I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time." In order to explain its purpose and scope to Deputies, I have arranged to have an explanatory memorandum circulated with the Bill.
I am very pleased to introduce this Bill which is long overdue and will bring about a major reform of the legal metrology service. The primary objectives of the Bill are to update and consolidate existing weights and measures and quality control legislation and to provide the legal framework for the establishment and operation of the new metrology service.
Measurement is the basis for an extensive range of decisions affecting trade, science and technology, industry, agriculture, health and safety. It has also made possible the beginning and development of scientific activities and has fostered the march of civilisation. In turn, the development of societies has increased the demand for measurement. Industrialisation brought a wider range of technologies and an increase in the number and complexity of transactions; mass production and automation created further demands by requiring interchangeability of components; urbanisation created greater human interaction and interdependency with a consequent need for measurement applied in many aspects of life, such as traffic or environmental control.
The science of measurement is called metrology, It includes the theory of measurement; units of measurement and their physical realisation; measurement procedures and methods; characteristics of measuring instruments; and persons and organisations who undertake measurement. Legal metrology entails the laying down of standards which ensure credibility and confidence in measurement results whenever conflicting interests exist, or where incorrect measurement results may adversely affect individuals or society.
Historical references to measurement are numerous. For example, the Magna Carta of 1215 contains the phrase:
Throughout the kingdom there shall be standard measures of ale, wine and corn. And there shall be a standard width of dyed cloth: namely a width of two ells within the selvage. Weights are to be standardised similarly.
However, it is only in the last century and a half that the demands of science and industry and the concern of the governments of the more advanced economies have led to the unification and accuracy of measurement systems underpinned by an effective enforcement regime.
Metrology law falls into two categories. The first body of law, the weights and measures Acts, 1878 to 1961, together with a number of regulations implementing EU law, concern units of measurement, standards through which the units are realised, organisation of the service and a system of establishing confidence in measuring instruments used in trade. Measurement of gas and metering of electricity are regulated by means of the gas and electricity Acts, respectively.
Parallel to these measures, the Packaged Goods (Quantity Control) Act, 1980, gives effect to EU Directives and deals with the control of quantities in pre-packaged goods. Section 39 of the Restrictive Practices (Amendment) Act, 1987 deals with short measure in goods sold loose.
Thus, the existing legal metrology service is based mainly on 19th century legislation which I am sure the House will agree is no longer suitable for today's technological age. The existing service has its organisational origins in the last century. The organisation is fragmented with overall responsibility for weights and measures and quantity control residing with the Department of Enterprise and Employment. Weights and measures law is enforced by Dublin Corporation and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council staff within their administrative areas and by Garda sergeantex-officio staff throughout the remainder of the country. Local authorities are required to provide accommodation and equipment to enable the inspectorates carry out their work. Resource constraints have meant that local authorities, with the exception of Dublin Corporation, have been unable to discharge this duty.
An inspectorate attached to the Department of Enterprise and Employment enforces the Packaged Goods (Quantity Control) Act, 1980. Enforcement of the law in relation to gas meters is the responsibility of the public lighting departments of Dublin and Cork Corporations. Essentially, the Bill will update existing provisions and provide for the establishment of a new legal metrology organisational structure that will be merged with the industrial metrology functions under the operational control of the National Metrology Laboratory of Forbairt.
The legal metrology service at present operates under the overall control of my Department. The new service being established under the Bill will operate to the higher technical standards necessary to serve the needs of industry and consumers as well as contributing to the establishment of mutual confidence between the metrology services in an open European market.
Increasingly in recent years, people in business are, on a voluntary basis, seeking third party assurance on the metrological integrity of the measuring instruments that they use. The House will appreciate that modern economic necessity obliges economic operators to continually reassess their cost structures. Margins are constantly being eroded in the ever increasing competitive trade environment. Many trading companies see the financial advantages of accreditation to quality production standards, for example, IS 9000, under which certifiable traceable measurements are the foundation of quality in the production of goods and services.
The Bill governs measurements used for the purpose of trade. It will, together with the packaged Goods (Quantity Control) Act, 1980, be construed as one Act. I will be empowered to extend by regulation the scope of application to uses other than trade. Existing weights and measures law is being repealed. Under the Bill, I will have general regulation making powers, including regulations to implement EU legislation, thus consolidating all regulation making powers in the legal metrology field in one Act. As at present, the legislation will allow for the charging of fees. Expenses incurred in the administration of the Act shall be as sanctioned by the Oireachtas.
The Bill proposes the establishment of a legal Metrology Service within Forbairt and the position of Director of Legal Metrology who will be responsible for management of the service, thus replacing the existing fragmented structures. An important element in the establishment of the new service entails the transfer to Forfás, on a voluntary basis, of staff of the existing service. I wish to pay tribute to past and present staff of the Metrology Service, gardaí, local authority and departmental staff — who gave a valuable service to consumers and the industry for many years. My Department has been in negotiation with staff representatives for some time on the transfer terms to apply. I am pleased to say that, through the Garda Síochána Conciliation Council, agreement has been reached with the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors on the terms of transfers. Seventeen of the 20 serving officers have applied to transfer to the new service. Negotiations with the union representing 13 departmental and local authority staff have not yet concluded.
The Bill provides for the appointment of officers of Forfás or existing inspectors who shall enforce the new legislation. Powers are being vested in inspectors to examine and test measuring instruments and goods to ensure conformity with legal requirements. Provision is also made to avoid employees having conflict of interest.
Section 12 provides that bodies, other than the service, to be known as "special bodies", may be authorised by the Director and with the prior consent of the Minister, to carry out statutory functions subject to certain conditions. These conditions may include proven technical competency of staff involved; that the measurement standards used be traceable to international standards; that the "special body" operates its metrological functions in an impartial manner, and that the procedures be adequately documented and open to inspection. A special body will be subject to regular monitoring and if it does not continue to meet the conditions, its authorisation may be withdrawn. It is envisaged that this provision will enable organisations such as the ESB or Bord Gáis to be given responsibility for carrying out respective legal metrology functions in relation to meters used for the sale of electricity and gas.
Suppliers and users of measuring instruments will be required to ensure that where instruments are intended for a prescribed use, they shall conform to legal requirements. Extending this obligation to the suppliers of instruments is new. The existing legal position whereby the user of the instrument is solely responsible for ensuring conformity is unfair.