HC Deb 05 July 1966 vol 731 cc359-68

8.45 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. George Darling)

I beg to move, That the Weights and Measures (Exemption) (Beer and Cider) Order, 1966, a draft of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.

This is a simple, desirable and necessary Order which, I am confident, will have the unanimous and speedy approval of the House. Although the title says that it is an exemption Order, I point out at once that it does not exempt consumers of beer and cider from the protection against short measure which the Act itself provides. What the Order does is to recognise approved new appliances for measuring beer and cider in public houses and bars of hotels which have come into use generally since the Act was passed.

Hon. Members who take a modest glass of beer or cider occasionally will have seen these new devices in operation. They usually have the appearance of a glass or transparent plastic cylinder which, when a tap is turned or a lever pulled, fills up with beer or cider to a mark on the cylinder and then empties that amount into a glass or mug. Under the existing Regulations it is illegal to serve beer or cider from a machine of this type unless it is also served in a stamped half-pint or pint glass, a glass which has been measured and stamped by a weights and measures inspector. The customer therefore gets double protection. If he is buying a half-pint he gets a half-pint from the machine in a stamped half-pint glass.

There are compelling reasons for eliminating the second protection of the stamped glass, but on very strict con- ditions. The first and overriding condition is that the machine, the dispenser which I have attempted to describe, must be of approved design to make sure that it delivers half a pint or a pint every time and the mechanism and quantity marked must be examined, tested and stamped by a weights and measures inspector. These requirements will guarantee that the customer gets full measure.

The next condition laid down in the Order is that customers must also be able to see the machine or instrument in use. It is not essential for each customer to insist on seeing the beer drawn from one of these instruments, but if he wants he can go to the bar and witness the operation. It is sufficient that the instrument can be seen in operation by customers generally. These instruments, as experienced hon. Members will know, have been in operation for a long time now in many parts of the country. We know that they operate satisfactorily and fulfil all the requirements of the Act. I am sure the House will agree that they should receive the legal recognition provided for in this Order.

I said that there were compelling reasons why we should pass this Order quickly. The most urgent of them is that the licensing justices in one city, which I had better not name, have granted a liquor licence to a football club where World Cup matches will be played this month, but the licence carries a condition that beer is to be sold only in lightweight plastic containers. I can only guess at the reason for that condition. Unless the House approves this Order, every one of those containers will have to be tested and stamped by a weights and measures inspector at a cost of about 9d. per container. That would have a serious effect on the cost of living in that part of the country during the next few weeks, and I am sure that no hon. Member wants that to happen.

Therefore, what, in effect, we propose to do is to allow beer and cider to be sold in any kind or size of hygienic container—the hygienic side, of course, does not come into this legislation—provided that the beer comes from a machine which dispenses the full measure. There is a wider reason for approving the Order. It will allow publicans and others who sell beer or cider, and who use these instruments, to get rid of the stamped glasses that they must now use. They will be able to buy unstamped, unmarked glasses, which at least should reduce their costs, if not their prices.

8.50 p.m.

Mr. Michael Alison (Barkston Ash)

It is a very great pleasure to follow the Minister of State on this pleasantly liquid Measure, in contrast to the rather duller solids which we have to discuss in the Committee with which we are both concerned. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We on this side of the House welcome the Order and believe that it will be welcomed by beer dispensers—here I refer to all human dispensers, including the fellow who shoves it down the hatch.

It has taken a long time to reach this sensible compromise. There was an unfortunate twilight period in which the unfortunate publican had the worst of both worlds. He had to have a metered drawing instrument which was subject to Board of Trade inspection, and at the same time he had to dispense the metered beer into a measured glass. We are relieved that this senseless bit of double-counting is now being eliminated.

This is welcome, if slightly tardy, legislation. Powers were taken under the 1963 Act to make this possible, and it has taken two years of Socialist modernisation to introduce this reform, which has not even yet reached the Strangers' Bar, or the Members' Smoking Room—if it ever does. But let us not be churlish; it is a welcome reform.

One is on treacherous and unstable ground in drafting Statutory Instruments, and indeed in all legislation. I refer the Minister of State to Article 1(iii): the liquor in question is so delivered after a buyer has ordered it; Has the Minister realised that he has opened up another loophole for a statutory offence if, God forbid, the Board of Trade happened to be a snooper, or if, God forbid, a Board of Trade officer had a grudge against a particular publican? The publican who sees a customer, an old and valued friend, coming in and says, "Your usual, Sir?", drawing to before the order has been given, has been made guilty of an offence under the Order, because he has drawn the beer before it has been ordered.

Mr. Darling

Surely, in those circumstances, it is the sort of standing order that does not need to be repeated on every occasion?

Mr. Alison

It would be interesting, if it were necessary and the Order were not universally supported, to try our hand at drafting a suitable Amendment to close the loophole. No Statutory Instrument is perfect, and this, to that extent, is imperfect.

Article 1(ii) says: the liquor in question is delivered directly from the measuring instrument into the container in which it is intended the buyer should receive it; It is easy to be a little facetious about this. The question arises, into what alternative container might the beer be so delivered? Article 1(ii) seems to envisage the possibility of a publican being in the habit of squirting it into somebody's eye. Is it really necessary to safeguard the consumer against this hazard, in view of the fact that Article 1(iv) makes it plain that the instrument for delivering the beer must be visible to the naked eye?

One can only assume that the provision is meant to be a safeguard against transposition—the pouring of beer into one container and then into another, and so on down the line until a great deal is lost. If the instrument is to be visible, one would not have thought that this hazard arose, unless there were a situation—and this is a serious point—in which a messenger was sent from the office across the road with a big jug to be filled up for the rest of the staff's lunch. The jug is in no sense a statutory measuring receptacle, and it is arguable whether it is the container in which it is intended that the buyer should receive his liquor. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reassure us that no offence will be committed if a casual messenger goes into a pub to get beer for his mates at lunch in a quart or three-pint jug.

Article 1(i) reads: the quantity of the liquor the subject of the sale is ascertained by means of a measuring instrument stamped in accordance with Regulation 14 of the Measuring Instruments (Intoxicating Liquor) Regulations, 1965". If Beachcomber of the Daily Express, of immortal fame, had taken this little paragraph and added in brackets, "Issued by the Ministry of Bubble-blowing at the instance of Charlie Suet", sending it in as part of his weekly column, he would have qualified for his fee.

However, we do not want to be churlish. We welcome this tardy reform in the interests of publican and consumer. I conclude by pointing out that this is one subject, beer, in regard to which the Government recognise that customer and manufacturer are interdependent and have common interests.

8.56 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

This is an interesting subject and a great change from what we usually have to discuss in the House. I welcome the Order as a step forward, and I am sure that most consumers and brewers in the South-West will welcome it, too. In the West Country we produce a great amount of cider, and we are concerned about the quantity that people are drinking. However, I still think that the best cider and beer is drawn from the wood and, whatever people say, I shall not be shifted from that view.

I am a little surprised at the way brewers are concerned about the quantities which they supply. I should have thought that, with their very fair margin of profit, they could be reasonably generous in their measures. I can well understand the customer wanting his full measure, of course.

In this connection, I draw attention to a practice, which may come to this country, which I saw recently in Australia and New Zealand. People there are considerably in advance of us in this matter. The beer mugs and jugs are put all along the bar, there is a pipe with a tap on it like a petrol bowser, and the barmaid goes along the bar filling up all the jugs and jars. When she has got to the end, she starts again at the beginning to make sure that all have the right quantity in them. This is a most interesting advance, and it may one day reach us in this country.

8.57 p.m.

Mr. John E. Talbot (Brierley Hill)

I cannot say that I altogether welcome the Order, representing, as I do, a constituency which makes glass. I would like the Minister to tell us a little about the consultations which took place before the Order was made. In my view, we are going about this from the wrong end. Because one bench of magistrates seems to fear that visitors to a football match will hurl glasses at one another and they want the receptacles to be made of such soft and pliable material so that if hurled they will do more harm to a person's forehead than a baby's balloon, we are to have this Order, causing considerable dislocation in the way we have served alcoholic liquors from time immemorial.

There is one factor to be borne in mind. A stamped glass remains of the same size throughout its life. What guarantee will there be that a machine which delivers beer in what might be described as a statutory portion will be inspected at such regular intervals as to ensure that it delivers the liquid precisely in accordance with the amount the customer should receive? So much work already attaches to weights and measures departments that the onus of inspecting properly will be considerable. I should like to hear from the Minister of State what instructions he will give to weights and measures authorities to ensure that the true quantity of beer as required by the customer is delivered through these instruments, which I suppose must be accepted in the same spirit as we accept the computer age in general.

I feel that the President of the Board of Trade should have allowed more time for thought and consideration to be given to this Order. I can only suppose that his reason for not doing so is that he is afraid of international incidents at football matches at which people might be present who are not able to control themselves with the typical English phlegm. We are so used to hearing about fights with fisticuffs on the floor of the Chambre des Deputies that we are sometimes surprised that such events do not take place here. I feel that perhaps the Government have allowed their anxieties to run away with them in their enthusiasm for this Order. If only more time were allowed for this matter to be discussed and sorted out with the trade interests concerned, I should be wholly in favour of the Order. As it is, I have reservations which I hope that the Minister of State will be able to dispel.

9.2 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Rhodes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

I do not rise to question the Order, but rather to put a few questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. As I understand, if it were not for this proposal tonight all beer containers would have to be clearly stamped or marked with their exact measure of capacity. To do this would be so costly as not to justify the degree of consumer protection which it would be desirable to achieve. Indeed, although I have expressed views on this point before, I would not press the question of consumer protection to such a point that it defeated its own object and made the cost to the consumer prohibitive.

If beer and cider is to be sold in any type of container, provided that it contains a full measure, can we have an assurance that the customer will know exactly what the full measure is? I believe that the measure would be in bird, half or full pints. This is the normal requirement for beer sold in draught in this way. If the container is not clearly marked, it is important that the customer should know exactly what he is receiving. I hope that the Order does not in any way preclude this.

I am not sure whether the Order has any effect—I think probably not—on the question of the marking of containers of beer or cider sold in bottles or cans. The view has been expressed by weights and measures inspectors and others that beer sold in bottles or cans should be in third pints, half pints or pints, just as beer sold in draught is. I know some of the administrative difficulties involved. I should like some guidance from my right hon. Friend as to the effect of the Order in this respect. If it has no effect in this respect, at some time in the future I hope that measures will be taken to ensure that customers are protected in this way.

I raise these points purely to seek information. I am told that questions are sometimes designed to elicit information and sometimes to embarrass. The questions I have raised are not intended to embarrass, but what the consumer gets from liquid he buys has been the subject of recent publicity and assurances on these points would be well received from my right hon. Friend.

9.5 p.m.

Mr. Darling

The hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) asked about consultation with the glass manufacturers. Such consultation was the reason for the delay in presenting the Order. We have had a series of discussions with the manufacturers. They were worried, with some justification, about the possible quick development of this method of dispensing beer and cider and that they might have left on their hands a large supply of stamped glasses which the publicans will not take because they will be under no obligation to have stamped glasses if they have these dispensers. I think that we put their fears at rest.

When one takes into account the total number of "pubs" and hotels selling beer and cider, the number of measuring dispensers is comparatively few. Therefore, the need for stamped glasses is still considerable, and I am sure that the manufacturers will have no trouble in getting rid of all the stocks they nave. Indeed, I believe that the demand for the manufacture of stamped glasses will go on for some time.

I shall not be drawn into discussion about whether glasses should be provided at football matches. I shall certainly not comment on whether it is foreign visitors who are likely to misbehave themselves. I am convinced that the World Cup matches will be carried on in a friendly atmosphere and that there will be no trouble at any of the grounds involved.

The hon. Member for Brierly Hill (Mr. Talbot) also asked about instructions to weights and measures inspectors for regular examination of these machines or instruments to make sure that they go on dispensing full measure. We did not bring the Order forward without full consideration of the machines and how they operate and how long they can be relied upon to give full measure. The examination of all these matters is another reason why there is some delay in bringing forward an Order of this kind.

The weights and measures inspectors have been looking, by arrangement with the trade, at these dispensers and making sure that they operate satisfactorily. They are convinced that they do. From experience, they now know how frequently they should go along and make sure that everything is in perfect working order.

In a case like this, it is not necessary for the Board of Trade to give instructions to the inspectors. They have their own institution, as the hon. Gentleman knows, because he has been involved in local government, and they consult among themselves. They also do research into matters of this kind.

The inspectors can be relied upon to make sure that their visits have some relation to the length of time that they know that these machines will go on dispensing full measure. Of course, the Board of Trade is involved and consulted, but from my experience I would say that this is one of those happy associations between central and local government where there is no conflict of any kind—at any rate I have never come across any—because all these matters are discussed in such a sensible way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes) asked how the customer will know that he is getting full measure. The mark will be on the glass cylinder of the machine and there will be a clear indication, by some device, that the measure is a half pint. My experience is that these machines dispense only half pints, but under the regulations pints could be dispensed if anybody gets around to making a machine to do so. The customer will be able to see the mark on the glass container.

My hon. Friend also asked whether the Order dealt with the marking of bottles and cans. I regret to tell him that it does not do so. It deals only with draught beer and cider, and the very serious problem, which he has so frequently raised, about the proper marking of quantity on bottles and cans will have to be dealt with outside the scope of the Order.

The hon. Member for Barkston Ash referred to the drafting of sub-paragraph (ii). I assure him that, having decided what we intend the Order to do—and I think that we now all understand what it is intended to do—we have to leave it to the draftsmen to make sure that we have it all in legal shape. I would not like at this stage to start arguing whether the legal language should be altered. So far as I am concerned, it will do.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Weights and Measures (Exemption) (Beer and Cider) Order 1966, a draft of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.

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