HC Deb 12 April 1976 vol 909 cc892-8
7. Mr. Giles Shaw

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what plans she has to keep the public informed of the problems created by metrication.

Mr. Alan Williams

When in government, the Opposition entered into international commitments to metricate and to allow the import of metric goods after a set date. To avoid confusion and unnecessary cost for consumers as a result of these commitments it is necessary to complete the metrication programme in an orderly fashion. These possible problems could become more acute as increasing numbers of school leavers, trained primarily in the metric system, have to contend with the protracted use of a dual system in our shops and factories.

Mr. Shaw

I thank the Minister for that extraordinary answer. Would he not agree that the sudden withdrawal of an enabling Bill to metricate must add confusion to the public and particularly industry? When do the Government propose to re-table that measure—I hope with amendments that would make it passable in the House?

Mr. Alan Williams

If there is any confusion, the convolutions of the Opposition have not exactly helped. The policy was to enable us to do what was necessary to fulfil their obligations in an orderly fashion. It seems to me—I make this point genuinely, whether the House wishes to believe it or not—that we should at least try, on what has been a consensus policy for the last 10 years, to explore how far consensus can be re-established. That means consensus with the consumer organisations, which have been overwhelmingly in support of changing Section 10(10) of the Weights and Measures Act 1963, and with the trade. I have had meetings and have invited the Opposition to meet me also.

Mr. Dalyell

Have the Government seen the proposals of the Retail Consortium that there should be a statutory timetable, in consultation with retailers?

Mr. Alan Williams

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to the attention of the House. I had a meeting with the Retail Consortium only last week. It is clearly understood that, while the Consortium is no more enthusiastic about metrication than probably any of us as individuals, it recognises the inevitability of the situation, the fact that voluntariness has now virtually reached its end and the fact that we shall now have to try to organise the completion of the metrication programme. I am grateful to the Consortium for at least presenting the problems as it sees them.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

Will the Minister please answer these questions in a more honest fashion and say that this country was committed to metrication in the first place in 1965 by a Labour Government and that the consensus followed later about the actual principle of metrication? Will he urge the new Leader of the House to make parliamentary time available so that the confusion can be ended and the Government can put their plans to the House for consideration before they present a Bill?

Mr. Alan Williams

I should like to think that the hon. Lady will on reflection choose, at least on a personal level, to withdraw her comment about honesty, because I found it somewhat surprising. No one has tried to pretend that metrication was not started in 1965 at the request of the Confederation of British industry. It was immediately supported by Opposition spokesmen in the House of Lords when it was debated there. When it was debated here and I was sitting where the hon. Lady is now, despite the fact that there was political mischief to be done and political capital to be made if one wished to be cheap enough, I retained tht consensus approach. What is more, I have extended a courtesy which was never extended to me when I was in opposition: I have had Opposition spokesmen in to see me on several occasions for off-the-record discussions and briefings. I have indicated to them that the Section 10(10) change was coming about. No indication was given by the Opposition that they would table a completely negative amendment. Indeed, the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Lamont) has on a number of occasions asked when we would bring in Section 10(10).

Mr. Skinner

Does my hon. Friend realise that throughout all this argument there has been a large body of opinion, on this side of the House especially, which has never been part of this consensus and, what is more, never will be? In view of the fact that the Common Market is showing the first real signs of cracking up, why bother with it at all?

Mr. Alan Williams

My hon. Friend should bear in mind that in the last two years we have had only about a dozen questions, including supplementary questions, from Government supporters on this subject—

Mr. Skinner

So what?

Mr. Alan Williams

My hon. Friend says "So what?" If it comes to consultation, I have on several occasions raised this matter with the appropriate Back Bench committee. It has never been challenged in that committee. When various metrication Orders have come forward for discussion, there has been little participation by my hon. Friends. Those hon. Members on both sides of the House who think that they do anyone a service by trying to bury their heads in the sand should remember that nearly 15 million children have gone through or are going through the school system since the decision to go metric was made. We have a responsibility to them as well.

12. Mr. McCrindle

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection how many representations on metrication she has received since 23rd March from bodies representing industry and consumers, respectively.

Mr. Alan Williams

Since 23rd March I have received representations from 21 organisations, 14 representing industry and seven representing consumers. The overwhelming majority of representations received by the Department, both before and after 23rd March, support the view that the orderly completion of the metrication programme is essential and that there should be no avoidable delay in the progress of the Weights and Measures, &c. Bill.

Mr. McCrindle

As industry seems anxious to proceed to metrication in view of the potential loss of export orders if that course is not followed, but as the consumer is understandably anxious about such matters as possible profiteering and confusion, how practical is it to extend the powers of the Metrication Board on the one hand or the Office of Fair Trading on the other so that some consideration may be given to the interests of the consumer, while not delaying the metrication of industry?

Mr. Alan Williams

I appreciate the constructive spirit in which the hon. Member has put forward his proposition. It received the inevitable negative response from his own Front Bench, a situation with which I am becoming fully acquainted on this subject.

I am not sure that the Metrication Board would have the necessary power. We have the use of unit pricing and prescribed quantities in this respect. I am considering the possibility of using the Price Commission on a special reference to deal with pricing over the period of metrication, and I have asked the Retail Consortium to consider whether it can act as a first-stage vetting operation on the goods which flow from manufacturers at the time of metrication—although I recognise that this may not be possible for it.

23. Mr. Nicholas Winterton

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection whether she has made any estimate of the cost to retailers of metrication; and whether she will publish it.

Mr. Alan Williams

I accept the conclusion of the Conservative Government's 1972 White Paper that it is impossible for the United Kingdom, as it has been for all countries which have changed to the metric system, to make an estimate of the total costs of the metric changeover. I also agree with that White Paper's statement that the costs of a quick and radical change would be high, as would the costs of a protracted and unplanned change, but direct costs can be reduced, sometimes almost to zero, by a phased introduction of metric equipment". One of the aims of the Weights and Measures, &c. Bill is to ensure that costs are minimised. The Opposition attitude, in so far as I am able to understand it, would be to maximise costs and confusion.

Mr. Winterton

Will the hon. Gentleman take it that both retailers and consumers are deeply concerned about metrication, as they were about decimalisation, and will he therefore make a major contribution to orderly progress in this matter by considering publishing details of firm cut-off dates for the various commodities, and also proposals for consumer safeguards?

Mr. Alan Williams

I dealt with the consumer safeguards side of it in reply to a previous Question. As regards prices cut-off dates, I find the hon. Gentleman's attitude somewhat strange. On the one hand, the Opposition berate us for wanting to take powers and, on the other, they want a tighter timetable, apparently, than we envisage. I make this genuinely practical point to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that his hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) will absorb it. The fact is that certain sections of industry, trade associations and so on have made clear to us that until Section 10(10) of the 1963 Act is amended, they are not, because of their members' reluctance, in a position actually to negotiate a timetable. I cannot therefore give a predetermined timetable until I have had those negotiations, and the Section 10(10) amendment is a prerequisite of starting the negotiations.

Mr. Molloy

Does my hon. Friend recall that during the decimalisation period there was grave dissatisfaction and apprehension throughout the country, when ordinary people, to put it frankly, felt that they were being fleeced and cheated, and this has been almost proved since? Will my hon. Friend therefore invoke the aid of the consumer councils and other machinery he has to hand to ensure that there is no repetition of such disgraceful behaviour on the part of some commercial undertakings?

Mr. Alan Williams

Whether there was or was not exploitation at the time of decimalisation, it is clear that in the public mind there was, and there is therefore legitimate public concern. But let us understand why, if there was exploitation, it was possible for it to take place unchecked. This was because the whole trading environment changed at that time, and the purpose behind changing Section 10(10) is to enable changes to take place sector by sector so that proper vetting can take place. The more things are compacted into a short time, the more we push against the deadline which the Opposition entered into, the more likely it becomes that we shall have an uncontrolled change-over.

Mr. Lawson

What possible justification can there be for the increase of 40 per cent. in the running costs of the Metrication Board between 1974 and 1975, that is, to almost £1 million? What will it cost this year?

Mr. Alan Williams

I invite the hon. Gentleman to read the Metrication Board's report, which will, I believe, be published this week, in which most of these things will probably be made clear. But here again, on the one hand, we are asked for greater publicity to produce public awareness of the problems of metrication, as was requested in a previous Question, but then complaint is made when the organisation which is to do it actually spends some money.