Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office reported to Parliament today that although the Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for the regulation of weights and measures, it needs better information on the level of protection which is being afforded to consumers.
The effect of inaccurate weights and measures being used for trade, whilst not necessarily high at the level of the individual transaction, can be significant for the economy as a whole. £1 billion worth of retail goods are sold by quantity in the United Kingdom every week. The National Audit Office estimated that, in 2000-01, five per cent (94,700) of equipment used to weigh or measure products such as food or petrol out of the over 2 million items tested were sufficiently inaccurate to fail an inspection; the quantity of 10 per cent (10,200) of batches of pre-packed goods out of the 105,000 tested at packing plants were outside acceptable tolerances; and four per cent (77,100) of goods in shops out of the 2.1 million tested were found to have incorrect quantity information.
Existing legislation covers most longstanding risks to consumers and businesses, and is able to address blatant attempts to sell short weight or measure, but much of it has become increasingly out of date and overly complex. The Department has been seeking to modernise and simplify the legislation since 1999 but progress has been slowed by a lack of Parliamentary time for primary legislation. Sir John recommends that the Department urgently pursues the modernisation and simplification of weights and measures legislation in order to ensure that it is enforceable.
The Department and the National Weights and Measures Laboratory (an Executive Agency of the Department) are jointly responsible for ensuring that the law is enforceable. The Laboratory enforces regulations that ensure that weighing and measuring equipment meets approved designs. Local Trading Standards Departments are responsible for enforcing regulations on the use of weighing and measuring equipment for trade. The National Audit Office found wide variations in the scale and results of local enforcement work. For example, in 2000-01, County Councils visited on average 16 per cent of premises where weights and measures were used in trade whereas for Scottish authorities the average was nearly 40 per cent. Some authorities in England and Wales visited only two per cent of their high risk premises each year, whereas others visited over 100 per cent. And the average rate at which weighing and measuring equipment in use was found not to comply with the legislation ranged from 2.5 per cent in Unitary Authorities to 8.1 per cent in Scottish Authorities. Variations in the effectiveness of local enforcement can lead to the accuracy and reliability of weights and measures differing unacceptably between one part of the country and another.
Local Authorities must provide annual information on enforcement activity – but only a minority have complied in recent years. The Department is taking steps to improve the information that it has available on local enforcement work, and to support the improvement of local authority performance. It has introduced a national performance framework for trading standards and is currently developing performance measures.
In continuing to develop the Framework, Sir John recommends that the Department ensures that it can generate accurate, timely and comprehensive information on local weights and measures enforcement; establish the contribution such work can make to achieving consumer protection and fair trading; and introduce appropriate performance measures with which to help improve the performance of Trading Standards Departments and reduce variations in performance between them.