Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 38 of Session 2002-03, dated 10 July 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that the DTI and National Weights and Measures Laboratory should act to limit the local variation in enforcement of weights and measures legislation by local authorities.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 38th Report of this Session, which examined the relevance and enforceability of the weights and measures legislation; the regulatory burdens faced by consumers and businesses; the variations in the level and effectiveness of local enforcement work; and the contribution the regulation of weights and measures makes to achieving consumer protection and fair market objectives. About £1 billion worth of retail goods are sold every week by weight or volume and the use of accurate weights and measures is therefore crucial for consumer protection and the operation of a fair market place. The Department of Trade and Industry and the National Weights and Measures Laboratory, an Executive Agency of the Department, are responsible for establishing and maintaining the regulatory framework, and ensuring that the legislation is enforceable. Enforcement of the legislation relating to the design of weighing and measuring equipment falls to the Laboratory; and for all other aspects to over 200 local authority Trading Standards Departments.

The Committee found that the Department should have acted more quickly in updating and simplifying the legislation to protect consumer interests. Much of weights and measures legislation is up to 40 years old as the Weights and Measures Act 1985 largely consolidates earlier Acts dating back to 1963. Anomalies have arisen over time. For example, writing paper must be sold by number of sheets but photocopying and typing paper need not. In 1998, the Better Regulation Task Force told the Department that legislation on packaged goods was too complex and did not aid consumer protection. The Department is only now introducing changes to the legislation through a Regulatory Reform Order which is not expected to be in force until 2004. The uncertainty inherent in outdated and complicated legislation undermines effective enforcement, and the Department needs to establish a realistic timetable for essential improvements and adhere to it.

Local enforcement should be sufficiently consistent to achieve effective consumer protection and a fair market place across the country. There is too much variation in the level and effectiveness of local authority enforcement work. For example, the proportion of high risk premises visited by local authorities ranged between 2% to 100%. Whereas some authorities were visiting very few high risk premises, others were visiting them more than once a year. Differing local circumstances will lead to a degree of acceptable variation between local authorities, who need to decide what emphasis they give to trading standards work, including weights and measures enforcement. But they need to operate within a common framework with parameters set by the Department, in the interests of achieving consistent levels of consumer protection. The Department should use the National Performance Framework and its powers under the Best Value regime to set limits on the degree of local variation in weights and measures enforcement work, and assess the performance of local authorities in achieving such standards.

The Department does not know enough about the burdens created by weights and measures legislation. The only quantified assessments by the Department of the costs and benefits of proposed legislative changes relate to sales of beer and cider. It has not estimated the total costs which the legislation places on businesses, how far these costs are passed on to the consumer or the benefits to consumers. The Department recognises the importance of striking the right balance between under- and over-regulation, but it needs to be better informed if it is to know whether that balance is being achieved.

Mr Leigh said today:

"There is too much variation in local authority enforcement of weights and measures legislation. This means that consumers in some areas have less protection against being ripped off, and businesses may not be trading in a fair market place. The DTI and the National Weights and Measures Laboratory should act to limit the variation in enforcement and assess the performance of local authorities. The Department should also quantify the benefits and costs of the legislation to ensure too great a regulatory burden is not placed on businesses."

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