Government rejects bid to clarify law on product description and advertising

A Government Minister has thwarted an attempt by Lord Taverne to bring product description and advertising into line with the rules for package labelling and sales of loose goods from bulk.

The Consumer Rights Bill is currently being considered line by line by a Committee of the House of Lords.  As its title implies, the purpose of the Bill is to strengthen the rights of consumers, especially in relation to internet transactions, and its provisions are to be welcomed.  However, the Bill makes no mention of the great anomaly – that whereas packages and shelf labels must use metric units (with the option of a supplementary indication in imperial), product description and advertising – and indeed instructions and maintenance manuals – can be imperial-only, with no metric indication.

Lord Taverne, a Liberal Democrat peer, moved an amendment to remedy this, and the full text, together with the ensuing debate, can be read at this link.  A recording of the debate can also be viewed on Parliament TV at

http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=16312.

The Government spokesperson, Baroness Jolly, responded by assuring peers that:

“The Weights and Measures Act applies to any unit or measurement in use for trade. This is intended to apply not just in the transaction itself but to any use in connection with, or with a view to, trade. That would already cover most advertisements or product descriptions for goods. I hope that noble Lords will be reassured by this.”

In fact, this interpretation is completely at variance with the response invariably given by Trading Standards Officers when asked to tackle traders who advertise, say, a 4 ft by 6 ft table – or estate agents who advertise properties exclusively in feet and inches – which is that the Act only applies to “transactions by reference to quantity” such as tomatoes at so much per kilogram, or a carpet priced per square metre.  It would not apply (so TSOs have always said) to a mere description, such as a 1000 square feet office or a 6 cubic foot fridge.

So who is right?  If Baroness Jolly (or her civil service advisers) are right, the TSOs have for the last 15 years been failing in their statutory duty to enforce the Weights and Measures Act on product description and advertising.  If the TSOs are right, then there is a loophole in the Act, which enables traders and their advertisers to confuse and mislead customers by using inconsistent measurement units – even sometimes displaying goods side by side with different measurement units

In accordance with Parliamentary custom, Lord Taverne withdrew his amendment, but on 19 November the Bill will return to the full Chamber of the House of Lords for its Report stage, and there will then be a further opportunity to move a similar amendment.

If readers of this blog have any relevant personal experiences or any expert knowledge or can point to authoritative legal sources, MetricViews would be glad to hear from them.

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2 Responses to Government rejects bid to clarify law on product description and advertising

  1. Arty says:

    By her statement, Baroness Jolly appears to be setting an example of how not to draft legislation. As with contract, legislation is to be clear, unambiguous and explicit if it is not to become a source of dispute and a means by which the legal profession becomes further enriched. In the case in question, I fail to see how Lord Taverne’s amendment is superfluous to the extent it should be discounted, since it does much to clarify that which is otherwise apparently implied.

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  2. BrianAC says:

    In response to a written query to my MP, I have a letter from department BIS, Dave Willetts, MP.

    I quote (name removed): - "Mr x refers to the practice of selling televisions with reference to screen sizes in imperial units. In this case the information being provided is treated as a description of the product, similar to the practice of using numbers to indicate clothing sizes, and therefore it is likely to fall outside the scope of units of measurement legislation." signed Dave. end quote.

    At the time (2011) I considered this a rather banal outlook, referencing precise measurements (of TV screens) as 'just numbers'. I do notice the phrase '… LIKELY to fall outside the scope …', so maybe they know this is wrong and open to question.

    I do know from my TV servicing years, TV screens were tightly controlled, (it was the originally the diameter of tube phosphor, later the described circle of the tube phosphor) and I do know a TV company was successfully prosecuted for flouting this law. However the fines were outweighed by the gains so the company continued to flout the law and were no longer prosecuted, that is maybe how this comes about. Maybe it is the law is still there but nothing is done or needs updating to cover pixel units.
    Again my memory, but I remember years ago TV screens (CRT) were advertised as the the actual phosphor diameter but computer monitors were advertised as the TUBE diameter, again a loophole where the monitors were not covered by TV tube legislation. This was also true of LCD devices but seems to have come good of later years.

    However or whatever those inches are a measurement, not a description!

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