HC Deb 07 July 1976 vol 914 cc1515-46

10.26 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection (Mr. John Fraser)

I beg to move, That this House welcomes the Directive (R/3070/75), relating to units of measurement, as mitigating the obligations assumed under the Treaty of Accession; and also welcomes the Government's intention to seek the clarification and amendment of the Directive as outlined in the replies to the honourable Members for Newham South and Macclesfield on 27th May, Official Report, cols. 3758. Since, when we debate European directives, there is sometimes occasional humour and innocent merriment which occasionally degenerates into mischief, may I say that this is a directive which imposes no new European obligations upon this country. It has the effect of mitigating an existing directive on the subject which was accepted by the then Conservative Government at the time of the Treaty of Accession.

Basically, what we are discussing is the adoption at some time in the future throughout the Community on a total harmonisation basis, of a single system of units of measurement, the system in question being called Systeme Internationale of metric units. Before the accession of this country to the European Community the original Six nations had already adopted a directive which established the sole use of the SI system throughout the EEC and the framework for the disappearance of non-SI units. At the time of the Treaty of Accession, on 22nd January 1972, the then Conservative Government and some Labour Members accepted the fundamental obligation to adopt the SI system as the sole system to be used in this country.

The timetable for the phasing out of Imperial units was not firmly fixed. What the existing directive says is that: The classification in Annex I of the units of measurement listed in Annex II— that is, Imperial units— shall be decided on 31 August 1976 at the latest. The units of measurement concerning which no decision has been made on 31 August 1976 at the latest shall disappear on 31 December 1979 at the latest. An appropriate extension of this time limit may be decided for certain of these units of measurement if it should be justified for special reasons. This means that all Imperial units disappear by 1979 at the latest unless extensions are given. I do not deny the possibility that some extensions might be given. Let us look at the question of extensions beyond the original target date—

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman intend at some point in his speech to tell us what precisely is meant by "disappear" or "cease to be legal"? What is the practical effect of this? If he intends to tell us at some stage it would help.

Mr. Fraser

I am in some difficulty in knowing what "disappear" means. I am not responsible for the word. What I am trying to demonstrate to the House is that even the existing wording of the new directive is unsatisfactory, and I shall try to give a better form of words that will be accepted as an extension of the original obligation. This was an extension which always involved obtaining the unanimous agreement of all members of the Community.

Strictly speaking, the future of Imperial units beyond 1979 could have been decided there, or their end could have come about, as a result of the withholding of a single vote of any member State of the EEC.

The Government at the time, in 1972, agreed that unless the matter was decided by 1976, Imperial units should be phased out by the end of 1979. I do not believe that it was done on a bingo principle—that one took a number out of a hat—nor do I believe that there was any question of the European Community trying to push this country into doing it.

I think that during 1971–72 the then Government made a genuine estimate of when Imperial measures would largely cease to be used, irrespective of the accession to the Treaty of Rome.

Only this last answer is credible, and it is borne out by the White Paper on Metrication, published in 1972, which said: The continued production of imperial sized goods for the home market would not only weaken those industries' competitive power but would also entail higher prices for British consumers. It is on this basis that the voluntary changeover of industry to metric units has gone forward and the progress which has been made shows conclusively that this is a most forceful argument in its own right. To this extent, therefore, the implementation by the United Kingdom of the EEC directive gives legal form to a pattern, already firmly established, which is likely in large measure to be achieved by 1975. So in 1971–72 we had a genuine, responsible estimate by the Government of the time of when, according to our own wishes and our own programme, Imperial measures would be phased out.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)

I am sure that the Minister would not want to mislead the House, but that undertaking was a renegotiation by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) of the commitment by the previous Labour Government for us to go metric by 1975. He negotiated an extension until 1979.

Mr. Fraser

I can see that perfectly well. I am not trying to make any point at the expense of the Opposition. Of course, at the time there was a renegotiation, in the sense that the date was pushed onwards, beyond that estimated date of 1975, to 1979. I accept that completely.

Before I turn to the detailed proposals, it will be helpful to set out the pattern of metrication in this country. The first announcement about it was made in 1965 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay). He might be accused of many matters, but the last thing I would accuse him of doing was beginning the introduction of metrication in 1965 in the happy expectation of entry into the European Community in 1972. I do not think that anyone would hold him responsible for that. The point I seek to make is that there was a pattern of going into metrication as far back as 1965, quite independent of entry into the European Community.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

My hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but my memory is that the Government then decided to encourage industry and the public to use the metric system but there was no question of forbidding people by law from using other measures if they wished to do so. Can my hon. Friend say the same about these proposals?

Mr. Fraser

My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North is quite correct. I was simply beginning the history and not ending it at that point. I say that that was what might have been contemplated at the time, but under the proposals—not the proposals before us tonight but the proposals in the Treaty of Accession, which are mitigated by this draft directive—there would, of course, have been a prohibition for legal purposes, to which I shall come later, as a result of what was in the original Treaty of Accession.

In 1969 the Metrication Board was set up. A target date of 1975 was fixed. That target date was adopted by the Conservative Government in 1972 in their White Paper. There is no difference between the parties on this matter. At the time of the Treaty of Accession, the United Kingdom was committed, by successive Governments, and it was, therefore, perfectly consistent with national policy at the time to enter into those obligations in the Treaty of Accession. I am making no complaint about that. However, there can be no doubt that the obligations entered into were fundamental obligations to which in the long term we are irrevocably committed.

The first thing I want to say about the proposed amending directive is that, for the reasons I have outlined, if this amending directive, or something like it, is not adopted before the end of August this year, our EEC commitment will be, broadly speaking, to require all Imperial units to "disappear" by the end of 1979 at the latest. Whilst the end of 1979 may have seemed a reasonable deadline in 1971, it is far less clear that it is reasonable in mid-1976, largely because the pace of metrication in this country has been slower than anyone, on either side of the House, anticipated back in 1971. The position is different, therefore, from what it was in 1971, and the original directive no longer accurately reflects the current state of progress in this country. That original directive needs to be mitigated. That is what the draft directive before us does. The amending directive will mitigate it within the constraints of the underlying obligations.

In preparing this proposal the Commission recognised that for this country, and for the Irish Republic too, it would not be possible to achieve such a drastic changeover at one fell swoop. The Commission accepted the view, which is, of course, our own view, that a planned progressive changeover was the right way of proceeding, and this approach is reflected in the proposals before the House. In the process of drawing up the proposals the Commission sought guidance from us about the current state of play of metrication in this country and the rate of progress which it might be possible to achieve. In turn, my Department consulted—this is, perhaps, consultation at its greatest—over 1,000 industrial, trade and consumer bodies. On the basis of these consultations, my Department and other Government Departments involved are satisfied that, broadly speaking, the Commission's proposals that are before us now are reasonable and fair. I say "broadly speaking" because there are certain changes that we consider desirable. I shall come to these later on.

Here we have a directive amending the original 1971 directive—not replacing it. It amends it in the following ways. First, it integrates Imperial units into the body of the directive. Secondly, it creates four new chapters. Chapter A sets out the sole system eventually to be adopted, which is the SI system. Chapter B lists units with a 1977 deadline. Chapter C lists units with a 1979 deadline. Chapter D—these are usually the most sensitive units—concerns units which for the time being have no deadline but must be reviewed before the end of 1979. Imperial units are contained in Chapters B, C and D but not, of course, in Chapter A, which is the SI system.

I should like to explain the basis upon which we have approached the directive and the basis on which we intend to implement it if it is adopted. This basis is the nature of the legal requirements in this country and the extent to which the law will need to be changed. I wish to emphasise this point as strongly as possible. There is surprisingly little legislation in this country relating to units of measurement, the most important legislation being in the weights and measures field which deals essentially with units used for the purposes of trade.

What we are talking about is changing the law to authorise one set of units and gradually to de-authorise the Imperial set of units—that and nothing more. There are many areas of national life where units of measurement are used by custom and practice and not by authorisation. For instance, a cricket pitch is not laid down by law and is not affected by this directive or anything the Government proposed to do in the Weights and Measures Act, nor is the measurement of a racecourse, nor the distance between the point at which a man throws his darts and the board, and so on. These are all matters of use and custom and practice and there is no intention to interfere with them.

There are a lot of measurements used outside the legal framework, and the adoption of the directive will not lead to statutory action in such fields. The Government have no intention of legislating in areas of non-statutory custom and practice, and, so far as I can see, the customary use of Imperial measures will probably go on for many, many years in the future.

The directive and the Commission's proposals represent, broadly speaking, an acceptable basis on which to proceed but there are, however, certain improvements and points of clarification which we believe to be necessary. I indicated these in general terms in my Written Answer of 27th May to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), and I will new spell these out.

First of all, in Article 2 (1) of the directive the word "binding" in relation to the use of SI units by 21st April 1978 is ambiguous and unacceptable. We believe that the directive should make it clear that what is involved here is the authorisation or the giving of legal status to all SI units. It authorises them, but I think the word "binding" goes too far, I propose to have that part of the directive altered.

In Article 2 (2) and (3), the word "prohibit" is used. The word "prohibit" as it appears is a substitution for the original word "disappear" in the 1971 directive. [Laughter.] I am not responsible for this phrase and was not responsible for the original directive, but we believe that the word "prohibit" is a harsh interpretation and unsatisfactory and we believe it should be replaced by the words "cease to authorise", or some such form of wording which makes it clear that the directive is concerned only with amending the existing statutes which provide for the use of Imperial units. This view is shared by the House of Lords Scrutiny Committee.

As to the third change, the Directive, as drafted, makes no reference to existing equipment and spare parts. It should make it clear that nothing in it could be interpreted as requiring existing machinery or equipment to be scrapped or as preventing continuing manufacture of spare parts. I should take the opportunity to make it clear that neither this directive nor any purely domestic legislation concerned with metrication will mean having to throw on to the scrap heap any equipment not designed or calibrated in metric units.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

On that point, the Minister is saying that he proposes to alter the words "binding" and "prohibit," and deal with the question of spare parts. Can he guarantee to the House that he will be able so to do, bearing in mind that this is a European directive?

Mr. Fraser

I do not think there is any proposal for amendment which I am going to suggest to the House which I am not going to be able to achieve [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"]. The House seems surprised. I have gone to considerable trouble to sort these matters out with the Commission. I was prevented from going to Brussels because of the pairing strike, but kindly, the Commission came from Brussels to London. I am reasonably satisfied that I shall get the amendments that I am putting to the House.

I have heard it suggested that metrication will mean that people will have to get rid of their thermometers and barometers, inch tapes and rainfall gauges, that water pipes will have to be replaced and that we shall have to change the distance between railway lines. This is absolute nonsense. The adoption of the use of metric units does not mean, in general, that the size of things will have to change. The advent of metric units will probably lead to the adoption in due course of round, convenient metric sizes, but that is a steady evolutionary process which will occur for practical reasons and not because of Government legislation or Government interference.

The next amendment is necessary because the draft directive does not make it clear that non-authorised units can be used for explanatory purposes. This is the practice of dual marking, where, if the metric measurement appears primarily, it can be translated on the packet, in the marking, into an Imperial measure. Certainly, during a transitional period there should be provision for conversion charts.

Perhaps it is not necessary but we think that it is worth while to state that that is the way in which we interpret it—that non-authorised units can be used for explanatory purposes.

Mr. Jay

My hon. Friend has used words like "de-authorised" and "disappear" but some of us are still not clear. Can he say that, as a result of this directive, in no case will it be a legal offence for someone to use the non-authorised measures?

Mr. Fraser

It would not be an offence to use a non-authorised measure by way of a customer asking for a measure in the non-authorised units, or using it outside trade, but if the law were changed there would be certain transactions, particularly transactions of normal custom—consumer transactions—which would eventually have to be primarily in metric measures, with an Imperial conversion during the period of transition. I hope that I make that clear. Eventually, if one ceases to authorise the use of an Imperial measure, that unit will no longer be used primarily as the unit of measurement in trade.

Mr. Jay

The question surely still remains: would it in any circumstances be a legal offence to use one of the non-authorised measures, or would anyone be perfectly free to use which he pleased?

Mr. Fraser

Once one had established a cut-off date for an Imperial measure, it would probably be an offence under the Weights and Measures Act to sell in that measure, just as, once a measure is prescribed for a transaction, it is illegal to trade in any other measurement. For instance, it is not legal to trade in cloth by the length of an Arab's foot, which may be used in some other countries but not in this country, or to use some measure alien to this country. In the same manner, once an Imperial measurement has ceased to be authorised, trading primarily in that measure would, I think, be a legal offence.

Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

Would my hon. Friend say something about the pint and certain other measures? I understood from what he said previously that at no stage would it become illegal to trade in those measures. Would it be illegal to trade in those measures if they were cast in Imperial terms, as distinct from metric terms, in the example, say, of a pint of milk?

Mr. Fraser

This is not really the subject of the directive, but, to help my hon. Friend, I can say that what has always been proposed—it was in the 1972 White Paper, and it is what we propose to do—is that the sale of things like milk and beer can in practice continue to be authorised in half-pints and pints. If there were a changeover to metric, it would mean prescribing the metric equivalent of the pint or the half-pint.

I should also like to see certain changes made in the annexes to the directives. We should like to see the hand for measuring horses and the horsepower for measuring some of the properties of cars moved from Chapter B to Chapter C. Also, we are opposed to the inclusion of the millimetre of mercury in this chapter, at least for medical purposes. This unit, which is not an Imperial unit, is widely used for blood pressure measurements. We feel that the timetable for the disappearance of this measurement should be set with the advice of worldwide health authorities. There are two other non-Imperial units in Chapter C about which we are a little concerned. The poise and the stokes are widely used in the oil industry and we have some doubts whether a 1979 deadline is realistic.

The Government welcome the proposed directive because it does not impose new obligations. Indeed, it mitigates an existing obligation. We welcome the basis upon which it has been drawn up by the Commission. It mitigates, importantly, the terms of the original directive. Within the limits of the basic fundamental commitment it gives us a great deal of scope to decide for ourselves a reasonable rate of progress towards metrication in this country. Furthermore, there will be an opportunity before 1979 to seek any adjustments to it. Nevertheless, we believe that the directive would be further improved by incorporating the changes which I have detailed and which we are seeking.

I stress that there is no element of confrontation between the rest of the EEC and ourselves on this subject. The other member States and the Commission are well aware of the magnitude of the task facing this country in this area and have shown an appreciation of the problem facing us. The Commission has adopted a constructive and co-operative approach. I have personally discussed the directive with Mr. Gundelach, and was greatly struck by the depth of his understanding and his recognition that metrication is a subject that we should be left to get on with alone.

There is no doubt, however, that in the long run we have a clear obligation to get on with it. The Government intend to do that partly because of EEC obligations, but mainly because it is in the national interest to do so. We shall shortly be bringing forward regulations under the European Communities Act to authorise the use of SI units as required by the existing directive, but the phasing out of Imperial units is best dealt with under the machinery proposed in the Weights and Measures &c. No. 2 Bill, which has just completed Report in another place.

As I said earlier, I do not criticise the Conservative Government in 1972 for entering into the EEC obligations on this subject at the time of the Treaty of Accession. To do so was in line with the policy of successive Governments. Equally, I think that the Government are justified in expecting to be able to rely on the Opposition for their support for a Bill that has been introduced to enable the Government, among other things, to meet EEC obligations. I have trot tried to make any attack on those who entered into the original obligation. In turn, I think I am entitled to fair and reasonable support for any machinery to honour the obligations originally undertaken, which we now seek to modify and mitigate, but not to expunge, by this amending directive.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Norman Lamont (Kingston upon Thames)

I am not quite sure why this draft directive has come before us tonight separately from the weights and measures legislation that we expect the House will shortly have to consider. It was originally laid before the House with the legislation that was subsequently withdrawn. When the Scrutiny Committee recommended that this draft directive should be considered on the Floor of the House it recommended that the two matters should be considered together. That would seem to be logical, because the Bill sets out in detail what would take place if certain Imperial measures were to disappear. Surely it would have been logical to have taken the two together.

I hope that the Minister has not brought forward this directive by itself in the hope that if it gets through unopposed tonight—that will set some sort of precedent. What happens tonight should not in any way pre-empt the judgment we shall make on the legislation when it comes before the House.

The Minister has taken away the earlier proposals because they were widely regarded as unsatisfactory on both sides of the House. He has made certain changes regarding dual marking and conversion charts, but we still have reservations about the legislation. We have reservations about the exemptions that have been provided—for example, whether they are wide enough. We want to consider them. We also want to consider whether it is right that enabling legislation should be put forward in this way, without laying down the details of how units are to disappear sector by sector. If we are to move to some degree towards metrication we should have at least some programme for different sectors. I agree with the Minister that the directive helps us a little because it gives a new flexibility. The last chapter indicates that we have up to the end of 1979 to discuss certain Imperial units. The clear implication is that once those have been discussed they could perhaps survive longer.

The Minister has already dealt with one or two detailed points which I wish to raise. I apologise for going into details but they are those which have been put to us and which I have picked up from articles in the Press, and they are important.

Chapter A lays down the permanently prescribed measures for the Community as from 21st April 1978. I should like the Minister's comments on the pascal and the kilopascal which are used to measure pressure. Medical representations have been made about the use of those units for measuring blood pressure. I am told that the cardiac department at University College Hospital regards the measures as confusing because they go to two places of decimals. Representations have also been made by some American medical bodies, and concern has been expressed by some hospitals about the use of those measures for blood pressure.

Mr. John Fraser

I have already explained that point. The measurement which is used is the millimetre of mercury. Although Chapter A will authorise the use of the pascal as a measurement of pressure it does not exclude the use in this country of the millimetre of mercury which is used in our health services.

Mr. Lamont

That makes the matter clear. I had understood that the millimetre of mercury would be moved from Chapter B to Chapter D if the Minister gets his way, but I had not understood the relationship between the pascal and the millimetre. The Minister has also made clear that the hand will be moved from Chapter B to Chapter C.

I understand that the knot is a measurement which will disappear in 18 months' time and that the United Kingdom nautical mile is in the same position. The knot measures speed, the nautical mile, distance. But there is no reference in the chapters to the international nautical mile, which is 16 yards shorter and which we assume will replace the United Kingdom nautical mile. Has that not been definitely agreed yet?

I have some questions about Chapter C, which covers measures which will disappear by 31st December 1979. What is intended to replace the cubic foot, which I believe to be quite a useful measure? Like many Imperial measures, it is a medium-sized measure. It is rather like the argument about the claims of the litre and the gallon. Will there be a measure to replace it?

What will happen to the yard? It seems absurd that inches and feet will survive, but not the yard. What is the point? Shall we not be allowed to add up the inches and feet to yards? I heard that the Department of the Environment had been pressing for a change. If so, two cheers for that Department.

I very much agree with the Minister that Chapter D adds a new flexibility. I hope that that flexibility will be used to ensure that many of the familiar measures are allowed to survive. The significant thing about the measures in Chapter D is that they are consumer measures—the ounce, pound, pint, inch and foot, but, curiously enough, not the yard. I hope that the Minister will use his flexibility to ensure that some of the measures in Chapter D can survive.

Will the Minister at least undertake to make a study of the undoubted usefulness to consumers of all those familiar measures? He talked about the pint—the pint of bitter and presumably the pint of milk. Will it be allowed to be used for other purposes? Are we not to be allowed to buy a pint of oil? The draft directive is a little condescending in its reasons for allowing some of the traditional measures to survive. It refers to measures which are of psychological importance, as though there was something very curious about people who wanted to drink pints. If it is thought that the pint is of psychological importance, why not the traditional measures for spirits?

Mr. Newens

The hon. Gentleman should explain whether he is opposed to metrication in principle. Is the Conservatives' position still that which they adopted when they supported the Treaty of Accession? Are they committed to metrication, or has the position changed because of the proposal to introduce many amendments?

Mr. Lamont

I said at the beginning that we should have reservations about supporting legislation for metrication without being satisfied on exemptions and a firm programme for sectors in which it would take place. I specified a whole series of conditions. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not here or was not listening. That seemed to me a straightforward explanation of our view on the Government's legislation.

I welcome the freedom that the last chapter of the draft directive gives. I hope that we shall use it as forcefully as possible, that other changes will be made and that common sense will be the basis for deciding what should and should not be phased out. For example, I can see no reason why the acre should be replaced by the hectare. After all, we do not export land. I find it difficult to see why there should be any compulsion to replace Fahrenheit by centigrade. We are not great exporters of thermometers.

Mr. John Fraser

Nobody will be prohibited from describing his land in acres. Nobody will be locked up for doing anything of the sort. It is a question of authorising the hectare for certain legal purposes. The same is true of Fahrenheit. Nobody will be prohibited from measuring the temperature in Fahrenheit. The television authorities will continue to be able to use it. What we are talking about is authorisation for certain legal purposes and not for general customary use. Some of these measures will continue for a long time in everyday use.

Mr. Lamont

The Minister says that people can still describe their land in a traditional way and that in private conversation they can still use these measurements, but not for certain legal purposes. I cannot see what harm will be done by allowing commercial transactions to take place in those measurements. It really is standardisation and harmonisation purely for the sake of uniformity. I do not see how that sort of compulsion will affect the export performance of this country.

We have had far too much exaggeration of the industrial arguments for metrication. We are told, too, over and over again, that it is impossible to have different types of measurement existing side by side, yet we know that in many countries customs are very different. In countries like Denmark there are many examples where people do not use the metric system. In France people still buy their cheese by the "livre". That is not the Imperial pound, but it is a measure that they have used for 200 years. In Hong Kong there are three systems of measurement—Chinese, Imperial and metric. One can go too far in arguing the case for standardisation. All I want the Minister to accept is that he should use his new flexibility provided by Chapter D simply with common sense.

Mr. John Fraser

May I ask the hon. Gentleman why he did not put forward those views at the time of the Treaty of Accession in 1970?

11.7 p.m.

Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

I shall try to be brief in view of the fact that there is not much time to deal with this matter. The motion before the House welcomes the directive. I must confess that I do not welcome it. I do not believe that the mass of the British people would welcome it if they were fully aware of its import. The strength of my opposition has to some extent been softened by my hon. Friend's decision to seek clarification and introduce certain mitigation which he has outlined. I pay tributes to the efforts he has made to change this state of affairs.

I found the decision of the Opposition, as outlined by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont), completely hypocritical. Having voted for the Treaty of Accession, and having taken the decisions which were taken by the Tory Party when in Government, the Opposition have forfeited the right to take the position which they have done this evening without being accused of hypocrisy.

Frankly speaking, I am amazed to find that the Opposition are prepared to take such a stand on this occasion. They should make clear to their friends in industry that the decision which they seek to take is to oppose metrication, if that is what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames is saying this evening.

I believe that the changeover to metrication will not produce clarity but will produce confusion. It will produce confusion which will last, in many people's minds, for many years. Although we have had a changeover from Fahrenheit to centigrade, most adult people still think in terms of Fahrenheit. When announcements are made in centigrade, many people still have to do a little mental sum to discover exactly what the temperature is. I think that this will happen with people right across the board and that this confusion will last for many years.

In France one has the "livre", which has lasted since pre-French revolutionary days. Therefore, when the Minister talks about "de-authorising" certain weights and measures, it is very important that he should make it clear that in no circumstances will people be liable to prosecution for using Imperial measures. If people are prosecuted, they will feel a tremendous sense of injustice, and nobody will believe that this is a reasonable way to behave.

What the Minister has achieved—and this is important—is that there shall not be a short, sharp changeover. I thought that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames would have argued for such a short, sharp changeover—a view which has been expressed by some people concerned with industry—but apparently the hon. Gentleman and his party do not take that view. I believe that it is important that the continued use of the pint and of the mile and many other measures should be fully legal.

Some authorities in the past advanced the nonsensical argument that decimalisation did not lead to a rise in prices. Of course, that move led to price increases. In the same way, metrication will lead to another increase in prices. Inevitably, many people engaged in wholesale and retail trade will level up prices. We shall certainly not expect people to level prices down when the changeover takes place.

I believe that the use of metric units will involve considerable expense in other respects. It will certainly involve a great changeover in machinery, techniques and in other ways which I consider to be very undesirable. Great difficulties were experienced when the carpet industry went over to the metric system.

Therefore, although my hon. Friend the Minister has taken great pains to mitigate the effects of the directive on metrication, I believe that what he has brought forward this evening is still, from many points of view, not particularly satisfactory. The only reason why I shall not oppose the motion is that I recognise that whatever the faults of the scheme laid before the House, it is a vast improvement on what went before under a Conservative Government.

11.14 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I take issue with the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) on one matter only, and that is on a matter of tactics rather than of substance. I think that he and I, and indeed an increasing element in the House that wants to see the decision that Britain took on the matter of the Common Market put into reverse, ought to allow Her Majesty's Opposition and the Conservative Party to veer round towards us without too much harassment.

It is difficult to refrain from a little ribaldry from time to time, and a chuckle of triumph may be permitted. However, I wonder whether it is not counter-productive for the hon. Gentleman to use words such as "hypocrisy", when our own work is being done even at the Opposition Dispatch Box.

Having said that, I only want to invite the Minister to go further in informing the House than he did in the exchange during his speech with the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and others. We realise that "disappearance" has been replaced by "prohibition" and "prohibition" by "de-authorisation"—

Mr. John Fraser

In the context of the wording of the directive it is "cease to authorise".

Mr. Powell

—by "cessation of authorisation". If the language does not become more beautiful, it becomes more acceptable. Then we are concerned with the consequences for the measures for which authorisation has ceased. I do not believe that we have been made sufficiently clear about what the consequences are.

When the Minister was interrogated by his right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North, he admitted eventually, I think, that it would be unlawful to trade, and presumably to offer articles for sale, in measures which had ceased to be authorised. Does that mean that cessation of authorisation only has practical effects for the purposes of trade? For example, what is the effect of cessation of authorisation of millimetres of mercury in the measurement of blood pressure? Is it to be an offence to measure blood pressure in millimetres of mercury? If not, is it to be an offence to sell instruments for measuring blood pressure calibrated in millimetres of mercury?

One begins to think that we may be re-entering the area of trade. I put it to the Minister that, one way or another, the removal or cessation of authorisation is bound to create an offence and that unless it does that, it is doing nothing at all.

I give only one or two other examples. There are fathoms and knots. Does this mean that it is to be an offence to refer to having sailed from point A to point B at so many knots? Perhaps not, but then what is the consequence of the cessation of authorisation of that measure of maritime speed? Does it mean that offering a boat for sale saying that it is capable of so many knots is an offence? Presumably it is an offence to do so or to provide mechanical means of measuring nautical speed in knots.

I ask the Minister to be much clearer about the practical consequences, and the ambit of the consequences, of cessation of authorisation, because many of us believe, after listening to what he said, that the effect of what will happen, eventually with Chapter D as well as with Chapters B and C, is that it will become an offence to use those measures.

The Minister said that there is a way out of this and that the Government intend to take that way out. He should be more precise. He said that it could be done by expressing measures in the terms of the directive and authorising them as such. Is he serious? Does he mean that we can enter into an undertaking to metricate and to do what is involved in this directive and yet keep miles, fathoms, yards, acres, pints and whatever maybe by saying that such and such substance or liquid may be sold in metric units of 1.00333 or whatever it is and add in brackets "By the way, this is a pint"? If so, I think that the procedure is totally dishonest and reduces the whole business to a mockery. It would be far better for us to negotiate an exemption and make it clear that in regard to this schedule we are determined to exempt these measures as such directly—

Mr. John Fraser


Mr. Powell

—permanently from the policy of metrication.

Mr. John Fraser

I misled the right hon. Gentleman, or he misunderstood me. I gave only two examples, the pint of milk and the pint of beer. I should not like it to be thought that that kind of advice was something I intended to advocate across the board. They were two examples I gave of where the measurement could be preserved.

Mr. Powell

This still will not do. It is all very well for the Minister to say that he will only do it for a pint of milk—the housemaid's baby argument. But if hon. Members and the public wish to embrace the measures in Chapter D with the same intensity of feeling as with their addiction for the pint, is the Minister saying that the only exception will be the pint? He has admitted the principle and indicated that in the opinion of the Government we can avoid the ultimate obligations under this EEC legislation by a method of definition. If he is to do that, he must admit that in fact we are able to avoid metrication to the extent which we care to decide. This seems to me to introduce a degree of uncertainty into the whole process, and I hope that before the end of the debate the Minister will put matters into a state of far greater clarity than he left them at the end of his speech.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I think that this will be a most useful debate. I hope that hon. Members seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be able to speak, for almost certainly they will have something of importance to say to the House. If they are not able to catch your eye, this will be yet another example of the infamous way in which Standing Orders truncate what would probably be a quite useful one and three-quarters or two hours of debate.

My second complaint relates to the notice of motion. We heard last Thursday from the Lord President that we should be taking this directive tonight, but it was only possible for me yesterday to see in the Table Office—and other hon. Members today—the actual motion on the Order Paper. That motion is one of considerable novelty. Had I been told that there would be a motion on the House of Commons Order Paper headed by the names of the Prime Minister and the Lord President of the Council, and referring to a Question of mine which had been printed in the Official Report some days ago, I should have been surprised. We are now almost legislating by reference to parliamentary papers.

I believe in parliamentary answers—and, indeed, in parliamentary Questions—and am glad that they are contained in the Official Report. But for anybody wishing to read the Order Paper of the House of Commons to decide what the Government are really welcoming and doing then to be referred, albeit in an Answer to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and myself, to a parliamentary answer of some weeks previously is not a very satisfactory way of proceeding—certainly not for a district council, and I do not think it is right for the Mother of Parliaments to proceed in that way.

It will therefore be no surprise to the House that I am not sure that I agree with the words "welcomes". This word has overtones which I would not necessarily associate with the directive, although I think we can look at it with relief. It gives some relief, as the Minister has said, to the almost blanket acceptance of metrication as contained under the Treaty of Accession. I join with my hon. Friends in wondering what some Conservative Members—not all of them—who voted for the Treaty of Accession and advocated its confirmation in the referendum can say to the Government in this matter.

I compliment my hon. Friend the Minister on doing his best. There have been consultations on this matter. We have not got everything we wanted, but at least the Minister has done his best and is trying valiantly within the very rigid limits laid down. But I and many others in the House have grave misgivings, because it has taken us quite a long time—we have had to look through Hansard to refresh our memories and at three or four separate documents—to find out what it is all about.

If we in the House who follow the debate as a sort of play have difficulty in finding out what is going on, how much more difficult it must be not only for those concerned with retail trade, but for the ordinary man in the street or woman in the shop. This is the very sort of procedure which brings this House—and, indeed, the process of democracy—into disrepute. We are not handling this matter very well. People will find it difficult to discover what we are talking about.

We all accept that for scientific and engineering purposes, exports and world trade metrication is here to stay. But we are concerned here with ordinary, everyday discussion and the ordinary, everyday language. This question of disappearance and when a measure is legal or not is not clear at all. It may be that cricket pitches and lengths of races will not be legally binding, as the Minister has indicated, but these questions may result in a court case, and so these provisions have to be put precisely in law. All sorts of difficulties will arise.

What a poor thing this directive is. Article 2 says that the units in Chapter C shall cease to take effect from 31st December 1979. We find that this includes the yard, the square yard, the square mile, the cubic inch, the cubic foot, and the therm. These will go.

The next paragraph says that the units temporarily retained in accordance with the provisions of Chapters B, C and D may not be brought into compulsory use and will be reviewed. The right hon. Member for Down South (Mr. Powell) has already mentioned some, particularly the mile. Does this mean that the mile, the fathom, the acre and the pound are to come up for review? Apparently it does.

Therefore presumably this means that they can be reviewed out, not by this House, but by the Council. Does that in turn mean that the Bill which has started on its way in another place will have a clause saying that should the Commission or the Council decide as the result of a review that the mile or the pound should be reviewed out, automatically by Regulation we shall have to review it out?

Mr. John Fraser

In the Treaty of Accession obligations it needed a unanimous decision to review these matters again. As a result of the renegotiations in future we need a unanimous decision to review Chapter D items out.

Mr. Spearing

I am very grateful for that because it gives us a guarantee that the much-famed veto is not a phantom but a reality, and it shows the advances that the Government have made in the Treaty of Accession which was so wantonly entered into by the Conservatives.

Many of us will look at the Bill from another place with considerable interest, particularly in respect of units for loose vegetables. The unit of pounds in mar- kets is very important, and the pound has the lowest priority of review. I am sure that some of us will seek additional mitigations when the Bill comes forward. There seems to be a grey area of possible mitigations even made in accordance with the Treaty of Accession.

While I cannot exactly welcome this motion, for the reasons put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) I feel that we cannot oppose it. At least it is a mitigation of something which was very had. However, despite the efforts of the Minister, it still does not leave us in a very satisfatory position.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

Three elements must be borne in mind in considering this matter. We may express our anxieties about the everyday transactions which housewives may undertake, but a whole generation of schoolchildren are currently going through the system having been educated only into metric measurement. It is not good enough for us to look at the matter only through the eyes of our generation.

The Government's proposals clearly represent a further extension of the time within which we can acclimatise ourselves to the distinctions between Imperial measures and the metric system. In spite of our agreeably Anglophile tendencies towards our own systems of weights and measures, we presumably take the same view about the greater Anglican system of avoirdupois, which acquires a distinction of its own in a discussion of international systems of measurement.

Many industries have already moved so far along the track to metrication that it would be ludicrous for the House somehow to say to them that all that they have done must be undone. Surely the tenor of the debate is that we are anxious to see that the transition is orderly, fair and of good and bold intent, and that the House should have the opportunity of discussing it.

One of the anxieties that the Opposition have expressed is that there has not yet been the opportunity for a sufficiently wide debate on the principle of metrication as it affects us now. Tonight the Government have indicated how there has been an extension of the changeover period and that the commitment has been renegotiated. We welcome that, but we should also welcome a chance to discuss metrication and how it should be implemented. The Bill in another place provides the legal requirements to enable metric measures ultimately to replace Imperial measures. Hon. Members, however, are concerned to ensure that consumers are given the chance to express their opinions on how metrication should operate.

The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) raised the question of decimalisation on which, he said, the consumer had been defrauded. He must realise that those authorities who are responsible for watching the consumers' interest in such matters—the consumer associations, for example—conducted researches at the time of the changeover and reported that it had left unchanged the amount that the consumer had to pay. The rounding up and down required by law was shown by all the evidence collected by these independent bodies not to have defrauded the consumer. If metrication is handled with the same degree of honesty as British industry applied to decimalisation, the consumer will not be put at risk.

11.34 p.m.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If the industrialists handle metrication with the sort of delicacy that the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) suggested, I contend that, just as with decimalisation, the consumer will be conned. The net result will be an upward swing in prices not dissimilar to the one which resulted from decimalisation.

Perhaps I may take up the point raised by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). He is one of those on the Opposition Benches who voted against entry into the Common Market. There was, however, a time during his political history when he was a Tory Minister when he was in favour of entry. That should be placed on the record. Not many people in this place have declared themselves consistently against, through thick and thin, before they became Members of Parliament and since.

I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South about mollycoddling the Tories because they might be changing their ways. He knows as well as I that they are not changing. They are playing the same old parliamentary game that both sides play when trying to give the impression to people outside that they are joining a popular bandwagon. When it comes to the crunch most of them will support metrication, for the same reason that they supported decimalisation and entry into the Common Market—because they are here as the representatives of that class which is out to make the biggest possible profits. That is what the Common Market is all about. I look on this measure as another small drop in the drip-feed of Common Market matters that we have been given.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that I voted against the Common Market and was against it from the beginning—long before he was in the House.

Mr. Skinner

The hon. Gentleman should not imagine that because he was in the House before I came in 1970 that makes him a better animal than anybody else. I know his voting record throughout these proceedings. He might have been away or on a pairing jaunt—I do not know—but I have studied his record and he was one of those who were lapsing towards the end.

The hon. Gentleman may not have the facts, but there was a record given in most papers arising out of votes recorded in the Official Report.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. I think we should return to the motion and leave the voting record.

Mr. Skinner

This is an important point. There is an official record which says that the hon. Gentleman did not—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There is no record involved in the motion before the House.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I strongly object to the remarks of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I was one of 16 Conservative Members who voted continually against entry into the Community and—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. May we now leave that matter and return to the motion before the House?

Mr. Skinner

Two Conservative Members recorded 36 votes against the Common Market. One was the right hon. Member for Down, South and the other was the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen), who now sits on the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Hutchison) voted against joining the Community when he was here, but he missed some votes.

This measure is another development in our becoming more involved in the Common Market. I oppose it not because I wish to defend the old British Imperial measure but because I know that the Common Market is really about exploitation to get the greatest possible price for its products. Quite apart from the political involvement, the Common Market is about trying to get an upward swing in prices to exploit the consumer. It completely contradicts the so-called policy that the Government are pursuing in a vain attempt to keep down prices.

Comments by the Minister about the cessation of authorisation are nothing more than Newspeak. It is the kind of language used by parliamentarians who have been briefed by civil servants to try to kid people.

If we carry on in this way without using the veto, which we were told would be used to defend our interests, such legislation will keep going through the House and eventually somebody will be brought before the courts as a result. I have no doubt that the courts will say that the man is not being sent to prison because he has refused to implement these metrication measures. Magistrates or judges on the Queen's Bench will say that it is a matter of contempt of court that the man has refused to observe one of these authorisation notices sent from the Common Market. That is the kind of gobbledegook they will try out, and that is why I am concerned to fight against these measures whenever they appear.

I am told by some of my hon. Friends that this directive is some sort of mitigation. My case is that it is just another little step towards pacifying those in Europe. That is what this measure is about, and my hon. Friend must tell us clearly and unequivocally when he winds up the debate that no one will end up in court as a result of refusing to observe the so-called authorisation notices arising from the Orders that will eventually ensue because of metrication.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am pleased to make a brief contribution to this debate because my name appears on the motion. I should like to make one or two comments, basically in support of points made by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), with whom I find myself in considerable sympathy this evening.

I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) that he was misleading the House and the country if he was trying to imply that decimalisation did not increase the cost of living. It did so substantially. Having worked in industry myself, I know the huge cost in which industry was involved in implementing it. That cost was ultimately and inevitably passed on to the consumer. But that is not part of our debate this evening.

I wish, first, to refer to the explanatory memorandum which is always provided with these European documents. I find the final paragraph on page 2 extremely patronising. It is not good enough for European bureaucrats to say that there are certain matters that cannot proceed in this country because of administrative complications. They refer particularly to the abolition of road signs giving the distance in miles, and then refer to "psychological reasons" for our use of "pint".

It is not for administrative reasons that we cannot implement the change from miles to kilometres and from pints to whatever it might be. It is because the people of this country and this House do not want the change. That is the message I wish to put over this evening.

I very much welcome the mitigation which is included in this directive and I would say to the Minister—who is waving papers at me from the Front Bench—that the heading of Chapter D, which indicates units, names and symbols which are to be reviewed by 31st December 1979, could clearly indicate that there might be a decision to phase out the various Imperial measurements that appear under Chapter D. I know that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) has queried this during the debate.

Did the Minister mean that in the Council of Ministers the United Kingdom Minister would vote on matters referred to in Chapter D if we did not wish to have a particular Imperial measure on that list phased out and veto any change we did not want? If he did, I am absolutely delighted, because in my view the move towards metrication, particularly in the domestic sector—that is, outside the industrial scene—is a costly, irrelevant and unnecessary invasion of the traditions and customs of the United Kingdom.

There is no reason why we should not continue to use many of the Imperial measurements. Some of them have been rescued by the Minister; let him rescue some more. With my own interest in the equine scene, I am delighted that we are likely to try to move the hand from being phased out in 1977 and to put it into the list of units that are to be reviewed by 1979. I believe that this is a measurement that never need be changed. We should tell the people in Europe that we intend to keep this measurement, like many other things.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) referred quite rightly to the knot and the nautical mile. By what are we to replace these? Are they to be replaced by some extraordinarily obscure European measurement that means nothing and is highly complicated and long-winded anyway? I cannot understand these measurements being even considered for change. They are part of the national as well as the international scene.

These debates are always far too short. There are always more hon. Members who wish to participate than Members who are able to participate. That is because of the limited time. However, whatever the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) may say in the harangues that he delivers in this Chamber, I am convinced that the Minister will have the Opposition's support, not because of any anti-EEC fervour that may or may not exist among some of my colleagues, but because there is no good purpose in changing measurements used in this country for change's sake in order to meet some European legislation which, as far as we are concerned, is quite irrelevant. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board and move at a fast rate of knots to stand up for Imperial measurements.

11.47 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser

What I was waving at the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) was not the directive or the document from which he quoted, which is not even part of the directive. I was simply waving the Division List for the European Communities Act 1971. It is a pity that some hon. Members are now, five years in retrospect, waxing about some of the things that they advocated at the time of accession. That was the obligation.

A number of discoveries are suddenly made in debates such as this, some of which are out of date. On the nautical mile, in September 1970, before accession, the Hydrographic Department of the Ministry of Defence issued a Notice to Mariners stating that the Department had adopted the international nautical mile in place of the United Kingdom one to conform with other Government Departments and with the recommendation of the International Hydrographic Bureau. The international nautical mile is approximately 0.06 per cent. smaller than the United Kingdom one. All legislation except Customs and Excise legislation has been changed. In other words, we have not been using the nautical mile since 1970. Therefore, I would not get too worried about its being phased out under the terms of the directive.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

What about the knot?

Mr. Fraser

Exactly the same applies to the knot. It is not expressly in Chapter A because the international nautical mile is expressed in metres—1,852 metres.

As to some of the other measurements that are being phased out in the earlier chapters—not Chapter D—for instance, the yard was mentioned. The yard has been chosen for phasing out before 1979 because in trade it is normally used now in the measurement of fabrics. It is our estimate that use of the yard as a measurement for the sale of fabrics by way of trade will have ceased by 1979. I emphasise that we have consulted about 1,000 organisations on this matter. This is our judgment. That is why that has been chosen for phasing out, whereas the foot, which is used in certain building transactions for the measurement of pipes, nails and screws, and so on, has been kept in Chapter D.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Three feet are one yard.

Mr. Fraser

I am perfectly aware of that. However, the word "foot" continues to be more commonly used in trade transactions than does the expression "yard". I know that it seems that one can have an awful lot of fun on these matters. However, the cubic yard was authorised by law only, I think, or mainly, for the sale of ballast. In practice this is now sold by the cubic metre. That is another reason why the yard can be phased out before some of the other commoner measurements.

One of my hon. Friends said that livres were still being used in France. The livre is generally taken to represent 500 grammes. There is no earthly reason why a mode of expression of the metric pound, if necessary, should not become common parlance even if not prescribed.

What some of my hon. Friends may fail to realise is the extent to which sales by way of metric quantities already take place. I invite my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to come shopping with me at Stockwell one Saturday morning and have a look at Fairy Liquid, which is sold both in litres, metric quantities, and in Imperial quantities. I give just one example which will perhaps illustrate the degree of confusion and degree of diddling that can already take place as a result of confusion.

As the proletariat in France managed to adopt the system in 1789, I do not think that the better educated proletariat in the United Kingdom will have great difficulty in eventually adopting the system. I have never believed Socialism and insularity marched happily in step.

I do not think that at the end of the day there is a great difficulty. I would choose the process of passing over to metrication to protect the consumer instead of the consumer being diddled. At the moment the range of measures that goods are sold in a confusion of metric and Imperial measures. Beer is a very good example, except beer on draught.

There are many areas where we could protect the public, and there are many examples of this already.

One is sugar, which is going metric at the moment, an instance when the manufacturer is to round down the price. Another is cornflakes whose retail price is rounded down. It does not follow that where there is a transition from one system to the other there is necessarily a price increase, exploitation and more confusion. Very often the process can operate the other way around.

Mr. Skinner

If my hon. Friend is now saying, as he clearly did from the Dispatch Box, that Socialism did not necessarily go with insularity, why was it that when we voted on the Common Market in 1972 my hon. Friend walked into the same Lobby as I?

As for going to Stockwell and buying Fairy Liquid, I do not want to go with him on that errand; I can nominate a few others in this House who would more aptly fit that bill.

Mr. Fraser

I am sorry if I have upset my hon. Friend. I have offered on many occasions to discuss this matter with hon. Members from all parts of the House. I think that that is what open government and involvement are about. I regret that my hon. Friend has not been able to discuss these matters.

What I want to emphasise is the way in which we can try to protect the consumer in these matters. One important point which was raised was de-authorisation or ceasing to authorise certain measures. Authorisation of Imperial measures at the moment operates in two ways. It operates sometimes by way of prescription of measures, for instance, in safety legislation; in road safety legislation, something like the horsepower is used as a measure of energy or strength.

The requirement for phasing out will simply be to change the legislation to express the standards in another way.

That is not the most important aspect. The most important thing is what happens in ordinary sales and trade when the Imperial measure ceases to be authorised.

The answer is that if it has ceased to be authorised, it has ceased to be authorised. Once its authorisation has ceased, trade can be legally carried out only in the measure which is authorised, which would be the metric system.

But there is no reason why the phasing-out process should not be done by sectors as well as by measures. For example, it is not necessary to phase out the pint or the pound right across the board. In practice, if we have flexible legislation, as we hope to have when it comes from the House of Lords, it will be possible to deal with these matters by sectors as well as by the unit of measurement involved.

It is by using a phased process, by adding price protection powers, by adding dual marking powers and conversion powers that we hope to achieve a changeover by sector, after consultation, not with damage to the consumer but on the whole with increasing protection for him.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) was disappointed with the terms of the motion. It was tabled in those terms to try to give the House the maximum advance information about the amendments which we were seeking. This is not a reference to some difficult or obscure question. This is a question which was well publicised in the national Press, and I thought that this was the most helpful way of indicating to the House the sort of changes that I was seeking.

I would end by reflecting on the point made by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw). Many millions of children in this country are having an education solely in metric. It is true that over a period since 1965 we have been adopting a metric system. I should be less than honest with the House if I did not say that the long-term aim is to change to one system by way of trade and by way of legal prescription. What I am seeking to achieve in the change of the original directive is a process which, where we dictate—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3 (Exempted business).

Question agreed to.

Resolved, That this House welcomes the Directive (R/3070/75), relating to units of measurement, as mitigating the obligations assumed under the Treaty of Accession; and also welcomes the Government's intention to seek the clarification and amendment of the Directive as outlined in the replies to the honourable Members for Newham South and Macclesfield on 27th May, Official Report, cols. 375–8.