§ 5.4 p.m.
§ Lord ORR-EWING rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what are their plans for the continuation of the conversion to metric units of measurement. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I put down this Unstarred Question in order to give Her Majesty's Government an opportunity to state both firmly and categorically that the change to metrication in this country is to continue. Having been chairman of the Metrication Board from 1972 to 1977, and having noticed that this 1042 debate was to take place today, I got in touch with my successor, Mr. Max Wood, chairman of the Metrication Board, to ask him to update me and to give me some notes. I did the same with the CBI, to Mr. Etoe, and to the British Standards Institute; and I owe a debt of gratitude to all those three organisations, who have been most helpful in bringing me up to date with the progress, or lack of progress, since I left.
§ My Lords, it was in 1965—just 15 years ago—that the FBI then, now called the CBI, told the Government of the day that they favoured a change in this country to the metric system; and it was in 1969 that the Metrication Board was first set up under Lord Ritchie-Calder—and I am delighted to see him in his place, and that he is kindly going to join in the debate. Then, 1975 was the target for completion. We have to face it: we have been dragging our feet. No Government like to bring forward subsidiary legislation which is not wildly popular, perhaps, and does not attract votes, least of all in electoral years; but I am afraid it is a sympton of a rather Luddite approach. We are very bad at introducing new schemes, new systems and new products into this country. Throughout the world, 143 countries have decided to adopt the metric system, and perhaps of all those countries it is more important for us because we are so utterly dependent on our export trade for the support of our 55 million people.
§ What is sad is that other countries, particularly our Commonwealth friends, who started after us, have made very much quicker progress than we have here. New Zealand, for example, has finished the change. Australia, as we are reminded when we listen to the Test matches, has virtually completed the change, too. India has long finished it. The African countries are proceeding, and perhaps the biggest and richest of them all, Nigeria, has virtually completed it. In Canada, legislation has now been passed to complete the retail sector change by 1981. In the United States, the Metric Board has been set up for some two years, and they are making progress, particularly in the gasolene field. Recently, a Parliamentary Question was put down to Mrs. Sally Oppenheim, the Minister for Consumer Protection, which asked how British 1043 exports were divided between metric and other countries. The Answer was pretty devastating. It was that, in 1978, 66.8 per cent. of all United Kingdom exports were to countries which were already metric; another 32.8 per cent. were to countries which were changing to the metric system; and only 0.4 per cent. were to countries which were not changing and had no plans to do so.
§ I believe it was a mistake for Her Majesty's Government to reject some supporting legislation which would back up the voluntary effort in the retail sector, because every important organisation in the United Kingdom had agreed that a purely voluntary system would not bring this about. The organisations which took this view were widespread: the National Consumer Council. the CBI, the National Union of Teachers, the National Farmers' Union, the Retail Consortium, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the local authorities, Age Concern and organisations representing retailers, packers, wholesalers, engineers and manufacturers, All agreed that the time had come for the Government to plan a timetable change, and not to leave us in doubt about the future.
§ It is interesting to note that every other free country has found it necessary to have back-up legislation to complete the change. After all, we have had compulsory legislation for many centuries in the field of weights and measures. You are not free to weigh out goods in pounds of your own choosing; they must be very accurate or you are in trouble. It is not unusual in the weights and measures area to have some compulsion. We initiated in my time—and it has gone on; and the noble Baroness, Lady White, did much as my deputy chairman—long discussions with the retail sector about weighed-out goods and measured-out goods. All those that we consulted rejected voluntary and piecemeal metrication. No one would recommend it to their members. All seemed willing to accept an orderly time-tabled programme with legislation to ensure that there was fair trading, fair competition and an orderly change-over. Some associations were even willing to see the smallest retailer, the corner shop, the village shop, exempted from legal requirements.1044
§ The manner in which we have dragged out this change has cost us a lot of money. The cost of the overlap period is measured in terms of our making goods to double standards, stocking goods to double standards and supplying them to double standards. It means double-stocking in all our warehouses. The CBI tell me—and they have taken a small sample—that five small companies calculated that it would cost them a total of £320,000 to make the complete change; but that the total saving that would be realised annually—not just once, but annually—would be more than twice that at £709,000. On a bigger scale, GKN reported that they had £40 million tied up in duplicate stocks of threaded fasteners. I am glad to say that the CBI are now initiating a bigger survey to evaluate more accurately the cost of double stocks and the cost of not going over to a single system. The CBI feel that what is needed is a positive lead from Her Majesty's Government which will allow all companies—not those that I have just quoted and particularly those who are contractors, subcontractors and sub-subcontractors in the field export or with export interests to go ahead.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim decided in her wisdom to dissolve the Metrication Board, now 28 strong. That is to be done on 30th April. I do not want in any way to criticise that decision. We always had it in mind—even in Lord Ritchie-Calder's day; and, certainly, in mine—that at about 1980 we would virtually have completed the change-over. But I must confess that we all thought then that it would be more thoroughly completed, particularly in the retail sector, than has been the case. Her decision to slow down the change in the retail sector will certainly slow matters down; and I am afraid that it will certainly add to the cost. And I am afraid that also it will add somewhat to the confusion of the consumers.
§ I should like to ask my noble friend Lord Trenchard, who is the Minister responsible, the Minister for Industry, this question. When the Metrication Board goes, who will pick up the ball? Who will mastermind the change? The change, or the remainder of it, concerns the Minister for Industry, the Minister for Trade, the Minister of Education—and I am glad to say that although we oldsters may find it tiresome to think in the new terms, this does not apply to the young 1045 ones, for 19 million come out of our schools trained to think in metric terms as a primary system—and it concerns also the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. But surely somebody must be responsible overall for planning this orderly change.
My Lords, I should like to thank all who have stayed to join in this debate. My noble friend will recall from his intimate knowledge of the Bible:
If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle?".
I am going to give him the opportunity not to give an uncertain sound but to give a blast on the trumpet on behalf of the Government to show that we are to make steady and continuous advances in metrication, particularly in the field for which he has the responsibility, that of industry.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Baroness SEEAR
My Lords, I should like to support strongly the proposition that the Government should take positive action to promote the full implementation of metrication in this country. A few weeks ago the Minister of State at the Department of Trade, Mrs. Oppenheim, led people to believe that the Government would go very slow on the whole issue of metrication. I have no doubt that that statement was received joyfully by conservatives in all parties; but, to a very large extent, that was the enthusiasm of ignorance, the bliss of ignorance, for I think it true that from the failure to educate the public in what is involved in the whole issue of metrication, the idea has grown up that metrication would involve inconveniences—and these have been stressed—whereas the costs and losses incurred by the failure to metricate have not been made clear to the public at all. Whenever the subject is discussed in uninformed circles—and those uninformed circles are very large indeed—the only thing you get is a reference to what happened at the time of decimalisation. I do not even know what happened at the time of decimalisation, and nobody can tell you what it was. They all refer to the fact that awful things happened then, and, therefore, if we went into metrication, the same thing would happen.
It is a crazy argument, but the sort of argument put forward by people who have never been presented with the facts of what 1046 is involved in going metric and the costs of not going metric. The fact is that, if we had decided years ago that we were not to go metric, that would have been a mistake, but, at least, there would have been some logic in the present position. What is absolutely crazy is that we decided that we were going along that road and then ran out of steam and we are suspended halfway between an imperial system and a metric system which is about the worst situation in which we could be.
The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, has already given your Lordships most of the important facts in connection with cost of metrication and the absurd position in which we now find ourselves. I should like to underline one or two of the points he made and to add some specific cases. It surely must be crazy—and can we not get a headline on this?—that this country, dependent as it is on export trade, is in the dotty position of making in imperial standards, whereas (with those that are committed to it as well as those that already operate the metric system) over 99 per cent. of the people to whom we sell are operating on the metric basis. There can be no justification for a great trading country to persist in making in standards which are not the standards required by the people to whom we sell. The result is that we are making in both metric and imperial standards—which is an extremely costly and wasteful way of proceeding. We are now hopelessly behind the times.
When we last debated this some years ago—and I am referring to the last major debate—there were a few at least of our very important customers, such as the United States, that had not gone the whole length of metrication. It was then possible to say that there were still some important countries, even if a minority, which maintained the imperial standard. I think that I am right in saying that the only "whole hoggers", so to speak, against the metric system are now Brunei, Burma, Liberia and the two Yemens. They are not the great leaders of trade or the great industrial nations with whom, with all respect to them, we would normally expect to be associated. I very much doubt whether one person in 100,000 in the population as a whole realises in what very limited company we now move as the great exponents of the imperial standard system.
1047 The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, has referred to the fact that our schools, ahead of the industrial and political world, have, over many years, been teaching youngsters in the metric standard. It is the case that when young boys or girls come out of school, having been taught to do calculations in the metric system, and they move into an apprenticeship in industry—into which as a whole it is highly desirable that they should go, and in which too few of them seem very enthusiastic about going—they then find that they have to learn to operate in the imperial standard. I am informed that they have to be sent on courses to learn how to operate the imperial standard, because, ahead of their time, they have been taught the metric system. I find it difficult to imagine anything less encouraging than for a boy or a girl who enters industry, having been told that this is where the future lies, to find that what they have been taught at school is ahead of what industry is doing, so that they have to waste their time being taught an old system for which there is no future.
May I add one other example, because I have the great honour of being associated with the British Standards Institution. Since 1971–72, British standards have been worked out in the metric system, quite rightly, because not only were we led to believe that this would be the standard of the future, but of course because British standards—I am very glad to say—have a worldwide acceptance. It would be ridiculous for the British Standards Institution to be doing its work in anything other than the metric system. The British Standards Institution is not working out standards in imperial calculations so that those organisations which persist in working on the imperial standard are either not using BSI standards, or they are using old standards which can in themselves be very undesirable.
For these and other reasons—which further speakers will no doubt bring forward—I urge Her Majesty's Government to bring this subject to the forefront. It has slipped from people's consciousness, it is not a matter of discussion. It is a matter about which the public are in very considerable ignorance and will stay in considerable ignorance unless a real effort is made to bring it to the forefront of people's consciousness and bring forward the basically simple and overwhelmingly 1048 compelling argument why we should now quickly take steps to see that in a very short time we are with the vast majority of countries in the world which are operating metric.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Baroness WHITE
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, indicated, I had the pleasure of working with him as his deputy at the Metrication Board for about four years, most amicably, considering our difference of views on various ideological matters and other fields. All of us who have had to deal with metrication in the United Kingdom know that its history has been bedevilled by three things. As the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said, by decimalisation of the coinage; secondly, by confusion with issues connected with the European Community; and, thirdly, by the pusilianimous attitude of successive Governments, each in turn giving way to the temptation of simplistic populist appeal. The trauma of decimalisation is surely behind us. I cannot believe that any Member of your Lordships' House really wants to go back to 12 pence in the shilling. If you do, my Lords, then you are not the men I take you to be. Why therefore should we have so little confidence in our ability to overcome the loss of 16 ounces in the pound or 36 inches in the yard? To anyone brought up in the modern world, to choose to waste one's energies in the extra labour of calculations involved with such units when one can do it by moving a decimal point is ludicrous.
On the second factor, a debate in another place on 19th December last indicated the mental confusion of those who suppose that metrication is a wicked ploy thought up by our colleagues in the Common Market. It is quite true, of course, that the French started it at the time of the French Revolution. They invited us to join in but we declined the invitation, although it is just about 100 years since the other place almost passed a resolution to adopt metrication—it was lost by only five votes.
As the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, emphasised, for us as a trading nation not to realise that it is now officially calculated that not more than 0.4 per cent.—just think how minuscule that is—of our overseas trade is with non-metric countries, or countries that have a firm pro- 1049 gramme for going metric, leads one to despair. These countries include virtually all our Commonwealth partners which have tackled their problems of transition from imperial to metric with a spirit and determination which leaves us in Britain looking pretty sick, tired and old, clinging to a nostalgic past. Surely we we are capable of achieving what our Australian and New Zealand cousins have accomplished, not to mention many countries in the Third World. I am all for maintaining the aesthetic quality of our language and literature; but one may have a scruple about hiding one's light under a bushel, even if one has only the haziest notion of the precise measure denoted by a scruple or a bushel. One can go along with the poetry of Full Fathom Five or Half a League Onwards without being altogether certain of the dimensions of either a league or a fathom. I do not feel that this is an overwhelming argument, although I know that it influences a good many people.
On the third factor, the attitude of successive Governments, I must tell the House that I have been more depressed over the past few years since I became closely concerned with metrication by the attitude of successive Governments to this problem than by their handling or mishandling of matters which seem to be of much greater moment. Both major parties have shown a lack of resilience and courage which is known in detail only to those of us who have been really concerned with the matter. It has, I fear been symptomatic of our declining powers that this challenge is one that we find so hard to take in our stride.
So now we face a situation of confusion and muddle, of a waste of time, effort and expense in maintaining two systems side by side, of squandering the very real educational achievement emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, of our schools which have brought up several generations of children to feel familiar with the modern world. However, as we have heard, the children continue to emerge bewildered into our backward-looking society which has not kept pace with change.
It must never be forgotten that this change was undertaken in 1965 at the direct request of British industry. It was 1050 not the bureaucrats of Whitehall who thought it up; it was the then Federation of British Industry—now called the CBI—which has been absolutely steadfast in its support. I am sure that some of its leaders must share the feelings already expressed in your Lordships' House.
It is true that it is at the consumer end, the retailing end, that we have come unstuck. With hindsight, it might have been better had we tackled these difficulties first as I believe some other countries have done, and had we done so, perhaps, with greater imagination. For example, I learned only yesterday an interesting detail of the Australian plan of which I had not been aware: that they did not say, "You must not use any imperial scales you happen to have". What they did was to forbid the sale of any new imperial scales, so that all new scales had to be in the metric system. That seemed to me a rather skilful way of tackling an admittedly difficult question. The matter of replacement of scales, as my colleagues on the Metrication Board know very well, took up a great deal of our time and attention.
I should like to draw to your Lordships' attention a particularly striking speech during the debate in the other place on 19th December, which was made by Mr. Tim Sainsbury. He speaks with undeniable authority from the experience of his firm serving, as it does, some two million customers a week—of which I am one. He expressed his disgust—I think that is a fair word to use—over the wastefulness and stupidity of the present dual system, with imperial and metric side by side, with all the attendant costs—at a time when we are exhorted to save all we can—and which adds very considerably to the confusion of the shopper and the housewife.
It may be right for the Metrication Board to go. I should like to pay my tribute to the dedication of its officers in the face of considerable discouragement. It has never, except in its earliest days, had behind it the political "clout" of Ministers. Its functions are now presumably to be divided among the Department of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Ministry of Transport, the Department of Education and Science, and the rest. But who is going to give authoritative 1051 and non-conflicting replies to the 6,000 or so letters each month which have to be dealt with by the Metrication Board? To whom are people to turn, as they can turn now, for advice, explanation and assistance? We hope very much that the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, will be able to enlighten us.
Also, who is to keep track of the voluntary effort which the present Government fondly believe will do all that is necessary for continuing peaceful change to the metric system?—because, as I understand it, the Government have not given up the metric system: they simply do not want to go on with it. Of course, one does everything possible by agreement. There is endless consultation with every conceivable interest concerned. I doubt whether there has been more consultation, relative to the scope of the operation, on any subject in recent years than there has on metrication—and we have had 15 years of it.
At the end of the day—and this is in other spheres of government and administration—there comes a point when someone must exert some authority. After you have done everything you can by persuasion you will always have some people who will find a reason for not going along, even though it is clearly in the public interest that they should do so. We have accepted this in many spheres of public administration. You do everything you can by persuasion and everything you can by voluntary agreement and you consult in every direction; but eventually there is a point at which somebody must take some responsibility.
I do not believe that it is right, as I understand that Government wish to do, to leave this responsibility entirely to the trade associations, the retail organisations and the rest. We have now had years of experience of voluntary effort. We know what it means and what the difficulties and pitfalls are. I would say, by and large, that in industry, where there has been very firm leadership from the major firms, it works reasonably well but as regards anything to do with the retail trade it is completely hit-or-miss affair.
It is true that, for example, an organisation like the Post Office, which is a monopoly, can express its postage rates in 1052 metric because there what people worry about basically is the cost rather than the unit of measurement. It may be that, with petrol prices soaring, the petrol outlets will succeed in the proposed voluntary change from gallons to litres in what is in any event a highly centralised distribution system. But I know from considerable personal experience the problems of dealing with ordinary household shops.
May I give your Lordships one example in which I was myself closely involved: that is, the sale of carpets and floor coverings. It is perhaps an outstanding example. Tremendous trouble was taken to try to get agreement, and we had a very large measure of success. A date was fixed and much time and effort was spent on staff training. Almost all the main retail traders—the big chain stores and the department stores—co-operated admirably. There were one or two notable exceptions and some of the smaller shops in the high street understandably hesitated. There was no official back-up for any sort of date in the future by which the operation should be completed should the voluntary effort lose momentum.
What happened? Although a metre is only some three inches longer than a yard, a square metre is significantly larger than a square yard, and carpets are an expensive domestic investment. To advertise, side by side, square yard prices and square metre prices confuses the public. The operation happened to coincide with a "squeeze" period in the economy. The smaller shops felt they would do better with the apparently lower prices per square yard and, after a truly gallant effort, the larger enterprises faltered. I will not go into further details and bore your Lordships, but I would say that, though the battle has not been lost, there has been a significant retreat; and behind this relative failure lies a great deal of effort of which the critics remain blissfully ignorant—wasted effort.
We have all kinds of anomalies in our shops. Furnishing fabrics are sold partly in metric and partly in imperial. On the other hand, dress fabrics and trimmings are almost all now sold in metric, largely because the paper pattern designers were persuaded to turn rapidly to metric and therefore the purchasers of materials to make up the patterns followed suit without any real difficulty.
1053 On the food side, we have the ridiculous situation that certain foods may be sold in metric but must be per unit priced in imperial—how helpful to the consumer! Because of Government failure to help the public to make the change sensibly and courageously, we now face the prospect of wasteful, two-system confusion possibly until 1989, if we are still in the European Community at that time.
As the debate in the other place on 19th December made clear, the Community did not initiate the system of units of measurement known as "SI" (Système International) to which they ask Member States to adhere. It is a world-wide system, not a plot hatched in Brussels; and we still have until 1989 completely to comply. The glee with which some Members of the other place greeted the prospect of further possible delay till 1989, and then the prospect that the United Kingdom might still be able to use its veto when that year arrived, simply reinforced one's despair at the image we must create. Perhaps it is more significant than one used to suppose that our units of measurement are called imperial and that we cling to them helplessly as the last vestiges of Empire. Let us keep the past in our poetry and song, but let us, for goodness' sake, show ourselves to be what we once used to be—the best shopkeepers in Europe.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Lord MONSON
My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for giving us the opportunity to debate this matter tonight. Whether he will be as grateful for my intervention I am not so sure, although I suspect that I shall be the only speaker taking the view that I do, at least from the Back Benches.
Unlike noble Lords who have spoken so far, I warmly support Mrs. Oppenheim's action in winding-up the Metrication Board, not that I would deny for a moment the hard work put in by members of that board; and, obviously, one must pay tribute to their achievements in that sense. I support Mrs. Oppenheim's action for at least two reasons. First, it demonstrates that the Conservatives are, from time to time, prepared to pay rather more than lip service to the concept of individual freedom which they purport to 1054 uphold. There was a time, indeed, such was the fervour of the obsessive metricators, that one seriously feared Britain might go the way of South Africa in making any mention of imperial units by the media a criminal offence. It demonstrates, too, that Conservatives with a large "C" can occasionally be conservatives with a small "c", in the very best sense of that term; that is to say, in upholding the traditions which have contributed to our development as the distinct people that we are, and not just as part of the grey amorphous mass.
An enormous number of people hold these views, but many are reluctant to express them for fear of appearing un-trendy. That is one more reason to regret the sad and untimely death of the former City Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Mr. Patrick Hutber. He was a staunch upholder of the freedom of the individual and, as a corollary, was passionately opposed to compulsory metrication. Contrary to superficial appearances, this is not just a question of being reactionary, of opposing all change on principle. As I think I said once before, when we discussed this matter on an earlier occasion, it would not worry me in the slightest if a decision were made that in future British motorists should drive on the right of the road, rather than on the left; and this. I submit, is a far more radical change than metrication or decimalisation.
What is more, I believe it is right that not only wine should be sold in litres and centiliters; after all, most drinkable wine comes from Latin countries and one would therefore expect that. But it seems reasonable to me that spirits and soft drinks ought to be measured in litres and centilitres as well, for the simple reason that fluid ounces are not part of everyday usage. But most of us, I submit, generally prefer imperial units of measurement. I quite appreciate that other noble Lords feel differently, but that is what freedom is all about. People who think like myself find them more fitting, and this is not surprising because imperial measurements—and if I may correct the noble Baroness, Lady White, they are nothing to do with the British Empire; they evolved from the Roman Empire—
§ Lord MONSON
But, my Lords, it is not quite the same thing.
As I was saying, imperial measurements evolved over the years from the real needs of real people. They were not the creation of cloistered academics, unaware of the desirability of having units that divide by three without leaving untidy fractions. Imperial units tend to be on a human scale that one can visualise. It is possible, admittedly, that one can (with some difficulty) visualise a centimetre, and rather more readily visualise a decilitre, which is about the capacity of a decent size glass of wine. But the Systéme International does not now allow us to use centimetres or decilitres. It has to be millimetres or millilitres, which are far smaller than the human eye can gauge.
It is not only the ordinary man and the ordinary woman who find the rule of thumb useful: we do not all carry calculators, steel tapes and balances around with us. Professional people, too, find it useful from time to time. There are still plenty of architects and surveyors who pace out a site or an area in the first instance. They pace it out in yards, not metres, because if they tried to do so in metres they would run the risk of doing themselves a serious injury. Of course, precise measurements have to be taken eventually, but they can equally well be in yards or feet as well as metres. One might as well finish as one starts out—if one is building for a British client.
While we are talking about precision, which I assume is one of the aims of the metricators, why on earth replace the relatively precise Fahrenheit scale for measuring temperature by the far less precise Centigrade, or Celsius, scale? The Centrigrade scale is only 55.55 recurring per cent. as precise as the Fahrenheit scale or, to put it in another way, the Fahrenheit scale is 80 per cent. more precise than the Centigrade one. Furthermore, a scale of zero to 100 degrees Fahrenheit happens to embrace the normal range of climate to be found in the average temperate zone country over a 10-year period. The fact that 100 degrees Centigrade happens to represent the point at which pure water boils at sea level is really of no consequence in daily terms to the farmer, the football manager, the person who is wondering whether to go to Brighton for the day and so on.
1056 Of course, I am not insensitive—I revert to what the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, was talking about—to the need of exporters, although it should be pointed out that somebody wanting to sell cars to the United States would have to convert back from metric to imperial, because——
§ Lord ORR-EWING
My Lords, may I correct the noble Lord, because I am sure he would not want to deceive the House. All the car makers in the United States now make to metric standards, because they are international companies and they recognise, and have recognised for three years, that they have to market both at home and overseas in the metric system. So that all their cars are designed to metric standards.
§ Lord MONSON
My Lords, I was under the impression that engine capacity in the United States was measured in cubic inches and not in cubic centimetres. I think that the noble Lord is probably talking about the length and width of the bodywork. I am not sure. We should not forget, too, that the aircraft on which I am, God willing, to fly out to the East tomorrow will be flying not between 6,000 and 12,000 metres, but between 20,000 and 40,000 feet. Fathoms and nautical miles are still used and tape recorder speeds—and you cannot get much more in tune with contemporary society than with tape recorders—are measured in imperial and not metric terms. However, I accept that for most exporters' purposes knowledge and use of the metric system is vital.
The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, did not make it clear whether he was thinking specifically of capital goods exporters or consumer goods exporters. Capital goods exporters already have an enormous amount of paper work to do. They have to print their assembly installation instructions, operating instructions and maintenance instructions in any variety of languages, from Finnish and Portuguese to Urdu and Japanese. I do not believe that he was thinking of them: I believe that it was consumer goods exporters that he had in mind. In several countries—Switzerland, Belgium and Canada among them—consumer goods manufacturers are obliged by law to print their packaging in at least two languages. This does not seem to hinder them.
1057 Then, of course, the biscuit manufacturers—and I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, will have something to say about them—list their ingredients in a number of languages, as well as giving the weight in both imperial measurement, 7.05 ounces, say, and metric measurement, 250 grammes. To put both systems of measurement on the packet is really far less trouble, I should have thought, than printing the ingredients in three or four languages.
What we seem to be left with is the anguished cry: "What about the kiddies?" The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, made this point. Well, what about them? I am constantly travelling in countries, not all of which are exactly noted for a high incidence of intellectual genius, where, as a matter of course, nearly everybody—school children, young married couples, the middle-aged, the elderly—speak two or even three languages quite fluently. Apart from the obvious utility of knowing two or three languages, I suggest that this is good exercise for the mind. With this in view, it is a slur on British children to suggest that they are incapable of absorbing the metric system together with the system which is a fundamental part of our culture and heritage and which is interwoven into the world's finest literature and poetry. Therefore, I fully support the Government in "setting the people free" on this issue, and I urge them to stick to their guns.
§ 5.51 p.m.
§ Lord RITCHIE-CALDER
My Lords, I am very glad that I am in a position to follow the noble Lord, Lord Monson. I was afraid that we were going to have such a chorus of support for metrication that we would lose the authentic voice of those who, in very small numbers but very loudly, have been shouting and screaming at us over the last 15 years. When we were facing opposition to metrication, I encountered in the other House 25 Members of Parliament who were totally opposed to it. They were divided between those whom I call "the folklorists", like the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and those who were saying, as the noble Baroness, Lady White, pointed out, that this was a devious device for dragging us into the Common Market. 1058 I do not know why any Government should listen only to these voices when the argument, as has been pointed out, was so overwhelming. This was not a question of the bureaucrats dreaming up jobs for themselves, nor was it a question of the academic élite forcing metrication upon us. The call for metrication came from those people who are earning our living for us; namely, from industry.
As the first chairman of the Metrication Board, I have, in what I regard quite definitely as a very grievous situation, a sense of responsibility and a sense of personal grievance. I have a sense of responsibility for the distinguished men and women who have served the Board. We were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, of this great self-sacrificing group that we can call upon in this country. Furthermore, hundreds of similarly distinguished people have served on the sector committees and the working groups, giving freely of their expertise—expertise which money could not buy—and whose efforts have been treated with contempt by the Minister, Mrs. Sally Oppenheim, who chose a pickle factory in Bury St. Edmunds as the venue for her ill-considered announcement that there would be no more cut-off orders for imperial weights and measures. As your Lordships will have noticed, that is not quite true, because there have been sotto voce orders since then from the other Bench.
I feel a sense of personal grievance and, indeed, a sense of betrayal because I accepted appointment as the first chairman of the Metrication Board on understandings which were honoured neither by the Labour Government which appointed me nor, for my successors, by successive Governments since. I agreed, as would many people of common sense, that metrication should be achieved by voluntary methods. Indeed, I could not see, with all the complexities extending into every sector of the economy and so many sectors of society, how it could be done otherwise than by voluntary methods. But in accepting the recommendations of his Standing Joint Committee on Metrication that a Metrication Board should be set up the Minister of Technology said, and I quote from Hansard of 26th July, 1968, cols. 1167 to 1711: 1059The Government accept that legislation will be needed to remove obstacles to the adoption of metric units and to define the units to be used".There was nothing inconsistent in that statement with what we were maintaining about doing it by voluntary methods. What the Minister was emphasising, and what I was promised when I took over, was that whatever obstacles stood in the way of adjustments, they would be removed by means of Statutory Instrument.
As the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, pointed out, when we are speaking about weights and measures we are speaking about things which have been treated in this way since the beginning of time. It is in Leviticus; it goes all through history, right through the Winchester measurements, and so on. It was a standard by which one could prevent cheating. There are various kinds of cheating. You can cheat within the system or you can cheat between the system. What we are finding now in this confusion is that small shopkeepers are totally confused, because they are being put upon from all directions.
Ultimately, agreement was reached all the way down the line, as the noble Baroness, Lady White, pointed out. There was an enormous amount of consultation during the last 15 years, with the aim of satisfying everybody, including the consumer. When I took over I was told that I would be lynched by the housewife. I went round the country and talked to the women's movements, to housewives and so on and found, on the contrary, that they were insulted by the suggestion that they would be unable to cope. That is not quite true of the discussions one hears at the moment in the clubs and the pubs.
After the failure, as the noble Baroness, Lady White, pointed out, by only five votes in the Commons in 1871–109 years ago—to make the metric system compulsory, the Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act 1897 made the metric system lawful in trade and commerce. Our job in the Metrication Board was to shift it from a secondary system to a primary system which was more functional, more useful and more efficient.
1060 As I said at the time, I was not there to abolish the pint; I was there to liberate the litre. I described the scope of the board as a marshalling yard. The task of the various sector committees, working through industrial and trade associations, through agricultural and educational bodies and in close consultation with consumer interests, was to assemble the wagons and fix realistic timetables upon which they could become effectively metric. But the Government, in order to give us access to and exit from that marshalling yard, had to operate the signals and clear the lines so that the movements could be synchronised. Everything would get hopelessly out of kilter if suppliers and users were operating under different Statutory Instruments, with different statutory units, to different time points.
We got things moving with much fewer difficulties than we expected because most of the preparatory work had already been done very thoroughly in the five years before the Board took over—and because our sector committees and working groups secured the respect, support and vigorous co-operation of their colleagues throughout their sectors. We could shift the points and shunt the wagons, but Governments were dilatory in changing the signals. The line was cluttered with obsolete instruments.
Britain took the decision to go metric in 1965 when the Government accepted the inescapable arguments of the then Federation of British Industries and the findings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society, the British Standards Institute and the Association of British Chambers of Commerce. With the backing of all these people, and their strong representations, the Government undertook the transition from the folklore of imperial units to the simpler and coherent system of metric units and decided to adopt a common numerical language in which to talk business to the rest of the world.
The lead time—that is, the time to be taken throughout the process of conversion—was accepted as 10 years. It was also accepted in the Government's Statement. The Standing Joint Committee on Metrication has done a masterly job of prep- 1061 aration for converting the historical compulsion into an efficient voluntary system. When I said in the Board's report of 1970 that Britain would be metric in 1975, I can assure your Lordships that I was dealing with a realistic timetable. Events have proved me wrong and 10 years later we are only 70 per cent. (or two-thirds) metric, with resulting confusion and with capital costs running into hundreds of millions of pounds because, as has been pointed out, of the question of double-stocking of imperial and metric supplies, the complications of making the conversion and the lost trade with our metric customers overseas.
I have always wondered—to give one example—what the operation of the dual system really meant in terms of the Concorde as compared with the Jaguar. The Concorde was built in two separate systems. We were building and adjusting all the calculations to metric, and the French were working on their system. I think that the delay can be attributed to the non-metric system.
When I took on as chairman I stipulated a three-year term, because I believed, while I had confidence in co-ordinating and informing, that my job was primarily to get metrication off the ground. If it did not get off the ground in three years, it would not get very far. It was certainly airborne by 1973 when I left, but what I was wrong about was the ETA—the expected time of arrival. Even by that time we were past the point of no return, because we had committed ourselves and we were going all the way down the runway, but timid Governments have kept metrication circling, like stacked aircraft waiting for permission to land. And I warn the Ministers that we are running out of gas.
I am ashamed. Back in 1970, countries were coming to us to learn how to accomplish an orderly transition. We were a model. Now Australia and New Zealand have done the job well ahead of us. In Australia the trouble was not the sacred pint, which bedevilled my life, but the "cobbers" schooner of beer. When the United States decided in 1975 to go metric I was asked to give evidence before a Congressional committee to discuss the lead time, that is, the 10 years as from 1062 1975 (which they had also accepted), the voluntary principle and the statutory tripwires. They were listening to us because they saw in our system the democratic voluntary approach which they themselves were anxious to foster. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, is not in his place, but I should just point out that the people who took the lead in the United States of America for going metric were in fact the motor industry. America got off to a very strong start because in fact the whole defence programme was put over to metric. What can one do in this space age? One cannot go to the moon in feet per minute. One has to deal in these terms if one wants to get to the moon or anywhere else.
On 17th December 1979, two months after her pickle factory speech, Mrs. Sally Oppenheim in a Written Answer gave the figures which were quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, pointing out that 66.8 per cent. of United Kingdom exports went to countries which use the metric system; 32.8 per cent. went to countries which are in the process of changing and, as the noble Baroness, Lady White, has repeated, and I want to emphasise, only 0.4 per cent. to countries which at present have no plans to change to the metric system. With all due respect, I see Mrs. Oppenheim as being rather like a proud Scottish mother seeing the march past when she said, "They're all out of step, except our Jock". The world cannot be entirely out of step and we cannot be the only ones who are in step.
I also wish that Mrs. Oppenheim would be consistent. She comforted me in 1973 when, in a Commons debate, she said,I think that the views"—on metrication—of most consumer organisations almost coincide exactly with the views of Macbeth".Then she quoted Macbeth.If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly".We should be doing it quickly now. It is a long and painful process with decay in sight.
She also said, very rightly, in that debate that one of the fundamental errors prop- 1063 agated during the debate was that our advance towards metrication was the result of our entry into the EEC. But this has not stopped people saying it. The folklorists have joined in and the people with whom I was arguing at that time on television, and so on. One distinguished MP said that he would go to the barricades to save the pint, and I replied in mild and bitter reproach, "I did not notice you on the barricades against the 15½ fluid ounces of the canned beer in your fridge. I offered him a metric pint of 50 cl. instead of the 44 cl. of that can.
I just want to remind your Lordships that those who believe that the Government are mistaken got support last week from the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, when she, in the debate on small businesses, pointed out that one of the worst things that the small shopkeeper has to cope with is the failure of the Government to implement the policy of metrication. She said:Whatever our views on the metric system, it is a fact that since 1964 Governments have accepted that the country shall go metric in the interests of our survival in the world markets. Until, by order, the Government complete the change, small shopkeepers will continue to face the time-consuming and unnecessary work which is involved when dealing in both imperial and metric systems. The shopkeeper has to be constantly on his guard to check delivery documents from his suppliers. Some operate in metric, but some still operate in imperial. Some sizes and prices of packs are metric and some are imperial".—[Official Report; 23/1/80, col. 458.]She pointed out that this was one of the biggest handicaps that the little corner shopkeeper has to deal with.
The point on which I want to finish is one that I do not think we can emphasise sufficiently, in spite of the noble Lord, Lord Monson. My biggest sense of my own betrayal, and I think the betrayal of all of us, was the children. In the early days of the Metrication Board, we got enormous help from the education authorities, and we went over—on the promise, mark you, that the expected time of arrival was 1975, and we were promising the children who were going through this process that they would be coming out into a metric world. The result is that nearly 19 million children have been through that system and have come out into this bi-lingual world of rods and 1064 perches, and all the folk-lore of our system, for which, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, pointed out, there are a lot of valid reasons when you are going to measure with your knuckle or the length of your arm. Incidentally, a fathom is the length of a Viking's hug.
§ Lord RITCHIE-CALDER
My Lords, we are coming now to the world of microchip computers. How on earth are the children going to cope? How can they see any sense in their elders, who insist upon lumbering them with this nonsense? I agree that if we had not started it we would not be in the mess we are in now, but the fact is that we started it and we are in a mess out of which we have got to get quickly.
§ 6.10. p.m.
§ Lord MOTTISTONE
My Lords, I have great sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Monson. I would not say that I entirely agree with him all the way down the line, and I particularly do not agree about the freedom issue. I do not think this has anything to do with freedom. You might just as well say that we ought to be free to drink as much as we like, or to go as fast as we like on the roads. Society does make a certain number of rules to protect itself from itself, and I would have thought that this came more in that area. Where I have sympathy, however, is in this respect, that it always sticks in my gullet when I hear a radio announcer talking about the 22 in a rugger match instead of the 25. I think it is a great pity that the Frenchmen, who in their wisdom devised the metric system in the 18th centry, did not get is quite right, and therefore the nautical mile of 2,000 yards is more closely connected with the degree of latitiude than is the kilometer. It would have been a very good thing if the Frenchmen had been more advanced and had got the thing more accurate so that that little error did not exist for all time.
Also—and I hope the noble Baroness, Lady White, will not be horrified—I regret bitterly the matter of decimalisation, because I think it ought to have been duo- 1065 decimalisation. I think it is a tragedy that the good God gave us four fingers and a thumb instead of five fingers and a thumb, because then we would be able to divide our basic units by two, three, four and six, instead of just five and two. There are hundreds of practical examples where this would have been very helpful. The fact is that we do not have that benefit, and not having that benefit, we have to look at things as they are. We are rather like the chap who was motoring along and stopped to ask somebody the way. The somebody he asked was an Irishman, who, when he had taken in that the chap wanted to go to a particular place, said, "Well, the first piece of advice I can give give you is not to start from here". I think we are rather in that position; we are trying—as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, has done in this Chamber—to say that we do not want to be here, we want to be somewhere else for a start point. The fact is, however, that we are where we are, as the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, said, two-thirds or 70 per cent. of the way to the conversion to metric. I should have thought that it depends what area you are talking about. In some areas it is a bit more and in others not so much. We have to be practical about it. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and those in the other place who take the same view, "For Heaven's sake use common sense".
We started in 1965, as my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing said. Not long after that I was director of the Distributive Industry Training Board. One of the things which brought me into contact with the Metrication Board—though not perhaps at the level of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, or my noble friend—was in doing the practical thing of trying to make available to the distributive trade the necessary training programmes for them to do the conversion. They were getting on very nicely. I remember about 1972 going into a shop where I wanted to buy 40 yards of electric flex to rig up a bell for my elderly mother. I said to the girl, "Can I have 40 yards?" She looked rather horrified, sort of nonplussed, almost, "What can I say? I do not want to lose a customer". It was our local shop and she knew me very well. This seemed to go through her mind. Suddenly the penny dropped and I said, 1066 "Do you mean you would like to sell it in metres?" and she said "Yes". I then said, "All right, I will have 38 metres", guessing what it might be. She then solemnly took the flex and measured it across the top of the counter, where there was a yard measure and scratched with a screwdriver three inches further on a local personal mark. She solembly measured off my 38 metres with this new marking and ignored the yard measure completely. We had got to that stage in 1972 in ordinary shops with girls with very little training. They were all the way down the line. Then suddenly there came the sort of stoppage which noble Lords have mentioned. It is quite tragic that we have, I would have thought quite unnecessarily, put ourselves into this area of uncertainty.
I was reading only today the minutes of a meeting of the all-party retail group. I have the privilege to be still a member, for I do not know quite what reason. Unfortunately, I could not attend the meeting in question. It said that the Members—Members from another place mainly and some noble Lords from this House—were perplexed (I think was the phrase) as to what really was the situation about metrication.
This is what I think is almost unforgivable. Our Government, for which I generally have the highest admiration, are normally splendidly positive about what they do; they do not leave the country in much doubt as to their thinking. Not everybody may agree with that thinking but at least they have a pretty clear idea of it. In this area we just do not know where we stand. It would be extremely helpful if the Government, and my noble friend in particular, could not only tell us where he thinks we stand but also persuade his colleagues to get on and complete the job as soon as they possibly can.
§ 6.18 p.m.
§ Lord JACQUES
My Lords, I want to put to the House and particularly to the Minister the views of the consumer Co-operative Movement. That movement handles 11 per cent. of the retail food trade, and in addition it has quite substantial factories doing food processing. 1067 The views which I am going to put to the House are based on the movement's experience in that work. First, let me say that we were never really enthusiastic about metrication, but we appreciated from practical experience that there were considerable advantages to the factory that was packing for both the home market and overseas in having packs which could be sold on both markets. We found that the advantages were quite substantial.
Consequently when, in 1973, the then Government decided to accede to the Treaty of Rome we regarded that as a signal for proceeding with all possible speed to metrication, and we gave our enthusiastic co-operation to the Government of the day, regardless of its colour, and to the Metrication Board. We did so because we felt that if this country was going to join the Common Market, which was wholly metric, then it would be completely foolish to think that we could take the opportunities which were open to us if we stuck to the imperial system. We recognised, of course, that there would have to be statutory cut-off dates, which were agreed in advance with consumers, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers, and indeed with scale-makers. That, we knew, was an indispensable part of the changeover to become fully metric, since no trader would risk going metric if it were still legal to sell in imperial weights. Dual marking is both tedious and confusing. The cut-off date technique has worked very satisfactorily and steady progress has been made as regards certain commodities and sectors.
In the range of food commodities, for which agreed statutory cut-off dates are now operated—sugar, margarine, butter, tea, coffee, dripping, lard, cooking fats, vegetable oils and suet—there have, to the best of our knowledge, been no complaints about over-charging on the changeover. The Metrication Board recently conducted an independent, in depth, inquiry of its own. It did so on the changeover of soluble coffee from imperial to metric. It found that the retailers had been completely fair in their repricing and that there were no grounds whatever for the changeover being an opportunity for overcharging.
1068 However, we regard our obligations to the EEC as being art imperative reason for continuing with our metrication. We think that it is the height of folly to have joined a market which is a metric market and then to try to hold back orderly progress to metrication. In any case, we have legal obligations, apart from the need for us to take full opportunity of what the market offers us.
So far as scales are concerned, when they fall for replacement, they ought, nowadays, to be replaced with the metric type. The job of converting existing scales to cook with metric weighed-out goods ought to be going ahead now. Food manufacturers and the packaging industry have very similar problems.
We plead with the Government to continue orderly, time-tabled progress. In doing so, we are in very good company. That is also the view of the National Consumer Council. Indeed, it is not opposed by the CBI and it is not opposed by the retail consortium. We find it very difficult to understand why the Government should be hesitant. We believe that hesitancy of that kind can do damage to education. On the assumption that there would be orderly, time-tabled progress in metrication, there have been radical changes in our teaching of measurements. The metric system is now taught as the principal system, and references to the imperial system are made largely because of their historic interest. However, if we hesitate, as the Government appear to be doing, all those changes will have to be reversed.
We believe that this is not a political matter: it is a matter which is in the interests of our economy, especially our export trade and our trade in Europe for which, by the way, we make some enormous sacrifices in order to have the freedom of trading in that market. We feel that for the Government to hesitate now would be folly and that they should continue the time-tabled and orderly progress. We are not pleading for the maintenance of the Metrication Board, but we believe that the progress to metrication not only should be continued, but should be continued under central control, not scattered over several departments; and that the appropriate place would be the Department of Trade 1069 and, if your Lordships like, the consumer section. However, we believe that it ought to be done and that it would be sad if the Government defaulted in that respect.
§ 6.26 p.m.
§ The MINISTER of STATE, DEPARTMENT of INDUSTRY (Viscount Trenchard)
My Lords, I should like to start by saying that I recognise the sincerity of all the views that have been expressed today and the very great knowledge behind a great many of them, especially those of the two former chairmen of the Metrication Board. I shall draw all the detailed points that they have made to the attention of my right honourable friend and we also, in the Department of Industry, will study them very closely.
I believe that there is a little misunderstanding and I think that perhaps—if I may impertinently suggest it to two former chairmen of the Metrication Board—we just might be concentrating too much on the past. A number of speakers have pointed out that in their view we have moved too slowly. But where we agree with the noble Lord, Lord RitchieCalder—whether it is 70 per cent. or a little more is perhaps arguable—is that the conversion to metrication is very nearly done. Of the area not converted, there are important segments which, as I am sure noble Lords who have spoken will realise, will inevitably, whether under a compulsory system or a voluntary system, take some time to complete. I shall return to the segments where completion is not yet complete and make that point clearer.
Neither would I accept the charges that have been made today that we do not want to go on, that we want to hold back. The situation is as follows. Since the original decision taken by the Labour Government in 1965, to which reference has been made, each successive Government in this country have taken the view that the adoption of the metric system in an orderly way was in the national interest. That is my view and the view of my right honourable friend. What we are discussing today is the best method of completing the job. As regards that, the Government have taken the view, and the decision, that the job can be completed in an orderly way with a voluntary system. Further, they take 1070 the view that it is a better way than fixing any one particular date, especially as some of the remaining problems are very difficult and peculiar to the industries concerned.
My noble friend who introduced this Question asked me some specific matters. He asked me to state categorically whether it was the Government's view that metrication is to continue. It is the Government's view that metrication will continue, is bound to continue, and is continuing all over the developed and undeveloped world where it does not already exist. It is not the Government's view that it should be compelled to be completed on a compulsory programme. He asked me whether I would accept that some supporting legislation is necessary. Neither my right honourable friend nor I at the moment have any evidence that that is necessary or desirable as a method to complete the transfers to the metric system which have gone so far, and have been helped so much by the former chairmen of the board whom we have heard from today, and the dedicated members of that board.
My noble friend asked me who would mastermind it. The responsibility must remain with my right honourable friend in the Department of Trade, for any overall co-ordination—after the decision that she has already taken—that may be necessary, but we do not believe at the moment that that will amount to anything of substance. So far as my own position is concerned, which the noble Lord mentioned, I have a duty to study the problems of and costs to industry, and I shall do that. I have indeed heard from the CBI, and I shall no doubt continue to hear from them, but what I hear at the moment is that they believe—it was not their preference—that the job can be completed on a voluntary basis in an orderly way.
§ Lord ORR-EWING
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Viscount for a moment? Can he tell us what happens supposing that Mrs. Sally Oppenheim, who is to mastermind this voluntary change, finds in two or three years' time that very little progress is being made? Supposing she finds from all the experience we have had in this country, all the experience in Commonwealth countries and other overseas countries, that some cut-off dates are 1071 eventually essential, and she finds that that is also true here, can we then reactivate something along those lines?
§ Viscount TRENCHARD
My Lords, I am not going to follow my noble friend in answering a hypothetical question which we do not believe will become a real question. We do not believe it because not every nation has used a compulsory method. My noble friend himself mentioned the situation in relation to American motor cars. He knows that in America they have adopted a voluntary system. My information is that in his dialogue with the noble Lord, Lord Monson, he was correct in saying that they had transferred completely and voluntarily on all important matters regarding motor cars. This has been done under a voluntary system.
I know that in the case of Australia, and many other countries, a compulsory system has been used, particularly in the retail area, but the information that I have suggests that Australian conversion in the engineering sector, for instance, in spite of the degree of compulsion that they have adopted in retailing and in the programme generally, is not as far advanced as our own. Whatever the merits of these different approaches, I accept what noble Lords have made clear; namely, our particular position as a trading nation, and the particular importance to us of manufacturing industry being able to cut down as soon as is possible the number of lines and products and packages that they produce.
I feel that noble Lords have played very lightly on the real problems of conversion and the real hostility that there has been in some areas to conversion to metric on a compulsory basis, and I think they do an injustice to the people concerned. It is seldom that I spring to the defence of 25 Members of the other place who have been totally unanimous, but I must confess that 25 Members of Parliament being totally unanimous must mean that there is something in their argument.
The noble Baroness, Lady White, suggested that the unit price in imperial weights was thoroughly unhelpful, but I think that this underlines what I felt was lack of sympathy with those who 1072 genuinely say, "Please keep, at least in dual marking, some reference to imperial weights, which we understand"—particulary, perhaps, for those who are not so young as to be able to learn more than one system in a hurry, and who would like the protection of being able to compare unit prices in units which they really understand.
I believe that we must not brush on one side—and I, as an industrialist, have perhaps more reason and background to brush on one side—the objections of certain segments of the consumer population. I know only too well how much money can be saved in standardising costs. But I think today, with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, we may have done an injustice to that part of opinion that says, "Go slowly, and go practically". I accept the point that we should explain more fully the importance to industry of being able to pack and mark in one weight. I think that in terms of balancing consumer requirements and industrial requirements there is in this case, as in many others, a need for greater explanation.
The Government's policy is quite clear. I did not know of the quotation of my right honourable friend that,If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly".But I agree with her today, that it should be done in an orderly way.
§ Viscount TRENCHARD
You need a timetable for that, as the noble Lord rightly says, and a timetable can be arranged in more than one way. We are talking of the completion of certain segments that have not converted, to which I shall come in a moment. In the past, when I have been in industry, I have often complained that Government have set dates for particular changeovers which may be right for one section of the industry and are quite wrong for the other, and in my view I have been right. What my right honourable friend and I suggest, and suggest to the trades associations, both manufacturing and retail, is that the remainder of the completion should be the subject not just 1073 of individual commercial decisions by companies, which of course are paramount, but of negotiation between the trades associations concerned on the best programme for the particular segments of industry which have not yet completed the change.
Let me correct one other point. We are neither erecting barriers nor trying to go back on or away from metrication. Indeed, most of the barriers to metrication have been removed, and my right honourable friend is studying closely and urgently those remaining harriers of a legislative kind which make it difficult for conversion in one or two detailed areas. The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, rightly described the clear and, if I may say so, good thinking of the Co-operative Movement on the need to convert. I am really suggesting that through his retail organisation, working in conjunction with other retail organisations, this job can be completed in the orderly manner that he requested, on a voluntary basis.
I have already paid tribute to the "Metrification" Board, and I assure the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, that my right honourable friend meant no offence by announcing her recent decisions in a pickle factory. I was for a short period a temporary and very inefficient ADC to Field-Marshal Montgomery and I know that he made some of his best announcements—if noble Lords will allow me to use the word—in the loo. This is not, if I may say so, an important point.
As for the 6,000 letters which the noble Baroness, Lady White, mentioned, I could say to those who wish to write letters that they should write them to my right honourable friend at the Department of Trade, but it would not be sensible to do that. If a programme for completion of the kind I have outlined, in an orderly way arranged by trade associations, goes forward, it will be announced, and a great many of those letters—if there are queries, as I am sure there will be, on the remainder of the conversion still to be done—should be addressed to those trade associations. But if there are matters which members of the public wish to draw to the attention of Government as a result of the completion plans on the lines I have announced, then of course the residue of those letters should 1074 go to my right honourable friend at the Department of Trade.
I believe the job is nearer done than those who have been wrestling with it in the past have realised. I do not think we are half-way between or in mid-stream"—half-way between" was the expression used by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear—and we are certainly not whole-hoggers against. As for the main areas not completed—the first one is not really main, but there are a lot of them—road signs is a matter for my right honourable friend at the Department of Transport, and there is nothing awfully urgent, in my view, about this. The other two main areas are engineering and loose foods. I have already pointed out that in Australia, despite compulsion in many areas, engineering has not got as far in conversion as I believe we have got. We believe the sector is over 50 per cent. metric today and that, of the other 50 per cent., a good part is bound to take a long time under any system because some machines last a very long time and must have spare parts and replacements for them for the foreseeable future.
Loose foods constitute a major area, and I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is watching that situation. It is an area where I hope the trade associations concerned will discuss with one another an orderly programme to make progress. I know that the majority of the big retailers regard it as an area where progress has to be made. It is a particilar problem area, food being as important as it is, and again, let us not underestimate the problem of the elderly shopper in understanding what the price and quantity really is.
I have learned a little about carpets in the debate today, although I was at one stage a part-time director of a carpet business, and I wish to ask the industry concerned some questions as to how far they have got and about the danger which the noble Baroness, Lady White, mentioned—that the transfer might drift back. This is an area where I was not aware that was happening. I hope it to be untrue and I hope that progress will continue in that area.
1075 As I said, I have already heard from the CBI and I have no doubt that I shall hear from them again. It is certainly a duty of mine to listen to any problems that industry finds, and I shall do so in future. I thank my noble friend for introducing this Question, for expressing his views so clearly and for instigating this short debate which has distilled so much information from so many experts in the field.
§ Lord ORR-EWING
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I thank him very much for his speech, and thank those who have contributed. Finally, may I——
§ Lord ORR-EWING
I am allowed to do this, my Lords; I said, "Before my noble friend sits down''. Finally, may I add my thanks to all those who, for 11 years, have served the Metrication Board.
§ Lord RITCHIE-CALDER
My Lords, genuinely before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether there was any significance in a slip of the tongue by him when he called the Metrication Board the "Metrification" Board? I did not know that we had "if" back into metrication.