HL Deb 30 November 1970 vol 313 cc348-78

3.45 p.m.

Debate continued.


My Lords, I rise to welcome the First Report of the Metrication Board and to thank my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder and all those associated with the Board for their valuable work in preparing the ground for the changeover to metric units. The arguments for and against metrication have been stated time and time again, so I do not wish to dwell on them except to say that I find it very hard to understand how anyone can oppose a system that is going to be used by 90 per cent. of the world's population and, as has already been said, is accepted by practically the whole Commonwealth, including New Zealand, Canada and Australia. The importance of this fact to a country so dependent on international trade must be immediately clear.

Since the return of Parliament the anti-metrication lobby has tried to create the impression that the Government and the Metrication Board are introducing the new system by stealth in the face of strong opposition from the public. I know that a recent Gallup poll showed that 57 per cent. of those questioned were against going metric. However, I do not consider that this is very meaningful, since members of the public tend to be opposed to changes of which they have no experience. A good illustration of that is the case of the 10s. coin. At first, this was said to be strongly opposed by the public, but now they have got used to it most people appear to like it.

I believe that a better indication of the reaction of the informed consumer is given by the Consumer Council, the dismantling of which I deeply regret, and the Women's Advisory Committee of the British Standards Institution. As my noble friend Lord Donaldson will no doubt point out, the Consumer Council believe that conversion to the metric system will be of advantage to consumers. Similarly, the Women's Advisory Committee of the British Standards Institution, having studied the problem, take the view that too much fuss is being made about the problem of metrication for the housewife. The Committee's statement adds—and I quote: Shopping in a metric market will not prove very difficult. With the advent of pre-packed foodstuffs, most housewives have come to judge by eye which size they need for their families. So the fact that the package is marked in grammes instead of ounces is not likely to worry them". Food which is weighed in the shop now accounts for a relatively small proportion of the housewife's total purchases, and according to the Women's Advisory Committee the problems here are not likely to be very great.

Nor is the majority of industry opposed to the change. As has already been stated, the C.B.I. recently said that industry is now irrevocably committed to metrication and that to delay is to get the worst of both worlds. Nor is strong opposition coming from the distributive trades. I think I am right in saying that distribution as a whole has accepted metrication with the proviso that it does not come too soon after decimalisation. Metrication will provide a welcome opportunity to standardise and rationalise the range of sizes for pre-packed food. It is, of course, true that if the 250-grammes and 500-grammes units are adopted to replace the half-pound and the one-pound, prices will rise to the extent that these are larger than the imperial units. However, this cannot be regarded as inflationary, since as long as metrication is not used to mask increases in the basic prices, prices per gramme or ounce should remain roughly the same.

I do not wish to suggest that there are no difficulties, that everything will be plain sailing from now on. Metrication is a complex and expensive process and, as the Report of the Metrication Board pointed out, a large number of questions still have to be discussed and settled. However, the point is that much work has already been done and much money has already been spent, and there is considerable evidence to suggest that progress is on schedule. Furthermore, industry and trade are clearly not opposed to the adoption of the new system, and, in my opinion, it will be highly regrettable if the target date of 1975 were to be put back—or, worse still, if we were to go into reverse. Finally, my Lords, may I crave the indulgence of the House if I have to leave before the end of the debate owing to a prior engagement.

4.4 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, quoted two categories of those who are opposed to the move towards metrication. I do not know into which category he thinks I come: I sincerely hope that I do not come into either of them because I am opposed to the move purely and simply on practical grounds. The right honourable gentleman the Leader of the Labour Party, when he was Prime Minister, was quoted as having said, apropos of decimal coinage, that the British people would soon find how easy it is to divide by 10. I am not questioning that for a moment. If you have the decimal system it is very easy to divide by 10; but, unfortunately, 10 is not always the number one wishes to divide by. If for instance one is dividing by 12, by 6, by 2, by 3 or by 4, then by the duodecimal system which we have at the moment it is much easier. And in the case of an odd number like 7 or 11, there is nothing to choose between the two.

That is not the only ground upon which I am opposed to the move towards metrication. To my mind, the chief ground for opposition is the enormous expense to this country that will be incurred because of the changeover. The Business Equipment Trade Association have estimated that the total cost will be about £5,000 million. I think that that is quite a conservative estimate when one remembers that every single industry which uses mechanical apparatus for measuring of any kind will have to renew it—from the local grocer who will have to buy a new pair of scales, to the factory which will have to renew about 90 per cent. of its machinery. That is going to cost the average industry an enormous amount.

The noble Lord, Lord Brown, said that industry, commerce and education are in favour of metrication. I should like to know what sections of those three departments of life are in favour of it, because I have friends in all three and I have not yet found one person who is in favour. This changeover will cost an enormous amount and, as things are at the moment, there will be no compensation from the Government to those firms who will have to renew all their machinery. I believe that when a similar change was being discussed in America, it was estimated that it would cost about 200 dollars per worker. If one converts that into pounds I suppose the cost will be roughly the same here.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn spoke in 1968 of "public opinion". Who are the public? Are they Members of the other place; are they Members of your Lordships' House? In my humble opinion, No. The public are the ordinary everyday citizens; and, as I have said, I have never yet come across one in favour. In fact, the number of those who have spoken forcibly against metrication would be difficult to count.

My Lords, if this were a necessary thing for the benefit of the country, if it were going to give us some tremendous benefit, then I agree that we should pull in our belts and do our best to survive the change. But this is going to do nothing whatsoever—except that which seems to be the aim and object of some people: to make us like everyone else. In 1968, in reply to a Parliamentary Question: … will the Minister see that a decision"— that is, on metrication— is arrived at as soon as possible? Mr. Wedgwood Bean replied: I accept the need for speed, but I think that the House will recognise that changing the system of measurement in a country is a very fundamental decision on which public opinion should have an opportunity of expressing itself."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 24/6/68, col. 24.] What representation of public opinion have we had? So far as I know, absolutely none! Then as far back as July, 1966, an honourable Member of another place, Mr. Whitaker, asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he would announce plans to decimalise all measures. The answer was: No, Sir. The first need is to bring about the wider use of the metric system in British industry. A supplementary question was asked: Will my right honourable friend endorse this in principle? Does not he agree that the arguments used by the Chancellor for his welcome reform of the currency, equally obtain in these cases? Mr. Darling replied: That may be true, but I think it would be very difficult to introduce decimalisation in this field at the same time as we introduced decimal currency. The effect on our traders of having to deal with both at the same time, and the effect on customers, would be rather formidable. I think it would have one positive result—it would increase the sale of headache powders."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 14/7/66, col. 1695.] My Lords, as to that, I have no doubt.

My noble friend Lord Drumalbyn, from whom I do not often differ, said in his speech that metrication caused the least possible inconvenience to the public. If I may say so with all due deference, I think he made a slight mistake; I think he should have said that metrication causes the greatest possible inconvenience to the public.


My Lords, I am sorry if I misled my noble friend. I said that the object was to ensure that it caused the least possible inconvenience to the public.


My Lords, I am sorry; I misunderstood my noble friend. He also mentioned the building trade. This is rather interesting. What is going to happen about the sizes of bricks, which presumably will be different from what they are now? Some of us have older houses, and when we have bricks that need renewing I can see what is going to happen. We shall go to a builder and ask for three or four dozen new bricks—I am sorry, my Lords, we shall have to ask for 30 or 40 new bricks. We shall be told, "I am sorry but that size is out of production now; you will have to have bricks of 4 centimetres, by 5 centimetres by 12 centimetres "—or whatever the size is going to be. We shall then ask "What do I do?", and we shall be told, "I am very sorry, sir, I should advise you to build a new house." It will not be easy for anybody to accept these new measurements, but the old stock will soon be out of production and there we shall be.

The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said that housewives buy either a large packet or a small packet of a commodity. I agree that they do; but on the other hand they also estimate the price of certain things, such as meat, by the fact that it costs 12s. or 15s. a pound. What are they going to do when the pound weight is no longer used? They will not know where they are. My Lords, it will cause absolute and utter confusion—and to what purpose? If only we could see that there was some purpose behind the change—but I cannot see any. If by the end of the debate I am convinced that there is some real purpose in this move then, of course, I shall withdraw my remarks.


My Lords, before the noble Lord resumes his seat, may I put this question to him? As he is very eminent in the motoring world may I ask how long it took him to accustom himself to the changeover from horsepower to cubic centimetres, and how long it took the industry to do so?


My Lords, I did not suggest for a moment that those industries which already use the metric system, such as the cubic centimetre, should change. Naturally, they will still stick to it. It is the change that I am worrying about.


Surely, my Lords, when the noble Lord was first a motorist it was horsepower and not cubic centimetres.


My Lords, horsepower was merely a theoretical unit based on cylinder capacity.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Somers, will forgive me if I do not follow him in detail; in fact I find much of what he said hard to follow at all. But I am very grateful to the noble Lord because he has relieved this debate from dreary monotony. I prepared such remarks as I have to make in, as I hoped, a powerful speech based upon meticulous research after reading the debate in the other place, where ten speeches were violently against metrication, three, of which one was from the former Minister of Technology, were in favour, and two were very good commendations from the Ministerial Bench. In the course of the speeches very extraordinary thing were said, and I think it is worth while to indicate the climate which existed in the other place, which was tremendously different from the climate which exists here.

One speaker said, It is extremely dangerous for children not to be taught about pounds, feet, inches and yards. Again, This is a very cruel imposition on people. Again, The Government have become the mere agent of outside interests. … The hidden persuaders in this case … the autonomous, bulldozing Metrication Board … the Decimalisation Board … the twin ugly sisters. My Lords, I appreciate the analogy, and no doubt my noble friends Lord Fiske and Lord Ritchie-Calder feel their position in a sinister and satisfactory way, though at the moment I find it extremely hard to put my finger on "Cinderella". She may perhaps be the poor British public, and the backlash of this kind of thing is likely to affect her worse than anybody else.

Your Lordships will appreciate that when one was preparing what one had to say one expected to be a sort of lone champion of sanity in an insane world; but the situation is very different in this House from what it was in another place. The only opposition we have heard to the adoption of metrication has been from the noble Lord, Lord Somers, and therefore, as your Lordships will be grateful to hear, I shall be able to omit a good deal of what I had intended to say. I hope that subsequent speakers will be able to maintain the standard of previous speakers and avoid attaching moral values to questions which have no moral value at all. The metric system is simpler, somewhat more efficient and easier to teach. Above all, it has already been adopted by 90 per cent. of the world. But, my Lords, it has no charismatic virtues whatever. It always seemed to me that sooner or later it was bound to come, but that it was a changeover which would be awkward and expensive for many business firms, so that it would be foolish to try to force them into it. This, surely, was the exact attitude of the former Government and I hope that it is the attitude of the present one.

The most important thing that the Metrication Board has done in its brief existence is to display clearly exactly how far a large number of industries have already gone in the direction of metrication. I will not bore your Lordships with details, but its Annual Report lists a very large number of industries which have plans already cut and dried; and in many cases more than half adopted. If I am right in thinking that metrication is inevitable but should not be forced on people, I believe I am also right in thinking that people who have gone some way towards it should be encouraged, and not discouraged, from going the whole way. This again seems to me to be the position of both the former and also the present Government; that there should be no final decision without the authority of Parliament—a reasonable request—and that the debate here to-day and the debate in October in another place are a proper preliminary to this. But no sensible deci- sion could have been made without finding out the position in the country, and this could not have been done without the exploratory work done by the Metrication Board. I am quite clear in my own mind that the spontaneous movement towards metrication has now gone so far that the Government should encourage the pioneers and others to go the whole way. Nobody has even suggested compulsion and it is not suggested now, but there is certain legislation that will become necessary, and this must be undertaken as soon as possible; it really marks the point of no return.

May I take one look at the more difficult question with which, as Chairman of the Consumer Council, I have been concerned? To what extent should the ordinary man in the street be involved? In so far as the introduction of metrication will help his children to learn more quickly and to calculate more easily, if he is a good father he will support it. In so far as it will help exports, he should support it, too. In so far as it leads to standardisation not only of sizes but also perhaps of quality on an international basis, he will benefit. He and his wife already suffer from confusion in the sizes of clothes, shoes and different kinds of fuel. All things of this kind will be simplified and put in order by the adoption of the metric system. He will not suffer much from confusion in the shops because the act of metrication will be done between the manufacturer and the retailer in most cases by way of packaging. Of course, there will be extra costs in redesigning packaging plant, but this can be deal with largely in the ordinary replacement of equipment which every business has to do periodically.

Another thing is that such difficulty and confusion as have to be faced will occur only once and it is only ourselves—those of us between 18 and 50 or 18 and 80, or perhaps 18 and 90 would be more appropriate—only the people who are adult to-day, who are going to suffer from it. Children are being taught already how to deal with it and if there is a simpler system when they step out into the world, they will step into a world with easier problems than we had.

There is one question that was raised earlier by my noble friend Lord Brown which may cause some difficulty—it relates to the retail trade. Under existing weights and measures legislation, the basic household foodstuffs must be sold, when prepacked, only in specified imperial measures. I think there are 50 items to which this requirement applies. It is an important safeguard to the housewife, and stops her being confused by different sizes when she knows what she is being charged. But the conversion to metric units cannot be exact; it is not a straight conversion. It means really that 11b. avoirdupois will have to be replaced by a half-kilo, which is very slightly more. For marketing and technical reasons, it will not be possible to do this with one sweep of the pen for 50 different commodities: it is bound to take a certain time. But this period should be made as short as possible.

The only difficulty is what to do about milk and beer. There is no particular technical difficulty, but the change on the scale required will be extremely expensive; and there is a strong traditional sentiment among housewives, and particularly in pubs, in favour of the old measures. One is tempted to suggest that these two things should be left on one side and that conversion to metrication should take place only when everybody is ready for it—the last public-house customer and the last housewife. I doubt whether this is right. Anachronisms have an uneasy trick in this country of becoming a habit, the cost of which, and the inconvenience of which, people do not assess. Certainly we can be sure that the pint will be an anachronism when the coming generation, taught primarily in metric terms, become the shoppers of tomorrow.

Draught beer and milk in bottles are two of the commodities where specified quantities are laid down by law, and sooner or later the Government will have to make legal the sale of milk and beer in metric quantities. It may be that, in deference to public sentiment, this change should be left for some time, but I would ask noble Lords to consider that the period should not be too long. I believe that there is great danger in putting off difficult decisions, decisions that are going to be unpopular, and allowing things to run on as they are. My own feeling is that this nettle should be grasped reasonably soon. In the Consumer Council we have carried out some research into what kind of milk bottle people want, and we have found that a 600 ml. bottle is most popular, with the one-litre bottle as a good second. A 600 ml. bottle is about 5 per cent. bigger than a pint, and that seems to be the size that is chiefly wanted.

My noble friend Lord Brown said earlier that if we had a referendum there would probably be a vote against metrication. In the Consumer Council, with which I have been connected, we are in favour of giving a lead, and I hope that your Lordships, and the Government also, will be in favour of giving a lead here. There is no doubt in my opinion that resale price maintenance would have been heavily defeated on the referendum, but we supported the present Prime Minister in his campaign, and undoubtedly at the moment the housewife is glad of the advantages in prices which she has obtained from that.

I am sure that the Government and all of us welcome this Report of the Metrication Board. We should make it perfectly clear that we do not regard the appointment of my noble friend as a sinister appointment to undermine the independence of the British public, nor do we regard the Board as some curious conspiracy. The members were asked to do a job, and they are doing it. I think that they have done very well and that we should give this Report a very fair hearing.

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, I would join with noble Lords who have congratulated the Metrication Board on its First Report. The Report shows that a very good start has been made. The Report is well written and it strikes the right balance between enthusiasm and caution. I have spent forty years of my working life in retail management, and I am of opinion that the metrication of weights and measures will be less difficult for the retailer and the general public than the decimalisation of the currency. Packaging is much more easily mechanised in the factory than in the shop; consequently most of the goods that were formerly weighed, measured and packed in the shop are now being packed in the factory, and the consumer buys these goods not so much by weight as by the size of the package. She selects a small or large package.

Then, weight is important only in so far as it determines the price. In consequence of this, some manufacturers who want to emphasise the price, pack in 7 oz. and 15 oz. packs. The law tries to prevent that by providing, in those cases where it is practicable, that the commodity shall be sold only in specific weights. But in the vast majority of cases it is not practical for the law to be so precise and it merely requires a manufacturer to state the weight on the package.

The weight can be stated on the package much more accurately in metric terms than in imperial terms. Therefore the metric system will help the consumer to make a choice between one packet and another. Very few commodities are nowadays weighed and measured in front of the consumer. Some fruit and vegetables are; also some meat and fish. But even those commodities are nowadays frequently bought by number: two peaches; six apples; two chops, or half a dozen rashers of bacon. Here again, the weight comes into it only when it is used to determine the price. The customer selects by count.

The chief problem, so far as the retailer is concerned, is the slight adaptation of his scales and the replacement of his weights. The only problem involved is that this cannot be done overnight. There will have to be a transitional period during which some shops will have converted, though others will not. But that does not present any great difficulty, because if a young woman goes into a shop and asks for half a kilo of a commodity and the scales of the shop have not been converted, instead of being provided with 500 grammes, she will be supplied with 511 grammes and will be charged accordingly. Similarly, if an old lady goes into a shop after the scales have been converted and asks for 1 lb. of a commodity she will be supplied with 450 grammes instead of 454, and will be charged accordingly. So that presents no problem at all.

A few commodities are weighed and packed by the retailer not in front of the customer. The most important of these is milk. Since milk has been mentioned, and the half-kilo bottle and the 600 ml. bottle have been mentioned, I should like to deal with these, because I have first-hand knowledge and experience of the milk industry. There is almost universal packing in milk, using the pint bottle, which equals 568 ml. Thirty-two million pint bottles are delivered every day. The industry is highly mechanised. The processes of handling, washing and filling of the bottles are entirely automatic. The machines are designed to handle the pint bottle. But there is no considerable difficulty in adapting the machines, without any replacement, to a slightly smaller or a slightly larger bottle.

Since a pint is equal to 568 ml., it could be argued in theory that we should adopt the half-litre or the 500 ml. bottle, thus reducing the size of the bottle. This would be a sad mistake, because it would immediately reduce the sales of milk and would affect our agriculture. But, more important still, it would permanently increase the cost of distribution, since the milk would be distributed in smaller containers. Alternatively, it would be possible to adopt the 600 ml. bottle. In that event, adequate notice would be required before the transitional period so that bottle manufacturers could clear out their old stocks and start building up new stocks. The transitional period would have to be approximately ten months.

My Lords, 10 per cent. of milk bottles are replaced, on average every month. Consequently, if we want to do this restocking without any waste of bottles there will have to be this transitional period of ten months. It will not be possible during the transitional period to put a pint in both the large and the smaller bottles because the universal practice is for the bottles to be vacuum filled. The bottle itself is the measure. Consequently, it is inevitable that some bottles will contain 600 ml. and others 568 ml. Furthermore it is not practicable to keep the two sizes of bottle completely separate. Therefore they could not be charged out separately; they could not be charged to the customer at different prices. It would be necessary during the transitional period to charge the pint price—the price for 568 ml. But there is no great practical difficulty in this.

We have in the milk industry the Milk Fund. The Milk Fund is there to stabilise prices, and it would be possible for the retailers to be compensated on a sliding scale for the 5.6 per cent. more milk they were giving during the transitional period. Then when the price was increased, when everybody was receiving the 600 ml., the Milk Fund would get the money back out of the increased price. There is no difficulty in that, because with our new currency the new halfpenny will have 2.4 times the value of the present halfpenny. If the price of a bottle of milk is increased by a new halfpenny, it will mean an increase of 10 per cent. on the present price; and if there is an increase of 10 per cent., it is quite obvious that there will be sufficient slack not merely to pay for the additional milk received by the customer during the transitional period, and also for the bigger size bottle which the consumer will then be receiving, but also to inflate the Fund and build it up so that there will be funds available to stave off the next increase of price—which of course is the purpose of the Fund.

The only practical alternative to the 600 ml. bottle is for the Government merely to fix the litre price and to let things take their course: in other words, to do nothing. That is the "sometime, never" policy. It is not the decisive kind of thing that should be done when we have made up our minds what is required. Furthermore, it is my personal experience that the costs of distribution are less when there is one standard container—at present the pint bottle. If the Government were merely to fix the litre price for milk, then for many years to come we should have two sizes of milk containers: the pint bottle and the litre carton. But that would be less efficient for distribution than the single 600 ml. bottle. I would also add this. We should think twice before converting to the once-and-for-all container in the case of milk. The once-and-for-all container, whether it be of cardboard or plastic, is much more expensive than the milk bottle, which is used 50 or 60 times before it is replaced. In addition, the use of the once-and-for-all carton would add considerably to our litter problem.

It has been forecast that the Government are likely to decontrol the retail price of milk in April. I do not think that will make any difference to the retail price of milk. But if it is done, I hope that the Government will maintain the Milk Fund, which is a fund for the stabilisation of the milk price. When the price of milk is excessive it contributes to the Fund, but the Fund is used at a later stage to stave off the next increase. It is merely a stabilising fund. I cannot expect the Minister to hazard a forecast as to whether or not the retail price will be decontrolled, but I hope he will bear in mind, and pass on to his right honourable friend, that with our new currency, the new halfpenny having a value of 2.4 times that of the present halfpenny, it will be more necessary than ever before to keep the Milk Price Stabilisation Fund. I might add that, with that Fund, you can facilitate metrication in the milk industry, but I doubt whether, without that Fund, you will be able to do it.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I say a word? There is one thing that disturbs me. He suggested that a proper increase as between the pint bottle and the 600 ml. bottle would be 10 per cent. But the increase in volume is 5 per cent. This is exactly the kind of increase that we do not want to see. I do not know whether my noble friend would like to say anything about that.


My Lords, I did not suggest that it should be 10 per cent. I suggested that it would be 10 per cent. that there was no choice, because the lowest value of coinage would be the new halfpenny. The present price of a pint of milk is a shilling, and the new half penny will be 10 per cent. of the price of milk. It will be necessary to increase the price, and it will, inevitably, be 10 per cent. I want to keep the Price Stabilisation Fund so that the extra money can go to that Fund and stave off the next increase for a much longer period.

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, the reason why, 170 years ago, I think it was, we did not go into the metric system with the French was that we did not trust them, and we did not want to have the same armaments as they had. We thought that we might get into a a war with them, and that it would be very unsuitable if they could pick up our weapons and fire them. We did get into a war with them and, of course, we won it. Although the fact we won it was nothing to do with the metric system, that belief enters into a lot of the old, out-of-date rules that we have. This has applied also in other countries. The Russian Government was suspicious of foreigners who might invade them. They built a wide gauge railway so that smaller gauge trains could not travel on it. Eventually, they got into a war with Japan. The Japanese altered the rails to the narrow gauge, cut off the sleepers, and the Russians found that they could not use the railways at all. So perhaps they were wrong on that point, because it is much easier to make a railway smaller than it is to make it larger.

I have always lived in a colossal muddle in this country over every sort of metrication, of unmetrication, rods, poles and perches. I have become accustomed to it. I have become accustomed to believe that we shall always live in a muddle in this country; that we are muddling people, but nice people. I think we have made a muddle of metrication already, as I expected we should. I think we took the wrong unit of value; it should be the "ten", and we shall find out that it was a mistake not to do that. I agree that we have to metricate, and with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, who has just left his place, he is right up to a point about the pint. The pint has to be kept as the unit of measure in the beer trade for a very long time, because people are accustomed to it. This can be done metrically because it is roughly the same size. Foreign criticism is rather against the metric system, especially for milk; they do not mind about the beer so much, but they are concerned about milk. It will be a long time before that is altered. I think we shall go on in a metrical muddle which will be much less than the muddle we were in before. Many tourists rather like our present system. I have heard only one criticism, from an American, who said to me: "Your guinea is a legalised swindle".

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, I will not follow the noble Lord who has preceded me as to which is the bigger muddle. I was hoping that the introduction of the metric system would get the country out of the muddle. In reply to my noble friend Lord Jacques, who raised the question of milk in this country, I find that the difficult people to convince are those in the retail section of industry. They do not want to change to another type of bottle, to be followed by yet another change, which will involve them in great expense. As the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, knows—he was one of my predecessors at the Ministry of Agriculture—one problem that was always with us in the dairy industry was the cost of milk bottles. He knows as well I as I do—and I am certain that many of your Lordships know—that it is an expensive way of providing milk because of the wastage of the bottles. When my noble friend Lord Jacques spoke about the 10 per cent. turnover, I think he was including in that figure—and I did not want to interrupt his speech—the considerable losses involved as a result of wastage.

May I say a few words in support of the change to the metric system? There are many people who, even to-day, believe that we can ignore the change in Britain, and that it will have no consequence. As the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, has said, other countries have changed over. He instanced the cases of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, who have decided to change to a metric system. I have no doubt that before they did so they gave the whole matter great consideration. When they made the decision it was the result of their investigations.

It is also true that the C.B.I. came out in support of metrication. I do not always agree with them—perhaps I should say that I very seldom agree with them. The countries that I have mentioned are doing something as a result of careful investigation. I suggest that if we come to the conclusion that we have to go metric then the time to change is now. I was interested to hear the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, say that the invitation was issued to us in 1820, or thereabouts. I should have thought that, having waited 150 years, we may be able to reply to the invitation—and, I should have hoped, in an affirmative manner.

I was talking with an old friend of mine at the weekend, an ex-Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Arthur Woodburn. He was interested in the debate your Lordships were having to-day. He said he was a representative of a foundry in Edinburgh fifty years ago. In order to provide machinery to Germany they had to tender in the metric system. Germany was a very good customer, but it could be a good customer only if the foundry adopted the metric system.

A great deal of work has already been carried out in considering the effect of this change on both the agricultural and horticultural industries. A working group of representatives of organisations of farmers, horticulturists, landowners and farm workers was assembled under the National Farmers' Union. This group realised quite clearly that the gains to farmers from the metric change are small. Conversely, the change will not involve farmers in any great trouble or expense. They are convinced of the three main propositions. First, that farmers cannot be indifferent to the change to metric units by the industries supplying them, the marketing organisations which handle their products, or the services—both professional and scientific—linked to the industry. There is need, therefore, for a co-ordinated programme of change. Secondly, the situation must not be left to drift, with individual farmers having to come to terms at different times within the changes that are going on around them. Thirdly, as the farming industry, is regulated and supported by the agricultural departments, any co-ordinated approach to metrication by the industry must, in their view, be positive and have the support of the Government, because they do not believe that passive acquiescence is enough. Decisions are necessary about statistical returns, marketing and support prices, production grants, technical information and advisory services that are provided.

It was clear to the N.F.U. group that one of the first needs in art ordinary planning process was to decide upon a target date at which they could aim. After looking at what was happening elsewhere, and consulting with the Metrication Board, it was decided to adopt 1973 as the target date for the changeover. This date seemed perfectly practicable, giving enough time for preparation, but without letting the situation drift in a vague and uncertain fashion, when the question of metrication was very much in the minds of the farmers and the public. It is true they realised that, while they aimed at 1973, they hoped to be able to do it; but in fact they are realistic enough to know that it might well be 1974, or perhaps even a little later, before they were able to complete the whole job. But what they did do was to set a date which they worked to, and they hope as a consequence of this that they will be able to achieve their target.

The other industries and trades closely linked to farming have been greatly helped by having a clear time framework for their plan. Most of them can meet the proposed 1973 target, and there are therefore good prospects of a short and well co-ordinated transition to the new system. As I have said before, naturally there are problems yet to be overcome. Principal among them is the need to convince the agricultural and horticultural community of the need to change, and to give the publicity, literature and necessary advice to all in the industry. The work necessary for this is in fact already under way. To quote the Chairman of the Farm Metrication Board, Mr. Darbyshire: The groundwork has now been completed and the next step must be to undertake a major task in consulting and informing farmers, landowners and farm workers about metrication in the industry. I know that the Farmers' Unions, of course, will do all they can to consult their local N.F.U. branches throughout the country. They have a chain system inside the industry, so I think this can be done very carefully and with comparative ease.

As to education, inevitably as changes take effect throughout the whole environment changes will have to be made in education. If we can teach one system of measurement, and a simpler one, then obviously a great deal of teaching time will be saved. Throughout the United Kingdom education is already firmly on the road to metric, and nowhere, if I may say so, more than in Scotland. The Consultative Committee on the Curriculum produced in 1968 two very excellent curriculum papers dealing with the implication for primary and secondary schools respectively of "going metric". Schools have followed the advice of those papers and metric units are already being used exclusively in a large proportion of primary schools. I was discussing this matter with an honourable friend of mine in another place, the Member for Coat-bridge and Airdrie, and he instanced to me two further cases to show the active steps that are being taken and are already in existence. He pointed out that in the Lanarkshire automobile group training association 200 motor mechanic students a week from surrounding garages in the Lanarkshire area are completing courses on decimalisation for the cash side of garages which are now "going metric", for mechanical training and instruction, and this establishment is the work of the road transport industry.

Secondly he pointed out to me that the Lanarkshire engineering training association, which is the largest in Great Britain—and, with due Scottish modesty, he added "even including London"—are training 200 apprentices every week in mechanical, electrical and allied trades, 75 per cent. with metric equipment and instruction; and the remaining 25 per cent, is being phased out. So all this is going on at the present time. Indeed, as I think was said by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, when he opened the debate, changes are being made by the examination board. They are going over to standard international units, which will in fact be of great benefit to all concerned.

So, my Lords, I do not think we can stand against the metric system. What we must do, if anything at all, is to speed up its introduction. I was interested that the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, said that the Government intended to introduce a White Paper. My noble friend Lord Shepherd asked when the Paper was likely to be introduced. The only reply he could get was, "Not before Christmas". It was not very helpful, because even the Christmas which was being referred to was not specified. All I say is that responsibility falls on Government in this respect. There are no Party political differences about this subject. We are dealing with the economy of our country and how it is best going to meet the future situation. If we are going to compete on equitable terms with our competitors then we must get this system; and I hope that the White Paper, if there is to be another White Paper on this subject, will come forth very speedily.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, it will not have escaped your Lordships' attention that to-day is St. Andrew's Day, nor that it is particularly appropriate that we should be discussing a Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn about a Report prepared by a Board under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, and which is served up to us in what I am authoritatively told is now known as the McMetric Tartan. I am not opposed—the noble Lord, Lord Brown, no doubt will be pleased to hear this—to the metric system. That I have reservations is another matter. It is not that I am worried, like Alice in Wonderland, about being so many different sizes in one day. Nor am I confused to the point of an elderly acquaintance who the other day, with unwitting humour, referred to the "decimation of our weights and measures".

I will be brief. I wish merely to say to my noble friend that I hope that when the White Paper which we have been promised after this Christmas—or maybe it is another one—is being prepared, in one field particularly the social considerations will be given particularly serious study. It is obvious that I have retailing, particularly food retailing, in mind. The local retailer of food, the local garage forecourt, the local dairy do not export. The housewife, with her copy of Dr. Spock in one hand and her Mrs. Becton in the other, is obviously going to be confused—there is no question about that. I do not think she is going to be confused by what comes in packages; but I do think serious consideration should be given to the timing and the degree of preparation for the change in food shops up and down the country and to the question of such things as milk, petrol and paraffin.

I said that the local retailer does not export. When he sells loose goods—to state the obvious—he takes a small quantity from a large box or other container and serves it out to his customer. When he gets to the end of that box he opens another one. If there is a little left in one, he adds it to the next. Whether he dishes out to the customer in pounds or pints what he receives in metric measurement, is not I think such a problem that it should be put against the social considerations. I should like to address to my noble friend one particular point for his consideration. In conversation with retailers I have become aware that there is considerable doubt as to exactly what the situation is. I have two retailers in mind who have been approached by weighing scales salesmen regarding the purchase of replacement scales. In both cases there was at least one scale in the shop that, I understand, could not be altered. This happened without their ever having had any direct information—although admittedly they may read the newspapers—or any direct communication from any association or body as to what their duties to the public were going to be and what obligations were going to be laid upon them. I hope that perhaps through the offices of the Metrication Board or in some other way this problem may be rapidly cleared up. Before I sit down, my Lords, may I say that I suspect that, along with many others, I am one of those who wish that 99 years ago three votes had gone the other way.

4.51 p.m.


My Lords, before speaking in the debate perhaps I should say to the House, in view of my intervention earlier about the Statement that was made in another place and not in your Lordships' House, that I have only just this moment received a copy of that Statement. It is an important Statement, but in the light of the fact that it was made some considerable time ago in another place, the House is now relatively "thin" and we are at the end of this debate, perhaps we can leave the matter. But clearly, if there are items in that Statement which need to be pursued, I hope that the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, the Government Chief Whip, will bear with us if we put down a Private Notice Question, since Starred Question Time is fully used until after Christmas.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that point I am sure we can accommodate him, but I think probably not in the form of a Private Notice Question. No doubt a further Statement could be made to cover the necessary points.


My Lords, perhaps we can consider the matter through the usual channels.

To revert to the subject of our debate, I am very pleased that this debate was postponed. We on this side of the House attach considerable importance to having a debate on metrication, and I am quite certain that if we had had it at a late hour, as would have been the case when it was originally proposed, we should not have had the quality of debate or the attendance that we have had this afternoon. Therefore I am grateful to the noble Earl for making the alteration possible. Also, it proves that we can have a good debate on Mondays.

In one respect I have sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Somers. It struck me that he was really against change because he uses the imperial measure. My sympathy is with him to this extent at least, that in the "Miss World" competition there were, I think, only two "misses" from countries without metrication—the United States of America and the United Kingdom. I am bound to say that Miss Grenada's statistics in inches would make a greater impact on all of us than in the metric equivalent. Therefore to that extent, although I believe that we shall continue to be paid in guineas long after 105p becomes the true figure, I suspect that the statistics of "Miss World" will continue to be in inches.


My Lords, the noble Lord is most kind, but I think he is overlooking the fact that my chief objection was not on the ground of tradition but on the practical aspect of the enormous expense of change.


My Lords, I fear that the noble Lord's sense of humour has not come with him on this Monday afternoon. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Somers, drinks beer. I always thought that beer drinkers asked for a pint or a half-pint; but when I go to my refrigerator these days I find beer not in bottles but in cans. At the weekend I was advised that I should look at the can. A can of beer no longer contains a pint or a half-pint; I believe the measure is some 15½ imperial fluid ounces or 44 centilitres. Like my noble friend Lord Brown, I had not a clue what a fluid ounce is. Certainly poor fellows like me would have greater understanding if it was, shall we say, rounded to a figure of 50 centilitres.

My Lords, I would agree with the previous view of the Labour Government, that we should not put compulsion on industry to move into metrication; but I am bound to say that I would agree with my noble friend Lord Hoy that if we are going to do so, then perhaps the sooner the better. I see that in breakfast foods, for instance, one has a packet the net weight of which is 6 ounces or 170 grammes, and the packet of biscuits gives the contents as being 7 ounces or 199 grammes. I should have thought this was bound to be confusing to a harassed housewife who is seeking to find out what she is going to buy, and that there would be considerable advantage, particularly in prepacked foods, in an early move to one standard form: and if it is to be metrication, as I believe it must be, then the sooner we move to metrication the better.

The noble Lord, Lord Somers, questioned the cost and asked who would gain by the change. I do not know whether he read the document, which was sent out, I believe, to all noble Lords by the Confederation of British Industry. I was most impressed with it. Perhaps it is worth reminding the House what the C.B.I. says in the first of the three paragraphs. I will read it to your Lordships. After five years intensive preparation industry is now irrevocably committed to metrication. Millions of pounds worth of the new and replacement equipment purchased by industry in recent years is designed to produce to metric standards thousands of man hours have gone into planning and implementing conversion programmes. Progress is well up to schedule. The impetus of change is growing rapidly. There can be no turning back. It then goes on, Metrication provides big advantages, not only to industry but to the economy as a whole. It is simple both to teach and to use. It offers great scope for rationalisation and variety reduction in factory, warehouse and shop. It offers greater export opportunities in an increasingly metric world. It will greatly ease the harmonisation of international stanwards, increasingly important for the removal of barriers to trade. The sooner these advantages can be realised to offset the inevitable costs of change, the better. To delay is to get the worst of both worlds. My Lords, I will come back to that point in a moment. The document then goes on: It is a myth to think industry can change in isolation. Its plans must be closely geared with those of commerce and distribution. Education and training needs must be carefully gauged and met. The necessary legis- lation must be forthcoming in good time. The understanding and support of the general public, who are deeply involved both as producers and consumers, must be won if metrication is to succeed. Only Government can see things through: it is up to Government, and its chosen instrument, the Metrication Board, to take the lead and set the pace. And it adds: It is equally up to Government to see that where help is needed it is given. So far the difficulties of change have proved less than some feared where they have been tackled rationally and energetically. My Lords, I should have thought it was clear from this debate, and from the documents that all of us have received, that there can be no turning back; that industry is committed, in terms both of past expenditure and of future planning. It needs, as the C.B.I. have said, a lead from the Government. I do not know why the Government have got themselves into their present difficulties. Certainly the reaction of industry was bad after the debate in another place. It looked as though the Government were getting cold feet. I think that the Minister who spoke earlier, while he gave us a great deal of information, much of which of course we could have read for ourselves in the Report, clearly avoided a specific declaration of intention on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. I believe that industry is entitled to a clear statement as to where Her Majesty's Government stand. Therefore I will repeat the question that was put to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, by my noble friend Lord Brown. Can the noble Lord give the House a positive assurance, not only that the Government will use the existing powers to facilitate change to the metric system, but also that they will introduce enabling legislation without delay whenever it is necessary to facilitate the change, particularly on the retail side?

It seems to me there are four possible answers the noble Lord can give us. First, he can say "Yes; we give that undertaking". Secondly, he can say "No; we do not give it". Thirdly, he can say, "We do not know the answer". Or fourthly, "We know the answer but we are not telling". It seems to me that if the noble Lord fails to give the answer, Yes, we can only assume that the Government themselves do not know what their policy is, or they know what their policy is and are not prepared to tell. If it is the latter, then the only people, in my view, who are going to suffer will be industry, particularly that section of industry upon which our export effort depends.

5.4 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate and I think it is one that in the main will prove to have been of considerable assistance to Her Majesty's Government. As I anticipated, the debate was not all one way, and I hope that from that point of view the noble Lord, Lord Brown, was satisfied that he was not simply beating the air. He certainly made a bright and attractive speech, if I may say so. I thought that he put his points extremely cogently, and he finished up with a question with which I shall certainly deal, a question repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd. Really this is the nub of the debate. I am not certain that the Opposition have quite understood the dilemma which exists here. The Government at the time were quite specific in saying that compulsory powers would not be sought. What, then, is meant by "enabling legislation"? Is it legislation to enable compulsory powers to be used?




All right. What has been said by my right honourable friend quite clearly is: 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; cols. 19–20.] The noble Lord goes further and asks, in effect, "What if the existing statutory powers do not cover that situation?". That is the point. He is asking us, therefore, I take it, to introduce enabling legislation at the earliest possible moment. Is that right?


My Lords, I want to be helpful, because it is a crucial point. May I relate this question to one specific thing?—it relates, of course, to more things, but if we debate the question in terms of this one aspect there will be no dubiety about it. It is enabling legislation which removes from the packaging industry the necessity of packaging in imperial units, so that they may package in metric units. Let us relate the question to that point, because that is what the packaging industry are concerned about We need not debate it in more general terms, because that will just fuzz the question. There are other examples, but that will serve as the best example.


There are two separate questions, are there not? The first is the question of goods of which the quantity must be declared. So far as that is concerned, there is nothing to prevent its being declared in metric units or in pounds; it can be done in both. The second question is, what about those goods which have to be packaged in prescribed quantities and are prescribed at the present time in imperial quantities? What the noble Lord is asking—and this is, I think, the nub of the question—is should we now give power to enable those goods to be packed in metric quantities.


To enable them to be packed in metric sizes—remove the inhibition on packing in metric sizes. This arises because it is laid down that they shall be packed in imperial sizes. I am not suggesting that you should disallow their being packed in imperial sizes.


Here, then, we come to We nub of the question. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, talked about grasping the nettle. With respect, I do not think he quite grasped it. Are we to say that for a time these goods which are to be packed in prescribed quantities may be packed in either metric quantities or in imperial quantities? Because this was thought to be one of the advantages that having prescribed quantities would give: that the consumer would know exactly what she was getting and there could be no dubiety or confusion at all. If we adopt this suggestion, how are we going to avoid the confusion? The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, I thought, appreciated the point; and others also have done so. It was conceded by a number of noble Lords that consultation on these matters was required. That is all we are asking for. We want to take into account what has been said in these debates; to consult—not with everyone, obviously: not to carry out a plebiscite. But we want to consult on whether we are to have enabling powers, so that we may be in a position to put before Parliament what are the factors and considerations and the facts, and at the same time what the Government are proposing to do. This is the course we are proposing to adopt, and I suggest to noble Lords that it would not be very helpful if, just when we are going into changing the currency, this issue were to become confused. If I may say so, it would be a mistake to rush into issuing this White Paper; it requires proper consideration, and it should not be confused with decimalisation.


My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord does not mind my interrupting him again. I think it is best dealt with in this way. Is the noble Lord able to give an undertaking that if consultation with the interests concerned—for instance, in pre-packaging—gives rise to a consensus of opinion in industry that they want legislation introduced which changes the necessity for packaging in imperial units, the Government will then introduce this legislation?


My Lords, with respect, in a debate in which we are asking for the opinion of the House, is it really reasonable to ask for a firm undertaking on what is, after all, a hypothetical question? I hope that the noble Lord will allow us to take into account what has been said to-day, much of which has been extremely wise and helpful. We shall then be in a position to bring before your Lordships' House our views of what is required to be done, and shall have an opportunity of explaining the policy that we intend to adopt. I hope that will be considered to be reasonable. I will only say that, given the Government's policy, which they have laid down, that there is to be no compulsion in this matter, I am quite certain that noble Lords opposite would have proceeded in very much the same way. If they would not, would they have rushed into it and imposed compulsion?


My Lords, there is still a misunderstanding here. Speaking personally, and as an ex-industrialist, I want to see the Government give an undertaking that they will banish the use of imperial units in the case of these packaged goods (I am taking that as an example) and say instead, "Pack in metric units". But that is not what the previous Government said. What we are now saying, as a Party, is that minimally we want the right established, by legislation, so that people can choose between imperial and metric units at least for a period. That is the undertaking which we have sought from the Government on the basis of consultation. I am very sorry that we have not got it, not because we, as a Party, want to make political capital but because I am perfectly aware, together with many on this side of the House, that industry wants this assurance. They do not know what to do. They are getting on with their plans; they are going to spend money on equipment and so on, and this assurance has not been given. They are wondering now whether they ought to get on or not. They are in dubiety.


My Lords, surely it must be the case that, just as in the whole sphere of industrial planning, sector by sector, this has moved voluntarily, so we should continue to move voluntarily in this sphere, too. I have already made it clear that where industry reaches an agreement on something that it wants to be done, then where that can be done by regulations it will be done. There is no indication at the moment that we have reached the stage where something has to be done by legislation, although I am well aware of the fact that decisions will have to be taken before very long. We are not suggesting that these decisions should be postponed indefinitely. What we are saying—I do not know why the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, wags his head so often when I speak on these matters; at the moment he is nodding it, not wagging it—is that surely the right thing to do is to consult with industry on the basis of the opinion of Parliament and then, without undue delay, get on and state what the Government's intentions are. Surely we can all agree on that.

Of course we recognise that there are legislative obstacles which will have to be removed if progress to metrication is not to be impeded, and that is precisely why we are suggesting that we should prepare a White Paper. When the White Paper comes along no doubt there will be an opportunity for considering what the Government's intentions are. It will be at that moment that noble Lords can ask questions as to what the Government's intentions are. But let us first make up our minds what we intend to do. Subject to this, it is the intention—and I repeat this—of the Government, that those sectors of industry which have started on the way towards metrication should continue smoothly with it with as much speed as they see fit. The faster they move, the happier we shall be, always provided that they keep in step with their suppliers and customers, and related trades.

I was very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, raised the question of agriculture. Naturally he spoke with authority on this subject, and I would not wish to disagree with him. However, may I just say that I agree with him that the advantages of metrication, so far as agriculture is concerned, are not so conspicuous and obvious as in the case of our major exporting industries. I agree that farmers will inevitably be affected by the adoption of metric weights by their suppliers, whether they are in agro-chemicals or fertilisers or builders or suppliers of equipment; by those concerned with marketing their products, and by services as well.

Representatives of the industry have been giving a lot of thought to all this. The National Farmers' Union, in co-operation with the Scottish and Ulster Farmers' Unions and the Country Landowners' Association, as well as the National Union of Agricultural and Allied workers, have set up a metrication group to consider in detail, in consultation with the other interests concerned, what is involved. I understand that the National Farmers' Union are now ready to consult with the agricultural community. They have reached the stage of their deliberations where they can now do that.

The noble Lord also referred to education and training. Again I was grateful for the information that he gave the House, and I would not disagree with what he said. The Government's intention is that education and training in metrication should proceed at a pace that will ensure that all concerned are equipped to do their job in the metric system at the appropriate time. There is this important point of "at the appropriate time". It must vary in different places, and certainly for different trades, and so on. So far as schools are concerned, a start has been made in the primary schools, and the examination boards are now envisaging the progressive introduction of metric questions into their examinations.

I should like to repeat that both the last and the present Government have laid stress on the voluntary character of metrication. In a limited number of cases there is no possibility of the two systems being used side by side in the long term. The Government intend, therefore, to have full discussions with all parties concerned before taking decisions in such cases. In only a very few of these are quick decisions necessary to avoid disruption in the programme. The Government will give priority to those cases. My noble friend Lord Gray expressed anxiety about metrication in the retail trade. I can assure him that the Government are watching with interest the discussions which are in progress about the possible adoption of metric sizes for packs of basic foodstuffs, such as tea, sugar and flour.

I was most interested in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, who spoke with great authority on the very difficult subject of milk, and put forward many considerations which are well worth studying. If agreement can be reached with manufacturers, retailers and consumers on a conversion programme, this will be a major move towards metrication in the retail trade. Most loose goods can already be sold in metric or imperial units. Therefore the traders concerned will be able to adopt the metric system when they and their customers wish. These changes are likely to be spread over several years. Of course, the changes in weighing machines are also bound to be spread over several years, for purely logistic reasons. It will be an important task of the Metrication Board to help the ordinary consumer to understand the changes as they occur during these coming years.

In conclusion, I should like simply to thank your Lordships for the advice which you have given, and also, if I may make so bold on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, to thank you for the way in which the Report of the Metrication Board has been received and for the good things that have been said about it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.