Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Apr 1980

Vol. 319 No. 11

Packaged Goods (Quantity Control) Bill, 1980: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The main purpose of the Bill is to replace the present system of control of the contents of most packaged goods—which is based on the principle that each package must contain at least the nominal contents indicated thereon—with a system based on the principle that, on average, each package contains the nominal quantity indicated thereon. The Bill is necessary for three reasons, first, to meet EEC requirements; secondly, to facilitate exports by bringing the law into line with practice elsewhere and, thirdly, to introduce tighter control on the contents of prepackages and thereby benefit the consumer.

The proposed new system is based on two directives of the European Community—Council Directive No. 75/106/EEC of 19 December 1974 on the approximation of the laws of member states relating to the making up by volume of certain prepackaged liquids, and Council Directive No. 76/211/EEC of 20 January 1976 on the approximation of the laws of member states relating to the making up by weight or by volume of certain prepackaged products. These require that each package must contain on average at least the nominal quantity marked on the package, that the contents of all packages must lie above the absolute tolerance limits set out in the directives and that the vast majority of packages must lie above even stricter tolerance limits also set out in the directives. Packages qualifying will bear an "e"-mark indicating acceptability from a metrological point of view and this mark will act as a passport for the goods on to other EEC markets. Broadly speaking, a major advantage of the system is that it will facilitate easier access to all EEC markets because of its uniformity and general acceptability in the Nine. A quantity control function will ensure, by statistical sampling techniques, that packages are in accordance with the directives. And, as there will be no question of a packer being able to operate on a minus tolerance only, the consumer will be fully protected.

Through a committee established when the need for this legislation was first recognised, the various industrial interests and representatives of retailers and consumer groups were consulted to ensure that the measure introduced would be so designed as to protect the interests of all concerned whilst at the same time enabling industry to pack at maximum efficiency. This last consideration is quite significant to the competitiveness of industry on home and export markets.

Arising from this consultation and at the request of industry, the opportunity has been taken when preparing this legislation to expand its scope beyond the rather modest terms of the EEC directives so as to enable our packers and consumers to gain the maximum advantage from the proposed system. This has been done by proposing that a much wider range of packaged goods be subject to the average system than is the case under the directives.

To ensure compliance with the system, I am establishing a special inspectorate which will concentrate mainly on checks at the premises of packers and importers. In addition, a retail monitoring network will be established which it is expected will sample up to 75,000 individual packages annually thus greatly expanding the level of surveillance at retail level and enhancing the protection afforded the consumers. I should point out that another feature of the proposed system will be the transfer of responsibility for sub-standard packages from the point of sale to the point of packaging or import as the case may be, thus correcting what might be regarded as an anomaly in existing law whereby in many cases the retailer was legally responsible for packages which had already been made up before receipt by him.

I do not, of course, expect that all industry will be able to switch over to the new system overnight and accordingly have made provision for the issuing in certain circumstances of temporary derogations from the system. I am confident that when adopted and fully operative the new system will increase the efficiency and competitiveness of our packers and will provide Irish consumers with a comprehensive protection against sub-standard packages.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State and wish him happiness and success in his position. This is the Minister's first time to introduce a Bill in the House in his capacity as Minister for State and I wish him every success.

The Packaged Goods (Quantity Control) Bill, 1980 is, as the Minister said, merely implementing two EEC Directives, 75/106 and 76/211 involving statistical sampling at the point of manufacture or importation. There is also a change here concerning liability and as time goes on consumers will generally realise that this change is of a significant nature. As has been said, responsibility up to now has rested with the retailer at the point of sale and this is seen to be a rather unfair burden particularly in the case of many items where the retailer had no hand, act or part in either the production, manufacture or packaging of the said items. Yet, in law this unfortunate analogous position obtained where the person offering the commodity at the point of sale was held responsible.

This brings us to the question of product liability, which I am sure the Minister will turn his mind to in the not too distant future. It is a matter that has been attracting attention for some time in Brussels. Needless to say this suggestion has, for obvious reasons, met with a fair degree of opposition from vested interests. But, small though it is, the provision in this Bill which shifts liability from the retailer at the point of sale to somebody else is a step in the right direction. Hopefully the logical expansion of that approach will lead to product liability as we understand those words, the responsibility of the person who is responsible for producing the goods.

The other aspect of the Bill which is to be welcomed is that it gives the consumer a fairer crack of the whip in that he is now in a position to evaluate more accurately what he is purchasing, at least as far as quantity is concerned if not quality. I hope the legislation now going through Seanad Éireann, the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Bill, will look after the quality aspect of goods and will favour the consumer in the long run.

One of the things that intrigues me—and it came up before in the Consumer Information Bill—is the provision that states that markings must be easily legible without opening the package. There are problems here in that there are certain goods and commodities which because of their very nature cannot be opened until the point of consumption. In the case of guarantees and warranties and so on a person may ask a retailer to sell him an article which is on display in his shop window and the retailer goes upstairs or downstairs and produces what one must assume is the same commodity packed in a sealed container. One goes home with it and there is no way of reading the small print until the wrapping or covering is undone. Am I to take it that the provisions of this Bill will ensure that all relevant information, the minimum information necessary under this Bill, will have to be legible on the container of the commodity? It is something I assume will happen and something which will add to the protections now being given to the consumer to which the consumer feels, and rightly so, that he or she is entitled.

The five basic rights of the consumer, the right to protection of health and safety, the right to protection of economic interests, the right of redress, the right to information and education and the right to representation—which is the right to be heard—are enhanced in this Bill. This is particularly so in regard to the right to information and education. Will there be some standardised form of marking or some code that would be easily recognised among the member states of the EEC? There is reference to a marking indicating acceptability from a metrologic point of view. I would like to know if it is envisaged that there would be some simple form of code that would be easily recognisable and if this could be worked out with our eight colleagues in the EEC?

The Minister stated that to ensure compliance with the system he is establishing a special inspectorate which will concentrate mainly on checks at the premises of packers and importers. This is a very welcome development. In relation to this I would also like to know if the complaints which this inspectorate might receive of for instance, noncompliance with this Bill or Act as it then would be, will be referred to the Director of Consumer Affairs? What follow-through will there be by the inspectorate in the Minister's Department to ensure compliance with the regulations under the provisions of the Act? It is good to see that the Minister is expanding the inspectorate to ensure an extended surveillance service at retail level but there must be a follow through.

I would also like to mention one other aspect of the Minister's statement. It concerns what he calls derogations from the system. I appreciate that it is a new system of marking and will cause certain flutters in the packaging and distribution end of industry and trade, which, of course, will ultimately add to the cost of the commodity being packed. I would like to know what the Minister means by temporary derogation. For how long will these people be allowed to derogate from the provisions of the Bill when enacted? What steps will be taken to ensure the expeditious implementation of this Bill?

All in all the Bill is to be welcomed. It is as a result of very long and arduous consultations within the member states of the EEC and I hope the Minister will ensure that it is implemented as soon as possible.

On behalf of the Labour Party I welcome the Bill. It is a long time since packaging departed from its purely functional role and became part of the sales effort directed at consumers. It is a matter of regret that over time, and particularly in recent years, the relationship between the size of the package on display in the supermarket or corner store and the weight or volume of the contents have assumed a geometrical progression as one marvels at the capacity of manufacturers to disguise with copious quantities of cardboard, plastics and fresh air the exact contents of their packages. In these circumstances it is all the more important that the consumer should be protected by the introduction of adequate legislation.

I am not only glad that this is being brought in on foot of an EEC directive but that the Government have not been content to do the minimum necessary to keep us in line with the directive, as they might conceivably have done, but have gone beyond that to bring other goods in under the scope of the Bill. It is essential if the shopper—I speak as someone who does his own share of shopping—is to compare the value for money offered by different manufacturers that he or she be under no illusion as to the contents of goods. He will now be aware, as a result of this legislation, that there will never be less in a package than the average number.

I would be interested to know the size of the proposed inspectorate. I trust their work will have the effect of protecting the consumer. Ideally we would like to hear from the Minister, perhaps in an Estimate speech every year, how this legislation is working out, how many prosecutions are brought and how many offences are committed. Ideally we would like to see no prosecutions brought. If the inspectorate is of an adequate size and there are a small number of prosecutions, we can assume that the packaging legislation is being reasonably well looked after.

In connection with the penalties clause I notice that it is rather stiff, as it should be. In the case of a first offence, an offender is liable to a fine not exceeding £1,000 and in the case of a second or subsequent offence to a fine not exceeding £10,000. One point is whether it would be open to us—the Minister might consider this between now and Committee Stage—to take specific action in relation to manufacturers who are habitually in breach of the Act, or importers who show themselves to be in breach of the Act, by banning the sale of their products from shops until they satisfy the inspectorate and the Department that appropriate steps have been taken to ensure that the minimum contents regulations and legislation are being observed. This, rather than lengthy court proceedings, might be more efficacious in bringing the manufacturer or importer to heel. It would be far easier administratively to cope with importers who would be in breach of the Act by preventing entry of their goods if this could be done in accordance with common market rules, than it would be to do something to an Irish manufacturer. That is just a suggestion I throw out to the Minister.

We are fully in agreement with the need for this legislation and we are glad that the Minister has gone as far as he has. We urge him to take any reasonable steps that seem to be necessary to ensure that the legislation when it is passed will be adequate to protect the consumer.

The most important thing about any code of packaging is that it be understood by the consumer. There is a tendency for bureaucracies to create legislation which causes difficulties for industry and requires them to provide all kinds of information which could cost an amount to put on their packets and when it is put there the public cannot make much use of it because it is in such a complex form that they do not understand it. This can arise from excessive zeal on the part of the legislator to put everything that might conceivably be relevant on to the packet. The result is that the really important things are subsumed amidst an immense amount of other less important detail.

It is important to realise what is important to the shopper and only to put what is important on to the package rather than putting on a mass of information that people will not have time to digest. The amount of time people have for deciding which brand of soap they will buy in a supermarket is very little. They are moving fairly fast and just pick one. They do not have time to take four of them out on a page and take notes on the different characteristics given and get their calculator and make a calculation to see if there is a slightly higher amount of cleaning agent in one soap as compared to another and then decide which to buy. The amount of time it would take to do that would absorb more money in terms of time than the amount that might be saved by buying the better brand of soap.

The information provided should be immediately digestible and relevant to the public. If it does not meet that characteristic it only imposes an unnecessary cost on the manufacturers which is reflected in the prices charged to the consumer. There is some argument that some regulations designed to protect the consumer can result in exploiting him by resulting in higher costs. It is important to look critically at the legislation with a view to ensuring that only the most relevant information is put on the packages. Food is one area where there is a greater need for information than any other.

Debate adjourned.

In view of the fact that you overruled my Private Notice Question addressed to the Minister for Agriculture on a change in attitude towards TDs and communications with the Department of Agriculture, with your permission I would like to raise that question on the Adjournment.

I will communicate with the Deputy.