HC Deb 14 March 2001 vol 364 cc1126-46

10 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

I beg to move, That the Weights and Measures (Metrication Amendments) Regulations 2001 (S.I., 2001, No. 85), dated 16th January 2001, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th January, be revoked. The House now proceeds to scrutiny of an important regulation touching on the subject of metrication. Our objection to the regulations—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Would hon. Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Our objection is that the regulations mark another stage in the Government's determination to drive out pounds, ounces and other familiar imperial units of measurement, and to replace them with an enforced metrication policy, even when that is unnecessary and unwanted.

The background to the regulations is that in 1999 the Government ended the permitted sale of loose goods—fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and so on—in pounds and ounces. From 31 December 1999, it became a criminal offence to sell those loose goods in the familiar units that we had used for so long. That has led to the absurd prosecution of a market trader, Mr. Thoburn, in Sunderland. His only crime, it is alleged, is that he is selling fruit in pounds and ounces.

The court case is costing tens of thousands of pounds. It is still under way, and we await the verdict.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Does my right hon. Friend share my perplexity about the matter? Some people might consider it a modern thing to use système internationale d'unité measures, but the United States uses pounds and ounces in NASA space probes, as well as miles, feet, inches and square yards in other circumstances. Can my right hon. Friend understand what the Government's motive could be for abandoning historical units of measurement such as pounds and ounces in favour of metrication? Metrication is popular in Europe, but it is not understood here.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

My hon. Friend is right to give the United States as an example of a country that uses imperial measurements. However, I do not think that they are called imperial units there; rather, they are known as non-metric, or even English, units. Indeed, in some cases in the US, there has been a reversion to such units and away from metrication.

My hon. Friend asks why the Government are so intent on metrication, and I confess my bafflement on that point.

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells)

The Government have had to address the issue because, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, the previous Government signed up to metrication time and again, and reconfirmed as much in this Chamber, time And again.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

That is not quite the case, as my remarks will show. Doubtless the Government will try to blame everything on everyone but themselves, but in this case it will not work.

The point that I was developing leads on from the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). It is that the metrication process has nothing to do with consumer rights or the protection of consumer interests. In the case of Mr. Thoburn and his sale of fruit and vegetables in pounds and ounces, it is neither suggested nor alleged that he was in any way misleading his customers. Quite the reverse—he was serving his customers in the units they asked for; he was not short-changing them in any way. In the market in Sunderland, there were many other outlets. There is choice in a market, by definition. If he was doing something that his customers disapproved of, they could easily buy their produce from somebody else. He would lose business if he was thought to be imposing his values on an unwilling public. He and his customers were simply exercising choice, and the Government are now denying them that choice.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

The right hon. Gentleman refers to the Thoburn case. Am I right in thinking that the genesis of the regulations can be traced back to 1989 and the European Council of Ministers, whose United Kingdom representative was the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), now foreign affairs spokesperson for the Conservative party?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is getting this slightly wrong. My right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) obtained for this country an extension of the rights of traders to continue to use imperial measurements. This Government failed to do that in 1999, so the guilt lies on the Government Benches rather than ours.

Dr. Howells

I would not want the right hon. Gentleman to mislead the House. Why does he not simply admit that the Government of whom he and the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) were members signed up to metrication and then managed to obtain a 10-year extension which would enable traders to put supplementary measurements on each weighing scale? That is precisely what we did the year before last.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I am afraid that the Minister cannot avoid responsibility in that way These prosecutions are proceeding because in 1999 the Government failed to extend the right to use imperial units in trade in loose goods. We obtained that extension in 1989—that is a matter of record.

The Government did not even try to obtain an extension in 1999. I have a helpful written answer from the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who is his place. The hon. Gentleman said: The Government have not discussed the derogation for goods sold loose with Members of the European Commission."—[Official Report, 8 July 1999; Vol. 334, c. 583W.] The Government did not even discuss the matter, let alone ask or insist.

An extension of this right could easily have been obtained. The original directive was negotiated by the Labour Government in 1979. It includes the following lines: Whereas the laws which regulate the use of units of measurement in the Member States differ from one Member State to another and as a result hinder trade; whereas, in these circumstances, it is necessary to harmonize laws, regulations and administrative provisions in order to overcome such obstacles". It is clear from that preamble that the entire rationale was built on the premise that the use of imperial measurement hindered trade. However, Mr. Thoburn and his market trader colleagues in Sunderland are not engaging in international trade. How can it possibly be said that the sale by a market trader in some way infringes the rules and regulations of international trade? It is preposterous.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Does it not go even further than that? If it was a question of concern for international trade, and a trader insisted on using a unit of measurement that was not acceptable to potential customers on the continent, he would not be able to trade. People trade in the measurements that their customers want.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

My hon. Friend is right. Trade exists by satisfying customers. Someone who supplies goods in units that are inconvenient or are not understood will not sell them. People do not need bureaucrats or central Government to tell them that. It is much better to leave such matters to normal commercial intercourse at market level.

Mr. Gordon Prentice

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)


Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I hope that the hon. Gentlemen will forgive me, but I want to make progress.

The domestic sale of loose goods has no single market implications and does not affect other member states in any way. It is a purely domestic matter and therefore falls under the subsidiarity requirement, which is now written into the treaty of Rome, as amended. Respect for subsidiarity is insisted upon, so if the Government had asked in 1999 whether United Kingdom traders should continue to use pounds and ounces for domestic trade, no case whatever would have been made against the proposition, which would have been allowed. As has been mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham succeeded in obtaining a further derogation when he applied for one. The same would apply in respect of many units of measurement.

It may interest the House to be reminded that some imperial measurements have indefinite extensions. They include the mile and the acre, and pints of milk can still be sold in returnable bottles. The use of such measurements is still permitted because the Government and the European Union know perfectly well that if they insisted on abolishing them in favour of metric measurements, the public would not accept their decision. The principle is already established. When it is convenient for the public to continue to use traditional imperial measurements, they are allowed to do so. Will the Minister clarify, however, whether those extensions are indefinite? Could we be required by majority voting to abolish the mile, the acre and the pint in due course?

Mr. Leslie


Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I give way to the jack-in-the-box on the Government Benches.

Mr. Leslie

How cruel; I am not sure that I can recover from that remark.

The right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) was responsible for pushing through approval of European Community document No. 4102/89 in April 1989. During debate on the document, which welcomed metrication proposals, he said that pounds and ounces would be able to continue only until the end of the century."—[Official Report, 11 April 1989; Vol.150, c. 839.] Does that sound like an indefinite period to the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

If the hon. Gentleman investigates the matter slightly more carefully, he will see that the derogation negotiated by my right hon. Friend applied until the end of the century. He probably anticipated that a less feeble Government would be in power when it ran out and that they would listen to what the public wanted and have the determination to do what he had done and obtain a further extension.

Mr. Fabricant

Many five-year derogations have been renewed by Conservative Governments. On another matter, is my right hon. Friend aware that 74 per cent. of the British public said in a recent survey that they wanted to keep imperial units? Is not that the motivation of Mr. Thoburn and others who want to provide what their customers want?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

My hon. Friend is right. Politicians and Governments have previously been ahead of the public in their insistence on replacement of some measurements. It has become apparent to everyone—or at least to Opposition Members—that the public do not want the regulations. We live not only in a democracy but in a society in which consumers should be consulted and listened to. If affection remains for a familiar unit of measurement, the House should listen to people's concerns and withdraw a forced and artificial switch that is simply not required. The United States has done that, and we are asking the Government to listen in exactly the same way.

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles)

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the gentleman whom he mentioned earlier, Mr. Thoburn, is breaking the law?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

It is not for me to assume the role of a judge. Moreover, as the matter is sub judice, it would be highly improper of me to do so. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants to pre-judge the case, that could be an extension of Labour policy whereby we hear the verdict first and the evidence afterwards. I thought that we might confine th it sort of legal procedure to "Alice in Wonderland". The law is oppressive, and the responsibility for that entire prosecution and its attendant expense lies firmly with the Government, for failing to obtain that extension of the permitted use of imperial measures in 1999, as I have already described.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)


Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

It is perfectly true—

Mr. Fabricant

Give way to Metric Mary.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

The hon. Lady is so charming, I shall give way.

Ms Prentice

The right hon. Gentleman voted for the provision in April 1989 on the basis that it was providing adequate transitional periods to enable businesses and consumers to adapt".—[Official Report, 11 April 1989; Vol. 150, c. 837.] Why is he doing a U-turn now?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Because we are listening to what the public want. We obtained a 10-year derogation, and it was never envisaged that that would necessarily be the end of the matter. Is the hon. Lady seriously advancing the proposition that one Parliament can bind its successor? Is she supposing that a decision taken 10 years ago was valid for all time, even when it was deliberately time-limited? Is she advancing that extraordinary proposition? If so, she should make her position clear.

I turn now to the details of the present regulation.

Mr. Stewart

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I gave way to the hon. Gentleman earlier. I hope that he will catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that we can hear his views at greater length, because I think that Labour Members have some explaining to do on this matter.

Under the regulation before the House, to which I shall now turn in some detail, the Government are seeking to go further than the provision that I have just described, by bringing to an end the permitted dual pricing. At present, imperial measurement can be used in what the directive calls "supplementary indicators". That is, imperial equivalents to metric, units can be shown, provided that they are less prominent and used secondarily to the metric units. That is the established law. The Government are now announcing an r nd to that, in the regulation. As well as ending sales in imperial units in 1999, the Government are now going further by removing the right to show imperial units at all.

It might be asked—this is a matter for the Minister to answer—why anyone needs permission to display helpful additional information in this way. The answer could be that, under the system of law that governs these directives, we now need positive permission to do something. Under the traditional legal system that has been in place for centuries, we have always taken the view that we could do what we liked—it was assumed that we had total freedom—unless something was expressly prohibited.

However, it now appears, instead, that it is assumed that we can do nothing unless it is expressly allowed. That is the continental legal tradition, and it is now being incorporated into these metric regulations. Thus it will be forbidden for a trader to put any helpful additional information about imperial measures under the metric sign. That will become illegal, which is a most extraordinary proposition as well as a serious infringement of liberty. I ask the Minister to address the point.

The other interesting fact about the regulation is that supplementary indications—the term describes permission to show imperial units as well—are permitted under EU law, not to help shoppers, which has never been a consideration, but so as not to damage EU exports.

I return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield. America has not gone metric in the way originally predicted and willed by the EU Commission, but it has reversed the mandatory use of metric measurements in federal contracts, revoking that law. Indeed, many states are moving away from metric altogether. I am advised, for example, that Louisiana, Missouri and Illinois scrapped kilometres on road signs in 1998, bringing to 18 the number of states that have reverted to using miles. Through great swathes of the United States, there is movement away from using metric measurements.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

May I point out to my right hon. Friend that that more open-minded attitude to weights and measures, which are a matter that should be left entirely to the choice of the client and the supplier, also extends to certain European countries? Is he aware that the leather trade in Italy uses three square feet—the Lombard foot, the Tuscan foot and the Neapolitan foot? Many Italian suppliers use square metres, but in export markets they leave the matter entirely to the choice of the customer

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Exactly. Even countries that have used metric measurements for many years sensibly permit the use of other units of measurement where that is convenient for industry, trade and customers. I am afraid that, throughout history, Governments and politicians have pressed metrication on others, even if it is not wanted and even if it takes away choice.

That has been recognised in the United States, which is moving away from that system. Significantly, EU firms that export goods to America are not allowed to sell in that market in metric-only markings . They must show imperial and metric markings. To acKnowledge that fact and the concerns about the damage that will be caused to industry by having to run two production systems—one metric only, the other using dual markings—the EU has responded by permitting sellers of pre-packed goods to continue to use dual markings, even when they sell in the EU. That has also been extended to loose goods and, indeed, every other good.

Even though dual-use markings were not introduced for the convenience of shoppers and traders, they are still permitted and will continue to be so. Even more bizarrely, although that permission was extended to the end of the previous century by an EU derogation, the Government did not even apply for a parallel derogation for domestically traded loose goods when that was clearly required by our own people. In other words, international organisations and companies in the EU obtained a derogation because that was convenient for them and important to their marketing to the United States, but the Government sat on their hands and did not even ask for an equivalent derogation for the permitted use of imperial-only measurements for loose goods traded in markets such as that in Sunderland. That shows the feebleness and illogicality of the Government's position.

I want the Minister to say why the derogation and the regulation apply only up to 2009. The explanatory notes describe that as a final date. Why, having banned the use of imperial measures for the pricing and selling of loose goods, are the Government still so intent on banning supplementary labelling as well? Why are they so sure that the United States will fall into line? We can easily imagine circumstances in which, as we approach 2009, the United States persists in its use of imperial measures. We shall have to go through all this again. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us: did he argue for a longer period? Did he, indeed, argue for an indefinite extension? If not, why not?

Cannot we all now see that the public are attached to the continuing use of imperial units? Why, then, should it be made illegal to display such information from a certain finite date, which the regulations call a final date? Why are the Government so intent on taking away this freedom? We all know that they are an interfering, regulatory Government, and that they are extremely reluctant to challenge any proposal from the European Union—

Mr. Ian Stewart

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory


We also know that the Government are in a complete muddle over their metrication programme. That is clear from the ludicrous persecution of a market trader in Sunderland.

Why do the Government not do something right for a change? Why do they not at least permit the indefinite use of imperial units alongside their metric equivalents? Why do they not put a stop to this metric madness, start listening to the public and start standing up for freedom? Unless we get some very good answers to those questions, we will certainly oppose the regulations.

10.27 pm
The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells)

I welcome the opportunity to explain the regulations—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Oh no you don't!"] Oh yes I do.

The regulations were made under powers conferred by the Weights and Measures Act 1985, formulated and signed up to by a Government led by a Conservative Prime Minister—although, of course, the schizophrenia of the Conservative party knows no bounds. Conservative Members forget all this, but it is here in Hansard. The hon. Member for Stafford fought it tooth and nail at the time—

Mr. William Cash (Stone)


Dr. Howells

No, I will not give way.

Mr. Cash

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Even if the Minister cannot get metric measures right, and even if he cannot get pounds, shillings and pence or any other imperial measures right, he should at least know that I am the Member for Stone.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I do not think that that is a matter for the Chair.

Dr. Howells

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for that, but I was paying him a tribute by saying that he stood up against that lot on the Conservative Front Bench.

Tonight's debate is really about the Conservative party's paranoia in regard to the United Kingdom Independence party. The Conservatives fear that the UKIP will take votes away from what they call their key seats in what is left of their heartlands: that is why they have jumped on the ludicrous case of a so-called metric market. It is total nonsense.

The intention of the directive that the Conservatives now criticise, but to which they signed up, is to establish harmonised use of the international system of metric units for economic, public health, public safety and administrative purposes in European Union member states, of which we are one. The directive originally set 31 December 1989 as the date after which non-metric units would no longer be authorised for use as supplementary indications. The Conservatives did not negotiate a never-ending derogation; they signed up for 10 years. The right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has forgotten that, as he has forgotten many other facts, but I now remind him of it.

The current Government recognised that a further extension for supplementary indications would be necessary for two reasons. First, with the change to the gram and the kilogram for goods sold loose after 1999, it was clear that consumers would welcome a further period in which trade measuring instruments could display indications in metric and imperial weights.

Secondly, under United States legislation, consumer packages—including imports from the United Kingdom and other European Union member states—must be labelled in metric and US imperial units. Packing in metric-only for the EU market and in metric-US imperial for the US market would clearly add to costs for UK exporters. However, Conservative Members are so fixated with jumping on to the tawdry bandwagon of their big rival, the United Kingdom Independence party, that they will say anything. That is what they do these days.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Howells

I shall in a moment—I have not finished yet.

Conservative Members will jump on any bandwagon that is rolling along. This bandwagon is not moving very fast, but it is better than none at all. It is what Conservative Members do these days. I shall certainly give way to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). I had always considered him to be intelligent, but I am amazed to see him sitting on the Opposition Front Bench for this debate.

Mr. Gibb

If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, the Government sought an extension to the derogation for dual measurement, but not one for the directive on loose sales from bulk. Why did he seek a derogation in one case but not the other?

Dr. Howells

We did not need one. We negotiated a further 10-year extension for supplementary indications, until 31 December 2009. It is also important to recognise that a directive was passed by the European Parliament. If United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament, including Tory ones—there are Tory MEPs; the Tories did very well in the most recent European elections—considered that to be such a dastardly act, why did they not table an amendment to the directive? Not one amendment to the directive was tabled. That is very strange.

I know, however, why there was not an amendment. It was because that old United Kingdom Independence party had not found a metric maetric and the bandwagon had not yet started scraping along the ground. It was therefore not necessary for a Tory MEP to table an amendment. Then again, perhaps Tory MEPs simply forgot to table one, just as the right hon. Member for Wells has forgotten that it was a Conservative Government who signed up to all this and set themselves a 10-year target to end imperial measurements and convert entirely to metric.

Various regulations have been made, under the Weights and Measures Acts of 1963 and 1985, to set out constructional requirements and limits of error for different classes of weighing or measuring equipment. That has been done to ensure that when that equipment is used for trade, it will act as a fair arbiter between buyers and sellers. That applies not only to everyday foodstuffs such as fruit and vegetables and fish and meat, regardless of whether they are sold loose or pre-packed, but to other goods used in commerce and industry. It also applies to central heating oils and to supplies of petrol and diesel fuel.

It is an important task of trading standards officers to check that that equipment stays within the allowed limits of error. The equipment may drift into inaccuracy with the passage of time it may be damaged through misuse, or it may be used fraudulently. TSOs have an important task on behalf of all of us in ensuring that weighing and measuring equipment stays within the bounds and continues to play its role of fair arbiter.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

The hon. Gentleman is telling us about the regulations implications, but would he mind sparing a thought for the housewife who now has to read recipes in metric measurements? The other evening, for example, I had to make some mashed potatoes. The instructions told me to take 628 cl of water, 235 g of potato and a knob of butter approximately 5 cm by 5 cm. By the time that I had looked all that up, worked it out and discovercd that it was about 1 pint of water, half a pound of flakes and a knob of butter about an inch square, I was bored to death with trying to work it all out and opened a package of instant rice. The fact remains, however, that recipes are now all printed in what is gobbledegook to most people. There should be, if nothing else, a derogation allowing manufacturers of food products that require measurements to use good old imperial measurements.

Dr. Howells

As the hon. Lady knows, I always appreciate her analysis. However, I must tell her that since 1974—long after both she and I were in school, I fear-our children have been taught metric measurements. It may be that we find them gobbledegook, but I had a look at the best-selling cookery books today and found that they all contain metric measurements. Some of them have imperial equivalents alongside the metric, which is very helpful for an old-timer like me—though not, of course, for the hon. Lady, who is ageless. It is wrong to assume that our children have not leaned about metric measurements. Even those who were educated way back in 1974 may well be able to boil an egg these days.

Let me return to the regulations before us, rather than the United Kingdom Independence party. The regulations are listed in the schedule to the present regulations and in regulation 3(2). They cover such equipment as, at No. 1 on the schedule, industrial beltweighers used for sand and gravel and for loading grain on to ships, and, at No. 8, petrol pumps, which are shown as measuring equipment for liquid fuel. There can be no competition on the basis of price if such equipment does not act as the fair arbiter of quantities bought and sold so that buyers of those goods can be confident that they are getting what they pay for. That is the point of the directive.

Mr. Fabricant

On that very point, is the Minister not aware that people still think about the cost of petrol as being £4 a gallon? They do not think about litres. That is how they know that petrol is so expensive. The Minister is being unfair to himself in saying that only old fogies like him still understand imperial units. If that were the case, it would not be that only 7 per cent. of the population said, in a recent survey, that they preferred metric to imperial units.

Dr. Howells

I would love to see that survey and to know where it was carried out. I suspect that it was conducted in the bar of the hon. Gentleman's club.

Let me go back to the 1999 directive. We sought and achieved agreement at EU level for the use of supplementary indications for a further 10 years. As the right hon. Member for Wells knows, that is precisely what the previous Government did during the previous 10 years and in the eight years before that. It was the right thing to do, and we did it. It provides the opportunity for traders to display supplementary indications alongside metric indications, if traders decide that that would be helpful to their customers. There are about 160,000 weighing machines in this country for measuring loose goods. Some 130,000 of them have been converted. Those figures speak for themselves.

Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead)

Though I am, perhaps, an even older fogey than my hon. Friend, does he agree that if the Conservatives are still working on the basis that there are 240 pennies in the pound, we can see why their economic policy is in such a mess?

Dr. Howells

I cannot improve on that. When the great Seb Coe—I found out only yesterday that he is in the other place now—ran the 1500 m in the Olympic games, why did the Conservatives not ask that he should be allowed to run his own bit extra to win a gold medal for a mile? Linford Christie could have finished half a yard ahead of everyone else by running 100 yd instead of 100 m. The Conservative position is nonsense, of course. The Opposition are raising their objection only because they are frightened of losing seats. There is nothing else to it. I know that some of the hon. Members sitting on the Tory Front Bench are highly intelligent human beings, and I cannot believe that they agree with the nonsense that we have heard tonight.

10.39 pm
Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare)

Although we Liberal Democrats recognise the advantage of using common units of measurement for scientific, technological and professional activities, we believe that attempts to implement what is seen by ourselves and the public as heavy-handed measures to impose metrication by compulsion are counter-productive. I fully accept that, as the Minister said, it was the previous Tory Government who started us on this road. It is clearly owing to them that we find ourselves in this situation. However, I do not approve of the way in which this Government are handling the matter.

The European Community directive that the order seeks to impose was originally designed with the intention of harmonising the use by member states of the international system. According to the regulatory impact assessment, that was done for economic, public health, public safety and administrative purposes.

Before the 2009 deadline, after which complete metrication will be a legal requirement, traders are able to make use, as has been said, of supplementary indications. That means that we can make use of dual markings of products, which is quite acceptable. When the original deadline for metrication was announced, it was believed that member states would quickly adapt to the new system, but, clearly, that has not been so. The use of supplementary indications makes life easier for consumers, who are able to work with whichever measurement they are most comfortable with. I am getting on a bit, but by 2009 I shall have got on a bit more, and I might be unable to understand the measurements as well as I would wish.

Mr. Cash

The problem will not arise.

Mr. Cotter

God willing, the problem will arise.

Under the regulations, the deadline of 31 December 2009 will be imposed and the use of imperial units will be illegal. The previous Government managed to get us into that situation.

Mr. Fabricant

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the whole issue is down to freedom—freedom of choice of the consumer, freedom of choice of people who are in trade? Surely it should be up to them what they do. Does he not think that even a Liberal Democrat Government, for God's sake, would be going a bit too far in imposing a standard of measure that was unpopular among those who were forced to use it?

Mr. Cotter

I am delighted at that intervention. I can rip up half my speech; the hon. Gentleman has made my points, which is surprising from a member of a party that has not been notable for its libertarian approach or the way in which it consulted the general public while in government.

It is ridiculous to force metrication on the consumer when the system has not been truly accepted elsewhere. Indeed, part of the reason for making such progress was the hope that the United States would turn metrication into practice before 2009. In fact, the Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation recently voiced its concern that the United States might not adapt as quickly as had been hoped. When the deadline expires, those who wish to export their goods may face significant costs because they will have to produce one set of metric labels for Europe and very possibly another one for the United States.

It is not the principle of metrication that I oppose, but the way in which the system will be implemented, the speed of implementation and the fact that this Government, having been dropped in it by the previous one, have not fought harder for a lengthier derogation. Why try to force the hand of metrication when, as has been said, there are still a number of units in use, such as the pint of milk and of beer that we very much favour?

More than that, we have a long history when it comes to measures. As a matter of interest—I am sure that this will be of great interest to Members present—the acre of land has been in existence since 732, when it was introduced under the reign of King Ethelbert II, the King of Kent.

The furlong, with which many people, particularly in the racing fraternity, will be familiar, came from the Greeks and Romans. They inherited it as an ancient measure, apparently based on the optimal length of a plough. I could go on at great length about old measurements, but I will just pick out a few. There are many other historical examples of measures that are still referred to, but not used very often. All of us will be familiar with rods, poles and perches. There are many more, such as bushels, cloves, firkins and gills, not forgetting noggins and pecks and, most important for us as politicians, scruples. As we all know, we are extremely scrupulous people, yet a scruple is a measurement.

So the case is made that, as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabri cant) said, it is a great lack of appreciation of the liberty of the British citizen that we should not be allowed, even if we have to accept metrication, a derogation beyond 2009. I hope that, as a result of the telling arguments made by me and others, the Government will consider renewing their efforts, even if they have failed at this point, to ensure that after 2009 we will be able to use what are called supplementary indications. People like myself will appreciate being able to see the pounds and ounces, even in small letters, on the product that they want to buy.

I sincerely hope that the Government will consider the matter seriously.

10.47 pm
Mr. William Cash (Stone)

This issue basically relates to a form of xenophobia. There is an assumption these days that we always have to do what is prescribed by the European Union and its institutions. The fact remains that there is a powerful case for renegotiating the arrangements in line with the wishes of the British people. I was fascinated to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter). After all, the Liberal party is above all else a federalist party. I suspect that Liberal Members are trying to make out that they have some form of resistance to the regulations when they are completely in favour of them, simply because they know that the Euroscepticism—Eurorealism, as I prefer to call it—that has developed over the past few years has put them on the rack in so many of their seats.

Mr. Cotter

I do not know whether I should bother to intervene, as I would expect the hon. Gentleman to make the sort of comments that he has made. As he well knows, we support the concept of metrication, but I am protesting about the lack of a libertarian approach, which means that after a certain date we will not be allowed to refer to the previous measurements. That is a key issue and it is the clear point that we are making.

Mr. Cash

The lame excuse that has just been given speaks for itself.

This is an unnecessary proposal. It would undoubtedly increase the damage to the economy that has already been caused by a number of factors, including dissatisfaction and confusion in domestic trade between suppliers compelled to use metric and customers who prefer imperial. Furthermore, it will create confusion in our trade with European and other countries, as a result of variations within the metric system.

There are powerful reasons why the regulations should be resisted. Simply to say that we have to go along with them until 2009 makes a point in itself. The idea of a derogation raises the question whether the Government are opposed to the issue in principle. Why not stop altogether, if that is what they want to do? Why go in for something that is time extended for a period? The Government, like the Liberal party, are giving way on the issue of how long the derogation should continue. They know that there is tremendous resistance to the process, and they want a fig leaf with which to cloak themselves for the time being.

It is astonishing that we in this Parliament—

Dr. Howells

I believe that we should move towards metrication. The use of measurements has never been an entirely stable regime; it has evolved over the years. We have until 2009. I give the House the reassurance that if, in 2009, it is clear that consumers would like a further derogation, we will negotiate one.

Mr. Cash

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) said, the motion is no more than another piece in the jigsaw. There are so many other measurements and units that are not being turned into metric. The Government are clearly committed to the idea of a European superstate and to the sort of consolidation that obtained during the Roman empire or any of the other great empires. That is the way these things go. At present, however, they are picking and choosing: they do not have the courage of their convictions. That in itself condemns the pusillanimous manner in which they conduct themselves on so many issues.

The Government know that there are pressures under which they have to move, because they are prepared to accept the idea of going further and deeper into the process of European integration. However, they are not prepared to state that that is precisely what they want. That is why they vacillate so much over the single currency.

Why is it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells asked, that the Government are not prepared—I would regard it as outrageous—to take the further step on all measurements and units? I invite the Minister to explain.

Dr. Howells

I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking me the question and giving me the opportunity to answer it. Like the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), I would find it difficult to order some commodities in anything other than imperial. However, when I order a pint, I am determined that I will get a full pint. The hon. Gentleman's colleagues talked out the legislation that related to a full pint. They do not want fairness for consumers—they are ready to allow the breweries to continue cheating them.

Mr. Cash

It will come as no great surprise to the Minister to learn that I do not always agree with what my party has to say on the European issue.

We should bear in mind the fact that it is only in the United Kingdom and in Ireland that these sorts of proposals are enforced by criminal penalties. I put it to the House—we shall see how this plays—that the only referendum to be held on the Nice treaty, unless the Conservative party wins the general election, as it surely will, will be in Ireland. There are many in Ireland who are becoming increasingly concerned about the manner in which they are being taken over. The question for Ireland, as for the United Kingdom, is increasingly, "Who governs us?" The proposal is a further example of trends that should be resisted and opposed.

It was clear when the measure was first accepted that the Government did not expect any prosecutions. Mr. Thoburn has been prosecuted but we do not yet know the outcome, and it is apparent that many members of the Government regard the prosecution as a big mistake. Do they propose to prosecute others in the United Kingdom? They have already nodded and winked at the prosecution of Mr. Thoburn, and it would therefore be extraordinary if they were not prepared to take the matter further.

The proposal is objectionable. It also illustrates the Government's vacillation and pusillanimity, because they are not prepared to put their money where their mouth is. We can understand the reason for that: they are prepared to go so far to comply with European requirements, but they are not prepared to stand up for the British people. The Minister knows that that is true

10.56 pm
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). His words convince me that the remarks that I am about to make are right. The Minister's opening comments were interesting. It was predictable that he would try to blame the current position on the Conservative party. That is the Labour party's great mantra nowadays. When they change something for which we were responsible, they claim credit for it; when they decide not to change something, they blame us.

The Minister could have made a good point, but it eluded him. The Conservative party's record on the subject of our debate is not entirely pure. When we entered the Common Market, we were told that it was, indeed, a common market. The White Paper that preceded the Bill that took us into the European Union stated that there was no question of losing essential sovereignty. That was a splendid way of putting it: there was no question of losing sovereignty; we simply lost it. The people of this country were beguiled or conned into believing that they were entering a common market. It was never that; the European Union was a political objective with a political agenda. Recently, that agenda has been worked through. The items that we are considering tonight are part of that agenda, and of an inexorable political process of forming not "federal states of Europe" but a European state.

Let us go back many years, longer ago than when I was first a Member of Parliament. The Conservative party had something for which to answer then. It says much for our party that we are now capable of facing up to our actions and, as far as possible, to their consequences. If the Minister had made the criticism in that way, he would have made a valid point. However, he is not on such strong ground when considering the regulations.

The Government could have applied for derogations, but they chose not to do that. They allowed the lapse of a derogation that would have permitted the imperial pricing of loose goods. They did not even believe that that was worth doing; that says much about their attitude. If they find themselves in a position to consider whether to renew the derogation in 2008, their actions will again say much about their attitude.

Derogation means asking a foreign power for permission to continue to use our weights and measurements. It means going cap in hand to a foreign state and saying, "Do you mind terribly if we continue to adhere to our own laws, traditions and customs?" From time to time, a gracious foreign state will say, "Yes, you are entitled to do that." The mere fact that we have to go through that charade and consider applying for derogations so as to be allowed to continue our own customs says much about the European Union.

We are moving into a European state so quickly—it has no pretensions to be anything other than a European state. The only people who deny that it is a European state constitute a very small number, both in my party and in the Labour party. In Europe, this debate would not be understandable. If any European were listening to the debate, they would not understand what we were talking about. They would say, "What are they going on about? Surely, in a single state, the state has the right to make the law."

It would be difficult to explain in a few words how illiberal and unattractive this thing is, at best. The idea that it is necessary to protect traders or to further trade is simply untrue.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I apologise for having come late to the debate, but I am looking at the record for 11 April 1989. I may be completely wrong, but I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman told me whether he voted in favour of European Community document No. 4102, on units of measurement? I feel that there is a bit of inconsistency here. Is there?

Mr. Nicholls

Even for the hon. Lady, that is a uniquely silly remark to make. To drift into the Chamber and to ask me to recall whether I voted for a particular statutory instrument in 1989 is, even by her standards, particularly silly.

If the hon. Lady had been here for the whole of the debate, let alone the whole of my speech, she would have heard me say that there was something unsatisfactory about derogations. There is something very unsatisfactory about having to ask for permission to be able to retain one's rights and customs. However, if that is the position we are in, it is worth exercising that right. The charge against the Government is that they did not even think it worth applying for a derogation in this case.

As I said before the hon. Lady made her ill-fated intervention, the idea that it is necessary to impose such legislation to protect trade is complete nonsense. The point is that units of measurement are there for the convenience of those who choose to trade in them. If someone aggressively says, "I intend to trade in imperial measurements," when what is wanted are metric measurements, either they will cease to trade in that form of measurement, or they will fail.

Obviously, if someone is trading with the continent and wants to make his goods attractive on the continent, he will ensure that the pricing is metric. There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with metric measurements, but the idea that they must be enforced on people with the full rigour of the criminal law to protect trade is nonsense.

We are dealing with a political agenda, plain and simple. We are dealing with a European state that arrogates to itself the right to ride roughshod over the domestic customs of a member state. This debate teaches us, more than anything else, that we cannot go on in this way. We cannot go on playing a part in Europe in a relationship in which we do not feel comfortable—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman considerable leeway, but I now need to remind him that this is not a general debate about Europe. We are dealing with the Weights and Measures (Metrication Amendments) Regulations 2001. The scope of the debate should concentrate on the desirability of continuing with two alternative systems of measurement in the given areas for the stated time, and on the nature and costs of the benefits involved.

Mr. Nicholls

I will not labour the point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but in trying to assess the advisability of going along with that, it was worth making the point that we have a responsibility to understand why we find ourselves in this position. We have the ability tonight to say that the regulations are simply unacceptable. Conservative Members should have sufficient confidence to say that we are not responsible for the regulations. We should vote against them in due course next week, on paper.

11.4 pm

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

This issue demonstrates the clear difference between our party and the Government. We believe in common sense. We believe in freedom. If ever there were an issue of common sense and freedom, this is it.

When 7 per cent. of the population say that they prefer the metric system and 93 per cent. say that they are happier working with the imperial system, what common sense is there in any Government imposing this measure on people's lives? There is no common sense in imposing this measure on people going to markets, corner shops and Safeway, and even when they measure out their mashed potato in ti e privacy of their own home.

The Minister asked where I got my information from, as he could not believe that 93 per cent. of the population rejected the metric system. I am surprised that a Minister, with all the resources of the state, does not have access to the information that I have. The information came in a survey conducted by RSL for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Ltd.; it is on the website members.aol. com/footrule/. There he will find the information, which is in the public domain. If the Minister takes my word for it—

Dr. Howells

indicated assent.

Mr. Fabricant

I see that he does. Some 93 per cent. of the population reject this ridiculous and dishonourable motion.

This issue has been rejected, in effect, by the United States of America. As far back as the 1970s, the USA tried hard to introduce the metric standard. Members who have been to North America will know that when they drive on the 15 from Seattle to Vancouver, passing the Freedom bridge—which, interestingly enough, says along the top, "Two children born of a common mother"—they will see that on the south side miles are used, and on the north side kilometres are used, as Canada has adopted the metric system. Despite the fact that the US enjoys the longest unpolict d border in the world, it has rejected the system.

Britain has rejected it, too. In 1969, the then Labour Government introduced the Metrication Board. In 1980, the Metrication Board was abolished; it was a failure. The only success it had was the introduction of decimal currency. I believe that most people still think in terms of miles, feet and inches. In fact, it is to the Government's advantage that petrol prices are quoted in litres. As I have said, when people realise that petrol is now £4 a gallon-the most expensive in Europe—they will realise how expensive life has become under this Government.

The position is clear; people do not want this measure. The Government have demonstrated yet again that they are appeasers in Europe. They chose not to fight against regulations concerning water boards, which resulted in a firm in my constituency, Armitage Shanks, having to be sold. I oppose the motion, which is not common sense and does not represent freedom.

11.8 pm

Mrs. Teresa Got man (Billericay)

I did not intend to say anything in the debate but, having listened to the Minister—under whose politically correct socialist crust probably beats a heart with a degree of liberalism—I was upset to hear him make ageist comments about the 40 million or so people in our country who were not brought up with metric measurements and who still resort to the imperial measurements because they mean something to them.

I know that I am 5 ft 3 in tall and that I weigh between 9 and 10 stone. If I tell that to people, they know what it means. I know what a pint means; I know how many yards of fabric I want; if I tell someone that I am going a mile up the road, they know what I mean. I know that I take size 5 shoes and my husband takes size 10. I know what that means, but the metric measurement of 37 cm means nothing to me.

There is no shame in that, and there is no reason why a housewife should be forced to interpret her recipes in what is basically a foreign measurement. It is not a natural measurement; it has not evolved out of people's sizes and the distance that they travelled in a certain length of time. As hon. Members have said, all our imperial measurements have evolved out of elements that relate to people's daily lives, yet here we are forcing them to think in an entirely foreign system of measurements. In my view it is the equivalent of forcing them to think and calculate their orders in Chinese. The Government would do well to take that into account and not to pooh-pooh it. Making decisions involving shopping and measuring is an important element of women's daily lives. I should like the Minister to address that point.

Dr. Howells

May I attempt to convince the hon. Lady that I am certainly not pooh-poohing the idea? That is why we negotiated another 10 years of having imperial measurements on weighing scales—so that we can understand them.

Mrs. Gorman

The Government inspectors have insisted that people print their packets of food, and shopkeepers weigh their commodities, using a foreign system of measurement. Tonight we are debating the fact that anyone who does not do that will be prosecuted. I am trying to touch the heart that I hope the Minister has, in support of people whose daily lives involve having to handle commodities in what amounts to a foreign language. If for no other reason, the Minister and the Labour party would do themselves a power of good if they did not knock older people, some of whom will still be alive in 10 or 20 years' time , after the current derogation expires, and who would prefer to continue to use the language of measuring distance, weights and so on that they have been familiar with since childhood.

Mr. Fabricant

Does my hon. Friend agree with the powerful point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls)? Is it not almost humiliating that we are having to go cap in hand to what he correctly described as a foreign power, to ask for this derogation in the first place?

Mrs. Gorman

I quite agree with my hon. Friend. It does us all a power of good if, for a change, we take into consideration the concerns of the people whom we represent here. It has been said more than once this evening that the great majority of them would prefer to keep the forms of measurement with which they are familiar and in which they have been educated. If younger people feel comfortable with men is measures, by all means let them be printed on boxes and packets. I expect that young people mix up mashed potatoes late at night too, but there are a large number of people who do not want the metric system to be imposed on them, and they should not have to use it.

A long time ago I used to help small businesses with their problems. The regulations imposed by European directives were driving them up the pole, so we decided to go to Europe and talk to the people who drew up those regulations. They made it absolutely clear that the directives were not obligatory. They said, as has already been said tonight, that some countries, like ours, impose them on people, but that we do not need to do that.

There is no need to ram the directives down people's throats, but our civil servants gold-plate them and make them worse. They make demands that are entirely unnecessary. We are here to represent people's views, not to dictate to them. That is not why they send us here, and we should not be involved in doing that. As soon as the Government learn that and accept that the time is not right to do away with our imperial measurements, the sooner they will improve their proper role of representing what the great majority of people in this country feel about this matter.

11.14 pm
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). Taking a leaf out of her book, I should like to tell the House that 140 lb of pigmeat makes 1 cwt of bacon. Many people in Britain today are familiar with such equations. I could not give the metric equivalent of that equation, but I make that point to show that I have been in business, which, regrettably, not too many hon. Members these days have.

I know from my experience in business that to foster trade one has to respond to what the customer wants. If the customer wants to buy in avoirdupois rather than in metric, that is what the customer should be allowed to do. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), I belong to the party that believes in choice and diversity. The people who should exercise the choice are the customers, the British people. That choice must not be circumscribed by the people in Whitehall who think they know best.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) made the important point that, historically, we in Britain have been able to do anything and everything unless it was prohibited by the law, which is in complete contrast to the continental system under which something can be done only if it is expressly permitted. This is another example of how we are moving more and more towards a continental system, which, to many of us, is regrettable, and does not suit the country's nature and mood.

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) is apt. We go cap in hand all the time to ask Brussels whether we can keep systems that we have historically enjoyed for hundreds of years. Such systems have served us well and there is no reason to change them. When we get a derogation, we say that we have won a victory. What a victory, simply to have hung on for another five or 10 years to something that we have enjoyed for centuries.

I risk being ruled out of order in saying this, but my hon. Friend is right when he says that this is all driven by politics. It is all driven by the determination that nothing will stand in the way of creating a united states of Europe. Metrication is another step along that route, just as decimalisation was 20 or 30 years ago.

I return to the argument about trade. Our trade with the EU is important and amounts to a substantial sum, but it represents less than 11 per cent. of our gross GDP. In other words, 89 per cent. of our GDP is accounted for by trade within the UK and with the rest of the world. Converting to metrication will bring no benefit to that. We are doing it simply to accommodate our trade with Europe, which represents 11 per cent. of our GDP.

We are in great danger of getting things completely out of proportion. As a business man, I would not rejig the whole of my production and accounting methods and the way in which I ran my business for customers who represented 11 per cent. of my business. I would be more inclined to ensure that my business was tailored towards the other 89 per cent. The same equation applies to our consideration of the single currency, which I appreciate is not the subject of tonight's discussion.

The Minister must understand that a serious desire to encourage trade and create the prosperity that flows from it requires that regulation be limited. The Government must stop telling people how they should do things, and allow the market to work. They must allow customers to exercise their right to choose what products to buy, at what standard and at what price. They must also be able to decide in what measurement they want to buy goods, and in what currency they will pay.

I implore the Government, in all their future dealings with the European Union, to avoid prescription and harmonisation and to leave scope for choice and diversity, which encourage markets and stimulate economic activity.

11.20 pm
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

I had not intended to speak in this debate, so I shall be brief. However, I was struck by the Minister's lack of international awareness, even though my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) hinted that he had a warm and golden heart.

I used to be abroad for about a third of the year, and my international experience is that there are no hang-ups in other countries about the unit of measure that is used. As I said earlier, three different types of square foot are used as measures in Italy: in descending order, they are the Lombard, the Tuscan and the Neapolitan square foot. Those measures are trusted in some countries, but others—especially Germany—insist that Italian products are bought in square metres. The choice is entirely up to customers and suppliers. Nearly all exports to Asian countries are measured in square feet, and no Italian supplier would think twice about that.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) listed a number of what he considered to be arcane measurements, including the bushel. However, when I visited the international corn exchange in Chicago—the largest such exchange in the world—with the Select Committee on Agriculture last year, I found that it dealt entirely in bushels. The choice is up to the traders there, and they are all relaxed about it. When they go home in the evening, I am sure that they are happy to deal in imperial measurements.

I do not see why British citizens cannot work in international business and deal in metric measurements one week, then go off the next week and deal in 32 inch floppy disks. The matter is entirely one of individual choice. It is not for the state to be prescriptive and try to impose uniform units of measure.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare mentioned the Saxons. The Old Testament states that it is an abomination in the eye of the Lord to give false measure, and I accept that it has long been the role of the state to ensure accurate measurement. However, it is not the role of the state to enforce a uniform unit of measurement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) rightly said that a vast amount of trade in this country is carried out using imperial measurements. People are used to dealing in certain units, especially when buying common consumer goods and confectionery. They have suffered quite sharp product inflation because, although an item's packaging may look familiar, the actual measure sold in that packaging is considerably less than what people are used to.

The Government should look into that problem with some intensity. By iniformly imposing metric measure, we are not safeguardling consumers, many of whom, all unawares, are being ripped off quite sharply. For that reason, I oppose the regulations.

Question put:

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members


Division deferred till Wednesday 21 March, pursuant to Order [7 Novemb?r 2000].