HC Deb 26 July 1968 vol 769 cc1167-71
The Minister of Technology (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about metrication.

In May 1965, the Government announced their support for the adoption of the metric system of weights and measures in industry which had been proposed by the Federation of British Industries. They also accepted that the metric system would spread outwards from industry and become in time the primary system for the country as a whole. The Government consider that this will bring substantial advantages. More than three-quarters of world trade is now conducted in metric units. All the Commonwealth countries except Canada have changed to the metric system or are about to do so, and studies are in progress in the United States and Canada.

In 1966, my predecessor appointed the Standing Joint Committee on Metrication, representing industrial management, the trade unions and the Government, to encourage, assist and review the progressive adoption of the metric system by British industry. A report by that Committee will be published today by Her Majesty's Stationery Office. I have placed copies in the Library of the House, and copies are available in the Vote Office.

The Report makes three main recommendations. First, that manufacturing industry can make the change efficiently and economically only if the economy as a whole moves in the same direction on a broadly similar time-scale, and in an orderly way. Second, that a Metrication Board should be established to guide, stimulate and co-ordinate the planning for the transition for the various sectors of the economy. Third, that any legal barriers to the use of the metric system for all purposes within the United Kingdom should be removed.

The Government accept the recommendation that a Metrication Board should be set up as soon as possible. Every sector of the economy need not move at the same pace. But there will be unnecessary confusion and expense, and great difficulties for industry, unless there is central machinery for co-ordinating the programmes of change for the various sectors.

The Board will be advisory. The adoption of the metric system must be gradual, through democratic procedures based on the widest consultation. Membership of the Board will, therefore, reflect the interests of industry, the distributive trades, education—for which there are important implications—and, particularly, the general public and consumers. The Board will need to ensure that the distributive trades and consumers are consulted and have ample notice of proposed changes.

No compulsory powers will be sought. There can be no question of compensation; the costs of adopting metric weights and measures must lie where they fall.

The Government agree that programmes for the different sectors of the economy can be properly co-ordinated only if there is some general guidance on the timing. They therefore accept the end of 1975 as the target date for all provisional programmes, with the qualification that if this date proves to be unreasonable for any particular sector, the programme may aim at an earlier or later date. An initial task of the Metrication Board will be to submit to the Government an appreciation for each sector, including, so far as practicable, the costs and other considerations involved. In the light of this, programmes can be drawn for individual sectors. The Government will not be committed to endorse the programme for any sector of the economy before final proposals for that sector are submitted.

The Government accept that legislation will be needed to remove obstacles to the adoption of metric units and to define the units to be used. Further consultation is, however, needed before the timing of the legislation can be decided. Arrangements will be made to coordinate the interests of Government Departments so that they play their full part—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] This is an important statement. I hope that the House will listen—so that they may play their full part in the consideration of programmes and so that the public sector keeps in step as the programmes develop.

The educational system will need to keep pace with, and to some extent anticipate, changes. The conversion will stimulate industrial and commercial modernisation and the rationalisation of production by variety reduction. We must also use it to help our export trade by harmonising our standards with those of our customers overseas.

The adoption of the metric system in the United Kingdom will represent a major change affecting many aspects of the national life, and I hope that publication of this Report will lead to a wide public discussion of the issues involved

Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that we are cutting into the business of the day.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

We are all extremely conscious of that, Mr. Speaker. I only wish that the statement could have been made on another day. It is an important statement, and I hope that you will allow me to put a few questions on it, as this is the last opportunity we shall have before we rise for the Summer Recess.

Mr. Speaker

I hope that the questions will be reasonably brief.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Certainly, Sir —as brief as I can make them.

Can the Minister give some idea of the cost and savings benefits which are likely to arise from the full application of the scheme? Second, who will be on the proposed Metrication Board? Will it be a reproduction of the Standing Joint Committee which has already been set up? Third, in welcoming the coupling of education in this matter, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to say whether the industrial training boards will be brought in, too.

Mr. Benn

I apologise to the House for the length of the statement, but it was an important matter.

It is impossible to do an accurate calculation of cost-benefit, since it varies from industry to industry. Some of the benefits are unquantifiable, for example, in variety reduction, export promotion, and so on. No other country has been able to do it.

As regards membership of the Board, I ask the hon. Gentleman to await the statement.

Industrial training will be involved at an early stage; it is part of the educational change.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

In deference to your request, Mr. Speaker, I put only one question. Since the Minister said that the Metrication Board is to be advisory only, and as the part of his statement dealing with co-ordination among Government Departments is vaguely phrased, to say the least, may I ask him to give an assurance that co-ordination on metrication in the activities of Government Departments will be enforced so that local authorities, for example, will not be required by some Departments to talk in metric terms while other Government Departments insist that town halls talk in traditional terms?

Mr. Benn

There will be no compulsion. As I made clear, from the Government's point of view every Department is involved, but I shall be formally responsible for co-ordination of Government activities in this field.

Mr. English

Does the Minister realise that we welcome the lack of compulsion, since the arguments for metrication are not nearly as strong as for decimalisation of the coinage, and half the world's capital equipment is measured in feet and inches? Will he confirm that the policy is not to compel people?

Mr. Benn

I assure my hon. Friend that compulsion is not part of the process. But I must tell him that the move to metrication has now acquired a great momentum, and the lack of compulsion does not mean that this is not a serious and probably rapidly developing change.

Sir E. Boyle

Will the Board keep in touch with the Schools Council, which must be concerned in this matter, and will it take evidence from those schools which have already had success in teaching the ideas of decimalisation and metrication?

Mr. Benn

There will be full consultation. But the educational system is bound to move fairly rapidly, because it would be very wasteful to teach both systems indefinitely.