HC Deb 08 July 1970 vol 803 cc805-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Speed.]

10.19 p.m.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

I am extremely grateful to be chosen for the second Adjournment debate of this Parliament. Had hon. Members realised the great importance of this matter, I am sure that they would not have left the Chamber in the ugly rush in which they have left in the last minute or two.

During the General Election of recent memory, a number of my well informed constituents asked me questions about metrication. I found my knowledge of this subject was sadly narrow and I promised them that I would apply for an early Adjournment debate so that the present state of play on metrication could be made known to the public.

During the last few days, when I have had the opportunity to study metrication, I have been amazed how far the country has become committed to going metric, making changes in our everyday habits far more far reaching than decimalisation, the 24-hour clock, messing about with Greenwich Mean Time, or other new activities which have been forced on the general public. Literally every activity of our lives and even the size of our coffins when we die will be affected, all these potential changes without a White Paper and without a single day's debate in the House.

I believe that the previous Government were determined to go metric and, remembering the decimalisation row, wanted to introduce metrication by stealth and present the country with a fait accompli when the point of no return had actually been passed, a Wedgwood Bennefit which I do not appreciate. Thank heavens, we have not yet reached the point of no return, particularly where the individual is affected. I hope very much that my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the new Government will take a hard close look at the situation with which they have been left. The object of metrication seems to be to standardise our methods of measuring and to make them more convenient, more internationally acceptable, and to bring us into line, as it is said, with everybody else in a world going metric. If I may, I will deal with the question of convenience a little later.

We are not yet part of a metric world. The United States, which is the most powerful industrial and technological country, still uses the traditional measurements of the pound, the foot and the second. Many so-called metric countries and industries in them are not applying the metric system totally. For instance, even in France many Frenchwomen, as those of us who have been for a cheap holiday on the Continent may recollect, still buy goods and ask for a poid, or pound, 150 years after Napoleon had tried to break them of the wicked habit of being non-metric.

As for convenience, let us consider metrication in two ways: first, as it affects manufacturing industry and, secondly, as it affects the individual. For the last 25 years I have worked in manufacturing industry, and I am a wholehearted supporter of standardisation. It is economical and can be efficient. But I am equally opposed to stagnant uniformity. Industry should be quite capable of looking after itself and if it chooses to improve standardisation by using a metric basis, let it do so. Industry, however, must be the judge of its own interests, and it would surely be stupid for the Government to force metric standardisation on an industry which feels that it would suffer from it.

Over the years and under the umbrella of the F.B.I. and the C.B.I. it appears that most industries have been moving towards metrication of new manufactures by 1975, although I believe that some industries are becoming less enthusiastic the more they examine the effects of this movement. For instance, the carrying of the old type and the metric type of spare parts is a real and expensive problem for some industries which manufacture heavy equipment such as diesel engines. They may have to carry spares of both kinds for the next 20 to 30 years.

It is also significant in the context of industry that our most highly technological industry, the computer industry, will not be going metric because of the complete existing international standardisation in imperial measurements. The aircraft industry dare not go completely metric because of the dominance of American aviation. However, I think industry can and should look after its own affairs. The situation is quite different when we consider the convenience of the individual. Here it is the duty of independent individual Members of Parliament and of Parliament itself to step in and take a real and active interest. We must examine the benefits of metrication and weigh them against the total cost.

May we look at some examples. How would it affect Mr. and Mrs. Harrow in their everyday lives? If the present plans as they seem to be running go through, when Mrs. Harrow goes shopping in three or four years' time she will have to order her potatoes by the kilo and in addition, remember, she will be paying for them in new pence, a new decimalised currency to which I do not think she will by then have got used. Her milk will be delivered in half litre bottles, just under a pint, although I understand that the Milk Marketing Board is manfully standing up against pressure to change its bottles and bottling equipment because it does not want to waste hundreds of millions of pounds by making the change and then finding that it is actually selling less milk. Butter and tea would be packed in fractions of a kilogram, and for whose benefit?

What about Mr. Harrow? If he drove to the pub in his car he would be required to buy half a litre of beer rather than a pint. According to the brewing industry, this change would cost it over £100 million. Is there any point in it? If he filled up his car on the way it would be filled up with litres of petrol, and the changes to the pumps would be an extremely expensive item for the petrol companies, the petroleum industry has informed me. On the way home he would find himself driving through an area restricted to 80 kilometres an hour instead of the 50 miles an hour, if the changes proposed for 1973 by the right hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh) when he was Minister of Transport went through. It would cost the taxpayer or ratepayer £1½ million to £2 million merely to change the speed limit signs. Sign-posts would be done later, which seems pretty inconvenient, and we are told that this would cost another £30 million or so.

If Mr. and Mrs. Harrow wanted to sell their house the conveyancing deed would have to be translated into square metres and hectares. I do not see the point of this except for the rather entertaining value of introducing the slide rule into the solicitor's office. I cannot see that it will make any difference to the land conveyed, nor do I think that it will do anything but add to the cost of the transaction.

Children's mathematical teaching is already under review, although the exact stage I do not know, and the "O" level examinations or what is to succeed them in mathematics would be in metric only from 1972. The reprinting of the textbooks on mathematics would cost another £30 million or £40 million—good fun, I suppose, for the educational publishers.

In total, an estimate has been made by the Business Equipment and Trade Association that going metric would cost the country £5,000 million. This is a staggering figure which may or may not be accurate. The previous Government, however, never gave the House an estimate of what might be the total cost of going metric. I also understand that the previous Government were contemplating legislation during 1970–71 to cover alterations to the weights and measures legislation and the other necessary amendments to fall in with the idea of total metrication.

I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, and the new Government, to trust the people and tell them the facts. Instinctively, I feel very much inclined to ask for the pint to be saved for the "pub", the pound to be saved for the shop and the mile to be saved for the motorist, and particularly for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, who has a special relationship with the mile.

I am not heavily dug in, however, and if I can be persuaded, and if the general public can be persuaded, that the changes are worth while, and if the matter can be properly explained to them, I have no doubt that if the arguments are sufficiently substantial they will go along with it.

It is interesting that following an interesting and important article in the supplement to the Daily Telegraph some months ago, a tear-out coupon was put in asking the views of people on metrication. These were sent to the Daily Telegraph to be followed up by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Arundel and Shoreham (Captain Kerby). I am informed that 19,000 answers were received to that questionnaire, which is a pretty staggering number, and that 92 per cent. declared themselves against complete metrication. That seems to me to have been a fairly valuable poll, but, nevertheless, if the matter is properly explained to the country, I am sure that people would be prepared to go along if it is sensible.

I therefore ask my hon. Friend, on behalf of the ordinary citizen, for the following action to be taken. First, that as soon as possible, even during the coming Recess, a White Paper on the whole subject should be presented setting out the pros and cons and the cost. Secondly, through my hon. Friend, I beg my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to allocate a full day to a debate on metrication as soon as possible after we return in November.

Thirdly, I ask that the Government should put into cold storage until after this debate any action to follow the orders that might already have been given about compulsory metrication to different Departments, particularly Transport and Education. Lastly, I hope that during the production of the White Paper, my right hon. and hon. Friends will have genuine consultations with the retail trade and with other organisations which are in close touch with the people.

Let the facts be known. When the skeletons are taken out of the cupboards, the people will appreciate it and make the right decision, as they did on 18th June. If, however, they are kept in the dark, the whole affair will be considered to be a kind of trap, a means of backdoor Europeanisation, and the fury of the housewife, the motorist, the taxpayer and the man in the "pub" will justifiably be vented upon those who have committed what might prove to be a monumental and expensive absurdity.

10.34 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology (Mr. David Price)

I welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) in raising the whole question of metrication this evening. May I congratulate him upon his recent mastery of the subject. He certainly has done his homework and he has made me do mine. He mentioned education, and I suggest he does one further piece of homework in his constituency and visits Harrow School which, I am informed, is fully committed to metric mathematics and is one of a dozen schools pioneering the new mathematical approach named Mathematics for Education and Industry which, of course, uses S.I. units.

I welcome this debate first of all because it gives me the opportunity of explaining what is meant by the general term "metrication". I am sure that many hon. Members know what is meant by it, but I am equally sure that many members of the general public are uncertain as to what metrication will mean in practice. Indeed, I have found constituents who quite understandably confuse metrication with decimalisation of the coinage.

Secondly, the debate enables me to say a little about the past history of metrication in this country. For instance the House will know that metric measures for length and weight have been lawful for use in trade since 1897. I wonder how many of the public know this. Thirdly, I welcome the consequential opportunity of outlining to the House briefly—because that is all I have time to do—the state of play on metrication, which we have inherited from our predecessors in government. Fourthly, I should like to say a word about development in other countries. The world trend towards the metric system is developing apace. Clearly this has an important bearing on what ought to be our own attitude. Finally, I shall say a word or two about the future. However, I must warn my hon. Friend that in this respect I may disappoint him.

In the course of my remarks, I hope that I shall be able to answer most of the specific points which he has made. If there are any outstanding I shall of course write to him about them.

What is meant by metrication? In a popular sense, metrication means the adoption of any form of metric unit for measurement. And these have been legal for trade since 1897. In a more technical sense, it can mean the basic unit of measurement adopted as a country's national standard. In the latter sense, very narrowly conceived, we are already a metric country. A a result of Section 1 of the Weights and Measures Act, 1963, which I had the honour to pilot through the House, the yard and the pound are determined by reference to the metre and the kilogramme. But this is a highly technical point, and not what my hon. Friend has raised the debate about.

What we are talking about is the possible adoption of the International System of Units—known universally as S.I.—by the country at large. This would include the legal definition of metric units of measurements in S.I. terms and similarly a change in certain statutory provisions from Imperial to metric. A more widespread use of metric units would not of itself raise great issues for Government and Parliament, because they are already lawful.

The real issue is the proposed change from Imperial to S.I. units as standard units of measurement for Britain and their substitution for imperial units in certain principal and subordinate legislation. The legal definition of Imperial weights and measures would remain alongside the metric as long as was felt necessary. Let me make it clear that the incoming Government have as yet made no firm commitment to make this change.

I turn to the question of progress towards metrication. The present move towards metrication really dates from the publication of the Hodgson Committee's Report—the Committee on Weights and Measures Legislation—in December, 1950. The Hodgson Committee regarded the disappearance of the Imperial system as inevitable. It recommended the abolition of the Imperial system over a period of some 20 years, subject to a number of conditions, the majority of which have been fulfilled.

At that time British industry and commerce in the main were opposed to the change. However, by 1963 the balance of industrial opinion had shifted in favour of metrication. This was made clear in the report of the British Standards Institution. In 1965 the President of the Federation of British Industries informed the Government of the day that the majority of the members of the F.B.I. favoured the adoption of the metric system as the primary, and ultimately the only, method of measurement to be used in Britain. Since then the general attitude of industry has remained constant in favour of metrication. Many industries have gone ahead with their plans for metrication.

For instance all the suppliers of major industrial materials—non-ferrous metals, steel, building materials, chemicals, plastics, paper and timber—are changing over this year to metric specifications, standards and quantities. Manufacturing industries are still mainly in the planning stage, but almost all the major companies have developed their plans for going metric. Metric supplies are now coming forward in many engineering fields—nuts and bolts, electrical cables, electrical components. On the industrial scene, the present problem is largely one of co-ordination of programmes between suppliers of materials and components and producers of finished goods.

These changes have been made voluntarily by industry without any compulsion by the Government.

I turn to the present state of play on metrication at Governmental level. Under our predecessors there has been a general move in the country towards metrication. On 24th May, 1965, the then President of the Board of Trade made a statement to the House, which included these words: The Government consider it desirable that British industries on a broadening front should adopt metric units, sector by sector, until that system can become in time the primary system of weights and measures for the country as a whole."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th May, 1965; Vol. 713, c. 32.] This, of course, was to be a voluntary move.

Things developed. Early in 1966 the Minister of Technology of the day set up the Standing Joint Committee on Metrication. The principal task of this committee was to co-ordinate Government and industrial policies. Over the next two years the committee considered a number of specific problems relating to metrication in industry, including the implications of such a change for education, legislation and Government purchasing. In June, 1968, that committee reported to the Minister of Technology.

On 26th July, 1968, the then Minister of Technology made a statement to the House which laid down his Government's strategy for the gradual adoption of the metric system in Britain. I have not time to read out the whole statement, but, as it is basic to the strategy which had been outlined by our predecessors, I should like to pick a few sentences from that statement to indicate the strategy of our predecessors: The adoption of the metric system must be gradual, through democratic procedures based on the widest consultation … No compulsory powers will be sought. There can be no question of compensation; the costs of adopting metric weights 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 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 … 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th July, 1968; Vol. 769, c. 1168–9.] That gives the broad strategy. There were subsequent statements but I have not got time to go into them tonight. However, briefly, that is the present state of play.

I now turn briefly to what is happening in the world as a whole. The plain fact is that the world is going metric. If we look at world trade, we find that whereas in 1950 at least 50 per cent. of the world's trade was in imperial units, today 80 per cent. is conducted in metric units. If we look at our own trade we will find that during the 1960s the proportion of British exports to metric markets has risen from 50 per cent. to 65 per cent. and is rising.

I turn now to the future. From what I have said, it must be clear to the House that in Britain we have been moving gradually towards further metrication. The question is whether we go the whole way and become a completely metric country. That, in any event, we shall be a partially metric country is a fact of life. The industrial commitment to going metric is now very deep. On the other hand, little progress has been made in the retail and distributive sectors. These are of course the sectors which affect the ordinary citizen most directly. They are also the sectors in which statutory obligations under the Imperial System are most frequently found; and naturally they are the sectors in which right hon. and hon. Members will be most interested.

My hon. Friend raised the question of the pubs going metric. In a logical world the pubs would have to go metric if the remainder of the country went metric. But we do not live in an entirely logical world. So that it is quite conceivable that the pubs would remain on imperial measures, as long as the majority of the trade and of their customers so determine. I can assure my hon. Friend that no decision has been taken by the Government on this matter, any more than it has made a decision on the general issue of metrication as a whole.

Obviously my hon. Friend would like me to be able to make a definitive statement on the Government's attitude to this whole question tonight. He will not be entirely surprised if I tell him that I am not yet in a position to do so.

As a Government, we are looking at the whole question of how far and how fast we should move towards complete metrication. My hon. Friend has suggested that we might in due course publish a Green Paper or a White Paper. He has also asked whether it would be posible to have a general debate on the subject. I am sympathetic to both proposals. But, of course, I shall have to put them to my right hon. Friends the Minister of Technology and the Leader of the House.

As a Government, we are looking at the whole question and we have not yet completed our studies. I hope my hon. Friend will accept from me that his views will be taken into account, certainly by myself, and I hope he will be content to let the matter rest there tonight. I hope that I have been able to assist him and the House in explaining the state of affairs that we have inherited.

Mr. John Page

I thank my hon. Friend. Knowing how honourable he is, I take the words that he has uttered about a Green and a White Paper and a later debate as a great comfort. I am grateful to him for the trouble that he has taken in answering in so much detail this debate tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.