HL Deb 19 February 1970 vol 307 cc1280-4

3.9 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government to what extent they consider that this country is now committed to changing over to the metric system; whether Parliament has given its consent to such a change; and if not, when it will be asked to do so.]


My Lords, the metric system of measurements became lawful in the United Kingdom under the Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act 1897, though there are still some legal limitations to its use. In 1965 the Federation of British Industries reported that the majority of British industry favoured the adoption of the metric system as the primary system of weights and measures for the country as a whole.

The Government decided in 1965 to accept industry's advice. In 1968 my right honourable friend the Minister of Technology announced in another place that the Government accepted the end of 1975 as the target date for substantial completion of the change by as many sectors as possible. He announced his intention to establish the Metrication Board to facilitate the change and indicated that the Government would in due course propose legislation to remove obstacles to the complete adoption of the metric system. In 1969 the Minister said that this legislation would provide for defining the authorised metric units and for relating them to other units. A widely representative Advisory Committee on Legal Units of Measurement has been established to help the Minister.


My Lords, will Her Majesty's Government agree that a change which will affect the daily lives of every man, woman and child in this country, should not be made without the direct authorisation of this current Parliament, rather than of a Parliament of the last century?


My Lords, we are substantially concerned at present with a programme being carried forward under the impetus of the wishes of those who, in their business lives, will be affected by this change. As I indicated, there will in due course be occasion for examination of the legislative part of this process.


My Lords, I am sorry to ask one more supplementary question, but are Her Majesty's Government able to give us the assurance that, when Parliament is asked to authorise what it has to authorise, it will be done at an early enough date so that if for any reason authorisation is withheld Parliament will not be told that the country is already committed and that it is to late to go back?


My Lords, the situation at present is that in a number of industries action is taking place upon programmes which are quite permissible under existing legislation. The times at which it is hoped by the industries concerned to complete those programmes vary from the present year onwards. I am sure that when the time comes for legislation there will be an opportunity then for a full examination of all the aspects of this upon which there is a legal bearing.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that we should have lost a great deal of exports but for the fact that many civil engineering institutions and organisations have already adopted this system and thereby obtained valuable export orders?


My Lords, is the noble Lord's Answer intended to cover lineal measurement on the ground, so that the cartography of this country will have to be substantially changed?


Yes, my Lords; that is the position. Indeed, the Ordnance Survey have already converted the surveying of two of their most popular series of maps to a metric basis.


My Lords, can the Minister say why it is not possible to introduce the metric system of weights and measures rather nearer to the introduction of the metric system of currency, which would be a great advantage to quite a large number of people in this country?


My Lords, the process of transferring to a metric system of weights and measures is a very large one and, in the case of some industries, extremely complex. The Government are of the view that the present method of proceeding and the timetable so far indicated is the most appropriate one.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the United States and Canada are contemplating a similar change?


My Lords, Canada has already announced its intention of changing to the metric system. The United States is the only one of the major countries of the world which is as yet uncommitted, and even there there is an extensive study on the way— —and I quote: to determine the impact on the United States of the increasing worldwide use of the metric system, and to appraise the desirability and practicability of increasing the use of metric weights and measures in the United States. Perhaps I may add that at present 90 per cent. of the world's population lives in countries which either use the metric system or are committed to changing over to the use of it.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I was asked a question last week on the metric system: what is a kilogramme and a litre in the avoirdupois system of England? Could my noble friend give me the answer so that I may pass it on?


My Lords, I will communicate privately with my noble friend.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether his original Answer means that the legislation which will come before Parliament will in a sense be consequential on changes which are already being made, and will simply reflect the changes that have to be made in, for example, weights and measures legislation?


My Lords, there is, of course, at present a considerable body of statute law which is based upon the Imperial units of measurement, although in most cases there is also a statutory metric equivalent for those Imperial units under the Weights and Measures Act. In other cases— for example, where the figures concerned are inconvenient—the legislation can often be amended under existing powers. There are, however, further cases where new powers are needed to effect a change, and it is these new powers which, among other changes, will have to be covered at an appropriate time by legislation which will be brought before Parliament.


My Lords, did the noble Lord not say, in reply to an earlier supplementary question, that the United States is the only country which is not committed; and, if so, does that imply that this country is committed?


My Lords, I thought I had made the position clear in the statement that I made: that on three successive occasions Her Majesty's Government have accepted the view which had been urged upon them in 1965 by industry that there should be a changeover to the metric system.


My Lords, if I misheard the noble Lord I apologise, but can he confirm that the Ordnance Survey have in fact statutory authority for changing over, as he has said, and are not, as it were, "jumping the gun"?


My Lords, I should be very surprised indeed if the Ordnance Survey were proceed-ing without a very sound legal basis for what they are doing.