HC Deb 06 December 1977 vol 940 cc1333-5

1.15 a.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Robert Sheldon)

I beg to move, That the Amendment of Units of Measurement (Hydrocarbon Oil, etc.) Order 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 1866), a copy of which was laid before this House on 22nd November, be approved. The main purpose of this order is to replace imperial units of measurement by metric units for the purposes of the duty on hydrocarbon oil and the related duties on petrol substitutes, power methylated spirits, and gas for use as road fuel. In making these changes it uses the same measurements as those adopted some time ago by the major part of the oil industry for its transactions at the wholesale stage.

The opportunity has also been taken to make the measurements of temperature and pressure in the legislation in terms of degrees Celsius and millibars.

The order requires the approval of the House, because the new rates per litre represent an increase in the present rates. But these increases are very small indeed, and no more than are necessary to arrive at convenient workable figures. For example, the rate for petrol, to four decimal places, would be 6.5991p a litre which is as near as possible to 6.6p. By rounding to 6.6p the duty has been increased by little more than one hundredth of 1 per cent.

These minute changes of duty should have no effect on the price of oil to the consumer. More particularly the introduction of the litre as the unit for duty purposes does not affect the unit used for sales at retail level. Motorists will still be able to buy petrol by the gallon.

1.17 a.m.

Mr. John Cope (Gloucestershire, South)

The Order Paper says that The Select Committee on Statutory Instruments have not yet completed their consideration of the Instrument. I understand that the Committee completed its consideration this afternoon and that it was critical of the explanatory note for not revealing that the order increases taxation. I accept that it increases taxation by an infinitesimal amount, but the Financial Secretary should give the House and the Select Committee an assurance of good conduct for the future. It would be helpful if we were told how much the Treasury expects to raise as a result of the order. I recognise that it will be a small amount.

We accept the metrication of these units, but there are a couple of related points which arise from the order. It refers to degrees "C". I am not aware of any tax law which defines that term. From what the Financial Secretary said, it is intended to refer to degrees Celsius and not, as one might expect, degrees Centigrade. This is the first time that i have heard of Celsius being used in a statute. But that does not mean that it has not been used before. We are well past the days when it was possible to keep track of all legislation. The Minister must explain the reason for the change in the name of that scale.

I understand that Professor Anders Celsius invented a scale which was inverted to produce the Centigrade scale. I do not wish to detract from his achievement, but it is 200 years since he died and I am sure he is above fussing about his reputation.

The scale known as Centigrade has been used in the scientific world in France and on the Continent generally. The Italians add the letter "o", but they do that to many words. The Minister should explain why this term is to be used before we write it into the law.

I am conscious that nothing but the most obscure Statutory Instrument could elevate me to this Box so I must not be too churlish. Many changes are made to Statutory Instruments. Many people would say too many changes are made. This year the number of orders of general rather than of local significance is over 1,000. This order has a tail of three consequential orders—Nos. 1887, 1888 and 1889. It is one of a larger batch of orders implementing Clause 7(1) of the Finance Act 1977.

How many orders will be needed by the end of the year to deal with Section 7(1)? The order before us deals only with hydrocarbon oil. Will the right hon. Gentleman consolidate these changes into a statute as soon as possible? It is most confusing and difficult for taxpayers and their advisers to have the basic law scattered over Statutory Instruments. These provisions are not simply for a temporary rate of tax, which I think is more acceptable in a Statutory Instrument. These are the permanent units of measurement, the basic yardstick of these taxes. In fiscal matters, with a detailed Finance Bill every year, there should be less need for such orders. They should be consolidated into a more convenient form as quickly as possible.

1.21 a.m.

Mr. Robert Sheldon

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) on his appearance at the Dispatch Box. As he said, it is not as notable a spot in the parliamentary timetable as that which nearly came to us yesterday, but the hon. Gentleman has put his points clearly.

Relying on my scientific background as a former engineer, I would tell the hon. Gentleman that Celsius and Centigrade are exactly the same scale, but Celsius is rather the more fashionable nomenclature these days. I shall inquire into the other aspects that the hon. Gentleman raised and perhaps drop him a note in due course.

The increase in revenue is minute, at well under £1 million. Set against the large sums that the hydrocarbon oil duties bring in, these small upward changes can be seen to be very small. The figures in the memorandum presented to the Select Committee show the remarkably close relationship between the figures we eventually chose and those under the previous scheme.

The hon. Gentleman asked for consolidation of changes, and nobody can disagree with that aim in principle. There are problems of the parliamentary timetable, draftsmanship and so on, but we shall bear the hon. Gentleman's points in mind, and if the opportunity presents itself we shall be as happy as he to make these necessary changes.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Amendment of Units of Measurement (Hydrocarbon Oil, etc.) Order 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 1866), a copy of which was laid before this House on 22nd November, be approved.