HL Deb 15 November 1973 vol 346 cc884-90

10.3 p.m.

LORD STRATHCONA AND MOUNT ROYAL rose to move, That the Draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Salt) Order 1973, laid before the House on October 16, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is a pity that the introduction of these two measures has been delayed somewhat by necessary changes in business. I will try to be as brief as possible, and I think it may be for the convenience of the House, since both these Orders have a similar effect, if I speak to them together. The background to these two Orders was originally very well described by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, who I feel knows quite a bit about selling foodstuffs, in the debate in this House in November, 1970, when he said: … 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."—(OFFICIAL REPORT; 30 /11/70; col. 350.) In the course of a debate on metrication in another place earlier this year, the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs, Sir Geoffrey Howe, said that following discussions with industry he proposed to advertise draft Orders which would provide for the sale of pasta and salt in metric units. This is a further and necessary step to implement the Government's undertaking in its White Paper on Metrication, to remove barriers to the wider use of the metric system in this country.

Pasta and salt are included among the lists in the Weights and Measures Act of some forty or so basic foods which, when they are sold pre-packed, and only when they are sold pre-packed, may at present only be sold in imperial quantities. I may add that Italy at present also prescribe quantities for the sale of pre-packed pasta. These Orders will not oblige manufacturers to pack pasta and salt in metric quantities, but make available to them the option between continuing to use the imperial quantities specified in Article 4(a)(i) of the two Draft Orders, or they can now change to the new metric range specified in the following sections of the Orders.

Before my right honourable friend can exercise his order-making powers under the Weights and Measures Act 1963, he is required by the Act to satisfy himself that these proposals are generally acceptable to all organisations as appear to him to be representative of the interests substantially affected by the Orders. The proposals have been circulated to a wide range of the consumer and trade organisations (some 30, I believe) and enforcement bodies, a large number of which have made comments, particularly on points of detail. There was no adverse criticism of these proposals. Manufacturers in particular welcomed this positive move by the Government to remove obstacles to metrication in the retail food sector where the industry at large was keen to make the change. They had long since accepted the principle of metrica- tion, particularly following our entry into the E.E.C.

Consumers generally recognised that metrication must inevitably come, but they were naturally concerned that the Government should do all in their power to see that there was an orderly change and that the consumer was adequately protected and informed about the changes that would be taking place. Perhaps I may quote what Sir Geoffrey Howe said in another place on these points: At present I have in mind two modest commodities, salt and pasta, and perhaps one or two others. Other important commodities will follow in, I hope, an orderly fashion. These orders and their timing will be tailored to the particular needs of the industry and of the consumer. I realise that, even with this carefully controlled process, the consumer needs to be assured about the impact on prices. This is why the careful presentation of the facts and information will be essential…. [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 24/7/73; col. 1432.]

I am trying not to comment further on such issues of prices at this juncture, although I can readily do so if pushed. I think it is here that we should pay tribute to the important work which the Metrication Board is doing to educate and help the consumer now that the change is switching from the industrial to the retail sector. They have planned an extensive programme of work over the next 12 months to provide practical help to consumers in the form of pocket conversion aids and comparison wall charts for display in shops. They have been successful in enlisting the support of some manufacturers who will helpfully display information on their packs to assist the consumer to familiarise himself or herself with the new sizes, and to continue to be able to choose the best buy for the family from the information provided. The Metrication Board and the Department of Trade and Industry are also actively working on other recommendations of the Consumer Safeguards Group.

My Lords, I hope that I have been able to reassure your Lordships that in making these modest moves forward, which must inevitably bring benefits through rationalisation to industry and through a greater variety and more competitive supply of goods to the consumer from domestic and Continental sources, the Government are striving to ensure an orderly change to the metric system with the minimum of risk of confusion to the consumer. In closing, may I remind your Lordships again that these Orders are entirely permissive. They are not in any sense obligatory. They have been widely advertised and they have not been opposed. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Salt) Order 1973, laid before the House on 16th October, be approved.—(Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.)


My Lords, may I first congratulate the noble Lord on his short but excellent maiden speech from the Despatch Box. I understand that there are 51 essential items which will have to be dealt with in a similar manner, and I am therefore wondering why the Orders before your Lordships' House to-night are in respect of pasta and salt and not, for instance, sugar or tea. Can the Minister say why the Pasta Order comes into operation on July 1. 1974, while the Salt Order is delayed until January 1, 1975, which is 14 months ahead?

10.10 p.m.


My Lords, I know that at this hour the one thing the House would like is for me to be as brief as possible, and I will try to be, but there are one or two things which I should like to say. First of all, I must declare an interest in so far as I am technical adviser to the Consumers' Association. All consumer organisations which have been consulted welcome these Orders. But what about the other 51 products? It is not true that you can always catch a bird by putting salt on its tail. The programme for metrication as a whole is going slower than anticipated; it was scheduled for 1965 to 1975. We have accepted the idea of metrication, so have consumer organisations; so there is no need to argue the case at this moment. But I should just like to note the following points. Out of 141 countries in the world 133 are going metric. The U.S.A. have legislation halfway through Congress. The U.S.A. industrial giants, Fords, Caterpillars, I.B.M., and I think some others, have already decided to go ahead with metrication straight away. With regard to progress in other countries, Australia and New Zealand started later than we did but are now well in advance of us. Horse racing in 1972 was metric in weights and distances.

With regard to the consumer viewpoint, very briefly, as we are going metric, it is admitted that it must involve some disturbance to consumers. What we want is orderly planned progress, but the speed must not be too slow. We want a minimum period during which both metric and Imperial measures exist for the same class of goods. Loose and packaged goods should go metric at the same time. In this case I think diving off the deep end is far better than slowly stepping inch by inch into the cold water. We cannot keep the metricated E.E.C. products out of the country after 1977, and therefore it really is rather essential that consumers should have got used to metrication by then, and preferably considerably before then.

What is needed to speed up things? First of all, leadership from the Government. We need more of these regulations for the 51 products in this class, which I think somebody mentioned. Also more Government contracts could well follow the example of the Department of the Environment. This does a very great deal of good in speeding up metrication, which in most areas, of course, is voluntary. I can understand the Governments' hesitation, but I think they must steel themselves to be bold and resolute in pushing forward with metrication. There is, of course, a noisy, ill-informed vocal opposition, and this was in evidence in another place. I ask them to disregard it. It is absolute rubbish to talk about metrication by stealth. In any case, there is an 18 months delay in some products before the regulations become effective, which is certainly after the next General Election. I am sure that this should not become a Party issue.

Unless inflation is curbed, the worry about using metrication as an opportunity for increased prices is nothing like so serious, because the rise in prices will quickly overtake any tendency to put them up during the metrication period. If, of course, in the happy event when they become effective 18 months later we have cured inflation, we shall all say, "Please look at this carefully to see that advantage is not taken of the fact".

I have only two more points to make. First of all, we want a cut-off date. It may be a little too early to worry about this, but the one thing we do not want is a continuing mixture of metric and Imperial units. This is absolute anathema to consumers. Finally, unit pricing could be a tremendous help to consumers during and after the changeover.

10.15 p.m.


My Lords, to the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, I must first say that he managed to find another eleven commodities which, so far as I am aware, are unknown to the Government at this time. My information was that there were about 40 to be covered. However, we intend to press on as fast as seems practicable. The question about the dates is of wider interest because the whole principle has been to move when the industries are ready to move. It seems that the salt manufacturers needed a little longer to make the conversion of some of their plant. In overall timing it was hoped that the changes would have been made by the end of 1975, and I think that we are obliged to have ceased to discriminate against metric units by October, 1976, and the Imperial units—I think the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, called it the "cut-off point are supposed to disappear by the end of 1979.

May I conclude by thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, for his trenchant support of the principle lying behind these Orders. I can assure him that we are to some extent controlled by the speed with which industry moves, but it may be that the trickle of these Orders will become a flood.

On Question, Motion agreed to.