HL Deb 30 November 1970 vol 313 cc326-47

2.45 p.m.

LORD DRUMALBYN rose to move, That this House takes note of the First Report of the Metrication Board. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name. It is a pleasure for me to invite the attention of your Lordships to the First Report of the Metrication Board, and for two reasons. The first is that, by any standards, it is a quite excellent Report, and the second is that, as my noble friend Lord St. Oswald, said on June 26, 1969, when speaking about "going metric" on the occasion of the debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Somers: If ever there was a non-Party political issue, this is it. But that is not to say that there is complete unanimity at all points and within Parties. If that were so, I could be very brief to-day.

Many of your Lordships will have received memoranda from the C.B.I., the National Federation of Building Trades Employers and the Advisory Council to the British Standards Institution (and I believe another has arrived this morning which I have not seen) all of which are exceptionally lucid. If, as I am sure you have, you have also read the Metrication Board's Report your Lordships certainly do not lack information. The purpose of this debate is to give your Lordships an opportunity of taking stock of the progress that metrication has already made and of expressing your views to the Government on the steps that have been taken and those that will have to be taken if the movement towards metrication as the primary system of weights and measures for this country is to be accomplished smoothly, economically and with the maximum benefit and the minimum cost and inconvenience. Last July, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy, who was then Minister of Technology, undertook that after the Recess the Government would provide time for debates in both Houses before any legislation was introduced. This Motion implements that undertaking. As noble Lords will recall, the Government intended that that debate should take place on November 11, but particularly urgent business caused it to be postponed.

Before considering the Report itself, I should like briefly to recall the circumstances that led to the appointment of the Metrication Board, because I think this is relevant to our attitude to the Report. In May, 1965, the then President of the Board of Trade told Parliament that in the Government's view it was desirable that British industries on a broadening front should adopt metric units, sector by sector, until the metric system became the primary system, and he undertook that procurement policies of central and local government would be used to encourage the change. Soon after that announcement, a Joint Standing Committee of representatives of Government Departments and industry was appointed to facilitate the removal of obstacles and to keep progress under review. In June, 1968, that Committee reported to the then Minister of Technology, who announced later in July the Government's acceptance of the Committee's recommendation that a Metrication Board be set up to co-ordinate the movement to metrication, which the Government recognised would vary in pace from industry to industry. The Government also accepted 1975 as the target date for all provisional programmes, while recognising that metrication might be accomplished earlier or later in particular industries. The educational system, the Minister said, will need to keep pace with and to some extent anticipate changes. He went on to say that in due course legislation would be required to remove obstacles to the adoption of metric units and to define the units to be used.

The statement also made the following important points. First, that the conversion would stimulate industrial and commercial modernisation and the rationalisation of production by variety reduction. Secondly, it would help our export trade by harmonising our standards with those of overseas customers and helping towards international standardisation. Thirdly, the adoption of the metric system must be gradual, through democratic procedures based on the widest consultation. No compulsory powers, the Minister said, would be sought. And, fourthly, there could be no question of compensation: the costs of adopting metric units must, the phrase was, "lie where they fall". That is the framework within which metrication has been pursued.

The Government's decision in 1965, that the country should "go metric", was not one suddenly arrived at. In 1950 the Hodgson Committee, on whose Report our present weights and measures legislation is based, had been unanimously of the opinion that the metric system is a better system of weights and measures than the imperial, but they thought that the change should be done only in concert with those countries of North America and the Commonwealth which based their units on the yard and the pound. That the metric system is a better system, nobody can doubt. This has been argued for over a century. As the C.B.I. succinctly puts it: the metric system is simple both to teach and to use; it is logical, coherent and practical.

By 1963 all this had come to be appreciated, and industry was coming to the conclusion that the long-term advantages would far outweigh the short-term costs and the moderate effort required on the part of the public. Since then nearly all the principal countries of the Commonwealth which based their units on the yard and the pound have individually decided to adopt the metric system—not only Australia, Canada and New Zealand, but African countries such as Tanzania and Uganda. So, too, has the Republic of Ireland. In South Africa, nearly all prepacked goods in the shops will be in metric quantities by January 1, 1971. Whatever we do, none of the countries I have mentioned is likely to alter its decision. As for the United States of America, Congress last year passed a law setting up a Metric Study Board, and there seems at least a strong possibility that the U.S.A. will take the same course. I need only add that most of our other trading partners are already metric—the other members of EFTA and the E.E.C. countries; India, Japan, South America, all the countries of Eastern Europe, and even China. In short, about 90 per cent. of the world is already metric.

The then Government's decision to appoint a Metrication Board was implemented in 1969, and in May, 1969, the Board held its first meeting, under the distinguished chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder. I am only sorry that the Addison Rules preclude him from speaking to-day. My noble friend Lord Bessborough, who resigned his appointment as Deputy Chairman to join the new Government, also feels that in the circumstances he ought not to speak as a signatory of the Report. I should perhaps disclose a previous and short-lived interest in that I was Deputy Chairman for 10 days, in the course of which I attended one meeting of the Board. I was to have been Chairman of the Steering Committee for the Distribution, Food and Consumer Goods Industries, in which, as your Lordships are painfully aware. I am particularly interested.

The composition and terms of reference of the Board are given in Appendix A to their Report. The members of the Board serve in their individual capacity and not as representatives, but they were chosen to ensure that it included people with working experience in national and local government; in industry, both publicly and privately owned; in agriculture, education, trade unions, journalism, consumer and women's organisations and in the home.

The Board has itself summarised what it does in these words: We consult, advise, inform, stimulate and co-ordinate. The role of co-ordination has proved to be particularly important in the field of engineering and also in the transport of goods. In more detail, its tasks are to examine the problems; to advise the Government on the implications, costs and other considerations for each sector of the economy; to make available information and advice on the co-ordination of timetables and programmes; to disseminate information to the public; to ensure that education interests are kept informed of plans and progress; and to assist the Government, on request, to prepare or amend legislation and to implement Government policy in connection with metrication. We envisage the future task of the Board in this last respect as being that of helping the Government to see that metrication causes the least possible inconvenience to the public and the minimum cost to all concerned and to support the very wide consultation that will be needed between Government and the various interests concerned.

First, the Board appointed eight Steering Committees on which they are helped by 50 experienced and public-spirited people from a very wide range of industrial, commercial and educational sectors, all of whom undertook this work in the knowledge that it would require sustained efforts over a period of several years. Each of them is active in identifying problems and in proposing solutions, in keeping the Board informed of opinion in its own spheres, and in carrying back news of developments in metrication. The Government, and, I am sure, all your Lordships, are sincerely grateful to them. The Board's first task was to find out exactly what was the state of progress towards metrication in the various sectors of industry and education. Its Report shows that it has carried out this task with marked sucess and that the state of progress which it found is encouraging both in industry and in education.

I am certainly not going to weary your Lordships with a catalogue of achievement industry by industry. The problems and difficulties of co-ordination and timing in some industries are considerably greater than in others. The first step was to get out a programme of metrication for each industry. Reading the Report one is impressed by the frequency with which the British Standards Institution is mentioned, particularly in the chapters dealing with engineering, with construction and with consumer goods. The Institution really got the runners to the starting point. The definition of Standards in metric terms and the working out by industries and trade associations of programmes under the aegis of the Institution laid the necessary foundations for the changes. Trade associations, too, have demonstrated their own importance and value both in the planning of the change and in the dissemination of information about progress towards metrication.

Government Departments have been playing their proper part in encouraging change by example rather than by precept. As customers, in their procurement policies they are being careful to consult with their suppliers to make sure that metric specifications can be met. Some Government Departments have been criticised for insisting that tenders be progressively more and more expressed in metric terms. But it is not true that they are driving industry along and forcing the pace; all they are doing is adhering to the programmes which various industries worked out with the British Standards Institution. If they did less they would rightly be accused of dragging their feet; if they did more they would be accused of doing what the previous Government expressly said they would not do: exercising compulsion.

In another place my right honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Construction said this: The changeover to metric construction should be largely complete by the end of 1972. Where building is concerned, we have certainly passed the point of no return. By the middle of this year not only were £2,000 million worth of metric projects at the design stage, of which half were road projects and more than one-quarter housing, but 59 per cent. of all new dwellings under design this year will have been in metric"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 27/10/70, col. 163.] The Confederation of British Industry, dealing with the whole field of industry, goes further. It begins its memorandum with these words: After five years' intensive preparation, industry is irrevocably committed to metrication". There can, it says, be no turning back; certainly this is true for industry. Yet, my Lords, this has so far made remarkably little impact on the consumer. That is hardly surprising, for there are, after all, three aspects of weights and measures. There is, first, the scientific aspect, where metrication already is virtually complete; secondly, there is the production aspect, where exactitude in weights and measures is essential to maintain right formulae and to produce machinery that works. Then, thirdly, there is the consumer and trader aspect—and it is the protection of the consumer and the trader that has been the main purpose of the long series of Acts about weights and measures extending back to the beginning of Parliament.

Granted that the advantages of going metric for our export trade in particular and for industry in general clearly outweigh the disadvantages, the time has come when the ordinary consumer in this country is asking, "What about me?" May I take industry first? All that industry expects of the Government now, as the C.B.I. make plain, is the removal of the present legislative barriers to metric trading. Our big exporting industries know where they are going, they want to get there, and they only ask the Government not to stand in their way. It is for that reason that my right honourable friend, Mr. Rippon, gave an assurance in a Written Answer on July 20 last, in the following terms: Where individual industries have voluntarily progressed to the point where amendments to Regulations couched in non-metric terms become necessary, the Government are prepared, after consultation with interested parties, to introduce amendments under existing statutory powers."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 20/7/70, col. 19–20.]

The Confederation of British Industry have always insisted that industrial metrication should be an essentially voluntary movement. They have asked for legislation only to remove barriers to metrication, and many of those barriers are of no direct concern to ordinary traders and consumers. They wish, for example, to be free to use the metric unit "bar" instead of pounds per square inch, now required by Statute, on the gauges to show boiler pressures. Industry has also asked that the Schedules of metric units in the Weights and Measures Act 1963 should be expanded to include all the international standard units that they need to use. Most of these units are important in science and engineering. They include the farad, the kelvin and the newton. These are now world names, but they are unlikely to be used widely by the ordinary trader or consumer. While there are some anxieties about the small manufacturer and the small trader, and while certain changes, such as the replacement or adjustment of weighing machines, clearly present problems of timing as well as of cost, industry is thus well set on the road to metrication.

Not so the consumer. He is wondering how he will get spare parts for his car and his household equipment. He is wondering whether he will be able to cope with the change in his mental processes as well as his trading transactions, and whether he will not frequently get "done" in the transition. My Lords, it would be wrong to exaggerate the difficulties to the consumer, young or old, bright or dull. Other countries have made, and are making, the change, and they, too, have old people. Nevertheless here is a very special task for the Government and Parliament, to see that weights and measures legislation protects the consumer as satisfactorily or even better in live, ten or twenty years' time. It is going to mean a great deal of thought and consultation on the part of the Government and its advisers, not least the Metrication Board.

Fortunately metrication, in contrast to decimalisation, is bound to be a gradual process. There will be no one "M" Day. There can be no one "M" Day on which everything has to change. Some changes will have to take place all at once, but they will be very few. Perhaps the outstanding example is the road speed limits, about which I shall have more to say in a moment. Admittedly, gradualism has its dangers. Metric and imperial measures will have to co-exist for some time to come. What is important is that in each case the change to metric should be made with as short a transition period as is compatible with practical and economic considerations. Inevitably the length of the period will vary from case to case.

The next stage of metrication is the one foreshadowed by the previous Government——when the metric becomes the primary system but imperial units are still in use. While the use of metric units has been lawful for the great majority of purposes since 1897, so that even before 1965 we were a two-system nation, there is a large number of cases where the use of imperial units is required by Statute, or by Order, or by Regulation. The barrier to metrication in many cases can be removed simply by permitting the use of metric as well as imperial units. No new compulsion is necessary: quite simply, an old compulsion is removed.

The scope for this permissive approach plainly needs further study and consultation; clearly it must not be extended too far if the protection of traders and consumers is not to be reduced. In some cases it will be desirable or necessary to change over entirely from one system to the other. For example, the previous Administration exercised powers in 1969 under the Weights and Measures Act 1963 to abolish apothecaries' weights and measures from January 1, 1971, so that trade in drugs will be wholly metricated from that date. The reason was, of course, that the continued use of two systems of weights and measures in dispensing could be dangerous. It is safer to use only one. The same considerations apply also to a few other sectors where the use of imperial weights and measures is required by law.

Perhaps the outstanding case is that of road speed limits, to which particular attention has been devoted in debates in another place. While gradualism is appropriate to by far the greater part of this field of our weights and measures, it cannot be applied to speed limits. Speed limit signs, if and when they are to be changed, must be changed at one go. The present Government are not committed to changing speed limits in 1973 as proposed by the last Administration. The Government have promised to review the question, and I repeat the assurance already given that there will be no action to metricate speed limits in advance of the publication of the White Paper which has been promised. Speed limits cannot in any case be metricated without legislation, so that if after careful examination it is decided to proceed, there will be a further opportunity for a Parliamentary debate.

As to goods which, when prepacked, have to be sold in prescribed quantities, like cereal foods, tea, cocoa, coffee, sugar and flour, clearly it would be absurd to continue to prescribe in imperial units at a time when most transactions were in metric units. Indeed the use of metric units for these purposes could well help the public towards thinking metric. It does not follow that changes should necessarily be made in all cases, regardless of cost. The advantages of consistency will have to be carefully weighed against the disadvantages in each case. The right to use imperial units can be withdrawn only by legislation and, as I have said, before any legislation is introduced a White Paper will be presented to Parliament.


My Lords, the noble Lord has referred twice to a White Paper: can he give any indication when that White Paper is to be introduced? Clearly there will be a great deal of uncertainty in industry if it is going to be a long time before it is published.


My Lords, the noble Lord will remember that an undertaking was given that there would be debates in both Houses before the White Paper was prepared—not produced, but prepared. The position is that it is intended to take into account what is said in both Houses and then to proceed to issue a White Paper giving the Government's assessment of the needs and also the views of the Government.


My Lords, the noble Lord still has not helped me. I wanted an indication when he expected the White Paper to be issued.


My Lords, clearly not before Christmas, but I hope that it will be possible to introduce it reasonably early in the New Year.

My Lords, I was saying that in point of fact whatever legislation proved to be necessary is likely to come before Parliament in quite a long series of steps. Metrication must be a gradual process, and the many facets of this far-reaching change cannot be discussed all at one time.

Lastly, but by no means least important, I should like to say something about the preparation of the mind for these changes. As I have said, I am not dealing with individual industries, but I shall be happy to deal with them as they are raised in the course of the debate. Children in our schools have to be prepared for the environment in which they are to live, which is likely to be a metricated environment. Workers in industry have to be re-trained for metrication and the general public have to be informed and guided in much the same way as for the less complicated and more concentrated change to decimalisation.

The Metrication Board's Report has an important chapter on education and another on industrial training. The Royal Society gave a lead in convening three national conferences of education authorities. Preparations for the changes that will be needed in curricula, in textbooks and equipment are now well advanced. As the House will know, in England and Wales these are matters for the local education authorities, while the Schools Council co-ordinates the work of the numerous examination boards. In Scotland the system is rather less complicated; the influence exercised by central Government is greater, and very good progress is also being made. In Scotland there is a single Scottish secondary education examination board, and the Secretary of State has a consultative committee on the curriculum to advise him.

The change of emphasis to metric training is also taking place and will continue. It will continue for a number of years to come. It would be difficult, particularly for the secondary schools, to proceed in advance of the general practice as regards metrication in their areas, but a foundation is already being laid in the primary schools. There is no doubt that both systems will have to be taught for a number of years. In the meantime many further education colleges are providing short intensive courses for in-service conversion, and there are also short courses provided through Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools for serving teachers.

But to teach the public to think metric is a larger and more difficult task, for it means not just learning afresh but also discarding life-long habits of thought and instinct and acquired skills of judgment. We have the task", say the Board, of making the metric system intelligible, acceptable and familiar throughout the country". Mobilising the Press, radio and television, cinema and other means of communication will be a formidable task, which will fall to be planned largely by the Board's information policy committee over which the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, himself presides. May I say that the Board has made a lively start and I wish them well in their task, not only of seeing that the public is informed but of advising the Government and of guiding and stimulating all concerned with metrication and helping to co-ordinate their efforts. I beg to move.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, for informing us so widely and effectively of the progress of metrication, and the Government's view of it. This is in a way a rather unusual debate because (I may be being impertinent when I say this) I wonder whether in fact there is anybody in this House to-day who is seriously against metrication in any of its forms. So in one sense we have not got an argument at all; but in another sense there is below the surface a very deep issue.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord so soon, but ought he not to wait and see whether there is a counter-argument? There certainly was in another place.


My Lords, I have listened to the noble Lord very carefully, and I am going to put a very serious question to him at the end of what I have to say. We on this side were disturbed in the first place when Mr. Julian Amery (quoting Mr. Rippon) in another place said something very pregnant in his contribution to that debate. He said: On the other hand, the Government are not as yet committed to general enabling legislation involving amendment of statutes."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, COMMONS, 27/10/70, col. 159.] I have been listening to the noble Lord and waiting to hear him say they were now committed. I was very disappointed not to hear that word; and if he had used it I do not know what I should have said because the argument would have disappeared.

This is what is disturbing to us. I listened particularly to the noble Lords comments about consumer items. We all know that previous Acts have laid it down that imperial units must be used for what I believe are popularly known as the "shopping-basket" items, some fifty items, and we know that many of the industries engaged in prepackaging these goods are now in a state of considerable anxiety. They cannot get on with their plans because they do not know whether the necessary enabling legislation will be put on the Statute Book by the present Government. We have not reached the stage when the Government say they are prepared to deal with this matter in this way. Instead, we have heard about the need for a great deal more thought and consultation. My Lords, this was being said five years ago. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, and voluminous political support has been given to the progress already made. Industries throughout the country have been encouraged by spokesmen of all political Parties to get on with the job, yet at this late stage we have no assurance on this enabling legislation.

All political Parties have their backwoodsmen, but I hope that the Government are not listening very closely to theirs. I want to recite one or two arguments that I picked out in the debate in another place, to display to this House the poverty of the thought of the people who are trying at this late stage to resist the change. It has been suggested that if we go metric the United States will snatch the imperial unit market. I have only to state the argument to show how stupid such suggestions are. It has been suggested that if we do not change our road signs our Continental visitors will be puzzled: they will not understand them and will therefore drive more cautiously. It has been suggested that all beds will be four inches longer. It has been suggested that the deeds of all houses and property will have to be redrawn. It has been suggested that the scales in every shop will have to be changed. Indeed, the actual writing on the scale will have to be changed, but not the mechanism. It has been suggested that our educational system will be impoverished through denying our children the opportunity of going into the complications of fractions and measurements based on 12 instead of on 10. And it has been suggested that shopkeepers will charge more—on which I ask: have they ever needed an excuse?

I am glad the noble Lord did not charge the Labour Government, as they have been charged elsewhere, with stealth. I was prepared to reject this charge; but now I have no need to do so, unless other people are going to make the charge. The metric system is really a language, in the same way that mathematics, if looked at properly, is a language. There is no moment at which you can say, "We are going into a new language", or, "We are going to stop going into a new language". It is something that grows upon a country. It has grown upon this country very late, but it is in process and coming into our equipment to-day. It is impossible to stop it; everybody knows that, and this is why we are anxious that there should be encouragement of its rapid implementation.

When did we stop using Roman numerals? I suppose we have not stopped yet. But nobody accused the Government at the time of stealth. When did we stop using Gaelic in Scotland? I do not know. This is a process of that ilk, and it is necessary to look at it in this way. If the Government are so desirous of further extensive consultation, when the subject has been a matter of discussion for so many years in this country, because this is the democratic procedure, then I put it to them that, if they want to be so democratic surely, with a probable consensus against the Common Market in the country, they should treat that likewise. I do not think I am an anti-Common Marketeer, but one must be consistent in one's attitude to these things, and we all know that in a matter of this kind technical leadership has to be given to society. If you were to go to all the housewives in the country and ask them, "Do you want this change?", you would find that a majority gave a negative answer. But that is not, in my opinion, a good reason for delaying it—and in saying that I am still being a democrat because democracy involves a large element of leadership in matters of this kind.

The noble Lord has not made a great point about the possible expense of this changeover, and I am glad that he has not. We all know it is going to cost a lot of money. There have been various absurd estimates made by those who wish to hold up the change. All I would point out is that whatever it will cost to do it on the time scale we now have in view, I am quite certain that it would cost four or five times as much by the time we had delayed it four or five years, because the rate of change in this country now is so enormous that these accelerating expenses over matters of this sort are on a sort of logarithmic scale. The whole business about change is that it has to be based on replacement, and in some cases rather rapid replacement.

The other aspect of this matter is that few people have drawn very much attention to the position of those who have borne the burden of running both systems of measurement for so many years. I have been in industry and I remember that all our stocks of standard products were in both metric and imperial sizes. Those who are now saying, "Well, let us delay this; it is too much bother for us" do not take any account of the thousands of firms who earn our bread and butter by exports overseas, who have been put to the greatly added expense of stocking in both sizes, manufacturing in both sizes, and tooling up in both sets of units of measurement. I think it is time we turned more to the needs of our exporters, and less to the opinions of backwoodsmen who want to resist change, almost whatever the change was.

I picked up a few examples which have not yet been mentioned, though no doubt will be. The fact is that we have to get rid of a lot of this—not jiggery-pokery, but this nonsensical way we have of referring to measurements. I learned only recently that proof whisky is based on a test that involves the burning of a given quantity of gunpowder. I learned that a fathom was derived from the length of a Viking's hug. We have to get rid of a situation where I suspect that a large number of people, even in this House, if asked quickly how many pints there were in a gallon, would not have an answer straight away. There are quite a number of people even in this House, who are, I hope, well above average intelligence, but who do not know how many square feet there are in an acre. An acre is an isolated measurement, and unless you have been able to go and look at one constantly you do not know what it is, and you cannot convert it. I myself certainly could not convert a rod, pole, or perch into feet as I stand here; I have to go back to some tables.

One can go on for the rest of the afternoon referring to these anachronistic types of measuring quantities and still not finish them. 'These are the things that we must get rid of, yet these are the things that some people want to hang on to. They regard them—here I may commit what some noble Lords would say is a heresy—in the same way as many people regarded Latin: as good mental exercise for schoolchildren. We want our schoolchildren to become numerate, to become people who can deal with all the technology which is forming an enlarged part of our daily life, culture and our work, instead of being bothered by illogical methods of measurement which are with us simply because, as a society, we have been too damned lazy to change them for the last fifty years.

It seems to me that the current situation is a little unusual. Industry, commerce, education, women's associations—even the Association of Conservative Women's Associations—are in favour of these changes. As the last Government said, and as the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, quoted this afternoon, nobody wants to impose change on anybody. But what industry, commerce and education do want is a commitment by the Government that they will introduce enabling legislation, as and when it is required, to prevent a situation arising in which the progress that is being made by various bodies in this country is inhibited by the existing statutes.

Then I put this question, which I have written down very carefully, to the noble Lord: "Can you give the House positive assurance not only that the Government will use existing powers to facilitate change to the metric system, but also that the Government will introduce enabling legislation, without delay, whenever it is necessary to facilitate the change, particularly at the retail stage of consumer goods?" If we can have that assurance, then I believe that our differences will disappear. But we have not had it, and this is what is making us on this side of the House nervous; and, what is more, making business, industry and commerce nervous. It is a very strange situation when we have to question our political opponents in the Government almost in defence of industry and commerce. Is this a case of being too sensitive about your own backwoodsman? It seems to be so, because the assurance has not been forthcoming. There is, however, a need for determination and for a sense of urgency in planning the change. The target date for completion is only seven years ahead, and there is very little time left". You may have thought that that is my own statement; it is not. That is the statement of Mr. John Davies, the present Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, made in February, 1969, and published in the Purchasing Journal. We on this side of the House believe that the Government has "diddled" Mr. Davies out of the I.R.C.; they have "diddled" him out of the Consumer Council. My Lords, I beg of you not to interfere with his own enthusiasm for the rapid introduction of metrication, and I hope that I shall have a very clear answer to the question I have put to the noble Lord.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, I too should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder and his colleagues on the Metrication Board on what is a very good Report, and a very satisfactory account of the first six months' operation. It is no mean achievement to have got so far in their first six months, and to report within the next four. I may not be able to stay until the end of the debate this evening, but I should like to assure those noble Lords whose speeches I do not listen to that I shall read them attentively in Hansard tomorrow.

What is the object of this exercise? It can be put in very simple terms: to align the structure of the units that we use with the structure of the language that we talk. Arithmetic is part of the English language; that is why, if you learn a foreign language, you have to learn its numerical system which is, mercifully, the same as our own, though it goes by different names. All languages use the same arithmetical language. We have units that are not aligned, and if we can align them the talking of our own mother tongue becomes easier. Then, as the noble Lord, Lord Brown, said, we do not need to divert the mental energies of our children on some mental exercise. Of course Latin and Greek exercise the mind, and exercise is no doubt good for the mind. The Times crossword puzzle exercises the mind, too. But why not kill two birds with one stone and exercise the mind on something useful? The body also needs exercise, but who would go walking across quagmires and over slag heaps when open countryside with all its interest was available to one?

Whenever we start a reform of this kind opposition inevitably arises, and although the noble Lord, Lord Brown, said that he thought there would not be any, there certainly has been a great deal of criticism in the Press and elsewhere about the proposal to metricate. The opposition usually divides into two camps. In one you find the abominable No-Man, with his long list of reasons for never doing anything at all; and in the other camp you find the special pleader who wants you to botch the job for reasons of his own. We have to remember that in this matter we are trustees for posterity. We must have no botched jobs. The legatees of what we do now will be the unborn generations after generations of our children who will have a rational system of units to work in, and in no circumstances must we allow anybody to botch it.

It is not as if it were a cranky scheme thought up by a lot of ultra-modern doctrinaire eggheads. It was started in 1790, when the revolutionary French Government set up an inquiry into the matter. They had finished their job by 1799 and introduced the metre and the kilo. It was compulsory by 1801 and, at the Treaty of Amiens, Talleyrand offered us an opportunity to come aboard the bandwagon and get on with metrication then. We waited the best part of 170 years to take advantage of that; and, the sooner we do it the better, because 90 per cent. of the world has done it. Until recently, the Anglo-Saxon countries were the only ones who were lagging, but, mercifully, all the Commonwealth countries—Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand—now have a firm commitment to it. The sooner we ourselves can make a firm commitment to it, by introducing the type of legislation postulated by the noble Lord, Lord Brown, the better.

In any case, British industry has passed the point of no return. The movement is gathering momentum, so far as manufacturing industry is concerned, and much has gone metric already. Electrical units have always been metric. There are no imperial electrical units and there never have been. From the very start they were conceived in metric terms as the children of the laboratory. Does it not seem ridiculous that you have to calculate the performance of an electrical generator and work it out in metric units; interpret these in terms of physical dimensions, and then convert into imperial units for the purpose of manufacture? This is nonsense. Fuel injection equipment for diesel engines has been metric since 1930. This is only one example of many that I could quote. There are many other industries which have been metric for a long time.

We hear a great deal about the cost of going metric, and I thought your Lordships might be interested to hear some actual costs. Of three engineering concerns with which I am associated, one has laid it down as a policy that metrication will be so phased that the benefits together with the replacement programme will issue in no net cost at the end of the operation. A second has estimated that the cost of conversion over a three-year period would be 0.6 per cent. of one year's annual turnover. A third had a crash programme in 1969 and finished the job completely in order to take advantage of absorbing the costs into a very large export contract which had to be quoted in metric units. It worked out in one year at 0.5 per cent. of one year's turnover.

So if you take 1 per cent. as an outside figure for the cost of conversion, and apply that to the gross national product of, I suppose, about £40,000 million at the moment, you will reach only £400 million spread over a five-year period. Where these figures of £5,000 million per annum which are floating around have come from, I simply do not know. But I felt I must challenge them and say that they have no relation whatsoever to known engineering costs.

It seems to me that we now have four immediate tasks ahead. The first is what the noble Lord, Lord Brown, has pled for; that is, to bring our legislation up to date on standard international units. These are a slightly sandpapered version of the old metre/kilogram/second system and have now been adopted, or are being adopted, by 30 leading countries in the world of whom we ought to be one. Our second task is to complete the changeover in the manufacturing and constructional industries, as adumbrated in the Report of the Metrication Board. The third is to press ahead with making S.I.U.s the standard for educational purposes, so that we bring up the younger generation as rapidly as possible trained to think in metric units. Lastly, we have to make a start on the metrication of commerce and distribution.

In the context of distribution, it is extremely important to discriminate between what is a metric unit, on the one hand, and the number of metric units that go into a commercial package, on the other, because these can be anything you please. At the moment, a bottle of whisky contains 26⅔ fluid ounces, and your Lordships might well ask yourselves: Who on earth ever thought of a very odd combination like that? It is quite simple. It is merely two gallons divided up into 12 bottles giving 26⅔ fluid ounces each. It is almost exactly 750 millilitres; that is, three-quarters of a litre.

There is no reason why the bottle need contain a litre, merely because the litre is a unit. It is perfectly possible to go on marketing three-quarters of a unit—and everybody will. If the little measuring cups that are used in bars and so on are standardised at 25 and 30 millilitres you will then get 25 out of a bottle North of the Border and 30 South of the Border, as compared with 26 and 32 now. I do not think anybody will notice the difference, provided of course that they pay only for what they actually get.

Then, again, the gas industry wants to market metric therms of 100 megajoules, and I see no reason why it should not. It has a lot of good will in the name "therm", and it would like to keep that. As long as the metric system is defined in terms of the megajoule, there is no reason why it should not be sold in packages of 100 at a time. It is the same with kilowatt/hours. So long as the kilowatt/hour is defined as 3.6 megajoules, no metrical purist will quarrel if the electricity authority invoices in those units.

So far as the retail trade is concerned. I believe that the housewife is very much better able to cope with this change than some people might suppose. I think there is good evidence that the wives of servicemen who go abroad very rapidly pick up foreign currencies, the metric system and so on. It is only in very rare cases that one actually buys a pound of something as a pound—in future, a kilo of something as a kilo. I think that the housewife thinks much more in terms of numbers and units. She buys a tin or a carton or a package, and she has a big one or a little one. The fact that they may happen to have "half-pound" or "pound" stamped on them is merely a guarantee that she is getting her money's worth.

Again, we do a lot of our shopping in arbitrary natural units which have to be weighed. When the housewife is buying her Sunday dinner, she buys a brisket or a round or a leg of mutton or a shoulder of lamb or something like that. She picks it from her experience by its appearance, and it is then weighed and the price is applied. It is in only a small number of transactions that one has a pound weighed out. If you ask a grocer for a half-pound of cheese, he cuts with a wire approximately a half-pound from a bigger chunk, and then puts it on the scales and weighs it.

In addition, I think the housewife simplifies a lot of her problems by acting as a stockist. This applies to such things as milk. Milk is of such general utility that nobody wants to run out of milk at the end of the day, and the practically-minded housewife secures this by buying a little more than she needs every day, waiting until she has a whole extra bottle in stock and then laying off buying a bottle one day. That is exactly how industry works; and I am perfectly certain that if the French housewife can act as a stockist with half-litre bottles the British housewife will be able to do the same. In fact, there is almost only one item which is bought for immediate consumption, and that is liquor. Here the point is stocking not the larder but the bloodstream. I can imagine that the difference in the size of a "pint" might interact with the problem of driving and drinking, but I do not believe that this will be insoluble in England if it has been soluble on the Continent.

My Lords, when we have got this method through manufacturing industry many problems will remain to be solved. There is the problem of road mileage, and so on, but I think we shall cross those bridges by the mile or the kilometre when we come to them and when the demand arises. We shall need to face these problems pretty resolutely. I remember a little scene in Pilgrim's Progress, when Pilgrim is faced with a passage which has two lions at the end. He plucks up his courage and goes up to them, and when he gets there he finds that the lions are chained. My Lords, I believe that "The Lions are chained" ought to be the motto of everybody who embarks on metrication. I believe the people in the retail trade and in the home are cleverer and more adaptable than they are given credit for. Ninety per cent. of the world is metric, and what they can do we can do. Every single one has managed the conversion operation, and what they can convert we can convert—and it is high time we did it. We shall not be entering the 20th century by doing so: we shall be entering only the 19th. One day I hope to see this country with both feet planted firmly in the 20th century, but first we must pay our entrance subscription to the metrication club by belatedly entering the 19th.