Non-Automatic Weighing Instruments Regulations 2000

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Dr. Howells: I welcome the opportunity to introduce the Non-automatic Weighing Instrument Regulations 2000. It may be helpful for me to provide the Committee with some background details about these regulations and to explain the purpose that they are intended to serve. I certainly will not make lengthy references to metric martyrs, or to my own instinct that the United Kingdom Independence party is pulling the strings here.

The regulations are essentially technical in nature—although they provide a good platform for all sorts of propaganda. I look forward to hearing more of it. I shall be interested to hear from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. He was Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs between 1988 and 1990, when the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), who was also a Minister at that time, announced that the ounce and the pound would be replaced by the gram and the kilogram after 31 October 1999. I do not recall any resignation—but that has nothing to do with these regulations.

Mr. Winnick: This may not apply to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page), who has already spoken, but surely on the issue that my hon. Friend was talking about, it should have been a matter of principle for the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—who will no doubt soon be on his feet—to resign. What possible justification could he have had for not resigning his ministerial position?

Dr. Howells: I cannot answer that; perhaps the Damascus experience that the hon. Gentleman referred to earlier also applies to political principle. Perhaps the Conservatives renounced any thought of resigning on principle.

The regulations derive from a European Council directive, 90/384/EEC, which creates a single market for non-automatic weighing instruments throughout Europe. This is intended to ensure that certain minimum standards of accuracy are achieved wherever the instruments are used. I would have thought that that was rather important for consumers—unless people believe that it is all right for customers to be cheated. This is essential for consumer protection, and also important in other areas- for example, weighing activities in connection with the application of other laws.

I should point out that the provisions contained within these regulations are not new. The directive that they implement was adopted in 1990. It was the first

weights and measures directive to be adopted under the so-called ``new approach'', which avoided the inclusion of detailed technical requirements that inevitably became out of date almost as soon as the ink had dried. Instead, the new approach relies on a limited set of essential requirements, as set out in schedule 2 to the regulations, voluntary harmonised standards, andmanufacturer's choice of different conformity assessment procedures, as covered by regulations 10 to 15. Industry values the flexibility that the new approach has brought.

The directive was first implemented by regulations that came into force on 1 January 1993. Besides the main implementing regulations, a number of other changes had to be made to align other legislation, including legislation in Northern Ireland, with the new provisions.

Subsequently the Commission realised that a number of ``new approach'' directives in different areas had produced slightly differing requirements in relation to the EC mark of conformity. An amending Directive was therefore proposed and adopted to harmonise the requirements, with the ``EC mark of conformity'' becoming the ``CE marking''. I understand that there is significance in that change, and I am sure that the Committee knows what it is.

In implementing the amending directive, the decision was taken to consolidate the 1992 regulations and their amendments, which resulted in the Non-automatic Weighing Instruments (EEC Requirements) Regulations 1995. The 1995 regulations were subsequently amended twice, in 1997 and 1998. That meant that there were then three sets of regulations to which trading standards officers and manufacturers needed to refer. Users of the regulations complained that that was unnecessarily complicated.

The regulations before us allow for self-verification of instruments by the manufacturer and, as such, are referred to by manufacturers more frequently than other regulations might be. In other words, this is a deregulatory measure—I understood that the Conservatives were very keen on such things, after the thousands of regulations that they introduced during their time in office. It was therefore considered that it would be of benefit to manufacturers to consolidate the 1995 regulations, together with the two sets of amendments, to make them easier to follow. That led to the making of the 2000 version of the regulations.

In addition to the need to consolidate the regulations, it was necessary at the same time to rectify some deficiencies that had been identified. For example, an amendment was made to prohibit instruments that do not meet the requirements of the directive from being placed on the market;

Mr. Page: Can the Minister give some examples of what might stop weighing machines being placed on the market. For example, would the ability to weigh in pounds and ounces mean that a machine could not be put on the market?

Dr. Howells: No, not until this point. However, the previous Government, of which the hon. Gentleman was a member, decided that there was a deadline—December 1999—when such indications were to be taken off any measuring instrument. It was the present Government who managed to get a 10-year extension, and I am proud to have played my part in that. The extension means that in any supermarket or small shop, people can ask for goods in pounds and ounces and the amounts will be translated immediately. Nobody had complained about the situation until the United Kingdom Independence party found a martyr.

The 2000 version of the regulations, like the previous versions, has been made under two separate sets of powers. Most parts of the regulations implement the articles of the directive and are therefore made under the powers in the European Communities Act 1972. Those parts relate to the placing on the market and putting into service of instruments. However, part III of the regulations, which makes requirements that instruments must satisfy when they are actually in use, has been made under the powers in the Weights and Measures Act 1985—in other words, under powers within national legislation. That is because the directive does not make full provision for what happens to instruments after they have been put into service.

When the regulations were first proposed in 1992, and when revised versions were proposed in 1995 and recently, full public consultations were conducted which gave everyone with an interest the opportunity to comment. Responses to these consultations gave agreement for the proposals: they were considered to be both necessary and workable. The weighing industry's main trade federation has said that the latest version of the regulations is a comprehensive enactment of the directive. As such, it provides the UK weighing industry with a solid base from which to develop its trade with the European Economic Area. That is quite important.

A moment ago I mentioned self-verification, and it may be helpful to the Committee if I provide a brief explanation of that. The directive that the regulations implement introduced self-verification into the United Kingdom. That directive uses the expression ``EC Declaration of Type Conformity'' but it is more commonly known as self-verification. That is the process by which manufacturers check that the weighing instruments they have made comply with all the requirements of the directive. Manufacturers are permitted to do this only if they have the appropriate quality system approval for the manufacture and testing of the instruments. The quality system has to be approved and monitored by an approved body. Subject to that surveillance, manufacturers can get on with the business of making, testing and selling weighing instruments. Self-verification saves manufacturers the costs of arranging for verification to be carried out by a third party, and cuts delivery times. In other words, it improves the competitiveness of this sector of British industry.

The directive does not require manufacturers to go down the self-verification route. Manufacturers can decide to ask an approved body to come in and carry out the testing of the weighing instruments at the end of the production line. The manufacturer will be charged a fee for this service.

I now turn to the units of mass permitted under the non-automatic weighing instruments directive, and therefore under the regulations that implement it. They are the legal units permitted by directive 80/181/EEC, as amended, which is the Council directive relating to units of measurement. The units of measurement directive permits the use of the tonne, kilogram, gram, milligram, microgram, troy ounce and metric carat, which is used for weighing precious stones. It also permits the use of other units of mass as ``supplementary indications'' up to and including 31 December 2009. That is the extension that the Government negotiated, which the previous Government had decided was not worth negotiating.

The 1995 version of the regulations may have appeared to be different in this respect. Since imperial units were permitted to be used in selling goods loose from bulk up to and including 31 December 1999, imperial units were included as primary indications in the schedule to the 1995 regulations. However, as those units of mass are no longer permitted as primary indications, they were removed from the schedule when the 2000 version of the regulations was made. The change was merely an update, and reflected a change that had already taken place in accordance with the units of measurement directive. The 1995 regulations would have been interpreted as having had exactly the same effect as the 2000 regulations in any case, even if they had not been expressly updated. It should be noted that the regulations made in 2000 do not amend the Weights and Measures Act 1985 with regard to the legal units of measurement or any other matter.

I shall to explain what would happen if the regulations ceased to exist. The 2000 regulations revoked the 1995 regulations, which they replaced. In the event of the current set of regulations being annulled, the annulment would take effect from the date of the prayer, not from the date of the making of the regulations. The 1995 regulations would not revive, and there would be a gap in the legislative cover of non-automatic weighing instruments. In addition, the UK would be in breach of the directive on non-automatic weighing instruments.

Manufacturers have said that the idea of the regulations being annulled fills them with dismay and foreboding. In the competitive market for these instruments, even a short disruption in UK manufacturers' ability to meet customer requirements would have a long-term effect on their business, and their European and far eastern competitors would be quick to take advantage of the situation. For all those reasons I urge the Committee to accept the regulations.

10.26 am

 
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