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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation




 
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Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman:

†Mr. Martin Caton

†Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
†Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
†Connarty, Michael (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab)
†Cousins, Jim (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab)
†Crausby, Mr. David (Bolton, North-East) (Lab)
†Cruddas, Jon (Dagenham) (Lab)
†David, Mr. Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)
†Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit (Gloucester) (Lab)
†Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
†Gauke, Mr. David (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con)
†Hendry, Charles (Wealden) (Con)
Lamb, Norman (North Norfolk) (LD)
†Milton, Anne (Guildford) (Con)
†Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
†Stewart, Ian (Eccles) (Lab)
†Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry)
Frank Cranmer, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee


 
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Thursday 27 October 2005

[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair]

Draft Weights and Measures
(Miscellaneous Foods) (Amendment)
Order 2005

8.55 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Weights and Measures (Miscellaneous Foods) (Amendment) Order 2005.

Good morning to you, Mr. Caton, and to members of the Committee. I welcome you to the Chair. I am sure that you will oversee our deliberations with great care to ensure that we do not stray beyond the issues that we are debating.

I am pleased to address the Committee on the draft order, which was laid before Parliament in the summer, just before the recess. I hope that it will not be contentious, as its purpose is straightforward. The order has two effects. First, it gives free access to the United Kingdom market for packages that are legally marketed in another member state in sizes other than those permitted by UK rules. Secondly, it removes the requirement that certain chocolate and cocoa powder products must be sold only in specified sizes. Those changes are necessary to update weights and measures legislation in line with recent developments in European Community law.

I shall explain the purpose and history of specified quantities in the UK. They have a long history, stretching back well beyond current legislation. They have played a valuable role in consumer protection for many years, protecting consumers against misleading or confusing sizes, although that has, perhaps, gone unseen by some.

What are specified quantities? They are products, such as flour, bread and milk, that may be sold in the UK only in certain specified quantities. Whole loaves of bread that weigh more than 300 g may be sold only in pack sizes of 400 g or multiples of 400 g, and flour may be sold only in quantities of 125 g, 250 g or multiples of 400 g.

The purpose of the restrictions is to make it easier for consumers to make price comparisons between products and brands, so that they can make purchasing decisions knowing that the products they compare are being sold in standard quantities. Specified quantities also help to prevent consumers from being misled or confused as to the quantity they are receiving when buying certain pre-packaged foods. Without the restrictions, consumers might be faced with many different and confusing product sizes, or marginal reductions in pack sizes that would go
 
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unnoticed by all but the most alert consumers. Specified quantities have traditionally played an important role in providing consumer protection for some 30 categories of widely used foods in the UK. They also help manufacturers and packers to keep down their costs by reducing the range of sizes that they have to supply or allow for.

Those are the reasons why restrictions were imposed on packing quantities and why they have been part of our consumer protection regime for many years. Since the rules were introduced, there have been significant advances in food labelling and consumer protection laws, such as the widespread requirements for unit pricing to be displayed in shops. It is not clear that specified quantities should have quite the same role today as in the 1970s. That is why the European Commission has been reviewing the operation of specified quantities. I shall say more about that review process later.

I turn to the position in Europe and the reason for introducing the order at this time. At European level, directives 75/106/EEC and 80/232/EEC set out specified quantities for the packing of certain pre-packaged liquid and other products. Most member states had legislation on specified quantities, but the differences between their rules were an obstacle to the free circulation of goods, so the directives set out common rules. For some products, such as wines and spirits, the specified quantities are mandatory, but for others they are non-mandatory or optional, which means that a member state must allow those quantities entry to the market, but may permit additional quantities.

It was thought that member states were free to make the optional specified quantities mandatory within their jurisdiction, and so ban imports of packages of other sizes. The UK exercised that discretion by imposing mandatory specified quantities on various foods covered by the directives, and created, or continued, mandatory specified quantities for a number of foods that are not subject to the European specified quantities. Some 30 categories of food are subject to mandatory specified quantities in the UK.

In July 2000, in case C-3/99, the Cidrerie Ruwet case, the European Court of Justice ruled that products lawfully manufactured and marketed in any member state must be afforded free access to the markets of all member states. As a result, a member state is not permitted to prohibit imports of goods legally marketed in another member state on the grounds that the goods do not comply with the mandatory specified quantities required by the importing member state. The Court recognised that, in principle, overriding public policy requirements might justify such a ban, but it suggested that that would be unlikely so far as specified quantities were concerned.

The amending order before us will bring UK law into line with that Court judgment. It does so by introducing into the Weights and Measures (Miscellaneous Foods) Order 1988 a mutual recognition clause allowing the import of packages made up in any quantity permitted in another member state. I should mention, however, that the order will
 
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not, in practice, result in any change to the existing enforcement regime, because the enforcing bodies are aware of the Court’s judgment and are already taking account of it.

In addition, we are taking the opportunity to update our legislation to reflect another minor change in European law: the repeal of specified quantities for chocolate and cocoa products at the European level, which is a requirement of directive 2000/36/EC, relating to cocoa and chocolate products made up for human consumption. Again, our proposed change will bring UK law into line with provisions in those member states in which chocolate and cocoa powder products are no longer subject to specified quantities. The change has the full support of representatives of the chocolate manufacturing sector, who are keen that they should operate according to the same rules as their European competitors. This is a helpful deregulation measure, and we want to make the update as soon as we reasonably can.

I should say something about our work to update weights and measures legislation in general. Members of the Committee may be aware that the Department is carrying out a thorough overhaul of the principal weights and measures regulations, with the aim of making them easier to understand and use. We have consulted on new regulations to simplify the average system of quantity control and remove unnecessary burdens on business. We are currently considering the responses and aim to make the new regulations in the new year once we have finished doing so.

We are also working on a new weights and measures food order to consolidate and simplify the eight existing weights and measures food orders, which deal with quantity labelling, as well as with specified quantities, which is the general issue behind today’s order. We hope that a draft of a new consolidated order will be published for public consultation next year. Business and the enforcement community welcome this thorough updating of the main weights and measures legislation, which will provide for a much simpler and less burdensome weights and measures regime.

As I mentioned, the Commission has been reviewing directives dealing with specified quantities and has published its own proposals, which are aimed at simplifying current EC law on the issue. That will result in quite radical changes. The proposal is that all optional specified quantities should be abolished so that, in future, there will be only mandatory quantities, which will apply to a limited number of products. The relevant documents will, I hope, be the subject of a scrutiny debate in the near future, so I need say only that the UK strongly supports a substantial measure of deregulation in line with the Commission proposal.

However, it is worth mentioning that the Commission’s initiative affects the timing of our work to update the specified quantities rules. That work is an important element of the proposed updating of UK food law. Businesses were keen that any changes in EC law that might result from the Commission’s proposals should be incorporated into the changes that we are making to UK legislation and that there
 
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should be one wave of legislative changes instead of two. We agree that that is sensible. The development of our proposals for updating UK weights and measures legislation on food will depend on the progress that is made in Brussels and Luxembourg on the Commission’s proposals. Subject to that progress, however, we hope to publish a draft order for consultation next year, taking account of the forthcoming changes to European law.

I believe that it is appropriate to bring our existing regulations into line with the more minor changes that have already occurred in EC law and jurisprudence, and I commend the order to the Committee.

9.4 am

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con) rose—

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): See what you can make of that.

Charles Hendry: I have been challenged to see what I can make of that, Mr. Caton. Let me say first, however, that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

Few more important issues could be on our agenda at 9 o’clock in the morning than that of specified quantities. I have always thought that being a Member of Parliament is a constant voyage of discovery and learning, and I look forward to the day when the Minister appears on “Mastermind” to answer questions on his specialist subject of specified quantities. Already by five past nine this morning, I have learned more about that subject than I thought I would in an entire parliamentary career.

I am grateful to the Minister for outlining the background of the order and its effects. I am not sure that many of us would consider it one of the most pressing issues of the day, but the measure is nevertheless required, and my colleagues and I are happy to support it. However, I seek clarification on a couple of points.

As the Minister outlined, the order is clearly a necessity, as a result of developments at the European level. As he said, with regard to package sizes for miscellaneous foods, it places the requirement upon us, as an EU member state, to offer free access to our markets to imports from other member states, providing that the products have been produced in package sizes that are permitted in the country of manufacture. Further, it abolishes specified quantities for the sale of chocolate and cocoa products. If the UK fails to make these regulatory changes it risks being in breach of its European obligations. On those grounds we cannot dispute the order.

It is interesting to note what the Minister said about enforcement. The fact that the regulation has already come into effect, and the situation is being policed, raises a question for this House. If a measure is effective in this country even before we approve it, should we not reconsider the way we address such matters if our deliberations are to be relevant?

For clarification, can the Minister indicate the food types most likely to be affected by the modification proposed in article 3? The original court case related to
 
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cider manufacturers, so will the issue be particularly relevant to drink manufacturers? Will he also offer his assessment of the impact of the changes on the sale of such products in the UK and the future direction of domestic markets? Might UK manufacturers be disadvantaged if their products face competition from alternative products imported from other member states and therefore available in package sizes that consumers might prefer?

If consumers prefer a European pack size, which is not authorised in the UK, will UK manufacturers still be prohibited from producing and selling the item in that European pack size? If so, will not this measure hit smaller domestic companies? Large multinational concerns will be able to get around the UK packaging requirements by transferring production elsewhere in the EU and importing the item into Britain. That is not an option for small domestic manufacturers.

I acknowledge that mutual recognition is a step we must take, but hon. Members will be keen to ensure that there is no adverse impact upon UK food producers and their status in the marketplace, and I would be grateful for reassurance from the Minister to that effect. Has he received any representations from British manufacturers or trade organisations saying that the measure will be against their interests? On the other side of the coin, it would be helpful if he could outline any assessment he has made of the likely impact of the order on UK food exports to other EU member states.

Will the Minister expand a little on why he thinks that is a case for continuing to have pack size rules? He has spoken of the EU changes that may be in the pipeline, but is this not an area in which the British Government might take a lead? The Prime Minister is looking for his legacy from the British presidency of the European Commission, and with the euro in crisis and the constitution in chaos, a step forward on specified measures could be the opportunity that he has been seeking. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) challenged me to make something of the subject, and I am doing my best.

Many shops now show prices per 100 g so that the consumer can make genuine price comparisons. Why should there be rules that prevent a manufacturer from producing a packet size that the consumer wants, whatever that size happens to be? Is that not peculiar? For example, the Minister mentioned the package size of flour—I think that he said it could be 125 g, 250 g or 400 g. It seems peculiar that in this country in the 21st century it is illegal to sell flour in a pack size of 500g. The measures seem to be outdated, but the Minister tantalisingly tells us that a review is going on, so we can look forward to returning to the issue next year. Perhaps the Government will then take the lead.

The second measure provides for the removal of prescribed quantities for chocolate and cocoa. That is a move of enormous excitement for the Committee. Before the debate started, we were discussing on these Benches the merits of Cadbury and Galaxy. A significant concern was expressed by my hon. Friend
 
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the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) about the packaging of Penguins—not real, live penguins, as that would relate to avian flu and concern us all, but the chocolate variety. The Minister has touched a vein of excitement in the House in addressing the issue. Indeed, if he is having any doubts about what to buy me for Christmas, by then he will have a new range of giant chocolate bar sizes to choose from. I shall welcome any of them.

I hope that the measure will improve choice for consumers. It may also benefit manufacturers and packers, who will be handed greater flexibility in responding to consumer demand. Why, though, should there be complete flexibility for chocolate, but not for flour, milk and other products? We accept that we need to support the measure, but I would be grateful for the Minister’s clarification on those points.

9.10 am

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Caton. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning.

I will not oppose the order, which is necessary because we cannot discriminate against products from other member states under European law. If we do not pass the order, the UK could open itself to infraction proceedings. As has already been pointed out, trading standards are not enforcing the older regulations anyway, and the provisions that we are passing today reflect the current situation in the country. That prompts the question why, if the older regulations are not being enforced, the order has come before us only today and not earlier.

I have concerns about one particular area, about which the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) has already spoken. Despite the fact that we are abolishing specified quantities for chocolate and cocoa, that is not the case for other products. Will the Minister explain why chocolate and cocoa have been singled out? Although I will not oppose the order, which is a step in the right direction, it does go not far enough. If a specified quantity is not permitted to be manufactured in the UK, but consumers want to buy that quantity, other EU countries could pass laws to make that quantity legal in their countries and export it here, which would surely put our manufacturers at a disadvantage.

In years gone by, there was certainly a good consumer-protection case for specified quantity legislation. However, with the rules that we have nowadays about packaging and labelling, which mean that quantities must be clearly labelled, surely consumers are protected. Indeed, there seems to be a case for abolishing all specified quantity legislation. Why has the Minister not brought that forward in the order? Will the abolition of all the specified quantities be seriously considered in the review?

9.12 am

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): If the Whips get me up at 8.55, they cannot expect me just to sleep through the Committee.


 
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The topic is of interest to people like me who have a family of chocoholics. I will now be able to go to Brussels with the European Scrutiny Committee and not feel that I am smuggling illicit goods when I bring chocolates back, particularly because all my family asks is, “Did you get us a big box or a wee box?” rather than, “Did you get us a UK-defined weight or an EU-defined weight?”

I hope that the Minister will deal with this important point as well as all the detailed questions from Opposition Members: the UK either had it right and is now being made to do something that it should not by the EU, or it had it wrong and the EU is correcting the UK and putting it in line with proper practice. The Minister knows that I sometimes view his officials as make-work individuals. Is the UK now being put right by the EU, or was it always wrong in trying to enforce British measures?

9.13 am

Mr. Sutcliffe: As the hon. Member for Wealden has said, we have all learned a great deal about the specified quantities, which hon. Members see as a major issue that we need to consider. Indeed, could it be the European legacy that the Prime Minister is looking for?

The debate is important, and we in no way trivialise it through the comments that have been made. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Wealden and for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) for saying that they broadly support the measures. They have sought clarification, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), about why, where and in which direction we are going. I do not think that it is an either/or situation and that the Commission has put us right, and the debate around consumer protection is continually evolving. Across the parties, the UK is strongly supportive of competition, fair markets and making sure that we in no way prevent British business from being able to compete elsewhere. When harmonisation can take place without impacting on national traditions, it is important that we consider what can be done.

The hon. Member for Wealden has said that if trading standards are already dealing with the matter, what is the point of discussing it now. Consumer protection is a continuum, and as Minister for Employment Relations, Consumers and Fair Markets, I am impressed by the work done by business, trading standards and consumer groups in trying to promote consumer confidence. Confident consumers know their rights and how to gain redress if those rights are not maintained, and they also know how to keep the competitive angle going.

Weights and measures has traditionally been an emotive issue. Some years ago, a market holder in Sunderland was sent to prison because he was still selling goods in imperial measures. The debate has move on dramatically since then.

The hon. Member for Wealden has asked whether British business will be disadvantaged. No; we have worked closely with business, and especially with
 
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chocolate manufacturers, because chocolate and cocoa were identified in a specific directive. Industry is keen not to be disadvantaged on exports.

Charles Hendry: If all restrictions on specified quantities are removed, would it be legal to sell goods in pounds and ounces again, or could people sell in whatever package size they want, so long as it is not a traditional British size measured in pounds and ounces?

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman has asked why we are retaining some specified quantities. As he has said, we need to work with business and industry, especially on wines, spirits and sugar. Industry is strongly of the view that the specified quantities should be maintained for those products, and we are happy to work with those sectors.

Harmonisation is important, especially for consumer confidence and competitive values. Our overhaul of the weights and measures regime will be fully discussed by European Standing Committee C, which will give hon. Members a wonderful opportunity to air their views on weights and measures and debate the changes to our traditions.

We are trying to ensure that the commencement dates fit in with the business cycle—we do not want to hinder business—and we are modernising consumer protection in an understandable and appropriate fashion.

Michael Connarty: The explanatory notes provide the background to the UK’s previous position. We wished to use specified quantities to make it

    “easier for consumers to make quantity and price comparisons between products and brands and to protect consumers from marginal reductions in quantity that they may not notice.”

That was the purpose of the previous restriction, which we are moving away from. Was the UK wrong? Is the EU right? Will that protection be removed with the introduction of a number of quantities that people will not recognise? Will people face marginal reductions in quantity that they may not notice?

Mr. Sutcliffe: My hon. Friend will have read in detail the Government’s consumer strategy, which explains that we want to ensure maximum support and advice for consumers through their representative bodies. Those bodies will be involved in consultation and discussion on the review.

Specified quantities had their high time in the 1970s and 1980s, but things have changed dramatically. People’s shopping habits have changed as a result of European travel and globalisation, and they are aware of other products and opportunities, so I do not think that the changes are to their detriment. We must overhaul the system to implement a really good set of consumer-protection standards and give business the opportunity to compete. It is not as simple as saying that we were right then and are wrong now. We still want consumer protection and consumers to be aware of their rights, but the order is important because of the court case and the updating of European legislation.


 
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The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute asked why the process has taken so long. It has taken so long because of our priorities in consumer matters, including the launch of Consumer Direct, and the way in which we are running the bedding-in of the Enterprise Act 2002 and the Competition Act 1998. The review will be fully debated in Parliament, and there will be an opportunity for the wide-ranging debate that you, Mr. Caton, so eloquently told us we should not have this morning.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): The Minister spoke of the issue concerning the trader in Tyneside having gone away, but it has not. A butcher in my constituency still, perhaps rather eccentrically, wants to trade in pounds and ounces. The local trading standards officers feel obliged to go in every now and again to bully him and threaten him with prosecution. In the process of updating weights and measures legislation and understanding the needs of consumers, the Minister must understand that some consumers still want to purchase goods in a particular way. If a degree of flexibility allows a niche business to continue, the system should allow it.

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Member for Newbury knows that there must be rules and regulations. I agree that the approach should be sympathetic, but the rules are out there. He knows that under the Hampton review we are considering a new consumer and trading standards authority, which would assist with the process of establishing a dedicated body that is consistent across the country and applying trading standards rules. It is important that consumers have an opportunity to get what they want in the way that they want, but that is not an open-ended agreement, and it must be set against rules and regulations.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): Perhaps I may follow up on a point raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Wealden and for
 
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Newbury. According to the explanatory memorandum—and I should like some clarification of that—following the court case

    “Member States must give free access to their markets, as regards package sizes, to imports from another Member State, provided that the product has been marketed within the exporting State in conformity with its own legislation.”

Does that mean that if our legislation were to allow imperial measurements, those products could be exported to other member states?

Mr. Sutcliffe: We are in danger, Mr. Caton, of doing what you do not want us to do and becoming involved in that debate, which is the reason why we have engaged with a complete review. As I have said, the review will come before the House for more detailed scrutiny and an opportunity to consider the consultation evidence and the views of certain groups.

We want to tell British businesses that, because of the pan-national way in which the markets are moving, we do not want seriously to disadvantage them.

Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): This is a small point, but the hon. Member for Newbury referred to the Sunderland case as happening in Tyneside. From the standpoint of Newbury, that might not seen significant, but I want to put it on record that Sunderland is not on Tyneside.

Mr. Sutcliffe rose—

Mr. Benyon: May I apologise?

Mr. Sutcliffe: That takes the debate even wider. Perhaps that is a good point at which to close, as there is general agreement that the orders are necessary. I look forward to a greater and more detailed debate on the many relevant issues in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Weights and Measures (Miscellaneous Foods) (Amendment) Order 2005.

The Committee rose at twenty-four minutes past Nine o’clock.

 
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