HC Deb 02 November 1976 vol 918 cc1249-63
Mr. John Fraser

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 33, at beginning insert: 'Subject to subsection (3A) below'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take Government Amendments Nos. 2 and 3.

Mr. Fraser

This is a paving amendment for Amendment No. 3. It amounts to a restriction, to be written into the Bill in subsection (3), of the Secretary of State's powers to amend Schedules 1A and 3. Amendment No. 2 deletes the restriction on the phasing-out from use for trade purposes of certain units which were written into the Bill by an Opposition amendment carried in Committee. The principle has, however, been accepted and a Government amendment has been tabled which will have much the same effect—although not an identical effect—as that Opposition amendment.

I turn now to the substantial amendment in this group, which is Amendment No. 3. This substitutes a new form of words for the words that we seek to delete by Amendment No. 2. I have looked carefully at the effects of the Opposition amendment that was carried in Committee, which related to the inch, the foot, the mile, the pint and the gallon.

The Opposition amendment would have a number of effects. First, it would prevent the wholesale abolition of the mile, the inch, the foot and the pint and would require further legislation to introduce a power to sweep away these units of measurement, across the board. The Government have decided to accept that principle. Secondly, the Opposition amendment, except in relation to the sale of motor fuel, would not prejudice orders enabling the Government to restrict the measures in particular sectors of the trade.

The second effect of the Opposition amendment would be to preserve the use of the gallon for the sale of motor fuel. The amendment as drafted would have that effect. Indeed, it was intended to have the effect of preventing the metrication of the sale of motor fuel. The gallon, for the sale of motor fuel, is already phased out except at retail level. The spirit of the Opposition amendment in Committee would have been contrary to existing practice in all but the retail trade in the sale of motor fuel.

We have some serious problems about the use of imperial measure for petrol pumps. First, virtually every pump now manufactured in this country is metric. We have the cost of converting to imperial, and not the other way round. A second and increasingly serious problem is that the older pumps are unable to cope with deliveries at high unit costs. One day we shall have to convert in the interests of the consumer. Over the past few years about 20,000 new pumps have been sold with imperial-metric facilities in expectation of metrication—about one-sixth of the total number of pumps.

The added complexity of dual facilities results in a minimum additional cost of £10 for single-grade models and £20 for blenders. Those figures do not include the hidden indirect costs arising from the need to maintain a non-standard United Kingdom production. As exports consist almost entirely of metric pumps, the indirect costs have an effect on the United Kingdom industry's competitive edge in selling to other countries. However, some 50 per cent. to 60 per cent. of total production goes for export. Metric provision for the home market would give greater scope for increased exports.

The problem has become so serious that recently we have had to authorise the sale of petrol from some of the older pumps at half unit pricing. I am not trying to make out an argument for the immediate transition from the sale of petrol in gallons to its sale in litres. I have never proposed to do that in any sector. I have always said that such a decision would be subject to consultation and judgment as to the practicability and desirability of the change. I feel that the House would be imprudent not to recognise the possibility of that change taking place.

The Government amendment leaves Parliament free to debate the terms of the sale of motor fuel. It leaves it free to debate and deal with the matter on some future occasion, but in the meantime it allows into the Bill a safeguard against the gallon being swept away right across the board in one fell swoop. Of all the items that were mentioned in the Opposition amendment, the only change is in respect of motor fuel. I hope that the way in which I have put the matter will commend itself to the House as a reasonable compromise.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

I am extremely gratified that the Government have been forced to introduce Amendment No. 3 as a direct consequence of the victory that the Conservative Opposition enjoyed in having a similar amendment carried in Committee. At one time it looked very much as if the Minister of State would not budge an inch, or, rather, 2.54 centimetres as we should have been forced to say if we had not won the amendment in Committee and if the Minister had not accepted at least the spirit of the amendment and produced his own version of it.

The House should not be under any misapprehension as to the significance of the amendment. We have won for the country the preservation of the foot, the inch, the mile, the pint and the gallon. We no longer depend on ministerial undertakings or assurances, as the amendment is being made to the Bill. This is a significant achievement. It is just as well that this has happened, because as recently as 11th October the Minister, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten), said: The completion of the metrication programme will eventually mean changing to kilometres, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not by any means a priority."—[Official Report, 11th October 1976; Vol. 917, c. 24.] The Minister has made the right conversion from metric back to imperial, and we are grateful, but as I look at the Labour Benches and recall the debates in Committee I ask myself where the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) is to be found, the advocate of the CBI, the NFU and other such powerful organisations. The hon. Gentleman is nowhere to be seen, and he was the sole voice in support of the Minister of State. The Secretary of State is sitting beside the Minister of State and looking robust, but he is silent on this occasion. Who is here to support the Minister? I cannot imagine for one moment that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) has come here to support him.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

Or the CBI.

Mrs. Oppenheim

Indeed. Such organisations are now totally bereft of their advocates. We now have the Government, the Opposition and the consumer. Perhaps that is as it should be.

The Government have substituted their own amendment for the one that we inserted in Committee. As we have heard, they have done so for drafting purposes. The argument was pretty narrow, but that has often been the position when debating these matters. So be it. We shall be magnanimous on this occasion. We have won so much, and if the Government want to make a narrow drafting point we are prepared to accept it. In doing so, we accept the superiority of the Government draftsmen if nothing else. The important thing—the House and the country should recognise this—is that we have won the argument.

During the debates in Committee and on the Floor of the House the Minister of State professed his perplexity as to how the mile could possibly be used as a term of trade or a measurement of something sold. I remember his saying in Committee—I do not wish to misquote him—that people did not buy a mile of wire or a mile of sausages. That is fair enough, but one thing that is sold by the mile in every city, town and village is the service sold by taxis. I remember the time when they used to sell it at 8d. a mile. That was a long time ago. I hope that we shall have no more argument along those lines from the Minister of State. Although the mile, for the sake of speed limits and road signs, will not come within the Bill, I hope that the precedent created in the amendment will be noted by those who will be dealing with related legislation at a later stage.

I am still concerned about the gallon of petrol. The Minister's arguments have not convinced me entirely. He said that one-sixth of the retail petrol trade is now using metric pumps and that they are having to be converted to imperial measuring. Clearly, that is a very small proportion of the total number of pumps. Surely we must consider the inconvenience to consumers when, before very long, they will have to multiply by two the price registered on the pumps because of difficulties with the metering equipment. When petrol goes metric they will not only have to multiply by two but carry out an additional calculation to decide how many litres they need to travel a certain distance and how many litres they can afford when making a comparison of price between the litre and the gallon. That is not a small point, and it is unfortunate that the Minister has not accepted that part of the amendment, although I accept that he has moved quite a long way.

We have a compromise amendment although the batle has been won. A peace treaty has been negotiated. This is a historic amendment in the annals of metrication. It means for the British people that the mile, the foot, the inch, the pint and the gallon can remain in legal usage as long as the people, through their elected representatives, wish them to remain. Through the amendment, we have avoided the statutory ban. Above all, we have shown that when the people really want something, and when their representatives in this House put their case and stick to it through thick and thin, despite all the representations made by the high-pressure organisations, the CBI, the NFU, the TUC, and so on, and their advocates, that case must prevail. I hope that in some small way this victory will renew the jaded faith that some of our people have in parliamentary democracy. I thank the Minister of State for his contribution through the amendment.

6.0 p.m.

Mr. George Thompson (Galloway)

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) said that the amendment was due to the Tory Opposition. It should be put on record that it was very much due to the Scottish National Party Opposition in this House. It was also due to my own humble efforts by voting in the right direction—a vote which struck a blow for the people who have not yet been brainwashed into metrication. It shows that, once in a while, with a bit of luck in a Standing Committee, Governments can be made to shift their position. To that extent, this case vindicates parliamentary democracy, and I am glad that I was there to add my weight in the right direction.

Mr. John Page

I feel that we are witness to a new edition of "Dr. Finlay's Casebook". I acknowledge that it was through the assistance of the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) that this important blow was struck for British traditions and the weight of public opinion.

It is particularly disappointing for me that the Secretary of State left in a huff a few minutes ago. I was going to say some extremely nice things about him. I was going to congratulate him on being appointed Secretary of State. I debated on so many occasions with him when he was at the Department of Employment that I am glad to see that he has received what I consider to be a just reward in a very difficult Department.

I was also going to tell the right hon. Gentleman that, through the Minister of State, he had become a standard-bearer for British imperial traditions. I was going to point out to him that some people are born to greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them. I feel that the right hon. Gentleman, through the agency of the Minister of State, has had greatness thrust upon him as the Secretary of State who took this right and important decision. But all that the right hon. Gentleman did while my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) was speaking was to sit looking grumpy and disapproving in a superior way, rather like a bishop looking in the window of a sex shop. I thought that that was hardly worthy of the occasion.

We are grateful to the Minister of State for the complicated way in which he introduced the amendment. I do not quite understand the new aspect of the position of the gallon. As I understand it, the gallon will be able to remain permanently, not only in connection with the sale of petrol but in connection with the sale of any other articles. Is that correct?

Mr. John Fraser

The position is that the Government are denied the opportunity even of putting an order to the House to disqualify the use of the gallon universally across the board, without prejudice—indeed, the Opposition amendment in Committee was on the same lines—to the power to introduce particular restrictions, but then again only with the affirmative consent of the House of Commons.

Mr. Page

I am grateful that that has been made clear to me. Unfortunately I seldom buy a gallon of beer, although I expect that the hon. Member for Galloway often buys a gallon of whisky. That is something that we can now usefully continue to do. However, it is no part of my objective to waste the time of the House by over-indulgence in satisfaction. I think that this is the end of the present road. It is the end of the present road on which we were not sure whether we would be continuing in kilometres or miles. Now we are entering a new road, the measurement distances of which we know.

The decision which the Government have sensibly made today is among the few which, during my 16 years in this place, have been totally in accord with the views of the ordinary man and woman in the street. I am thankful to say that at least, thanks to the Conservative Front Bench, the Union Jack has been nailed to the mast in the pubs and petrol stations of this country.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I think that occasionally there is merit in hon. Members who did not serve on a Standing Committee, and, therefore, who do not aspire to any expertise in the matter under discussion, commenting on the achievement of their colleagues who did serve in Committee. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) knows, I have not been entirely in agreement with the attitude that she and her colleagues have taken through the Bill, but in this case I congratulate her most warmly on a signal victory for common sense, for public opinion and for the future of the pubs, the motorist and many other people.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) and I were at the then transport part of the Department of the Environment during the Conservative Government, we discovered that preparations had already started on the repainting of signs in kilometres in anticipation of the possible will of the House of Commons. He and I found this extraordinary, and I think that I can quite properly reveal that he put a stop to it—at least, he did his part in doing so. It is right that, now that the Conservative Party, with such assistance as the Scottish National Party was able to provide, has succeeded in retaining the mile, the foot and the inch, that should be properly recorded.

Presumably, subsection (3) of the clause allows the Government without prejudice to the power … to add. vary or remove any restriction—". The Minister of State has made plain how he sees that, but I hope that he will feel it appropriate to intervene again if only to help one who was not a member of the Standing Committee by underlining what I understand to be the case—that it is not within the intention of the Government to seek to vary the sale of goods in gallons, feet or inches. I understood him to say that.

Mr. John Fraser

Perhaps I may make the position clear. Leaving motor fuel aside for the moment, the effect of the Opposition's amendment would have been to prevent the Government from removing for use for trade across the board generally the inch, the foot, the mile, the pint and the gallon. We have accepted that principle, but without prejudice to the right—used in the past in other circumstances—to restrict the use of one of those units of measurment in a particular sphere of trade. Right up to the retail level, the gallon is not used for the sale of motor fuel, and it might one day be sensible to restrict its use right up to the retail point.

The amendment is without prejudice to that power and without prejudice to asking for a further restriction on sale at retail level. But that would still be open to debate, and it would still require the affirmative consent of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Mr. Griffiths

That explanation makes it crystal clear. The reasons for the Minister's reservation are perfectly apparent, and they are acceptable to me.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester again. She will be able to remain "five feet two with eyes of blue" for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Erie S. Heller (Liverpool, Walton)

I think that the Government also should be congratulated, in the sense that at least they are accepting the amendment without having any particular argument against it.

I understand what happened in the Committee. For very good reasons, one of the members of the Government side was not there. I am absolutely delighted that he was not there, because anyway I think that the whole Bill has been a bit of a nonsense. I voted against it on Second Reading. I am not sure whether I shall do so on Third Reading, because I think that there will be collusion between the two Front Benches to ensure that the Bill goes through, and I do not particularly want to waste my vote. But the Bill really is a bit of nonsense, and anything at all which helps to mitigate that nonsense is a good job well done.

If there are to be congratulations, let me congratulate the Conservative Front Bench and those hon. Members who voted in a particular way. I also congratulate the Government now on putting forward the amendment and accepting the arguments that were made.

I have listened carefully to the arguments put forward in the House this afternoon. I have tried to accept some of the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I have tried to believe that something positive is being achieved in this measure. I regret to say, however, that I cannot find anything positive whatsoever, and in that sense I am an old imperialist—an unashamed imperialist—in this matter. Nevertheless, despite the unnecessary nature of the Bill, there is something positive in it that is worth supporting. If there were a vote on it—which there will not be—I would willingly vote for that part of it, if not for the Bill as a whole.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 2, in page 2, line 37, leave out from 'measurement' to end of line 39.

No. 3, in page 3, line 7, at end insert— '(3A) An order under subsection (3) above shall not remove from Schedule 1A—

  1. (a) in Part I the mile, foot or inch, or
  2. (b) in Part IV the gallon or pint,
but this subsection is without prejudice to the power under paragraph (c) of the said subsection (3) to add vary or remove any restriction on the cases or circumstances in which, or the conditions subject to which, a unit of measurement, measure or weight may be used for trade, or possessed for use for trade'.—[Mr. John Fraser.]

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 4, in page 3, line 9, leave out 'transitional or other supplemental or incidental' and insert 'consequential, incidental or supplementary'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take Amendment No. 11, in Clause 8, page 9, line 41, leave out 'incidental or supplemental' and insert 'consequential, incidental or supplementary'.

Mr. Page

The amendment is put forward merely to achieve consistency in drafting and to avoid doubt about whether there is any substantial difference between three provisions in the Bill, all of which appear to have exactly the same purpose but each of which is differently worded. I have chosen the wording from section 9B(3)(d) of the 1963 Act—which is Government drafting—as the most happy form of words.

By Amendment No. 11 I have tried to bring the other two wordings into line, so that we have consistent drafting throughout, with nobody asking whether there is any substance in the difference in the wording in three provisions which seem to have the same purpose.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser

'The effect of the Amendment No. 4 would be to omit the word "transitional". When orders are made they will certainly have to have transitional provisions. One of the transitional provisions which they ought to have relates to contracts, which the House discussed for about half an hour quite recently. If the word "transitional" were missed out, it could well be that that kind of provision would have to be omitted.

With regard to Amendment No. 11, I understand that it does not matter a tinker's cuss whether we put in "supplemental" or "supplementary". As it makes no difference at all, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not press his amendment.

Mr. Graham Page I cannot understand why the example that the Minister has given is not consequential and why we have to have the word "transitional". Surely it is entirely consequential. To have these three provisions each differently worded, but each intending exactly the same thing, is shockingly bad drafting. I do not think that it is bad drafting on the part of Parliamentary draftsmen. Probably three draftsmen took the separate clauses and did not get together on them. It is the Minister's job to get them together and to have consistent wording in the Bill.

Although I would not wish to divide the House on this—because I do not think it will have tremendous repercussions—it is annoying to have a Bill worded in such a way that people may well ask what is the difference between these differently worded clauses or why they are differently worded. It causes quite unnecessary doubt. I should have thought that the Minister could have put it right between Committee stage and Report. However, having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 17, in page 3, leave out lines 11 to 13.—[Mr. John Fraser.]

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 5, in page 4, line 5, after first 'the', insert 'classes of'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take Amendment No. 6, in line 8, leave out 'persons' and insert 'classes'.

Mr. Page

We discussed this matter in Committee, when I pointed out that orders under Section 9B of the 1963 Act could, by reason of paragraph (c) at the top of page 4, prescribe the individuals to whom those orders should apply. It is not only a matter of cases and circumstances or the classes of persons. By the use of the words "the persons", this provision could apply to any individual person.

I pointed out in Committee—I shall not repeat the whole argument here—that when we are legislating by a Bill which will become an Act we should make certain that, if we deal with any individual person apart from the general public, such a person or persons should be given an opportunity of petitioning the House against the Bill. It has to be a Private Bill or it has to be a Hybrid Bill which will allow petitions. When the Secretary of State makes orders, as he is given power to do under the new Section 9B, there is no such procedure. Orders under Section 9B will not even be subject to the affirmative procedure. They will merely be subject to the negative procedure, and it will be pure luck if they ever get debated in the House at all. If they are really to affect individual persons, it is quite wrong to legislate in that form.

I thought that the Minister made it clear in Committee that he did not intend to make orders affecting individuals and that he intended orders to be against a class of individuals. He said: 'Persons' could refer to retailers dealing with a particular class of commodity. If there were to be a changeover in respect of, say, the sale of confectionery, it might be necessary to apply the regulations only to those who sell confectionery. That is why the word 'persons' was chosen. If there is a changeover from imperial to metric which proceeds in chronological stages—which applies first to manufacturers, secondly to wholesalers, and thirdly to retailers—it may be necessary to specify that the persons affected by requirements of regulations under Section 9B should be, in the first instance, the manufacturers, in the second instance the wholesalers and in the third instance the retailers. The word 'persons' enables us to take a class of persons to whom the regulation would apply."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 28th October 1976; c. 60–1.] I invite the attention of the Minister to that last sentence. If that is his intention, let him restrict the provision to that. As it stands, it could go far beyond it in picking out individuals for some purpose—the use of these regulations merely for classes. My amendment would restrict the power of the Secretary of State to make regulations to naming a class of persons by reference to what they do—manufacturers, retailers or wholesalers—or any of the goods with which they were dealing and the circumstances in which they were dealing with them.

Although I have intentionally in this amendment sought to restrict the powers of the Secretary of State, if the amendment is accepted I do not think that those powers would be restricted any more than the Secretary of State and the Minister intend they should be restricted in practice.

Mr. John Fraser

I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend and I have not the slightest intention of making capricious use of the powers conferred on the Government or of going round victimising individuals by making them display conversion charts or obey dual marking regulations.

The right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) caught me with my own words when I described the practice which would be normal in making orders in respect of a class of persons. The only reason why the word "class" has not been inserted in this provision is that it raises a problem in that the insertion of a reference to "class" would be too limited in its effect. It might be desired to require the display of conversion charts and, in a case where the number of persons concerned would be too limited to form a class—for instance, where a single nationalised industry was concerned—the amendment would prevent the use of the powers.

That is the only reason why we did not put in a phrase like "class of persons" and have used the single noun "persons". There is no hidden intention to make capricious use of these powers against individuals. Indeed, if such a capricious exercise of the powers were undertaken, it would be an unexpected use of the powers, it would probably be ultra vires, and certainly it would be subject to the hybrid procedure in the other place.

Mr. Graham Page

I accept the Minister's assurance that he has no intention of using these powers capriciously, but that is no answer for putting them in this form in the Bill. The one case which the hon. Gentleman said would be restricted if the word "class" were inserted is if lie wished to make an order affecting merely one nationalised industry. Surely that would come within a class, although it might be one nationalised concern. It is covering wide circumstances and a wide class of people. But to refuse to put the word "class" into this provision merely because he might wish to apply these orders to a nationalised industry is not a good answer to the amendment.

If the Bill stands as it is, it gives the opportunity for an order to be made against perhaps one firm or one manufacturer. One nationalised industry can stand up against it. But it may act very unfairly upon one manufacturer. He will be faced with an order which is subject only to the negative procedure, which is subject to some hon. Member spotting it in time and putting down a Prayer, which would be subject to time being found by the Government for it. Obviously, the Minister cannot envisage something like that happening. But there may he one individual who will be affected or who may be overstepping the line in some way. It can happen, and while the power remains in the Bill it can always be used for that purpose.

I think that it is reasonable to ask for the power to be restricted to an order against a class of persons, and I ask the Minister to think again about this.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 7, in page 4, line 39, at end insert 'and for the word "twenty" there is substituted the word "fifty"'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government Amendments Nos. 8, 18, 19, 15 and 20.

Mr. Page

The Minister accepted the principle of this amendment in Committee, and on that basis he asked me to withdraw it. I am grateful to him for putting his own amendments on the Notice Paper. I move my amendment formally, and invite the hon. Gentleman to address the House on his own amendments.

Mr. John Fraser

My amendments do what I promised they would. They meet the convenience, the principle and the intention of the right hon. Gentleman, and I hope that they bring intense satisfaction to him.

Mr. Page

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 8, in page 4, line 39, at end insert— '(c) in the said section 52(1) for the words '£20' there are substituted the words '£50', and the amendment of that subsection in Schedule 3 to the Criminal Justice Act 1967 (which is superseded by this paragraph) shall cease to have effect'.—[Mr. John Fraser.]

Back to
Forward to