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Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 4 May 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will extend the consultation period in respect of their proposal to abolish hallmarking of items made from precious metals.

My Lords, there is no such consultation. The Government recently launched their red tape challenge initiative, aimed at reducing the burden of unnecessary regulation on business. Under its terms, anyone is invited to suggest which regulations might be scrapped or retained, with the emphasis on regulations which impose costs on business. The retail sector is the first theme to be considered and thus hallmarking legislation is among those on which comment is invited. Where regulations are identified as burdensome, Ministers will need to justify to an independent review panel any decision to retain them.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. If I am under some misapprehension on this matter, as she appears to suggest, most of the hallmarking industry is also under the same misapprehension, including the heads of the four United Kingdom assay offices. Will she therefore be good enough to receive a delegation from me with such people so that she can set that misapprehension to rights?

I am happy to see my noble friend at any time and I am happy to see him with a delegation. I was wondering how I was going to answer his second question, which I thought was going to be about why hallmarking was included with this initiative at all. The reason is that we are looking at retail, and things that are sold from jewellery shops are usually retail. That is the only reason why it is in there. We have had an awful lot of responses; more than 5,000 people have contacted us to say how much in favour they are of keeping it. I am sorry that this story has gone out, but it is a misapprehension. Anyone in the retail trade can write in with anything that they think is too much red tape. The consultation is for three months. It finishes for this particular group on 5 May, which is tomorrow. After consultation, a decision will be taken on the letters and e-mails received. I hope that helps.

Is the Minister aware that those who make use of the Birmingham assay office, set up by Matthew Boulton and his chums, do not regard the activities of that office as in any way burdensome? What it does, as the other assay offices do, is guarantee the integrity and quality of the massive array of goods produced by Birmingham’s viable jewellery quarter. Will she feed that in as part of this consultation?

My Lords, your Lordships can be sure that I will be feeding back in everything that is said in this exchange today. I should add that, when I chaired the National Consumer Council, there was quite a lot of pressure from the European Union for British hallmarking to be considered unnecessary, but it is something that we hold dear. Your Lordships can be sure that I shall be feeding this back in on this, the very last day.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have had the great good fortune of watching the excellent workers in the assay office turn down a large silver tea service because the metal was not of sufficient quality and was therefore returned to its country of origin? Does she not agree that, if it had not been for the assay office, that silver tea service would have been sold on the open market as being the real thing?

The assay office has always made a very special contribution, as is being shown all through the House today. I am happy to have this exchange sent back.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s reply about the length of consultation, but would it not be a good idea to extend the consultation to something like 100 years in order to protect the value of the hallmarking of antiques? To remove hallmarking would destroy things like “Antiques Roadshow”.

My Lords, this ambitious project, which has been opened up to the public by the Government, is being conducted over a two-year period, during which time some 21,000 individual regulations will be scrutinised. I say again that this affects the whole of the retail sector. I am not really sure—none of us is—why the hallmarking industry feels under such threat, but certainly, from the responses that we have had in support of hallmarking, it can be seen that the general public hold it very dear. Although I cannot say at this stage that things will be done, it is part of the whole project.

My Lords, the Minister doth protest too much. The problem is that the Government that she serves have a slash-and-burn attitude with regard to essential areas of consumer protection on the grounds that all that they are dealing with is so-called red tape and bureaucratic interference. Here we have a very clear illustration of why it would in fact be quite wrong to pursue that policy. I hope that the Minister will think again.

I hope that the noble Lord will look at the result of this first tranche, which has gone through in the earliest months, and feel at the end that the results coming through were well worth having.

My Lords, my late father was a royal warrant holder for two generations of British royalty. His hallmark was something of great importance in our family. In subsequent years at the Department of Trade, I introduced regulations to have country-of-origin marking on all manufactured goods in the UK, which was welcomed by all but struck out by the EU, which described it as a non-tariff barrier. If we are to lose hallmarking and country-of-origin marking, it will be a sad day for consumers in this country.

My noble friend has now put that on the record. It has gone into Hansard and I am sure it will be of great value. For your Lordships’ information, the next section being looked at is hospitality. If any of you wish to write in to the Cabinet Office, I am sure it will be delighted to receive that.

If the Government are going to consider any options for changing this, could this House first be given a vote by first past the post?

I am checking to make sure that I have absolutely the right answer for the noble Lord. At the end of the three months, an independent panel will review the comments received and Ministers will be asked to justify the retention of legislation proposed for repeal. It is fairly straightforward and an open process, which I am sure your Lordships will be interested to hear the results of.