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Beer Measure Discrepancies

Volume 449: debated on Wednesday 21 March 1984

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2.47 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will now implement Section 19 of the Weights and Measures Act 1979 so that beer drinkers will no longer be sold "short measure".

My Lords, the available evidence does not suggest that the practice of dispensing short measure beer is widespread. The Secretary of State, however, recognises that all the while the law is capable of being interpreted differently in different parts of Great Britain and that an underlying current of doubt, confusion and disquiet may remain. Discussions are therefore taking place with the interested parties to see whether an acceptable solution can be found. The Government hope to be able to make a statement shortly.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his obvious understanding of the complexity of this problem. Is it not time that we gave up this absurd system whereby beer is sold by the so-called brimful measure, so that it is either slopping over the sides onto the counter or being sold in short measure? Is the noble Lord aware that the trading standards officers are now of the opinion that beer drinkers are being defrauded of half a million pounds a year in short measures? As the Government have already acted commendably to protect wine drinkers from being cheated, is it not time that they did the same for beer drinkers by making use of the oversized marked glass obligatory?

My Lords, so far as the oversized glass is concerned, I would stress to the noble Lord that if beer were to be served in line measure glasses this would cause large bills for replacement of brim measures and ultimately mean higher prices for the consumer. As for what the customer expects when he asks for a pint of beer, of course that is for the courts to decide.

My Lords, while I appreciate the sympathy expressed on behalf of beer drinkers, although I never drink the stuff myself, may I ask the noble Lord whether he would express a little sympathy for those who partake of other liquid refreshments? Frequently when one asks for a double whisky—I will not say where; I exclude your Lordships' House and the environment—they sometimes add rather too much water. Can something be done about that? Why should there be a monopoly for beer drinkers?

My Lords, I was not aware that anywhere where the noble Lord partakes of his tipple water was added to the mixture of whisky. Of course the noble Lord and the House will be aware that if they come north of the Border they tend to get one-fifth of a gill and not the measure south of the Border. Perhaps if the noble Lord would accompany me home at the weekend he might obtain greater satisfaction.

My Lords, will the noble Lord consider whether we can possibly have an oversized glass appointed for sparkling wines, in time of course for the hundredth birthday of the noble Lord who has just spoken?

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that, speaking as a publican, I never give short measure of beer or any other drink?

My Lords, I am grateful to receive that comment from my noble friend. I am sure that the entire House will note my noble friend's comments.

My Lords, in asking my noble friend a supplementary question, may I declare an interest in that formerly I was a director of a company which produces a stout of which the courts of law have ruled that the froth is part of the drink. Is my noble friend aware that in the places where the beer is sold the glasses are of a particular size, which are a pint and other standard sizes? Can the noble Lord say how to get a quart into a pint pot?

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord, and indeed your Lordships, would care to study the fascinating case of Marshall v. Searles reported in [1964] Crim. L. R. 667, D.C. In that case, the particular brew which has been mentioned but not by name by my noble friend was detailed as, when it was supplied, containing less than 19 fluid ounces of liquid, the remainder being froth. In that case the defence successfully contended that the advertisements for this great brew presented it to the public as a beverage with a head equivalent to 10 per cent. of the whole and the mixture of gas and liquid was what the customer expected to get.

The judgment went on to say that it had no effect on the ability of the inspectors to prosecute in cases of short measure of other beers. I hope that satisfies my noble friend and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley.

My Lords, before the questioning upon this important matter concludes, will the Minister care to make it quite clear that there was no imputation upon the sobriety of the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, when he said that every time the noble Lord asked for a pint of beer it was a matter for the courts?

Yes, my Lords; but I hoped that I was answering the question on what the customer expects when he asks for a pint. The answer it has been suggested that I should convey to your Lordships in this respect is that what does or does not constitute a pint of beer is a matter for the courts. I shall refrain from going into a Scottish case which was dealt with by the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, in an earlier incarnation. In that case it was held north of the Border that the customer expected to obtain a head on his beer.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the real problem here rests on the old adage that, "There's many a slip twixt cup and lip"?

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend and I shall pay attention to his adage myself.

My Lords, if the noble Lord is not disposed to be moved in this matter by the consumer arguments, will he bear in mind that it is the opinion of the Customs and Excise that the sale of beer in short measure defrauds not just the beer drinker but the Inland Revenue as well, since duty is collected on non- existent beer and then is not paid to the Inland Revenue? Finally, does the noble Lord recollect that in the last court case on this matter the judgment appeared to suggest that short measure was only short measure if the customer said it was short measure? Is that not a very unsatisfactory position in which to leave the law?

My Lords, I am afraid I am only able to quote the law as I find it. I will not go further into the 1978 case and I will not quote the 1964 case, but Section 19 of the 1979 Act, which the noble Lord asked about, has yet to be implemented. My first Answer goes to show that the Government are aware of the problems and that we are taking it seriously.