HL Deb 26 June 1969 vol 303 cc278-90

3.38 p.m.

LORD SOMERS rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have considered the cost of converting British weights and measures to a metrical system, and, in view of this, whether they will postpone such a measure. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question that stands in my name on the Order Paper. This is not based on any moral issue. I do not feel that there is anything particularly right or wrong in either the metric system or our present system of measurements. So far as I know, the distance to Heaven is not measured in miles, though I have not heard any rumours, as yet, that it is measured in kilometres. My protest is based purely on the practical side. If it were just a matter of saying, "We will change over, and by next month we will adopt the metric system" and nothing else was involved, well and good—provided that you like being like everybody else. Personally, I do not like being like everybody else, but apparently a great many people do to-day.

But, of course, the change involves more than that. The expense of the changeover is going to be colossal, when one thinks of the changes that will have to be made. For instance, every milk bottle in the country will have to be a different size; every tin that contains anything that is sold either by weight or by volume will have to be a different size. Every cardboard box that surrounds anything that is sold by weight or volume will have to be changed.

My Lords, that may not sound very important, since one throws a tin or a cardboard box away as soon as one has used it. On the other hand, it has to he remembered that the machines which make them will have to be changed, and that is going to cost an enormous sum of money. Unfortunately the cost will be borne by the producers and the manufacturers, since apparently the Government have made a definite statement that they are not going to give any compensation to those who suffer loss owing to the changeover. At the present time this change is not necessary—that is my great point. Even if one considered it desirable, I do not think that it is really necessary, and, that being the case, is it really justifiable at a time when every individual in the country is finding it very hard to make ends meet? I say personally, "No, it is not justifiable".

Just think of other things that this changeover will involve. All road signs which indicate speed limits will have to be altered. Who will meet that expense? Presumably it will be the local governments. Everything in the way of mileage measurement, and every signpost, apparently, in the country which indicates the distance of some particular point will eventually have to be changed, although it will not take place immediately; it will be spread over a certain period of time. It will all cost money, and I do not consider that it is necessary.

I feel that at the back of the mind of the Government is the idea that by using a measuring system which is similar to that of other European countries we shall he more likely to get into the Common Market. That is an understandable point of view, but I do not know that I altogether agree with it. Personally, I think that what is more likely to get us into the Common Market is the production of high-quality goods, and quality at present has fallen very far below our pre-war standard, at any rate. I do not think that we shall find that we shall be very welcome members of the Common Market unless we turn out better quality goods. However, that is neither here nor there; it is the expense to ourselves to which I am objecting.

It is rather significant that there should he an anti-decimal group, because if metrication were such a desirable step I should hardly think there would be a group organised to oppose it. However, the anti-decimal group give a rather interesting supposition. They say milk costs 10½d. per pint—that was in November, 1968. The halfpenny is being de- monetised in 1969; therefore the price will be 11d. per pint. As from February 15, 1971, 11d. is converted to 4½p; but as 11d. is in fact 4.583 recurring new pence, the price will be 5p—that is to say, in to-day's currency, one shilling per pint. The pint will be replaced by the half litre, which is 90 cubic centimetres less than one pint. Therefore the housewife will pay the equivalent of one shilling for less than a pint of milk.

Assume that a family purchases five pints of milk per day and 28 pints now cost £1 4s. 6d., 28 pints converted to 1652 litres will cost £1 13s. 0d., an increase of 8s. 6d. That is a rather interesting consideration, because it is a very practical one which will occur in almost every household in the country. At a time when the taxpayer is finding it very hard indeed to keep his head above water I do not feel it is fair to impose this extra burden upon him. If it were a matter of urgency that we should adopt this system I would say, "All right, we must grin and bear it". But it is not a matter of urgency. We have gone on with our old system quite successfully for many years and I cannot see that there is the slightest necessity, even if it were granted that it would be desirable, to change over now, at a time when, as I say, it is going to be extremely burdensome to the average citizen. Therefore, I am asking the Government whether they will have second thoughts about postponing this changeover.

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, I had supposed from the phrasing of my noble friend's Question that he, like most of us, assumed and accepted that the stage of debating whether the change to the metric system should take place—and I repeat whether the change should take place—was already behind us. I am relieved to find that I was right in this, although his acceptance seems to be rather grudging. If I am right, I am still at variance with him in his desire expressed to-day to delay the process. The official Opposition, for which I am now speaking, takes the view that we shall go metric. The decision is inevitable. Speaking personally, I say not only is the process inevitable, but the sooner the better. To me it is a happy inevitability. If ever there were a non-Party political issue, this is it. My noble friend and I can differ, yet respect each other's views, as is no doubt happening in other political Parties.

I recall that when the prospect of converting to a decimal currency system was first mooted in Parliament it was done by my noble friend the Earl of Dundee from the Dispatch Box at which the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will soon be standing. There was an immediate and passionate denunciation delivered by one of the best-loved and most fondly remembered Members ever to serve in this House; that was the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, who had come into politics from a Durham coal face and was a stalwart of the Labour movement for well over half a century. He spoke on that occasion, I am almost certain, from precisely the spot where my noble friend has delivered his speech this afternoon. Since then our two Parties have changed places (as they will soon change again); but I am certain that there will be no Government of Britain in the 1970s which will halt, delay or regret the decision we are discussing to-day.

My noble friend believes that the cost of this change would be reduced by delay. I believe the cost would be increased. It is helpful and prudent and essential for a Parliamentary Opposition to point out the costs and any passing inconvenience of a given Government policy, even one which they basically favour. After all, few Governments will ever perform that particular service themselves.

It is true to say that this project was launched on the wings of euphoria, the plumage a trifle over-gilded, some of the rougher pinions tactfully concealed. My noble friend has to-day assisted in pointing out that this is not going to mean instantaneous joy to everyone concerned. I do not share all my noble friend's fears in degree or even in kind. I do not, for instance, think that his anxieties on behalf of industry are widely shared among those whom he seeks to protect. The noble Lord. Lord Kennet, may choose to say, and he would be justified in saying, that the inception and primary impulse came from industry. On May 24, 1965, in another place, the President of the Board of Trade said: The Government are impressed by the case which has been put to them by the representatives of industry for the wider use of the metric system of weights and measures …". Of course, it will sometimes be wise and worthy of a Government to take advice from one level of industry or another, and at other times it is less wise and less worthy. I am sure that on this occasion the Minister was right to say: The Government hope that within ten years the greater part of the country's industry will have effected this change. I cannot agree with those who argue that this matter is being "rushed". In 1950, the Committee on Weights and Measures reported in favour of the metric system, but did not consider the change timely. In 1960, the 11th International Conference on Weights and Measures agreed the new definitions of metric units to be the basis of the international system of uniform units, which are now being adopted by all the countries which attended that Conference, including Britain. When the responsible Minister spoke in Parliament in the way I have just quoted, it was three months after the Federation of British Industries had formally reported to him that, after a detailed survey of its members, the majority was in favour of the adoption of the metric system as the only method of measurement to be used in Britain. A similar inquiry by the British Standards Institution reached the same conclusion. On July 26 of that year the Minister of Technology announced his intention to set up the Metrication Board to bring about the adoption of the metric system by consultation and consent. That Board is now in existence, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, and the vice-chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Bessborough, and serving on it are other distinguished men from different sectors of the economy. Consultation has taken place and is taking place, and a very wide and positive measure of consent has already been given.

Our official and legal employment of the metric system dates from a good deal further back than these events. In 1885, Britain signed the Metric Convention, a full decade after its ratification by 18 other European nations; and in 1897 the Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act made lawful in this country the use of metric measures in trade. There was on that occasion in Parliament a Motion to make it compulsory, but that Motion was defeated. A system which has been legal in this country for 84 years can hardly be regarded to-day as a blinding or staggering novelty.

The intricacy of international trade to-day, and the speed with which dealings have to be carried out, render a common system of weighing and measuring far more important and essential than it was in 1885. Industry, as we know, has recognised this, and since the decision was taken by the Government most of the individual industries have moved swiftly to adapt themselves. Notably the copper, aluminium and steel industries have already planned their changes, which will become effective, I understand, in 1970. The construction industry has been even more alert to the possibilities. It is making this change the pretext for other beneficial changes in alignment with modern methods and techniques. A still more striking advantage will be in the technological field. As one example, the Concorde aircraft has been built to two separate systems of measurement. The Jaguar is being designed, and will be built, to the metric system alone. The benefits here are evident.

Of course, industry accepts that over a large part of the field costs will be involved, but it would be unhelpful, I think. to exaggerate the scale of those costs. I have heard mentioned, although my noble friend did not mention it to-day, a figure of £500 million, but I believe that, so far as this enormous figure has any validity at all, it must be a global estimate which takes no account of replacement machinery which would be bought in any case in the natural course of modernisation. Nor does it take account of machinery which can be adapted. I understand (and this may bring some comfort to my noble friend Lord Somers) that, for instance, Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds have reckoned that any machine tool can be adapted to the new system at a cost between £25 and £125. That does not exactly spell ruin.

In giving my view that the quicker this process can be carried out the better. I am not losing sight of the problems and the anxieties of the retailers, in particular of the small stockists, who will be faced with the problem of double inventories. While the two systems are run in parallel in a given firm, this will necessitate two sets of stocks, which will lead to confusion between the two—confusion will lead to mistakes, and mistakes cost money. I would take this as a reason, in contradiction to my noble friend's view, for getting through this stage as quickly as possible. It is sometimes pointed out that the United States, which occupy such an important sector of our export effort, still maintain what we call the Imperial system. But I think we should ask: for how long? A powerful Congressional Committee has been set up in Washington to study the implications for the United States in "going metric", in particular what it may signify with regard to the balance of payments. We know the importance that American business now gives to Europe, and there seems to me every likelihood that their decision will follow that of Her Majesty's Government.

Some alarm has been spread regarding the problems which this change will create in education. All the evidence I have gathered convinces me that this is a false alarm. Teachers in every part of the country are in fact moving very rapidly to prepare their pupils for the metric era. It is true, I think, that the production of textbooks is not keeping up. but where this happens teachers are preparing their own papers, so determined are they that those whom they teach shall not be left behind. Without going into any deep detail, it is significant that the Society for Science Education has made a study of what will be required within its own sector of education, and its findings are already being implemented in practical terms in classes. It would be harmful, I suggest, to put the clock back in this respect, which would be the consequence of my noble friend's suggestion.

In the last fortnight, I have spent some time talking to a science master in a grammar school near my home. He says that, so far as his school is concerned, the P.F.S. system (the pounds, feet and seconds system) has already given place to the M.K.S. system (that is the metres, kilogrammes and seconds system), and that the former is taught simply as something which will still be required in a secondary fashion, for perhaps a few years. Apart from all this, in my laborious experience of mathematics I have always found that the decimal system was several stages less difficult than the outgoing system which I was obliged, and all of us were obliged, to learn. I hope that in my saying this my noble friend will not think that I am speaking with antagonism to his point of view; I am speaking simply in distinction from it. I am sure that it would not be wise to gloss over the difficulties, and his own dose of counter-euphoria must be valuable. All the same, I am left with the definite impression that the delay he proposes would in fact cost money, and not save it. The momentum must not be lost.

Before sitting down, may I introduce a personal anecdote to illustrate the problem of different systems of measurement. I will do so with a recollection from the jungle of Eastern Siam into which I had been parachuted behind the Japanese lines late in 1945. I was going to an important rendezvous on the banks of the Mekong River, with a guide who spoke no English whatever. My own halting Siamese was only adequate to ask gloomily, from time to time, what was the distance to the next village. On each occasion he held up one, two, three or even four fingers, but as this cypher meant nothing whatever to me it was of limited help to my morale. When I returned from that journey my Siamese host explained, in polished and explicit English, that the unit involved was the distance through thick jungle, on a clear night, over which one could hear a dog bark. Naturally, I blamed myself severely, once this was explained to me, for not having identified the unit for what is was. But it may be that one or two of your Lordships might have been equally obtuse, and will see this as one of the handicaps in maintaining varied media of measurement between nations. The time-honourd native units of the British Islanders have served their purpose, and will have to go. We can honour them still, but not, I think, grievously regret their passing. They have survived, in fact, a century and a half longer than was necessary or even. in my submission, wise.

I hope your Lordships can bear one final historical reference, this time in no way personal. In 1790, M. Talleyrand proposed to the French National Assembly a new meteorological system, and the French Academy was instructed to investigate and make proposals. Their first act was to invite our own Royal Society to join in these investigations and assist in the recommendations. The Royal Society have not so far replied, although they have issued, earlier this year, a small and approving pamphlet. In 1791 the French Academy reported and recom- mended the metre. In 1799 the new system was presented to the French Assembly and made legal. In 1837 the metric system was made compulsory in France. It is my hope, which I share with the Government on this occasion, that we shall indeed have caught up by 1975.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, leaves me very little to say. To the best of my knowledge his facts were right; I am convinced his priorities were right, and personally I found his anecdotes apt. Indeed, were it not that there are some other issues between us, if this were the only one, I should not mind whether or not he was sitting on this Bench in a couple of years' time. But since metrication is not the only reform that remains to be carried out in this country I propose to do my best to keep it the present way for a little longer yet.

As the House knows, a metre is simply a section of the circumference of the earth taken round a certain meridian, and it has long puzzled me why or how we ever got hold of our existing system for the measurement of distances. A foot—anybody can understand what a foot is; it is as long as your foot. A yard, being three of those, is about as far as one step; but a mile, which etymologically speaking ought to be one thousand of those, is riot in point of fact: it is 1,760 for some reason I have never been able to make out. Armed with this, the English speaking peoples have carried out the most extraordinary job of educating others all over the world in the last 500 years or so. I believe there is at present evidence from educationalists who are coming for the first time upon peoples who need to be taught how to measure things that they, not having six fingers upon each hand, find it difficult to understand the system of inches and feet; but since they do, like us, have five fingers they find it easier to understand the decimal system.

There is little to add to the facts given by the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald. The history really was a sort of early Messina. In 1875 we were in the negotiations but when it came to signing something we did not sign it, and the only gloss I want to put on the short history we have just heard is that when it came to the 1897 Act, which legalised the use of the metric system in this country, the noble Lord is perfectly right in saying that it was part of that Bill that that system should be made compulsory, and he was right also in saying that that provision was defeated—it was struck out of the Bill. It was only struck out by five votes; and it is indeed striking that if we were only five votes from that in 1897 there should still be any question about it.

I should like briefly to recapitulate what has happened in recent years. In 1951 the Hodgson Committee on Weights and Measures. which was set up to review legislation, reported that the Imperial system should be abolished in favour of the metric system. In 1963 the British Standards Institution stated that it had consulted within British industry and it came down firmly in favour of starting a change without—and it specifically mentioned this—waiting for Canada and the United States of America. The then Federation of British Industries wrote to the Government saying that the vast majority of their members, both in the number of firms and in the total size of their businesses, was in favour of adopting the metric system as the primary, and later as the only, method of measurement to be used in Britain; and in 1965 the Government accepted that recommendation. Since then what has happened is, I think, common knowledge and I need not recapitulate it.

I should like to give one or two facts about the trade position in the world which throw a fairly sharp light on our present need to get on with it. It is perfectly true that Canada and the United States of America, which are both industrial and trading nations, are not metric, and so far as we know Canada is not doing anything about it. On the other hand, the United States is beginning to do something about it; it is beginning to churn into action and I think it is not a rash forecast to say that action will be seen there. Every other industrial nation in the world is already metric—Indeed, most of them have been for a great number of years. In 1966 two-thirds of all the trade in the world was carried on between metric countries. At the present time between 75 and 80 per cent. of all the imports in the world—that is, all the world trade measured at the entering end—is into metric countries, and at the moment 90 per cent. of the population of the world lives in metric countries. So to hold out much longer against those high, and still increasing, figures would, I think, not be a defensible action for a modern Government.

In asking this Question the noble Lord, Lord Somers, concentrated particularly on the question of cost, and rightly reminded the House that the Government had decided that the costs of the change must lie where they fall and there will be no compensation. There are bound to be costs, but it is certain that there is no meaningful possibility of estimating what they are going to be. No countries which have recently made the change to metric measurement have been able to make an overall estimate of the cost, and no countries have attempted to pay any compensation. The two facts are, of course, related. One would have to amass an absolutely gigantic amount of information from every firm and organisation in the country concerned and to examine it in the greatest detail, and the cost of this exercise itself would probably turn out to be a sensible proportion of whatever costs have to be borne.

I suppose that the main part of the costs would be the need to replace or modify machinery, equipment and tools; but that is a cost which continues in any case. If it is done, as I hope it will be by a wise firm, at the time, or a little before the time when they would be renewing the machinery in any case, then it is only a small extra part. I suppose there may be—one cannot deny it—an initial loss of efficiency and productivity during the transitional period. There may be a loss, due to the need to carry dual stocks and to have men skilled in working both systems during the transitional period, but it is obviously in the interests of industry and trade to cut down the transitional period as much as possible. All these things are obvious.

In the non-industrial field there may be costs—it is hard to get at them, but I think it is clear that one of the principal ones was named by the noble Lord, Lord Somers; namely, the cost of changing over the speed limit signs and the signposts on the roads. This, of course, is a subject which must be a matter for more thought. But let us look at the other side: let us look at the probable gains and savings. All the costs refer to the conversion period only. There is no continuing cost—there will only be a certain cost while people are actually turning over. But there will be a continuing gain, and a clear gain, which will arise from simplicity and efficiency in working a metric system because it is easier to do in your head. There will be very substantial advantage in the export trade, which goes in its great majority to metric countries, in the rationalisation of industrial practices of one sort or another; in the reduction of varieties of materials and components, and an appreciable reduction in the costs of stockholding. All these must be planned; and they will be planned. Indeed, industry would not have asked for the change if it had not been their intention and wish to plan it.

It is equally impossible to give any sound estimates of the gains, the regular long-term gains. But it is perhaps worth mentioning to the House that the very detailed report from the Australian Senate Select Committee on the adoption of the metric system—which of course they decided to do—gave an example of a large motor company in Japan which reported that it recovered the cost of its conversion to the metric system at a rate of 20 per cent. a year. This is pretty good.

There was also evidence given to that Australian Committee that the speed of changeover is important because the cost of conversion (and this is very much germane to the noble Lord's wish to delay) itself increases with each year's delay in undertaking the change. It was suggested to the Australian Committee that this annual cost could be anything up to 5 or 8 per cent. a year. And a report made by the South African Government on the same problem in that country quoted a figure of 8 per cent. a year as the cost incurred by delaying conversion to the metric system. The cost of lost overseas trade before conversion is, I believe, largely inestimable, but it was reported in the Press last summer (I cannot say whether this is true or not) that this country had lost an order for £1 million worth of engineering equipment largely because it was not in metric terms.

I will not detain your Lordships any longer. I would felicitate the Opposition Front Bench on the degree of agreement achieved on this matter, were it not for the fact that agreement between the Front Benches recently has not had a very healthy history; and being of a profoundly superstitious nature I will avoid doing anything so bold as that. I hope the House will agree with me that it is clear that now, 179 years after the French authorities communicated with the Royal Society, the Royal Society has been wise to answer, and it is now time that we got into line with the great majority of our trading partners and all industrially and scientifically forward-looking countries of the world.