§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Before I call the Minister to open the debate, I would remind the House that it is a curtailed debate. We have many pro- and anti-metricators, if I may coin the phrase. I hope that speeches will be reasonably brief and that we shall measure them not by the column inch but by the column centimetre.
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ The Minister for Industry (Sir John Eden)
This debate on metrication is long overdue. It takes place following the undertaking given in this House in July by my right hon. Friend who was then Minister of Technology. I think that much public disquiet would have been avoided if the previous Administration had put the position more clearly before Parliament and the people.
In order to get this debate in some perspective, it is necessary first to give a brief survey of recent history on the subject. As you have said, Mr. Speaker, there is not much time left for this debate, and I know that many hon. Members wish to take part. Obviously it will not be possible for me to cover all the points, but I assure hon. Members at the outset that we shall take careful note of everything said in the course of the debate.
In this opening speech, I hope to touch upon the following matters: the facts of international trade; the target date of 1975; the present position in British industry; the present position in education; the costs of the operation; and the position of the retail trade and the domestic consumer.
I come first to the background. More than 100 years ago, in 1864, an Act of Parliament legalised the use of metric measures for science and the export trade. The most crucial decision was taken by Parliament in 1897 when it passed the Weights and Measures (Metric System) Bill. This Act permitted metric weights and measures to be used for most purposes of trade in the United Kingdom as an alternative to the Imperial weights and measures. Since that time, the use of the metric system in the United Kingdom has advanced almost without interruption until at the present time we are a nation using two systems of units.
77 About 20 years ago, the Hodgson Committee on Weights and Measures took extensive evidence, noted the steady advance of the metric system in the world although half the world's trade was still in the Imperial system, and recorded the unanimous view that the change from Imperial to metric in this country was sooner or later inevitable and should proceed to finality in due course under Government guidance.
The Committee added important provisos: that the change be done in concert with North American and Commonwealth countries which base their units on the yard and the pound, that it should be accompanied or preceded by the decimalisation of our coinage, and that there should be a lengthy process of preparing the general public for the change.
Parliament's last action on the matter was the Weights and Measures Act, 1963 in which the Imperial yard and pound are defined in terms of the international metre and kilogramme. In this sense, we may already claim to be a metric country, but we still generally translate the metric values into our Imperial units.
Turning to the position of international trade, we see that the world advance of the metric system has accelerated since the second world war. Russia had adopted the metric system after the first world war. India and Japan began the conversion which is now virtually complete after the second world war. More recently, South Africa, and virtually the whole Commonwealth, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, have decided to change. It is difficult to grasp the great impact on our trade of this steady advance of the metric system in all these many countries comprising 90 per cent. of the world population.
The fact is that we have to compete in a metric world. Of the important countries, the U.S.A. has not yet joined the band but is seriously considering doing so; for example, the U.S. Space Agency has recently decided to go wholly metric. It seems likely that a forthcoming report to Congress will show that U.S. industry, commerce and consumer interests have reached the conclusion that the early adoption of the metric system is inevitable.
There are other facts which the House will wish to note. Our markets using 78 metric units have expanded more rapidly than our markets still using Imperial units, and it is most probable that this trend will continue.
Our exporting industries are under pressure. May I take as an example an order on a British shipyard for a metric ship? Such orders carry the metric system into our community. Not only must the ship's hull be drawn in metres and millimetres but many of the thousands of components that are assembled to make that ship must be metric and many must conform in their dimensions to international metric standards.
The millimeter has become the dominant unit of measurement in the workshops of the world and is infiltrating British workshops month by month.
Improved communications and the greater dependence, notably of the United Kingdom, but also of all industrial countries upon their overseas trade has led to a growth of world technical and engineering standards. These mostly concern the nuts and bolts and the thousands of other components that are essential parts of all our equipment and machines. There are now approaching 2,000 of these standards forming a world technological code. Today, there are almost twice the number of world standards that existed only five years ago. In electrical engineering alone the world agreements of the International Electrotechnical Commission cover 17,000 pages; virtually all these agreements use metric units. The International Standards Organisation is equally active.
Standards agreements are not generally negotiated by Governments but by representatives of industry operating in the voluntary standards organisations. Isolation in these daily negotiations would be the consequence of any insistence on Imperial weights and measures. Loss of overseas trade would be the consequence of our failure to conform to these world standards, which are overwhelmingly metric. More than 90 per cent. of new British Standards today, quite normally written to conform to this extensive world code, in consequence use the metric system.
It is for these reasons that British industry has been moving steadily towards the adoption of the metric system. The previous Government indicated in 1965 that the process would be largely completed in 79 ten years. That still seems to be the generally accepted view, and the Government acknowledge that it is a realistic forecast of the date by which the greater part of British industry will have adopted metric weights and measures.
Much progress has already been made, therefore. Important sectors of industry, including the motor vehicle industry, the aircraft industry, shipbuilding and marine engineering, and the electrical chemical and pharmaceutical industries is in the process of changing or has changed. Many other industries are actively preparing to change. Orders for £2,000 million worth of buildings in metric measures are on the drawing board, and in some cases metric construction work has already begun.
In support of these efforts, more than half the B.S.I. standards have now been expressed in metric terms: work continues and all new standards are of course metric from conception. It is not conceivable that we could reject this movement and try—I am not sure how—to make industry abandon all these modern specifications. Work going back to 1963 would have to be scrapped and there would be a delay of up to 10 years while new Imperial specifications were drafted, agreed and published.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)
My hon. Friend has talked about forcing industry to abandon the specifications. Surely it is the case that a great deal of this work on the drawing boards is there as a result of Government initiative. All that the Government have to do is stop forcing them, and the trend will stop naturally.
§ Sir J. Eden
I do not agree with the emphasis in my hon. and learned Friend's question. Where the initiative arises is the recognition of the facts of international trade which are leading British industry to make these changes. The Government come into the situation only when it is quite clear that the time has come when amendments to statutes and so forth are inevitable.
§ Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)
Is my right hon. Friend saying that up to now the public sector and the Government have not used their purchasing power to promote metrication?
§ Sir J. Eden
I will come to purchasing power later in my speech. The point with which I am dealing at this stage is the recognition that British industry is bound to accord to the realities of international trade because increasingly the markets in which it is trying to sell its goods are using the metric unit.
§ Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)
Does the Minister agree that a great deal of the success of metrication has been aided by the work done in the schools which have been carrying on under Government patronage? Would the Government now stop the work going on in the schools?
§ Sir J. Eden
The hon. Gentleman will recollect that in my opening paragraph I said that I would be touching on education later. I will certainly mention these points. If I miss any, hon. Members can bring them up during the debate and, as I undertook, we will give serious consideration to everything that is said.
I wanted to make clear that there is no question of being able to go back on the position—to put into reverse what has already been done by industry. This would mean that so much of what had already taken place since 1963 would have to be scrapped and there would be a delay of probably up to 10 years while new Imperial specifications were drafted, agreed and published.
We would certainly lose ground in foreign markets—indeed, many of our goods would cease to be entertained for export abroad—and our equipment-using industries would be forced to import foreign machines while waiting for new Imperial designs to come forward, if indeed they would then accept them. I must make clear that there can be no going back on the preparations of industry, on the factory floor, and with suppliers.
I turn to the position of education.
§ Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)
The Minister said that there could be no question of going back. Will he give his view on whether he wishes to go back, were it possible so to do, or is he reinforcing the view of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State who for years with the C.B.I. urged the Government continuously to press ahead? Will the hon. Gentleman be more positive?
§ Sir J. Eden
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will first hear the whole of my speech.
The metric system has in reality become the language of measurement of most of the world and of science, engineering and a rapidly growing part of all our industry. This clearly has implications for education which have already been widely accepted in our schools. The metric system needs to be taught from an early age. The teaching of the more complicated Imperial weights and measures takes the time both of the children and of the teachers and it is costly. I am sure that we should try to eliminate as much unnecessary or redundant material from the school curricula as possible. But the pressures in education are again coming from industry, because industry in particular needs more and more mathematicians familiar with the metric system.
A lot of progress has already been made—notably in the preparation of new textbooks. The market for these textbooks is throughout the English-speaking world. In India, for example, before they were able to write their own metric textbooks they had first to translate French and German books into English. Soviet books were being published in English. At the same time, British textbooks and technical works had to be excluded because they did not use metric weights and measures or a decimalised currency.
With the wide international use of the English language it would be the worst of ironies if we clung too long to the Imperial system of measurement, which today is a barrier to trade and communication, and if we thereby reduced our influence in the world and the value to us of our own language.
Hon. Members will wish to hear something about costs. It is not possible to give precise figures. Manufacturing concerns are adopting metric measures because, in their view, the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. They have to take into account the expanding markets for metric products and the fact that the markets for Imperial products are contracting.
Among the main costs of metrication are the costs of preparing new metric designs for products and of adapting or replacing existing machine tools and other 82 equipment to make them. These costs can be heavy, but are not properly chargeable to metrication alone if the products are in any case due for redesign. Therefore, timing is of the greatest importance to avoid the costs of premature obsolescence, and it is noteworthy that different industries have voluntarily chosen different time tables. A very high suggested cost of metrication publicised for the brewing industry was apparently based on the assumption of an enforced change in a very short period. Almost the whole cost would disappear if the change were spread over a period of years to take account of the normal replacement of breakages and obsolescence. But no estimate was then possible for this particular industry as it would depend on decisions on timing that have not yet been taken.
The costs and benefits to individual companies are generally confidential and will never be aggregated to produce global estimates of the cost and profitability of metrication. Global estimates that have appeared in the Press lack all statistical foundation.
The balancing of costs and benefits in industry must be left to industry. Costs and benefits will also arise on the public account. Here the Government must maintain a free hand to consider the merits of any proposed expenditure item by item. For example, I mentioned a moment ago new textbooks in schools. These will certainly cost money; but school books have a normal life of three to five years, so replacement over this period would cost very little. However, new textbooks will be better textbooks, and it could be in the interests of education to accelerate the supply at some cost or at the cost of renewing other kinds of books; but this must be a decision taken on its merits by the authorities concerned.
Another cost which has attracted attention concerns road signs. The cost of metricating road signs, which the Government are examining, may also eventually have to be considered by local authorities.
It is the Government's firm intention to absorb any immediate costs of metrication in Government departments within the ordinary total provision for management and staff. The cost of the Metrication Board itself is separately identified, 83 but to a large extent it is combining separate functions of a large number of Government departments which cannot individually co-ordinate the activities of so many industries, trades, and reach the many sections of the public. Its estimate is being carefully reviewed.
I should like to underline a point to which reference has already been made by some of my hon. Friends; namely, that Government involvement takes place in another way. The Government, like other public bodies, are a big purchaser and they are affected by and can themselves affect industry's programmes. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, when he was Minister of Technology, assured the House, in his statement on 20th July, that the Government would seek to use metric specifications for public purchases as soon as consultation with suppliers shows this to be practicable. This is for the clear reason that the Government certainly do not want to spend money on equipment which will become obsolete once the metric change is complete.
I turn to the question which has probably been worrying hon. Members almost more than anything else: the consequences of metrication in everyday life. So far I have dealt solely with the influences which have been working on industry and have led to the development and adoption of the metric system.
Turning to the consequences of metrication in everyday life, I want to say a word particularly about the retail trade and the position of the consumer. From a careful study of metrication during the last few years it is apparent that the consultations on metric weights and measures as they affect the retail trade have been almost rudimentary compared with the elaborate and repeated consultations within industry that have been in progress for six years.
The principal Act of 1897 which said, in effect, that one may use either metric or imperial measures as one wishes can be extended a long way into everyday life but not all the way. It may be believed privately that because both the Olympic Games and the recent Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh used metric weights and measures it would give British athletes a better chance if we adopted the Olympic metric standards for all our 84 athletics, but I think that we should leave decisions of this kind where they properly belong, in this case to the Amateur Athletics Association.
We may also believe privately that Nijinsky lost his only race in France because he was not used to a metric course. It is for the Jockey Club to decide whether it wishes to use the furlong as a means of measurement.
Even with the coverage of the Weights and Measures Act, 1963, the same principle may be applied in some cases. For example, the Weights and Measures Act (Amendment of Schedules 5 and 7) Order, 1970, which has been laid before the House would not make it unlawful to sell sand and ballast in imperial units, but would make it lawful to sell either in metric or in imperial measures. This new freedom is proposed as the outcome of consultations following a request from this trade. The Order will not increase the area of compulsion, but will reduce it.
It must be considered very carefully just how far this precedent can be followed for other goods. I am sure the House will agree that this principle is wholly inapplicable to the sale of drugs. There are real dangers to the public in allowing two systems of units to be used in the chemist's shop or on doctor's prescriptions. It is for this reason, and with common consent that not only the pharmaceutical industry but chemists' shops have almost completed the conversion to exclusively metric usage and have accepted a fixed terminal date by which metrication is to be completed.
I know that there is a lot of concern about what might happen to the British pint. I want to make it clear that there is no immediate need to change milk bottles and beer glasses. These are not key items of international trade. They are matters which can be considered at leisure after proper consultation and discussion. There are other articles of domestic trade, such as bread and meat, which do not have to be put up in metric sizes for reasons of international trade. There is no sense of urgency about these, either.
Similarly, there is no need to worry too much about the units used when loose fruit, vegetables and sweets are weighed on scales in front of the individual customer. As long as it is convenient to 85 shopkeepers and purchasers to use pounds and ounces for these purposes there is no strong economic argument for promoting change. There are other arguments for eliminating the use of a second system of weights and measures as soon as possible, for the general convenience and to get the full benefits of metrication in school teaching, but if ounces and pounds are still wanted for a few simple uses I am sure that they can be accommodated. If the housewife and the clubman are content to carry on using the imperial pint while it suits them, there should be no difficulty in their doing so.
I hope, therefore, that hon. Members will feel able to reassure their constituents on these matters, which are not really relevant to the basic question of maintaining industry's momentum towards its target date of 1975.
§ Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)
I do not think that my hon. Friend mentioned the measurement of land. What does he think about hectares and acres?
§ Sir J. Eden
Broadly speaking, the agricultural industry is in favour of moving towards the adoption of the metric system, but if my hon. and gallant Friend wishes to have this matter referred to at greater length I shall ask my right hon. Friend to take up the point.
At the centre of industry's interest in retail trade is the subject of packaging which is very much wider than the restrictive range of products that have to be sold in prescribed quantities. The total cost to the country of packaging is over £700 million a year. Industry has two aims—gradually to reduce the very great and uneconomic variety of package sizes now in use, and as far as possible to adopt for the home market package sizes that are acceptable abroad.
There is a growing volume of national and international recommendations on packages, weights, volumes and dimensions, very largely in metric measure. The introduction of standard metric package sizes for many purposes will certainly happen, however gradually. For most purposes it can be done without amendment of existing state statutes.
In this very brief summary I have tried to give the House the facts as I see them. On the industrial front, as developments proceed, the Government accept that the need for legislation will 86 doubtless emerge, but on the other matters affecting the general consumer we shall take fully into account the views expressed in this House and in the debate which is to take place shortly in another place.
§ Miss Joan Quennell (Petersfield)
Will my hon. Friend suggest to his right hon. Friend who is to wind up the debate that the measurement of land affects the consumer to a large extent, particularly in relation to estate agencies, the conveyancing of houses, room sizes and gardens?
§ 5.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)
I listened to the hon. Gentleman the Minister for Industry with considerable interest. I hope that he will not think it discourteous of me if I say that I had expected the Secretary of State to open the debate, not just because this was the first opportunity for him to speak in the House, which we should all have welcomed, but because he recognises that the policy adopted by the previous Government which, in a mild way, as we have heard during the debate, is being continued by this Government, stems principally from industry. The right hon. Gentleman who has written and spoken about metrication, might, I think, have opened the debate himself.
I have before me a powerful article which the right hon. Gentleman wrote in the Purchasing Journal in February, 1969, when he was responsible for the C.B.I. in which he said that the "head of steam" for metrication came from British industry, and I suspect that had he made the speech that we have just heard it would have been rather different. If I may quote him, in the article to which I have just referred he said that it would becourting disaster for one to change—he was referring to industry as compared with the retail trade—its units of measurement without the other".There has been a totally different emphasis between that which the right hon. Gentleman gave when he was Director General of the C.B.I., which the previous Government accepted, and the 87 emphasis given today by his hon. Friend the Minister for Industry.
It is true that this subject has caused a lot of anxiety, and I think that the number of hon. Members present today, many of whom I hope wish to speak, will be giving voice to the anxieties that have been felt.
§ Mr. Benn
The measure of unanimity on our side of the House is expressed by the monolithic absence of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
I hope that nobody, in arguing the case for metrication, will argue that this is being done by stealth. There can never have been an issue which has been debated so fully and so frankly over such a long period as metrication.
In 1790, the French made their first offer. Records are available from the Metrication Board indicating that the debate about metrication has gone on almost continuously since the end of the 18th century and that for 73 years, as the hon. Gentleman said, Britain has itself had a double system. Any stealth that there may have been in the introduction of metrication by industry in the last few years has been done under the cover of an Act passed while Queen Victoria was still on the Throne.
The number of public surveys and public consultations, and the amount of public debate that there has been, explains why the consensus has built up that some hon. Members wish to challenge today. I made inquiries to confirm my strong impression that nobody, from 1964 to 1970—until the General Election—sought a debate on mertication by tabling an early day Motion in the House. There were many Questions, which are referred to in the Paper on metrication in Parliament we have before us. Indeed in it we are reminded that the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) once asked the Government to impose the metric system and was resisted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling).
That is in the book, if anyone wants to look it up. But there was no requests for a debate. I would have greatly wel- 88 comed a debate on metrication, had there been any indication whatsoever that I could have brought to my right hon. Friend the then Leader of the House to suggest that the House wished to have a debate. I am on record—and I am quite happy to give the House any references that it may want—as continually inviting the House, the country, the broadcasting authorities and the Press, to give greater publicity to mertication, because of its importance to the public.
§ Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)
Many of my hon. Friends tried, in the Ballots for the Adjournment before Easter and Whitsun, to get an hour's debate on this subject rather than have an ordinary Adjournment debate. We would have liked the previous Government to give a day to this subject and not to have had to wait until there was a change of Government.
§ Mr. Benn
No doubt the hon. Member is quite sincere, but if he had been able to give me an indication that there was a body of opinion in the House that wished to debate metrication it would have made my job easier, in trying to get time out of the Government. But since there was no early day Motion, and since only about 30 Questions were asked during the period, we concluded that this movement towards metrication—which has a certain element of international inevitability about it—was being done with the support of the House as a whole.
In 1965, my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay)—who, the House will agree, is not notable for his pro-European feelings—responded to the F.B.I. in saying that the Government would give its support sector by sector in moving to the metric system. In 1966, Mr. Frank Cousins, my predecessor, set up a committee which engaged in wide consultations, and I made a statement on 26th July, 1968, bringing the recommendations of the Standing Joint Committee to the House. It has been argued that this was just before the Summer Recess and that it was in some way an attempt to prevent the House's debating the question, but anyone who has experience of government business will know that far from delaying things until the Recess most Ministers are anxious to get their statements out 89 before the House rises so that no one will be able to accuse them of reaching decisions during the summer holiday period.
During that statement—in the course of which some hon. Members shouted that I was taking too long over it—I urged the need for wide public debate. I need not go over the ground that the Minister has already covered, except to say that all that he has told us about the move towards metrication, worldwide, and in industry in this country, is absolutely correct and constitutes the background against which the House must express its view today.
Only last week the Americans had a delegation over here. A Press release was issued, which hon. Members will have seen, indicating that in the course of discussions our American visitors "confirmed the Metrication Board's understanding that American industry and commerce generally has reached the conclusion that the early adoption of the metric system in the United States is inevitable", which means that the last remaining proviso of the Hodgson Committee in 1950 has, in a sense, been met by the early thinking of the United States on this matter, they having declined to change in 1821—in the days of John Quincey Adams—on the grounds that they should not change until Britain had changed because they must not deviate from us.
§ Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)
Since neither John Quincey Adams nor Queen Victoria witnessed the age of aviation, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is his understanding that America's agreement about metrication extends into aviation?
§ Mr. Benn
It does not, because America is not a metric country. But one of the study groups set up under the Metric Study Act, which was passed by Congress by a huge majority, covers the aerospace industry, and I have no doubt that when the metric system begins in America it will come with quite a rush. I doubt whether there will be a risk of our being left alone in any great degree. It is possible to build aircraft to two standards. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), who is to wind up today, launched an aircraft half of which has 90 been built in inches and half in metres. Whether that explains part of the cost escalation of Concorde, I do not know.
The question is whether it is sensible that this country should stand outside the general trend of events. We are here discussing the progress that has been made. The hon. Gentleman, with a singular lack of fire, described what had happened, and we now have to perform the function that he laid down for us, of giving our opinions whether this is right or not.
There is some pretty fundamental opposition to metrication. I was sent a pamphlet that I have since treasured about four years ago, called "The Battle for the Inch" in which a quotation is given to the effect that it would be wrong for this country to abandon the measures described in the Bible, in Leviticus 19.35:Ye shall do no unrighteusness in judgment, in meteyard, in weight, or in measure.I think that this was a reference to corrupt traders, but the British Israel World Federation, which published the pamphlet, took it as an argument against metrication.
There are others who argue that this is a subtle plot to bring us into Europe. This is not the case. The argument about Europe could reinforce those in favour of adopting the international standard, but it is not for that reason that the move towards metrication has occurred; it is because there is a very general movement, world wide, and it would be gravely to the disadvantage of this country if we were not to follow along.
There is a view that this move somehow represents a repudiation of our British traditions, and that that is another reason why we should not adopt metrication. But if we are serious about making the best use of our resources it would be foolish to disregard what the British Association and the Associated Chambers of Commerce found in 1966, namely, that there would be about a 5 per cent. saving in education for children aged between 7 and 11 overall, and a 15 per cent. saving in mathematics in secondary schools, if only one system could ultimately be taught.
If we are considering—as we must consider today—what view to take, apart from the question whether we think that it has happened in the right way, we must take account of some of the fundamental 91 advantages offered by the metric system which influenced industry, the last Government and, clearly, also this Government.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
Did I hear the right hon. Gentleman aright? Did he say that the Association of Chambers of Commerce had found that there would be a 15 per cent. reduction in the overall cost of education from the adoption of the metric system? If so, will he explain how chambers of commerce are particularly qualified to assess savings in the overall cost of education, and how such an astonishing figure could have been reached?
§ Mr. Benn
I shall find the passage for the hon. and learned Gentleman. In 1960, the British Association and the Association of British Chambers of Commerce published a report called "Decimal Coinage and the Metric System: Should Britain Change?" I do not have a copy of the report before me; I am deriving what I am saying from a quotation, which says that there would be a 10–20 per cent. saving in mathematics teaching and a 5 per cent. total teaching time saving, for those aged between 7 and 11 years, from a move to the metric system.
§ Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)
Would that include the increased cost of changing textbooks or not?
§ Mr. Benn
The argument about the increased cost of changing textbooks is partly met by what the hon. Gentleman said in opening—generally, if you are replacing, you replace with metric. So this is a cost carried on replacement and in the end you get a saving comparable to the one I gave. But at any rate, I am only putting it to the House, since the hon. Gentleman chose not to do it himself, for a reason that I do not understand, that there are genuine gains in economy and advantage for children and to the community of adopting a worldwide system.
The country which has given the world its maps based on Greenwich and the language used world-wide can hardly argue that there is some implicit treason in abandoning the imperial system of weights and measures, which we could 92 only preserve at great cost to our economy and ourselves.
§ Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, only a few months ago, a conference of Scottish building interests assessed that the introduction of the metric system would increase building costs by 1 per cent.? Has he any information about this effect?
§ Mr. Benn
Some reference was made to costs by the hon. Gentlemen who now has access to estimates that I do not have, but the figure of about 1 to 2 per cent. on turnover has been used for rough and ready purposes. But it again has to be set against the fact that this will occur at the same time as reinvestment in new equipment. It does not follow that, if your machine tool wears out and you buy a new one which is a metric one, the total cost of the equipment should be laid against the metrication programme.
Dunlop have estimated a cost of £3 10s. per employee per year for seven years as the cost of metrication. But one has to ask whether Dunlop, who have recently joined Pirelli in a new international tyre company, would not have been doing this anyway as part of their international operations. Therefore, we are on very unsure ground when talking of the costs for individual companies and we have to consider what the cost of not metricating would be if this country were to choose to be a quaint little island entirely separate from the means by which the rest of the world measured its manufactures and organised its trade.
I can give one figure from the Australian report. I think that I am right in saying that the Australians, who have decided to metricate, calculated that it would cost 5 to 8 per cent. a year more for every year that a decision to metricate was postponed. Therefore, unless there is anyone here who could confidently say 93 that this country could avoid the metric system altogether, we are faced with very much larger costs if we do not move ahead with some speed.
As the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. John Davies) said in the article which I quoted earlier, a great case for metrication is not only international standardisation and the benefits to trade, but the fact that it gives industry an opportunity to redesign, itself, many of its own products, to reduce the number of varieties that it may have inherited from the past. Some figures which have been given here are remarkable. I cite only two. One firm which had inherited 280 different sizes of ball bearings in the imperial measure, on re-examining the problem, in the light of metrication, was able to reduce them to 30 standards. I understand that G.K.N. are planning to reduce the number of fasteners from 4,000 to about 750. These secondary benefits which come from metrication arise out of the fact that one has to redesign anyway and that therefore some benefit may flow from it.
§ Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)
Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that all those simplifications and standardisations could equally have been done in the Roman imperial measurement? One can standardise in any form one likes.
§ Mr. Benn
But one could have standardised in the old system in which 36 barleycorns laid ear to ear represented a foot or the length from the tip of King Edgar's nose to the end of his finger was a yard. One can do anything along those lines, but is it sensible to do it when the overwhelming majority of the world is the market for British equipment? One wants to sell not only one's finished goods, but one's components as well.
I am not as qualified as the Secretary of State to speak on this and I wish that he had spoken in the debate. But it is obvious that, in the world today, where one does not sell just one's finished goods but, increasingly, one's components as well, if we do not have our components on the same basis as our competitors' we will not sell our components to him, and this will be a disadvantage to us.
Three trends are going on simultaneously and it would be wrong to isolate metrication from the other two. The 94 first, clearly, is the move towards metrication which I have described. The second is the move to standardise—not just the SI system but getting international standards agreed, so that products can be interchangeable. The third is the move towards the acceptance of international inspection procedures, so that goods can be sold abroad in any country to which one exports because they accept the British Standard Inspection procedure. These three tendencies are all going on simultaneously and were we for any reason to isolate ourselves from these tendencies, it would be to the disadvantage of this country.
May I turn now to what I believe is a very powerful and understandable and real arguments in the minds of some people, namely, the myth—
§ Mr. Carol Mather (Esher)
I wanted to come back to the question whether or not the right hon. Gentleman said that the Americans have decided to go metric. I had the American equivalent of the Metrication Board on the telephone yesterday, and they said that there would be no decision until the end of 1971.
§ Mr. Benn
I was quoting the Press release following the visit of the American delegation, but it is in August, 1971, that Mr. Stans, the American Secretary of Commerce, has to make his decision following the metrication vote in Congress. I was not announcing American metrication today, and if the hon. Gentleman thought that I was, he was wrong.
One of the most difficult problems is the feeling which has emerged from the anti-metrication lobby that somehow this is part of the terrible standardisation of life, that metrication forces us into a standard, as does all modern technology. Of course, the evidence is quite the reverse. It is as a result of modern industry and modern technology and metrication and all these other trends that we get a far greater variety of goods and products available. One of the most deeply entrenched myths among the comments about modern industry is that everybody is being squeezed into a common mould. This simply is not the case.
Nor do I think that too much should be made of the difficulty of getting used to metric measurement. As a photographer, I have never been embarrassed 95 about buying 33 mm. film. I listen to the 25 metre band on the radio, and I have got used, as we all have, to talk of megaton bombs and 500 cc. motor bikes.
§ Mr. Benn
I can only say that I have shrunk over the years, as we all do.
The truth is that people are capable of making this adjustment and it would have to be a very powerful argument which moved us away from it now.
Although I had hoped that there would not be any element of political controversy here, I was slightly hurt by the hon. Gentleman's rebuke at the beginning about the failure to have a debate before. We were not uninfluenced by Lord St. Oswald's powerful speech in the other place, in which he said:The official opposition, for which I am now speaking, takes the view that we shall go metric. The decision is inevitable. Speaking personally, I say not only is the process inevitable, but the sooner the better."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 26th June, 1969; Vol. 303, c. 280.]The only pressure for legislation for the enforcement of metrication came from his right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), who is now a Minister in his own Department.
I can honestly say that the view which influenced the Labour Government was the view that came from industry, being "the big ear rather than the big mouth", to quote the right hon. Gentleman in a recent speech, listening to what industry needed and responding to it.
But, of course, it is true that the Consumer Council has come out in favour of metrication and that the C.B.I. has reaffirmed its view that "any kind of delay imposed from without would cause major dislocation". Even the Women's Committee of the British Standards Institution, the most terrifying body that I have ever come across, has come out strongly in favour of metrication. If this were a Socialist plot, I should like to know what it was about the last Labour Government that won round the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Women's Associations to be associated with the plea for metrication. The truth is that these women's organisations, representing, they claim, about 4 million mem- 96 bers, have come out and issued statements in support of metrication.
The representative status of those of us whose business is representation is itself always highly arguable, but I believe it reasonable to say that although there may not have been as much public debate as there might have been, in general those who have confronted this change and thought about it have found it quite sensible. For this reason, I found the Minister's speech was rather unsatisfactory.
I know what he was doing. He was faced with a revolt on his side of the House and it slightly surprised him. A warning shot was fired across his bows. It was agreed to have a debate and they said we should have a debate and shall listen to it. But everything he said was in line with continuing metrication, although he was softening it a little because of the criticism that there might be. The Minister's bedtime story approach to metrication may be right in dealing with the criticisms which he expects today, but this process cannot be delayed without imposing a very high cost on the economy.
The programme for metrication purposes by the Defence Department will have to go on, because we want to sell our equipment abroad; the programme in the construction industry will have to go on, because we want to sell and buy building components abroad. Legislation will have to be introduced to define the units to be used, even though the whole thing is to be voluntary and there are to be no compulsory powers, except in the single case of drugs for reasons of safety.
I do not know what will be the impact of the Minister's speech, but I give notice—and perhaps some of these questions may be answered in the winding-up speech—that we shall want to know whether the individual programmes which have been set in motion in the Departments dealing with merchant shipping, with weights and measures, transport, education, in the Ministry of Defence will go on. Will those Departments be going on with their programmes and will legislation be introduced? Is there to be, as the Minister half hinted, any restriction of the budget of the Metrication Board which, as it has no compulsory powers, 97 is the real agency by which the public may be brought to understand what is in mind and may be brought into consultation before individual trades and industries reach their own decisions?
I conclude with two points. One concerns the problem of communication, which is important and difficult. I have searched my own conscience many times to see whether we could have done better to publicise what was being discussed. We are in the difficulty that Parliament likes to discuss things which are highly controversial and is not as concerned as it should be with the fundamental changes which may be going on and which may affect everybody in the community. Secondly, the mass media are always interested in the immediate topicality of today's news and do not perform the function which they might perform—not even the B.B.C.—of trying to alert people to long-term trends and tendencies with which they ought to be concerned.
I take a parallel which I hope the House will not think too widely stretched. The whole problem of pollution is a problem which arises because as a community we do not think far enough ahead and therefore do not anticipate the consequences of what we do. If there has been a failure of communication about metrication, as I think there has been those of us who are in the mass communication business, and that applies to all Members of Parliament and the Press and television and radio, are responsible. It makes me wonder whether we could not do better.
Secondly, there is a positive point. I was not interested in the subject until it was brought to my attention as the responsible Minister. However, the more I travelled around the world and saw what it meant and what standardisation and international standards procedures meant, the more this subject lifted itself off the paper where it was just a theoretical exercise and the more the trends of the international impact of technology became real to me.
I will not conceal from the House that I see enormous political benefit in a world which does all its measuring upon the same scale, which thinks alike about projects which it handles and distances which it sees and weights and other things 98 which it assays. Therefore, in metricating we are not only responding to the manifest needs of industry and saving educational time which is of value to the child and to the community, but also, not for the first time, following an opportunity that technology has opened up which allows the world to feel its unity again.
I hope that when he has overcome his mini-revolt the Minister will be able to take up this development and present it to the public in a rather more exciting way than he has felt able to do today.
§ 6.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Redmond (Bolton, West)
I should begin by craving the indulgence of the House for a maiden speech. I feel that I ought to do so with far more than the usual sincerity and perhaps some temerity. There is a rather unfortunate precedent about maiden speeches in my family, if I may use the word in its widest sense.
The late John Redmond came here in February 1881, as the result of a by-election. On his very first day in the House, he attempted to make his maiden speech, but he never completed it: he was escorted from the Chamber by the Serjeant at Arms. I sincerely hope that I shall not incur your anger or displeasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as did my late and rather mere illustrious ancestor that of Mr. Speaker Brown of those days.
John Redmond came here to represent part of what is now the Republic of Ireland. I have come here to represent the constituents of Bolton, West. I am not speaking on my first day in the House, but I am speaking on the first day back after a recess and I shall proceed with caution.
When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announced in July that there was to be this debate, it seemed to me right during the recess for me to find out the views of the people of Bolton and perhaps to do some homework and report to the House what they felt about metrication for industry in Bolton and in their private lives. It is right that people like those of Bolton should have a say in this debate, for Bolton is at the heart of what I regard as the most important industrial conurbation in the world.
It was in places like Bolton that the Industrial Revolution began and the 99 people of Bolton have an inherited industrial skill and expertise which is second to none in the world. It may have been based on the textile industry, but it is now very diversified and in conveying the views of Bolton's industry and its people I believe that I am making a serious and important contribution to the debate.
I approached the subject with the view that there might be two sides to it. I believed that there would be a possible industrial attitude which might or might not be carried through to the general public and the consumer. This is more or less true, but I was surprised to find that industry itself is far from united, in spite of what the C.B.I. might say. There is disagreement within various sections of individual industries.
The building and the pharmaceutical industries have accepted metrication without much trouble and the electrical engineering industry is proceeding on the metric course. But in the mechanical engineering industry—and this surprised me—there is by no means a united view. The managing director of one company, a leader in his field in the north-west of England, told me that there was a new international metric standard for one of his products in the process of confirmation. In spite of what has been said from both Front Benches today, he tells me that his competitors in the United States will absolutely refuse to accept that standard. He advises me, and I would not reject the advice of this man, who is important in the mechanical engineering industry, that his part of the industry has to proceed with caution.
For many years he has been able to meet the demands of metric countries by arranging metric alternatives for certain critical dimensions of his products. This, he says, is easy to do, but the task of changing all dimensions to prime metric would be not only impossible, but, he maintains, extremely ill-advised. Changing an inch dimension is quite easy, but it is not complete metrication.
This director goes on to say—and this is extremely important—that United States engineers are keeping a very close watch on what is going on in this country in the hope that we will go metric, because they hope then to take the inch markets of the world from us. As I have 100 said, this director is a leader in his field in the engineering industry.
My own experience is with smaller engineering companies which I regard as the most important people in this country. I met the managing director of one such company recently. He had been on a sales tour of the Middle East. He had not been before and he had been hoping to open up some new markets and had firmly believed that he could do so. Before going he had converted all inch measurements into centimetres and millimetres. When he got there, he found that his prospective customers were busy translating them back into inches so that they could understand what he was talking about.
We have been told this afternoon that standardisation is the thing and that whereas we have had to deal with two sorts of measurements, we shall have to deal with only one. The movement could be in the opposite direction. A Bolton manufacturer of nuts and bolts has found that more than one metric system is in use and he is now working to three standards where formerly there were only two. For his European customers he uses the German DIN system; he uses metric for the majority of his overseas customers and now will have the SI system for some of his home customers. He has had to move away from standardisation.
Many people have complained to me of the cost of conversion to the metric system. I know that some in industry are welcoming it. Some seem to be resigned to it because for some reason they think that metrication will be in the interests of the export trade generally. To everyone I have met over the last three months I have put one simple and straightforward question. I have asked whether they or anyone else has ever lost an export order because Britain did not have the metric system. I have never had the question answered in the affirmative, in spite of what my hon. Friend has said.
It is my conclusion that there is no need for the Government to do anything in this matter. If industry needs to go metric, industry will go metric. Can anyone tell me why land has to be measured in hectares instead of acres and whether the farmers want that? The estate agents certainly do not. I have 101 spoken to a number of estate agents in Bolton and other parts of Lancashire and they are horrified by the prospect. So are many of the solicitors who work with them.
The Minister mentioned road signs. I do not see why we have to change them. We have heard about the possible cost, but I do not see why we should incur any cost. We are told that it will help the tourist trade, but the best part of our tourists come from the United States where they measure in miles.
My experience in Scandinavia, where everything is measured in the Swedish mile, is that, in the view of the Swedes, the kilometre is so unsatisfactory as a means of measure that Swedish miles are preferable. My researches, if I can call them such, show that there is serious alarm among the general public in Britain when they read of what might be happening over metrication, and I was glad to hear the Minister say that the brakes will be applied slowly.
The Bolton Women's Institute of Arts and Crafts tell me that all examinations called by the Union of Lancashire Institutes will be conducted entirely in metric by 1972. Who said 1972? I believe that the new SI metric system will be used exclusively for the G.C.E. by 1972. Some of this baffles me. A paper which, like many hon. Members, I received last week on this subject said that the introduction of metrication would remove drudgery from education. My constituents say, "We don't want easier education. We want better education".
When I have travelled abroad, and particularly on the Continent, I have noticed that people have on their desks calculating machines while we in Britain do the same sums in our heads. I suggest that this is because we have been taught the imperial system in our schools alongside the metric system; and I find no difficulty, except with some of the more complicated items, in working in metric equivalents.
I come to what is probably the most serious aspect of the debate, on which, unhappily, little emphasis has been placed. I begin by recalling what happened to a lady from Bolton who went on holiday to central Wales and who, alas, picked a rather bad patch of summer weather for her vacation. To have something to 102 occupy her during a rainy spell, she went to a shop to buy a knitting pattern and wool.
She bought the pattern and discovered that she needed either 3 ounces or 4 grammes of wool. She asked for white wool, although she could have used blue, and was told that she could have white in 3 ounce lots, but that if she wanted blue she would have to buy 4 grammes of it—and 3 ounces would cost 7s. and 4 grammes 7s. 4d. She wanted to know why she had to pay more for more wool than she needed, just because it was in grammes, and she was told by the shopkeeper, "It is all tied up with our application to join the Common Market".
Hon. Members may laugh about that, but I believe that if the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster comes back with the most wonderful conditions for our joining and has the greatest success in the negotiations, the British people must still be carried with him. In other words, they must not have metrication forced on them against their will. Indeed, too fast a move in the direction of metrication might even prevent us from getting into the E.E.C.
We have been told what the Women's Advisory Committee of the B.S.I. thinks. I can tell hon. Members what the majority of women in Bolton think about metrication. They do not want it and I am sure that I am joined in this belief by many of my hon. Friends, who have a great deal of respect for women electors. In any event, I believe that it will take a long time to persuade the housewife to think not in pounds and ounces. As the Bolton Townswomen's Guild says, women will not easily admit to having a 120 centimetre hip measurement or having given birth to a 3,125 gramme baby. Who can visualise either a hip measurement or a baby of those dimensions?
The answer is that we must move slowly in the direction of metrication. Although my right hon. Friend is no longer in his place, I hope that when he replies to the debate he will admit to being prepared to listen if not to the plea of the women and the constituents of Bolton, then at least to one of his own constituents, whom I happen to be. I hope I can go back to Lancashire at the weekend and assure my constituents that there are still six balls to the over.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)
I was entranced by the excellent maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond). He brought a breath of common sense and fresh air into what had been an extremely stultified debate.
I wish every possible success to my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry. He is extremely well qualified to hold his important office and I noted with relish the lack of enthusiasm with which he spoke on this subject. Indeed, it is that lack of enthusiasm rather than the words he used which gave me the greatest encouragement.
I was proposing to welcome his right hon. Friend, because it might be said that both are poachers turned gamekeepers. However, as an honourable, simple and humble businessman with a strong understanding of the guile of Ministers, I would suggest that they probably made the changes from gamekeepers to poachers.
We are debating a very big change indeed, a change for our industrial, educational and scientific life. It is a change which is virtually unknown in this country and totally untried everywhere else, for as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West said, the SI system is new and has not been used in any European country or by any of the psuedo-metric countries which appear in the Report.
I got the feeling from the Minister that he feels that metrication as a whole has the skids under it and that we must go slithering on. He said, "There is no going back." But no going back from what? Is it no going back from a Government determination to force metrication on the country?
As far as I can see, there are two main reasons for its introduction. The first apparently is because it is said that the world is going metric. Secondly, it is said that industry wants to go metric. I leave other hon. Members to deal with the suggestion that the world is going metric. Wherever one goes one finds very few countries which are totally metric. A friend of mine recently bought half a kilo of 2-in. nails in Holland.
How much evidence can the Government present to show that the majority of industry wants to go metric? There 104 have been some slipshod discussions by the SI and a questionnaire was sent to members of the C.B.I. It was answered not by all of them, but, I suspect, by some of the large companies which feel that in metrication they can see great advantage for their companies. It is instructive to note that the milk industry is determined not to go metric because, it says, metrication will cost them about £100 million to change to new bottles—and when the new bottles have been obtained, the industry will sell less milk. The brewing industry takes the same attitude with draft beer.
Is it not a fact that companies which are showing themselves fully in favour of the change see great advantage to themselves—not, I suspect, necessarily or even at all as an export advantage, a point which was ably put by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West, but as an advantage which will give them a bonanza.
Consider, for example, the manufacturers of measuring equipment. There is bound to be a vast increase on the home market for gauges, metres, school books and textile machinery if textiles must be sold in new metric measures. The same can be said of most machine tools. If steel bar must be made to metric measurements, the pressed tool manufacturers will obviously support the change. Will steel bar made to the new system have to be included in all Government contracts?
§ Mr. J. H. Osborn
It may be of some advantage to pressed tool manufacturers, but the manufacturers of bar will have to re-equip with tools for this change. There are both points of view.
§ Mr. Page
I was just coming to that point.
The larger manufacturers—those members of the C.B.I. which are able to send representatives to all C.B.I. meetings, and so on—see advantage in this change because they can afford to retool while the smaller firms cannot. Having retooled, they will be able to jack up their prices, being able to say, "Having retooled, we must amortise the cost of our equipment. These are new designs to the metric system and we must therefore charge more for them."
The same can be said of paper. I suggest that it is a piece of gross extravagance for we in this building to have 105 changed to an enormously larger size type of writing paper. I suppose that it was first suggested by the Metrication Board because it is "with it" nowadays to use this type of writing paper.
A large hotel owning company has informed me that to build and furnish a bedroom by the metric system will take the cost from about £500 per room to between £600 and £700, which will make a difference of between 10s. and £1 on the charge per night per room. The bed manufacturers are enthusiastic for metrication. Beds will be 4 inches longer, so that every time they sell a bed they will be able to charge more for more bed. The same applies to sheet, pillow case and pillow manufacturers. Metric lavatory paper is more extravagant because the different distance between perforations means larger quantities of paper being used each time.
All of these are valid industrial points and as a businessman in any of these industries I will throw my hat in the air and say, "Hurrah for metrication". The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) said, when in the previous Government, that industry wanted it and that industry must have it. I never heard him say that industry wanted to get rid of S.E.T., so he would set up a board to abolish it. The Government set up the Metrication Board, an expensive, important and determined organisation, to sell metrication to the public on behalf of industry.
We are at an important crossroads and I beg the new Government in whose members, efficiency and judgment I have the greatest belief, to take the right turning. There is a clear duty upon the Government to set up a new committee or commission to tell the country about the advantages, disadvantages and the costs of metrication. This information is said not to be available, but the right hon. Gentleman said that the United States has such committees trying to assess these points. Metrication has been forced blind upon the country because no information was given by the previous Government. There were a couple of fairly feeble statements in the House, but no proper indication of any costs.
Any industry or body presenting its view of costs which might arise through metrication brought forth denials from the Metrication Board or other interested 106 parties. This committee will have to take between one and two years to make a sensible report. During this time the Government should take certain action. If the Metrication Board is not disbanded it should be put into cold storage and told that it must not continue its propaganda activities until the report has been published and debated in Parliament and until the Government have a clear mandate to go ahead with metrication.
Secondly, the Ministry for the Environment, in its rôle as the largest purchaser and subsidiser of building works—half the buildings in this country carry some kind of subsidy, or did until earlier this afternoon—should stop forthwith demanding that all tenders shall be answered in metric standards. Why should the Government force upon themselves an increase in prices of between 5 and 10 per cent. for a totally nebulous reason? The Ministry of Defence should no longer demand that tenders be provided in metric measurements although I accept the point of the right hon. Gentleman that if there is an international issue, such as the use of certain types of ammunition, then this would have to be taken into consideration. However, it should not be a blanket operation.
The Ministry of Education should, through the constitutional channels, call a halt to the changes to be made in school examinations and curricula. I have a very interesting letter from a scientific information officer who has travelled all over the world. He says:True, under a metric system many basic mathematical skills will no longer be taught, but this is an impoverishment of education not its simplification.It is extremely dangerous for our children not to be taught about pounds and feet, inches and yards. If they are to be examined in metrication standards they will not be taught the other.
I hope that my right hon. Friend, when he replies to the debate, will be clear about the activities of the Ministry for Transport Industries whereby by 1973—certainly under the previous Government—signposts, speed limits and height limits were to be changed at a total cost to the unsuspecting tax and ratepayer of about £33 million. For what reason? We cannot possibly export miles of road in Knutsford, Harrow, or Bournemouth. If I am to be caught by the police for exceeding the speed limit I would rather be 107 caught for exceeding it in miles per hour than in kilometres per hour.
§ Mr. Onslow
Would my hon. Friend not agree that if visitors to these shores misunderstand the speed limits which apply here in mile terms rather than kilometre terms there is a bonus from the point of view of road safety, in that they are likely to drive rather slower than they are otherwise entitled?
§ Mr. Page
That is true. I also feel that visitors who come to this country like to find something a bit different. They do not want the ordinary, the uniform, a kind of sliced, wrapped "Wonderloaf" country internationally. That is what we seem to be aiming at.
The country deserves to be told more about the costs and effects of metrication and if I can be persuaded, after being properly advised by the Government, as I consider it their duty so to do, that there are advantages for the country in going metric I will be the first to sincerely support them in doing so. I find it hard to be persuaded by any of the information we have so far heard.
During the last election one of the reasons why the Conservative Party was returned was because most of our candidates said that we were determined to consult the people, to listen to the wishes of the people, to keep in closer touch rather than to become separated from them as the previous Government had become. I do not believe that we have a mandate to turn the country into a metric country and I must solemnly ask my hon. and right hon. Friends, in whom I have the greatest faith, to institute a proper survey, to set up a proper committee and give the country the facts, then let the country choose.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Roger White (Gravesend)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond), I rise for the first time in this House, comforted by the knowledge that I have your protection, Mr. Speaker, and the understanding of hon. Members.
I have the honour to represent the Gravesend constituency and I would like to pay tribute to my two predecessors. Mr. Albert Murray served the constituency from 1964 until June of this year 108 and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Navy at the Ministry of Defence served from 1955 until 1964. Both achieved junior Ministerial rank towards the end of their respective Parliaments and both were relieved of their responsibilities by the electors. It follows, therefore, that I shall look to the Treasury Bench towards the end of this Parliament with some apprehension. Meanwhile, if possible it is my intention to pass modestly.
During the recent General Election the Gravesend constituency was said to be the average constituency. If an average can be estimated in terms of a constituency with an oil refinery at one end and the largest automated cement works in the world at the other, together with ship-repairing, agricultural and horticultural interests, then we are indeed proud of our average. There is little doubt that the question of change, whether it be through our currency or our measurements must have its effect upon such a diverse community.
I have little doubt but that the large industries in my constituency will cope with the transition from imperial measurements to metric measurements if that is desirable. However, it is not of the large industries in my constituency that I wish to speak tonight. I believe that the public are suspicious of metrication and the reason is that it appears to them that this has been taken for granted. With respect to the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), they feel that metrication is overtaking them by stealth rather than agreement. Some imagine that metrication will take place in February of next year because there is confusion over decimalisation and metrication. I am not an opponent of decimalisation, although I am bound to say that I was a supporter of the 10s. unit. In general, I believe that the Decimal Currency Board has achieved a great deal. The introductory period has been successful, due to the participation of the public.
Metrication is a horse of a different colour. People are confused and bewildered by this system, despite the support given to it of late by the C.B.I., the Consumer Council, the British Standards Institution and even the N.F.U.—a powerful lobby by any standards. Confusion can be overcome by education. The 109 cost to the consumer is my main concern. According to some reports, two years ago the estimated cost was said to be about £5,000 million and today I understand that the figure is higher.
In his speech on the Adjournment debate on 8th July last my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) pointed out the increases for both taxpayers and ratepayers as a result of changes in speed limit signs. Only a short while ago a local authority introduced a series of road signs in glorious technicolour at considerable expense. Little wonder that Mr. and Mrs. Everyman are worried about another round of increased costs which will certainly evolve if we go metric on the roads.
The changes to petrol pumps for decimalisation has taken place. A further alteration to the litre will be necessary if the magic year 1975 is to become a reality. This is an additional cost to the consumer.
In his speech on that occasion my hon. Friend said that it was conceivable that the pubs would retain imperial measures. That is not necessarily so. Already I am given to understand that a cost of £100 million could be involved as a result of a transition and this again would fall upon the consumer. It is the effect on increased costs that causes me to rise this evening. The extent of the charge will knock on every door in the land. As a constituent of mine asked me the other day, "Will you tell me the meaning of 257 grammes of lard?". Hon. Members who have to perform duties at the customary beauty contests during future recesses will have to reconcile vital statistics of almost unbelievable proportions—flattering some and terrifying others.
We are told that the world is going metric. Although I listened intently to what my hon. Friend said this evening, the United States as far as I understand is still keeping to the imperial measurements. In the world context, it might be worth asking, "Where have all the centimetres gone? In confusion, every one." Perhaps the Minister, when he replies, will tell us what happened to the centimetre.
I am confident that the people will accept change, as I have accepted change over the years, provided that they are 110 supplied with sufficient information and knowledge. Great and clever men in large institutions may conceive ideas and demand their implementation. But, finally, we must consult the people. Perhaps we might have a Green Paper on the subject before the end of this Session. I trust that we shall not be in a hurry. We have our own ways of doing things in this country and they have stood the test of time.
I thank the House for its indulgence.
§ 7.6 p.m.
§ Captain Henry Kerby (Arundel and Shoreham)
It falls to me to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White) on what I can only describe as an extremely able, well-informed and courageous speech. He took to our ways as a duck takes to water, and I am sure that I express the view of every hon. Member when I say that I hope that he addresses us again in the near future and on many subsequent occasions.
Every call for change, so-called social reform, contains the implication that there is something wrong with the present. Impose too many reforms and one creates a sort of neurotic sense of insecurity which does nothing to help national productivity or the psychological well-being of the people, whether it be taking our national temperature in centigrade or living under so-called British Standard Time which is, in truth, Central European Time. With metrication, we seem to be in the throes of what I can only call government by stealth, government almost by default, for legislation and intent are so far post-dated that the public and indeed the House are given but scant opportunity to question anything until, in years to come, it is too late, as it almost seems to be today with metrication, judging by what my right hon. Friend the Minister said.
I am appalled to see how far creeping metrication has already proceeded stealthily without detailed parliamentary debate and certainly, as far as I am aware, without any parliamentary approval whatever. I suspect that successive Ministers responsible to the House have allowed themselves to be jollied into becoming the mere agents—unconsciously the agents, naturally, but nevertheless the agents—for outside organisations and 111 outside interests, the hidden persuaders, in this case the autonomous bulldozing Metrication Board, the twin ugly sister of the Decimalisation Board.
Next February we are all to be plunged into the crass folly of decimal coinage—funny money. The rises in the cost of living will be stupendous, and so will the fiddles perpetrated on the British public which will accompany those rises. What is it all for? It is merely to prove that we are more trendy, more "with it", more European. Now we have this metric madness, this alien academic nonsense, introduced secretly through the back door by a bunch of cranks and the big business tycoons—the "Sir John Wilders" of the C.B.I.—and put into clandestine operation, which is my main complaint, under the cover of the usual decoy board.
Metrication will mean even greater chaos for the British people for perhaps a decade or more. Every man, woman and child and almost all undertakings, both public and private, will suffer. The cost will be astronomic. My right hon. Friend brushed this aside, but I tend to believe in the estimate that puts the cost at around £5,000 million. Why?—because, along with decimalisation, metrication is being put into effect merely to show the hard-faced Europeans across the Channel—the Dr. Hallsteins—that Britain is trendy and "with it", that we are prepared, nay anxious, to stoop to any kind of folly, however self-destructive, to lubricate our passage into that alien trap, the Common Market. Everything from bricks to bottles will be changed in size, shape, weight and length to fit some supposed metric standard, quite irrespective of whether that standard exists.
This is not sound scientific or business judgment, or even common sense. Our scientists and engineers, our boffins—the best in the world—use the metric system already in their technical work without disturbing or disrupting the lives of ordinary people. Everyone is happy. Why not leave it at that? Why turn an entire nation inside out and back to front? But, no, 1984 is already here, complete with its crazy decimalisation and metrication, all part of what I call the old Common Market vaseline.
The deeds of every house and property in the country will have to be redrawn 112 and recomputed—a paradise, no doubt, for the lawyers, but expensive, distressing futility for us ordinary folk.
Liquid measures are to be changed also. The pint is to "go for a Burton". It will be replaced by a single unit—the litre. Every pint milk bottle or mug or tankard of beer will have to be scrapped, and will be scrapped, despite what my right hon. Friend said, and replaced by two alternatives—the half litre and the litre. I suspect that most milk and beer drinkers will switch from the pint to the half litre. But the half litre is not a pint. It is only four-fifths of a pint. But we may be sure that we shall pay the price for a full pint. We can expect little mercy from the brewers. With metrication, the British public will, in my opinion, be defrauded right across the metric cost-of-living board.
I turn to the question of weights. We have a splendid system of ounces, pounds, hundredweights and tons. The metric system offers us nothing in exchange except grammes and kilogrammes. The gramme is minute—1,000 to the kilogramme. The kilogramme is over 2 lb.—too much for ordinary use and absurdly small to take the place of the hundredweight or ton. I see more scope here for further fiddling and defrauding of the long-suffering British public.
The Americans still use the imperial measure and "Uncle Spam" got to the moon and back without metrication. The metric system has been used in France for 200 years. It was imposed by the revolutionaries. Yet the common sense of the ordinary people in France still rejects it and they go on using weights supposedly abolished two centuries ago. There appears to be no escape for us: 1984 is already here—or it will certainly be here by 1975, metric vesting day. The scales in every grocer's shop will have to be changed and all existing weighing machines will have to go, too—and the best of British luck to our housewives and old-age pensioners and the kids shopping for their mums round the corner.
Metrication, this academic folly—I would go as far as to say this gigantic swindle—is to pursue us even to the grave. I am told that a firm of undertakers is sending out a guide to metrication—I have told my wife to have a careful look at it—instructing next of kin 113 how to convert the size of headstones, plinths, vases, and so on, into millimetres. It is no good for me, I am afraid.
We are in the middle of these colossal, sweeping, shattering, vastly expensive changes, as far as I am aware without the authority of Parliament, and yet the Civil Service and the local education authorities—both Government agents—seem to be compelling these changes throughout the land. What I want to know—and I hope that my right hon. Friend when he winds up will give the answer—is, on whose orders, on what authority?
In a letter to me dated 11th August, 1970, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had this to say on metrication:We have no intention of interfering in any way with the voluntary plans and commitments which British industry has made for the wider use of metric units …. Rather we propose to encourage these developments and to use metric specifications for public purchases as soon as it becomes practicable for suppliers to meet such a demand".If words mean anything—and we all know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister means exactly what he says—the words I have just quoted seem to suggest that the metrication pass has already been sold. If so, it has been sold, as far as I know, without a shadow of a mandate from this House or, more important, from the electorate.
In those circumstances, this debate seems to be a pretty futile charade—unless it is followed by a free vote of the House. But even that basic democratic freedom looks like being denied to us today. The Metrication Board's bulldozer is on our national doorstep waiting for its secretive, arrogant, eggheads and tycoons to say "go" with apparently the offhand blessing of the Government. As I see it, therefore, no defence exists against this latest madness except for the nation itself to cry, "No. Stop", and that in the voice of outrage loud and clear. I am convinced that over 90 per cent. of the electorate would do so and would object vocally, but this House tonight is being denied its ancient and most precious right to do so.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Miss Joan Hall (Keighley)
Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker, to make my maiden speech in this important debate on metrication. My constituency was represented for the last six years by 114 Mr. John Binns. He was always friendly and fair and I trust that I shall follow the same pattern. I find that right hon. and hon. Members tend to pronounce the name of my constituency wrongly. They call it "Keeley", whereas it should be "Keithley", as if with a "th". It is an ideal constituency, with towns, villages, industry and farming, and a growing number of people who live within the constituency but travel every day to work in Bradford and Leeds. We have moorland, with lots of sheep, but also some nice wooded valleys.
Above all, we have a wonderful community spirit, which has been created by people who have been born and bred in the constituency. They care about their area and about each other. That spirit communicates itself to those who come and live there as well as to those who come there to work. Nor must I forget the jewel in Keighley's crown—that is Haworth, where the Brontës lived. Tourists come from all over the world to my constituency in Yorkshire. I am not a militant suffragette, but might I say that I am very proud to be the first Conservative woman Member of Parliament for Yorkshire.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White) said that to many people, decimalisation and metrication are the same thing. I find that there is confusion about it. "Confusion" is a word which everybody has on his lips as soon as one mentions the subject. With confusion, ignorance goes hand in hand.
I was surprised when the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) said that this subject had been debated for a long time and people knew about it. All I can say is that perhaps those "up there" know all about it but that very little is known to the people "down here". When it is suggested that people know about the subject of metrication, it is those in industry who know. Industry is very important, but it is not the be-all and end-all. My experience—and I have done my homework in my constituency during the last few months, in the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) has done—is that as the size of firm decreases, so does its antipathy increase. It is also sometimes forgotten that large companies 115 depend to a great extent on the small companies to which they subcontract work. Those small companies have less to do with outside trade organisations. Their managements are more personally concerned with the day-to-day working of their works and ensuring that orders are fulfilled and have less time to sit behind nice big executive desks reading reports and going to outside meetings and lunches.
It was mentioned earlier that the building industry appeared to be rather happy with metrication. That has not been my experience in talking to people in the building industry, which consists not simply of bricks and mortar. There is in my a constituency a publicly-quoted company which makes timber doors and window frames. It has on hand a thousand items at any time. Houses once built do not change size, but from time to time they need new doors and windows. Under metrication, therefore, that firm will have to carry two thousand items of stock for decades ahead. People talk about the cost, but has anybody thought also about the amount of space that will be needed? Figures of cost are bandied about, but very little is collated and known about what is involved.
In a technical college, for example, there might be an ordinary milling machine in the engineering department. To alter the feed dials from imperial to metric can be done at a cost of approximately £40 to £50. If, however, one alters the screws and their threads, the cost for each machine is between £200 and £300. Who decides how much to alter or whether to alter anything at all? It is this sort of cost on which it is impossible to get a final total.
It is said that the British are adaptable. I do not know whether I speak for many other hon. Members, but I know that I speak for many people throughout the country when I say that the question of Fahrenheit and centigrade leaves me quite cold. I know that 1 degree centigrade is freezing point, but anything else I simply cannot understand, even though it has been explained to me time and time again.
What about the millions of pensioners and housewives? Who will take their feelings into consideration? It was said from 116 the Front Bench that if the housewife wants to go out and buy in pounds and ounces, she will be able to do so. The position is not quite as simple as that, because when the shopkeeper buys a new weighing machine he must buy a metric machine, because the manufacturer will not be making both metric and imperial. Willy nilly, therefore, the housewife must buy metric. It is the individual who has been forgotten at the expense of the big companies.
Change is undoubtedly coming. There has been metrication in many industries for some time. It takes a generation and more, however, to accept change of this nature. Last Saturday, I went into the Keighley shopping centre and carried out my own survey to find out what was thought about metrication. A number of the comments were quite unrepeatable, but one of those which was repeatable was very wise. It came from a gentleman aged over 70, who said to me, "Nay, lass, it is too late for me to learn afresh", but his wife said, "Not if we are told the reason why."
I feel that there is a conspiracy going on under the table and behind the door, and the British people are naturally and rightly suspicious. I hope that when my right hon. Friend the Minister winds up the debate, we shall be enlightened somewhat more than we have been already.
§ Several Hon. Members rose—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I remind the House that five hon. Members still wish to speak. I shall be able to call them all if speeches are reasonable in length.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Miss Joan Hall), not only on being the first Conservative lady Member for Yorkshire, but on an excellent maiden speech. I very much look forward to hearing many more speeches from her. I must confess that her speech this evening was not the first speech I have heard her make, and it was quite up to her usual standard.
We have had three excellent and interesting maiden speeches today, the other two being from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White). They have all 117 reiterated the message which came out from the last election: that the people want to know what it is about.
Hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches have not realised what an almost Alice in Wonderland debate this is. My right hon. Friend the Minister has inherited the position that, for reasons which, I hope, will be explained to us in greater detail, he must support a policy which was advocated by his predecessor in office, although during the whole of this debate not one hon. Member has spoken in support of his predecessor. It is, therefore, an unusual debate.
What are we debating? Are we suggesting that metrication should stop? Are we suggesting that there should never have been the decision to go metric? Parliament obviously has not consulted the people, and the people feel they are being taken for a ride by Parliament and the system.
However, if we in this House, in which today there have been some brilliant speeches, are asking the new Government to reverse the decision which has been taken, we should look into the nature of the decision which was taken by the Government's predecessors, and why—as well as the consequences of making a reversal.
I wish to make my position quite clear to my hon. Friends. I do not have to do so to hon. Members opposite this time. The Conservative Science and Technology Committee looked into this issue, and I chaired a sub-committee, where all the arguments which have been so ably deployed today were given by witnesses. This was some two to two-and-a-half years ago. I am quite certain that the then Director of the British Standards Institution, Mr. Binney, who has now retired, and members of the C.B.I., whom we met, were convinced at the time that I made the report that I was against the decision to go metric. This would have been hardly fair because I was some ten years ago associated with the Association of British Chambers of Commerce and its decision to urge the conversion to decimal currency and to consider going towards metrication.
There is no need to go through recent history, which has been well deployed and is well known, but when a decision was taken to set up the Metrication Board under Lord Ritchie-Calder the decision 118 was taken to start something of which the people of this country were, for one reason or another, not made aware.
§ Mr. Maude
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend's speech. He has several times referred to the decision to go metric and has now spoken of a decision to set up the Metrication Board as starting a wider process. However, the decision to go metric so far as this House is concerned and so far as the people are concerned has surely not been taken yet. This is our complaint.
§ Mr. Osborn
In fact the Metrication Board was set up and Lord Ritchie-Calder has been appointed chairman, and Lord Bessborough appointed vice-chairman—a Conservative peer. There was a meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee this year which was addressed by Lord Ritchie-Calder and it was indeed constructive.
I come back to the point that I made, in an intervention, and I would condemn the then Minister of Technology, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), for not producing a White Paper. Parliament had only a Blue Paper, a report of the Joint Metrication Board. There was that statement in July, 1968; but, for whatecver reason, there was no debate, and this House was not consulted. There was not a sufficiently informative White Paper on the pros and cons. The debate taking place today should have taken place two years ago. This is why we are in difficulty now.
When, some 18 months ago, the subcommittee with which I was connected submitted its report we then made the statement that a decision, however it was taken, had been taken, and would be irrevocable in a short period of time, and that it would be dangerous and more costly and tend towards more chaos to go back. In my view, the time for that was approximately 18 months ago.
§ Mr. Osborn
My hon. Friend is quite right. We may criticise the decision which was taken and the method by 119 which it was taken, but the fact is that it was taken.
The country would agree that there are long-term advantages but costly short-term difficulties and disadvantages. What is apparent is that there was no endeavour to estimate the cost. Members of the Joint Standing Committee and even members of the C.B.I. who at the time advocated this change were too academic, over-enthusiastic, not sufficiently practical in their approach. The Government of the day should have been aware of this.
Individual industries have been affected by this decision. There has been difficulty and some misunderstanding. There will be questions of replacement. There will questions of job cards which are in imperial terms and which are not easily changed on the factory floor. There will be questions about duplication of stock. This is all part of the cost. To my regret, the nation has never had this spelt out and explained to it.
When I took part in a seminar in Sheffield, at the same time as the Chairman of the Metrication Board, Lord Ritchie Calder, made another visit on the same subject, under the sponsorship of one group, Hoskins Systems Ltd., the figure of the cost of transition was estimated to be £2,000 million. The British Equipment Trades Association suggested £5,000 million. One observer, Ann Lisa Gotsche, of The Guardian, said that on the Continent they were laughing becauseWatching the British go metric is one of the saddest and funniest things to happen to continentals for years. Sad, because of the incredible expense, which the country can ill afford.…The present position is that we have now a Conservative Government who find themselves in a cleft stick. The decision to go metric is not popular with the people of this country, and the odium will ultimately fall on the Government of the day, as the difficulties of mixing metric and imperial standards can cause confusion, and have done, in one industry after another, whilst the man in the street does not know what it is about.
My own view is that the nation cannot turn back. The decision must be seen through, because any slowing down would cause more chaos and confusion and duplication over the next five years. I would submit to this House, and to my 120 hon. Friends who have deployed very good arguments to the contrary, that at this stage we must now go on, as the cheapest way out of this dilemma.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page), in a very witty and delightful speech, submitted that the Metrication Board be put in suspense. I am afraid that that might cause increased chaos. He suggested that the Government, the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Defence, hold back in asking for tenders in metrication. The Government must take the lead. If they hold back they will increase the period of confusion and transition. We have had an excellent Report from the Metrication Board and we have had reports from other bodies; if a White Paper were published the country could study that, too.
Having joined my hon. Friends in their opposition to what is now happening, I still reiterate that there are immense advantages in going metric and I very much hope that they will be reiterated in the debate; perhaps the hon. Member who winds up for the Opposition will reiterate the attractions to the last Government and underline them. My impression is that many industries know there are difficulties. There are difficulties for the larger companies, but the smaller companies are finding these difficulties extreme—difficulties associated with making adjustments to adapt themselves to a new set of standards. But these difficulties are being overcome with a great degree of success.
§ Mr. William Baxter (West Stirlingshire)
Would the hon. Member not agree that many small builders, and people in the building industry, painters, plumbers, joiners, and so on, will go out of business if metrication comes in? How would he compensate those people?
§ Mr. Osborn
I agree about the smaller companies, and my hon. Friends have mentioned them. It is very much more difficult for the smaller companies, and the smaller companies must be looked after. That is a challenge which the last Government failed to measure up to, and I very much hope that my hon. Friend, in winding up, will give some indication of how he sees their future. The last Government did not promise any form of compensation or financial assistance, 121 and I think it would be very difficult for this Government to do so either.
Mention has been made of the period of transition in the United States. I was assured two years ago that the United States would quickly go metric. The guess now is that, in spite of Public Law 90–472, it will be 10 years before that happens and a statement is to be made on the matter in August of next year. On the other hand, I have been in South Africa and have also had contact with Australia, New Zealand and other countries which are going metric and are overcoming the same sort of difficulties we shall all face.
Having agreed that there are long-term advantages, I should like to put forward one or two points for consideration. First, the move to greater international standards is essential in this industrial age. There is greater co-ordination among all the European countries towards a standard metric unit—the SI unit. Perhaps the use of standardisation as a reason for going metric was a bad reason in the first instance, but this is something to be welcomed.
Secondly, on the matter of education, although I concede that metric units should be the first units taught in our primary schools, I sincerely hope that for generations to come children at an older age will be made aware of imperial units because they will be with us for 25 years.
Thirdly, there has been considerable discussion about concessions. I believe that in terms of the retailing of milk the process of metrication might be slowed up. Perhaps for a time we shall be able to buy the 500 millilitre carton or the litre carton as well as the pint carton, and perhaps there could be some slowing up of metrication in the breweries. We must certainly look again at the matter of road signs. There may be good reason to hold up those matters which are not unconnected with Britain's entry into the E.E.C.
We have been asked to make short speeches and I have been on my feet for too long. Had I made this speech a year ago, or 18 years ago, I would have condemned the Minister then responsible for technology for not taking the people into his confidence. I now find myself in the position of having to ask a new Government to listen to the arguments that have 122 been deployed, but not to put the clock back. If we seek to put the clock back in industry, in civil engineering, in the construction industry and elsewhere it will ultimately cause greater confusion, but if the nation is now in a period of confusion this Government will have to see it through. This is the challenge that now faces Parliament—to complete what has now been started without destroying what we value from the past.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)
I wish to begin by apologising for the fact that I shall not be able to be present at the conclusion of the debate to hear the winding-up speeches since I am being spirited away to defend the Government's announcement which was made earlier today. However, I hope that when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction winds up he will draw on his recollection of history, particularly of the 18th century, and reflect on the Julian riots. He will remember that this was an explosive public outburst when something with which people were immensely conversant and about which they had a degree of intimate involvement, namely, their calendar, was arbitrarily changed, as they saw it, much against their general sentiment. It is a healthy reminder to all of us but, despite the strong words we have heard this afternoon, I feel that we will not necessarily reach that extent of direct action on this particular political issue.
Nobody who has sat through the debate could fail to have been impressed by the excellent trio of maiden speeches. My hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond), Gravesend (Mr. Roger White) and Keighley (Miss Joan Hall) all bring to the House first-hand experience of public sentiment and public reaction on this subject which, without doubt, causes a great deal of concern.
I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friends for arranging to debate this important matter on the first day that the House reassembles after the recess. The real issue is contained in some remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in a Written Answer on 20th July this year in which he said of metrication:… the Government are not as yet committed to general enabling legislation involving amendment of Statutes."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th July, 1970; Vol. 804, c. 19.]123 I believe that that showed a prudent caution which was more than underlined by the speech of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry this afternoon.
I took note of the Minister's words, which were very encouraging. He said that there was no immediate need and that we could consider the matter at leisure. This language contrasts very much indeed with a great deal that has been said on this subject. I refer particularly to what we have been hearing from one or two senior businessmen like Sir Charles Bowlby, of Guest, Keen Nettlefold, who, in today's Financial Times, talks about the urgency of the matter and suggests that the Government should push ahead with the matter in which there can be no drawing back. The Metrication Board, also, has become the most assiduous advocate of pushing ahead with the argument that we are now well past any point of return. Indeed, Lord Ritchie-Calder, in the foreword to the 1970 report, said:Going metric is no longer a question of 'whether' but 'when'. We in Britain have made our decision.The House must ask itself whether we really have made a decision that the beer in pubs will be sold in litres, that milk, also, will be sold in litres and that we shall drive at kilometres per hour. Have we made the decision which affects retailing and the shopping public? I am not here talking so much about industries which may see certain advantages. I am talking of the people in our constituencies who have expressed concern. Have we decided on their behalf that this is inevitable and that it is only a question of "when", not "whether"?
§ Sir J. Eden
I do not want to deflect any kind words that were being directed towards me, but I would much rather do so if it avoids any misunderstanding between us. The words my hon. Friend quoted from my speech were quite clearly directed to that part about which he has just been speaking, namely, the question of beer and milk, and other matters of that sort. It was not referring to the progress which has been made by industry.
§ Mr. Biffen
So far as I know, no hon. Member in any speech made from this side of the House has talked in terms of 124 putting the clock back. At this point of time we are concerned to establish that something can be saved for the public in the whole argument about metrication which affects them intimately.
I wish to keep my remarks reasonably brief, so I will touch on four issues which are essential to this debate. They are the necessity for metrication, the motive, the cost, and, finally, the Government's rôle. First, as to the necessity, we live with enclaves of metrication within the commercial, industrial and academic worlds. The size of those enclaves has varied and is increasing at present. There may well be very sound, long-term arguments why a good deal of business may wish to go metric.
No one here has asked the Government to stop companies going metric. There is no question of calling for intervention to prevent businesses doing what they would otherwise wish to do out of what they regard as economic self-interest. However, we must be careful that we are not too quickly brainwashed by scientific argument about the necessity for it.
I want to draw the attention of hon. Members to what in my view is a moderately argued article by Mr. Oliver Stewart, in the Daily Telegraph today, in which he points out some of the problems which will exist if we adopt the SI system and it does not apply, as seems likely, to aviation and navigation.
We are concerned, rightly, that whatever may be the natural increase in metrication it shall not be forced down the throats of an unwilling general public. The House is in debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) for raising this topic on the Adjournment shortly before the recess and talking about saving the pint for the pub, the £ for the shop and the mile for the motorist.
I make only one comment on the necessity argument. I am puzzled by the extraordinary central feature that exports play in the argument. I have an ingrained suspicion every time that I see exports as the key argument. I know that regional policy will slip in next. On this occasion, it is straight exports, but I wonder whether we really think that the export potentials of our dairy industry and our brewing industry will be enhanced by going metric. Certainly, that 125 is not the view of the Metrication Board. It says, for example, in respect of the dairy industry:Our view is that a round metric quantity as the unit of sale for milk is of special significance.Why?It will bring the reality of metrication into the home and class room more than any other change.I turn now to the motive for metrication. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Arundel and Shoreham (Captain Kerby) feels strongly about the Common Market. I dare say that we all do in our ways, but he does particularly in his way. I do not want to raise this argument on my own initiative. All that I want to do is to quote a remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) on 27th October, 1966. Today, my hon. Friend is the Under-Secretary of State who is specially assigned responsibilities for weights and measures and, therefore, we must attribute great significance to what he says:Will it not be inevitable, in the end, that we shall have to move towards the metric system? In this case, would it not be a very good earnest of the Government's intention with regard to joining Europe to take the step positively and early rather than leaving it to industry?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th October, 1966; Vol. 734, c. 1291–2.]Those are dangerous words to have on the record and, in the circumstances, we would greatly value a categoric declaration of Government neutrality in this matter. That is not too much to ask, especially on a day in which we have heard about a whole range of economies in public expenditure.
That brings me to my next point, which is that of cost. There is the Metrication Board itself, costing £700,000 for the year just concluded. Let me set at rest any fears of my hon. Friend the Member for Hallam. I am not in favour of abolishing the board. However, I cannot help reflecting that there is a law which seems to run throughout public activities that one board finds jobs for other boards. Reading through the report of the Metrication Board, I discover that it has found a rôle for all the industry training boards. I am sure many of us have been wondering what they did, and there must come a stage when an hon. Member will quietly 126 ask what to me seems to be a question of monumental common sense significance: is not all this a little bit of a confidence trick?
Then there is the question of what it would cost to change our road signs. I do not intend to make partisan political points and pick up various comments of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who served in the previous Administration implying Government expenditures, but, on a day when we are told that there have to be cuts and deferments, metrication is not sacred. It is not so overwhelmingly popular that it can be relieved of the scrutiny being subjected to other topics. Are we to go ahead and change our road signs?
Finally, what about the additional cost of education represented by changing our school books?
§ Mr. Onslow
On the subject of road signs, is my hon. Friend aware that one of the complications in assessing the cost and an indication of the extent to which the Government are committed is that road sign manufacture has been decided to be particularly suitable for prison labour?
§ Mr. Biffen
I think that that question is more appropriate for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. I did not know that. I am not all that conversant with prison conditions.
Let me return to the cost on the education budget. It is another aspect of the way in which people pretend that it will not come to any great sum, and that it involves only the replacement of education books. That has been said by both Front Benches. However, that is not the view taken by the Metrication Board, and I quote from page 22 of its report:Nevertheless, teachers will properly look to the local education authorities and to the Education Departments for adequate funds to meet the inescapable expenditure in schools to which metrication will give rise. It is government policy that the cost of metrication should lie were it falls, and this policy is no less applicable to central and local government responsibilities.Do not let us deceive ourselves that it will be achieved on the cheap. It will not be, either in terms of Government expenditure or expenditures which will have to be undertaken by private industry. 127 Hon. Members will have received representations from milk distributors indicating the high cost involved in the switch to metrication. These are areas which are as yet untouched. We are not fighting a Neanderthal rearguard action. We are fighting for the retailing public, and we are entitled to answers on specific issues such as whether or not the dairy industry will be encouraged by the Government to go metric.
That brings me to my final point, which is the Government's attitude to the legislation now expected of them by those who are promoting metrication. Some time ago it was the view of the Standing Joint Committee on Metrication, set up under Mr. A. H. Wynn, that it was… necessary for the enabling metric Act to be on the Statute Book and in force by the beginning of 1971.The report of the Metrication Board called for the general enabling legislation. Further, we know that the report called for Orders by the relevant Government Department on the weights for commercial goods vehicles and for changes in the Merchant Shipping Acts.
These are all areas where legislation is expected of this Government. But if we are to proceed, in those welcome words of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry, to "consider at leisure", could not the first earnest of this view be an undertaking given this evening that none of that legislation will feature in this Session of Parliament?
This is not an area where party politics should obtrude. It is my judgment, notwithstanding the persuasive pro-metrication speech of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, that when it comes to it he will not be able to hold his party to it.
In the last Parliament many hon. Members felt that issues like British Standard Time and decimalisation were more appropriate for free votes than for party Whips. I think that sentiment would hold good of any metrication legislation brought before this House.
This is because there is a growing realisation and frustration about how this House of Commons can make heard the voice of the public. We hear a great deal about participation and the anxiety of people to be identified with the major changes which are being effected. I was 128 delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) discussing this point on the radio not so long ago. We were reinforced in that view by our experiences at the General Election. This is why there is now a demand for a debate.
The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East was right that there was not the same consistent demand before the election. The election brought home to many of us just how deeply felt and widespread are emotions on this subject. There is often a dangerous gap between what we believe to be public sentiment and what it really is. Is this not another instance of what not so long ago would have been inconceivable is now being presented as inevitable? Does not this contain the whole explosive nature of the problem? This is a point of serious substance.
The Metrication Board said that the time is past for argument about the merits of the decision to go metric. I not not think that those were wise words. I do not think that anyone with a sense of public feeling on this issue would be at all prudent to push this matter any further. The Government would be well advised to let the voice and the preference of the public be manifested without further Government intervention designed to promote metrication.
I hope that the Government will take as a guideline for their future policy, when considering legislation, that the sentiments of the shopping public shall have at least equal merit with the request of the mandarins of the Metrication Board. It is the job of Parliament to see that that is so.
§ 8.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)
I want and intend to be brief. I shall confine myself to one or two important points which I hope will engage the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction when he winds up the debate, and I shall ask one or two questions which I hope he will answer.
First, I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will take note that there has been only one unreservedly pro-metrication speech in the debate from either side of the House There was a fairly noncommittal speech by my hon. Friend the 129 Minister for Industry, but the only speech which has unreservedly tried to propagandise in favour of metrication was that of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn).
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn), in a sensible and balanced speech, kept referring to the decision that was taken to go metric. I asked him politely what the decision was and taken by whom. He could not, and did not, answer me. He referred again to this decision—whatever it was and by whom it was taken—when he said, "The decision has been taken. It is too late to go back on it."
My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) referred to the same point. He said that maybe it is too late and he does not want to go back on it.
I say to my right hon. Friend that we, as politicians, have a right to look at the story of this process that has taken place and to ask that it should never again be allowed to happen in this way. Just look at what has happened. Parliament never took a decision about this matter; it was never asked to take a decision.
It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman the former Minister of Technology to say that this did not take place by stealth; that nothing took place by stealth. No? Is it not a fact that the Government changed their conditions for building tenders without consulting Parliament? Is it not a fact that they changed their system for allocating housing subsidies without consulting Parliament? These matters affected the expenditure of public money and the cost of building. Was Parliament consulted? The right hon. Gentleman says that nothing took place by stealth. It did take place by stealth.
My hon. Friend, who has grave doubts about some of the short-term effects that this can have on industry, said, "Yes, but the decision is taken, and it is too late to go back on it". A great many decisions of pretty sinister significance could be taken that way. Is not Parliament entitled to ask the Government to give an assurance that this kind of thing will not—at least under a Conservative Administration—ever happen again? It is a remarkably dangerous course for a Government to adopt.
130 Another question to which I hope my right hon. Friend will address himself is the consumer's interest, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry was talking. In the speech of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, who spoke second in the debate, I heard no word about what the British public thought or felt or wanted, what their interests were or who cared for them. We were told a great deal about what a number of official bodies had said to the Government.
I ask my right hon. Friend to be careful in adducing this evidence. Please do not say that the National Farmers' Union has approved of metrication and, therefore, the farmers are in favour of it. He might care to remember—I hope that he will—that the N.F.U. was adduced by Ministers in the last Government as being unreservedly in favour of the agricultural training levy—when not a single county branch had had a meeting about it and not one farmer had been consulted. The Government found that they had a roaring row and revolution on their hands, and they had to step down with ignominy and confusion.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will not tell us that the R.I.B.A. and the Confederation of Building Trade Employers are in favour and, therefore, all architects and builders are in favour. I have spoken to a lot of architects and building employers. They are not by any means in favour. Some of the big concerns are. So are the people who will make the standardised components and the machinery for producing them. This is good business for them. But I have met very few architects and builders, not working on a large scale in European export industries, who think that it makes a great deal of sense to change the standard sizes of doors and windows, and the plant for making them, which will be put into buildings in this country. What is more, they have never been given a chance to argue along these lines.
None of us who oppose the rapid advance of metrication in all fields has ever said that it does not make sense to standardise. None of us has ever said that it makes sense to make a machine, as we have been doing with motor cars in the past, in which some of the nuts and bolts are in inches, and some 131 in metric measure. Of course that does not make sense, and of course nobody wants to hold up sensible measures of standardisation.
I intervened in the speech of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East when he said that metrication was fine because it would enable some clot who had been manufacturing 720 different kinds of components to standardise down to a simple 20 or 30. There is nothing to prevent this clot from doing it now. Is it necessary to impose metrication on a lot of other people who have been conducting their businesses with reasonable sense and efficiency, just to get this clot into line?
The other argument which was used, not only by the right hon. Gentleman, but by my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry, and which I beseech them not to use again, is that this is only a question of replacement and turnover, that it does not mean any new fresh capital expenditure, because people have to change the stuff anyway, and when they change it they might as well make it metric as inches. Are the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend trying to tell the House that if there is a mill with 75 spindles, or a weaving shed with 75 looms, or a plant with 75 machines making metal window frames, when one wears out there will be 74 machines measuring in inches and one measuring in metric, and the change will be made at the rate of one a year. I never heard such nonsense in all my life.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about school books. Is he suggesting that there will be 28 children in a class with their reasonably new books showing inches and pounds and drachms and scruples, but when two books wear out there will be two children in one corner of the class with new books all in the metric system? That sort of argument is the most peurile nonsense, yet we are being asked to swallow it. It makes no sense whatsoever.
We know that it will cost a lot of money if we force this change on people. For heaven's sake why not admit it? Let us argue this on sensible terms. Let us recognise that where there is a clear advantage to industry and nobody else 132 is adversely affected we are not trying to prevent industry from rationalising in a sensible kind of way. We ask the Government, and industry, to remember that consumers are affected by the decisions which producers take in their own interest, and that it is possible for the consumer to pay more for something which is to the convenience and interest of the producers. Let the Government, the C.B.I. and other bodies remember this and at least make some gesture of understanding and explanation towards the consumer whose costs will rise, and whose interests will be affected. We have heard very little of that yet. It is about time that we heard some of it.
For those things in respect of which it cannot be argued that there is a Common Market element, an export element or sensible rational standardisation element, I ask the Government—please—not to tell us that we must have metrication over the whole field or not at all, because they will not convince the British public of this. We have just spent goodness knows how many millions of pounds changing all the signposts in this country over to the Worboys system, so that we are now the worst signposted country in Europe, and a person cannot avoid losing his way on a journey of more than 50 miles. He is all right if he wants to go 400 miles, because the signposts will always tell him how to get to Glasgow or to Land's End. He will also be all right if he wants to get to Little Puddlecombe-in-the-Marsh, which is 1½ miles away. If, however, he wants to go 10 miles away, he will get lost at the first roundabout.
At a time when we are supposed to be economising in Government expenditure, is it seriously argued that this is the time to change all our signposts again to metrication? Is it seriously argued that we have to change our speed limit signs from miles per hour to kilometres per hour? I do not think that it can be. If it is argued that it makes it awkward for people with the wrong kind of speedometers, the answer that it is possible to make a speedometer calibrated in both miles per hour and kilometres per hour. A Government who are trying to make economies must give an assurance that they are not going out on a limb to indulge in unnecessary and foolish extravagances.
§ Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)
I wonder whether my hon. Friend would comment on the sort of problem that will arise in my constituency where we have had new signs put up saying "Toilets 4 miles"—"Toilets 3 miles"—"Toilets 2 miles"—"Toilets 1 mile"—"Here they are!" If those distances are changed to kilometres my constituents will have an extremely anxious time.
§ Mr. Maude
I am not sure whether the moral of that story is that my hon. Friend's constituents are unable to read, or that the message must be dinned into them repeatedly before they grasp it. It could be argued that my hon. Friend is lucky to have public toilets by the roads at all in his constituency. I agree with my hon. Friend. To metricate the toilets in Devonshire would be an unnecessary expense.
All that we are asking is that my right hon. Friend who is to reply to the debate should recognise the weight, let him call it of inertia if he likes and no doubt the right hon. Member for Bristol South-East would call it the weight of reaction. The fact is that not many Members present today are in favour of a widespread change to metrication. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry who said that if there wore a Division on a free vote—we do not know what the Labour Party thinks because its Members have not been here, and have not spoken—with both sides present, it would be very difficult to get a majority for any measure of Government compulsion with regard to metrication, and not too easy to get a vote in favour of the Government's leaning on anybody to make him go a bit further than he has gone already. For goodness sake let the Government stand aside until we know a little more about the cost, or at least until they have told us more about the cost. We do not trust the Metrication Board to be honest about this because it is a passionate propagandist.
Let us have some objective fact-finding. Let us have the facts, and where there is no necessity to press on quickly, where it is a question of doing things which will be costly and which at the moment are unnecessary, let the Government lay off, and for once let common sense have its way.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ Mr. William Baxter (West Stirlingshire)
In case there is any misunderstanding about the opinions of certain members of the Labour Party I had better clarify the position. Those who have had the pleasure of being present today have listened to some excellent speeches. It is a pity that the Front Bench personnel—both on the Government and Opposition—have not been here in full array. If they had been they might have learned a fundamental lesson, which it would be worth at least the Government side learning.
The lesson to be learned is that one reason for the defeat of the Labour Party at the last election was the appearance of the Labour Government riding roughshod over the people, without consultation and without any concern for them, on issues on which those people had points of view. I refer not only to metrication but to decimalisation and similar issues. These ideas have come before the House and have been steamrollered through with little regard to the point of view of the man in the street.
For the last few years much confusion has existed in the minds of the ordinary electors. That is one reason why the Labour Party was defeated at the last election. Many of the Labour Government's measures were commendable and worthwhile, but they did not appreciate that unless they took the public with them they would sooner or later be voted out of office. Let that be a lesson to the present Government.
The metric system may have much to commend it in relation to exports. I am not an expert, so I leave it to those who are better qualified to say whether it is good, bad or immaterial for our export industries to proceed on the metric system. But I speak with a knowledge of the building industry, and I can assure the House that the subject of metrication is a great problem for that industry. My firm was recently asked to fill up a metric schedule for a local authority. It gave us a great deal of trouble. It took many quantity surveyors—capable and able young men—to fill up the schedule and present it in a fashion that was at least reasonably competitive.
135 Metrication is an even greater problem to the smaller builders. There are many small firms in the building industry—firms that are excellently run by men of quality and worth, who have no great educational background. These people left school at the age of 13 or 14, but they have built up excellent businesses and have become to a great degree the backbone of our larger undertakings. In the past—and I am sure that this will continue in the future—the larger undertakers have subcontracted some of their work to smaller firms.
The difficulty experienced by the smaller firms arises in connection with filling up schedules based on the metric system. Inevitably, this process will put many of them out of business. That factor must be borne in mind in deciding this issue.
One of my hon. Friends has said, "If they are inefficient they should go". That may be his point of view, but the fact that a painter, a plumber, a joiner or an electrician is not qualified to operate under the metric system does not mean that he does not do excellent work. That basic fact must percolate into the minds of Members of Parliament who seek to sit in places of responsibility. They should remember that practical experience is often worth ten times as much as theory. Practical experience is of some use even in this age.
Not only in the building industry but in the farming industry metrication will give rise to a good deal of trouble. I read in the Scottish Farmer the other day that particulars of a new metric system are available, at a price, to the farming community. Is every farmer in Scotland expected to buy a new calculator? Will this be taken into account in the next Price Review? It will be very difficult even for farmers—who are practical men—to operate under the metric system. Are they to be given no consideration?
I have a passing acquaintance with the hotel industry. Pints are drawn, and folk drink from glasses holding pints. Does metrication presuppose that all the existing measurements in the brewery industry must go by the board, without any consideration of the cost to the consumer? He will be the one who bears the cost—not the man who hands the drink over to him. Is there no halfway house in this metric system? Could 136 we not become fully metricated over a period of 50 or 60 years? Is there not a simpler and slower method of proceeding? Cannot we find some method of encouraging the export industry to metricate without at the same time bringing in metrication for the whole of industry?
I had no intention of participating in this debate, but I have given a warning. I have told my Front Bench the reason why our party failed at the last election and I counsel them to pay heed to my warning. I ask them to gang warily, and not to hurry this process. They may have done a lot of good things, but they forgot that if the public are not taken along they will lose the public's support. That is right.
Parliament has a duty to perform, and if it is deprived of its responsibility and the opportunity to carry out its duty not only are its Members debased—the whole institution that has given them their present position is debased. That is the crime that my Front Bench committed. Let it be a warning to the present Government Front Bench.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)
I am glad that the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter) made that speech. For one thing, it would have been a pity if no one had spoken from his back benches, but also he emphasised a consideration which has been referred to by most speakers today—the function of Parliament in this matter and the way in which Parliament has been disparaged and by-passed in this whole business.
It is no good the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) saying that nothing was done by stealth. This has all been done by stealth. The right hon. Gentleman said that there has been no stealth because there was an announcement, or whatever it was, in 1790 about this, and there was a Statute in the reign of Queen Victoria which made it possible to do the things which the Government have been doing. I cannot dispute that: I was not here in 1790, but nor was anyone else in the House. And which of us combs through Victorian Statutes to see what mischief a Government may get up to if they are so inclined?
The fact is that, in the last two or three years, these among other things have 137 happened: first of all, a deadline has been set of 1975, by which the country is supposed to be totally metric, and which has been set by a committee which has no authority, but which, inasmuch as it is paid out of public funds, the public might very well think had some status and authority. And no one contradicted this or said that it was the private dictum of private people.
§ Sir J. Eden
May I correct one misunderstanding of my hon. and learned Friend? The date of 1975 referred to the date by which industry expects to have completed the process of metrication. It is different from what he said: it is not what he said.
§ Mr. Bell
With respect to my hon. Friend, I think that this has been put forward not merely as an expectation date but as a target date. The decision that Britain should go metric was made in 1965: that is in the report of the Metrication Board. My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) referred to this in his speech. That, coming from a committee paid out of funds provided by Parliament, is misleading the public, it is a deception of the public. My hon. Friend himself, in a speech which I warmly commend for its lukewarm approach to the subject—it has been praised by many others: a very good speech indeed, taking the context into account—told us that there was already £2,000 million worth of work on the drawing boards in metric. We know why.
§ Mr. Bell
Yes, construction work. The Government have, for some time past—several Departments, if not all—been insisting on specifications in metric. I know that the Department of Education has even sent back specifications and insisted on their being redone in metric, and has in effect said, "No metric, no grant." We are told that, within a period of perhaps two years—there is a certain doubt about it—examinations for O-level will be set in metric terms. And all this in a parliamentary democracy without the Legislature having been so much as asked. It does indeed raise constitutional questions: the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire was quite right. This is not just failing to take the public along with you: it is very close to showing a super- 138 cilious contempt for die whole democratic process and the place that Parliament occupies in our constitution.
I know that it is said that the Government as purchasers, in exercising their purchasing power, are performing an executive act and not a legislative one. Technically, it is an executive act, but when the Executive uses its vast influence and purchasing power with public funds to change the system of weights and measures in the country without going to Parliament then I say that this raises questions of principle. It is common knowledge to all of us going around our constituencies that people have taken it for granted that this was something which it had been officially decided should happen. They thought that there must have been an Act of Parliament about it—yet the whole thing was a facade, a conspiracy and a deceit of the public and an evasion of Parliament. That is the first issue, and one which we should emphasise.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
Would the hon. and learned Gentleman bear in mind that, in the five years since the official announcement, there have been two General Elections, at which hon. Gentlemen opposite did not choose to raise this issue and did not see it as an abuse of the constitution. No Supply Day debate has been requested, and no Early Day Motions.
§ Mr. Bell
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman said that, because it has reminded me of something that I intended to say but did not. I have raised it myself at General Elections, which is all I can do, in my constituency. I have asked for a Supply Day debate, but I did not press it—and I will tell the hon. Gentleman why I did not press very hard. It was because I believe that the Whips would be put on and that Parliament would be only apparently consulted. I was fortified in this belief by my experience of the closely allied subject—the imposition in Britain of Central European Time throughout the year.
We had a debate in Parliament about that subject. Parliament could be said to have been consulted, for there was a Bill about it. I was present in that debate and, indeed, played a leading part in it. Almost every speaker through a whole 139 long parliamentary day was against the Bill, but at the end of the day the bells rang and people came in from the Tea Room and the Library and goodness knows where and voted the Bill into law. We then had a Third Reading debate, and again there was not a friend for this proposal, but it went through "on the Whip". I do not think that the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire actually said it, but I saw him nodding approval when it was said that there was a general feeling on both sides of the House that that Measure and that sort of Measure ought to be passed by a free vote of the House.
§ Mr. Alan Williams
Would not the hon. and learned Gentleman agree—I do not want there to be any imputation that we are behaving in any way differently from his own party in this respect—that his party has waited a year and that one of his own colleagues has complained that there should have been a free vote given by his own side?
§ Mr. Bell
I do not bother about that sort of thing. If I wanted to vote against this Motion—although it is not profitable to vote against the Motion, That the House do now adjourn—I should do so. I have a strong suspicion that if that were to happen, the bells would ring and hon. Members would come in, not all knowing what the debate was about, and would vote against me.
On a subject like this both sides are to blame, for the whipping system is getting out of hand and is undermining the consultation of Parliament by the Executive. When they come to Parliament, the Government ought not to know whether they are going to get their Bill. They should always have to fight for it. That is what Parliament is for and I am content to generalise the indictment.
I hope that we shall lead on. We shall get better things from this Government and I hope that the Executive will consult Parliament and will come to it with the hope of getting its legislation. If we had pressed for a debate in the last Session, we should have had a vote in favour of what the then Government proposed and the then Government would have said that Parliament had given its approval.
Today's debate is a fair indication of Parliamentary opinion and a fair indica- 140 tion of opinion in the country, and nobody can doubt what that opinion has been today. There has not been one outright speech in favour of compulsory general metrication, except that by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East.
There has been a tendency to represent those of us who have doubts about this as fighting a rearguard action for what Lord Ritchie-Calder has called a bag of old rubbish, or something like that. That is a great deal of nonsense. It is not true that we have to have entirely the one or the other. We have used the metric system in scientific work for a long time. For six years I was involved in a branch of scientific work in which we used the metric system all the time and I found no difficulty in using cubic centimetres and millibars, and so on, and then thinking in everyday terms in pints and miles. Nor does anybody else. Let us get that clear.
I am in favour of the decimalisation of the currency, because money is primarily counted. That is what units of money are for—counting. If a unit is primarily to be counted, it is sensible to have it corresponding with the numerical system. But pounds and miles and acres are primarily descriptive units. They are only secondarily counting units and the argument for decimalisation simply does not apply to them. There is no merit in what is proposed.
If a particular industry wants to standardise on the metric system, it can always do so. Some have done so in the past and there is nothing to stop others from doing so. What is false in the argument for metrication is that industries cannot standarise on metric measurements without the general public also abandoning pounds, acres and miles. That is factually not true, although the Metrication Board obstinately argues that it is. A little common sense will show anyone that it is not true.
Some of the evidence and influence about this subject is highly suspect. The C.B.I. tends to talk for the big people and certain vested interests are involved. Some of my hon. Friend have referred to those who have vested interests in producing the new tools or machines. There is also the vested interest of the big people who think—almost know—that a lot of small people will be run out of business if this change is made in an accelerated 141 Governmental way. That would suit them very nicely. Some of the big people are pretty impatient about small people, regarding them as relics of the past. The size factor comes into this and frequently we are told "bigness is the future", but I am not sure that it is. I reserve my position on that because there is usually an optimum size for each kind of business.
Unfortunately, the C.B.I. is predominantly the voice of the big people and I distrust this alleged voice of industry which says that it wants compulsory general metrication by Government lead. I fear that it is not the authentic voice of British industry.
If I interpret correctly the view which many hon. Members have, it is that we are not here rejecting the use of the metric system in Britain. We are resisting two things; first, this way of running it through, behind the back of Parliament, and, secondly, the concept that one must introduce it in an organised way for everybody, or not at all. It is said that half-measures are worse than useless and that they would be inefficient. That is not necessarily true in this case and I hope that my hon. and right hon. Friends who now have the Executive power will use that power with due deference to Parliament and with a stringent look at the logic of the argument, which is not quite what they thought it was.
The Government will incur no criticism if, in the end, it should turn out that, gradually and at a spontaneous pace, the country should move over to this new system. I have certain views about that, which I will not deploy now. Those are the issues before the House.
§ 8.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Carol Mather (Esher)
I begin by congratulating the three maiden speakers who have addressed us tonight. We were impressed because they were speaking for real people. One of the advantages of being a new boy here is that by the very nature of things one is more closely in touch with real people. I hope that on this issue the Government Front Bench will pay particular attention to the remarks of those hon. Members tonight.
We are to a certain extent on virgin ground as we discuss metrication. Although it is not so virgin as when this debate started. I am somewhat reminded 142 of the debate we had on the environment last July, for it seems that events are moving so fast these days that they creep up on us and we do not realise their presence until it is nearly too late. This will probably be the pattern with future events. Increasingly, we shall find that we are having to keep our eyes open to discern these events when they can be only dimly seen or when they are only a gleam in the eye of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn).
We are grateful to the Government for providing time to discuss this issue. I wish to pay a particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page), because without his intervention we would probably not be discussing metrication today. The country owes him a debt of gratitude.
During the election I was asked a number of questions about metrication and I regret that at that time I was unable to answer them. But I have done my homework since then and I am led to the conclusion that comprehensive universal metrication is a bit of a nonsense. Looking at the guide which the Metrication Board has produced—"Metrication and Parliament, 1790 to 1970"—this has a slightly Orwellian ring. Of the 60 pages which comprise this booklet I am glad to note that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West has no less than three pages. I cannot work that out in decimals, but in fractions this is one-twentieth of the total output since 1790, which means that my hon. Friend has a place in history.
The metrication campaign which was carried out by the former Labour Government is an example of how not to do things in a democratic country. It is open to criticism on three grounds, on parliamentary grounds, on democratic grounds and on practical grounds. To take the parliamentary ground first, one gets the impression that this is an absolutely irreversible force rolling along out of control—at least out of the control of Parliament. We have not had a proper debate on the subject until now, there has been no White Paper or Green Paper, no impartial inquiry, no law and no Act. It reminds me of the game of grandmother's steps. One looks behind one and sees no move being made, but one is aware that something is creeping up all 143 the time; one turns round and whatever is there, is closer but still there is no move. This has been happening to Parliament on this question.
The report "Going Metric: the First 5 Years 1965–69", shows the Metrication Board is a propagandist in its own cause, which is to be expected. The board talks of having introduced "a broad-based information campaign", having "mounted a number of exhibitions", having "shown a large number of films", having "issued a very large number of leaflets" and stating that the programme would be "expanded during 1970". In the foreword the chairman tries to, as it were, jolly one along when he says that he envies "the younger generation, who will be disencumbered of the imperial system". He tells us that the report marks the "end of the beginning", that, "1970 is a watershed". We know that it has been a watershed, but in a different way, and he says he wants to see this "painless transition from the folk-lore of measurement".
All these statements are open to question. But wait for it, because the sting is in the tail. On page 71 of this report he says:fortunately, the die is cast. The task now is not to hold inquests".When did Parliament say so? This will have far-reaching effects on the lives of ordinary people which even now can only be perceived rather dimly. I am not saying that it is wrong for some industries to go metric. I am saying that it is wrong to treat Parliament in this way.
On the democratic grounds it was not, as far as I am aware, in any of the parties' manifestos. Mr. Christopher Booker, in an article in the Spectator last June, said that the direct effect on people's lives would be as great as any social reform in this century. I think that he is right.
We are about to lose one of our cultural foundations of the English way of life. With decimal currency coming and then the £ and ounce, foot, yard and the mile gone almost overnight, there will be a great danger of confusion. We have heard a lot about the bewilderment of people. They will no longer have a datum point, a point of reference in their lives. This is a very cruel imposition 144 on people particularly coming so soon after decimalisation. There ought to be time to digest it. Let us do one thing at a time.
Not long ago I was listening to "The Forsyte Saga" on television and Soames said of one of the fashionable political ideas going around before the war, "The British people won't stand for it". Why do those words have an unfamiliar ring today? Because we very seldom hear them said. I have no objection to metrication taking place for the convenience of industry, some have already done so, some work with both systems. But in this House we represent people not industry and we were elected by people, not industry.
Coming to the practical grounds, after the announcement we had earlier today we are very conscious about expenditure and cuts. In the report, "Going Metric", there was no estimate of costs and I mean direct costs. We all know that it is quite possible to make an estimate of this kind. It would have been helpful if we could have been told whether it would have been, for instance, more or less than £5,000 million. One fallacy is that people think that the imperial system is part of the British Empire system. It really refers to imperial Rome. This system spread throughout the whole of the Roman Empire and dates from those days.
With the new SI system there is a gap between the millimetre and the metre, there is no centimetre. If one is measuring a piece of wood 2 in. × 4 in. this will become 50 × 100 millimetres and if one is measuring a piece of wood 3 in. × 6 in. it will become 75 × 100 millimetres. And we know very well that we cannot saw or plane a piece of wood to within a millimetre of accuracy. The litre is inconvenient because it is too big to replace the pint of beer or pint of milk. The kilo is too heavy for the housewife to carry and we know that in France and Denmark they use the old system of the pound.
I have been looking into the construction industry. This industry will be metricated, according to the Metrication Board, by 1972. This is a fragmented industry of 80,000 separate firms of whom only 23,000 have more than seven employees. According to the report we 145 are irrevocably bound for metrication by 1972. There have been other systems in the building industry. There has been the prefabrication system which is generally acknowledged not to have worked. Now a new system is being brought into effect, dimensional co-ordination. In addition, there will be metrication.
In 1968, the construction industry had the opportunity to take a critical look at the whole programme. A well-known architect of the day, Mr. Derek Oxley, produced a report on the impact of metrication which I have read. It blows sky-high many of the myths about metrication. This report has never seen the light of day.
Finally, I have been reading, as no doubt other hon. Members have, a book by Mr. Alvin Toffler, called "Future Shock." He expresses in words some of the feelings which I have in my bones, that the pace of life is so rapid, and accelerating at such a speed that it is very difficult to keep up with it. This induces a feeling of bewilderment in people in all Western civilised countries.
Mr. Toffler called his book "a study of mass bewilderment in face of accelerating change." It may occur to us that many of our contemporary ills such as industrial unrest, civil disorder, senseless violence and drug-taking by the young, are due to this sense of bewilderment. If the metrication proposals are to be adopted wholesale, if decimalisation is to be followed by metrication of all our means of production, distribution and exchange, not to mention the commanding heights of the economy, then we are letting the public in for a large dose of future shock.
Let us, therefore, take it easy. Let us have a public inquiry so that those whose views have been smothered in industry can make their views felt. Let us above all save the pint, the mile and the acre. The "Pint, Mile and Acre" would not be a bad name for a public house when the time comes for us to celebrate.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
The marked feature of this debate has been the extreme good nature with which it has been conducted, despite the strength of feeling, and I hope that I shall do nothing to alter the general tone of the debate.
146 We have heard three excellent maiden speeches. Naturally, I regret the passing from this House of honourable colleagues of mine, but I congratulate three hon. Members opposite on their maiden speeches.
The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) made a most original and enjoyable maiden speech, while the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White) interpreted "non-controversial" in a slightly novel sense and obviously worked on the premise that as long as he hit at both front benches this constituted being non-controversial. This fine balance of aggression made for a more interesting speech.
The hon. Lady the Member for Keighley (Miss Joan Hall) was equally fiercely non-controversial, and, having heard her ferocity when she is being friendly, I hope that in pronouncing her constituency correctly I have made a friend in the House.
As all hon. Members, even the newest Members, know, it is an endearing feature that when members of both Front Benches agree, back-bench members tend to be most alarmed. Having heard the debate, I now see why the two great enthusiasts in the Ministry for Trade and Industry—the Secretary of State and the Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley)—were not put forward to speak in it. Having heard the speeches of my hon. Friends, I suspect that the unrestrained enthusiasm which they would have shown would have terrified their own back benchers.
However, this is not a party political matter. I refer to the words of the official Opposition spokesman of the time in the House of Lords on 26th June, 1969, the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, who said:If ever there was a non-Party political issue, this is it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 26th June, 1969; Vol. 303, c. 280.]Members on both sides have shown in their speeches an identical logic of approach. Both sides have, I suspect rightly, ruled out coercion and compulsion. I think that many of the misgivings which have been expressed today would not have been expressed if they had understood—and I believe that I speak for hon. Members opposite, although I should not presume to do so—that we 147 genuinely believed when we were in office, and I believe that they do now, that there is no intention to coerce industry which does not want to switch to a different system.
§ Mr. John Page
Does that argument stand up in the face of the instructions given by the Ministry of Housing and by the Ministry of Defence not to accept tenders which were not phrased in metric measurements?
§ Mr. Alan Williams
Surely the Government, as purchasers, are as entitled as any other purchaser to specify the terms in which they expect tenders to be submitted. Nevertheless—and I suspect that this answers the concern expressed about milk bottles and pints of beer—there is no need for manufacturers or suppliers of those commodities to switch to a metric measurement if they do not wish to do so.
The second thing which both sides had in common was that we recognised that the rate of change will differ not only between industries, but from firm to firm. While the target date is a general date, both sides would recognise that there might be exceptional industries which cannot or will not meet that date. Within industries very different rates have been chosen. In the car industry, for example, individual firms are converting on the basis of a succession of component changes; it is not a single date change. This phasing should help to reduce the cost of the conversion by making it more possible to adapt machinery at the normal time of replacement.
Both sides have recognised that there is a major task of co-ordination. This is a formidable job. I pay tribute to the British Standards Institution for the work which it has done. Although many hon. Members opposite may not agree with the work carried out by the Metrication Board, I hope that they would pay tribute to the sincerity with which it has pursued the functions it was given. I am sure that, on reflection, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude)—I regret saying this in his absence, but it is not entirely my fault—would wish to withdraw the word which he used when he said that he would not expect the Metrication Board to be "honest" in its presen- 148 tation of a case. I am sure that is not what the hon. Gentleman meant and that the members of the board will understand that this House, whatever it may feel about the job they have been given, would not wish to impugn the honesty of the board or of its individual members.
The hon. and gallant Member for Arundel and Shoreham (Captain Kerby), in a most entertaining and characteristic speech, referred to "the bulldozer" of the Metrication Board. Anyone who studies the events of the last five years will find that the progress has largely been made by industry under its own momentum. In evidence to one of the Parliamentary Committees on 14th July, 1970, the chairman of the board said:There has been five years' solid progress since the decision to go metric in 1965. Relatively little of this has been because of the Board, which was not set up until May, 1969.Obviously, therefore, there is no question of criticism from firms which have already chosen to go metric.
Before coming to the main body of my speech, I should like at this stage to put four questions to the Minister so that he will have time to consider his answers before he replies. Having been caught myself by being asked questions by hon. Members in the last sentence of their speech, I realise that it is helpful to give a little more time so that they may be considered in detail.
First, the Minister of Technology said shortly before the recess that the Government will use their existing powers to amend legislation where this will ease metrication. I should like to know what powers the Government will take to amend the legislation where the appropriate powers do not already exist. Will they introduce an enabling Bill? If so, when will it be brought forward, in view of the cost that will arise from unnecessary delay?
Secondly, since engineering is the key industry, which sets guidelines for the rest of industry, are the Government satisfied with the rate of progress in this sector? I know that there has been some questioning about this in industry. Thirdly, will the Government use their influence to try to ensure that whatever unit is judged to be appropriate for any source of energy it will be possible to 149 make a comparison, which at present cannot be done, between the relative efficiencies of types of fuel and apparatus? I gather that a little push would be needed to ensure that this was done.
Finally, in the event of conversion to metric of foods such as tea, butter and sugar, for which there are specified quantities of sale, will the Government guarantee to continue the present specified size safeguards? In other words, will they guarantee to introduce metric sizes also to protect the consumer?
A case for metrication originated in industry and substantially is justified on the basis of the benefits which it will bring to industry. Over 120 countries—representing 90 per cent. of the world's population and, therefore, 90 per cent. of the world's consumers—use the metric system. They include many Commonwealth countries, some of which have gone metric during the last two years. It is significant that the United States is considering conversion to metric when one bears in mind that if any country should be able theoretically to resist the trend to metric it would be the United States, because of its vast domestic market. Even so, the latest intimations seem to be that the pressure of international circumstances is forcing the Americans to consider changing their system.
Since 90 per cent. of the world's consumers live in metric countries, it is not surprising that 75 to 80 per cent. of the world's exports go to metric countries or that 80 per cent. of world trade, as against 50 per cent. in 1950, is today in metric units. It naturally follows that the proportion of United Kingdom exports to metric markets has risen from 50 to 60 per cent. during the 1960s. World markets are increasingly establishing metric standards for the goods they buy, and British industry has to reflect this fact.
The hon. and gallant Member for Arundel referred to "the old Common Market Vaseline." It is an interesting phrase, but I think the question of membership of the Common Market is largely irrelevant to this debate, contrary to what has been suggested by many hon. Gentlemen, one of whom, I see, is sufficiently enthusiastic in his opposition to me to shake his head.
150 I put forward this argument. If we go in then, obviously, we shall have to conform to whatever eventual Community standards are adopted; but if we do not go in it is no less important that we do not reduce our competitiveness in one of the most rapidly expanding markets of the world. So, in or out, we have to adopt standards which will give us access, and wider access, to the Common Market's consumer markets; and, in or out, technologically, collaboration will be easier if we have common measurements.
There has been reference to variety reduction. Some say this would take place anyhow, but, as hon. Gentlemen will appreciate, very often it needs a spur before industry undertakes this type of operation. I will quote the Secretary of State—I hope that he will forgive me for quoting him unwarned—from the article which he wrote only last year, when he said thatfirst and foremost, I think that the adoption of the metric system offers this country a unique chance to rationalise the whole range of national technical standards.The right hon. Gentleman went on:The Systeme Internationale … has the important merits of simplicity and completeness … there are even cases where the length of a product range can be reduced by a third or more with considerable financial saving.So there is a strong case for linking as a spin-off variety reduction with a change in the system, added to which, of course, the sheer fact that trade is not dependent on production in duplicate, that is, in metric and imperial versions, of a product will itself create a reduction which could not be created in any other way.
Various examples have been quoted—the 1,600 types of windows becomes 200; twist drill varieties go from 200 to 77; fasteners from 405 to 186 sizes. In turn, this will further reduce the design work, which can be extremely expensive in some industries. The Deputy Director of the British Standards Institution, Mr. Feilden, quotes as an example the iron and steel plant builder, whose design time can be reduced by 15 per cent. by going metric, and he quotes the aero-engine builder with savings of the same magnitude.
I think that the industrial benefits are best summed up by Mr. Feilden in a 151 paper at the British Association at Exeter on 4th September last year, when he said:All trading nations now recognise the need to knock down technical barriers to trade. The British Standards Institution's involvement in international standards work—to the extent of 60 per cent. of our resources—is not just idealism. We seek firm commercial benefits: easier access to world markets, readier acceptance of British goods, useful exchanges of technical know-how, world-wide elimination of barriers in the form of legislation or technical regulations. For years there has been anxiety about tariffs and the hindrance they present to global trade exchanges.I would stress this final sentence:But national standards differing in dimensions, quality and safety requirements are equally pre-emptive. Metrication gives the U.K. an unrivalled opportunity to press towards international harmonisation of industrial practices.An overwhelming case can be made on the industrial front, given this important proviso which both sides have accepted, that there is no coercion. This is a primary system, but not the sole system. The word "sole" has not been used on this side of the House, and I am sure that it will not be used by hon. Gentlemen opposite.
§ Mr. John Page
Will it not lead to a sole system if we cease to teach anything but a single system, namely, the metric system, in the schools?
§ Mr. Alan Williams
I am sure it does, but nobody has suggested doing that. If we look at the preparations being undertaken by examining boards, it is not being suggested that imperial should not be taught. They are suggesting that the emphasis of teaching should move markedly away from imperial to metric, whereas at the moment the balance has been in the opposite direction. Even so, there should be savings.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price), who is Joint Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Technology, in an Answer on 6th July, said:My own experience in my constituency is that most primary school headmasters welcome teaching the metric system."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1970; Vol. 803, c. 307.]They welcome it because it is a simple and straightforward system.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter) expressed 152 concern for agriculture, but to quote an agricultural example with educational significance, the chairman of the N.F.U. Metric Committee, in The Times on 14th July this year, said:In imperial, to convert tons per acre into ounces per square yard calls for four conversion factors and formidable calculation. In metric, it needs nothing more than the neat movement of a decimal point.So that what could be an advantage to the farmer in his calculations will also help to remove from education that particular form of torture, the schoolboy arithmetic teaser. Indeed, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) adduced what I personally thought to be a not particularly appealing argument in favour of keeping the imperial system based on the academic discipline. I do not want to see the imperial measurements becoming the new Latin in our schools—the discipline of the logical but useless.
The important thing educationally is that the switchover should save time. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon got slightly confused—and I do not blame him—when he took up the point about books. My right hon. Friend was speaking about the time-saving when he quoted savings earlier this afternoon.
§ Mr. Alan Williams
My right hon. Friend made it quite clear. There are various estimates of educational savings. In The Times article Patrick O'Leary suggested that basic teaching time would be cut by a third. This is far too high. The Secretary of State for Industry, in his excellent article, referred to a possible cut in teaching time of 20 per cent. The British Association and the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, in their report on going metric, made the point that the saving could be 10 to 20 per cent. in mathematics teaching time and up to 5 per cent. of total teaching time for the 7 to 11-year-olds. These are significant savings which can make time available for study in greater depth of other subjects.
Only today I was speaking to the National Union of Teachers about conversion. The union stressed the point that to avoid procrastination, which they feel is a great danger with examining bodies, and to avoid unnecessary duplication of 153 examination papers the shorter the transition period the better and the more clear-cut the decision. But the fact we are going metric will mean that in both cases it will make sure that the examining body press ahead as rapidly as possible with conversion of curricula. Indeed, at a conference of N.U.T. members of C.S.E. boards on 17th October this year the need for a swift transition was again stressed. Understandably, the concern of the N.U.T. is for funds for the appropriate books. If industry goes metric, then schools must go metric in advance. They must be preparing the school leaver for the jobs industry will want them to take. Therefore, the educational system must not trail behind.
In view of the substantial reductions in public expenditure announced today, would the right hon. Gentleman consider—I do not ask him to go beyond considering—discussing with his right hon. Friends the possibility of helping towards the cost of providing the necessary school equipment in the short term which will be required for schools themselves to make the conversion? As I say, I do not expect an answer from him tonight, but I hope that he will say that he will look at the possibility.
The case against has been based upon variations of several arguments. The cost has been one of the major factors adduced against it and, in his very able maiden speech, the hon. Member for Gravesend quoted an estimate of £5,000 million which has been bandied about a great deal. As his was a maiden speech, I hope that he will not consider it too rough of me if I make the point that his party spokesman in the House of Lords last year, and his own Minister today, both refuted the figure.
In the other place, Lord St. Oswald said:… so far as this enormous figure has any validity at all it must be a global estimate which takes no account of replacement machinery which would be bought in any case … Nor does it take account of machinery which can be adapted.The noble Lord then quoted from G.K.N., who said, apparently, that any machine tool can be adapted at a cost of between £25 and £125. He went on to say:That does not exactly spell ruin."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 26th June, 1969; Vol. 303, c. 283.]I assume that that is a value judgment.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the carpet industry is in a very special position since its production depends on long-life machinery?
§ Mr. Alan Williams
I am sure that that is the case, and I am confident that his right hon. Friend will point out to the hon. Gentleman that that is why it is recognised that some industries will carry out their conversions some time after the target date. In the case of an industry with a non-investment cycle, it may be necessary to go beyond. However, that is really a matter more for the right hon. Gentleman opposite to deal with than for an Opposition spokesman.
Dealing with his estimate, the hon. Member for Gravesend made the point that global estimates lack all statistical foundation. That is a valid criticism. However, there has been very little significant statistical work done by the critics, and hon. Members on both sides recognise that it is difficult to produce meaningful figures. It is significant that no country which has converted in recent years has been able to produce meaningful figures prior to undertaking conversion.
On 14th July, the chairman of the Metrication Committee said:The experience of people who have changed to metric is that it demonstrates advantages very quickly.This fact is supported by a Select Committee of the Australian Senate which quoted the case of a Japanese motor manufacturer who recovered his conversion costs at the rate of 20 per cent. a year. It meant that after five years he recovered the total cost and from then on obtained a recurring benefit of 20 per cent. a year. This demonstrates the important point that, whereas costs are once and for all, the benefits are continuous and open-ended. Industry would hardly have advocated change five years ago and not altered its opinion in the meantime had the costs in those industries which have already undertaken conversion preparations proved insupportable.
I would urge against any form of delay. I am sure that the Government are aware of these facts. I would draw attention only to the point that the same Senate Select Committee assessed the cost of delay in conversion at up to 8 per cent. 155 a year, and that a report made to the South African Government indicated an assessment of a similar magnitude.
There are difficulties for the public to which reference has been made. I thought that the Daily Telegraph, on 22nd May, was less than kind to the Conservative Party when it said:Despite the qualms of a handful of Conservative back benchers … the Opposition has remained conspicuously silent throughout.This is not the case. This was before the election. That was why the term "Opposition" was used.
Last year, in the debate in the House of Lords, the Conservative Party came out strongly in support of the policy then being adopted by the Government. Again, in his vigorous speech, Lord St. Oswald said:Consultation has taken place and is taking place, and a very wide and positive measure of consent has already been given."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 26th June. 1969; Vol. 303, c. 282.]The Consumer Council, in a document which I think every hon. Member has received, has said that itbelieves that conversion to the metric system.. will be of advantage to the consumer—and it makes the point that usage quickly produces familiarity.
It is interesting to note that in what was essentially a knocking article on metrication the Daily Telegraph, on 22nd May, said:As anyone who has shopped on the continent will know, it is possible to become adjusted quite soon to these simple measures.The Women's Advisory Committee of the British Standards Institution, which contains women representatives of all the political parties and non-political groups, supports the change. It says:At the Annual Conference in August … 180 delegates from 31 organisations broke up into ten groups to discuss metrication and other subjects of importance to shoppers. They were divided by age: 20–39, 40–59, and 60 and over. On metrication there was remarkable agreement between the ages. The consensus of opinion was that too much fuss was being made about the problems of metrication for the housewife.The Guardian, in an article on 7th August, said:Many Danes are still not very clear about the units between the centimetre and the 156 metre and between the metre and the kilometre.It puts this forward as an argument against going metric. It is an equally legitimate point, I would think, that the rod, the pole, the perch and the furlong are not all that well understood in this country.
It seems that this criticism misunderstands the nature of a system of weights and measurements. Indeed, I thought that the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) to some extent misunderstood it when he described it as mainly descriptive, because a system of weights and measures is essentially for use at varying levels. It has an everyday personal use—the sort to which the hon. and learned Gentleman was referring and to which The Guardian was referring—but it also has a technical and specialist rôle. In the same way that no one would surely suggest that a dictionary should contain only those words which are in everyday use—dictionaries would be much smaller if that was the case—equally a system of measurement must be more flexible in the range of uses for which it caters.
I confess that there are difficulties in relation to beer and to milk concerning the bottles and the measures. Indeed, many hon. Members seem to have expressed a little more concern about the former than the latter. I expect that many included the latter to justify talking of the former. However, one member of the Metrication Board, giving evidence to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee on 14th July, said:There will be sectors of national life which do not wish to change, despite the change which is going on around them. This will have to be accepted.So there is no real difficulty. I do not see that it really creates a major difficulty to allow pints to continue to be served as pints or for the bottle of milk to continue to be delivered in the pint bottle as long as there is the standardised unit and the consumer is protected in the quantity which he buys for a given price.
I do not wish in any way to belittle criticisms which have been put forward. I am sure that much of the criticism which has been put forward has been on the misunderstanding that this is an inflexible determination to impose on everyone the weights and measures of metrication. This is not so. It is made clear 157 in the report, and we made it clear when we were the Government. I am sure that right hon. Gentlemen opposite intend to make it clear, too. The case for the action that we have taken, and which right hon. Gentlemen opposite have vindicated in their statements, is overwhelmingly proved, and I hope that the many hon. Gentlemen opposite who have put forward criticisms today will consider the arguments that I have advanced, and which are now to be put by the Minister, and perhaps withdraw their opposition to this change.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Julian Amery)
Our proceedings earlier this afternoon after the Chancellor's statement were marked by a splendid explosion of artificial asperity and rancour. By contrast, I think that the debate which we are concluding has been a remarkable example of genuine strong feeling and concern, motivated in no way by partisan or interested inspiration.
I should like to begin by paying tribute to the three maiden speakers whom we have heard today. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) made one of the best maiden speeches that I have heard. My father once said that John Redmond was the finest orator he had ever heard in the House of Commons. Perhaps my learned Friend will follow in his footsteps, and certainly we shall look forward to hearing him often.
The same is true of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White). He and I have spoken on the same platform more than once in the past. I congratulate, too, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Miss Joan Hall) on her maiden speech. I was a Lancashire Member for some years, but I trust that I got the pronunciation right. In the same context I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Arundel and Shoreham (Captain Kerby) on one of his rare interventions in the House. I did not agree with all that he said, but I enjoyed his speech very much, and I wish that he would give us the benefit of his advice more often.
There has grown up a conspiratorial theory about the origin of metrication. 158 There is one view that the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. Harold Wilson) took to reading Trollope—imitation is the sincerest form of flattery—and became convinced, like the Duke of Omnium, of the importance of the decimal and metric system. My researches do not confirm that theory.
Another view is that there is a Mafia of civil servants with vested interests who have pushed through the system by stealth, determined to keep it from the gaze of the public and the House of Commons. Equally, I hope that I shall be able to convince my hon. Friends that that is not true.
I can understand why my hon. Friends feel as they do. It is because there was a major breakdown in communications during the time when right hon. Gentlemen opposite were the Government. They never came to the House about this. They never published a White Paper on the subject. They never made any effort to carry public opinion with them, and the debate this afternoon proves the point most clearly by the fact that three maiden speakers, in a sense more representative than any of us of feeling in the constituencies, have all expressed grave doubts about the metric experiment, and I believe it to be a great experiment, on which we have embarked.
Where exactly does Britain stand on this issue? How far have we gone down the metric way? By what authority have we proceeded? This question was asked by more than one of my hon. Friends. The Acts of 1897 and 1963 made a wide range of metric measures lawful, and under these Acts British industry has gone a long way down the metric road. Its spokesmen have said that it has gone long past the point of no return. The last Government thought it right to encourage industry in this course. The action which they took was within their rights, and I do not think that I would dissent from it. But we are approaching a point where the process cannot continue without amending legislation, and later, enabling legislation. There will soon be a need to amend the statutory provisions expressed in imperial terms not covered by the Acts of 1897 and 1963 and, later, more broadly speaking, enabling legislation.
159 My right hon. Friend the then Minister of Technology—now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—said in July:Where individual industries have voluntarily progressed to the point where amendments to regulations couched in non-metric terms become necessary the Government are prepared after consultation with interested parties to introduce amendments under existing statutory powers. It is for this reason that certain amendments of Schedules to the Weights and Measures Act 1963 relating in particular to the building and pharmaceutical industries have been laid before Parliament. On the other hand, the Government are not as yet committed to general enabling legislation involving amendment of Statutes. Before such legislation is introduced it is intended to provide time for the matter to be debated in both Houses of Parliament after the Recess."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th July, 1970; Vol. 804, c. 19–20.]That is precisely what is happening today and will happen in another place in a few days' time—appropriately enough on Armistice Day. No final step can be taken without the consent of Parliament. Parliament's authority will be needed before we can proceed to amending or enabling legislation.
I turn to the merits of the case. There was a time in the last century when it looked as if the Imperial measure might displace the metric. There were even producers of champagne in France who produced an imperial pint bottle, which they thought was what an English gentleman should have with his dinner. The tide has turned the other way. We may regret it, but it is a fact. The move towards metrication has gone a long way. It is not the result of the work of theorists or starry-eyed idealists; it is the work of hard-headed businessmen, like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry. These hard-headed businessmen think—and my right hon. Friend thought the same when he was in industry—that it is in the interests of industry to go metric. They, after all, are the people who will carry the bulk of the cost of the experiment. They are the people who will risk their competitive position in both home and foreign markets by doing so. We must attach great importance to the views expressed almost unanimously by their collective organisations. I realise that some industrialists take a different view, but the consistent view of organised industry over 160 a number of years has been in favour of metrication.
I was asked by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot), my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) and the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) to bear in mind the effect of all this on the price of food and other agricultural products. The Government have noted with interest the discussions that the industries concerned are holding about the possibility of adopting standard metric sizes. We hope that these will prove fruitful, and we shall be glad to examine the problem further when industry has reached a conclusion of its own. The range is limited, but it includes such important things as bread, butter, tea and sugar.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page), in a slightly Rabelaisian speech, questioned how far the views expressed by the C.B.I. represent the views of industry. We have made some detailed inquiries, not limited simply to material received from the C.B.I., and we are satisfied that the overwhelming majority of industry—especially advanced industry—is in favour of a change. My hon. Friend asked me how quickly the engineering industry is moving. It is, of course, a very diversified industry and some elements are marching faster than others. Some specialise in certain markets more than others. This is quite natural. I do not think that there should be any cause for surprise that it is not moving at the same speed as industries which are more homogeneous. The National Farmers Union—I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) urged me not to quote organisations too much—has already gone a long way towards encouraging advance into metrication.
Industry and agriculture have asked us two things, which they asked of the last Government. They have asked us to encourage the process and they have asked us, in the latest C.B.I. memorandum, to legislate to advance it. The question is what the Government should do under these circumstances. We have a duty to help industry and to help agriculture. We have also a duty to the consumer and to the public at large, to ordinary people living their ordinary lives.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
When my right hon. Friend says "legislate", does he mean "propose legislation in Parliament"?
§ Mr. Amery
My hon. and learned Friend, as usual, with that precision which marks a great lawyer, has corrected me, and I stand corrected. As I say, we have to have regard both to the interests of the producers, and to the interests of the public at large, the consumers. We have to balance these two interests and decide whether we should encourage and whether at a later stage we should proceed to legislate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry urged me to adopt a stance of neutrality. We think that, other things being equal, if the interests of the consumer and the general public can be safeguarded, we should help industry and agriculture as much as we can. Of course it involves some public expenditure, but nothing like as much as the expenditure that industry is voluntarily undertaking.
We have thought it right—encouragement does not require legislation: this is an administrative procedure—to incur certain items of expenditure, as our predecessors did, to encourage it.
What form will encouragement take? There is education, of course, on which some significant things have been said today, which I will certainly bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Broadly speaking, while we need a broad band of education, and while education is important in itself, it is also a training for later life. If the general environment of Britain is to move into a metric one, it will be important for children to be prepared for it.
There is also the question of transport. A number of references have been made to the implications of metrication here, and in particular, to the only point on which I think the previous Government went a little beyond the permissive position. They said that the speed limit would go metric by 1973. This is the only point on which I think that any attempt has been made administratively to impose a decision. I have listened carefully to what has been said on this score, and I will of course discuss what has been said with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport.
162 I would only stress at this stage that no opposition has been expressed to us or, as I understand it, to our predecessors, on this score from any of the motorist organisations. I am however taking this up and we will look into it carefully.
§ Mr. Onslow
Am I to take it from that that my right hon. Friend is saying that the Government are not committed to implementing the change to metrication in speed limits by 1973?
§ Mr. Amery
All I am saying is that I will discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport. I cannot speak with authority on the subject. I am reacting to the strong views expressed in the debate, which I think the Government should take into consideration.
I want to say a word about the rôle in all this of the construction industry. The public sector work of the building and civil engineering industry weighs enormously in the economy of the country. This sector buys half the output of the construction industry. When I speak of the public sector, I am speaking not merely of the central Government, but of the Armed Forces and, above all, local government.
Our predecessors thought it right, and I would not dissent from their view, that it was in the industry's interest and the public sector's interest to encourage and co-operate with them in the advancement of metrication in building. It is because of what we have achieved in this sector that I am replying to the debate this evening, and it may be of interest to the House to hear something of what we have done.
§ Mr. W. Baxter
Would the right hon. Gentleman give us some indication of what advantages there will be to the building industry, or the community at large, by going metric?
§ Mr. Amery
There is a good deal to be gained in the production of components and system building for the industry. This is certainly the view not only of my advisers, but of right hon. Gentlemen opposite when they were in the then Ministry of Public Building and Works. They strongly took this view and so did their advisers. I have studied it carefully and I have discussed it with the leaders of the building industry and none has dissented from it. The leaders of 163 the building industry and even more the civil engineering side are strong supporters. I will give some of their reasons. However, I want now to leave in the minds of hon. Members an understanding of how far the process has already gone.
As early as 1967, a detailed programme was published by the British Standards Institution and projects designed in metric terms began to reach sites at the beginning of 1970. The changeover to metric construction should be largely complete by the end of 1972. Where building is concerned, we have certainly passed the point of no return. By the middle of this year not only were £2,000 million worth of metric projects at the design stage, of which half were road projects and more than one-quarter housing, but 59 per cent. of all new dwellings under design this year will have been in metric. Already the public sector projects under construction as distinct from at the design stage are valued at more than £200 million of which £140 million or more are housing.
The changeover to metric design in the private sector has naturally been slower, but the professional associations have embraced it. The R.I.B.A. has urged architects to embark upon a policy of designing all work in metric, particularly in order not to leave clients in possession of obsolescent buildings.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peters-field (Miss Quennell) asked about the effect of all this on the conveyance of property. The land professions were advised by the Chartered Land Societies Committee to begin a practice period in February, 1970, during which all measurements and values were to be duplicated in both the new and the old system. The Land Registry has been prepared to accept metric documents since November, 1968, and the legal profession is prepared to convey land in metric terms.
One of the reasons why the building and the civil engineering industry has been so interested in metrication has been exports. The industry is much more concerned with exports than is generally supposed. The value of contracts for construction work overseas increased by almost 50 per cent. to £341 million in the year ended March 1970. The figure shows a growth of £107 million over last year's record of £234 million. It shows 164 that the increased effort made by British contractors and their overseas subsidiaries are paying off. They believe, and I see no reason to doubt their view, that the changeover to metric has already contributed to this remarkable increase in exports and is likely to boost it still further.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Arundel and Shoreham thought that this was all part of a plot connected with the Common Market. Even Professor Alan Taylor writing in the Sunday Express did not go quite as far as that. Of course it will help us in the European context, but, as the House knows perfectly well, the E.F.T.A. countries, the Soviet bloc and its Chinese competitors have all gone metric already. So have most of the Commonwealth, South Africa, the French former colonies. Indeed, I believe that if one could peer behind the sanctions barrier, one would even find that Rhodesia, too, had gone metric.
The Americans are the one exception and the question is why. The reason is simple enough. America depends very much more than most other countries on its vast domestic market and the advantages to be gained from the change are evenly balanced with those derived from continuing on present lines. But there is a strong movement towards metrication. Here I should like to correct both the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Arundel and Shoreham, for the Americans have already gone metric in their space programme which is a point of some importance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon asked whether it was seriously argued or suggested that all our measures must be changed. The answer is, "No". It is not seriously argued that all our measures must be changed. It is not seriously argued that any of our Measures must be changed. What we want to do is to make it possible for industry which wants to go metric to do so. I see no hasty reason for taking steps which would interfere with the lives of ordinary people. It will be a nice point for the brewers and publicans to decide whether they want to go over from the pint to the litre, and I should have thought that they would have to pay close attention to consumer choice.
165 Nor is there any need why people should necessarily express themselves in metric rather than imperial measures, just as there is no reason why they should not describe their heights today in cubits or the lengths of their gardens in rods, poles or perches. I do not think my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry need worry about another lot of Julian riots; there is no reason why the new and the old measures should not subsist side by side for a long time to come.
I heard a story the other day which has some bearing on this. It was told in another place. A noble Lord, a friend of mine, was campaigning in the last war in the Vietnamese jungle and had to march through the jungle for a considerable distance. All that he could say in the native language was, "How much longer?" and in answer to this question one of the men kept holding up four fingers. When he finally found a man who could speak English, he asked him what the other man meant by holding up four fingers. The man who could speak English said, "That is an old-fashioned way of measuring distance. It means the greatest distance at which you can hear a dog bark through the jungle at a quiet time of the night." I see no reason why our time-honoured units of measurement should not be with us in a homely and domestic context for a long time to come.
It has been pointed out that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) have provided the origin to this debate by virtue of the Adjournment Motion moved by the former and a Parliamentary Question asked by the latter. I very much welcomed the assurance given by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West that if we could convince him that we had a strong case, he would be glad to support us in going forward with this issue
He and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford felt that it would be right to give time for Parliament to express its views on a question which touches the daily lives of so many people. That is what we are doing today, why we are having this debate and why we are giving time very shortly for another debate in another place.
166 I have made it plain, as did my hon. Friend in opening the debate, that we favour going forward towards voluntary metrication. I have tried to make it plain that we are opposed to compulsion in any respect. I have explained that there would have to be amending and enabling legislation if we were to go very much further down this road, otherwise the whole variety of weights and measures which are now statutorily regulated in imperial terms could not be paralleled by similar metric measures.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
Does that mean that the Government will now stop insisting on metric specifications?
§ Mr. Amery
It does not mean that the Government will administratively judge the tenders put before it necessarily by saying that they will not take imperial. We will take what we think is right and continue to encourage, in the case of the construction industry, the changeover to metric—[Interruption.]—but we will not propose legislation at this stage, and we cannot amend or enable without there being legislation.
We recognise that it is important to carry opinion with us before doing anything of the kind, and again I repeat the criticism I made at the beginning of my speech when I said that the Labour Party had been guilty of a serious mistake by not taking active steps to explain to the House and the public what the change was about.
§ Mr. John Page
Is there any difference whatever in the situation that exists after all the speeches that have been made today compared with the situation that prevailed before the debate took place and under the Labour Government? I reckon from what my right hon. Friend has said that there has been an insulting disregard of back benchers, at any rate on this side of the House. There has been absolutely no accommodation as far as, for example, transport and education are concerned. Unless there is a further undertaking given by my right hon. Friend, I shall try to divide the House.
§ Mr. Amery
I was about to say that after taking full account of the views that have been expressed by my hon. Friend and others, and bearing in mind the views that will be expressed in another place shortly, we shall accordingly consider—and consider very seriously—the publication of a White Paper designed to put the facts before Parliament and the people before we proceed to any legislation.
§ Mr. John Page
Is my right hon. Friend saying that he will produce a White Paper before any legislation is introduced? If so, it would have been helpful if he had said that much earlier.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.