HL Deb 10 November 2003 vol 654 cc1083-5

2.45 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any proposals for revision or modification of the existing system of hallmarking of precious metals.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, a draft EU directive on hallmarking has been proposed, but the UK is opposing it because it would weaken the protection currently enjoyed by consumers in the UK. We think that we have a reasonable chance of success. The British Hallmarking Council has recommended changing UK legislation to mark mixed metal articles, but responses to a consultation on this did not make an adequate case for such changes.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I hope that it is still a draft directive rather than law. If we are forced down that road, can he ensure that we still retain, as a secondary mark, the established British hallmarking system on genuine goods, because some of the European states will not enforce a European directive?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, let me be clear. We oppose the directive because we believe that it would not maintain consumer confidence, that it would not be effectively enforced and that it would do nothing for the common market. The terms of the directive do not mean that an assay mark cannot be used; they simply mean that it does not have to be used and that one can rely on a manufacturer's mark plus market surveillance. We do not think that that is a good system. We want to retain the system we have. Even if the directive is passed—we shall oppose it—we could still put on the marks that we have.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is it not a fact that nine of the 10 countries due to join the European Community next year favour compulsory hallmarking and that this is such a hazardous moment because of the Italian presidency? The Italians produce a good deal of jewellery in this country, but is it not also a fact that more Italian items are destroyed for undercaratage than any others? The major risk of losing the British hallmarking system, which is such a guarantee of standards to consumers, will remain until this presidency finishes at the end of the year.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, it is true that the Italians revived the hallmarking directive in July. It is an issue about which they feel very strongly. That has not in any way prevented imports of Italian jewellery in to this country. At present the discussions on the working party are not making great progress. The Italians have said that they will take this matter to the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER). We think that that will not make progress. We shall continue to oppose the directive.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I declare an interest. I wrote a brief for the British goldsmiths association arguing against the retention of the assay mark which, if considered carefully, is just an extra cost imposed on British jewellers. Countries elsewhere in the world can manage without such a system; it is just a market distortion. The sooner we do away with it the better. Will my noble friend reconsider his position and support the directive? That would make us more competitive in Europe.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the mark is a very minor cost. We think that it is an essential piece of information. Far from it being a market distortion, it is a very good piece of information that gives consumers confidence in the product that they are buying. We have no intention of changing our policy on this matter.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, the Minister has told this House on more than one occasion that our Government are, fortunately, against this directive. Can the Minister say whether Her Majesty's Government are confident that they will have sufficient support at the next Council meeting at the end of the month to frustrate this Commission proposal?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

No, my Lords. We hope that enough member states share our view to be able to block this measure, which is for qualified majority voting. However, we must recognise that there are member states which support the directive. That is why we are making a major effort to persuade other member states to come round to our point of view.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the noble Lord, Lord Desai, does not speak for all Members on this side of the House, the vast majority of whom would support the Government in their total opposition to this directive? If the noble Lord, Lord Desai, needs further direction on this matter, he is very welcome to come and talk to the people at the Birmingham Mint, who will soon put him right about this fundamental measure of consumer protection.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords;, I am sure my noble friend Lord Desai would be horrified if it was ever thought that he was speaking for the majority of this House.

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