My Lords, as I have already explained in my reply to the noble Lord’s Question in this House on 4 May, there was no such consultation, nor was there a proposal to abolish hallmarking. The retail sector, of which hallmarking is a part, was the first sector to be considered as part of the red tape challenge review of some 21,000 individual regulations. The outcome of the retail sector review will be announced over the course of the summer.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that, rightly or wrongly, there is a widely held view that the Government are indeed about to abolish hallmarking, egged on by the Europeans and encouraged by the Secretary of State, Dr Cable, with his well known Euro enthusiasms? Will she therefore now clearly state that that is not the Government’s intention and set aside what she says are these unwarranted fears?
My noble friend has long experience of being a Minister standing at this Dispatch Box and he will know that I cannot do anything about anything to do with the retail survey which is going on at the moment. However, I can assure him that one of the oldest forms of consumer protection in this country, dating back some 700 years, is going to take some moving.
Thank you. Is the Minister aware of the serious lack of confidence that the UK’s assay offices have in this rather strange and opaque process that the Government have put in place to deal with this review? Will the noble Baroness guarantee that the essential hallmarking work of the assay offices is not damaged by this process?
I am very happy to reassure the noble Baroness that nothing we are going to do will worry or upset the assay offices and certainly not the Birmingham office, which, after all, is the biggest office in this country doing assay work. The noble Baroness is also president of the Trading Standards Institute, so she knows this subject very well. We are worrying unnecessarily and noble Lords need to look no further than the response to the red tape challenge. We have received more than 6,000 letters of endorsement for the assay office. There is nothing to worry about at this stage.
My Lords, I welcome the assurances from my noble friend the Minister but it would be very good to have further assurances, as much as she is able. Does she agree that whatever decision is made on whatever red tape procedures that are going forward—whether that be on consultation or red tape—it will not lower the prestige and skills of silversmiths, goldsmiths and jewellers in this country, of whom we are most proud, and the values either now or in the future for our antiques industry? Will she confirm that it is beneficial in the eyes of the Government to know who made an object, and when and where it was made?
My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the British Art Market Federation. Is my noble friend aware that Chinese entrepreneurs are making small balls out of apple wood, giving them a thin skin of silver, sending them by air to the assay office at Heathrow, having them hallmarked as British and returning them to China? It is believed that, as a result, the value of the object is increased a hundredfold. Is my noble friend confident that the United Kingdom is securing an adequate return from the service that it is rendering?
I am sure that our assay offices know exactly what they are doing and they are well monitored by us. If my noble friend would like to send me a letter about these Chinese wooden objects coming into our airports, I am sure that I could respond. But I think he is worrying unnecessarily.
My Lords, while the Chester Assay Office had to close in the early 1950s, when the Minister is next in Chester will she take the opportunity to visit the wonderful display of silverwork with the Chester Assay mark in the Grosvenor Museum? In the mean time, will she recognise something that is very traditional and well loved by the British people? I hope that any precipitate move on behalf of the Government to abolish hallmarking will be resisted.
My Lords, if I get the opportunity, I certainly will make a visit. The assay office in Plymouth, where I come from, closed down many years ago, as have a lot of assay offices over time. The Government are looking at doing something positive in this area in order to compete with our European counterparts, particularly the Dutch. Under current UK law, UK assay officers can hallmark only in the United Kingdom. We are taking forward a legislative reform order, by April 2012 I hope, to allow UK assay offices to hallmark overseas so that we, too, can compete in Thailand and China.