HL Deb 01 November 1994 vol 558 cc775-83

3.25 p.m.

The Earl of Arran rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 19th July be approved [26th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the three instruments will implement the 1989 European Community Units of Measurement Directive in respect of authorising metric units of measurement and their use for weights and measures and price marking. As the House will be aware, the United Kingdom is already using the metric system for many purposes. The metric system has been taught in schools in the United Kingdom since 1974; and many everyday products are now sold in metric units, as anyone who visits a supermarket or DIY store will be aware.

The legislation before the House will continue that process of metrication. It will require the use of metric units from 1st October 1995 for sales of food pre-packed in variable weights such as cheese and meat, for sales of goods by length, such as fabric, or by area, such as carpet, and for sales of petrol, diesel and other liquid fuels. The legislation will also require the use of metric units from 1st January 2000 for food sold loose from bulk such as meat, poultry, cheese, fish and fresh fruit and vegetables. The legislation will, however, allow the continued use of the mile for road traffic signs, speedometers and odometers, and the pint for sales of draught beer and cider and for milk in returnable containers.

In preparing this legislation, the Department of Trade and Industry has undertaken very extensive consultations with industry, retailers, enforcement groups and consumer bodies. Over 700 organisations have been consulted. I can report that, in general, the responses have been low key and supportive of the department's proposals, although some consumer organisations would have liked to have seen full metrication with no exceptions.

Provision has been made to assist those consumers who are not familiar with the metric system. During the transition periods, those retailers who display their unit prices in metric—for example, 50p. per kilo—will have to display either the imperial equivalent of the metric unit price or a price conversion chart. After the transition periods retailers may, if they wish, continue to use the imperial system for supplementary indications of price and quality.

I should mention that the principal metrication changeover date in the legislation, 1st October 1995, is nine months later than the date—1st January 1995— required by the directive. There are a number of reasons for that, including the need to consult interested parties on the conversion chart and the fact that the legislation has turned out to be more complicated to draft than was first envisaged. A conversion date of 1st January 1995 would not give industry sufficient time to make the necessary changes.

Finally, I should stress that the legislation goes no further than the requirements of the directive and that imperial units will not disappear. There will be a change to metric only where the law presently provides for the use of imperial units of measurement in a manner contrary to the 1989 directive. But in many cases units of measurement are used through custom and practice, not because they are required by law. Thus, for example, the measurement of a cricket pitch or a racecourse is not laid down by law and I can assure the House that these and similar examples will not be affected by the legislation. I commend the draft regulation and orders to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 19th July be approved [26th Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Earl of Arran.)

3.30 p.m.

Lord Peston

My Lords, this is not the most important problem confronting the country today. However, it is an interesting issue and certainly one that interests me, I can trace no element of party politics; it is a matter on which reasonable people can agree to differ. I agree with the main consumer bodies and am a full "metriciser", if there is such a word. As regards British industry, the consumer and everyone else, it is sensible to go fully metric. However, I recognise the fact that other people whom I regard as being reasonable and sensible may not take that view.

The present position is a mess. I looked in my refrigerator to discover that the milk is in an imperial measure (a pint) but that the bottled water and fruit juices are in metric measures. The rationale for that is beyond me. The butter from Sainsbury's is in grammes but the cheese from Sainsbury's is in pounds and ounces. Sainsbury's sells the best ice cream in the world—it is called Ben & Jerry's—and is in an American pint unit. Even if we go fully metric, I am not clear what will happen to American units when we try to import their products.

The Minister referred to sporting matters. Football pitches are measured in yards but rugby pitches are measured in metres. I have tried to investigate various other aspects of the problem but cannot obtain definitive answers. I had completely forgotten that a cricket pitch is a chain, and so forth. Almost all Olympic athletic and swimming events are in metric. Cloth is sold in metric by length but in imperial by width. It must be pointed out that with such a mess mistakes can be made. I am certain that I am not the only person who has had the experience of measuring for curtains in yards, ordering the amount and, because I have not specified, ending up with John Lewis sending the length in metres.

The main point is that in schools our children are taught wholly metric measures. The GCSE science syllabus is metric and all the details are in metric units. Even a measurement of force called "Newton"—and no greater name exists in our history—is metric.

I wish to ask the Minister and other noble Lords who may be so committed what is the nostalgia for the lost Empire that makes everyone say that we must have imperial units? Even the so-called imperial units are not strictly British; we got them from somewhere else. The Minister said that the consumer bodies were not happy with the slow speed at which we are moving—and nor am I.

The Minister quoted from the 26th Report of the Joint Committee of both Houses which was appointed to scrutinise delegated legislation. Paragraph 2 states: The Committee draws the special attention of both Houses to these Instruments on the ground that they fail to implement the Directive properly". Is the Minister saying that he agrees with that but the only way he regards them as failing is in terms of date and that his justification is that it is taking a little longer to get the whole thing together? Secondly, why cannot his department come into the last part of the 20th century and prepare for the next century by going full steam ahead in the metric direction?

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, I fought a long rear-guard action in order to obtain the derogation for the mile, the pint and the inch. Although to some extent they are preserved, this is an extremely sad day. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that we are moving in this direction not in the name of progress but purely in the name of conformity for conformity's sake. I could not let the occasion pass without deploring that fact.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I wish to bring to the attention of your Lordships' House the practical importance of these measures. I agree with the main thrust of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, in supporting the measures. However, I am at variance with him in the importance that is attached to them. Perhaps it is the difference between a practical person and an academic. As regards an academic, the importance of one set of measurements against another is numbers and letters on a piece of paper, but for a practical person it can amount to whether or not a piece of machinery fits or whether one has to have twice as many tools to work on that piece of machinery. The problem has been a yoke that has fallen heavy on British industry and commerce. This country has been subjected to feet-dragging in terms of metrication.

Having been in power for 15 years, this Government bear a heavy responsibility but previous governments are also responsible. One can go back to our entry into Europe—and we were taken in by a Conservative Government—when we thought that we could be effectively competitive with our fellow nations in the EEC, as it then was, and with no emphasis on metrication. That put a yoke on British industry and commerce in terms of their ability to compete effectively.

I wish to ask two questions. First, when will the process of metrication be complete? Some of the measures will be implemented in 1995 and more in the year 2000. However, I understand that that will not complete the process. How much longer must industry, commerce and the people of this country wait until the Government bite the bullet and say, "Yes, we will complete the process of metrication that has been going on for so many years."? Apart from the United States of America, how many countries use the imperial system? I appreciate that America uses a bastardised form of this system. One might turn the question round the other way and ask what proportion of world trade and world production of, for example, manufactured goods is in metric and what proportion is in imperial measurement? We need to know the answers to those two questions.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, first, I should say, happily, that one cannot see the day when the metric system will rule world-wide, not least because of course there are more sensible units. The international aviation authorities are agreed that aircraft heights will be defined in feet—a good old imperial unit —and of course that distance and speed will be defined in nautical miles. Again, that is for very good reasons and the nautical mile is a much more logical unit than the kilometre, as all, except the French, are perfectly willing to admit.

Indeed, I am quite liberal minded about these matters. It seems to me that there would be some advantage if we expressed the length of a cricket pitch in the same number of metres as the number of yards we now use. That might give some of our batsmen a little longer to prepare themselves for a West Indian fast bowler, which would undoubtedly be an advantage.

I certainly believe that there will be continuing commercial pressure—not pressure from Brussels— which will over the years push us along the road of defining most units by the metric system. That is why I regard the orders as so objectionable. Why do we have to have Big Brother insisting that it must be done now, next year or in 1996? Why for once cannot we allow such matters to take their course? Why do we have to be so Big Brother-ish about it all; or rather, why do they have to be so Big Brother-ish about it?

I end by asking my noble friend one question. Can he assure me that even after the year 2000 the ordinary greengrocer with his stall in the ordinary English market will, if his customer comes to him and asks, "Can I have a pound or two pounds of potatoes?", be able to reply, "Yes, of course. I will weigh you up a pound or two pounds of potatoes"? I hope that my noble friend is able to give me that assurance. It would make me a little less unhappy about these decrees which are being brought into our law today.

Lord Monson

My Lords, if on 1st November 1944 we had told British servicemen fighting hard and bravely in France, Belgium, Holland or Italy to liberate those countries from the German occupiers that 50 years hence the former occupiers and former occupied would gang up together to make it illegal for British people living in Britain to use their traditional measurements in transactions involving only themselves—that is, transactions which do not affect people living on the other side of the Channel—they would have thought that we were stark staring mad. If we had gone on to explain that that command would be mitigated slightly by certain extremely gracious minor concessions on the part of the Continentals, who would condescendingly allow us to sell for a few years longer lemonade and milk in a bottle by the pint, but not ginger beer, ginger ale, tonic water or milk in a carton; and subsequently to sell cider but not perry by the pint; and that yards could be used for road measurements but not for the measurement of timber, they would have thought that we were crazier still.

The alleged justifications for this are apparently considerations of economics, public health, public safety or administration. But no public health or safety considerations apply, and if there are any economic or administrative disadvantages in sticking to the present system, the merits or demerits of which need not concern us now, they disadvantage nobody but ourselves.

After all, we are not talking about tinned food, bottled food or drink or packaged food such as biscuits which we export to the Continent. Naturally, harmonisation on metric lines is entirely justifiable in those cases. We are talking about goods sold within the United Kingdom to United Kingdom subjects. At least 99.99 per cent. of Brussels sprouts sold loose here are not sold to Belgians but to the British. So what has happened to the much vaunted principle of subsidiarity which was held out to us as one of the few worthwhile aspects of the Maastricht Treaty?

I have three specific questions for the noble Earl, Lord Arran. Once the regulations are agreed to, will it be illegal for a small builder to quote a householder in writing for putting up a couple of three foot shelves rather than a couple of 0.9144 metre shelves? Secondly, will it be illegal for someone selling his house to advertise a 40 foot garden or, for example, that his main bedroom measures 16 by 12? Thirdly, supplementary imperial measurements can, by gracious permission of the EC Commission, be listed, provided that the lettering used is not higher than the metric lettering used. How many extra inspectors will be needed to monitor that? What would be the maximum fine or term of imprisonment which could be imposed upon the transgressors?

The regulations will cost British businesses between £32 million and £33 million. Those are not my figures; they are government figures. That is reason enough for opposing them. But the most powerful reason for doing so is that the doctrine of subsidiarity, which we were promised would come into effect the moment that the Maastricht Treaty was ratified, has either been deliberately ignored in this instance or shown up as a hollow sham.

3.45 p.m.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, perhaps I may raise a specific point which was mentioned also by my noble friend Lord Tebbit. I ask the Minister whether the word "mile" in Schedule 3B of the Units of Measurement Regulations 1994 includes the nautical mile? Will he assure me that nothing in the regulations will prohibit or prevent the continued use of the nautical mile?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I agree with everything which the noble Lords, Lord Tebbit and Lord Monson, and other noble Lords have said about these orders. I should like to know what will happen after the year 2000 if a retailer in a market sells a couple of pounds of potatoes rather than however many grams that may be. Will the retailer be hauled before the courts? If so, will he be fined, will he be liable to a fine and imprisonment, or just imprisonment or just a fine?

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend, when he comes to reply, could confirm what the total compliance costs of these three regulations are spread over the years, I think, 1993 to 1999 and how many individual trading entities they concern in this country.

I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, advanced the figure of some £33 million, but my calculations, from these somewhat coy statistics with which we have been supplied in the compliance costs assessment, seem to come to rather more than that.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful for the way in which the Minister explained the orders to the House. He referred to consultation and I believe that he said that he had consulted over 700 organisations. Can he tell the House how many replies he received?

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, thought that he might be a "metriciser". I am not sure how Hansard will report that, but perhaps it should be that he is a metricator.

The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, referred to the US and the aviation industry. Is he aware that the US ton is different from the imperial ton, and the US gallon and the imperial gallon are different? Can he be sure that there is no scope for confusion or even disaster?

The orders purport to be concerned with the implementation of metrication as required by an EC directive. In fact, government policy appears to be to retain imperial measurement for as long as possible. I am sure that many noble Lords and older members of the electorate will be very supportive of that action.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, referred to the difficulties with education and our children. Schedule 1 to the Weights and Measures Act 1985 buried certain obscure units such as the rood. But the Units of Measurement Regulations 1994 currently before the House resurrect the rood as a "supplementary indication". Presumably, the rood is a very useful unit of measurement. Perhaps the Minister could indicate to the House the size of the rood. For example, is it the size of the Dispatch Box, the size of the Table or the size of the whole Chamber? The noble Earl's department will have consulted widely with trade associations and organisations which have requested the reintroduction of the rood. Can the Minister tell the House which trade associations requested its reintroduction?

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, referred to milk. I believe he said that the standard carton is 568 millilitres. That is a very peculiar amount; indeed, it is a few tablespoonsful more than half a litre. The need for that becomes much clearer when one looks at the supplementary indication. I say that because the supplementary indication for 568 millilitres is one pint. So, in fact, we are no nearer to metrication.

The noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, claims the credit, as she would have it, for retaining the mile, the inch and so on as regards roads. I am afraid that I cannot support her claim, as Schedule 3B of the Units of Measurement Regulations allows the inch, foot, yard and mile to be continued. Nowadays, we travel across the Channel a great deal, and we have no trouble using kilometres on the Continent. But let us consider the continental driver on this side of the Channel. He sees a sign showing, "London —57 miles". We may feel that that is no problem. However, how would we feel if we went to the other side of the Channel and saw a sign saying, "Paris—60 leagues"? That is the same sort of difficulty as a continental driver would have.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, thought that there would be no safety considerations, but we are retaining dual heights as regards bridge height limits, and that is a very serious safety consideration. When a lorry driver comes along he has to check whether his lorry can go under the bridge. He has to look at two heights, not one. Of course, the continental driver will only be familiar with his height in metres.

There is another difficulty as regards speedometers. When we drive on the Continent we have to have a dual scale so that we can see how fast we are travelling. But if we used kilometres in the UK, we would have just one very clear scale. Further, as regards an odometer in kilometres, one-tenth of a kilometre is 100 metres, whereas one-tenth of a mile is 176 metres.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

176 yards!

Earl Attlee

My Lords, these imperial units are very familiar and very popular, but they are not suited to modern times. Metric calculations are much easier. For example, 1,000 litres of water weighs 1,000 kilos, which is the same as one tonne, which is exactly one cubic metre. There is one welcome exception to metrication in the orders. It is found in Schedule 3B. I refer to the pint of "draught beer or cider". There is no difficulty with metrication. It is not the metric units, or the use of them; it is the prolonging of the agony of using dual units and measurements and supplementary indications.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it is quite difficult to know where to start on this particular order because; your Lordships have very clearly demonstrated that there are very emotive and, indeed, passionate feelings: right across the House. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, quite rightly believes it not to be a party political matter. That is certainly not the set of circumstances which applies this afternoon. We were delighted to learn about the contents of the noble Lord's fridge. I must admit that it all sounded somewhat confusing.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, asked one question in particular; namely, whether or not we were fulfilling the requirements of the directive in the orders. Except for the date of 1st January 1995, we are meeting the deadlines in the directive. We are substituting 1st October 1995 in response to representations from retailers. As I have already said, they feel that they need more time so that such changes can be properly introduced. As regards other aspects of implementation, the instruments before the House make the necessary amendments to our national legislation on weights, measures and prices.

However, perhaps I may say in general—

Lord Peston

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl, but what he said is enormously important for the record. Is he saying that, other than the date, we are fully implementing the directive in the orders?

The Earl of Arran

Yes, my Lords; mat is the case. Lord Peston: My Lords, I am much obliged.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, as I was saying, in general, the United Kingdom has already converted to the use of metric for industrial use and the sale of many common groceries. Moreover, we have taught the system in our schools now for 20 years. But, as your Lordships have clearly demonstrated, there is the difficulty of knowing what to do; for example, how quickly to do it, whether to do it immediately or whether to take time. However, the Government have decided to introduce such changes gradually and at minimum disruption to both business and the consumer.

It is also important to note that there is perhaps something of a generation gap involved. For example, it is quite difficult for the elderly to appreciate fully the complications of the metrication system. Therefore, I believe that the gradual process has definitely been more beneficial. We now hope to complete the process, again at minimum disruption to all concerned, while retaining the pint of beer in the pub and the pint of milk on the doorstep, as well as the mile and the yard.

Perhaps I may now respond to some of your Lordships' questions. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not answer all the detailed, technical questions this afternoon. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, asked which countries, other than the United Kingdom and Ireland, continue to operate the imperial system. So far as I am aware, the only countries where imperial is the principal system of measurement are the United States, Barbados, the Bahamas, Jamaica, The Gambia, Western Samoa and Sierra Leone. One noble Lord asked whether, after the year 2000, a retailer could be prosecuted and fined. After the year 2000, a retailer could be prosecuted and fined, but he could not be imprisoned.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, asked whether the directive was in conflict with the doctrine on subsidiarity. Indeed, if he did not say that, he certainly implied it. The objective of the directive is to remove barriers to trade which arise from the differences between national laws on units of measurement. That can be achieved only by legislation at Community level to remove those differences. It follows that the directive is compatible with the principle of subsidiarity.

I have to say again—and I note that my noble friend Lord Tebbit is not now in his place—that the purpose of the present changes is to complete the move towards a full adoption of the metric system for trading purposes. Some noble Lords asked: why do it now? In the 1972 White Paper, the Government explained that the country could not drift towards metrication; there could well be too much chaos. An orderly staged transition would have to be the most appropriate.

I think your Lordships will agree that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is extremely well versed and has taken a great deal of trouble over this order. I hope that I have made clear to him some of the feelings the Government have on this matter. He asked about the rood. He will be pleased to hear it is now an abolished unit. Its length is certainly larger than the Dispatch Box from which I speak at the moment: it is some 1,210 square yards. I can assure the noble Earl that it has been abolished for at least 10 years and is now part of a comprehensive list of non-authorised units.

I am aware that I have not answered all your Lordships' questions. Some of them are somewhat technical but I will very carefully read Hansard and I assure noble Lords that they will receive answers to their questions in the next few days. I beg to move.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, can he answer the simple question: will the nautical mile continue indefinitely or not?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am not absolutely certain about the answer to that question. I hope my noble friend will regard that as a somewhat technical question to which I do not have the answer with me. I hope therefore my noble friend will allow me to write to him.

On Question, Motion agreed to.