The Government has published its decisions on deregulating package sizes (as required by a 2007 EU Directive), including advice for business. But, so far, there is no advice for consumers.
The National Weights and Measures Laboratory (NWML a Government Agency of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, which is responsible for weights and measures policy as well as legal metrology) has published its response to the recent consultation on implementing EU Directive 2007/45/EC. This requires member states to deregulate (i.e. abolish) fixed sizes for packets, bottles and other containers of almost all goods on or before 11 April – except for wines and spirits.Â As the principle of deregulation had already been decided, this part of the the consultation was confined to the narrow issue of whether to defer implementation for milk, sugar, coffee, dried pasta and butter for 3 – 4 years (which is allowed by the Directive).
Most consultees had opposed deferral, and the Government has accordingly decided to abolish fixed sizes for all products (except wine spirits) from 11 April. The main opponent was Dairy UK, who (inexplicably) appeared to believe that deregulation meant they would have to incur extra costs in producing different sizes of milk container. As the NWML document points out, deregulation means that there will be no requirement to adopt any new sizes or to incur any additional costs. Good point but see Why not deregulate beer? below.
There were two main reasons why the European Commission originally proposed deregulation:
The Courts had previously ruled that if a package size is legal in one member state, it is legal to import it and sell it in any other member state. Hence national regulation had already broken down. Because of conflicting rules in different member states, it would have been very difficult and contentious to impose harmonised fixed sizes at the EU level.
Unit pricing (displaying the price per kg, m, litre etc) means that consumers can compare value for money, and therefore fixed sizes are unnecessary.
There was some resistance to these arguments (e.g. from Dairy UK), but the Commission’s logic was hard to fault. The additional transitional period for certain products was a compromise to placate opponents.
Advice to business but not to consumers
Unfortunately, the consumer interest has so far received little attention in all this. The NWML has simultaneously issued guidance to business on the implementation of the new regime, but there is no accompanying guidance for consumers. Fixed package sizes were originally introduced in order to protect consumers from manufacturers and traders who might seek to deceive consumers by making small reductions in the size of packages without a corresponding reduction in the price i.e. a disguised price increase. So if this form of consumer protection is to be removed and replaced by reliance on unit pricing, it is obviously essential that consumers should actually understand unit pricing and thus be able to make these comparisons. Yet a piece of research* for the former National Consumer Council (now superseded by Consumer Focus) found that the majority of consumers did not use unit prices either because they didnt understand the concept, or because they said they couldn’t read the small print.
What is needed is a campaign of public information to help more people to understand and use unit pricing. It is suggested that the 11 April implementation date should be accompanied by an initial burst of publicity and explanation, and that this should be followed up by a low level but long term campaign to remind people always to look at the unit price as well as the package price.
Who should organise this publicity campaign? and who should pay for it? At Government level, it must be between NWML and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which retained responsibility for consumer affairs when the old Department of Trade and Industry was split. (I leave it to those Departments to agree amicably who does what). However, it goes beyond Government. Other Government agencies such as Consumer Focus, consumer bodies (such as Which?) and retailers themselves have a role to play in minimising any public disadvantage arising from the removal of existing protections.
Why not deregulate beer?
But if we are deregulating package sizes, what about the fixed quantities for alcoholic drinks? If it is right to abolish prescribed quantities for packaged goods (and if it is right to be able to buy as many or as few loose tomatoes as you want), why do we need fixed quantities for draught beer, wine, whisky etc?
As it happens, the NWML did pose this very question in their earlier consultation, and they are due to publish their response in April. Some consultees (e.g. the Licensed Victuallers) opposed deregulation on the illogical grounds that they would incur increased costs of having to change their beer glasses. However, as the NWML has already said (see quotation above), deregulation would permit traders to carry on exactly as they do now with no increased costs.
The other (illogical) argument against deregulation stems from fears over excessive alcohol consumption. However, the facts argue in favour of the use of metric measures for dispensing alcoholic drinks. This is because the so-called unit of alcohol is actually 10 ml, and this is easy to calculate by multiplying the displayed percentage of alcohol by volume? (ABV) by the quantity of drink in millilitres. Thus, half a litre of beer at 4% ABV is 2 units. Not so easy to calculate if beer is dispensed in pints.
So let us hope that NWML will be swayed by facts and logic rather than by pressure from vested interests and tabloid newspapers.
*Cullum, P and Terry, (2007) Measuring up: consumer perceptions of weights and measures regulation. NCC