HL Deb 05 February 1998 vol 585 cc742-4

3.19 p.m.

Lord Evans of Parkside asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to use criminal penalties to enforce metrication throughout the United Kingdom's commercial and retail sectors.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, of course the Government do not intend that people shall he locked up simply because they do not use metric units of measurement. But the United Kingdom has been converting to the metric system in stages over many years so that most goods formerly required to be sold in imperial units are now sold in metric units. It is where local authorities find evidence of fraud or the consumer being misled that such matters can be brought before the court.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. Does he agree that if criminal penalties were imposed to enforce metrication throughout the United Kingdom it would add substantially to the already considerable anti-European Union feeling in this country? In that context, can my noble friend give an assurance that a Labour government will never seek to make criminals out of businessmen and women and shopkeepers who seek to serve their customers goods in a form that their customers, particularly elderly ones, understand and have used all their lives?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I repeat that the Government do not intend that people should be locked up simply because they do not use metric units of measurement. I can reassure my noble friend that until the end of the century goods sold loose from bulk by weight such as fresh fruit and vegetables can be sold in imperial units. Moreover, after that date consumers can continue to ask for a pound of apples or potatoes and the shopkeeper will provide the metric equivalent. There are exceptions. Noble Lords will be pleased to know that the pint of beer in the pub and the doorstep pint will continue indefinitely and road signs will continue to be in miles. That said, the trend in business is strongly towards metrication. We are members of a single market, and a worldwide market, where metric measures are used overwhelmingly. We would surely find ourselves at a competitive disadvantage if we did not conform.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, far be it for a Member of this House to discount the difficulties of the elderly, but can the Minister confirm that the process of metrication was started some 30 years ago, five years before we joined the European Community, and that the pioneer in that process was that champion of old Labour then known as the right honourable Anthony Wedgwood Benn? Can the noble Lord confirm that since that time every other member of the Commonwealth has both started and finished the process of metrication and that it is now almost a quarter of a century since the state school system, then presided over by my right honourable friend, now the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, discontinued instruction in imperial measurement? Further, does the noble Lord believe that it would help the process of improving numeracy in schools if new Labour completed the process which old Labour set in hand so long ago?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I confirm that the process of metrication started in 1965. It was very shortly after the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, became Prime Minister that the Metrication Board was abolished.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Australia people were happily and easily converted to metric distances, in particular by their introduction in horseracing? Does he believe that if we encouraged all sports to use metrication the process would proceed more rapidly? The noble Lord said that road signs were still in miles. Does he agree that if we are to go metric it is time that our road signs were also changed to metric?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I believe that some sports have converted to metric units. Certainly that is true in the case of rugby. As far as concerns roads, it appears to be the overwhelming wish that road signs remain in miles. Britain has a special derogation for that purpose.

Lord Monson

My Lords, the Minister has given an assurance that shopkeepers who continue to use imperial measurements will not locked up. Can he also give an assurance that they will not be fined?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, traditionally the use of fines is directed towards those shopkeepers who intend to mislead or defraud the public in some way by mixing up the measurements that they use.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when Australia went metric a number of farmers said that the only consequence of metrication was that their properties were half the size and twice as far away from town as they were before?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I am sure that British farmers will take careful note of that.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that old habits die hard and that over 50 per cent. of the population, even among the young, still think in terms of imperial measures? Has my noble friend heard the story of the old lady who went to the market and asked for a pound of potatoes only to be told by the shopkeeper, "They're kilos now, madam"? She replied, "All right, I'll have a pound of kilos".

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I have not heard that story. Certainly old habits do die hard, but in schools and most education institutions metrication is pretty standard. I believe that our children and grandchildren are more at home with metric units of measure than we are.