A major reform of the weights and measures infrastructures in Ireland has been underway since 1992 comprising modernisation of equipment and facilities and streamlining of the organisational structures. This Bill, which I am very pleased to introduce, will bring the programme to completion by establishing a new legal metrology service. The primary objectives of the Bill are: first, to update and consolidate existing weights and measures, and quantity control legislation; and, second, to provide the legal framework for the establishment and operation of the new metrology service.
Measurements constitute the basis for a number of activities that are essential to our everyday lives. In fact, the act of measuring is such an inherent part of civilisation that its historical, economic and social roots often remain hidden deep below the surface of a society's fabric — perhaps unknown to a public whose general welfare depends on a fair and accurate measurement process.
Metrology is the science devoted to the measurement means that make up this process. 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.
Whenever goods are exchanged from one owner to another, a fair assessment of the value of the products being exchanged is necessary. Trade is one of the basic elements that has historically governed human interaction. This is why the economic and social development of a society would be difficult without the use of reliable measurement tools and practices in its basic commercial exchanges.
Metrology is as fundamental to modern society as is the unit of currency, impacting as it does on all aspects of trade, science and technology, industry, agriculture, health and safety and environmental protection. The needs of modern societies generate a constant demand for more precise measurements. For example, in a highly industrialised world the interchangeability of product components and the geographical dispersion of manufacturing units demand worldwide harmonised methods and standards of measurement.
Growing out of a long history of governmental responsibility for protecting citizens from fraudulent business transactions, legal metrology can be considered as the public branch of any given measurement system. In other words, in many cases where measurement results have a direct effect on the interests of the general public, Governments apply regulations that are intended to provide a consistent and valid basis for establishing the highest degree of measurement credibility possible.
As civilisations continue to break new ground with never-ending development processes, the world is becoming smaller. Modern means of communication have reached even the most remote corners of the globe and technological progress in transportation has opened the channels to a geographic accessibility unimaginable even in the recent past. These advances symbolise a world whose individual societies have chosen to join forces on a path towards international co-operation.
One of the most significant consequences of the transformation of a world of nations into an international world is its impact on the global economy. Trading between nations determines the overall economic state of the world. Moreover, a healthy international co-operation within the areas of science, technology, medicine and the environment is a key element for fruitful exchanges of knowledge and expertise. Measurements must provide a strong base for these interactions. This is why the development of harmonised metrological tools and procedures in parallel with the establishment of international co-operation constitutes another important consequence of the move towards a global community. A number of international institutions have indeed been established to deal with metrological subjects in fields such as standardisation, physics, chemistry, and health.
Metrology law in this country falls into two categories. The first body of law, the Weights and Measures Acts, dating from 1878 to 1961, together with a number of regulations implementing EU law. concern the following: 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 of electricity are regulated by means of the Gas and Electricity Acts respectively.
The second, paralleling 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. In addition, 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. Enforcement resources are dispersed between Dublin Corporation and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council staff, who enforce weights and measures law within their own administrative areas and Garda sergeantex officio staff, who carry out similar duties 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 had little success in discharging 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, neither of which have been able to maintain these services.
Essentially, the Bill will update existing provisions and provide for the establishment of a new legal metrology organisational structure which will be merged with the industrial metrology functions under the operational control of Forbairt's national metrology laboratory. 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.
As the world continues to make great bounds forward in science and technology, daily living is becoming more and more complex. Rapid economic growth has led to the consumer era, accentuating the need for protecting both the interests of buyers and sellers as market forces reflect the trend towards growing competition for new products and services.
Increasingly in recent years people in business are, on a voluntary basis, seeking third party assurance on the metrological integrity of the measuring instruments which they use. Many trading companies see the financial advantages of accreditation to quality production standards — for example, ISO 9000, under which certifiable traceable measurements are the foundation of quality in the production of goods and services.
I now turn to the main features of the Bill. The Bill will be brought into force by means of a commencement order. It will, together with the Packaged Goods (Quantity Control) Act, 1980, be construed as one Act. The Bill governs measurements used for the purpose of trade. 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 piece of legislation. As at present, the legislation will allow for the charging of fees. Ministerial approval will be required for new fee rates. 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. As I have already done in the Lower House, I should like to pay tribute to the staff of the metrology service, both past and present, Garda, local authority and departmental, who have given valuable service to consumers and industry down through the years.
My officials have been in negotiation with staff representatives for some time on the transfer terms to apply. In addition, I personally met with staff and their representatives to discuss their concerns. The Bill guarantees that staff who opt to transfer to the new service shall not, unless otherwise agreed, suffer any diminution of their existing terms of employment, including tenure of office.
An agreement was reached with the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors through the Garda Síochána Conciliation Council in January last on the terms of transfer which will apply to Garda sergeantsex officio inspectors of weights and measures. Negotiations with the union representing 12 departmental and local authority staff are nearing completion.
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 both measuring instruments and goods to ensure conformity with legal requirements. Provision is also made to avoid employees having conflicts 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 followed 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. I consider that the existing legal position whereby the user of the instrument is solely responsible for ensuring conformity is unfair. 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. This is important from both the consumer and owners points of view in that it will maintain public confidence in measurements made in the course of trade. It is also vital in a free market regime for measuring instruments that member states operate adequate market surveillance procedures. Provision is made for marking and sealing of instruments to signify conformity with legal requirement.
Existing law on units of measurement which originated from the EU directive is being reproduced in the Bill. While Government policy from 1968 onwards was to adopt a single system of units of measurement,le Systéme International d'Unités, SI, also referred to as the metric system, our progress in achieving that objective was determined by the various EU efforts at withdrawing from legal use non SI units of measurement in use in the Community.
A brake on our progress was also exerted by the relatively slower pace of metrication by our major trading partner, the United Kingdom. However, I am pleased to say that very significant progress has been made in recent years in achieving the change over to a single system of units of measurement, the SI 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 in this country is being conferred on Forbairt. But 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 or tampering with, or unauthorised removal of, marks and seals will constitute an offence under the Bill.
Local authorities have, down 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 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, but this omission is now being redressed. 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. Finally, the Bill will permit the transfer of property and equipment currently vested in the Minister or the local authorities to Forbairt.
These are the principal features of the Bill, many which, of necessity, are of a technical nature. 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.