HL Deb 12 July 1995 vol 565 cc1680-2

3.3 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow asked Her Majesty's Government:

In how many member states of the European Union it is a criminal offence to sell goods other than in metric units.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, the Government understand that in all other member states metric units are the only lawful units of measurement, although the Government do not know whether other member states treat a failure to use metric units as a criminal offence.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that in France they sell plumbers' pipes in inches and that in Germany floppy discs are sold in inches? I believe that that will be a criminal offence in England after 1st October. Have we actually gone further in the implementation of the European Community directive on metrication than the directive itself actually specifies, especially bearing in mind that when metrication was first introduced into this county in 1968, the then President of the Board of Trade, the noble Lord, Lord Jay, promised that it would never be made compulsory?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I do not believe that we have over-implemented the directive. The particular example used by my noble friend of the three-and-a-half inch floppy disc is incorrect. Indeed, it is not a product which is required by law to be sold by weight, volume, length, area or capacity measure. Accordingly, there is no obligation under our law to use metric units. After all, one does not go into a shop and ask for a two-and-a-half or a three-and-a-half inch floppy disc. One asks for a floppy disc.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, after using our own measurements for hundreds of years, why should British people, British businessmen, British retailers and market people suddenly find themselves criminalised because they are no longer allowed to sell in pounds and ounces, which British people are used to? Why on earth should people not be able to continue to trade in pounds, ounces, litres and goodness knows what else—indeed, anything that people understand and are willing freely to trade in—rather than be subject to fines and imprisonment if they do not comply?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the decision that the United Kingdom should adopt metric units as the primary system of measurement was taken as far back as 1965. It was taken in response to active lobbying from business and industrial interests. Perhaps I may point out to the noble Lord that it is the finest and oldest of English traditions going back as far as Magna Carta that we should have uniform systems of measurement and that there have always been criminal sanctions attached; indeed, medieval mercantile courts relied on flogging and pillorying to support them.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, why did not my noble and learned friend include the ell, the rod, the pole and the perch?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I guess probably because not very many people in your Lordships' House or elsewhere would be able to say what those units of measurement were. It is clearly of advantage that we should have a standard unit of measurement. After all, Queen Victoria had 16 years to sit on her throne when we first signed up to the metric convention.

Lord Renton

My Lords, are we to abandon the nautical mile? Further, will we not be allowed to say in future that a cricket pitch should be 22 yards long?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, one does not sell cricket pitches by the yard. Although there are some that might be sold at present, they are not sold in that fashion. However, with reference to the specific question put by my noble friend, perhaps I may point out that the nautical mile and the knot are to be retained. So far as concerns aviation matters and aircraft heights, we shall continue to use the foot.

Lord Peston

My Lords, it would not be bad for England's bowlers—or, indeed, for England's batsmen—if the pitch were at least 22 metres. However, that is by the way. Does not the opposition to such implementation totally underestimate the young people in our country who are the ones we are doing this for? Is it not right that they are now taught in metric measures in school and that they have not the slightest difficulty coping with them? In the future, when they occupy the Benches of your Lordships' House, they will wonder what we old people were worrying about at this time.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. Since 1974, primary schools have been teaching in metric units. I certainly find that my 14 year-old daughter has great difficulty understanding what an inch is now. However, we should not exaggerate the changes that have been made. From 1st January of this year we moved to the selling of alcohol—whisky and spirits—in bars by metric units. From the personal research I have been carrying out in the Bishops' Bar, your Lordships seem to have accommodated that change admirably.

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