The purpose of this Bill, as its name implies, is to update methods of control of the contents of packages—not only the methods employed by packers and importers but also those of the State. This will be achieved by legalising the average system of quantity declaration on packages by requiring that packers and importers who have not already done so introduce statistical quantity control procedures and by setting up a specially trained departmental inspectorate to oversee the practical operation of these procedures. It should not, however, be thought that the new system will consequently penalise and adversely affect packers. In fact, the opposite is true.
By the introduction of tighter control procedures packers will benefit in that under the principles of the average system they will be able to take full advantage of modern high-speed filling equipment and discontinue the practice off "over filling" which is necessary so as to ensure compliance with present "minimum contents" law. The consumer too will benefit from these proposals as a result of the increased surveillance at factory and import levels. Importers will be under the same obligation as packers to ensure that packages meet the requirements of the law. They will, however, to a large extent be able to meet this obligation by obtaining documentation from their suppliers abroad.
These proposals bear strong similarities to those being adopted elsewhere in the European Community in that they are based on two directives of the Community, Nos. 75/106/EEC and 76/211/EEC, the aim of which is to ensure free circulation within the Community of packages which have been made up and are marked in accordance with the directives. However, this is not to say that our proposals are limited to implementing these two EEC directives. In fact they go beyond the scope of the directives in that they embrace all prepacked goods over five grams or five millilitres in quantity whereas the EEC measures place an upper ceiling of 10 kg/10 litres—five litres in some cases—on the quantity and, in the case of some products, confine the benefits to certain specified sizes. I am also taking the precaution of providing certain powers in the Bill to expand or contract the scope of the legislation so as to enable us to keep pace with future developments in Community planning or the requirements of international trade.
The Bill has been welcomed by packers and manufacturers generally, because of the advantages already mentioned which will accrue from the introduction of the average system of quantity declaration and which will help to increase their competitiveness on both home and foreign markets. It is of particular interest to exporters of products which come within the scope of the two directives mentioned as it will enable them to use the symbol for which the directives provide—the "e-mark". This symbol acts as a metrological passport within the Community in that it means that the Government of the member state in whose territory it was applied guarantees that the quantity declared on the package is correct within the tolerances laid down in the directives. In time I expect that the "e-mark" will in practice become recognised as a guarantee of accuracy in export markets other than those within the Community and this should further increase the acceptability of Irish produce abroad.
The Bill is comparatively simple in concept in that it sets out to provide the broad parameters for the new control system. The detailed requirements will be contained in regulations to be made by the Minister and in two guidance manuals, one for packers and importers and the other for inspectors, to be published. Two teams of consultants have been engaged by my Department to draw up these guidance manuals and industry was provided with a first draft of a manual for packers and importers for consultation purposes some months ago.
The response given it and the advice and comments generated have been of great assistance in preparing for the introduction of this Bill and the drafting of the necessary regulations which is currently under way. I should mention that my Department are also deeply indebted to the members of the Consultative Committee on Prepackaging. This committee, which was set up by the Minister in 1977 to advise on the implementation of the directives, comprises representatives of industry, packers, consumers and trade interests as well as representatives of the weights and measures authorities. Its advice and assistance are still available to the Department in connection with the preparation of the regulations and manuals and are of inestimable value.
I would like to expand on a number of details contained in the provisions, specifically, certain exclusions from the Act, including special arrangements in respect of small packers, the role of the departmental inspectorate, marking requirements and certain temporary derogations which may be granted. I should say initially that I intend excluding certain types of packages from the scope of the proposals, specifically, so called "random" or "catch" weights. These comprise random weight made-up packages such as are quite common in the bacon and dairy processing industry which, being so made up, are difficult if not impossible to monitor using the proposed methods of statistical sampling. Accordingly, it has been decided that they will continue to be subject to existing "minimum contents" requirements.
This, in turn, bring me to the one group of packers which I propose exempting from statistical control procedures and record keeping. Specifically these are very small packers or packers of short runs where each package is manually filled and weighed on non- or semi-automatic weighing equipment and is filled to minimum contents requirements, thus ensuring that no package contains less than the declared quantity.
I should now like to expand on the proposed role of the inspectorate to be established to oversee the implementation of the proposals. Although the proposals include provisions for prosecution and relatively stiff penalty clauses, it is my intention that the inspectorate and back-up staff of my Department will act in an advisory and supportive manner and I hope that they will not be seen by industry as an investigatory force whose primary purpose is to ferret out infringements. Rather, it is in the interests of all concerned to co-operate to ensure that the new scheme is adopted as smoothly and efficiently as possible so as to maximise its advantages.
I would like to emphasise that this Bill deals only with packaged goods which are sold by weight or volume. It is concerned only with the way in which the weight or volume is expressed on such packages, the extent to which this expression of quantity may vary from the exact quantity included in the package and the steps which must be taken by packers and importers to ensure that any variation in quantity which may occur is in accordance with the law.
Where the Bill and the regulations to be made under it refer to markings on packages, other than the "e-mark" which is provided for in the EEC Directives, the markings in question are the declaration of quantity and the identification mark of the packer or importer, the latter mark being necessary to enable an inspector to trace the source of the package.
Other markings such as listing of ingredients, showing of unit price, marking of latest date for use or consumption of the product, are the subject of two directives which were adopted recently by the European Community and which will be implemented in Ireland by other legislation, possibly later this year.
I am aware that there are also compulsory markings in relation to drugs, dangerous substances, agricultural produce and so on which are the responsibility of other Ministers. I have been in touch with the Departments concerned with a view to ensuring that there will be no conflict between their regulations and those which it is proposed to make under this Bill when enacted. Matters other than marking—for example, prescribing of products which must be sold by weight, volume or count, prescribing of sizes of packages in which certain products must be sold, indication of country of origin of a foreign product—are at present dealt with, and will continue to be dealt with, under the Merchandise Marks Acts, 1887 to 1978, although some minor modifications of these Acts will be necessary because of the legalisation of the average system of quantity declaration. These modifications are provided for in sections 12 and 20 of the Bill.
I do not, of course, expect that all industry will be able to switch over to the new system overnight and accordingly have made provisions for the issuing in certain circumstances of temporary derogations. While the outside limit of derogation laid down in the Act is 31 December, 1985, it is expected that the majority of temporary derogations from the Act will be for periods of months rather than years. They will be granted primarily to enable packers to use up existing stocks of labels and containers. Derogations may, however, be granted, in exceptional circumstances, for longer periods and from other requirements of the Bill—for example, the requirement to use approved equipment or to make checks at prescribed periods. Their primary purpose is to enable the Bill to be brought into operation within a reasonably short period after its enactment, thus facilitating those manufacturers who are already in a position to comply with its requirements and who feel that their competitiveness, particularly on export markets, is adversely affected by the present requirement to pack to the "minimum" rather than the "average".
I am confident that when adopted and fully operative the new control system will increase the efficiency and competitiveness of our packers and will provide Irish consumers with a comprehensive protection against substandard packages. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.