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European Community (Foodstuffs)

Volume 958: debated on Tuesday 14 November 1978

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Before I call the Minister, I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim). The amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) —at end add

"but cannot accept proposals which fail to adopt an adequately selective approach to unit pricing, and would entail unjustifiable change in the direction of United Kingdom policy in this field"—
has not been selected, but it may be discussed with the Opposition amendment.

7.55 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection
(Mr. Robert Maclennan)

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of Commission Documents Nos. R/1277/77 and R/1131/78 on display and pricing of foodstuffs.
The subject matter of this debate is price comparison—the ability of consumers to make value-for-money judgments —and the reasonable steps which Governments can take to assist them to do so. Price is not the only factor which governs consumer choice, but it is an important one. No one, I imagine, would seriously challenge the view that the display of selling prices of goods in shops is beneficial to consumers and an encouragement to healthy competition.

Where goods are sold by quantity—that is, by weight or volume—the selling price obviously has to be related to that quantity, and it is to this limited but important area that this debate is directed.

Before I turn to the proposals from the Commission which are before the House tonight, it may be helpful if I briefly explain the existing consumer protection policies that have been adopted in this country in this field. For weighed-out foodstuffs—fresh meat, fish, cheese, fruit and vegetables—unit pricing, the display of the price per pound, has been introduced. It is clearly right in our view that goods, such as loose potatoes, which are sold by the pound should display that unit price. Equally, in our view, it is not enough for choosing, say, a joint of meat to know simply the weight and the sell- ing price. The consumer needs to know the unit price as well.

Unit pricing is also appropriate, and has been introduced, for what are called "catchweight" pre-packed foodstuffs. These are products where the weight is not predetermined by the packer and where generally speaking the weight is marked after packing. Pieces of cheese are a good example. Without an indication of the unit price, it is extremely difficult for the consumer to compare the prices of such products—at least, without the benefit of a pocket calculator.

However, for another range of goods, pre-packed products other than "catch-weights", a completely different approach has long been adopted in this country. This is the system of "prescribed quantities". Under this approach, which now dates back for 50 years, the consumer need has been met by establishing in statute simple and limited ranges of sizes for the sale of important products. This system is familiar to us all and I am sure that thanks to it no one finds any difficulty in comparing the prices of sugar, butter, tea or cornflakes. There are in fact today over 30 foodstuffs subject to prescribed quantity legislation—legislation which in my view has been of enormous benefit to consumers and to the industries which have been able to rationalise their packaging.

We can see, therefore, that in this field there are two main types of legislation in this country—unit price display regulations covering weighed-out and "catch-weight" foodstuffs, and prescribed quantity legislation for pre-packed products.

Against this background I turn to the Commission's proposals. The two documents which the Scrutiny Committee recommended for debate and which we are discussing have been overtaken by events. [HON. MEMBERS: "Again."] When I explain how events have been overtaken, the House might welcome the situation.

If it had been possible, I should have liked to provide the House with a memorandum setting out the position to date in the discussions in the Council working party. There have been many meetings, and many working drafts have been produced since June. I fear that such a memorandum would have been out of date by the time the debate took place. However, I shall do my best to explain what has happened and where we now stand.

The Commission's proposals date back to 1975, when an agreed preliminary programme for consumer protection and information policy was formed. Included in this programme was the aim of establishing
"common principles of stating price and possibly the price per unit of weight and volume."
I am not among those who consider it wrong in principle for the Community to involve itself in consumer protection matters. Of course individual initiatives have to be examined carefully on their intrinsic merits. But it would be a less than complete Community if it did not have aspirations towards improving the levels of consumer protection throughout the member States.

There are those who argue that the Commission has no business introducing this sort of proposal. I do not agree with that view.

The original proposal from the Commission—contained in document R /1277/77—was, to put it mildly, not well received in this country. Its main proposals were for the unit pricing of not only non-pre-packed foodstuffs but of all pre-packed foodstuffs not made up in Community or national ranges. There was no serious complaint about the proposal relating to non-pre-packed foodstuffs since this, as I have explained, is in line with our own national thinking and legislation. But the proposal to apply unit pricing to all pre-packed foodstuffs met with fierce and virtually unanimous opposition from all the sectors involved—manufacturers, retailers and consumers. This was an impressive and somewhat unusual display of solidarity.

The Commission's approach was based on the present German system which developed from its 1969 weights and measures law. This approach recognises both the need of consumers for appropriate aids to price comparison and the advantages of package standardisation. However, to our eyes the ranges of sizes for many products are not what we would regard as proper prescribed quantities. This is, perhaps, inevitable in an across-the-board approach which catches virtually all pre-packed foodstuffs. The result is that in many cases consumers do not really benefit.

Some of these standards were introduced in response to pressure from the trades to continue their existing practices. Nevertheless, the Commission saw this as a step in the right direction.

The Government carefully considered the merits of unit pricing pre-packed goods as against our traditional prescribed quantity approach but we concluded that unit pricing was a vastly inferior means of consumer protection. This view was based, first, on our long experience of the real benefits of a prescribed quantity system. We have an experience which none of the other member States has had to anything like the same degree.

Secondly, research carried out by consumer organisations shows that consumers here prefer prescribed quantities to unit pricing. Thirdly, there are potentially serious repercussions flowing from the application of unit pricing to fixed weight pre-packed products.

Among these adverse effects are the continuing and significant costs for the retailer, which inevitably would be passed on to the consumer. That point is made in the Opposition's amendment. The burden of unit pricing would hit the small shopkeeper harder than the supermarket. This would make it harder for the corner shop to survive. There would also be pressure by retailers on manufacturers to both price-mark and unit price-mark. This could lead to price rigidity and de facto price fixing by manufacturers. There is the possibility that some products on which profit margins relative to turnover are low might become more difficult to obtain. Unit pricing might well discourage shopkeepers from stocking this type of item.

Finally, there is the difficulty, which should not be underestimated, of framing legislation which would achieve the unit pricing objective but which would not at the same time expose retailers unreasonably to risk of prosecution.

For all these reasons, it was and is the Government's view that unit pricing for pre-packed products should be considered not as the preferred consumer protection approach, as seemed to be envisaged by the Commission, but as the least preferred approach which should be considered only when there is a real need for a basis for price comparison and other possibilities are patently impossible.

The unpopularity of unit pricing among manufacturers and retailers was recognised by the Commission, which probably saw the unit pricing stick, in conjunction with the carrot of exemption for standard sizes contained either in other Community directives or national legislation, as in practice achieving standardisation of package sizes.

Unfortunately, there is, in my view, a fatal flaw in this approach when it is applied across the board. Member State Governments in such a situation would simply be faced with having to introduce voluminous legislation establishing ranges of sizes for virtually every type of product—no matter how unsuitable the product for this type of treatment—simply to avoid the need for unit pricing. In this mad scramble, the needs of the consumer for limited and simple ranges of sizes would inevitably be lost sight of. All that would be achieved at the end of the day would be a great deal more legislation and no real advance in consumer protection. This is a situation which we cannot countenance and in which we refuse to be placed.

We have made it clear that in our view the best solution would be to have a unit pricing directive concentrating on weighed-out foodstuffs and "catch-weights", and to have a prescribed quantities directive which would, at the Community level, establish simple mandatory ranges of sizes for a positive list of important household foodstuffs, using as a basis our own national prescribed quantity legislation.

Whilst this suggested approach is gaining ground both in the Commission and in some other member States, there are nevertheless some member States which still seem to prefer the across-the-board unit pricing approach, at least for the time being. The Commission's amending proposal contained in document R 1131/78 is an attempt to meet both points of view.

I fear that it satisfies neither. What it does on this central issue is to propose that there be a five-year moratorium on the application of unit pricing to pre-packed products. The intention is that this period be used by member States to introduce prescribed quantities or standdardised ranges. This proposal undoubtedly goes some way to meet our objections. But it does not go far enough. There remains the basic objection that after five years there would still be an obligation to unit price those pre-packed products for which, for whatever reason, ranges of sizes had not been fixed. It would also have the highly undesirable effect of creating a further period of uncertainty for manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

However, since the amended proposal was published, there have been further discussions in the Council machinery, and as a result we are confident that these remaining objections will be overcome. Indeed, we have received positive assurances from the Commission that the directive will contain only two modest provisions on fixed weight pre-packs.

These are, first, that until 1st January 1984 no member State will have to make unit pricing mandatory for such foodstuffs; and, secondly, that before 1984 the Council will be called upon to decide under what conditions and for what categories of such foodstuffs unit pricing would be applicable.

What this means is that the directive will, as before, incorporate a five-year moratorium on any possible obligations for unit pricing of pre-packed foodstuffs. However, instead of automatic application of unit pricing thereafter, the directive will simply propose that before the period expires—that is, before 1st January 1984 —the Council will consider under what conditions and for what categories of products the application of unit pricing would be appropriate. In other words, there is to be no precommitment or prejudgment of the issue. The Council will simply be called upon to look at the subject again before 1984.

The effect of all this so far as we are concerned would be that we would accept the unit pricing obligations for weighed-out foodstuffs and "catchweight" pre-packs, in line with our own domestic policy, and for fixed-weight pre-packed products we would be free to pursue and develop our existing policies on prescribed quantities with no obligations or commitments on unit pricing in the background.

Other member States would be encouraged to evolve similar policies but would be free to introduce unit pricing if they so wished. In five years' time, we will all get together to see what, if anything, needs to be done further. I believe that this would amount to a satisfactory outcome to the negotiations that have taken place over the past two years, and I hope that the House will share that view.

The position of fixed-weight pre-packs had been the major preoccupation within the United Kingdom, but concern was also expressed here about other aspects. For example, it was originally feared that restrictive national lists of all foods sold by number, such as eggs, would have had to be compiled in order to benefit from exemption from unit pricing, and that food hampers and sales from vending machines would be caught. These fears, of course, no longer exist.

Another criticism of the original proposals was that the provision relating to the use of the smaller unit of 100 grams was too restrictive. This has now been relaxed, and member States are free to decide in what circumstances this smaller unit may be adopted. Incidentally, I wish to make it clear that, although the directive naturally enough is based on the units of 1 kg and 100 grams, we are free to continue to require imperial unit pricing for so long as these units are legal for trade in this country.

I have, however, one remaining reservation about the directive. As drafted, document R 1277/77 would also require the selling price to be given for all foods. This conflicts with the provisions of the Price Marking (Food) Order 1978, which exempts counter service sales from this requirement. I wish to see this exemption written into the directive. Even the smallest grocer carries several hundred lines. If he had to display prices in such a way that they could be readily seen by the prospective purchaser, the shop would become a veritable forest of price lists or labels in danger of obscuring the stock. It was for these reasons that I decided that it was appropriate to exempt small shopkeepers from this unacceptable burden. It is important that that consideration should be incorporated in the directive.

There have been many notable contributions to what has been a national and international debate on this subject. Our own manufacturing and retailing organisations have presented their case forcefully and persuasively. The prestige and common sense of our own consumer organisations has been an enormous help, and I would also like to thank the BEUC—the European Union of Consumer Organisation—for opening up an informed discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of unit pricing to consumers at a specially convened conference in Brussels.

A special tribute is also due to the House of Lords Select Committee which examined this subject. Its report is a substantial contribution to the subject. Finally, I wish to pay a personal tribute to the Commission. I myself have on several occasions discussed this directive with it, from Commissioner Burke downwards. On all occasions and at all levels, I have found the Commission's attitude wholly constructive and flexible, and it has throughout displayed a readiness to meet the sensible points we advanced. It did so in a spirit of accommodation.

It will, I assume, be clear from my comments and from the document that the Government are ready to accept the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim), although in broader terms it is somewhat similar to an amendment, which has not been selected, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay). I hope that the House will be reassured by subsequent developments and will agree that, if the changes I have mentioned are incorporated, the directive will be acceptable.

Although this proposal understandably caused some alarm, particularly when it first appeared, it has, I think, caused many people, both consumers and those engaged in commerce, to think seriously about the issue involved, and it has led in Europe to a thorough and searching appraisal of consumer protection philosophy in this context, in which this country is a leader. The result of the debate has been positive and one that I welcome.

8.17 p.m.

I beg to move, to leave out from 'House' to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

in taking note of Commission Documents Nos. R/1277/77 and R/1131/78, considers that the amendments contained in the latter document are not acceptable in that they fail to limit unit pricing to those goods for which it is desirable and as a result would run counter to consumer protection measures in the United Kingdom and would impose extra costs upon the relevant trades as well as upon the consumer.'.
I think that the House will agree that the tale which the Under-Secretary of State has told of what has happened and what has gone on since the document was first published, and since it was examined here originally, gives even more grist to the mill of those who believe that the system under which such proposals are produced needs some major overhaul. I would be churlish to say that the document is a diner de chien, but I suspect that it is nothing more nor less than a dog's dinner in relation to the document that is to be produced in due course in so far as the Minister indicated some major changes.

Touché! The matter of consumer protection harmonisation is worth consideration by the House. The system of a Green Paper discussion about the harmonisation of objectives of consumer protection has been raised before. I think that we last raised it on the question of the doorstep-selling directive. It is becoming even more evident that before proceeding to the difficult stage of drafting community legislative proposals it would be wiser to proceed by a general discussion document to make certain that the parameters of the problems are set and that the Community is not involved in designing legislation inappropriate to the legislative arrangements of member States.

I would argue that the principles that we should seek to establish in defining our harmonisation of consumer protection measures are, first, that it needs to be demonstrated that the consumer requires additional protection and that that is a need that has been demonstrated across the Community, and, secondly, that it has to be demonstrated that intra Community trade requires also that a movement of this kind should be of an intra-Community kind—in other words, that there should be consumer protec- tion for the benefit of the harmonisation of trade. That is where article 100 is so widely used as the basis for most of these changes.

The third point is that any harmonisation proposals that emanate from Brussels should improve existing standards where they occur in member States. The Minister was right to dramatise the extent to which we in the United Kingdom already have in this area of prescribed quantities and unit pricing a widely established system. That is why our amendment draws attention to that fact.

On balance we would agree with the Government's standing as the Minister has outlined it tonight. It is that major amendment is required. He believes that major amendment is on its way, and the House is therefore now considering a document which in a sense is no longer strictly relevant to what will happen.

We consider our amendment to be relevant in discussion of the document. We criticise the draft directive for the following main reasons. First, it is far too widely drawn and fails to distinguish between goods sold loose and at random weights which most often require the application of unit pricing. Secondly, it requires all pre-packed foods to be unit priced except for those for which a fixed range of weights and quantities is available. Thirdly, it clearly runs counter to the general direction of consumer protection legislation on unit pricing and prescribed quantities.

I suspect, however, that it also runs counter to the way in which the Community is now thinking about prescribed quantities. If my information from Brussels, which, as ever, may be late and imperfect, is correct, the prescribed quantities directive is well advanced, is in full discussion and is most likely to overtake unit pricing as the major plank upon which the Community will rest its case. The directive is being prepared.

I think that the House of Lords Select Committee's 49th Report, which was the main source of information on the subject, was quite right to draw attention in its conclusions to the importance of moving towards pre-packed quantities first. The Committee stated on page 10:
"The Committee do not believe that it would be practicable to impose unit pricing until other EEC proposals which logically precede it have been settled—eg those draft Directives which concern the problems of drained weight, container size standards of fill, the quantity of pre-packaged liquids and (in the United Kingdom) the change to the average weights system."
It is clear that one cannot get involved in unit pricingper se without having regard to pre-packed quantities and to the definitions which may be required under our weights and measures system. The case for dealing with prescribed quanties first is overwhelming, and that is why we feel it right to ensure that this directive does not proceed without the directive on prescribed quantities.

In our view, it is most desirable that the Commission comes forward rapidly with its proposal on prescribed quantities so that we may have the whole matter effectively sorted out before any other directive on these matters comes before the House.

I believe that the consumer bodies in the United Kingdom would also endorse this approach of dealing with prescribed quantities first. The Consumer Association, which, as the Minister suggested, has taken a realistic view in this matter, stated to my colleagues in the European Conservative Group last December that
"Our present view is that consumers would be better served if the Commission adopted a programme along the following lines: —
  • (i) adopt the directive on prescribed quantities as soon as possible;
  • (ii) adopt a directive requiring unit pricing for goods sold loose and by catchweight;
  • (iii) the third stage should be to take a critical look at products not covered by (i) and (ii) above and decide, on a product by product basis, what would be the best way of dealing with them in order to help the consumer judge value-for-money."
  • I believe that to be quite consistent with the way in which the Government have outlined their case this evening. It adds further weight from the consumer's point of view to move on the prescribed quantities front first.

    The European Parliament has debated this matter—

    I stand corrected by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten). I am glad to see that he is here, alive and well and raring to go on this matter. The European Assembly debated this matter in February 1978. Frankly, the report which was debated there seems most inadequate, partly because it seems to lack any reference to the draft directive on prescribed quantities, and partly because it fails to reflect the misgivings that were being loudly voiced at that time among several member States of the EEC on this matter.

    In seeking to protect the consumer, the proposed system would surely carry very great risks about confusion and cost. The question of cost was referred to obliquely by the Minister. That subject was certainly raised in evidence before the Lords Select Committee, in particular by Mr. Weir, representing the Retail Consortium. I should like to quote the evidence he gave on 13th July last in which he said, on page 51:
    "I think, my Lord Chairman, that there are a number of people sitting round your side of the table who assume that there are European prescribed quantities over an enormously wide range of products, leaving us with a little bit of ham and a little bit of cheese at the end of the day to worry about in terms of unit prices. That is not the case. It is exactly the opposite way round. There are very few prescribed quantities at the present moment and we are talking about an enormous range of unit pricing. Our objection is to the application of unit pricing proposals over this vast range which is not covered by prescribed quantities. The costing which Mr. Taylor has done shows that if you have to apply unit pricing at the present moment across this very wide range which is not covered by prescribed quantities, it would be very expensive to shopkeepers and this cost would have to be passed on to consumers."
    So the question of confusion about unit pricing policy is more difficult to gauge. We do not have the necessary evidence in this country. In the United States, however, unit pricing has been a matter of great activity by the trade, and although the system varies from state to state there have been examples of supermarket chains seeking to use it.

    Perhaps the most aggressive supermarket chain to do that was the Giant Food chain which operates in Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia. It set out to use unit pricing as a form of active consumer persuasion. It issued pamphlets to the shoppers coming to its stores. It turned all its stores over to a unit pricing system.

    I have to admit that the advice which was given to American shoppers in the state of Maryland was a little difficult. But it makes it clear that an item price and a unit price per pound have to be compared before one can arrive at sensible purchase. Sample A is quoted at 65 cents and 58 cents per pound. Sample B is quoted at $1·09 and 42 cents per pound. The shopper is asked whether she will decide to take sample A or sample B, If she chooses sample B, the mystery is solved. It so happens that sample B is the Giant Foods' own packed brand, whereas sample A is the national brand of Quaker Oats used for comparison.

    This highlights one of the problems that might arise with unit pricing. It could be used very effectively, I suspect, by stores to promote their own goods to the disadvantage of national brands, which on the whole have to carry most of the heat and burden of developing markets for products and producing new products for the consumer market.

    The experience of the Giant Food Corporation demonstrates that stores which use unit pricing have to put a lot of effort into explaining to consumers how the system works. Unit pricing can prove a positive mark of identification when coupled with other consumer aids such as nutrition information and health and safety warnings.

    Even where unit pricing is compulsory, discrepancies in application will arise. A survey was carried out in one portion of the United States which revealed that in some stores 50 per cent. of the unit prices examined were incorrect. There is a great deal of bureaucratic effort to be put into unit pricing if it is applied right across the board in large stores that carry and handle many hundreds of different lines.

    It may be concluded that unit pricing is not something to be taken in hand lightly. It is something to be carefully considered, or else the consumer could well become confounded by the whole operation. That is why, as our amendment states, we welcome the Government's view that unit pricing should be secondary to the development of prescribed quantities. It is prescribed quantities that are well known. It is prescribed quantities that are simple and understandable. It is prescribed quantities that can usually be applied to the ranges of foodstuffs that are of the greatest importance to the consumer.

    In his concluding remarks in another place, Lord Sainsbury said:
    "There is no case for insisting that all products be subjected to unit pricing. As we state in our concluding paragraph— "—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15th November 1977, Vol.387,c. 541.]
    That is the paragraph—

    Order. Unless the noble Lord is a Minister, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) will not read directly from the report.

    I cannot remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether the noble Lord was speaking on behalf of the Government in another place. I shall assume that he was not. However, he was at pains to point out that unit pricing should not be widespread. He strongly established the case that the Commission should create its own priorities and that the first priority should be prescribed quantities before there could be any full development of a unit pricing system. That is why we tabled the amendment. That is why we are glad that the Government will accept our amendment. It seems essential that we deal with quatities first rather than move straight into unit pricing.

    I am glad to think from what the Under-Secretary of State has said that the EEC will examine these matters properly and fully and that when Commissioner Burke comes here on Friday he will be told in no uncertain terms that we want to see the cart put correctly before the horse and the whole matter properly and adequately handled.

    8.31 p.m.

    I do not think that there is any serious disagreement in the House about the substance of the case. However, it makes these debates rather more difficult if the Minister almost invariably starts by saying that the documents before us are entirely out of date and the situation has wholly changed, and proceeds to explain in great detail the facts about the subject that we are supposed to be debating. I hope that an assurance will be given that if the Commission, as it apparently proposes, is to bring forward still further documents, at least we shall have them before us when we debate them in the House.

    If, with some difficulty, I understood what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said, it amounts to the fact the Commission put forward some detailed proposals and they were opposed by almost everybody in Britain in the trade and in the Government who knew anything about consumer affairs. They have now been almost totally withdrawn. It seems, with some qualifications, that nothing much is to happen for five years. I believe that that is what my hon. Friend said. At the end of that period it seems that we shall have an opportunity again to think it all over.

    That is much more satisfactory than if the proposals had been implemented as they stand. However, I am disposed to ask my hon. Friend whether it would have saved a great deal of time, energy, trouble, cost, confusion and manpower if the Commission had never intruded into this area and had left our legislation and arrangements where they were.

    8.33 p.m.

    There is an immense irony in the debate that occupied the House earlier this afternoon upon the enlargement of the Community of nine nations to 12 nations and the present debate, which is really the important one, that enables us to see in what nonsense the Community is engaging in reality.

    It has been an important debate. I say that without a trace of irony. Important statements have been made from both Dispatch Boxes. Whether those who made them were clear how important they were I was not certain, but they deserve to be emphasised. It would be interesting to know in due course how far they carry the full responsibility of the Government and the Opposition respectively.

    The first thing which strikes one in approaching a proposed directive of this sort is that it is concerned with supply to the ultimate consumer—that is to say, it is concerned with matters which by no stretch of the imagination could have any intra-Community significance. They are in no way concerned with trade between the different parts of the EEC. They in no way arise out of a basic economic conception of the EEC. They are, quite candidly and plainly, legislation upon wholly internal matters.

    On this matter, opposing doctrine came from the two sides of the House.

    I am obliged for the assent, given in advance, by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) to what I am about to say. I am sure that, courageous and stout-hearted fellow that he is, he will stand by it whatever the consequences. He said that for any Community legislation such as this to be accepted it would have to be demonstrated —this was in addition to other considerations—that it affects intra-Community trade. No one has so far sought to argue that intra-Community trade is in any way affected by these provisions.

    Pudsey, as the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) will well understand, is a place where people are willing to stand at the crease and face all kinds of bowling, whether it be fast or slow. Concerning the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, I have made the assertion that in so far as the Community had issued a protection policy based upon article 100, in which intra-Community trade was involved, it followed that any Community recommendation must be so based. I think it could be argued to the right hon. Gentleman's satisfaction that there is sufficient intra-Community trade in prepackaged foodstuffs for this document to be relevant.

    But we are concerned here with the protection of the ultimate consumer in the respective countries. We are concerned with the retail trade. We are not concerned with bulk trade of any kind. Quite candidly and openly—and this was acknowledged by the Minister, speaking from the Dispatch Box—we are concerned with internal consumer protection. The Minister, in his turn, was quite candid about this. He said that, in his view, it was not wrong in principle that the Community should legislate upon matters which were entirely internal and which, in the phraseology introduced into the debate by the hon. Member for Pudsey, had no intra-Community significance. Indeed, the Minister went further and enunciated his view that it would be a less than complete Community unless it covered by its legislation matters which were wholly domestic to the national parts of the Community.

    In the matter of the EEC, the Government are a Government based upon the principle of agreement to differ, so that I cannot really ask the Minister, as I have asked the hon. Member for Pudsey, whether his views represent the views of the Government as a whole. Of course, in presenting the motion, he is naturally speaking with full collective responsibility and on behalf of the Government, but his wider and deeper philosophy in the matter is for himself, as, indeed, it is for the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council, the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the rest of them. But at least we know what is the view of the Minister in this case. It is his view that it is not a complete Community unless it legislates upon matters which are exclusively internal to the respective countries, as well as upon other matters, of course.

    I should like the Minister to address his mind to what limit there then is, if that be what makes a Community, upon the scope of Community legislation; and I should like the House also to consider it. Admit that and we admit that we conceive the Community as in reality a full-blown State, or intended to be a full-blown State, with power of legislation in all matters, domestic or intra-Community. That fundamental matter ought properly to be brought out and debated.

    I turn from that more precisely to the wording of the Opposition's amendment which the Government are to accept. The Opposition give as their objection to the documents as they stand—the directives as they are at present proposed or used to be proposed—that they
    "would run counter to consumer protection measures in the United Kingdom."
    Is it the view of Her Majesty's Opposition that we should not accept legislation of the Community which runs
    "counter to…measures in the United Kingdom"?
    If so, that is an important statement of policy, because it means that, in the view of the Opposition, who might one day be the Government, we are under no obligation—indeed, it is not their policy—to accept Community legislation if it runs
    "counter to … measures in the United Kingdom".
    I assure the hon. Member for Pudsey that, if I interpret correctly the implications of the amendment, it will be an inexpressible relief to many Conservative supporters—indeed, if we are to judge by the opinion polls, to a majority of Conservative as well as Labour supporters—to know that, should there be a Conservative Government, that Government will not accept Community legislation which runs
    "counter to…measures in the United Kingdom".
    It is a considerable clearing of the air.

    During the debate it was a joy and delight to those of us who are old familiars in this game—those of us who have survived so many hours of considering these distasteful and even absurd documents from the Community are a kind of club, are we not?—to observe the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper), when hardly a sentence had been spoken from either side of the Table, nod his head with approbation with the regularity and emphasis of a cuckoo clock. The idea that these criticisms of the original directive were well founded, were being brought out and were being accepted by his Government gave him profound satisfaction. His delight appeared to reach its climax when the Minister finally informed the House that he anticipated that the entire proposals would be eviscerated almost completely so that they would be meaningless and ineffective.

    I would not wish to begrudge the hon. Member for Farnworth—our constant companion in so many of these debates —any enjoyment that he can get from the contemplation of the evisceration of a proposal of the European Economic Community. But I would point out to the House, and particularly to the official Opposition, where we would be getting to if we were agreeable to Community legislation provided that it either had no effect whatever or agreed exactly with what we were going to do anyhow. That might seem to be a happy way out of our difficulties. That might seem, especially from the attitudinising of the hon. Member for Farnworth, to be the resolution of the great national debate. If that were to be the outcome, it might seem that the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and I could join forces again in complete concord and amity, but I fear that we would be injudicious to rush to that conclusion.

    If we accept as valid—as proper—Community legislation because, for the time being, it either has no effect or tells us to do only what we were going to do anyhow, we nevertheless accept its authority and entitlement to legislate in these spheres. Therefore, our complacency and compliance when it happened to be legislating harmlessly or in accordance with the measures in force in the United Kingdom would infallibly, and indeed justly, be cited against us when the time came, when it claimed to exert the right to legislate against as well as in accordance with our policy.

    After all, what is the point of harmonisation? What is the justification of claiming, as the Minister does, that harmonisation of internal law is necessary to a complete Community unless the law which is imposed harmoniously is different from the law which the component parts would otherwise have accepted? If that is not so, there is no such thing as harmonisation. Harmonisation is only real, is only significant, if it makes some people, albeit a minority, legislate domestically or behave differently from the way in which they otherwise would have behaved.

    So it is the intention, the underlying policy of this directive, as well as its stupid contents, which ought to attract our condemnation. When the contents have been removed, we still ought to reject the container. The amendment is all right so far as it goes. Indeed, it probably goes a bit further—I have argued that it does go further—than the requirements of tonight's debate.

    But it is not enough to turn a stupid and impracticable directive into one which can be tolerated. What we need to do is to tell the Community, as long as it is there to be told, that there are much more important things for the Community to do, and for us to do, than to legislate upon this kind of subject of our domestic concerns—in other words, to tell the Community to keep off the grass.

    8.47 p.m.

    I have, in other debates on these subjects, followed the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and I am glad to have the opportunity of doing so again, parti- cularly in view of the kind words which he addressed to me during his speech. I have some good news for him, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary: there was part of all three of their speeches with which I disagreed and about which I shall try to explain to the House.

    First, I am glad to say to the right hon. Member for Down, South that the directive has not been totally eviscerated. Even though, in the case of the United Kingdom, the objectionable parts have been removed and there will be little change, effectively, as far as United Kingdom legislation is concerned, the right hon. Gentleman would know, if he read the Commission's explanatory memorandum on the document, that there are other countries within the Community where that is not the case and where, by maintaining the provisions for foodstuffs sold in bulk—that is, unpackaged foodstuffs, which were described by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary—they will apply.

    This directive will introduce an important measure of consumer protection in Italy, for example, and will, I think, also have some effect in the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Therefore, there will be a measure of harmonisation introduced by this directive which I happen to believe is useful.

    But I was concerned about the interchange which my hon. Friend had with the hon. Member for Pudsey, because that again arose from a misconstruction of this directive. This directive is not based upon article 100. Therefore, it is not relying upon the business of the internal market of the Community. The directive is, as is made quite clear in the introductory memorandum from Commissioner Vouel, and, indeed, in paragraph 9 of the explanatory memorandum from the Commission, based on article 235.

    As the right hon. Member for Down, South and, I trust, the hon. Member for Pudsey know, the basis for article 235 goes very much wider than article 100 and can—and this is the point I would make to the right hon. Gentleman—deal with matters which are not involved in intra-Community trade. As paragraph 9 of the explanatory memorandum makes clear, the basis is article 235 as it had been used by the Council of Ministers acting unanimously, including the representative of Her Majesty's Government at the time, on 14th April 1975, when the Council of Ministers adopted the preliminary programme of the EEC for a consumer protection and information policy. As the right hon. Gentleman will agree, article 235 enables the Commission to go very much wider in making proposals, as long as it is attempting to achieve the original objectives of the Community.

    The right hon. Gentleman and I, on other occasions, have disagreed about whether consumer protection should be one of the objectives of the EEC. It is important for the hon. Member for Pudsey to be aware that this concerns not article 100 but article 235, which gives the Community very much wider power than does article 100.

    I turn finally to remarks of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I very much welcome what he has told us. As the right hon. Gentleman said, I have already shown my welcome. My words will now follow my nods and say how much I welcome what my hon. Friend has said about what has happened.

    There was—this has been freely recognised—a naive initial approach by the Commission. As has been made clear in the House previously, this sort of naive approach can only bring the Commission and, by extension, the Community into disrespect in the House and elsewhere. I think that it justifies totally the reference of this document to the House by the Scrutiny Committee.

    I am very glad, of course, that there has been progress. However, even if there could not have been a further supplementary memorandum outlining what my hon Friend was able to tell the House today—I understand that the reason for that is that the Commission's proposals are not yet in a form that would justify submitting a further supplementary memorandum to the House—in similar cases in the future, when there have been such dramatic changes between the time that a document went to the Scrutiny Committee and the time when it was due to come to the House, my hon. Friend should consider writing to the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee outlining what has occurred.

    The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) is not in the Chamber at present, but I think that he would agree with me that if the Scrutiny Committee had received such a letter or such a further supplementary memorandum it would almost certainly have modified its recommendation for debate in the House.

    In view of what the Under-Secretary has been able to tell us tonight, I believe that it it was unnecessary for this amount of time of the House to have been spent on this subject this evening. When there have been such enormous changes, which really lead to the withdrawal of the original concerns of the Scrutiny Committee—and I think, indeed, those of the Opposition as well—I hope that my hon. Friend and other Ministers will in future consider writing to the Scrutiny Committee to make this point clear so that we can make better use of the time of the House.

    8.53 p.m.

    With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to thank those hon. Members who have participated in the debate.

    I deal first with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) regarding the possibility of bringing to the notice of the Scrutiny Committee significant changes when they occur. In principle, I am wholly at one with him on the desirability of that. But this has been a rapidly moving situation, with telex messages received from Brussels by me within the last few days indicating the direction in which this discussion has been moving. It would have been quite difficult, and possibly even misleading in this particular circumstance, to have given much before tonight the very firm indication that I was able to give. However, in principle, it is right that the Scrutiny Committee should be apprised as quickly as possible of significant changes.

    I would not, however, accept altogether what my hon. Friend said about the unnecessary amount of time that the House has devoted to this subject. It is a subject of some importance. I think that it is of value in the debate about the directive, which is still developing within the Community, that the views of the House should be known, and it should be seen that the concerns which have been expresed by Her Majesty's Government are concerns which are widely shared on both sides of the House.

    The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), with his customary pyrotechnical skill, turned the occasion into a constitutional debate of some importance. Perhaps in his speech he also gave the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth about the importance of the occasion. However, I do not share the right hon. Gentleman's view—that was implicit in the remarks I made at the beginning, to which I adhere —that it is inappropriate for the Community to seek to legislate on consumer protection, which of its nature affects more domestic law than transnational or intra-Community law. I think that the propriety of so doing flows from article 235, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth referred. That is the basis of the proposed directive on unit pricing.

    I adhere to the philosophical point that it is no Community if widely discrepant standards of consumer protection exist and the Community remains indifferent to them. The cross-frontier consequences of some aspects of consumer protection law are, of coursce, real and the prescribed quantities directive is being pursued under article 100. Accepting that the right hon. Gentleman's remarks were confined to the unit pricing directive, and not to the other aspects of consumer protection contained in the prescribed quantities directive, I would simply say that the justification for Community consideration of this subject is both technical in a treaty sense and moral in that consumer protection is in a sense indivisible. If it is appropriate for the Community to consider legislating on prescribed quantities, so it is on unit pricing.

    The objective of the legislation is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth was right to draw attention to the benefits for other countries which would flow from the adoption of the draft directive which extends unit pricing of weighed-out and cash-weight measures to them. Therefore, I cannot begin to accept the assertion of the right hon. Member for Down, South that this was a stupid directive. It may have been an impractical one, as he suggested, in its application to us, and it may have been unnecessary for us; I accept that that is so. But the standard of consumer protection throughout the Community is, regrettably, not as high in some of these areas as it is in this country, and as members of the Community we have some responsibility to recognise that fact.

    I think that the answer must be the same to my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), that I cannot regard it as a waste of time for the Community to seek to improve the level of consumer protection. It is true that perhaps we have had more to give than to receive on this occasion. That is a reasonable position for this Government to have taken up.

    The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) raised an important point of principle with his initial suggestion that this was not the most sensible way to develop consumer protection legislation within the Community. I agree with him that it makes sense to proceed by way of a consultative document to enable the ground to be tested and views of member States to be considered before a draft directive is produced. The hon. Gentleman's words will carry weight, and I hope that that will be the way we proceed in future.

    I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support, on a broad front, of the Government's approach to these problems and I am happy to assure him that, in our view, it makes sense to proceed by having the prescribed quantities provision in advance of the other draft directive. We expect that that directive will be in final form very soon.

    Amendment agreed to.

    Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


    That this House, in taking note of Commission Documents Nos. R/1277/77 and R/1131/78, considers that the amendments contained in the latter document are not acceptable in that they fail to limit unit pricing to those goods for which it is desirable and as a result would run counter to consumer protection measures in the United Kingdom and would impose extra costs upon the relevant trades as well as upon the consumer.