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Weights and Measures (Specified Quantities) (Unwrapped Bread and Intoxicating Liquor) Order 2011

Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2011

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Weights and Measures (Specified Quantities) (Unwrapped Bread and Intoxicating Liquor) Order 2011.

Relevant document: 27th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, the order amends the specified quantities which apply to non-prepackaged alcoholic drinks and unwrapped bread. The legislation that is amended by this order comprises Part 4 of Schedule 3 to the Weights and Measures Act 1985, the Weights and Measures (Miscellaneous Foods) Order 1988, the Weights and Measures (Intoxicating Liquor) Order 1988 and the Measuring Instruments (Capacity Serving Measures) Regulations 2006. The order does two things: it removes all restrictions on the sizes of unwrapped loaves and it allows greater flexibility over the sizes available for the sale of alcoholic drinks.

Fixed sizes were introduced in the 1960s. They ensured that consumers could easily compare the quantities and prices of staple foods such as bread and flour. However all fixed sizes for prepackaged foods, apart from wines and spirits, were deregulated in 2009. This followed changes at European level. Once universal quantity labelling and unit pricing were adopted for prepackages, specified quantities became largely unnecessary. Consumers could see for themselves the quantities they were purchasing, so that the restrictions on pack size could go. However, that deregulation dealt only with prepackaged goods. Today we are dealing with non-prepackaged products, specifically unwrapped bread, and non-prepackaged alcoholic drinks served on licensed premises.

The results of a public consultation on the future of the remaining specified quantities found strong support for the retention of specified quantities for the sale of alcoholic drinks. Support came from consumers, the enforcement community, business and those in the health field. There was widespread recognition that the sale of alcohol differed from the sale of other foods because of its health effects and connection to anti-social behaviour. As a result, greater care is needed to ensure that consumers are made aware of the quantities being purchased than is needed for other products. However, the consultation identified some demand for specific changes. Some businesses felt that the existing regime stifled a legitimate demand for new sizes or products. The Government have listened to these concerns. The changes that we propose today will allow for innovation but, at the same time, retain necessary protection for the consumer.

Turning to the specifics, today’s order introduces a two-thirds of a pint size for the sale of draught beer and cider. This new size will allow licensed premises to satisfy demand for a size between half a pint and a pint. There will be no mandatory requirement for businesses to offer two-thirds of a pint; it will be optional. However, I understand that at least two major breweries have plans to introduce the new size if it becomes a legal measure.

The order also deregulates small glasses of wine—those of less than 75 millilitres—from the requirement to be sold by quantity. Under the current law, the smallest legal serving of wine by the glass is 125 millilitres, so samples may be given away but not sold. There is a demand for samples that cannot be met at present because of this restriction. Therefore, by deregulating very small servings of wine the order will allow businesses the opportunity to innovate and respond to untapped demand for sales of samples, tasters or flights of wine. This proposal was strongly supported by consumers and businesses eager to create a new market for their products.

The order also reduces the existing specified quantities for fortified wines from a minimum of 125 millilitres to the smaller size of 50 millilitres or 70 millilitres, or a multiple of either, This brings the law on fortified wines into line with current trade practice. It will also allow for smaller sizes more appropriate to the sale of fortified wines, which can be significantly stronger than still wines. This proposal has the support of health groups, trading standards authorities and business.

Finally, the order deregulates the specified weights that apply to unwrapped bread. Under current law, unwrapped loaves may be sold only in sizes of 400 grams or a multiple of 400 grams. After deregulation, unwrapped loaves may be sold in any weight, including the traditional sizes. This will give greater freedom to bakers and retailers to make up and sell unwrapped loaves of any weight that they like. It will also bring the sale of unwrapped loaves into line with prepackaged bread, for which the specified weights have already been deregulated. However, to ensure that consumers can tell when the sizes have changed, retailers adopting new sizes will be required to display clearly the quantity of any new sizes being offered for sale. There will be no additional burdens on bakers or retailers, since there will be no requirement to offer the new sizes. Information on weight will be required only when new sizes are introduced. For example, bakers who continue to offer only traditional sizes of 400 grams and 800 grams will not have to change their current practice at all. However, for those who want to innovate—for example, makers of artisan loaves, the different densities of which do not easily fit with traditional sizes—these changes will give a new stimulus to the market, allowing for the sale of new loaves in new sizes.

The changes set out in this order will give consumers more choice and provide greater freedom for bakers, retailers and licensed premises to offer new sizes and products. A full impact assessment has been completed and there are no new burdens on business or trading standards as a result of this order. These changes will support business growth through innovation and the creation of new markets. I therefore commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, what a pleasure it is to be back dealing with the wonderfully random nature of statutory instruments. I could not help reflecting: where do the two items, bread and liquor, come together? I thought of the religious context, but then I thought: no, there is another place where the two come together—and I could not resist the lure of this quote for those of you who are familiar with the work of Edward Fitzgerald in his translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. He said,

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness—

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”

It is probably the first time that that has been quoted here.

I digress only slightly. The statutory instrument before us proposes to amend the legislation whereby it will no longer be necessary for unwrapped bread to be sold in quantities of 400 grams, as the Minister told us. We welcome that and I will not go into any more detail. It brings us into line with European directives and, as she said, follows similar amendments, made in April 2009 when Labour was in government, regarding prepackaged loaves. The only reassurance that the public will require is that loaves should be clearly marked. One can see opportunities for mis-selling or, perhaps, confusion. I should welcome some comment on that.

As to wine, there was a word that the noble Baroness struggled with, if she does not mind me saying so. I was not sure exactly what it meant. She referred to a “flight”. I thought, “I can think of ‘flute’”; so I should welcome some clarification on that. I do not say that in any way other than to ensure that we get it right. Perhaps I misheard—in which case, I apologise. As to selling samples of wine, I read through the explanations in the impact assessment. Again, I should welcome some assurance. What are described as “samples” and “tasters” are allowed to be sold, without there being any specifics as to what they may be. What protection will there be for consumers in knowing exactly how much they will be purchasing. I am talking about only the wine, not fortified wine.

When I was reflecting about beer, I thought that when we now go to the pub the position is quite obvious. I ask my noble colleagues what they are having, and it will be either a half or a pint. Could it be: “No, I will have a two-thirds”? I could not get my head around this and I should welcome any suggestions as to a handy description of what that would be. I am sure that it will find a ready market.

We understand the purpose of these measures, which we generally accept the need for and are ready to support, subject to the clarifications that I look forward to hearing.

My Lords, of course I will not oppose these measures, but I have significant reservations as to whether they represent the real world. Leaving aside the provisions on bread, which I of course fully support, I am concerned that the consultation exercise seems to have involved organisations relating to wine, beer and spirits rather than relating to what happens in the real world in wine bars and pubs. Until I read all this material, I had not appreciated—of course, I should have done—that there was any restriction on what a publican could sell. I had assumed that the fact that you ordered either a half or a pint of beer was simply tradition, because that is the way that it had always happened. I had not realised that it was a mandatory requirement.

Of course, in the real world of pubs, they vary. In many village pubs when your pint of beer goes down to a quarter and you ask for a half they will pull the pump so many times you almost end up with another pint. The fact that they have charged you only for a half is not material to the measure that you have actually been served. As far as wine is concerned, at the moment as I understand it, you can have only a small or a large glass if you go into a pub or wine bar. Those are the required measures, but there is nothing to stop six of you ordering a bottle of wine and serving it to yourselves in whatever proportions you want; and if you want more, you have another bottle of wine.

I find the regulation of this rather strange and not necessarily representative of what actually happens in the pubs and wine bars of our country—those that remain open. Had I started with a clean piece of legislation, I would have gone for option two and deregulated the whole lot, but I recognise that the consultation makes that rather difficult.

I also wonder whether there has been proper consultation with the people at the sharp end. Will those who run my local village pub have to spend a fortune buying two-third pint glasses which they do not have? If so, are they in favour of this, or would they rather stay with the existing requirements? I would have assumed that, were the Tory element of our Government—and, I suspect, the Liberal Democrat element too—starting from scratch, they would think you should simply say, “Here are the products we sell, whether it is two pints, one pint, three-quarters of a pint, two-thirds of a pint, half a pint and here is the price,” rather than saying, “You cannot sell anything unless it is one pint, half a pint or two-thirds of a pint.” So I have reservations about the order, as I have expressed, but of course I am not going to oppose it.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Young and Lord Razzall, for their questions, which allow me to clarify some points and—as the noble Lord, Lord Young points out—maybe even clarify to myself what a “flight” is.

On whether bread will be clearly marked, I can reassure the noble Lord that the answer is yes. Any new sizes will have to be labelled with the weight clearly shown so people can see exactly what they are buying. What is a wine flight? We are both happy to learn the answer to this. It is a selection of different samples served with a meal. There we are. We are both ready to use this word again. I can see both of us rushing out soon asking for a flight.

I was asked how, if small glasses of wine are deregulated, drinkers can keep track of their consumption if they do not know how much they are being served. This deregulation is aimed at a specific market, that of samples and wine tasters served in small volumes of below 75 millilitres. It will not affect the vast majority of wine sales, which will continue to be regulated. There is nothing to stop drinkers asking for information on the quantity of wine samples or tasters in the same way that they would ask for information on alcohol by volume, to work out the units and ensure that they keep within the daily guidelines. I hope that the noble Lord finds those answers helpful.

I have already had exchanges with the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, today on a very different subject—nuclear power stations. I hope I can satisfy him on this more technically than I did with my earlier answer. I am very impressed with his experience of pubs and wine bars. A bit of research had to be done on this job and I am grateful to him for doing so. It must have taken time, effort and expense. He is quite happy with the bread, it seems, but with beer and wine, he did not realise that there is a mandatory restriction. There we are.

The noble Lord made an interesting point about how things vary in real pubs. He talked about something that we all know when we go to local pubs: you do not ask for another pint in your pint glass—you drink a bit and then ask for another half in that glass, because it is impossible to get it right. In fact, you usually end up a winner, so I am with him on this.

On why we do not simply get rid of specified quantities and allow pubs to sell any size, alcohol is a regulated product and the consultation found widespread support for the retention of specified quantities for the sale of alcoholic drinks. In any case, there are unlikely to be any significant savings for business from full deregulation, and there is very little support for it. There is, however, significant support for the continued use of specified quantities of alcohol from consumer groups such as CAMRA, trading standards departments, health agencies and charities including Alcohol Concern and Alcohol Focus Scotland, as well as from businesses.

Finally, the noble Lord asked about the cost of introducing a two-third pint. The answer is that a two-third pint is optional and will be introduced only if there is a business case for it. We know of at least two major brewers which are planning to use it, so I shall be most interested to see what it looks like. When I came here, I thought it might be a good idea to line up a few glasses so that we could actually see what we are talking about, but my Private Secretary decided that that was a bit risqué.

I thank noble Lords for their consideration of the order. The policy objective underpinning it is to free the market from unnecessary regulation while ensuring that the market works effectively. The order delivers greater freedom to business over the sizes that can be sold, while ensuring that consumers will continue to be able to judge the best deal and, we hope, keep track of their alcohol intake. Pubs, bars and restaurants will have more choice over the sizes they serve; bakers and retailers of unwrapped bread will be able to sell loaves in any shape and size, and consumers will have greater choice. The order will ensure that consumers continue to be empowered but will also help to create a more positive environment for business by allowing for greater innovation and growth. I commend the order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.