HC Deb 02 June 1981 vol 5 cc899-902

Order for Second Reading read.

12.12 am
The Solicitor-General (Sir Ian Percival)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is a strict consolidation measure which brings together the legislation primarily concerned with the entry and movement of animals in circumstances that might result in the introduction or spread of animal diseases. As one look at schedule 6 to the Bill—a schedule of repeals—will show, it is perhaps surprising how many different enactments relate to the subject. It is useful for practitioners to have all the statutes drawn together by this consolidation measure.

A point arose in Committee about the substitution of metric measurements for imperial measurements. I have given the details to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), who took an interest in the matter. I shall be happy to give the same details to any other hon. Member. I shall content myself with that brief explanation and commend the Bill to the House.

12.13 am
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I rise briefly to draw the attention of the House to what I consider to be a thoroughly unsatisfactory position which arose in Committee. To my knowledge, the House has never taken a vote in support of metrication. It has taken votes in support of decimalisation but has never dabated fully and considered as a question of principle whether it is advisable or desirable for us to substitute metrication measures for imperial measures, which the House has hitherto advocated and supported in legislation.

An exception is that provision has been made in a number of statutes for orders to be laid if necessary, in certain circumstances, for the substitution of metrication in certain parts of Bills. It is under that heading that two parts of this consolidation measure have been added to by metrication in parts of clauses. That arises in respect of references to a pony's height in hands, the offence of throwing a diseased carcase in the sea within three miles of the shore, the increase of a fine related to every additional half a ton and the definition of a pony by reference to height in hands.

These are all insignificant matters and no doubt it is eminent common sense to make the changes that are in the Bill. However, by a process of introducing regulations and statutory instruments we have incorporated what to my mind are substantial changes in principle into the law of the land. We have metricated through the back door, as it were.

The fault lies with the House in the sense that it has made provision for metrication by regulation. It is the fault of the House also for allowing this to happen because regulations are laid at late hours and nobody pays very much attention to them. One regulation was laid in September 1980 and was not prayed against because nobody noticed it. When the second of the regulations was laid in January or February, I noticed it and I went to the Public Bill Office. I gave notice that I sought, with certain of my right hon. and hon. Friends, to pray against it. By an error that sometimes arises in the best ordered of families, the prayer was never tabled. That was not my fault. I think that it has been accepted to have been an error of the administration. Therefore, the second regulation was not prayed against and an opportunity for the House to take a view on whether we should metricate by regulation or by statutory instrument was missed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman must not go into the question whether we should metricate. This is a consolidation measure.

Mr. Lawrence

I shall try, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to stick as closely as I can to the rules.

Before a consolidation measure passes through the House, we should consider whether it is right not only to consolidate legislation that has already been established on the statute book but to add to that legislation regulations and statutory instruments and to consolidate those. As a question of law, I am convinced—I have been in correspondence with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General—that it is proper to consolidate a statutory instrument. However, I am not convinced that it is desirable to metricate when nobody knows that we are doing so and before the House has taken a vote on the principle.

If the House were to wake up tomorrow morning to find that we had metricated, by however small a measure, that would be the thin end of the wedge. I think that many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House would be annoyed, irritated and perhaps even angry. It seems that the procedures of the House have allowed this to happen, and I cannot do more than speak against it. It is thoroughly unsatisfactory. I hope that it will never happen again. I hope that we shall be vigilant with the orders that are laid before the House to ensure that statutory instruments are not used to add to existing legislation, and as a fait accompli to come before the House late at night to say that we are consolidating a measure within the law perfectly properly as the rules allow, only to find that we have done something to which a large proportion of the House would take great exception.

12.20 am
Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)

If I were going to be jumped by anyone, I could not wish it to be anyone other than the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). I am not sure that I follow everything that he put before the House tonight. It would please me if I thought that in future we would not go metric, as I am sure that I will not go to my grave translating kilometres into miles and kilograms into pounds.

We should pay attention to the Committee's report to this extent. This matter was referred to by the Solicitor-General. The effect of the legislation when we go metric is that a round figure must be translated. At present, it is translated literally. Therefore, in the clauses referred to by the hon. and learned Member for Burton there are references to casting a corpse into the sea within 4.8 km of the shore. Clause 41 speaks of ponies 122 cm and 107 cm in height. Clause 75 speaks of calculating a fine in multiples of 50 lb for every 508 kg.

I understand that at present there is nothing that the Committee can do except approve translations that are literal in that way. Clearly, if we are going to go metric it is better that round figures should be translated into round figures. Otherwise, our statutes will be even more difficult and complicated than they are already.

As usual, the Opposition welcome any measure of consolidation and law reform. Therefore, I am content to leave the matter there tonight. I hope that the Solicitor-General can give us an assurance, if not on the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Burton and in general about the future of metrication when we consolidate statutes, that when we incorporate metrication into statutes, at least, we do it in sensible and understandable figures.

12.23 am
The Solicitor-General

I am happy to add a word on the points that have been raised. There has been some misunderstanding about what happened. The Committee erred for once in thinking that the conversions were made in the Bill. They were not. The conversions were made by statutory instrument under section 7 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. Those statutory instruments brought about the conversion.

I have been here long enough to know the difficulties to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) referred. So many things are going through the House that we cannot spot them all. The fact is that there they are. Everything is done openly and there is an opportunity to pray against such measures. They cannot be done by primary legislation, which would ensure that they were brought before the House. There are not enough hours in the day to do that. I am aware of the difficulty here. It may be that that matter will have alerted those who are interested in the subject to look out for further statutory instruments which make conversions into metric quantities. I drew attention to that.

It is important to realise that the conversion is not done under this consolidation measure, nor is it done under the measures that are consolidated in the Bill. The conversions were made by statutory instrument under section 7 of the 1976 Act. Once the conversions have been made by statutory instruments the statutes that are being consolidated are amended and the consolidation can include only the new quantities.

On the rounding up, there is one figure here which, if it had been taken literally, would have extended to six figures on the right hand side of the decimal point. I am not too good at metrication, and I do not mind admitting it. There has been an element of rounding up. In each case there would be at least two figures after the decimal point if it were done strictly, but section 7(3) of the 1976 Act permits rounding up, but only within narrow limits.

My hon. and learned Friend and the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) will be glad of this assurance. In every case, the rounding up has been done in such a way as never to extend the scope of a criminal offence—because these figures all relate to criminal offences. Where the choice has been between rounding up in a way that would extend the scope of criminal offences and rounding up in a way that would not, the draftsman has always taken the second course. None of the rounding up has extended the scope of any criminal offence. That is the best that the draftsman and all concerned in the consolidation can do in the circumstances. I hope that that will help to reassure my hon. and learned Friend and the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Lawrence

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for the assurances that he has given, but the assurance that I really want is that before the Government introduce legislation—which is what they are doing in this consolidation Bill—where they must know that the House is fundamentally concerned with an issue, they will alert the House. It would have been better had they said here that the Bill was a matter of metricating, on which feelings run deep, and perhaps we might have had an opportunity to debate metrication rather more fully. As far as I know, nothing was said in relation to the regulations.

Although I accept completely and utterly the Government's bona fides in this matter, the complete propriety of everything that is done and the complete consistency of the regulations, I merely ask my hon. and learned Friend to give an assurance that, if the situation arises again, the Government will alert the House to the dangers of what is happening, knowing that the House might feel strongly about the issue.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. and learned Friend must realise that although some people feel strongly about metrication, others do not give a hoot about it and yet others believe that it is a very good thing. Almost everything that the Government do is of great concern to some people and to others of no concern at all. I cannot give an assurance that the Government will say that a matter is of particular concern so that they will alert those interested. Our system—I have acknowledged its deficiencies—is that certain things must be done by statutory instrument, and statutory instruments are available for all to see. I do not underestimate the difficulty of following them all, but that is what we have to do to the best of our ability. I cannot give an assurance of the kind for which my hon. and learned Friend asks.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House—[Mr. Goodlad.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.