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Mr. Barron : The Eden committee was established in 1984 and comprised representatives of all interested parties, including manufacturers and installers, repairers, users, central and local government, and consumers, and had an independent chairman in Dr. Eden himself.
Let me ask the hon. Gentleman a direct question. Did the consumers--and we are here to represent them rather than anyone else on that committee-- propose any change not covered by the hon. Gentleman's amendment to his Bill? The hon. Gentleman shakes his head? Let me ask him, then, why the Consumers Association--a very creditable organisation--now says that it is opposed to certain parts of the Bill?
Mr. Wiggin : I am sorry to say that, contrary to its reputation, the Consumers Association failed to ask for an explanation of the Bill. It has made a number of allegations which, frankly, are wrong. I have sent the association a detailed analysis of its objections, but if it had produced them earlier I could have enlightened it. I am forced to conclude that the association knows as little about the matter as the hon. Gentleman clearly does.
The hon. Gentleman has suggested that he should be consulted on high. I have just spent a good deal of time dealing with the Electricity Bill, another measure of interest to consumers. I shall divulge nothing except that extensive discussions have taken place between not only the Opposition but the Government--the Bill's promoters--and about 10 of the leading consumers' associations. The Government rightly consider it necessary to consult those associations about the changes imposed on consumers. There seems to be a contradiction here. If this is a Government Bill by another name, why is the hon. Gentleman, as a representative of the Government, saying, "You must come and see me. I am not prepared to contact you."?
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helen's, South) : I hope that my intervention will not provoke another barrage of personal insults from the Conservative Benches. Such conduct is entirely unnecessary. Is not the test of the Bill, and of clause 2 in particular, very simple? At present an independent body, with its own professional standards and codes of ethics and behaviour, carries out the testing and stamping of weighing machines. The Bill seeks to allow in-house testing and stamping by people who are not party to the training course run by that professional body, and thus to make in-house stamping the prerogative of the elite at the expense of the many--and, ultimately, at the expense of the consumer.
Weston-super-Mare said earlier that nothing about the inspections would change, but if a new retail outlet was set up it would surely have to be inspected before it could trade, and under the Bill an authorised person could do that. The hon. Gentleman nods. That constitutes a change.
The hon. Gentleman said earlier--and it is fair comment--that this was only part of the recommendations of the Eden report. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman must be familiar with the briefing sent by the Consumers Association to all Members of Parliament, as he is the Bill's surrogate promoter. The association did indeed agree with the report. Its briefing states :
"We welcomed the recommendations of the Eden Report on Metrological Control' when it was published in 1985. Indeed, Eden's proposals were remarkable, in being endorsed by all
parties--manufacturers, inspectorate and consumer representatives alike."
After such strong endorsement by all the parties concerned, it is strange that we should be discussing a Bill that contains only part of the recommendations that were so widely endorsed.
The Consumers Association brief continues :
"The Consumers Association's objection to the Bill is that it seeks to introduce only those recommendations which would be of benefit to those connected with the manufacturing industry, without adequate safeguards to protect the consumer."
If that is the case, every hon. Member ought to be worried that the Bill protects only industry. I accept that industry needs to be protected but the interests of industry should not be protected if consumer standards are likely to suffer. The Consumers Association's argument is good and strong and I am prepared to accept it. A more comprehensive measure should have been introduced.
Ms. Abbott : Is it not the case that the parliamentary adviser to the National Federation of Scale and Weighing Machine Manufacturers has completely failed to take on board the interests of the consumer? The Eden committee first sat in 1984. Its recommendations were published in June 1985. Between 1985 and 1989 the retail industry has moved forward. There are new products ; there is also new packaging and new machinery. Does that not make even more pressing the case for proper consultation? Does that not make it even more regrettable that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) failed to consult the interested parties before he introduced the Bill?
Mr. Barron : Yes, it is regrettable. Even the hon. Member for Weston -super-Mare may have some regrets about the Bill not being more comprehensive, by taking into account the interests of consumers as well as the interests of British industry.
Column 515One of the main objections of the Consumers Association is to self-verification. It says :
"Self-verification should not be applied to installers and repairers until its success in relation to manufacturers has been assessed. Most manufacturers are in a position to ensure that adequate quality assurance and control measures are built into their manufacturing processes. This cannot be said for repairers, most of whom tend to be small businesses, often working away from their own premises and performing many different types of repair work on many different types of machine."
I raised that point earlier. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare nodded his head in appreciation of that very important point when I raised it earlier.
Mr. Waller : My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has taken account of the proposed changes. Provisions relating to installers and repairers would not come into force immediately ; they would be postponed. Some of the Eden committee's proposals will come before the House later, but there can be no guarantee that if the Bill is not passed account will then be taken of the provisions in the Bill. By preventing the Bill from passing into law, the kind of safeguards to which the hon. Gentleman has referred and which have been taken into account will not exist.
Mr. Barron : The hon. Member's intervention draws me back to clause 1, which I shall not discuss in detail as we are debating clause 2. At present, clause 1 does not stop the threat of that happening even after the amendments have been made. We keep returning to the fact that the parties involved in the investigations and the conclusions of the Eden report were broadly in agreement. Although I cannot speak for the Labour Front Bench, that suggests to me that if a comprehensive Bill that covered all issues had been produced there would have been all-party agreement in the House and such a Bill would have been passed in far less time than we have spent in Committee this morning discussing whether clause 2 should stand part of the Bill. Many questions arise from that, but I understand that they cannot be discussed in a debate on clause 2 stand part. If I were to ask or answer those questions, I should be moving away from the subject of the debate.
Mr. Bermingham : Does my hon. Friend agree that the intervention by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) appeared to contain an element of blackmail suggesting that either we let the Bill through now, slightly amended, or those concessions will not appear in any future Bill? The main issue is how to protect the consumer, and threats are perhaps not the best way to do that.
Mr. Barron : My hon. Friend may well be right. Although I always listen with interest to anything said by Conservative members that is helpful to the debate, it may be that there is a certain threat on that matter. That is normally left to the usual channels and to Government Departments and not to procedural issues in Committee. Had the Bill been thought through properly and had the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare lobbied the Minister, it might have been thought that the proper place and time for the Bill was not on a Friday in private Members' time but from the Dispatch Box on another day, properly promulgated by the relevant Government Department instead of a private Member.
Column 516consumers and assisting industry have existed for a long time and the Bill, which benefits the industry at the expense of the consumer, upsets those checks and balances? Does he agree that it would have been quite simple to include some protection for the consumer and, particularly, the local authority powers? In the four or five years since the Eden report, there have been plenty of opportunities to work out those measures.
Mr. Barron : My hon. Friend is right, but the five-year gap is not the responsibility of the promoter of the Bill. It would be wrong to blame him for the deficiencies in the Bill which seeks to enact only certain provisions of the Eden report. The responsibility rests with the Department of Trade and Industry. Unfortunately, we cannot even blame the Under- Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs as he is a recent appointee, and a shock appointee, as I recall from the public comments made by some of his hon. Friends--I use the expression lightly--when he was appointed. The person who held his position during the years from 1985 is responsible for the fact that the Bill contains only some of the recommendations in the Eden report.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare has been open and honest about the fact that the Bill is designed more to help industry than consumers. That is why I oppose clause 2.
Mr. Wiggin : The hon. Gentleman keeps saying that consumers will experience some expense. Does he seriously and honestly believe that the Department of Trade and Industry would smile on a Bill if it knew that there was the slightest shred of evidence that that was the case? He should bear in mind that several western European countries already have self- verification. Is he aware that the Community will be proposing self- verification in the near future? There is not a shred of evidence that the Bill will harm the consumer.
Mr. Barron : The hon. Gentleman will remember that, in one of his interventions during my speech, he accepted that, in some instances-- especially after installation or repairs--some machinery has had to be adjusted after its inspection by the proper statutory authority. How can we give authorised persons a licence, even for an interim period, if we know that, in the past, they have got it wrong? That is where the protection of the consumer begins to weaken, and it is highlighted by the Consumers Association.
The hon. Gentleman should have consulted the Consumers Association before coming to the House. He did not do so and he has given his reasons. The association fears that, because trading standards officers have had to adjust machinery in the past, that machinery may not be accurate after the enactment of the Bill.
There are drawbacks about extending the licensing provisions to those who install the equipment. The Bill would remove the existing requirement for an inspector to be present when bar coding tills are installed. Bar coding tills are in use in many of our retail outlets. They inform the customer electronically of the price of the goods. One would need to have a mind like a calculator to remember the price of the sugar when reaching the checkout because in a hypermarket the shelf could be a quarter of a mile away.
Column 517In those circumstances, it is important that the equipment is accurate at all times. It should not be left simply to the person who installs the machine. Consumers should not have to wait until the local authority trading standards officer has time to visit the supermarket or hypermarket to check the accuracy of the machine. If we are to look after consumers' interests, the first item purchased in a retail outlet using that system must show that the price is being recorded properly before the other items are purchased.
Mr. Bermingham : My hon. Friend has probably read, as I have, about the problems with bar coding. When prices change, one price can be displayed but another barred through so that one is charged the original price and not the displayed reduced price. What damage will be done if such problems are left to self-verification?
Mr. Barron : My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am not surprised that he raised it because he is not only an hon. Member but a member of the legal profession. I am sure he is well aware of the introduction of new technology into retailing and its effect on consumers, and of individual consumers who are in dispute with a retailer about the cost of an item.
Ms. Abbott : I am sure that my hon. Friend has read, as I have, the Government's response to the report of the Eden committee, entitled "Metrological Control of Equipment for Use for Trade". For the benefit of other hon. Members who may not have read it, I shall read a paragraph that has some bearing on the debate. It says : "The action which the Government proposes to take on the Report will undoubtedly be helpful to industry. However, the Government will take no step which could compromise fair trading The Government believes that the basis of fair trading is the acceptance by all parties that the regulatory framework is reasonable. It is therefore especially pleased that the Report was unanimous and that reform in this area can be accepted by all interested parties without controversy."
Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason for this morning's controversy is that Labour Members believe that the Bill will compromise fair trading, in complete contradiction to that paragraph in--
Mr. Barron : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. She has much expertise in this sector. I suspect that her previous job as an elected member of a local authority gave her much practical experience, which I did not have before becoming an hon. Member, in overseeing trading standards. I lack such experience, but having been a consumer all my life gives me a direct interest in the contents and passage of the Bill.
The Consumers Association said that the appointed system--the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare has not dealt with this yet--has certain implications for local authorities. It says that more checks and inspections are required and that
"the Bill contains an admission that it could lead to less staff." That point was made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover, who said that other parts of the Bill could lead to losses of staff. The Consumers Association was concerned that
Column 518"Local authorities will also lose income which they currently receive from certifications. Such income offsets the expenditure incurred in maintaining their highly specialised and complex test equipment. Yet such equipment will still have to be maintained to test the work of non-licensed holders."
Another part of the Bill states that local authorities are likely to lose out. In this age of attacks on local authority expenditure, can authorities sustain a department with enough staff and equipment to test scales used by retail outlets? In years to come, will there be sufficient protection for the consumer? Current amendments to the Weights and Measures Act 1985 are defective.
"The Government recognises that inspectors will need training for the additional functions connected with self-verification It will discuss with local authorities how this should be organised and funded."
The Government are aware of the implications for local authorities. Have there been discussions with the local authorities about organisation and funding of special training for the inspectorate?
Mr. Barron : I am afraid that I cannot answer that question. If the Government, who have responsibility for these matters, had wanted to do something about the Eden committee's report, they would have introduced a comprehensive Bill containing all the answers and results of consultations with the Department of Trade and Industry. Instead, we have to guess whether the functions of trading standards officers in overseeing are sufficiently protected.
Mr. Cohen : I again take up the point about loss of local authority jobs, to which my hon. Friends the Members for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) have referred. Is there not a familiar vicious circle? There is a shortage of people doing this expert work ; a wave of complaints because standards have dropped and the industry has taken liberties ; and the Government say that the local authorities are not doing the job properly so they will take away those functions. That vicious circle is seen in other aspects of civil services where people should be protected. Is there not a danger in cutting jobs and thereby setting that train in motion?
Mr. Barron : My hon. Friend has made a strong and precise point. He did not use the phrase "free market", but if the number of trading standards officers and their services were reduced, it would be open for people to say, "When you go to any of the major retail outlets using this equipment, you will be in the hands of the manufacturer, repairer, installer or retailer."
There is one question above all about which consumers and the organisations that represent them are concerned. We are all, of course, well aware of the growth in the number of advice centres and consumer organisations. Those organisations have commented to me and, I am sure, to other hon. Members that they feel it is
incomprehensible that out of the strong recommendations in the Eden report, which were supported by the organisations, a selection of recommendations has been brought forward in the Bill. They fear, as I do, that if we accept the Bill, although some of its provisions are
Column 519acceptable and there are sections of the British industry we want to encourage, we shall not see the other recommendations of the report carried out in legislation.
The Government, and especially the Department of Trade and Industry, have sat on the committee's conclusions for so long. They have now seen an avenue for some of them, but they dare not bring a Bill forward directly at the Dispatch Box because they have included only a few of the recommendations and ignored the others. For that reason, the clause should not stand part of the Bill and if there is a Division, I shall vote against it.
Mr. Cohen : I want to weigh in with my measured opposition to clause 2--if that is an appropriate way to start. We have had weights and measures regulations that have worked well over the years. They were initiated in the Magna Carta and what was got out of King John is being eroded under Queen Maggie.
There are inspectors of weights and measures working for local authorities throughout the country and I pay tribute to them. They do an outstanding job and they are unbiased. Clause 2 represents an erosion of their work and of their traditional and successful public service. I am pleased that my hon. Friends have taken the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill properly, because it would otherwise have gone through untouched and would have seriously eroded that public service. The Bill would have been a short measure in more ways than one.
"It may be necessary to give inspectors additional powers in connection with their duties to undertake the quality audit of organisation."
Where in the Bill are such additional powers provided?
Mr. Cohen : My hon. Friend makes a good point about the Eden report. As has been said, the Bill is a partial implementation of that report. Only those parts that benefit industry have been taken and the Bill has not included anything that will benefit the consumer. My hon. Friend was right to mention that key complaint of many of the people who have objected to the Bill.
I apologise to the Hansard reporters who have been sending me notes since I intervened during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). The notes ask for copies of the letters from the county of Cleveland and from the London borough of Sutton. I have not been able to send those letters up, but shall do so when I have finished my speech because I want to quote from them again. I apologise for not having responded to the Hansard requests.
A letter from Mr. S. P. Jones, the professional assistant to Cleveland council, was sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin). The letter makes several points and I shall briefly allude to them. It says : "The bill by being a private members bill avoids the usual consultative process of a government measure and represents a particularly shabby manoeuvre by the DTI and interested parties."
That has already been mentioned, so I will not dwell on it. The measure erodes all the excellent work carried out over the years by a successful public service and the consultation process has been less than adequate. That is not a good policy to adopt.
Ms. Abbott : The key point is that the Bill is a shabby measure. When we look at the original Eden report, as most Opposition Members have done, we find that one of the recommendations was about a move away from self-regulation of the serving of beer towards some sort of inspection of beer measures. The report says :
"We recommend implementation of s. 19 of the 1979 Act on the measurement of beer or cider."
To avoid the debate about whether publicans should have any sort of inspection of control of the pouring of beer and to allow them to continue to self-regulate it is one of the reasons for this shabby private Member's Bill being introduced. One of the other recommendations in the Eden report- -
Ms. Abbott : Let me just mention one recommendation. It says : "We recommend that the whole field of measurement be reviewed to establish a rational approach to legal control ; the Weights and Measures acts cover only part of the field."
That would avoid--
Mr. Cohen : I take my hon. Friend's point, but I will not go down that road, except to say that when talking about drinks such as beer and wines, it is a case of "Cheers" for the manufacturers but not much in the way of cheer for the consumer.
The Consumers Association has said that it was not consulted and is very much against many aspects of the Bill. I have quoted what local authorities have said and shall continue to do so. They have said that they have not been properly consulted and that they are against the Bill. There has not been a good consultation process, but such consultation as there has been has elicited a hostile response to the clause. The Committee should take that properly into account. The letter from Cleveland county also says :
"The bill gives wide powers to the Minister who will make regulations through central agencies. The bill states that local authority manpower will be reduced. The inspectorate role will be transferred to central government."
That is the point about centralisation to which my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) referred earlier. He mentioned the provision for "an authorised person" to act as an inspector. I believe that the wording is immensely lax. An authorised person could, bluntly, be the agent of the manufacturer, repairer or installer. That provision certainly erodes the role of the independent inspector.
My hon. Friend also rightly referred to the centralisation of power in the Secretary of State. The Government are so dogmatic in their hostility to local authorities ; they cut them back at every turn. Even when authorities are playing a good role, the Government cut them back. The Secretary of State, in this case, will take away the high standard role performed by inspectors for local authorities and vest the authority in himself. The Secretary of State will not be able to perform the same role as that carried out by little local authorities up and down the country. He cannot perform the same effective role as people on the ground floor in the local authority. Thus, the service will be worse and more open to abuse, as well as
Column 521being less democratic. That action is designed to take away powers as well as jobs from local authorities. The county of Cleveland is quite right on that point. Its letter states :
"It selectively implements the Eden Report."
That point has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) in her intervention. The letter continues
"it undermines the role of local authorities in consumer protection. Eden advocated a statutory duty for local authorities to inspect weighing equipment at reasonable intervals which the Minister and Mr. Wiggin have ignored."
Absolutely essential to the Eden committee was the point of a statutory duty for local authorities to inspect equipment. The idea was to strengthen their hand. Had the hon. Gentleman wanted to introduce a measure that contained all the rest of the Eden committee's recommendations and was a Garden of Eden for industry, at least he should have included the statutory duty also recommended by the Eden committee, because that would have protected consumers by establishing the role of local authorities to protect them. It was wrong to ignore that recommendation. The letter continues : "It substitutes self-regulation for independent check in a period when it is demonstrable that consumers require statutory protection enforced by independent inspection. This is the chief lesson of current food hygiene difficulties."
That independence is vital, but will be eroded as a result of the Bill.
As I have said in interventions, not only the county of Cleveland and Labour authorities object to this clause ; there are objections right across the board. I have a letter from the London borough of Sutton, signed by the director of housing, health and consumer services. A copy was sent to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). The letter states :
"the Bill appears to be an extract of only those aspects of the Eden Committee recommendations which are of interest to the trade. The package of proposals recommended by the Eden Committee and negotiated by local authorities and the Department of Trade and Industry included a number of checks and balances in moving to a radically new system designed to protect the consumer and retailer purchaser. The present Bill takes no account of these arrangements and agreements. The Bill transfers all control powers from local authorities to the Secretary of State, with no statutory obligation to consult local Weights and Measures Authorities, and indeed there is an absence of adequate safeguards and sanctions to prevent improper use of the power to self-verify and/or abuse the licensing system."
That is a scathing comment by a Conservative-controlled London borough on the Bill's proposals.
Mr. Cohen : My hon. Friend is right. That is shown also in the thick document from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which seeks to put right clause after clause. We have already referred to the Consumers Association.
No one has yet mentioned heavy lorries, and the use of weighbridges. Parliament has been standing out against the Common Market, which wants to allow heavier lorries on our roads. I suspect that the Government will cave in in 1992 and these increasingly heavy juggernauts will
Column 522destroy our roads. However, there is a danger that a weighbridge operator, producer or manufacturer could appoint as the authorised officer somebody who is sympathetic to the Common Market suggestion that we should have heavier lorries, and who will turn a blind eye to any deficiencies in the weighbridge facilities. Despite our opposition to them, we shall get these heavier lorries because of insufficient inspection.
The Spitalfields market is being relocated in my constituency, and we are trying to have a weighbridge installed there, partly to ensure that overweight lorries do not go to the market, and partly because overweight lorries already thunder through Leyton. The police, the local authority and others could use the weighbridge, but if it is not accurate because it is not in the interests of the manufacturers, repairers or installers that it should be, those efforts to get the weighbridge will be wasted.
What will happen if, as a result of this clause, the authorised person is appointed by the traders? It will not be in their interests to prosecute their suppliers. That loophole could ruin an advantageous process. There should be weighbridges all over London and other large cities to keep heavy lorries out. That should be strictly enforced by the local authority and proper standards officers. If the interests of those who become authorised persons do not lie in enforcing those standards, a dangerous loophole will result.
Local authorities need more resources to carry out this independent role and to have a statutory duty to inspect at reasonable intervals equipment in use for trade. I would favour local authorities having more power to ensure that consumers get a fair deal. The whole weights and measures issue is about checks and balances. I am not unsympathetic to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare and I understand his motivation, but the benefits must be balanced so that consumers are protected. That is what is missing in the Bill, which is the terrible mistake.
Mr. Wiggin : I appreciate that some trading standards officers may have approached the hon. Gentleman, but I should tell him, especially as he has only recently taken an interest in the Bill, that the Institute of Trading Standards Administration, which is the trading standards officers' organisation, agreed, after its discussions with me and after I agreed to amend the Bill, that the Bill should proceed. Therefore, if individual trading standards officers are concerned about the Bill, I believe that we can satisfy them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not for a moment consider that that institute would approve of a Bill that is likely to have the effects described by him.
Mr. Cohen : The hon. Gentleman, in common with many other hon. Members, has a honeyed tongue and I am sure that he was able to persuade the institute to support the Bill. What did he say to it about consumers? Did he repeat what his hon. Friend the Minister said, which was that the part of the Eden report concerning consumers could be considered by Parliament in the future once this Bill is out of the way?
Mr. Wiggin indicated assent --