HL Deb 25 June 1974 vol 352 cc1305-19

3.9 p.m.

LORD JACQUES rose to move, That the Draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Sugar) Order 1974, laid before the House on May 23, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. At the present time sugar is supplied in prescribed quantities of imperial weights. The purpose of this Order is to give an alternative of prescribed quantities of metric weights so that the trade will be able to use either imperial or metric weights. Last November the House approved a similar Order for salt and another Order for pasta. Those Orders were in very much the same terms as the present Order. The sugar industry wishes to introduce metric packs and this Order will facilitate the planning of their programme of re-equipment. Because of the time lag between order and delivery of equipment it is urgent that the Order receive approval, but there is no urgency as to its becoming effective. Consequently, it does not come into effect until October 1, 1975.

There have been consultations with representatives of manufacturers, retailers and consumer organisations, and all their comments have been taken into account in the framing of the Order which is now before the House. At the present time, granulated sugar is sold in packages of 2 lb. imperial weight. It is extremely likely that in due course sugar will be sold in packs of 1 kilogramme. Speciality sugars are at the present time sold in packs of 1 lb. It is extremely likely that in due course they will be sold in packs of 500 grammes. This will mean that both the packs will contain 10 per cent. more than they do at present. My right honourable friend has sought and obtained specific undertakings that the price will be no more than proportionately increased. Indeed, it is possible that because of the economy of the larger pack there may in due course be a reduction in price.

The Prices Bill which is at present before the House—if and when it is passed—would permit unit pricing of sugar if need be during the transitional period. I would doubt whether this would be necessary. There will, however, be a period when both metric packs and imperial packs are on the market at the same time. This is inevitable for two reasons. First of all, sugar has a rather long shelf-life and therefore, inevitably, you will get the position where some retailers have the old imperial pack and other retailers have the new metric pack. Secondly, it will take some time for the trade to re-equip so that it is packing wholly metric. It is, however, expected that the whole process of conversion to metric will be completed before the end of 1976.

One of the leading manufacturers, who uses the back of the pack for advertisement, has agreed to use the back of the pack for informing the public on the metric system. That we welcome, and we pay our tribute to him for his public support in this matter. There will be new marking regulations which are now being drafted, under which it will be necessary for markings to be in both imperial and metric weights for a considerable period of time. This we consider to be necessary in order to safeguard the consumer. We believe that industry should be able to proceed without frustration in the changeover from imperial to metric. We also believe that the Government of the day should take all necessary steps to safeguard the consumer. We are acting accordingly.

Before sitting down, I should like to pay tribute to a number of noble Lords in this House who have done such good work in facilitating the process of change from imperial to metric weight. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, who was the first Chairman of the Metrication Board, to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, who is the present Chairman of the Board, and to my noble friend Lady White who is the Deputy Chairman of the Board. We think it right that this House should place on record its thanks and its gratitude for the work that they have done, and this appears to be the appropriate moment. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Sugar) Order 1974, laid before the House on May 23, be approved.—(Lord Jacques.)


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will bear with me if I deal rather more extensively with this Order than its modest size might at first seem to justify. It is important for two reasons: the first concerns its presentation and the second its implications. On May 9 last, as your Lordships may recall, you considered the Weights and Measures (Sale of Wine) Order 1974, and it fell to me to comment on it from these Benches. In so doing, I had to draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that this Instrument had been reported to both Houses of Parliament by the Joint Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation. It was reported that it was obscure and ambiguous. I said then—and I said it on your Lordships' behalf and not on behalf of these Benches only—that it was not right that the strictures of that Committee should be set aside. The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, seemed to agree, and I supposed that an echo of the Joint Committee's displeasure and a rather louder intimation of his Lordship's concern would eventually reach the ears of those who devise Statutory Instruments on weights and measures. This appears not to be the case, since again the product of that Department has attracted the hostile attention of the same Committee. I will take only two examples of the misuse of language. The first is an example of ambiguity.

In Article 3 we are told, and I quote— Sugar which is not pre-packed shall be sold by retail only by net weight. That, at first reading, means quite clearly that there is only one way to sell sugar that has not been pre-packed, and that is by retail; and, furthermore, that retail sale must be by net weight. It is only when we consider the absurdity of the proposition that all wholesale sales of sugar must be in pre-packed form that we look again at the sentence and arrive at an alternative meaning. This, presumably, is that all retail sales of sugar which has not been pre-packed must be by net weight. If the noble Lord confirms that that is the meaning which is intended, will he please tell us why this could not be written in the first place? Ambiguity usually means litigation, and litigation always means expense.

My Lords, I do not want to labour this point. I have a series of similar points to raise throughout the Order, but these are listed by the Joint Standing Committee of both Houses on Statutory Instruments and I take it that it will suffice to draw your Lordships' attention to it. But I should like a more forceful assurance than I had last time that the comments of this Committee will be borne in mind and drawn to the attention of those who draft Instruments. The same applies to the Explanatory Note at the end. It is worth pointing out that the Explanatory Note is meant to explain, but in the first sentence it merely reiterates, exactly as the exasperated traveller in a foreign country shouts louder at the person who has not understood the first time, and the attitude of the person who is shouted at is not a friendly one. I think that should be our attitude on this occasion.

My Lords, I have compressed what I wished to say about this Order, but there is also the question of the intention and its implication. The intention, we have been told, is to limit to particular weights the size in which pre-packed sugar may be sold retail and Article 4 specifies those weights. Subsection (a)(i) lists the acceptable size of packets marked in imperial pounds and ounces, and subsection (a)(ii) contains a not similar list of size of packets marked in metric grammes and kilogrammes. The two lists are not equivalent; they do not correspond. There is nothing in the metric list, for instance, to correspond to the old well-known 1 lb. pack.

This brings me to the implications of the Order. The omission of even an approximate metric equivalent to the old 1 lb. pack can only be because the metric sizes are designed to comply with the Brussels standard, and because in the none too distant future, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, indicated when he moved this Order, the Brussels standard will displace the 1 lb. pack altogether. I wish simply to draw the attention of the Minister, somewhat urgently, to the effects of this. The sugar industry already has vastly more capacity than the potential supplies of raw cane can take up. The cost of converting plant in a refinery from the manufacture of 1 lb. cartons to cartons of another size will run out at about £5,000 a machine, which is about £30,000 a plant. On the one hand, we have the implication of that change and its effect hanging over the manufacturers; on the other hand, we face the end of the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement and a projected reduction in the volume of imported raw cane to 1.4 million tons. Reorganisation to meet that contraction alone, if it takes place, will be expensive—certainly in plant and, quite possibly, in redundancies as well. The time to impose the heavy capital cost of conversion of machinery to metric sizes is shortly after, and not before, the Government finally decide on the future of the sugar industry. Therefore, may I ask the noble Lord to see that the publication of that decision follows as hard upon the heels of this Order as is possible?

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, I confess at once I have not the competence to debate the subject of metrication, but I cannot allow the opportunity to pass without objecting as strongly as I can to the suggestion by my noble friend Lord Jacques that we should pay tribute to those Members of your Lordships' House, and there must be others, responsible for metrication. I thought we had suffered enough from decimalisation. We still continue to suffer, although people have to tolerate it. There can be no doubt that as a result of decimalisation, there has been unnecessary and artificial inflation from which consumers have suffered. This can be argued at great length, but I have no wish to do so at the moment, thus occupying the time of your Lordships. The facts are there for everyone to observe.

Metrication was rushed through another place without very much argument, dismissing anything in the nature of contention, for the reason that at the time they were busy enough with other matters. Heaven knows! our country is busy enough with other more important, more difficult and more complex problems. I have no doubt at all that decimalisation and now metrication are associated with the Treaty of Accession to the Common Market. I was very glad to see to-day, as was my noble friend Lord Blyton, the introduction of the noble Lord, Lord Tranmire, formerly the father of another place, a highly respected member of the Conservative Party for many years. Although we differ politically, I have always had a high regard for him, and still have it. I recall his sincerely expressed opposition in another place in the frequent debates that occurred on the subject of the Treaty of Accession. I am glad that the noble Lord will be available at some time to share in our debates on that subject.

For the moment, however, I cannot allow the opportunity to pass to express my opposition to metrication. I know that our speeches receive very little publicity, but what I am about to say and what I have inferred already will be on the Record. I object vehemently, strongly, almost passionately, to this abominable suggestion, not because my noble friend Lord Jacques has been responsible for the utterance; I have no doubt it is on his brief. Those behind him are responsible for the suggestion. As I have said, I object with all my strength, meaning what I say, and no nonsense about it. I object to the suggestion that we should pay tribute to those who have laid this abominable imposition on the general public.

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, will forgive me if I do not follow him on the subject of metrication. I have some sympathy with what he said on the general subject, but not with what he said by way of withholding thanks from those of your Lordships who have been doing work at the request of the Government. My only qualification for saying anything on this Order is that two years ago I had the honour to be Chairman of a Joint Committee of both Houses which made the unanimous recommendation that in future such Orders as these should be examined as to their technical accuracy by a Joint Committee of both Houses. This is what happened in this case.

My Lords, the Joint Committee has drawn the special attention of both Houses to certain unsatisfactory features in the wording of this Order, particularly to cases of ambiguity. It has always seemed to me that the Ministry concerned should pay attention to the Parliamentary findings of a Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, and should take some action. In this case, it would be easy to take that action because this Order, which is at present only in draft, could be withdrawn and there could be laid a new draft Order which met the points, or at any rate endeavoured to meet the points, raised by the Joint Committee. It would be all the easier in this case because I note that the Order, although laid in draft now, is not to come into effect until October 1, 1975. Therefore, there is no immediate pressure of time. It is quite clear that the criticisms of the Joint Committee could have been met without serious inconvenience to anyone, and with benefit in clarity to the general public and the trade, by withdrawing this draft and laying a new one. I want to know why that has not been done.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, made reference to the Joint Committee. The noble Lord will be aware, as we all are, that nowhere is it written that the implementation of any decision arrived at by a Joint Committee shall be imposed upon the Government of the day. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell. I would back him up to the hilt concerning metrication. We were responsible as a Government for introducing decimalisation, but nothing has caused more unrest throughout the general population of this country. Such things as the increase of bus fares due to decimalisation has caused much unrest among our people.

We are getting ourselves tied down beforehand when Instruments of this nature are presented to the House. Irrespective of whether or not we continue in the Common Market, we have to follow the system operating on the Continent and in the European Economic Community. We ought not to give our consent to such Instruments as this. It is all right for the children at school and for adolescents; they can pick up these things quite quickly—my grandchildren can. But older people find these things very difficult. This we have to take into consideration. As with decimalisation, people are brought into a new world, and it is difficult for them to understand what is taking place.

Consideration must be given to the Weights and Measures Acts and to everything else involved. I sincerely hope the Government will have second thoughts before they try to impose the implementation of this particular Instrument, and that they will consider its effect so far as the British population is concerned.

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, as one who is concerned with consumer affairs, I wish to make one point. I personally support metrication. There are many arguments both ways, but I think it will do a great deal for the future generation. But we should metricate as quickly as we can. The worst possible thing we can do is to have two systems going along side by side. I have said this before. Of course, there is a fatal tendency on the part of Governments, of whatever complexion, to want to drag their feet on this issue because one knows it is not universally popular. I make the appeal that we should go ahead with such Orders as fast as we can. That is not to say that if the Order is defective it should not be tabled again. I am merely making the point in principle that we are not getting enough of these Orders nearly quickly enough.

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, first I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, whether they agree with me or not. I should like first to deal with the wording of the Order. I think its effects are being grossly exaggerated. Only a short while ago in this House we were debating a complex Bill, the Consumer Credit Bill, and we had long arguments about drafting. But there was one point on which the whole House, on all sides, was clear and united, and that was the virtue of being consistent; we all agreed that we should be consistent. This is really what the draftsmen have done.

Let us take the first of the points made by the Joint Committee. They questioned the wording in Article 3: Sugar which is not pre-packed shall be sold by retail only by net weight". The draftsmen have used that in the Order because this is an Order based upon the Weights and Measures Act 1963 in which this precise wording is used. The draftsmen are being consistent. However, I would say that the wording which is suggested by the Committee, Sugar which is not pre-packed, if sold by retail, shall be sold only by net weight is better than the wording in the Act, but I would nevertheless defend the draftsmen for having acted consistently. In this Report by the Committee, I would hope that in all the cases where they have suggested alternative wording the draftsmen will take note of it, because in every case the wording suggested by the Committee is undoubtedly better.

On the second point raised by the noble Lord, as to the confusion in the Order, this largely arises out of a Directive by the European Commission. In the discussion on metric weights and the appropriate scale for retail the United Kingdom took an active part after it was decided that we should go into the Community, and at the request of our consumer organisations the scale of metric weights was changed. The small weight of 125 grammes was put in, and it is in this Order originally at the request of consumers in this country, although it has little relevance to sugar. But I am advised that the E.E.C. Directive requires that the whole of the metric range which is in this Order shall be in, not just part of it, and that is why there is a metric range in this Order which is so different from the Imperial range. There is no attempt on anybody's part to put in a metric weight which would approxi mate the lb. That is going over to metric half-heartedly. It is expected that the lb. will be taken over by 500 grammes, which is 10 per cent. more, and it is for that reason that there is no attempt made to put in some odd number of grammes which would be approximately equal to one lb.

On the third point raised by the noble Lord, on the Explanatory Note, I would agree that the additional words suggested by the Committee would help, but they have no great significance, and in order to show that is so I shall read it to the House. The Order says: The Order provides that Parts VIII and IX of Schedule 4 to the Weights and Measures Act 1963 shall cease to apply to sugar. The Committee say, I think quite rightly, The force of the Note would have been more immediate had it gone on to say 'and those provisions shall be replaced by this Order'". That would have been a useful addition, but I do not think it is a material point. Therefore, I suggest to the House that the draftsmen were right in being consistent, that the Committee is also right in suggesting improvements in the wording, but that these improvements are of negligible significance and do not cause confusion and do not in any way invalidate this Order.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he is trying to prove to the House that the draftsmen, because of the Committee's recommendation, were perfect in every detail when they drafted the Statutory Instrument or when they drafted the Bill? Perhaps when the time comes and he has the responsibility for introducing a Bill he will know that the draftsman is not always right—far from it.


My Lords, I am not suggesting that the draftsmen are always right. I am saying they are right in being consistent, and remember they are being consistent with the Weights and Measures Act passed by a Conservative Administration who apparently approved the wording. I am also saying that the draftsmen should take note of the recommendations of the Committee in regard to the wording, because there will be many other Orders similar to this in the near future. I am not by any means saying that the draftsmen are always right.

There is an urgency in regard to this Order. The trade are frustrated by the delays that have occurred in getting this Order to this point, and they are asking that they should have this Order as soon as possible. They want this Order so that they can plan their programme of re-equipment. It is their wish that they should re-equip on metric lines. It is not something that has been forced upon them by somebody else. I would remind your Lordships that the sugar industry has at least some export trade in pre-packed sugar, where they are packing in metric weights, and it would obviously be to the convenience of the industry if they were packing in the same weights for the home market. I hope that the House will not reject this Order at this juncture of time because of the criticisms of the Committee, which should be taken into account, but which are not serious.

To my noble friend Lord Shinwell I would say that he is confusing decimalisation with metrication. I think there is evidence that on the occasion of decimalisation there was an impetus to inflation, but I often think it is blamed in a way in which it should not be blamed. I think the effect of decimalisation on inflation has been grossly exaggerated by those people who wanted to exaggerate it. But here we are on another matter. We are on metrication. We are on the weights and measures and not the money, and there is no evidence that metrication has resulted in any inflation. In point of fact, earlier this year there was a shortage of sugar. Some retailers imported pre-packed sugar from the Continent. That sugar was packed in kilogrammes, which are 10 per cent. more than two 1bs. They showed the metric weight, with its 10 per cent. more, at the same price as two 1bs. in their shops. That is, I suggest, the opposite to causing inflation.

I agree that once you have decided to change your weights and measures system then the quicker you get on with it the better, because the process of change is not limited to the shop; the process of change starts in the schools and works right throughout the whole system. Having started that process of change then you must not hesitate, you must get on with it. I would also plead that metrication will be exceedingly helpful to this country, not merely in exporting to Europe but in exporting to the Commonwealth. Every Commonwealth country with the exception of Sierra Leone is already metricated. I would have thought Lord Shinwell, with his support for the Commonwealth, would have wanted to get in line with them so that we can get our goods on to the Commonwealth markets. In these circumstances I am surprised at his criticism.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, has said, and I think that he has given a spirited defence of the Order, but I am not sure that he has met the feeling of the House on this matter. The two arguments raised against the Order were the arguments on the merits raised by the noble Lords, Lord Shinwell and Lord Slater, who were concerned about metrication—I think that most Members of your Lordships' House would feel that to consider whether accepting or rejecting an Order is not perhaps the place to settle a major issue of this sort; and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, to whom we listen with such respect on matters concerning delegated legislation, raised this central issue as to whether or not the comments, for the second time we understand, of the Joint Select Committee on Statutory Instruments had been fully considered by the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. My noble friend Lord Elton gave chapter and verse of that in his opening speech.

As I understand it, what the noble Lord who has just replied for the Government has said is that he accepts the validity of the comments made by the Joint Select Committee, that he thinks that the wording proposed by them is better, but that what is contained within the order is consistent with the wording used in other legislation, and that therefore he would put consistency above clarity. This is an argument that should be pursued, and I am not satisfied (I do not know whether my noble friend is) that there is any reason why the noble Lord should not take this Order back.

I very much hope that it will not be necessary to reject the Order. I hope that the noble Lord might feel—the noble Lord the Leader of the House is with him and he might well feel the same—that what has been said spontaneously in this debate would lead him to withdraw the Order, to look again at the wording, and discuss it with his Department. There is nothing like pressure from a House of Parliament (this House or another place) to enable a Department to look at something at a much higher level, with greater concentration, involving perhaps the Secretary of State herself, whose work in this field we all admire and respect, and then come back to the House again.

As we see, the Order does not come into operation until October 1, 1975. The noble Lord has told us that the trade would like to see it earlier so that they would know where they stand and could prepare themselves. We understand that argument, but I cannot believe that to ask the Government, and the noble Lord the Leader of the House, to withdraw the Order, to look at it again, and do it urgently and quickly, and then come back with perhaps a revised Order before the Summer Recess, is asking too much; and this I now do on behalf of the House.

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, I have participated, over quite a few years, in seeking to amend a Bill's phraseology when it has appeared strange, and I have listened to Ministers of Governments of different complexions all arguing that you can raise a serious question of doubt when you are legislating in a particular field and you suddenly change the phraseology from what has been recognised. I can well remember some of the arguments in the last Session with, I think it was, the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. It seems to me that my noble friend was quite right to argue on the basis of consistency and the desire to avoid doubt among those who have to administer the Order and regulation.

In regard to the Report, I understand that this was received only last night by the Department, and of course the Order had already been placed on the Order Paper. Why was it placed on the Order Paper? I understand that it was because the Department, because of considerable pressure from industry, has asked for this Order to be passed by both Houses of Parliament by the end of June. Therefore, one is in a dilemma. Should one delay, recognising the consequences, which are not necessarily serious but with a degree of worry for industry? Should one take the view of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that one should have another look at this? Or, at the end of the day, should we decide—as I suspect that perhaps we may—that it is right to retain consistency in the field of legislation, making sure that what is in an Order is understood and is clear to everyone in regard to the parent Act?

I am not a lawyer, and I am only speaking on the advice that has been given to me over many years by lawyers in your Lordships' House. If the noble Lord has made an appeal that this Order should be taken back and looked at, I should be the first to accept it. If he wishes to pursue it, then I would strongly advise the House to agree, but I hope that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, when he presses it again, will recognise the importance of seeing that Orders that stem from a parent Act should remain consistent and clear, not only in the interests of Parliament but in the interests of those who are called upon to administer them. If he presses it, I should be willing to have it withdrawn and looked at, but I must say to the noble Lord that I would have to ask the House to take it on Friday when we are meeting, because I believe that the Government have a sense of obligation to the industry to put beyond all peradventure, all doubt, what is in fact Parliament's mind here, because that is what the industry is concerned about. It is not what the Government have in mind in this field, but whether Parliament in fact will sanction it, and until the Order has been passed there will be that element of doubt. If the noble Lord asks me to withdraw it, I hope that he will recognise that it is bringing into question what I think has always been the case that has been made by Ministers, whether or not they have been lawyers, of the need to keep the parent legislation close to that of all the Orders and regulations that flow from it.


My Lords, if I may have the leave of the House to speak again briefly on this Order because a question has been put to me, I should like to thank the noble Lord for that reply. It was a very fair reply, and it sets out the issues in a generous and proper way. I should like to press the request that the Order be withdrawn. I do so for one reason in particular arising out of what the noble Lord has just said. If I am right, he told us that the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection received the Report from the Joint Select Committee only yesterday. This must mean that no official at a senior level, knowing the pressure upon them in the private office of the Secretary of State, can have seen this matter or considered it at all. When they come to do so, they may come to one conclusion or another, and I shall certainly not oppose the conclusion to which they come at a later stage. In those circumstances, I think it would be right to ask the noble Lord to do as he suggested, and withdraw this Order.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend, I would beg leave to withdraw this Order, on the understanding that we take it on Friday.

On Question, Motion, by leave, withdrawn.