knowing the measure of wine they were buying".

In the light of all that evidence, in January 1988 I asked the Secretary of State for the Department of Trade and Industry: whether further measures are being contemplated to make the code of conduct effective".

The Secretary of State complacently replied: Sales of wine by the glass were last discussed with the Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Trading Standards and the licensed trade in 1986. The Government have no present plans to introduce legislation to control sales of wine by the glass".—[Official Report, 25/1/88; col. 485.]

Again, when I pressed him further in December 1988 he replied: Surveys carried out by a number of individual local authorities continue to show an increasing compliance with the Voluntary Codes of Practice… I have no plans at present to introduce legislation nor to ask the Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Trading Standards to conduct a national survey".—[Official Report, 19/12/88; col. 1237.]

In spite of the fact that the code has been in operation since May 1984—exactly five years—and that 75 per cent. of those selling wine by the glass are ignoring the code the Secretary of State refuses to obtain further evidence and constantly flatly refuses to introduce legislation. In the meantime the vast majority of those who purchase wine by the glass are being fleeced by the trade. The department responsible for consumer protection stands idly by and allows all those consumers constantly to be cheated.

Fair trading is based on acceptable and clearly understood standards. They are essential to protect the consumer and the trader alike. Well, this is not fair trading—and that is self-evident. Indeed, based on the evidence it is a nationally widespread swindle. In recent years sales of wine have increased dramatically. In 1963 sales of table wine in the UK totalled 30 million gallons. By 1980 the figure had risen to 105 million gallons. In 1987 it was 138 million gallons or 684 million litres. It is a vast and growing market in which untold thousands of wine drinkers are being taken for a ride.

A Barnsley survey carried out in 1986—the findings of which other surveys show to be nation-wide—also contained the wide discrepancy found in prices. They ranged from 53p to £1.05 for a 125-millilitre glass. That is £4.21 per litre to £8.36 per litre—a difference of almost 100 per cent! It is just another indication of the size of the swindle.

In 1987, the Which? report showed that prices ranged from 50p for a glass in Scotland to £1.35 for a 125-millilitre glass in a pub in London. Surely it is time that this swindling of the wine consumer should be brought to a halt. It has been six years of consumers constantly being cheated while huge additional profits are being made by 75 per cent. of those selling wine by the glass.

I ask now that the code be converted to law. The licensed trade has blatantly ignored it for six years. Apart from short measures and overpricing, the Which? report also reveals that because the wine consumer is not aware of the quality of wine on offer low-grade plonk is being sold. That resulted in comments in the Which? survey such as "innocuous, but almost without taste"; "gruesome"; "foul"; "good for cleaning drains or stripping varnish". Some are selling it out of boxes or from barrels connected to hand pumps. Licensees are treating the wine consumer with disdain and the department responsible for consumer protection will not act. After all this time I hope that it will.

There is an urgent need to tidy up this matter, stop the fiddles, give the consumer a fair deal and legislate so that at all places where wine is sold by the glass the measure and the price are exhibited. It should start at least with two measures of four fluid ounces (or 125 millilitres) and six fluid ounces (or 175 millilitres) and instruct the trade to introduce lined glasses so that the consumer can see that he is receiving quantity and value for money.

There are now volumes of evidence available asking for that to be done. I hope that the Government will accept their responsibilities. The code has been tried and it has almost totally failed. Only legislation can bring the trade to heel and give the wine consumer a fair deal.

8.49 p.m.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, I have no wish to prolong the discussion at this time of night, but I genuinely believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, has drawn our attention not for the first time to what is a scandal. Customers are being defrauded daily on a massive scale. I intervene because on many occasions when the subject was raised in your Lordships' House by the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, whom we all greatly miss, I always intervened to support him. At the same time I also managed to squeeze in a few words about a hobby-horse of mine on a related matter: the extent to which beer drinkers are defrauded by the service of short measure arising from the absurd custom of dispensing beer by the so-called brimful method measure, whereby it either slops over the side and is wasted or is sold in short measure, to the extent that trading standards officers, after a nationwide survey, said that beer drinkers were being defrauded of £500,000 per year. I accept that that is another matter and I should be quite wrong to expect the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, when he comes to reply to deal with it.

However, perhaps I could just say that the last time that I raised this matter the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, who was at the Dispatch Box, said: The Department of Trade and Industry will shortly be issuing revised regulations for beer glasses, and at the same time the Brewers' Society is to publish guidelines on good dispensing practice".—[Official Report, 8/12/87; col. 68.] Perhaps I could say to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that I shall be very grateful if he has an opportunity to squeeze in a word or two on that subject at the end.

I now turn to the matter which we are discussing—wine and the code of practice. I raised the matter of beer and the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, raised the matter of wine. He had a great deal more success than I did. I had no success at all with beer and he at least got a code of practice as regards wine. However, he was not very satisfied with that. The last time he spoke on that in your Lordships' House in July 1987 he said: the voluntary code has clearly failed and the sale of wine by the glass has become a widespread swindle".—[Official Report, 7/7/87; col. 598.] The noble Lord, Lord Mason, said that the good burghers of Barnsley are satisfied that it is a swindle and it is not only in Barnsley the people think that. However, there is a code of practice.

Does that code of practice work? First, as the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said, it is widely ignored and in many restaurants and public houses no notice is taken of it at all. However, in those places where they know about the code and are clearly trying to abide by it, the information required is displayed; namely, the amount of the wine served, whether it is in fluid onces of centilitres and the price charged. As the noble Lord said, it has to be clearly and easily read. It can be clearly and easily read, but on the whole it is totally unintelligible to the ordinary consumer who has no idea what a fluid ounce is.

I was dispensing and practising medicine in the days when we prescribed in fluid ounces. I know perfectly well that half a fluid ounce is a tablespoon, not a dessertspoonful, which is two drams. Therefore, I have a rough idea of what a fluid ounce looks like, but I do not believe that that sort of information displayed on a notice, however clear and legible, really helps the customer. There should be a standard quantity and a "glass" should mean something.

We know that glasses are of different sizes: 125 millilitres, 150 millilitres or 175 millilitres, and they are also of different shapes. However, if one knew precisely the cubic capacity and that it should be full or full up to the mark line, as the noble Lord suggested, people would know exactly where they stood.

I know that many noble Lords will say that we must return to the old principle of caveat emptor, and maybe we should. There are people who look to see whether they are getting a decent deal and if they discover that they are not, they go elsewhere. They then have more and more wine and are more and more cheated until perhaps, at the end, they find somewhere with which they are wholly satisfied. However, I do not think that we can go on for ever.

I am somewhat embarrassed and in a dilemma if I ask for legislation because I have been strutting about recently complaining publicly that the Government introduce far too much legislation and that they are obsessed with the idea that they must for ever be doing something. I honestly believe that a government who promised that they would do absolutely nothing would have extensive support from the British public for a very long time. Therefore, I am in something of a dilemma when I ask for more legislation.

Perhaps I should say that, if it is true that the noble Lord, Lord Young, is to introduce legislation to deal with the matters raised in the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on the brewery industry, it seems to me that there is no reason why he should not squeeze in something on this matter at the same time. If he did that, I believe that that would do a great deal of good. We have the code of practice, and we have seen that. It has not done much good. I am not pleading for masses of legislation, but I believe that it could be done quite simply, and the trading standards officers who have been looking at this matter for a long time also believe that it could be done quite simply. At the same time, sooner rather than later, I hope that something will be done about fraud in respect of serving beer in short measure. Of course I accept that that is another subject.

8.55 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I must start by declaring an interest in that a company of which I am chairman is retained by Ravenhead, which is the largest glass tableware manufacturer in the country. By tableware, I mean drinking glasses.

I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, on initiating this short debate and even more on the amount of work he has put in and on his dogged determination to try and get the Government to do something. I was most impressed by his facts and figures.

It is over five years since the major licensed trade association agreed this code of practice with the Department of Trade and Industry. The object was that customers should see the quantity of wine and at what price they were obtaining it. After all, as has already been said, other alcoholic beverages are covered by law: beer, cider and spirits. Those have to be sold in proven measures. Why on earth should wine be an exception? As the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said, sales are increasing. It is becoming more popular as a drink in pubs. Therefore, I do not understand why there should be this exception.

The code called for licensees to advertise or display the specific measure and price of wine sold by the glass. As we have heard, very few abide by the code. Of those who do, the majority do not comply fully with it. If beer is sold by proven pints and half pints in government-stamped glasses, why is wine not so sold?

United Kingdom glass manufacturers were ready and able to supply proven measure glasses from the time that the code was introduced. It is not an excuse for brewers and others to say that they did not have the glasses: the glasses were available. Why did the brewers' groups and independent licensees not adopt the code? Was it due to confusion over interpreting the regulations? That is possible. However, the code is simple enough. Ravenhead produced a large number of advertisements and distributed tens of thousands of leaflets written in simple English explaining it. Therefore, there is really no excuse available to the licenced trade.

I discussed this matter with Ravenhead's chief executive when I had lunch with him in your Lordships' House yesterday. He suggested that one reason why the code failed was that it allowed both metric measures and fluid ounces. To have a double standard simply does no make sense. Perhaps I may take a simple example. If one goes into a pub which abides by the code and buys a glass of wine, one knows the price and the measure in fluid ounces. One then goes into another pub which is also abiding by the code but there the measure is in centilitres. One cannot compare the two. My former wife runs the Metric Sense Campaign and she has become an acknowledged expert on metrication. She says—I think rightly—that the worst thing one can do is to have double standards. One either has imperial or metric; and since in 1992 we are going metric it seems to me only sensible that we should use metric now. After all, motorists buy petrol by the litre but still talk about the number of miles to the gallon that their cars achieve. The housewife goes shopping and says that she needs to buy a 2-lb bag of sugar. The fact is that she does not buy a 2-lb bag of sugar but buys the nearest metric equivalent—I cannot remember exactly what it is. However, in her mind she is buying a 2-lb bag of sugar.

The big problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said, seems to be that you can go into one pub where the publican gets six glasses from a bottle of wine and charges £1 a glass, but in another pub the landlord gets eight or even nine glasses from a bottle and perhaps charges £1.50. At the moment there is no way of knowing what you get. We are not talking about quality because most people walk into a pub and ask for a glass of red wine, dry white or medium white wine. As the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said, some of the wine dispensed is almost undrinkable.

What is the answer? There must be standard measures with the price clearly listed so that customers can make up their own minds. If they are not getting value for money they can go elsewhere. The voluntary code has failed; so metric measures should become mandatory. I believe that in the other place last week this matter was raised and the Government said that they did not want to interfere. As the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said, it is a curious fact that the Government are seeking to privatise electricity and water which no one, apart from the Government, wants but, despite all their claims to be protecting the consumer, they will not come forward and help the consumer in this instance. The consumers are being rubbished. The licensed trade is making a fortune out of wine drinkers. I should like to see the Government step in and do something about it.

9.3 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I hope your Lordships will accept my apologies for not having put down my name to speak in this debate and will give me the indulgence that is usually accorded. I intervene only briefly, I hope, since not only has my noble friend Lord Strathclyde to answer from the Dispatch Box but my noble friend Lord Beaverbrook and, indeed, myself, also dealt with this subject a short while ago.

I am a little disappointed to have heard words tonight such as "rubbished", "cheated", "swindled" and "defrauded". It is not entirely fair to put it that way. It is perhaps a robust way and I have no doubt that the former constituents of the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, are of sufficiently robust a nature to tell a publican, whether he is purveying beer or wine by the glass, that it is not a fair measure and that he had better put it right; and no doubt the purveyor would robustly do just that.

I do not dispute the resumé of the noble Lord, Lord Mason. However, I deny that successive Secretaries of State in the Department of Trade and Industry, which is responsible for consumer affairs, have been either standing idly by or indeed have been complacent. It is a matter which we have attempted to grapple with and I believe it is still being attempted. However, as soon as one starts talking about wine by the glass in a particular measure other issues immediately become evident. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, will forgive me if I say that he diverged from the subject under discussion in precisely the classic way. I wonder why it is that those who imbibe brandy and port, for which there is no measure, do not mount a campaign!

I have sympathy for what the noble Lord, Lord Mason, is seeking to do but I do not like the way he is seeking to do it. Although he is right that the consumption of wine has increased enormously, it is my understanding that the consumption of wine by the glass has not increased in the same proportion. Wine is more popularly purchased by the bottle and drunk by the glass. The trend has grown to visit wine bars and it is interesting to note that wine bars become fashionable and then disappear. They do so largely because the ambience, value, and so on, are not to the continued liking of consumers and someone else has a go by offering something different. However, in a licensed public house there is a greater commitment by the clientele.

I have to say that, like all noble Lords who have spoken, I am bitterly disappointed that the voluntary code of practice has not been more widely adopted. I put that down Firmly at the door of the brewers; after all, they dictate the way the outlet is run. Whether they buy the wine or allow their tenant or manager to buy on the open market is a different argument for a different day, perhaps not too far away, but at the end of the day it is the brewer who determines the practice in the licensed premises. I believe that the brewers have not fulfilled the undertakings which they gave to government all those many years ago.

The brewers have failed to honour their obligations and, on the back of that, the wine shops and wine bars have thought that they were on to a good thing. However, that does not, in my view, demand legislation. I know that the Consumers' Association would like it and I know all about the Which? reports. But as soon as the Government attempt to legislate they will get into a minefield of problems, about one of which the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, has reminded us. At this juncture I believe that the Government would be foolhardy to embark on that course of action.

I believe that the noble Lord's Unstarred Question has again highlighted the problem. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will put the responsibility firmly on the sellers. It is a marketing operation and I believe that they are doing it extraordinarily badly. In the fullness of time I believe that the consumer will say "Enough is enough" or, as they might well say in Barnsley, "I'd like a proper measure, please, or I'm off".

9.8 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend and colleague Lord Mason has done all wine drinkers a very signal service tonight in raising this matter. If there appears to be an element of frivolity in the debate I do not believe that it is called for. I have been a secretary of a licensed club for 22 years and I have seen the change in the volume of beer drinking and the move towards wine drinking. It is obvious that when you have a glass of wine here or there there is no way that you can excuse the different prices and the different qualities. When the drinker buys a glass of wine in a pub or an hotel he never really knows what the quality is.

A few months ago I had the privilege of travelling with some colleagues from your Lordship's House to a dinner at one of the rather famous hotels in London. On the way out I thought that I would take my time and buy a glass of wine. I did so and I needed a brandy to recover from the effect of the price that I had to pay for it. I had no idea of the quality of the wine. I do not propose to go into the details of the statistics as closely as my noble friend, but I have similar statistics that show that the code of conduct has failed abysmally. Even the 25 per cent. of those who are supposed to be involved with the code are not observing it to the degree required.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, touched on an aspect that I believe is a bigger issue than we can debate tonight. It may well be that, if the Secretary of State brings forward legislation concerning the licensed trade or the breweries, people such as the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, my noble friend Lord Mason, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and I might then look at the possibility of introducing amendments. The situation cannot be allowed to continue as it is. There is no question but that people are being fleeced on a large scale. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, put his finger on what may be one of the reasons why this practice is indulged in by landlords where the managers are tenants. Those who have anything to do with the licensed trade will know of the substantial clamour in the past six years over the astronomical rent increases that tenants are being charged by the breweries.

I know of this situation from experience at the small local that I use in Leeds. I shall not name the brewery because is would be unfair, but it called for the rent to be increased to the local tenant. He is a famous ex-footballer and he was beside himself to know how he could meet it. It is an encouragement to people to bend the law in order to survive. There are areas within the licensed trade where it is very difficult to fiddle. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, spoke about filling the old imperial pint pots. I know how clubs used to use a percentage from the spillages in order to help their running costs. However, a great deal of that has now gone because the glasses are marked and the optics are regulated.

The range of prices is beyond belief and it is inexcusable. I think that my noble friend Lord Mason said that the price of a glass of wine in one area was 65p and in another over £2 for the same measure. It may well be that the dearer wine is superior in quality, but who knows? In certain instances that situation is manifest in your Lordships' House. Some of your Lordships may purchase a glass of wine here and the measure varies depending on who serves you. You can buy a glass of wine here and it can be filled to the top. You can go to the same bar the next night and it is a quarter of an inch or three-eighths of an inch off the top.

I am not suggesting for one moment that there is any dishonesty by the people concerned. However, as a member of your Lordships' catering committee I have had noble Lords come to me and question what measures they are supposed to get. There are two similar types of glass being used. One looks slightly larger than the other but in fact in holding capacity is considerably larger. People go into the bar and get a glass one night from the smaller glass and it is almost lip full. They get the other one the next night and it is two-thirds full. This goes on. It may be laughable to us, but noble Lords from various corners of the House come to me as a member of the committee to try to get some rationale into the situation.

The Government would be unwise to ignore the situation. I do not want to go into the bigger issue of what the noble Lord, Lord Young, is going to do about the monopoly breweries. I can go back in the licensed trade to when there were breweries in each area. They were local, family breweries that served so many pubs. They have all disappeared. They are owned by two or three major companies.

Most of the clubs these days do not have a choice from whom they can order if they have a mortgage granted by a brewery for an extension or for improvements within the building. I know that it is not supposed to be done legally, but they become a tied house. They make it clear before the loan is advanced that they do no expect you to sell anybody else's stock. They take the package whether it is for the weakest mineral or the strongest brand of port.

I think that tenants are a diminishing breed. When tenants decide to retire, these days the drill is that the brewery will buy out the tenancy and place there a landlord and his wife, who are certainly not on the type of wages that one would assume. This type of practice is rife. It is no good saying that it is not. My noble friend gave the figures for the 25 per cent. following the code, but there is doubt there. One can only say that the 75 per cent. who are totally ignoring it are not ignoring it in the interests of the consumer.

I have been in bars. From being a rather copious beer drinker years ago I mainly like a drink of white wine now, and I get surprised at the variety in the size of glasses. In some places you get a fluted glass, and in some places the standard wine glass. It is all right saying that the customer will start to grumble, but when you go for a glass of wine it may sometimes be in the interval of a show that the Government Chief Whip may be at. You have to be careful that you know wine if you want to guarantee that you are not being fiddled.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was rather kind towards the licensed trade. He had some criticisms. He talked about the minefield that one would get into in trying to legislate for this type of thing. People have always said that the licensed trade is a minefield, but nevertheless legislation has taken place in the past. If there is a rip-off taking place with the indigenous people here who like a glass of wine at the weekend—and those are the people we are talking about, not the people who buy bottles—something should be done. People who sell bottles of wine are trying to excuse themselves in some of these reports about the tremendous mark up. They buy a bottle of wine for just over a pound and then sell it at over 200 per cent. profit over the counter. These are the big boys.

The whole situation needs looking at. It has been proved beyond doubt by the figures that have been given and the figures that I have that a rip-off is taking place against probably 75 per cent. of the people who like a drink of wine or like a glass of wine. These are the statistics we are talking about where there has been a survey. The Government would be doing less than their duty if they did not take this on board and do something about it. They would be doing themselves some justice as well, rather than just keeping on making excuses and relying on a voluntary code which obviously is not working and certainly shows no signs of growing.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity that the noble Lord, Lord Mason, has provided for us to discuss the sale of wine by the glass. It is always a pleasure to discuss such an agreeable beverage with your Lordships. I am only sorry that I am unable to illustrate what I have to say this evening with some practical examples.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason, has spoken most clearly, eloquently and vehemently. I only hope that I can do the same. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken this evening. I am especially glad that my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth decided to speak, as otherwise this Dispatch Box could have become a most lonely outpost. I know that this is an important issue, which is why, as a result of the expression of public concern about the variety of glass sizes used by the licensed trade, the Government felt justified in 1982 in asking the trade to rationalise its sales of wine by the glass.

The object of the code is to ensure that, so far as possible, anyone wanting to purchase a glass of still table wine will know before making his purchase the quantity he will receive and the price he will pay. The code was introduced with effect from 1st May 1984 with the support of LACOTS, the Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Trading Standards. Shortly afterwards LACOTS asked individual local authorities to carry out a survey of licensed premises to ascertain the level of compliance with the code.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason, has already given us statistics on that survey, so I shall not repeat them. The department's figures vary slightly on the upper side of his estimates, but they are generally in the same band. After the two surveys by LACOTS a further survey was co-ordinated by the Institute of Trading Standards Administration in September 1987. This involved a much smaller sample and the results were not presented in quite the same format as the two earlier LACOTS surveys. Nevertheless, the percentage of the premises inspected which were found to be complying with the code had risen to 27; and 37 per cent. were indicating the quantity of wines served. That was quite a substantial improvement over the past.

These three national surveys have been augmented by surveys carried out by a number of individual local authorities in the past five years. These have shown quite wide variations in the levels of compliance, ranging from 3 per cent. in the case of a survey carried out in 1984, to 38 per cent. in a more recent survey undertaken last year. During the same period the percentage of premises serving wine in quantities recommended by the code has increased from 20 to 78 per cent., and even in one case to 96 per cent., which I think deals with the point of the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley. I should point out to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that the glasses are already being used.

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, including fortified wines and brandy, can be sold in any quantity. In 1986 the Brewers' Society also surveyed the situation in 10,000 public houses managed by the brewers. All were using glass sizes recommended by the code of practice. Furthermore, only millilitre quantities will be allowed after 1994 if the European Community proposals for further metrication are accepted.

It seems clear from these statistics that during the five years the code has been in operation there has been a steady increase in compliance with its key provisions. In particular the use of glass sizes recommended by the code is now very much established. Notwithstanding the general increase in the level of compliance, there have been a number of representations that the code is not working and that the Government should legislate for standard quantities of wine just as they have for draught beer and for spirits. I do not share that view. In the first place, virtually all the calls for statutory controls have come from the local authorities, apart, that is of course, from the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley.

Although the Consumers' Association and the National Confederation of Consumer Groups have also made representations I have to say that there is almost no evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo from individual consumers. Indeed, during the five years that the code has been in operation, the department has received letters on that issue from just seven members of the general public. That is out of an estimated wine-drinking population of 29 million people. Those seven include responses to an invitation made last autumn by a national newspaper to its readers to write to the department if they felt moved to protest against the lack of controls. It is therefore fair to say that this is not an issue which is greatly exercising the general public.

Noble Lords opposite have not produced one shred of evidence that there is great concern within the general public. That hardly gives the impression that consumers are being fleeced or swindled, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Mason, or that there is the massive daily fraud described by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley. I entirely agree with the points that my noble friend Lord Lucas made about that matter.

Perhaps I may briefly digress and answer the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, who mentioned beer. Last year, the Brewers' Society published guidelines on good dispensing practice for bar staff to coincide with the introduction by the Department of Trade and Industry of revised regulations for beer glasses. Those initiatives are designed to encourage licensees to use the glass most appropriate for the type of beer that they are serving. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, will no longer wet his feet when he carries a pint.

Of course consumers are entitled to a fair deal; but people are intelligent enough to be able to judge for themselves whether what they are offered represents good value for money. If, on ordering a glass of wine, the consumer is not satisfied with the quantity or the price charged, or with the quality of the wine, then, with over 100,000 premises licensed for on sales, there are plenty of other drinking establishments to which he or she can repair on future occasions. That is one of the benefits of competition.

There is clear freedom of choice. I am not sure that legislation would improve the price or the quality of wine. It is the consumer who will force that. It is not caveat emptor that is important here, but freedom of choice. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, told us a sorry tale. He feels that he was ripped off in a hotel. Perhaps he should no longer frequent that establishment.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I have news for the Minister, I will not be doing so.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the next time the noble Lord orders a glass of wine, he should ask about the quality and the price. Although wine sales have grown six times in the past 20 years, it is estimated that only 4 per cent. of wine sales are in public houses or wine bars. A proportion of that will, of course, be by the bottle. We are talking about the small proportion of total wine sales which are sold by the glass.

There is a second reason why I feel that it would be inappropriate for statutory controls to be introduced at this time. Deregulation is central to the Government's strategy. Our aim is to ease the bureaucratic pressures on business, especially small businesses. That involves removing a host of bureaucratic tasks and irritations, each of which, taken individually, may appear to be minor.

A feature of the licensed trade is that it has a preponderance of small businesses. I can see no justification for burdening them with more legislation; nevertheless, the Government accept that there is still room for improvement in the way in which quantity and price information are communicated to the consumer. We remain concerned that more widespread compliance with the code's key quantity and price provisions has taken so long to achieve.

We are looking to the code's trade sponsors to keep up pressure on their members to ensure that the consumer receives a fair deal. 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 department has left the code's sponsors in no doubt that there is a need for them to secure more widespread voluntary compliance as an alternative to legislation.

The Government are therefore keeping the situation under close review. We accept that there will always be some difficulty in ensuring total compliance with voluntary initiatives but, as the surveys to which I have referred indicate, the situation is always improving and I see no reason to suppose that this impetus will not be sustained.