Metrology Bill, 1996: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, was in possession.

A significant change in existing law is proposed, whereby in special circumstances, dispensation from compliance with this requirement may be given. This dispensation may be granted where field trials of new technologies are necessary to establish suitability.

Traditionally, conformity assessment procedures comprised type approval of new designs and then in turn the verification of each instrument of the approved type before being used for a prescribed purpose. Type approval entails the detailed testing of a new design in accordance with international standards to ensure that its metrological integrity is assured over a reasonable period of time. The type approval certificate is issued thereafter. In the restructured service, both testing and formal approval will be undertaken by the National Metrology Laboratory, Forbairt. Heretofore, type approval was a ministerial responsibility.

Verification, an inspection function, arises when instruments are being prepared for initial use for a prescribed purpose and entails examination for conformity with an approved type and testing for accuracy. The conformity assessment procedures will be set out in regulations to be made by the Director of Legal Metrology.

An important new provision in section 14 (4) enables instruments not intended for a prescribed use to be subjected to the conformity assessment procedures. This will have relevance mainly for industrial quality assurance. A system of in-service inspection will be prescribed by the Director of Legal Metrology. Provision is made for marking and sealing of instruments to signify conformity with legal requirement.

Existing law on units of measurement is being reproduced in the Bill. Ireland inherited the imperial system of units of measurement and significant progress had been made over recent years in replacing it by the Système International d'Unités, SI, colloquially called the metric system.

The Bill also lays down the definition of other units by reference to units of the SI system; the denominations of standards for mass, volume-capacity and length; and standards through which the units may be realised and disseminated.

Responsibility for the provision and maintenance of standards necessary to support measurements generally here is being conferred on Forbairt. The Bill also permits other competent organisations to be responsible for provision and maintenance of standards in their own specialised fields.

An inspector's primary responsibility is to establish if, following initial verification, instruments in use for trade continue to remain within the permitted limits of error. However, an inspector may, if requested by the owner and with the approval of the director, carry out adjustments to measuring instruments in use where they are found to be outside the permitted limits. A somewhat similar provision is in existing law. Forgery of marks, tampering with, or unauthorised removal of marks and seals will constitute an offence under the Bill.

Local authorities have, through the years, provided and maintained weighing equipment for public use, most notably weighbridges set up for the purposes of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, and the Finance (Excise Duties) (Vehicles) (Amendment) Act, 1960, as well as those established for the purposes of markets and fairs laws dating from the last century. This arrangement is being continued and in fact being extended to include measuring instruments. Public confidence in the operation of such equipment is maintained by a system of controls and obligations applicable to the operator of the equipment.

The Bill also regulates the sale of solid fuel by reference to quantity. At present, there are no legislative requirements regarding the display of the net quantity on sealed bags of solid fuel. This omission is now being addressed. Provision is also made requiring the vendor of solid fuel sold loose or in an open container to issue a docket to the purchaser indicating the quantity sold. The existing laws relating to quantity control and short measure are being brought together. Thus they will be more intelligible to the enforcement authorities, the trade and consumers.

The Bill lays down: a regime of offences; provides for appeals to the District Court; the stipulation of rules for the prosecution of offences; and the imposition of penalties for those found in breach of the law. The Bill will permit the transfer of property and equipment currently vested in the Minister or the local authorities to Forfás.

These are the principal features of the Bill many of which of necessity are of a technical nature and may sound somewhat arcane. However, it is important to stress that the enactment of the legislation and the associated modernisation programme shall improve considerably the service available to both industry and consumers.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Most aspects of this Bill are straightforward and, therefore, I will not dwell unduly on them. I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive introduction and background to the Bill. I pay tribute to the Garda sergeants who have served in the weights and measures division since its inception. The system is governed mainly by the Weights and Measures Acts, 1878 and 1889 as amended by the 1928 Act.

In 1922 the Garda Síochána took over from the RIC and since then the legislation has been administered successfully and efficiently. The Garda is responsible for all areas outside the old Dublin Corporation and Dun Laoghaire Borough Council areas. These entities operate their own service.

A weights and measures sergeant was appointed in each area and acted independently reporting only to a superintendent in Garda Headquarters and the Department of Enterprise and Employment, as required. He collected fees, stamped equipment and administered the law and regulations. His mileage expenses were paid by the local authority and subsistence from the verification fees after due process. It was always a prestigious and sought after job within the Garda.

In 1970, the Conroy commission proposed the post should be civilianised, but nothing was done until five years ago when the proposal was resurrected. Legislation was required, but was very slow in coming forward. The start-up date for the new service was put back year to year until late 1995.

Ten years ago the service was operated by 65 sergeants, 40, five years ago and 20 at present. By the year 2000 there will be eight remaining. I understand there is dissatisfaction among weights and measures sergeants about the proposed change. I intend to table amendments on Committee Stage to sections 8 and 9 and, possibly others to assist in the transition.

As the purpose of this legislation is to ratify EU directives, equipment was purchased by the Department some time ago. I seek confirmation that this equipment is still considered modern.

On Bills as technical as this, it would be helpful if Deputies on this side of the House were given an opportunity to study the Minister's comprehensive comments prior to the introduction. As the Minister of State will recall from his own time in Opposition, departmental resources can be sorely missed. Even a three hour preview would be helpful.

I take the Deputy's point.

Would it be possible for an official of the Department to provide briefings on Bills?

I will be happy to arrange for that.

It is important that Members on this side of the House are given an opportunity to assess the many Bills due for publication this year by the Department.

This Bill deals with the science of measurement. Some relevant items which the Minister of State may mention would include meat plant scales about which we have heard so much; weighbridges; oil tankers; bushing machines, used possibly in the grain business; petrol pumps; pubs; taxis and milk meters, a source of contention in rural areas between dairy purchasers and the farming community.

There has been a long delay in giving effect to the European regulations which are binding. A delay of two years is long enough for a Bill such as this which lacks complexity. The Trade Marks Bill, recently introduced, is passing through the House swiftly. It is my understanding that Ireland will be the last country in Europe to give effect to the regulations concerned. I suspect the position is the same in the matter of the Metrology Bill. There is no need for us to be so tardy in incorporating in Irish law regulations which we have already agreed. This does not give a good impression of modern Ireland to the Commission in Brussels and its administrators.

Debate adjourned.