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Column 1258That is not in the Bill, but it is in the Government's response to the report. The Government should have come forward with comprehensive legislation to cover those points.
Trading standards officers are the weights and measures authority in this aspect of the law, and they should remain so. The amendment should be accepted. If not, the Bill should be withdrawn in favour of a Government Bill.
Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare) : I declare an interest. I am a consultant to the National Federation of Scale and Weighing Machine Manufacturers. I have never made any secret of the fact that I have brought the Bill forward so that this country should be ahead of its rivals in Europe when self-verification is introduced, willy-nilly, in 1991--whether or not the Bill is passed.
Three hon. Members have tabled amendments. I wrote to all three, inviting them to tell me about their specific complaints and seeking to satisfy them. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) replied, but the other two did not. I am sorry about that. The only organisations that have formally come to me have been the Association of County Councils and the Institute of Trading Standards Administration. Both organisations have points to make about my Bill. I met representatives from both organisations, we discussed our views, and amendments to satisfy their requirements were tabled in my name.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central is under many serious misapprehensions. Had he given me a chance to explain more fully the circumstances of the Bill he would have understood that, far from encouraging the nefarious activities that he described, it is a small measure which may affect no more than a dozen manufacturers and will free trading standards officers for other duties which they constantly tell us they have no time to pursue. I do not understand why there should be such a wave of opposition to this extremely minor measure.
Mrs. Dunwoody : As I was one of the hon. Members to whom the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to write, I apologise to him for not having replied. The reason for that is that I was consulting at considerable depth with those who will be most directly affected. When I first put down my carefully considered new clause, it was the hon. Gentleman's intention to pursue the Bill without having consulted me, although he may have consulted other hon. Members. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if he felt that it was discourteous that there was no official reply to his letter. Had there been considerable consultation with all hon. Members concerned about the Bill, there might have been greater understanding of his position. No one objects to his making his attitude clear, but there are real objections on behalf of the consumers. It is quite wrong to suggest that only the weights and measures officers are involved.
Mr. Wiggin : The hon. Lady knows that those interested in the Bill, including consumers, were represented on the Eden committee, which produced a unanimous report. In the period between publication of the Eden committee report and the Government's response, all interested organisations made their views known. That was why we saw no reason for individual consultation.
"Dear Mr. Skinner,
I am writing to draw attention to our misgivings over the Weights and Measures (Amendments) Bill', and to request your support in opposing Although this bill appears uncontroversial, it does, in fact, overturn basic measures of consumer protection which have been taken for granted for over 100 years."
I have not been involved with any of the amendments. I just read the letter and thought that the Consumers Association obviously had a case.
Mr. Wiggin : The hon. Gentleman thought wrong. If the Consumers Association had had the courtesy to discuss the matter with me, it would not have written a letter based on so many misapprehensions and misconceptions. It has simply failed to understand what the Bill is about. I was alerted to the fact that the Consumers' Association had made representations to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin), but it did not copy those representations to me, nor did it consult me or ask for an explanation of the intentions of the Bill. If the trading standards officers, who would be freed from their duties by the application of the measure, were to apply themselves to the sort of things that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was talking about when he referred to cheating in the mines, I believe that it could be argued that this is a consumer protection measure which will improve consumer protection.
It is not fully understood that the licensing agreement from central Government will go only to manufacturers who obtain British Standard 5750.
The suggestion that any manufacturer who applies will be permitted to stamp his own machines is ludicrous in the extreme. As a promoter of a previous consumer protection Bill, the Hallmarking Act 1973, I can say that the concept that our Government are not completely alert to the necessity to ensure that these things are done properly--they have been done properly in this country for many hundreds of years--is ludicrous. We are talking about technically difficult matters. Obtaining British Standard 5750 is not only a lengthy process, but an extremely expensive one involving staff at all levels in the company--from the managing director down to the chap who sweeps the floor. Few people will be able to afford or will take the trouble to obtain BS 5750. We believe that at present perhaps a dozen manufacturers in this country will be able to take advantage of the legislation.
Mr. Bermingham : Is the hon. Gentleman not saying that those who are in the club can therefore benefit from the club, and that that will exclude all the other manufacturers? What about companies which are beginning to develop in this sector? Unless they are part of that little group, they appear to be excluded.
Ms. Quin : The hon. Gentleman refers to the fact that the Consumers Association has written to me as well as to other hon. Members outlining its objections to the Bill. Does he agree that as he knew that the Consumers Association was party to the widespread agreement to the Eden committee recommendations it would have been better to consult that association before putting pen to paper to devise his Bill? Does he also agree that instead of his being placed in this difficult position it would have been much better if the Government had brought forward a measure which incorporated the Eden recommendations and therefore satisfied all parties?
Mr. Wiggin : I had assumed, with good reason, that as a result of its presence on the Eden committee and its constant communications with the Government on that matter subsequently, there was no reason to believe that the Consumers Association, of all people, would be disturbed by the Bill. Its relevance to the consumer is remote. The young man at the Consumers Association whom I telephoned on hearing of his concern said that he would write to me that very day. The letter was delivered on Wednesday night, but I cannot carry out negotiations on such a complex matter in 24 hours. He will receive a detailed critique of all his detailed points, but there is no substance in them and the consumer has nothing to fear from the Bill. It is a thin argument to suggest that manufacturers' costs may be modestly affected and that, therefore, the costs of weighing machines may be passed on to the public. The consumer has nothing to fear from the Bill. The application of trading standards will continue as before. It is the manufacture and, perhaps, the subsequent installation and repair of weighing machines that is involved. This Bill is not about the checking of weighing machines. No one is suggesting that there should be any change in current arrangements for that.
The substance of the Opposition's objections to the Bill was revealed by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central, who said that they were very annoyed that they had got only a slice of the cake and that they would not allow the Bill to pass because they wanted the whole cake.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister because the Bill would give us a substantial lead over other European countries in subsequent negotiations. Obviously the necessary expertise is being applied to advise authorities in Brussels of the likely outcome of events. By stopping the Bill, the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central is simply allowing the French and the Germans to take a lead in a matter in which we are perfectly able to take the lead.
Mr. Illsley : The hon. Gentleman says that we could steal a march on the Europeans if the Bill were passed. If the Government had activated the Eden committee report in 1986 when they accepted its recommendations, we should have gained a further three years on the Europeans.
Mr. Wiggin : I cannot argue about the desirability of bringing forward a Bill covering all the Eden recommendations, especially as it would contain the measures proposed in the Bill before us. I have a letter to the Scottish local authorities from my hon. Friend the Minister in which he makes clear the Government's intention to bring forward a Bill. We all know that the timetable in this place is already full and my hon. Friend the Minister was unable to argue that this
Column 1261matter was of sufficient priority for the Government to produce a Bill. The failure to produce such a Bill is a poor reason for opposing my measure, which is simply part of that measure. The argument that a Bill covering all the Eden recommendations has not been introduced is not a good basis for opposition. In the light of that explanation, I should have thought that the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central would think carefully about the substance of his complaint.
My amendments have been tabled at the request of the Association of County Councils. I believe that it is perfectly reasonable that the local trading standards office should be consulted before a licence is issued. The suggestion that the scheme should not be administered nationally shows that the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central does not understand how the administration of weights and measures is conducted. Trading standards offices receive, at regular intervals, central guidance notes from the National Weights and Measures Laboratory, which is held in the highest esteem by all concerned. Nowadays, we deal in high technology. The old weighing machine with a weight on one side and the item to be weighed on the other has gone. We now have sophisticated electronic instruments. The concept of a trading standards officer even understanding their operation let alone the adjustment of them, is clearly completely out of date. It is because the manufacturers are the best people for that job that the Bill suggests that they should be allowed to mark the machines on their own premises. Once that machine comes out of the factory, there is nothing to stop the trading standards officer putting his measured weight on it to check its accuracy. The checks and duties of the trading standards officer, as carried out today, will continue. I do not believe that the Consumers Association or any other organisation can suggest that the consumers' interests will be affected in any way. The present arrangements simply allow the trading standards officer's inspection to become the final inspection within the factory process. That is deeply unsatisfactory.
If any Opposition Member wishes to have a full explanation of the motives and merits of the Bill, and to discuss any fears that he or she might have about it, I am ready and available to do so. I am deeply sorry that I have not been given the opportunity to do so before.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Eric Forth) : With the permission of the Committee, I shall take this opportunity, although time is running out, to set out the background. Questions have been raised about the Government's position, and it will help hon. Members if I set it out briefly.
Hon. Members will be aware that the Eden committee was asked by the Government to review the arrangements for the legal control of measuring equipment in use for trade. One of the key recommendations of the committee, which included representatives from consumer bodies, and, as has been said, trading standards interests and equipment manufacturers, was that a self-verification scheme should be introduced. This scheme would allow properly accredited manufacturers, installers and repairers of trade equipment to verify and stamp equipment which had been shown to meet legal requirements, rather than requiring a trading standards officer to fulfil the task.
Column 1262In accepting that recommendation in its published response, the Government fully endorsed the committee's commitment to ensuring that the public's confidence in fair trading should be maintained. To this end, the scheme would be available only to those companies accredited against stringent quality assurance criteria, and the expertise of the local authorities' trading standards officers would be used in the accreditation and auditing of the scheme. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that there would be any compromise of consumer protection. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has introduced this Bill which seeks to amend the Weights and Measures Act 1985 so that a self-verification scheme could be introduced. The measures proposed in the Bill are consistent with those outlined in Cmnd. 9850 for the introduction of a
self-verification scheme, and therefore the Bill has Government support. Similarly, the amendments tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare have sought to meet the quite proper concerns of trading standards officers and consumer interests and, therefore, should receive hon. Members' support.
As the Eden committee recognised, the technical complexity of weighing and measuring equipment increases inexorably--a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare--and self verification, properly based on sound quality assurance principles, is the way forward. Other countries have already introduced schemes of this kind and we can certainly expect the impending Community directives on measuring instruments to include provisions for self verification. The United Kingdom rightly has an international reputation for the effectiveness of its weights and measures controls, and also for pioneering work on quality assurance certification. We want to take this opportunity to introduce a national self verification scheme and maintain our position in Europe as enlightened regulators for the benefit of manufacturers, consumers and the enforcement authorities. I shall state the Government's position on the amendments as they arise.
Mr. Bermingham : I am always worried when a promoter of a Bill says that it is promoted in the interests of that section of the community who will be able to verify its own interests. Unless someone, who may be a manufacturer, is one of that group, he or she will still be subject to the same British Standard 5750 and cannot be part of the club.
I am even more concerned that a Minister should come to the Dispatch Box and agree that the Government had read the committee's report and accepted all its recommendations but will choose to implement just a few of them because that might help us in Europe. I am even more concerned when the Bill's promoter says that trading standards officers should not be involved because they do not have the technical expertise to deal with these matters. That is not right or proper. I expect the hon. Member for Weston- super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) to withdraw that comment ; it was a nasty slur that was unworthy of him.
Trading standard officers in St. Helens have expressed grave concerns to me about the Bill--
It being half-past Two o'clock, The Chairman-- left the Chair to report progress and ask leave to sit again.
Column 1263Committee report progress ; to sit again on Friday 5 May.
Order for Second Reading read.
Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North) : Those of us who are concerned about animal welfare will be back again and again and again on this issue. The next time we shall be back will be a week today. Second Reading deferred till Friday 5 May.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 5 May.
Order for Second Reading read.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 5 May.
Order for Second Reading read.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 19 May.
Order for Second Reading read.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 7 July.
Order for Second Reading read.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 7 July.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 12 May.
Second Reading deferred till Friday 5 May.
Read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).
Order for Second Reading read.
That Mr. Speaker have leave of absence on Friday 5th May to attend the solemn sitting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.-- [Mr. Alan Howarth.]
That, at the sitting on Thursday 4th May, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business), Motions in the name of the Prime Minister relating to Controls of Persons at Intra-Community Frontiers and Public Procurement may be proceeded with, though opposed, for one and a half hours after each of them has been entered upon ; and if proceedings thereon have not been disposed of at the expiration of that period, Mr. Speaker shall then put any Questions necessary to dispose of them.-- [Mr. Alan Howarth].
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Alan Howarth.]
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South) : We have had a long association and friendship with both India and Nepal, which has been in two directions. We have provided aid to India which, over the past eight years, has totalled no less than £910 million. That works out at an average of £113.75 million per year. The figures vary from year to year because the agreed projects that are taken up are not even in number throughout the years and in some years the take-up is greater than in others. That is why we must look at this in averages. During that period we have had a major hand in helping the Rihand coal-fired power station with £117 million, the Bharat Aluminium Company thermal power plant with £131 million ; £24 million has been provided for low-cost housing ; £15 million for social forestry projects in Karnataka ; £31 million for long-wall mining technology ; and £24 million has been provided for the Indo- British fertiliser education project. All are important aspects of aid which can be expected to continue in the future. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development will say more about that later. During a similar period, Nepal has received just over £70 million. That works out at an average of £8.75 million per year. It has contributed to the Dharan-Dhanjuta road in east Nepal and has provided help with the tea industry, with rural development in the Kosi hills, with grain storage, with an earth satellite station and--most important-- reafforestation in the middle hills. With Nepal's increasing population, there is a problem about obtaining fuel and large amounts of forest have been denuded. That is bad for the soil, which is then washed away down the mountains by the rivers, making it difficult to work the remaining farms properly and effectively. Therefore, reafforestation is important.
In the past, the attitude behind our aid has been to help to renew those natural resources that can be renewed, to provide effective communications, to provide health care--including, of course, an improved water supply--and especially, to help with education and training. In return, we have been able to export a considerable amount of goods to India. In 1983 we exported no less than £805 million worth of goods to India. That has risen steadily until in 1988 the estimated figure was £1,112 million.
The Nepalese have a special relationship with this country. I need hardly remind the House that it goes back a long way. For 173 years Nepal has been providing us with soldiers for the British Army and for the Indian army when it was under British control. The Nepalese will provide an effective service to the British Crown for many years to come because we are experiencing the problems of the demographic trough, which means that the number of service personnel in the British Army in the next 20 years is likely to be much lower than in the past, especially in infantry regiments. That means that we shall be relying even more on the Nepalese Gurkhas to help us with our defence commitments.
I was sorry that we were unable to help more in providing for the future of the station of Dharan. My hon. Friend knows my feelings about this. I wish that we had managed to retain it permanently because once one
Column 1267recruits to a particular area and provides a valuable service in terms of a hospital and medical treatment, one finds that service people tend to retire to such areas.
The value of the properties and the number built in that area depend upon the presence of a facility at Dharan. About 18 months ago the Government decided to close that, and it is now in the process of being wound down. That is unfortunate because it made a major and significant contribution to the economy in that part of Nepal. The King of Nepal, His Majesty King Birendra, is a conscientious monarch and spends at least two months of every year visiting his people in the hills. I have personal experience of that. It is a wonderful thing to do and says a great deal for the king's dedication and his keenness and enthusiasm. He finds out a good deal about his people and his experience of their trials and tribulations and finds out where they most need help. That means that he is in a good position to see exactly where there are problems and where some assistance is required.
It came as a great disappointment to many hon. Members to learn about a breakdown in the trade and transit arrangements between these two friends of ours. Nepal is a land-locked country. It has China through Tibet on the northern border, which has two very difficult passes, and on the southern, eastern and western borders it has India. Until recently, as a result of a treaty which came into effect in 1978, there were no fewer than 15 crossing points for trade and transit, but that treaty came to an end about 12 months ago. Two extensions of six months were granted but then, at short notice, the agreement was terminated. Considerable difficulty is now being experienced in getting goods across the border because only two crossing points remain open. They are probably the most important of the crossing points and are at Raxaul and Jogbani. The end of the agreement has caused severe restriction and great difficulty for this land-locked country.
No fewer than 90 hon. Members have signed an early-day motion drawing attention to their concern about this situation. Quite clearly we must all be concerned because we are providing aid to two countries which are not trading freely or having free transit between one another. Much of the aid, especially to the smaller country, is dissipated in extra expense because of the closing of the border in so many areas. Civil servants in Delhi have said that the majority of essential materials are passing across the frontier despite the restrictions introduced in March, but that has not been found to be so by some people. I had a letter only yesterday from a constitutent whose son is working on behalf of the CARE charity in Nepal. His efforts are being severely restricted because he is unable to get petrol to move about the country to provide the important help that is required. He has told his mother that paraffin for cooking and sugar and soap are not easily available, that petrol is severely rationed and that medicines and hospital supplies are in short supply. This is a most serious matter when one is trying to help some of the poorest people in the world and also to ensure that the money spent by the British taxpayer in providing afforestation projects is not undermined by the wood being cut down to provide heat for cooking, necessary though that purpose is. Much of the money that the British
Column 1268taxpayer is paying for reafforestation, particularly in the middle hills of Nepal, is likely to be wasted if the situation that I have described continues for much longer.
I understand that Mr. Rajiv Gandhi is keen that the matter should be solved as quickly as possible. Of course, sometimes civil servants have a way of holding things up. My hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development will know that not so long ago I had to deal with the question of some gold taken off a plane in Calcutta when it was being transported back legally from Hong Kong to Nepal by Gurkha servicemen to purchase land. Such a technical holdup may go on for months or even years while lawyers do their best to unravel the problems.
That kind of situation cannot be allowed to make life so difficult for people in parts of the world such as India and Nepal. There are good reasons why the two countries should have a very harmonious relationship in transit and trade. India is the largest democracy in the world, and Nepal relies on its goods transiting through India. In fact, 90 per cent. of Nepal's trade is with India. Thus, the two countries have a very close-knit involvement. At the same time they are entirely independent and sovereign states, and, as such, should be able to expect their goods to be allowed to be transmitted through adjoining countries without unnecessary let or hindrance. Many agreements previously entered into, some of which extend until 1991, have had to be suspended because of this embargo. Diesel fuel, paraffin for cooking, baby food, medical supplies and salt are some of the products affected. Clearly, we must show concern about the situation. Coal is also important. Recently, 2,000 tonnes of coal has been released by India, but that is only a small proportion of the 1988 quota of 80,000 tonnes still due. The Nepalese cement industry, which relies on coal from India, is now in a desperate situation. Although Nepal entered into a contract with the Salt Corporation of India for the supply of salt until 1991, inadequate supplies of salt are being allowed into Nepal. Customs duty of about 145 per cent. is being imposed on Nepalese exports to India, leading to a virtual stoppage. That, too, is a serious matter.
Any reasonable person would be concerned about the matters that I have raised. While Mr. Rajiv Gandhi knows about the situation, I do not think he really appreciates its extent, because I am sure that if he did he would take urgent action to put it right. In the interests of the three countries concerned--India, Nepal and the United Kingdom--I hope the problem can be solved urgently. It affects the British taxpayer for the reasons that I have explained to my hon. Friend the Minister. I trust that it will be possible to unravel this matter very soon so that the trade and transit arrangements can be allowed to continue.
I should have thought that in the short term it would be sensible to allow the previous arrangements to continue for a further 12 months and in the meantime to come to a permanent arrangement for the two separate issues-- trade and transit. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do everything possible to ensure that the matter is resolved to everyone's honour and satisfaction.
Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North) : My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) has kindly agreed that I should speak for a moment or two in support of his excellent speech. He brings to the House a special knowledge of the kingdom of Nepal and its
Column 1269relationship with India because he is the chairman of the all-party Nepalese group and a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Defence, and he has a special knowledge of the Gurkhas.
This is a serious matter. There is widespread support for my hon. Friend's points inside the House and in the country. The United Kingdom has had a special relationship with the kingdom of Nepal since 1815. Many of the Nepalese nationals have served in Her Majesty's forces and continue to do so. Several hundreds, if not thousands, of residents in Nepal receive pensions from the United Kingdom Government for their service. Many of them are suffering hardship as a result of the expiry of the treaties and the failure to find a solution of the problem between India and Nepal.
We all know that the United Kingdom has an excellent relationship with India. We are the firmest of friends with that great country and recognise its contribution to the work of the Commonwealth and the democratic principle. It is especially sad that the present situation should have arisen between two countries with which the United Kingdom has a special regard and affection.
It will not do for the Foreign Office to sit on the fence as the Minister of State, Lord Glenarthur, implies in correspondence to me. He observed that he hopes that the issue will be settled and that the Foreign Office will
"continue to follow events with keen attention."
It will not do simply to be an observer of events. We have an interest and a concern. We must ask the Government to use their best influence with our friends in New Delhi and on behalf of the kingdom of Nepal to ensure that there is a solution in that part of the world for which we have a special regard and an historical link. 3.52 pm