HC Deb 10 July 1975 vol 895 cc877-91

9.42 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. Alan Williams)

I beg to move, That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Dried Vegetables) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 24th June, be approved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

I take it the Minister agrees that with this motion we should also discuss the following: That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Flour and Flour Products) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 24th June, be approved. That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Cereal Breakfast Foods and Oat Products) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 24th June, be approved.

Mr. Williams

I would not dream of opposing such a suggestion, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure it will be to the benefit of your night's rest and that of us all if we deal with the orders in the way you suggest. I am sure it will facilitate the proceedings of this packed House which is agog with excitement.

I am happy to see the hon. Lady for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) here to support us in the measures we are putting forward because the policy of metrication has been pursued by both parties. It was initiated in the middle 1960s and received active support from both sides. The hon. Lady will be fully aware of the intentions of the orders because similar measures were passed by her own party in Government in relation to pasta and salt. At present, the pre-packed products referred to in the orders can only be sold in prescribed imperial quantities. The purpose of the orders is to permit their sale in pre-packed metric quantities. This will be a facility for the industries. It will be up to the industries to decide the rate at which they introduce the new packets. The orders cover flour and flour products, dried vegetables, such as lentils and split peas, and breakfast cereals in a flake form and those made from oats.

The hon. Lady will be fully aware that Section 54(2) of the 1963 Act requires us to consult parties or persons who might be substantially affected by such regula- tions, and we have carried out consultations with 80 to 90 such bodies in the manufacturing, retail, wholesale and enforcement authority sectors. She will also recollect that it is the industries themselves which want this metrication programme. They are waiting for Parliament to give its approval. The new packs, as the hon. Lady will recollect from previous discussions on metrication measures, will hold approximately 10 per cent. more than the imperial packs which eventually they will replace, but we have had assurances from the industries concerned that when it comes to adjusting costs to reflect this extra quantity the adjustments will be confined to those that are necessary simply to reflect the quantity change. The extra 10 per cent. of quantity should be matched by an extra 10 per cent. in price so that, in unit pricing terms a consumer will find no change as a result of metrication.

The dangers and hazards which surrounded us with the switch of coinage to a decimal system are less likely to occur in metrication simply because, instead of everything being changed overnight, we are moving product by product. It is much easier for the Price Commission, the Metrication Board, the enforcement officers and the Government to supervise the change-over that takes place.

We have provided that 125 grammes will be the lowest prescribed quantity under each of these orders. That is slightly larger than the existing equivalent of 4 oz, but the exemptions which we permit will allow smaller quantities to be marketed because it might well be that pensioners and people living alone may want to purchase even less than 125 grammes. I checked to see whether there had been representations from the consumer bodies that there should be lower prescribed quantities, but no such representations were received. The consumer bodies consulted—it was a large range of bodies and I will gladly supply the hon. Lady with a list if she wishes to see it—agreed that the lower range would not be disadvantageous to pensioners, lower-income groups and single-person households.

The sizes recommended here largely reflect today's trading pattern and, therefore, do not represent much of a change in what will appear on the shelves in the shops. In all cases we have introduced an upper limit of 10 kg. My appreciation of the hon. Lady's arithmetical capacities matches my appreciation of her political capacities, and I therefore know that she will instantly tell me that 10 kg. is the equivalent of 22 lb. A pack of more than 22 lb. is likely to be a commercial size, and therefore the regulations cover all the sizes which are likely to appear in retail distribution.

We also hope that the range of sizes chosen will facilitate comparisons within the range in terms of value for money. On various occasions we have made representations that such comparisons should be possible, and we hope that this range will help in that respect.

The Metrication Board will be giving advance publicity to the change and its implications, and the industry has been willing to accept the suggestion that it should give general information about metrication on the packets in the hope of helping not only with the change-over but in the general process of metrication.

We shall be introducing under the Weights and Measures Act new marking regulations which I hope to place before the House shortly. They will require the metric measure to be printed on all prepackages. In addition, those which are metric will carry the measures in capitals on the metric pack to help people identify them during the change-over period.

There are numerous illusions about the metrication process, but certain fears are quite unwarranted. For example, many fear that a process of metrication will inevitably mean the compulsory loss of a pint of beer. This is a change which frankly I should regard as taking place over my dead body. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, from the conversations that I have recently had with him, also seems to have a similar dedication to our traditional pint of beer. He shares the view that its disappearance would be a quite unnecessary change.

There are certain matters about which I should remind the House and the public. Metric units have been legal in the United Kingdom since 1897. We are not introducing a new system. We are switching from a mixed system to a uniform system. Secondly, on examination of the total spectrum of industrial and commercial activities we find that the programme is largely completed. Most of it has been done without any parliamentary action whatsoever, because as the use of metric measures was already legal much of our industry voluntarily undertook these changes in the last decade or since the start of the change in 1965.

Action is needed about prescribed quantity goods. The hon. Member for Gloucester is fully aware of the legal barrier that these present to the change to metrication. I have indicated that the Conservative administration introduced measures concerning pasta and salt. Last year we introduced measures for sugar.

I am sorry that I appear to have completed the majority of my speech just as the House is filling up. I had not realised that I could attract such a good audience.

The hon. Member for Gloucester will also be aware of the wastefulness of running an imperial and a metric system side by side, because for industry it means two production runs; industry will need an imperial system for domestic production and a metric production line for exports. Equally, the House will bear in mind the educational advantages that were anticipated with the switch to metrication. These educational advantages are to some extent being undermined by the fact that metrication has taken longer than envisaged at its introduction. Many schools have already switched to metrication. My own children are learning their mysterious arithmetic in metric form. The degree of communication between us has markedly diminished, to my great relief, because I cannot do the arithmetic in either form. However, it gives me an excuse for not offering to assist. Educationally there is an advantage to be derived. That advantage is to some extent not being fully realised because the process is taking longer than we originally thought.

It is important to remember that we must avoid confusing consumers. In the past we have all made complaints about the difficulty that is experienced when packs stand side by side which are not identical but are similar and, therefore, may not always be clearly distinguishable visually. This often makes price comparison by the shopper difficult. It is important, if we are to avoid this confusion of imperial pack alongside metric pack, that we complete the process of metrication.

From April 1978 under the EEC Treaty requirements we have to stop any discrimination against metric packs in this country. Irrespective of whether we have completed our process of metrication, we shall have to be willing to accept metric packs from the Continent in competition. I am sure that the hon. Lady will realise the confusion that this could cause oil the shelves unless we made the necessary adjustments. It is for this reason that I assume that the hon. Lady, whose party played an important part in the development of the metrication programme, will be giving me her usual unstinting support. It is also necessary to switch to metric units to preserve the prescribed quantity system since under the existing Weights and Measures Act that system is based purely on the imperial system.

May I finally, in this exciting and stimulating debate, put a wider perspective on our discussion. It has to be remembered that 143 countries are already using metric units or in the process of going metric. There are only five countries—Brunei, Burma, Liberia, Yemen Arab Republic and Yemen People's Democratic Republic—which are not. While we very much value all of our trade with those countries, I see a certain balance of advantage in getting on equal terms with the 143 countries that are metric and taking our chances with the other five.

It has to be borne in mind that 99 per cent. of our exports go to those countries which are using the metric system or are in the process of converting to it. Even some of the old Commonwealth countries—Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Republic of Ireland—which take 14 per cent. of our exports, started metrication after us and are now further advanced. The United States takes 12 per cent. of our exports. It has introduced an Education Bill setting aside 40 million dollars simply for education in metric measures. That Bill states: The metric system will be the system of weights and measures in the United States. It is clear that the progress of world events makes it inevitable that we as an exporting country will have to complete the metrication process.

We want to complete that process as quickly as possible. For that reason I hope that we can rely on a non-partisan approach to this issue. I am sure that the hon. Members for Gloucester and Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Lamont) are here to pledge their whole-hearted and unstinting support for the Government. We are having discussions with various sectors of the food industry on the final stages. We recognise that it may be necessary, as a last resort, to take powers to ensure that there is an orderly completion of the metric process. That may mean amending Section (10) (10). Should that become necessary the Government will do it. I know that that will be with the full approval of Conservative Members.

9.59 p.m.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)

I have been dismayed to think that I might have misled the Minister of State by nodding in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Lamont) sitting beside me. I hope that the Minister does not think that I was nodding in support of these orders. The fact that he misinterpreted my nod is support for the old saying, "A nod is as good as a wink to a blind man." Far from expressing whole-hearted support for these orders, I would like to express great apprehension about one of them and a good deal of disappointment and concern about the others.

We have had a wide-ranging speech from the Minister. It might have been thought that we were moving near to M-Day instead of discussing statutory instruments for prescribed quantities which merely permit items to be sold in metric or imperial weights. It does not make it a statutory obligation. This is far from being a total metrication debate.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman showed considerable gallantry in trying to share the honours between his party and mine on metrication. Indeed, I have rarely known him so generous as on this occasion. As he was so generous, I think that it would be fair to say that the country was committed to metrication by a Labour Government completely outside the context of our membership of the European Communities. I do not think that I can accept his generous accolade to the Conservative Party for its support of these measures.

I understand the Minister wanting this debate as there has been almost unrelieved stagnation in terms of consumer protection in his Department. I should have thought that by this time his Department of Consumer Protection was a department of consumer rejection.

I wish to discuss the question of the prescribed imperial quantities mentioned in these orders. He and I have debated on many other occasions the importance of prescribed quantities to consumer protection and how much more helpful they are than unit pricing, where appropriate. However, these orders still mention irregular quantities—I refer to the imperial quantities—such as 12 oz. We have had arguments about how confusing it is when a 12 oz. jar of jam is placed besides a 1 lb. jar of jam, both having the same size or shape. I am most concerned about the statutory instruments which deals with prescribed quantities for cereals.

The departmental Press release on these orders speaks of a date by which it is expected that metrication will have taken over completely. That date is 1st November 1975, which is not very far off. At a time when consumers are struggling with the worst level of inflation they have ever faced, they must cope with the added confusion of metric quantities of breakfast cereals. If the Minister of State believes that breakfast cereals are not an important or significant part of family expenditure, I disagree. They are a significant proportion of the expenditure of a family with three children. A larger proportion of the family expenditure is spent on cereals than on butter, tea, flour and cheese—all of which the Secretary of State thinks are of such importance that they must be subsidised. This commodity is heavily weighted in the family shopping list. I refer to families with below and up to average earnings, about which there may be confusion.

Although the imperial alternatives offered are unsatisfactory, if we stuck to those they would be more satisfactory than the existing imperial measures. I looked at various packets of cereals today. To my consternation and horror I saw a variety of well-known cereals packed in boxes weighing 1-lb, 1-lb 6 oz, 5½oz, 12 oz and 15 oz.

The Minister of State has a marvellous opportunity to improve greatly the situation—instead of which he improves the situation marginally in the case of imperial weights. The introduction of metrication in November against a background of high inflation is not an act of consumer protection.

The situation is even more worrying when we consider the metric weights which will be presented to the consumers. Why is there to be a weight of 375 g.? That is not a prescribed quantity which is of interest or use to the consumers. There is the 1 lb weight against 500 g. The Minister mentioned arithmetical prowess. He will know that 1 lb is 453 g. There will be a fair amount of confusion.

I am interested to see that certain very small packs are exempt from the prescribed quantities. I remember using miniature packs of cereals in my shopping basket in the 1970 General Election campaign to illustrate how much less the pound would buy if a Labour Government came to power. I am delighted to see that the Minister of State has included in this order not 2 oz. but ½ oz. packs, which will no doubt enable me in the next General Election campaign to demonstrate even more clearly what has happened to the purchasing power of the pound.

Will the Minister of State make clear whether the timetable date of 1st November 1975 for cereals is permissive, or whether he expects to have amended the Weights and Measures Act so that there will no longer be an imperial alternative available by that date?

The flour order is more acceptable because it comes in a good deal later, in July 1977, although, once again, it provides confusing prescribed metric quantities for consumers. The usual quantities in which flour is sold are 1 lb. and 3 lb. bags. There is to be a 1.5 kg. bag, which is not equivalent to a 3 lb. bag, and I am not sure whether there will be a 500 g. bag as equivalent to the 1 lb. bag. What mystifies me is that cornflour is to be packed in quantities of 375 g. and 750 g., whereas it is currently sold in 1 lb. packs. I know of no such packs in the weights prescribed.

The date for the coming into operation of the dried vegetables order is 1st April 1976. I am sure that even the Minister of State would not claim that his Government will be on top of inflation by then. There will once again be confusion in an area of family expenditure which is extremely common if not as important as breakfast cereals.

The Minister of State referred to similar orders introduced by a Conservative Government for pasta and salt. Pasta and salt are small items in family expenditure compared with the foods covered by the three statutory instruments we are considering tonight.

A little over a year ago when we considered similar statutory instruments introduced by the hon. Gentleman dealing with wine and dentifrice, he professed to have a certain amount of criticism of the orders, yet a year later he has produced no improvement in the prescribed quantities. There may be a question of liaison with the EEC on imperial quantities. If there is, will the Minister of State tell the House whether our interests have been put forward in the relevant committees, whether representation has been made about weights which are unfamiliar in this country and what representations will be made in future?

The Minister of State said that by 1978 we shall not be able to prevent prepacked food from the EEC coming into this country in metric packs, but my latest advice is that prepacked foods imported from the EEC amount to approximately 10 per cent. of all the prepacked food sold in this country, which is largely Danish butter and bacon, which have nothing to do with these orders.

Although the Opposition will not oppose the orders, I hope that it will be noted by the House that it is unsatisfactory that we should be forced into a shotgun wedding with orders of this sort fairly late on a Thursday night when many hon. Members who may have wished to speak in the debate and feel strongly about the matter may already have left for their constituencies. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman seeks to amend the Weights and Measures Act the debate will be on the Floor of the House in daylight, so that hon. and right hon. Members who feel strongly on this subject may participate.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Alan Williams

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) resorts, as usual, to colourful and flambuoyant language in the use of the word "shotgun" to describe our present matrimonial relationship. All I was trying to do in complimenting the Opposition on the part they played in taking the country further forward with metrication was to indicate that I thought they would be consistent on this issue.

Having listened to the hon. Lady, I do not know whether the Opposition will be consistent, because I am not sure even now whether her complaint is that we were too slow, which is what I gathered it was in relation to certain products because she wants us to do more in relation to wine etc., or whether we were too quick because she does not want us to do it in relation to other products. However, I have long since recognised the difficulties of completely satisfying the hon. Lady's consumer demands. I wish that she would make them a little more consistent.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to clarify my position. I should like him to be more rapid in introducing consumer protection measures and less rapid in the metrication of cereals.

Mr. Williams

Does not the hon. Lady realise—she will have heard the point I made in my speech, and I was as placatory, friendly and clear as I possibly could be, although I recognise my clarity deficiency at this time of night—that these are matters of consumer protection because of the problems that will arise under the EEC requirements when access to this country of metric packs becomes applicable?

The hon. Lady mentioned certain products and said that only certain percentages were coming on to the market. This is because at present our prescribed quantity regulations, which are based on imperial measures, make it impossible for other EEC producers to sell their goods in this country. I am sure the hon. Lady will recollect that it was illegal, although we and the weights and measures officers turned a blind eye to it, during the sugar famine to sell metric sugar packs in this country. In that instance the absence of any such provision in relation to metric quantities acted as an inhibition on our capacity to deal with the scarcity situation.

The hon. Lady's conclusions about where the balance of consumer protection lies are somewhat suspect and open to challenge. She also made the point that this is an unfortunate time at which to have a debate. I am surprised that she tried to bounce that argument. She will know very well that in relation to the proceedings of the House of Commons this is a fairly early hour of the evening. I can understand that she is probably ranting a little because she missed an Adjournment debate on doorstep selling a couple of weeks ago which took place at the same time. I appreciate that she probably had commitments that took her away. However, if hon. Members felt as strongly as she suggests on the question of metrication, I should have thought that, with the intense campaigning spirit that the hon. Lady is attributing to them, even a small proportion of them, might have found it possible to attend and challenge the views of either Front Bench. However, this does not seem to have been the situation.

The hon. Lady referred to the equivalent of the 12-oz. pack of cornflour. I understand that these sizes were included specifically at the request of the industry, with the consumers' agreement, during the consultative process. Therefore, consumers were made aware of this and I understand that no objection was taken to it.

The hon. Lady then referred to my Department's Press hand-out. I am delighted that she read it. I only wish she had read it more closely, because it does not say "on 1st November". It says "from 1st November". The timetable is from 1st November 1975. This is the stage at which the industry will start its production programme. The actual change-over as far as the shops are concerned will take considerably longer because the packs will work their way into the shops towards the middle of next year.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on the ingenuity with which she managed to drag the question of inflation into the discussion on metrication. However, on the basis of her arguments it seems that there is never an appropriate time to go metric although her own party is committed to going metric. Therefore, 1st November is a permissive date. We are not telling industry that it must go metric from 1st November. This is a date from which, on our understanding of the industry's plans—because the major producers say that there is very little conversion problem concerning machinery—the major producers envisage that they will be able to start the production.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

On a point of clarification, I wonder whether the Minister can tell the House whether this means that he does not propose to amend the Weights and Measures Act to exclude imperial alternatives before that date.

Mr. Williams

I do not see that we shall have much opportunity before that date, with respect to the hon. Lady. I am glad to know that she is eager to see such a measure brought forward. Therefore, I shall consult her fully, if it is necessary to do that, in the hope that we can ensure its speedy passage through the House in a non-controversial atmosphere. But the House is about to go into its Summer Recess, and the hon. Lady knows that we shall not be returning until some time in October. There will then be the changeover between the two Sessions and the debates on the Queen's Speech. Therefore, I should not have thought that there was the remotest possibility of that particular piece of legislation being enacted prior to 1st November.

However, in view of the hon. Lady's enthusiasm for it, I shall certainly draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Lord President the possibility that, with the hon. Lady's support, we may be able to enact it soon after 1st November. It is a possibility which I am certainly willing to investigate.

The hon. Lady made her statutory political point about being committed to metrication by a Labour Government. She will, of course, recollect the debate in the House when her right hon. and learned Friend the present Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was then the Minister responsible for consumer protection, and his Under-Secretary, who has now retired to other activities on lowlier benches, were both arguing the case for metrication, against their back benchers. It was clearly their Government's policy.

I can understand that the comfort of the shoulder-blade sitting where the hon. Lady is may indicate that she has to be a little more circumspect than perhaps she would be were she in government. However, I should have thought that she might realise that it may in her interests as well that we complete the process as rapidly as possible.

As regards the suggestion of a problem of stagnation of consumer protection, I find that proposition too ludicrous, as well as being too far outside the realms of this debate, for me to follow. I recollect the 193 clauses of the Consumer Credit Bill, now the Act, which I took through within a matter of months of coming into Government.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

Order. The hon. Gentleman himself reminded the House that it is quite outside the scope of the orders we are discussing at present, the scope of which is limited to the desirability or otherwise of the new requirements for the marking of the pre-packed foods concerned.

Mr. Williams

I would never have dreamed of mentioning it, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I saw that you had taken over the Chair, and I well recollect our period in Opposition and in Government together and I thought that the well-established precedents of your own speeches in those days would allow me the same degree of latitude.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. My past actions are never to be raised again.

Mr. Williams

In that case, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I stand duly admonished and I shall resist the temptaton to answer the vile political attack launched by the hon. Lady.

Finally, I remind the House that these orders are part of a process which both parties have pursued and which both parties have said is in the national interest. Hon. Members must bear in mind also that they are part of the process of ensuring that the prescribed quantity protection, which the hon. Lady rightly values very highly, can be continued after the EEC requirements come into force.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Dried Vegetables) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 24th June, be approved.

Resolved, That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Flour and Flour Products) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 24th June, be approved.—[Mr. Alan Williams.]

Resolved, That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Cereal Breakfast Foods and Oat Products) Order 1975, a draft of which was laid before this House on 24th June, be approved.—[Mr. Alan Williams.]

  2. c890
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  5. CUSTOMS AND EXCISE 31 words
  6. c890
  7. JUDGES 27 words
  8. c891
  9. ADJOURNMENT 13 words
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