HC Deb 27 May 1976 vol 912 cc375-8W
Mr. Spearing

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection if she will seek amendments to the EEC draft Directive R/3070/75 to enable everyday sales of commodities to continue in imperial measures and continue to be protected by consumer protection legislation.

27. Mr. Nicholas Winterton

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection what representations she has received to date in connection with the further progress on the Weights and Measures &c. Bill.

Mr. John Fraser

, pursuant to his replies [Official Report, 17th May 1976; Vol. 911, c. 380, and 24th May 1976; Vol. 912, c. 18–19], gave the following information:

When the Government delayed the Second Reading of the Weights and Measures, &c., Bill they indicated that further consultations would take place about the Bill. The great preponderance of representations from organisations representing consumers has been in favour of proceeding with the Bill. The Government have received similar representations from both sides of industry and from educationalists. Members of Parliament who had reservations about the Bill were concerned almost exclusively with safeguards and the pace of change to a metric system in relation to consumer transactions.

The Bill which was introduced into the House earlier this year already contained considerable consumer protection safeguards. The Government have since considered a number of amendments further to assist the consumer during completion of the metric changeover. These amendments have now been incorporated in the Weights and Measures &c. (No. 2) Bill which, because of pressure of essential Government business in the House of Commons, was introduced in another place today. The changes made to the Bill amend the provisions relating to consultation which were incorporated in the original Bill; the Secretary of State will be required to consult in particular with organisations representative of consumer interests which it appears to her will be affected by any proposed order to be made under Clause 2 of the original Bill. A second provision allows the continued use of imperial units of measurement for explanatory purposes, alongside metric units, even though those imperial units may no longer be used as legal measures for trade. A further new provision gives power to require the display of conversion tables and such other transitional and incidental provisions as are necessary to safeguard consumer transactions.

When the new Bill becomes law the Government do not intend to proceed with any short, sharp completion of the metric changeover. In exercising the powers in Clause 2 of the original Bill the Government intend to give priority to those areas where the greatest degree of consumer confusion could result from the presence in shops of dual ranges of metric and imperial packs; to those areas where ranges of prescribed quantities are being laid down for the first time and to other areas where there are distinct practical advantages in early adoption of the use of metric units. If consultation is to be meaningful, and the views of the House are to be taken fully into account, it would be quite wrong at this stage for the Government to attempt to lay down a rigid timetable for metrication. But their own view is that weighed out foods, like meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, should have the lowest priority for a changeover. Some sizes like the pint of milk or the pint of beer can, in practice, remain in use indefinitely. The further consultations provided for by the bill may reveal other examples.

The Government already have powers under the Prices Act which can be used to protect the consumer during any sectoral changeover and to unit price and goods.

As a consequence of both the consultations and the changes incorporated in the new Bill the Government will also seek amendment and clarification of the proposed EEC directive on the approximation of the laws in relation to Units of Measurement (R/3070/75). This draft directive mitigates the obligation contained in the Treaty of Accession that planned for the disappearance of imperial units by the end of 1979, and to that extent the Government welcome it. But the Government propose to seek amendments and clarification on the new draft directive to ensure that it goes no further than prohibiting the authorisation by statute of imperial measures; that it does not vitiate the customary use of certain measures which are not prescribed by law—e.g., the length of a cricket pitch; that it does not inhibit the power of the United Kingdom Government to make transitional provisions for the use of imperial units for explanatory purposes, such as the display of conversion charts; and that it does not affect the use of existing equipment nor the manufacture of spare parts for such equipment. The Government will also endeavour to defer the deadline for phasing out certain units presently in use which are listed in the draft directive. In the case of most units of measurement in common use the terms of the new draft directive would commit the Government to no more than a review of their continued use by the end of 1979.

The Government intend to provide the House with an early opportunity to consider the proposed EEC directive on the approximation of the laws in relation to units of measurement (R/3070/75) and hope that the House will soon be able to debate the Weights and Measures, &c. (No. 2) Bill.

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