HC Deb 02 November 1970 vol 805 cc797-810

The following motion stood upon the order paper: That the Weights and Measures Act (Amendment of Schedules 1 and 3) Order 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 8th July, be approved. That the Weights and Measures Act (Amendment of Schedules 5 and 7) Order 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 8th July, be approved.

10.4 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the Minister to move the first Motion, I should like to know whether the House would wish to take the two Motions together. If there is no objection from either side, that is what we shall do. The first one will be moved, but we shall discuss the first one, which is rather narrow, with the second one, which is a little broader but still pretty narrow.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Both the Statutory Instruments before us are pieces of amending legislation, both designed to aid and accelerate the pace of metrication. I shall not deal with the Instruments in detail; one of them indicates that there is to be a definite switch to metric measures, and the other is to introduce metric measures for the sale of ballast and ready-mixed concrete. Both are, as I say, amending legislation, and they affect the construction industry.

After what the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for Housing and Construction said last week in winding up the debate on metrication, everyone who felt under pressure to go metric quickly was relieved to hear that a breathing space had now been given, and this was particularly so in the construction industry. In answer to his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), the Minister said: We will take what we think is right and continue to encourage, in the case of the construction industry, the changeover to metric … but we will not propose legislation at this stage, and we cannot amend or enable without there being legislation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th October, 1970; Vol 805, c. 166.] In view of that, Mr. Speaker, and with amending legislation already before us in these two Orders, I submit, first, that the Minister misled the House and all those involved in the metrication process; second, the Minister having made his remarks on Tuesday, 27th October, the business of this week has been determined in spite of what he said.

I should have thought that this necessitated an explanation from the Minister for Housing and Construction, to apologise or to withdraw what he said last Tuesday, or to explain why these Orders have been laid in direct contradiction of his promise to the House.

Second. I submit. Sir, that the Leader of the House should explain why he, knowing full well the pressure brought to bear upon his right hon. Friend last week—he only forestalled a Division on the matter by his promise to his hon. Friends—has tabled these Orders for approval and, as a consequence, has caused the Minister for Housing and Construction to dishonour his pledge. I feel that this matter is too important to ignore. Obviously, there is muddle between the Leader of the House and his Ministers, above all the Ministers concerned here.

I submit, therefore, Mr. Speaker, that you should agree to accept a Motion for the Adjournment of the House until the Minister himself has made a statement, or that the Leader of the House should be summoned and invited to clear both his name and that of his right hon. Friend.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice that he intended to raise this point of order. I must, however, rule that it does not in any way appear to be the concern of the Chair, and it would not justify my taking any steps to prevent the debate from proceeding. I cannot, therefore, accept the right hon. Gentleman's Adjournment Motion.

There is no reason why the right hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Members should not refer to the matter and make in the course of their speeches the points which the right hon. Gentleman has made with some force.

Mr. Mason

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry, but I do not feel that we should allow it to go so easily. Where is the Leader of the House? He is involved. Why should he not be present this evening to explain to the House why he personally has agreed to the business before the House tonight in spite of the pledge which his right hon. Friend gave to the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) and his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South? At least, we should have the presence of the Leader of the House, to let him judge whether his honour is at stake and whether he ought to reply.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)


Mr. Speaker

Order. I can deal with only one point of order at a time. The question of the ubiquity or non-ubiquity of the Leader of the House is not a matter of order for me. The right hon. Gentleman may refer to it in the debate.

Mr. Page

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wished to say that I should have been delighted if had been able to put upon my right hon. Friend's statement the construction which the right hon. Gentleman gave to it. That is what I was hoping we might elucidate from my hon. Friends tonight. Looking at column 167, I did not find the absolutely conclusive evidence—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman may seek to elucidate all these mysterious points when we get to the debate, which we are trying to begin.

10.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

I beg to move, That the Weights and Measures Act (Amendment of Schedules 1 and 3) Order 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 8th July, be approved. I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker for saying that we may take the two Orders together.

I shall touch on some of the matters raised by the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) in the course of what I have to say, but it is obvious that he has not read the words uttered by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction at the end of his speech on 27th October, when he said: … we shall accordingly consider—and consider very seriously—the publication of a White Paper… I remind the right hon. Gentleman that to say that one will consider something is not a pledge that one will do it, although I have more to say about the whole matter later.

Mr. Mason rose

Mr. Ridley

It is a bit early. The right hon. Gentleman has had two goes already.

Mr. Mason

The hon. Gentleman has quoted me, and he did not complete his right hon. Friend's sentence. His right hon. Friend went on: … consider very seriously—the publication of a White Paper designed to put the facts before Parliament and the people before we proceed to any"— I emphasise "any"— legislation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th October, 1970; Vol. 805, c. 167.] The hon. Gentleman is now going on to legislation in spite of what his right hon. Friend said.

Mr. Ridley

The right hon. Gentleman perhaps does not know the difference between legislation and subordinate legislation, which is what we are considering. These are Orders, not a Bill.

Further, one of the Orders was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry in his speech in that debate, when he said: … the Weights and Measures Act (Amendment of Schedules 5 and 7) Order, 1970, which has been laid before the House would not make it unlawful to sell sand and ballast in imperial units, but would make it lawful to sell either in metric or in imperial measures. This new freedom is proposed as the outcome of consultations following a request from this trade. The Order will not increase the area of compulsion, but will reduce it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th October 1970; Vol. 805, c. 84.] The Order was laid on 8th July. I apologise to the House if it feels that it has not had sufficient notice that it was coming. Since my hon. Friend mentioned the Order in the debate, I can only assume that the right hon. Gentleman did not hear what he said or did not read HANSARD then.

Mr. Mason

It was overtaken by the Minister's winding-up speech.

Mr. Ridley

The right hon. Gentleman must stop making seated and heated interjections, most of which are completely irrelevant to what we are trying to discuss.

The Orders fit entirely into line with my hon. Friend's policy outlined then on facilitating metrication in industries which wished to have restrictions upon its use removed. I can quote nobody better in aid of this policy than my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen), who said in the debate last Tuesday: No one here has asked the Government to stop companies going metric. There is no question of calling for intervention to prevent businesses doing what they would otherwise wish to do out of what they regard as economic self-interest."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th October, 1970; Vol. 805, c. 124.] The Orders before us are in line with that policy, as I shall demonstrate when I discuss them a little later.

The Weights and Measures Act 1963 governs trade for industrial as well as retail purposes. There are also other Statutes which affect industry, and a number of these provide for matters to be regulated by subordinate legislation. The Government see no objection to proceeding to lay Orders under existing powers to remove impediments to metrication for industry. Apart from these two Orders under the Weights and Measures Act, there are Orders under other Acts relating to wood imports and air navigation which will be laid before the House in due course.

Mr. Speaker

Order. With respect, the hon. Gentleman must not widen the debate; he cannot debate the other Orders which are not before us.

Mr. Ridley

I have no intention of debating them, Mr. Speaker, but the right hon. Gentleman has drawn me into ground which is rather wide and I must touch on these matters to satisfy the House about the future—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman's drawing the hon. Gentleman does not take him outside the debate we are having on the two Orders.

Mr. Ridley

The Government want to take the House fully into their confidence on all these plans so that there is no question of our proceeding by stealth. All the Instruments to which I have referred are in any case subject to affirmative or negative Resolutions.

The feeling in the House last Tuesday was that industry should not be impeded in proceeding voluntarily towards metrication. There is no doubt at the same time that the House was much concerned that a full explanation should be given of any action contemplated by the Government. I am doing this now in relation to these two Orders.

In matters concerning retail trade which are not purely the concern of industry, or if a Bill—that is to say, legislation—is contemplated, the Government believe that very full information should be given to the House. For that reason my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction said what he said last Tuesday night in column 167, that the Government would very seriously consider the publication of a White Paper designed to put the facts before Parliament before we proceed to any legislation. I am able tonight to give a firm undertaking that the Government will publish such a White Paper before introducing any Bill requiring metrication. However, we consider it right meanwhile to use existing powers to make or propose any changes which, after full discussion and consultation with all concerned, seem desirable and can be effected by subordinate legislation.

Before laying these draft Orders, the Board of Trade as it then was published details of its proposals in the Board of Trade Journal, and consulted a wide number of trade associations and other interested bodies No one consulted objected to the proposals. I might perhaps mention that the draft Orders refer to the Board of Trade rather than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, since they were laid before the creation of the new Department. Future Orders will be made by my right hon. Friend.

For legal reasons, however, the Board of Trade remains in existence, and my right hon. Friend proposes on this occasion to make the Order in his capacity and powers as President of the Board of Trade, as he is, of course, entitled to do I can assure you, however, Mr. Speaker, that there will be no need for a meeting of the Board for this purpose, and that you and the other distinguished members of the Board will continue to enjoy your unbroken record of 119 years without a meeting.

The first Order enables industry legally to adopt the spelling TONNE for the metric ton, a practice which has already been adopted by much of industry in order to conform to international practice. It enables people to use 15 gramme and 150 milligramme weights, which are needed by pharmacists for metric dispensing, to use measures of 50, 30, 5, 1.5 and 0.5 metres, for which there are demands from various trades, and also to use cubic measures of any mupltiple of one-tenth of a cubic metre. All this is, of course, purely permissive. It simply extends the range of choice to include these metric sizes as well as the existing metric and imperial ones.

Finally, the Order abolishes the apothecaries' system of weights and measures. This may seem like metrication by stealth, but it is not. The system has effectively already been abolished by the previous Administration. Apothecaries' units are a very special case. The 1963 Weights and Measures Act provided that they should be used only for drugs. It also enabled the Secretaries of State for Health and Social Security and for Scotland to make regulations requiring that prescriptions should be made up in metric units even if they were written in apothecaries' units.

The previous Administration exercised these powers, and from 1st January 1971 apothecaries' units can no longer be used for trade in drugs or any other commodity. We propose, therefore, to abolish them in this Order. They will be illegal for trade by next year. Unless we abolish them, every local authority will still need to keep standard weights and measures which they would never use. We have consulted the trades, industries and professions concerned. All have agreed to this proposal. I wonder how many hon. Gentlemen are even aware that the minim and the fluid drachm and scruple still exist, let alone are conversant with their use.

The second Order—

Mr. John Page

Can my hon. Friend tell me whether the teaspoon still exists?

Mr. Ridley

Not being entirely well versed in these matters, I believe that the fluid drachm is the teaspoon, and it is the fluid drachm—not the teaspoon, of course—which is being abolished. The teaspoon may be the scruple, but I believe that it is the fluid drachm which is the legal definition of the capacity of a teaspoon.

The second Order is more complicated, but broadly, it serves two simple purposes. First, it enables the sand, gravel and ready-mixed cement mortar or concrete trades to sell their products, as they wish, by the cubic metre as an alternative to the cubic yard. I emphasise the words "as an alternative", as the Order permits voluntary metrication and does not impose metrication.

Secondly, the Order extends to Scotland the obligation to sell ready-mixed cement mortar and concrete either in cubic metres or in cubic yards. This is a useful addition to consumer protection which Scotland has not hitherto enjoyed.

The Order is being made at the request of the parties concerned. We have consulted all other interested parties and none has objected. One result of the Order will be that Scottish purchasers of ready-mixed cement mortar will have the same guarantee of good measure as those south of the Board.

I therefore commend the Orders to the House. By your leave, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will seek at the end of the debate to reply to any points which are raised.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Mason

In my almost splendid isolation, the troops having fled, let me say at the outset that I am not an anti-metricater and, therefore, I do not oppose the two Statutory Instruments. On this occasion, I will leave the opposition to the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends, and say that at this stage I do not see any point in flogging my earlier point of order.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. John Page

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for the very strong undertaking which he has given to the House tonight. We are skating on rather thin ice—I do not know how many millimetres thick it may be—in our efforts to keep within order as we discuss these Statutory Instruments. However, I wonder whether it would be possible for my hon. Friend, who said that there were two or three consequential further Orders to be made, to say how soon they might be presented to the House.

I say that feeling that I am totally within order, for I am devoted to the idea that my right hon. Friend and his hon. Friends should take time, take evidence and take consideration before presenting the promised White Paper to us. Speaking for myself, I should be totally prepared to accept a few small consequential Orders in a short time and then feel that whatever was in the pipeline had already been extruded. I could then sit back for a year, or possibly two years, for the studied White Paper giving the advantages, disadvantages, costs and savings of metrication, as we have been promised.

When my hon. Friend replies, I wonder whether he will be able to tell us, so that we do not get into a nervous state above having to be alert when business of the House is discussed, when we may expect these further rather small consequential Orders so that we may relax and confidently await the major White Paper which will be welcomed by and of great importance to the country as a whole.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

It would be inappropriate if this evening passed without the Under-Secretary knowing how very much we welcome his statement that there was to be a White Paper on the subject of metrication, and without the Treasury Bench knowing that we hope that the White Paper will bear the full fruit of reflective scholarship and will in no sense be rushed through the House or country. I would like to examine these draft Statutory Instruments by the criteria which the Under-Secretary sought to establish; namely, that they would try to strike—I think I interpreted the words correctly—an attitude of Government neutrality over metrication, and that the import of these Instruments was no more than to allow industries to proceed freely to quote in metric or other standards.

I am intrigued by the particular industries contained in the second draft Statutory Instrument, namely the ballast and ready-mixed concrete industries, because, although I have not done any research on this, I do not immediately think of them as being major exporting industries. It will be within the recollection of the House that it was the facilitating of exports which was advanced as one of the major reasons for going metric. What I would like to know is exactly what it was which has hitherto prevented the ballast and ready-mixed concrete industries from quoting metric if they so wished. What legislative bars are there to prevent them trading in these standards? I ask the question not believing that the answer is "none", because clearly there must be something. The whole kernel of the debate, the test of Government neutrality, is contained in the extent to which it is revealed that there are real, tangible legislative impediments to these industries quoting in metric if they wish, and which we shall remove this evening.

We want the concept of neutrality, now established this evening, to be interpreted in the purchasing policies of Government Departments. There can be no neutrality if it is merely restricted to how we cope with the draft Statutory Instruments this evening and those we pass on timber and air navigation, which have been promised. The issue of purchasing is immensely important when dealing with the construction industry because of the important part that the public service, in its full manifestation of central and local government, plays.

If I have sounded a shade stringent in my questioning it is no more than a tribute to my hon. Friend because he has shown that the Government are well aware of the feeling in the House, as evidenced by the number of Members present at this late hour. I will not be so churlish as to contrast the interest taken in the Bill on this side of the House with the emptiness of the benches opposite. Certainly I will not hold it against the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), who clearly has been put in on this wicket without understanding whether or not it is taking spin. The right hon. Gentleman was no-balled a couple of times early in the debate, and we understand why he has now taken off his pads. I realise that I have mixed the metaphor, but the right hon. Gentleman is clearly back in the pavilion.

Those of us who have taken a keener interest in the subject for a longer period are grateful to my hon. Friend for his statement. We hope that this is a good beginning of a full realisation that in the affairs of metrication neutrality must be the watchword of the Government.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Whatever the reasons for hon. Members signing the Motion on metrication, I hope that the Government will not be entirely neutral at the end of the day. Many of us take exception to the Government's attitude not because of the policy which may ultimately be followed but because of the way in which it is being approached.

There may be good justification for the cause of metrication, but it has not been demonstrated to this House, and the agreement of the House to the pursuit of this course has not been secured. I do not want my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to feel that those of us who oppose metrication are concerned with the defence of our birthright. Our objection is that the case for metrication has not been made to the country. In a move of this nature, a better public relations exercise is required to explain why such a course should be followed. There is a better case for metrication than has ever been made to the country. Until it is made, many of us will oppose the move most strongly.

10.37 p.m.

Mr. Tom Boardman (Leicester, South-West)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King) made a number of criticisms with which I would not like to be associated. I would point out to him that the Motion might be described as a hangover from the previous Administration, and that many of us who signed it did so because we felt that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite introduced their proposals for metrication by stealth. We felt that it was creeping up on us, and it has been clearly demonstrated now that the Government, too, are conscious of it.

We have had an assurance from my hon. Friend about a White Paper, and he has acknowledged our feelings about what happened before. My hon. Friend has done a great deal to dispel much of the doubt which prompted the Motion in the first place.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. Ridley

With the leave of the House, I cannot help remarking that the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) has excelled himself. He made four speeches on tenuous points of order before the Order was moved, and then did not speak to the Order itself. Instead, he sits alone on the benches opposite, his colleagues apparently showing no interest in this important matter.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for their comments, and I shall try to answer their questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) asked when the further Orders will be laid. The Order concerned with import duties on timber and wood wool was made on 14th October, and will be laid on 4th November of this year. I cannot, I am afraid, at the moment give him an answer about the Order on air navigation, but I will make sure that I find out and let him know exactly where this has got to.

My hon. Friend will find that there are a large number of regulations which flow from these two Orders which we are taking tonight, which, I think, are all agreed with the trades concerned, and concern highly complicated and detailed matters. If he finds these appearing on the Order Paper he will, of course, be able to pray against them if he so wishes, but they will come in quick succession from now on, and these deal with the minutiae resulting from the Order before us tonight.

I cannot, of course, anticipate when the White Paper will be prepared, but although this Government do not indulge in instant government, I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) that when they decide to act they act surely and swiftly, and we hope to prepare the White Paper as quickly as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry described the attitude of the Government as "Government neutrality". Certainly it is our position that each industry should be entitled to make progress towards metrication as it sees fit, but I do not think he can exempt the Government themselves from being allowed this privilege if the Government wish to move towards metrication in their specifications when they fall within the definitions which I have given. Although in matters of Government purchasing and Government tendering there may well be a continuation of the present specification in metric units, we hope, in order to please my hon. Friend, to reduce the size of the public sector, so that this does not become an overbearing burden; but I think we must be given the same freedom as the rest of industry to proceed as we think best in each matter.

My hon. Friend asked why cement mortar, ballast and concrete must not be sold in metric units at present. The answer to that is that the Weights and Measures Act, 1963, requires sand and ballast to be sold by net weight, which can be metric or imperial, or by volume, which must at present be in imperial measures. This Order simply seeks to add to imperial in that context metric as well.

My hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King) and Leicester, South-West (Mr. Tom Boardman) felt that perhaps we had taken the feeling of the House in coming to this position with these two Orders. I can assure them that we very much intend to do so. This is, after all, what Parliamentary representation is all about. The Government have made their position quite clear, both in the debate last Tuesday and in what I have said tonight. There is no difference between the two. We entirely agree that it is quite right that the Government, proceeding with a matter of this sort, should make it entirely clear what is being done and why it is being done, and should justify what is being done. That is why my right hon. Friends have thought it right to publish this White Paper as soon as possible. Apart from the orders and regulations which I have mentioned, there will be no further legislation till that White Paper has been published.

Mr. John Page

Perhaps my hon. Friend would just give the House a comfort in one particular field, and that is in connection with speed limit signs and signposts. I have a feeling that it is unnecessary—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. I do not think that signposts are in the Order.

Mr. Page

I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I mentioned, that it is on very thin ice that we are skating, but my hon. Friend gave certain undertakings to the House. I feel that it is important, if possible at this moment—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am afraid that it is not possible.

Mr. Ridley

I must with sorrow tell my hon. Friend that not only does it appear that it is out of order to answer the question but also that it is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, and I should prefer my hon. Friend to ask the question of him rather than that I should be dragged into something of which I am not fully seized.

Mr. Tom King

The point made is not about the parliamentary presentation of metrication. The point that I sought to make concerned the public presentation of the benefits of metrication. My right hon. Friend mentioned that a White Paper would be published.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Only such of that point as is contained in these Orders will be in order.

Mr. Ridley

It is one of the functions of a White Paper to impart information to all those who read it. I feel certain that my hon. Friends will read the White Paper and distribute the words of wisdom that they read therein in their constituencies and local newspapers, and in the speeches they make. I emphasise that the Government are determined to make the information available and to give an explanation for each move they make. I hope that this debate has been in that spirit, and I confidently commend the Orders to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Weights and Measures Act (Amendment of Schedules 1 and 3) Order 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 8th July, be approved.

Resolved, That the Weights and Measures Act (Amendment of Schedules 5 and 7) Order 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 8th July, be approved.—[Mr. John Davies.]