HC Deb 05 November 1973 vol 863 cc751-64

10.13 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Peter Emery)

I beg to move, That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Pasta) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 16th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

For the convenience of the House, we may debate at the same time the motion, That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Salt) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 16th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.

Mr. Emery

I am pleased that the two motions may be discussed together to facilitate the business of the House. They both allow the introduction of metric quantities of sale for two of the 40 or so basic foods which, if pre-packed, may be sold only in imperial weights.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs told the House during a debate on 24th July that, after discussions with the industry, he proposed to advertise draft orders which would provide for the sale of salt and pasta in metric units.

Section 54(2) of the Weights and Measures Act 1963 requires us, before making such orders under Section 21(2), to consult with, and consider any representations with respect to the subject-matter of the order made to us by such organisations as appear to us to be representative of interests substantially affected by the order". These consultations have duly been carried out. The proposals attracted comment from consumer organisations, enforcement bodies and traders, but these were substantially on points of detail and suitable assurances have been given by my Department. There was no adverse criticism. Indeed, this evidence that the Government intended to implement their promise made last year in the White Paper on metrication to remove obstacles to metrication in the retail food sector, where the industry was willing to make the change, was welcomed by several organisations.

The organised consumer groups realise that metrication must come. What they want to ensure is that it comes in an orderly manner and that the necessary protection is given to consumers during the changeover period. The consumer public will of course be benefited by greater competition, since the continental packs will now be able to come in much more easily than in the past.

I am very conscious of the need to ensure the protection of the consumer during the change to metric quantities. The House will be interested to know that the Consumer Safeguards Group reported earlier this year and that both my Department and the Metrication Board are actively working on its numerous and valuable suggestions.

I believe that the food industry and the retailers, who are much involved in the work of the group, are also working on those parts which it would fall to them to implement. I should like to pay tribute to the conscientiousness and public spirit of many of the leading retail groups for what they have done and are doing to try to ensure that the public are fully and properly protected.

The orders themselves are fairly easy to understand. That dealing with pasta allows for weights to be made not only in imperial weights, as provided under Article 4(a)(i), but, under Article 4(a)(ii), the metric multiples of the prescribed quantities. The same provisions apply equally to salt. I would therefore commend these modest orders to the House as a necessary first step in the introduction which will take place of metric units in the retail sector in this way.

Mr. Robert Redmond (Bolton, West)

Will my hon. Friend make it absolutely clear that the orders are not mandatory but are entirely permissive, that no one will be compelled to sell pasta or salt in metric quantities if he does not wish to do so, and that it will not be the Government's fault if the industry foists on to the public something that they do not want?

Mr. Emery

I must be sure that I understand my hon. Friend. If he is asking me to say that the orders are not mandatory in any attempt to bring about metric quantities, he is quite right, but the parent Act is mandatory in regard to the prescribed quantities. Just as the imperial prescribed quantities are mandatory, the trade will now have the opportunity of providing the prescribed metric quantities.

Dr. Tom Stuttaford (Norwich, South)

If my hon. Friend could put himself in the position of a housewife whose sugar weighed two pounds, could he say how many kilograms or grams that would be?

Mr. Emery

There is an excellent guide for people like my hon. Friend who want such questions answered——

Dr. Stuttaford

Give a straight answer.

Mr. Emery

I will answer in my own way. I do not have to be told how one wishes or does not wish to apply metrication. As my hon. Friend will know, a kilogram is a little less than 2½ lbs. If my hon. Friend wishes to have the full facts and the full information about metric conversion—I say this not in answer only to my hon. Friend but for the benefit of everyone who may be concerned—it is of considerable importance that he should know that the Metrication Board has supplied a conversion table dealing with lengths, liquids, weights and temperature. The conversion table will be distributed throughout the country in large numbers so that the sort of information which, I think, my hon. Friend was trying to suggest is essential is available to the ordinary consumer.

Dr. Stuttaford


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

No, I think that is enough.

10.21 p.m.

Mr. David Clark (Colne Valley)

As we have already seen from questions put by Conservative Members, these seemingly unobnoxious orders hide matters which are meaningful. Any general measures of this kind are welcome, inasmuch as they can be regarded as useful steps to protect the consumer. In that way these orders are welcomed by the Opposition. On the other hand, there are certain aspects of them about which we would like to have more information.

The House and the country would be upset if they thought that this was metrication by stealth. I think that that is the phrase which is used most often. It is a pity, although we have had a debate on metrication, that these orders have been introduced in this way. There are some criticisms which I must level at the orders. The first is related to unit pricing. I accept that unit pricing does not solve all consumer problems. However, it seems a pity to introduce these orders and not include unit pricing. It could well be that the orders were suitable for unit pricing.

It is interesting that in Consumer Information Bulletin No. 4, which was issued in August of this year by the Department of Trade and industry, the problem of unit pricing was considered. The Bulletin says: Unit pricing will always be a second best alternative to packing in specified rounded quantities as a means of helping consumers to judge value for money when buying prepackaged goods. The introduction of two orders rejecting unit pricing but advocating rounded amounts which could be sold perhaps signifies the Government's rejection of unit pricing as opposed to buying prepackaged goods in statutory amounts. If that is so, does it mean that the Government support which was given to the Private Member's Bill last year in Committee on 11th May has been withdrawn and that the general principle of unit pricing has passed to pre-packaging?

The Opposition are worried about prescribing set amounts in metric and imperial weights side by side. I recognise the difficulties, but I argue that if unit pricing had been introduced into these two measures it would be much easier for the consumer. It is, of course, the consumer whom we are trying to protect. The consumer could judge more easily whether he was getting fairer value if that were so. There is the classic case of whether one has half a pound or 227 grams. The two quantities would appear to be about the same without unit pricing. I am sure that there will be a great deal of concern and confusion about such problems.

The Minister has mentioned the Metrication Board. I understand that the budget has been granted for the expenditure of those bodies wishing to go ahead with metrication. In relation to these and other orders, is the Minister satisfied that the budget for advising and informing consumers is sufficiently large? Is he satisfied that it will be used sufficiently to get across to consumers the fact that these measures are being introduced and will be effective?

We see this as a means of protection, in one sense, by these pre-packaged, statutory sizes, and we welcome that, but we are extremely concerned about metric and imperial weights running side by side and we are worried that once again the general consumer may lose out.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Robert Redmond (Bolton, West)

I shall be brief. I am particularly anxious that the public should know that the Government are not forcing people to go metric. What I cannot understand is why the Government have never sought approval of the excellent White Paper of February, 1972. We had a debate earlier this year on the subject, but the Government have never sought parliamentary approval for the White Paper.

The problem that arises here is with the elderly housewife who had been used to buying something, shall we say, for 1s. 6d. a pound, suddenly finding that it first became 7½p per 1b. and has now risen to something else, perhaps 8p or 10p a lb. One of her reference points has gone and if, now, the pound weight is to disappear as well, she has no yardstick, or centimetre stick, to gauge the value for money.

It will be a tragedy if it is conveyed to the people that the Government, through Parliament today, have said that pasta and salt must be sold in metric quantities, because that is not what is in the orders. I believe, however, that the public are thinking that the Government are pushing this measure through and forcing metrication upon the nation when, patently, the average consumer simply does not want it. I am thinking particularly of elderly housewives, old-age pensioners, and so on, who still cannot even understand our money, let alone these strange measures.

Whatever the Metrication Board may do in producing these wonderful equivalents, the average person does not have the faintest idea of what it is all about and much prefers to buy in pounds and ounces, whatever it may pay industry to do. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will make clear to the country that there is no question of forcing any industry to use metric measures in the shops.

10.27 p.m.

Dr. Tom Stuttaford (Norwich, South)

It is quite appalling that a far-reaching measure of this sort should be introduced at this fairly late hour, when most hon. Members have gone home. When, in our constituencies we ask why the Common Market is so unpopular, one of the first things we realise is that it is because of decimalisation. Not having learned our lesson once, we are going down the same road again and, by guile and stealth, introducing this measure, which will be extraordinarily unpopular and quite incomprehensible to the majority of our constituents.

We should reflect upon the figures given by the Minister a few moments ago. They were 10 per cent. out. That is quite an inflationary sum. If the Minister is 10 per cent. out, what will happen when housewives in Norwich have to deal with this matter? It will mean absolutely nothing to them.

Obviously, these orders will be passed tonight. Not enough hon. Members are present to prevent that. We shall have our salt and pasta measured in these particular weights. What we want to learn tonight is that other more commonly used substances will not go the same way. If we are to insist in a later Parliament—not in the present Parliament I hope—on producing similar legislation, may we have both figures on the package at the same time, so that there is some hope that those who do not have A level mathematics certificates may understand what they are buying in the corner grocery store?

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

I shall be brief. Although I have strong feelings on the subject of metrication, I feel it is a little unfair to suggest that this legislation is a further example of the Government's introducing metrication by stealth. To be fair to the Government, it must be said that they are introducing openly and clearly certain orders which carry us further along the path of metrication. The Government stated clearly in the White Paper and during a debate last Session that these orders would be forth-coming. This is part of an increasing pattern. However, I should like to suggest that the situation is still most unsatisfactory, and that the general feeling that this is being foisted on the country without a clear national decision having been taken will continue until such time as the Government seek approval for the White Paper. Although we know that the Government have the full legislative authority to carry out the general programme—although we appreciate that orders such as these can be introduced late at night, and properly so—this general feeling will exist until the nation, through Parliament, has made its decision.

A general policy decision should be taken to pursue to its ultimate conclusion the metrication of all our weights and measures, otherwise I believe that the Government will continue to be criticised for pursuing a wrong policy on this matter. Personally, I am not a great consumer of pasta and am not concerned whether it is sold by the pound, or macaroni by the metre or spaghetti by the centimetre.

We know that at some time in the future we shall be a fully-metricated nation. That may be right or wrong; many of us have considerable doubts. But I feel that the time has come for the Government to put this matter to the House for a clear decision. If they get a clear decision, future orders will be accepted gracefully by the House regardless of individual views on the subject.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I, too, intend to be brief. I endorse the opinions expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) and Faversham (Mr. Moate). They are right to reflect the deep concern felt by certain hon. Members, and perhaps even more widely by consumers outside the House, about metrication measures which the Government are bringing in and will continue to bring in in the future.

Perhaps in replying to the debate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will say what representations he has received from the food manufacturers. If the representations made to me are any- thing to go by, it must be said that people are very concerned about metrication because they feel that it will add to the cost of living. Since the Government are trying to control inflation and are also seeking to have a prices and incomes policy, measures such as these could make their task well nigh impossible. Responsible food manufacturers have made representations to me which I have passed on to the appropriate Ministers, and I hope that they have been duly noted by those who are in introducing orders such as these.

We have heard recently what people outside the House think about what goes on in this House from time to time. Therefore, I suggest that we should seek to reach a positive decision on the White Paper on metrication so that the country and hon. Members will know where we are going. I urge my hon. Friend to note the constructive opinions which have been expressed to him from his own back benches. These orders are important, and many of us feel that this is metrication by stealth. I hope that this will not be the pattern of the Government's actions in the next few months.

10.34 p.m.

Mr. Wilfred Proudfoot (Brighouse and Spenborough)

I am glad that my hon. Friends who have spoken so far have not spoken as though, because we are changing our methods of weights and measures, we are setting out to ruin some British tribal tradition. I remind the House that about 10 years ago I brought in the first Bill for a hundred years on the subject of decimal coinage. At that time I suggested that it would take 25 years to effect a change-over and that the only time to change to metric weights and measures would be when the system was changed in America. Since that time America has put in hand legislation to change to metric weights and measures. It has not yet been put into effect, but it is on its way. There is no doubt that it will happen.

I must plead an interest. I am in the grocery business. I do not think that hon. Members who have spoken in the debate can have been in a grocery shop in umpteen years—[Interruption.] If so, they certainly have not looked at the packets on the shelves and they know very little about what goes on in the business. Cans of soup, packets of biscuits, and virtually all commodities on the shelves in shops have had metric equivalents marked upon them for the last two or three years.

The in-people in consumer affairs talk of unit pricing. That has been tried in America, but it does not really work. That something like saffron should sell at £1,600 per pound is absurd. To be against the order on the ground of unit pricing is completely wrong, because after metrication it will be easier to compare prices.

The Labour Government chose the wrong unit for decimalisation. People thought that they were being swindled. If we had stuck to the 10s. unit, which I proposed in my Bill, there would not have been the terrible suspicion that prices were elevated. I assure the House there is so much competition in the food retail business that very little can be attributed to price increases through decimalisation.

I accused my hon. Friends of not having been in a grocery store for some time because it is sheer lunacy to imagine that anybody can buy a 4 oz. bag of salt. Yet that is a possible weight according to the order. I have never seen 4 oz., 8 oz., or 12 oz. packets of salt in the last 25 years in the grocery business. Certainly one could get salt in packets of 1 1b, 1½ 1b and multiples of 1 1b. Therefore, the order is already out of date. No one will buy 125 grams or 250 grams of salt, but 50 grams, yes, because that is just over 1 1b.

Before hon. Members criticise the order they should find out what is happening in the market place. This is a practical and sensible order. It will present no problems. I have never weighed 1 1b of pasta or salt, because such items have been packaged for the last umpteen years. One must go to one of those strange districts in London to buy pasta loose.

This is not metrication by stealth; it is common sense. The order will not create problems in the market place for anyone.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. J. R. Kinsey (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Proudfoot), I do not like the order at all. This is proceeding with stealth. We are tackling the problem a bit at a time and at a late hour. What looks like an innocuous measure is in fact a gigantic metric step into food weights and measures. We are not dealing with people who are used to measuring and have had the benefit of a scientific and technical education to fit them for industry; we are dealing with housewives, particularly elderly housewives.

Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the weighing machines in use in our shops can accurately equate from pounds and ounces to metric measurements? Are our shopkeepers, as well as their customers, protected in this direction? This must mean increased costs for all food-producing businesses, just as they are reeling from the effects of decimalisation the costs of converting tills and producing new price lists. It will involve wholesale changes in weighing apparatus. How will the trade get this money back? Inevitably it will be passed on to the customer. That is why I am against the orders.

Mr. Emery

There are a number of misapprehensions about these orders which I would like to clear up. It might help my hon. Friends if they read the orders before making their speeches. Article 3 of each order makes it clear that pasta or salt which is not pre-packed shall be sold by retail only by net weight. That is the position at the moment. No alteration of weighing machines is involved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Kinsey) suggested, seeking to stir up emotions about the poor housewife.

What we make clear is that if manufacturers wish to pre-pack in metric units they may do so. They can continue to pre-pack in imperial units if they wish. The Government have the right to be resentful over the accusation that this is being introduced by stealth. Orders are normally taken at this time of night, as hon. Members know well. The orders are brought separately before the House so that they can be debated. There is no question of trying to pull wool over the eyes of the electorate or the House.

It is said that the White Paper on metrication has not yet been voted upon. We have had a half-day debate on the White Paper and several debates about metrication. Not all White Papers are voted upon, as is well known. Suggestions that the Government are not being wholly open about this do not hold water. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Dr. Stuttaford) suggested that this was an attempt to force through metrication because of our entry to the Common Market. I repeat what is well worthy of repetition. The only countries in the world which have not indicated their intention of turning to metrication are Burma, Brunei, Liberia, Nauru, Tonga, Sierra Leone, Western Samoa, the Yemen Arab Republic and the Yemen Democratic People's Republic. I do not really believe that we should be in that group of countries against the rest of the world—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]—as one of the biggest exporters in the world wanting to satisfy the demands of the rest of the world with our exports. The humour that has been shown in suggesting that we should stay in that group only demonstrates some of the fatuity of the approach of some hon. Members to these orders.

We do not believe that the orders are factious. We believe that they deserve approval and that this is being done in the right and proper manner, which meets entirely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) in wishing to ensure that the British public can decide whether they want metric or imperial quantities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) asked what consultations with over 40 organisations definite claim that this process would add to the cost of living. We had consultations with over 400 organisations representative of the whole of the retail trade and none of them suggested that this move in itself would add to the cost of living. As he made that accusation, however, perhaps he will be kind enough to supply me with chapter and verse, because I would like to take it up. We go out of our way to consult and try to ensure that everyone who has any views is able to make them known. Amongst the 40 and more opinions given, two were by private individuals.

Mr. Winterton

I qualify my remarks. I did not restrict them solely to the orders. They were made in the context of metrication coming into the whole of the food retail trade. If my hon. Friend checks in HANSARD tomorrow he will see that I did not refer solely to the two orders. I am quite happy to send him chapter and verse of the representations made to me by the Cheshire food manufacturers.

Mr. Emery

The Food Manufacturers' Federation, amongst others—and together they were representative of the whole of the trade—said that it agreed with the need for the orders and did not expect any extra costs because of them. That is important in our considerations.

Dr. Stuttaford


Mr. Emery

It is important that I should deal with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Proudfoot). I remember very well his Decimal Coinage Bill—indeed, my name followed his on it. I agree with him that if we had gone over to the 10s. cent in our decimalisation we would have had none of the problems which the Labour Government's decimalisation has landed us in. I believe that in retrospect most people now accept that we were right.

Dr. Stuttaford

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Emery

I have already given way three times.

Dr. Stuttaford

Has my hon. Friend consulted Age Concern and read the remarks of that body about decimalisation and metrication?

Mr. Emery

If my hon. Friend wishes to find out about that he can himself consult Age Concern. Age Concern has the right to submit its views, and frequently does. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that its director is a member of the Metrication Board. Let us get our facts right before we try to score points.

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark) referred to the manner in which the orders had been introduced and asked why we had not dealt at the same time with unit pricing. The scope of our order-making power does not allow us to introduce unit pricing in this manner. He said that he was unhappy about orders being introduced in this way, but he would be much more unhappy if we had attempted to include unit pricing, because that is not legally possible.

The hon. Member for Colne Valley asked what was the Government's view about unit pricing. My right hon. Friend and I have made clear in the House on several occasions that while prescribed quantities may be useful in some areas, in other areas unit pricing may be of assistance. Last Session we supported the Weights and Measures (Unit Pricing) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack).

The hon. Member for Colne Valley was worried about the "side-by-side" factor—that there could be on the same shelf articles displaying metric and imperial weights. As he will have heard from the debate, there are variations of view on this. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West wishes to make certain that that is the case. I hope that, wherever possible, the shops will not confuse consumers by displaying together articles labelled with imperial and metric weights. That would accord neither with the wishes of my hon. Friend nor with the view of the hon. Member for Colne Valley.

Mr. David Clark

I was concerned that articles labelled with metric and imperial weights were not displayed side by side without unit pricing. With unit pricing it is possible to see whether one is getting a better bargain with 250 grams or half a pound.

Mr. Emery

I fully understand that. However, without a Bill dealing with unit pricing that is legally impossible.

The last question asked by the hon. Member for Colne Valley was whether there was an adequate budget for advice to consumers. A budget for these orders has been approved for the next 12 months and adequate finance will be available to enable the Metrication Board to bring forward the sort of defence I spoke of when I introduced the measures and which the Consumer Safeguards Group outlined in detail. I cannot go into all the details now without being out of order, but I suggest that people who are genuinely concerned with consumer protection should study the views put forward by the Consumer Protection Group of the Metrication Board. That is the way in which the board and the Government will ensure that when metrication is introduced there is as little confusion as possible and that sufficient information is available to avoid confusion. That is what the Government want, it is what the Metrication Board was set up to do, and why the orders are brought forward tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Pasta) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 16th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.

Resolved, That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Salt) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 16th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.—[Mr. Emery.]

Forward to