Non-Automatic Weighing Instruments Regulations 2000

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Dr. Howells: Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that we should not set out the terms and conditions whereby a shyster or a gangster who wants to cheat people in the measurement of goods should not be captured? I love the poetry of his speech: it is great. We can all read legal stuff for evermore: it often sounds like gobbledegook. The regulations seek, with all the clarity that the Government can muster, to prevent shysters and gangsters from getting away with it, but the right hon. Gentleman does not care whether they get away with it. He would like such flexibility in society to continue.

Mr. Forth: I come from the caveat emptor school on these matters. The Minister was kind enough to refer to my undistinguished holding of his post between 1988 and 1990—a post to which, I am honoured to say, I was appointed by Lady Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. During my humble two years at the Department of Trade and Industry, I made it my business, with modest success, to prevent as much possible of this garbage from emanating from the Department. However, quite a lot of garbage still emanated.

There is justification for almost anything these days, because we are in the business of mollycoddling everyone and providing protection for them against everything. We want to get into a no-risk society. I do not agree with that: grown-up, mature people who have been educated should, to a large extent, be able to look after their own interests. I do not believe in nanny stateism, of which the regulations are a shining example. I do not shrink from what the Minister has said.

Regulation 23 may provide some encouragement, depending on how one reads it. It says:

    ``An authorised person may affix a disqualification sticker to an instrument if he is satisfied that the instrument—

    (a) falls outside the limits of error referred to in paragraph 4.2 of Annex I to the NAWI Directive . . . or

    (b) otherwise does not fully comply with the requirements which apply to it''—

here is the helpful bit -

    ``and a disqualification sticker shall be so affixed as to be clearly visible when the instrument in its regular operating position.''

If that is the future of Europe, God help us, and God help the Government. It is patronising nonsense of the worst kind. If the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is trying to persuade us that the quality of education is rising, and we should be encouraged by that, and the Minister then says that we have to follow that sort of clap-trap to nanny people through their everyday lives, we are on a pretty slippery slope.

It gets worse: I have not touched on the difficult bits. Regulation 38 talks about powers of entry, which are an old friend to most of us. We have dealt with them in many different contexts and I was disappointed to see them popping up again here, because as soon as I see

    ``powers of inspection and entry'',

my suspicions are aroused. I could read out the regulation at length, but shall pause only to say this: let no one believe that regulation 38 is harmless, deregulatory, beneficial or benign. Contained within the whole panoply of its provisions are—inevitably—powers of entry.

    ``Subject to the production if so requested of his credentials, an authorised person may for the purposes of these Regulations, within the area of the local weights and measures authority by which he is appointed, at all reasonable times—

    (a) inspect and test any instrument . . .

    (b) inspect and take copies of any document . . .

    (c) enter any premises at which he has reasonable cause to believe'',

and so on.

Let us not be kidded by the self-verification claim. One can self-verify, but there will be a knock on the door some time from an authorised person, no doubt with this document in his hand, asking to make sure that the markings and measurements are as they should be. That is not what we envisaged when we entered the glorious single market of free trade and movement. The regulation inevitably goes on to talk about ``obstruction of authorised person'', ``offences and penalties'', ``offences by corporations'' and ``prosecutions''. The full panoply of the ghastliness of the regulations is laid out for all to see.

The Minister passed quickly over surveillance when he talked about self-verification and said how proud he was of that principle and of the approval process, which he thought was a good thing. He used the word ``surveillance'' quickly and quietly because he is— I hope—rightly unhappy about the whole idea of ``EC surveillance''.

We have it all here in black and white in the regulations. That is the stage that we have reached in our relationship with the European Union and with other members of that Union. EC surveillance has come—it is with us now. There should be a movie about it—a hi-tech affair, with people in uniforms knocking on doors with some sort of instrument, saying ``We've come to test you now.'' That is the European Union of which the Government are apparently so proud and into which they wish to take us ever more deeply, despite all the evidence—including even the BBC survey this morning—that tells us that our people want to go in a completely different direction. Regulation 15 states:

    ``Where a manufacturer has made an EC declaration of type conformity under regulation 13, the approved body to which the manufacturer made an application for approval of the quality system shall carry out EC surveillance''.

That does not sound like the deregulatory measure of which the Minister was so proud. He was trying to tell us that this measures was about self-verification, so we should all relax.

The poor naives and innocents in the industry have apparently been led by the nose by the Minister and his officials into saying that this is a new sunny upland on which everyone will be able to trade much more comfortably and happily. No, it is not. It is about tight conformity, declarations, applications, approvals, quality systems and ultimately, to back it all up, EC surveillance. We will have periodic audits to ensure that the manufacturer is applying his quality system. Therefore, self-verification is a misleading name. The Government are saying that they will encourage a manufacturer to impose this measure on himself and then keep a close eye on him. That is not what I thought self-verification meant.

The regulations then deal with

    ``Suspension of authority to make EC declarations of type conformity''.

I hope that I have said enough. I do not want to detain the Committee unduly—it is not my nature, as you know, Mr. Winnick.

Dr. Howells: Before the right hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Forth: I am not quite finished, but of course I give way.

Dr. Howells: I wanted to—

Mr. Page: Keep him going?

Dr. Howells: Some might say that. I think that the Bible refers to this matter—``Thou shalt not use unjust weights and measures,'' or something of the sort—and I know that Henry V was concerned that all sorts of weighing machines and devices were being used to cheat people of their right to receive what they believed they were receiving. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that they were all wrong and that we should do away with any form of external inspection of any commercial operation that may be using such a device to cheat people?

Mr. Forth: The Minister must be truly desperate if he has to resort to biblical sources to shore up his weedy and pathetic argument. Whether we should run society on the basis of the Bible—Old or New Testament—is an interesting debate. However, I suspect, Mr. Winnick, that you would not want me to indulge in it, and I am not going to be seduced by the Minister into doing so on this occasion. Perhaps he and I can have a quiet chat about it outside the Room.

[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]

I start from the position of someone who certainly believes in deregulation, caveat emptor and the freest and most open market possible. I will concede that, historically, our weights and measures and trading standards system is probably second to none. However, it has put us at a disadvantage compared with the other countries in the European Union.

As the Minister well knows, our weights and measures and trading standards are so good, effective, well established, professional and expert, that they often put us at a disadvantage, as hardly any of our continental mainland partner countries have a similar system. In general, inspection is a good idea, but my prejudice would be to try to maintain a balance between sensible people taking sensible measures to look after their own interests and some verification on a light-touch statutory basis. I am arguing that this document takes us much further than we need to, or should, go.

I am happy to agree with what was said earlier— I would be much more comfortable with a permissive regime, which says that people may trade in, buy and sell and deal in, such weights and measures with which they feel comfortable and are familiar, rather than this patronising mainland European attitude of saying, ``We will allow you a little bit longer to do the thing that you have historically done and after that, mate, you will have to come in line.'' I do not see that as a concession, I do not see this as remotely self-regulatory or indeed self-verification and certainly not de-regulatory. I shall oppose this measure at every one of its parliamentary stages.

10.50 pm

Dr. Howells: I repeat that the Non-automatic Weighing Instrument Regulations 2000 are important because of the role that they play in eliminating barriers to trade. I have already shown how important the UK weighing industry considers the regulations to be. Any interruption in their coverage would be bad news for the industry as it would be difficult and expensive for exporting manufacturers, who normally self-verify these instruments within the UK, to arrange for initial verification to be carried out when these instruments are exported to other member states.

Weighing industry representatives have declared that the regulations, as they stand, are well accepted by the industry itself and by its customers at retail, wholesale and industrial levels. Competition for sales of non-automatic weighing instruments is keen and, as a result of the regime of self-verification that was introduced by these regulations, the price has been kept down to the benefit of those supermarkets and other traders who use them as fair arbiters of quantity between themselves and their customers.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 3.

Division No. 1]

Flynn, Paul
Howells, Dr. Kim
Lloyd, Mr. Tony
Pope, Mr Greg
Russell, Ms Christine
Strang, Dr. Gavin
Twigg, Mr. Derek
Winnick, Mr. David

Forth, Mr. Eric
Gray, Mr. James
Page, Mr. Richard

Question accordingly agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the Non-automatic Weighing Instruments Regulations 2000.

Committee rose at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Mr. Jimmy Hood (Chairman)
Flynn, Mr.
Forth, Mr.
Gray, Mr.
Griffiths, Mr. Nigel
Howells, Dr.
Lloyd, Mr. Tony
Page, Mr.
Pope, Mr.
Russell, Ms Christine
Strang, Dr.
Twigg, Mr. Derek
Winnick, Mr.

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