Hallmarking (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage

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

I welcome the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, to the House.

I am pleased to bring the Hallmarking (Amendment) Bill 2016 before the House today. The Bill has passed all stages in Dáil Éireann and obtained cross-party support. The purpose of this Bill is to update and modernise Irish law relating to hallmarking. Hallmarking describes the administrative and legal system for ensuring that articles of precious metals conform to legal standards as to the fineness of the precious metals, and is one of the earliest examples of consumer protection legislation in Ireland. The legislation goes back to 1637 and provides that no article made from named precious metals can be sold in Ireland without it being assayed and hallmarked.

Currently the primary legislation dealing with hallmarking in Ireland is the Hallmarking Act 1981 and it covers articles made from gold, silver or platinum or alloys of gold, silver or platinum. Such precious metal articles must bear either an Irish hallmark, a hallmark of the international hallmarking Convention on the Control and Marking of Articles of Precious Metals, of which Ireland is a member, or an approved hallmark from an EU member state in order that they can be legally offered for sale in this country.

In addition to hallmarks, articles of precious metals commonly bear a sponsor’s mark. This identifies the person who submits the article for hallmarking, that is, the person who made the article or who worked it into its finished state, or a dealer. As a result, the owner of an article can identify not just the fineness of the metal and the assay office that determined it, but also the provenance of the article. The Company of Goldsmiths of Dublin oversees the Dublin Assay Office, which is situated in Dublin Castle. The Irish Assay Office is an independent, self-funding, third party State-appointed test laboratory which assays and hallmarks items of gold, silver and platinum jewellery and plate articles, either manufactured in Ireland or imported. The mark of the Assay Office is the indication that the precious metal conforms to a certain standard of fineness and, therefore, assures the consumer that an article that states it is pure gold actually is pure gold. I wish to put on record my appreciation of the great work done by the Assay Office. This was also recognised in Dáil Éireann by colleagues across the floor of the House.

Since the current legislation was introduced in 1981, there have been advances in the jewellery trade. Palladium has been recognised as a precious metal and there has been an increase in the production of jewellery made of mixed precious metals and of a combination of both precious metal and non-precious metal. Under current legislation the Assay Office cannot legally hallmark palladium or articles made from mixed precious metals or multi-metal articles as the 1981 Act does not provide for this. The introduction of new Irish hallmarks to cover these new jewellery items would provide effective protection for consumers, increase consumer confidence in the fineness of the precious metal article and promote trade and economic activity for Ireland.

In recent times, there has been a trend towards assay offices in other jurisdictions to either open assay offices outside their countries of establishment or to place officials in factories abroad, in order to assay and mark articles of precious metals on site. This practice has been made for good business reasons, since it is easier for a manufacturer if the testing and marking is done in the factory where the product is made since the delivery time is shortened and the product can be packed for retail display at source. Compliance is also facilitated by having the testing and marking done before products leave the factory. The UK and the Netherlands have already chosen to take this route. In order to have the possibility to engage in such offshore assaying, were it to choose to so do in the future, the Assay Office made a request to the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation to amend the Hallmarking Act 1981 to legislate for such a provision. While it is my understanding that the need for such offshore marking is not currently required and that the Assay Office does not intend engaging in such activity in the near future, legislating for the possibility at this stage is seen as a prudent way of ensuring that the facility is open to it, if required. The Dublin Assay Office would be required to seek approval from the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation before any such offshore activity by the Assay Office could take place under the Bill. The same prudent approach lies behind the proposed provision allowing for the possibility of the Irish Assay Office entering into an arrangement with another assay office to hallmark precious metals. For example, such a scenario might arise where the volume of articles of a specific precious metal might not justify expenditure on the assaying equipment for that metal by the Dublin Assay Office.

As the Bill is a technical measure, consultation with the European Commission and all other EU member states was required under EU law. No submissions were received from parties in other member states or from the Commission. I now wish to turn to the provisions of the Bill and briefly explain what each is designed to achieve. Sections 1 and 17, providing for definitions and Short Title and commencement, respectively, of the Bill are standard legislative provisions while sections 2 to 16, inclusive, are the core provisions of the Bill.

Section 2 provides for amendments to section 1 of the Hallmarking Act 1981 by making consequential amendments to that Act’s definitions. Section 3 provides for an amendment to section 2 of the Hallmarking Act 1981 to enable the Assay Office, if it is approved to engage in offshore marking, to strike hallmarks outside the State and for articles bearing those hallmarks to be treated in the same way as articles bearing hallmarks struck in the State. Section 4 provides for an amendment to section 3 of the Hallmarking Act 1981 to allow for the making of regulations to prescribe different marks for hallmarks applied in Ireland and for those applied offshore.

Section 5 provides for a technical amendment to section 4 of the Hallmarking Act 1981 in relation to forged hallmarks. Section 6 provides for the addition of three new sections to the Hallmarking Act 1981 to allow offshore hallmarking to take place if the Irish Assay Office chooses, at some time in the future, to engage in such activity.

Section 7 provides for a technical amendment to section 5(1) of the Hallmarking Act 1981 by adding palladium to the list of articles of precious metals for which it is an offence to apply a false trade description. Section 8 provides for a technical amendment to section 6(2) of the Hallmarking Act 1981 by adding palladium to the list of articles of precious metals qualified by the word "plated". Section 9 inserts new sections 6B and 6C into the Hallmarking Act 1981 to allow for the hallmarking of multi-metal articles. Section 10 provides for a technical amendment to section 8 of the Hallmarking Act 1981 by adding palladium to the list of articles of precious metals to ensure that every reference to gold or silver in an enactment specified in subsection (2) shall be construed as including a reference to palladium. Platinum has already been included in the definition in the 1981 Act.

Section 11 provides for an amendment to section 9 of the Hallmarking Act 1981 to allow the Irish Assay Office and a sponsor to make arrangements for the sponsor’s mark to be struck by the assay master or an authorised assay office in accordance with section 6 of this Bill. Section 12 provides for an amendment to section 12 of the Hallmarking Act 1981 to ensure that, in the case of additions to existing articles of precious metal, the added metal is of the same precious metal as the existing article. It also provides technical amendments to definitions and provisions of offences for such cases. Section 13 provides for the inclusion of provisions on offences and penalties related to forged hallmarks. Section 14 provides for the inclusion of provisions to take account of offences by a body corporate.

Section 15 provides for an amendment to section 14 of the Hallmarking Act 1981 by providing for the Irish Assay Office to make charges, with the consent of the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, for hallmarks applied in any offshore assay offices it establishes under section 6 of this Bill in the same way it currently does for hallmarking in its Dublin office.

Section 16 is a standard repeals provision and provides for the repeal of sections of the Plate Assay (Ireland) Act 1807 and section 13 of the Hallmarking Act 1981, both of whose subject matter are now covered by section 13 of the Bill.

Jewellery is often an expensive commodity in the lives of consumers, particularly when people are buying engagement or wedding rings, for example. It is important that people are assured that they are getting what they pay for, especially given the often very strong sentimental value that is attached to such items. This Bill aims to enhance consumer protection and strengthen consumer confidence regarding the proper hallmarking of articles of precious metal in respect of their fineness. I am pleased to be bringing a number of consumer-friendly Bills through the Houses of the Oireachtas at present. The Hallmarking (Amendment) Bill 2016 is another important aspect of that work. I look forward to working with Senators during Committee and Report Stage on this Bill and I will be happy to reply to any questions they may have.

I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive opening statement. She will be back in the House dealing with legislation on gift vouchers on Thursday, I believe. Group spokespersons have ten minutes and other Senators have five. Those are maximum rather than target times.

It is great to have the Minister back here today. I have a little bit of practical experience in this field through my auctioneering work. I have a qualification in fine arts and antiques so I have an appreciation for what we are talking about. Fianna Fáil certainly supports the general principles of the Hallmarking (Amendment) Bill 2016 and will support its passage to the next Stage. Hallmarking involves putting official marks or a series of marks on precious metals such as gold and silver to ensure that such metals conform to permissible standards of fineness of precious metals. The Bill also provides for the assaying and hallmarking in certain circumstances of articles of precious metals outside the State. In general, these legislative changes strengthen the regulation of hallmarking, which benefits consumers as it assures buyers of the standard of the materials used in these articles. Ensuring, through quality assurance, that these metals and materials are of certain quality increases consumer protection in this area. It gives a certain assurance and guarantee to customers that they are buying what they think they are buying. That is the most important part of the Bill. On behalf of Fianna Fáil, I am delighted to commend the proposed changes and general purpose of this Bill.

The Bill is technical in nature. However, hallmarking is a very important process and it has been very interesting to learn more about it. Hallmarking is one of the oldest forms of consumer protection, and has existed in Ireland since 1637. As we know, the current laws on hallmarking require all goods of gold, silver and platinum to bear a defined distinct mark, a pressed stamp on a piece of jewellery, or a hallmark, before they can be legally offered for sale.

The Hallmarking (Amendment) Bill 2016 proposes amendments to the Hallmarking Act 1981 that will give effect to three main proposals. The first is to add palladium, alongside gold, silver and platinum, as a precious metal that comes under the State’s hallmarking regime. The proposal to add palladium to the State’s hallmarking regime reflects the increasing popularity of that metal in domestic and international markets. The second proposal is to enable the Company of Goldsmiths of Dublin, which oversees the Assay Office in Dublin, to open assay offices outside the State where articles can be assayed by the company and have Irish hallmarks applied to them. The company is also to have power to enter into agreements with certain other offshore assay offices allowing them to assay articles and strike Irish hallmarks on them on the company’s behalf. My colleague, Deputy Quinlivan, visited the Assay Office in Dublin Castle and was highly impressed with its set-up and with the expertise of its staff. He told me it is a very impressive, effective organisation staffed by people who have a deep desire to ensure customers are protected and Irish jewellery retains its very high reputation for quality. The third consequence of the Bill is to create new offences of applying forged hallmarks and of selling articles that bear them. This is an important layer of protection for those in this industry.

Sinn Féin welcomes the Bill as it will bring Ireland into line with other countries and give assurance to buyers of the quality of Irish-made palladium jewellery. Most jewellery representative groups were happy with the provisions of the Bill while just one group wanted weight exemptions included. After our own research and consultation with representative bodies, we concluded that no amendments for weight exemptions should be introduced so as to ensure the high quality of Irish products is maintained and to protect consumers. Therefore, we are happy to support the Bill in its current form. The addition will bring Ireland into line with other signatories of the 1972 Hallmarking Convention and will give Irish buyers articles made with the quality assurance of an Irish hallmark.

I thank the Minister for bringing forward the Bill. I thank the staff of the Assay Office for their important work in this area. The Irish Assay Office has been in operation for the past 381 years. I hope the changes contained in the Bill will continue to help protect the high quality of Irish jewellery for many years to come.

I will bear in mind the Acting Chairman's comment that ten minutes is a maximum, not a target.

I would like to continue in that fashion. I welcome the Minister. This is yet another Bill that is very straightforward and simple. While it is perhaps technical in nature, it is very necessary. It is about updating our laws. Some of the precious metals were not even discovered at the time of the original hallmarking legislation and certainly palladium needs to be included. I would like to comment on hallmarking as a consumer issue. It is very important that people are protected, get what they are paying for and can be assured that there is a standard ensuring that what they are purchasing is what it purports to be and will stand the test of time. The Minister is absolutely right that Ireland is full of the history of wedding rings being handed down through the generations. They are of huge sentimental value and it is a tremendous disappointment if they are found not to be of the material they were supposed to be.

I do not intend to delay. The legislation needs to be updated and the Minister has taken a very common-sense approach. The fact that everybody here and those who work in the industry are in agreement is further evidence of the Minister's due diligence before bringing the Bill to the House. I commend her and the Bill.

I thank the Senators for their support. They have all acknowledged that the Assay Office does wonderful work in Dublin Castle. I visited the office, as did Deputy Quinlivan. What they do there is amazing and if colleagues get an opportunity, it is worth a visit. It is full of history going back to the 1600s. It is a great experience. I compliment them on and thank them for the great work they do.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 5 February 2019.