§ 4.14 p.m.
§ The Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)
This is the second occasion in the last three years on which the House has had an oportunity to debate the subject of metrication. It was last discussed in October 1970. In February 1972 the Government published the White Paper on metrication. It is right that we should have this further opportunity of discussing the subject. I say this not only because it is important for the House to have such an opportunity but because I know that this is a subject on which many people outside this House are interested. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are the Opposition?"] I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friends.
Attitudes towards metrication are not based on party lines but still tend to divide into two different groups. On the one hand, there is anxiety among a number of people at the idea of this change. On the other hand there is anxiety—indeed more than anxiety, very real pressure—for the change to be made at greater speed and indeed with more enthusiasm. The arguments in favour of change spring principally, but by no means only, from those who are responsible for the future of British industry. The House may have seen that only two weeks ago I received a deputation from the CBI which expressed the view that adecisive lead and specific action by Government are urgently needed".This is in line with the view that has been expressed on behalf of industry since at least 1965.
One reason why industry argues in favour of change is that the metric system is simpler. The combination of decimal currency and metric quantities greatly simplifies price calculations.
The most important reason springs from the extent to which we are as a country dependent on the prosperity and expansion of our international trade. The fact is that for some years now British industry has been competing in world markets at an increasing disadvantage. As this fact is recognised by more and more other countries around the world, the disadvantage is growing. Perhaps the most significant fact is the 1425 extent to which this message has been taken on board by almost every one of our partners or former partners in the Commonwealth.
Australia and New Zealand, who started after us, have now overtaken us. Many of the African States in the Commonwealth have already changed and the Caribbean States are beginning their own change. South Africa, one of our most important markets, will have completed the change by the end of this year. Canada is committed to changing without waiting for the United States, to which critics of the change still point as being out of step with this trend. But even there change is imminent. A large number of the most important American companies—General Motors, Ford, IBM and others—have announced their support for the programme, presented to Congress in August 1971. General Motors has already said that its new developments will be metric from the outset. Once the United States changes, then almost the whole of world trade will be conducted in metric units.
It is worth reminding the House that the only countries that have still to announce plans to change are Brunei, Burma, Liberia, Nauru, Sierra Leone, Tonga, Western Samoa, Yemen Arab Republic and, last but not least, the Yemen People's Democratic Republic.
Against this background, from the point of view of the trade and industry on which the people of this country depend, the only question that really ought to come to mind is how much longer we can sensibly remain out of step. This is the background against which large sectors of British industry have worked out their programmes of change, and are indeed well on the way to implementing them.
A recent survey of engineering production showed that less than a fifth of firms are still working entirely in imperial units. The construction industry's changeover programme is well on the way to completion. The change over to metric tariffs for overseas freight is the way to completion. The changeover of inland freight is well under way. The parcel and letter postal services will have metric charges in 1975. The energy sector has a programme for the metrication of sales covering the period March 1974 to April 1975. This does not, how- 1426 ever, include retail sales of coal and of fuels for motorists. We have for many years bought our electricity in metric units. The programme for agriculture and horticulture is centred on the farm year 1975/76.
Textile fabrics will be made in metric from 1st January next year and practically all clothing will be dual marked, that is to say in centimetres and inches, by June 1974.
There can be no doubt that this pattern of change has brought, and will bring, real benefit to the trading prospects of British industry.
I should like to quote two examples of experience which has been gained. British Insulated Callender's Cables Ltd. said of metrication:The overall benefit to customers was a price saving of about 5 per cent.".Ford Motor Company said of it:The advantages we expected from the metric change have been exceeded by a very great deal.This is the background against which some spokesmen of industry have sought to criticise Government for lack of leadership in the metrication programme. I confess that I regard this charge as one that the Government are well able to rebut. We have always made clear that progress towards metrication is voluntary. The Government have, however, supported—and will continue to support the work of the Metrication Board in helping industry with the process of change. It is with the help of the board and I wish to pay tribute to the painstaking work that has been done by each and every member of the board under the chairmanship of our former colleague, Lord Orr-Ewing and of his predecessor Lord Ritchie-Calder—that industry has been able to work out and carry through the important changes that have been made. That is why, for example, the Government have been and remain at pains to adjust their own policy for public purchasing in line with the programmes that industry itself finds acceptable.
I recognise that there is some legislation which prescribes imperial units for various purposes, and that some of this inhibits changes by industry. Where this is the case the Government Department responsible for the legislation has been, and will always be, very ready to discuss 1427 with the industry the changes which will be necessary, and—this is an equally important point—their timing to ensure that the industry's own metrication programme is taken fully into account. It is upon that basis that those firms which have been waiting to make the change should approach the matter, bearing in mind, indeed, as the CBI has argued, the best interests of this country's commercial future.
I turn to the problems of metrication from the point of view of the consumer, of each one of us about our ordinary business in the shops. It has always been clear that the process of change can involve problems from the point of view of the ordinary retail customer. But despite these problems, there are many who believe that they need not stand in the way of change. The consumer organisations are prepared not merely to accept the prospect of change but to urge, as one of them did in a letter to me at the end of last week, that the process of change should not be unduly prolonged. Educationists have, for the most part, positively welcomed the change, because there is no doubt that there are attractions from the point of view of the schoolboy or schoolgirl at his or her desk in having to accommodate himself or herself to a single system of calculations rather than to two. The dismal decimal point can be seen from their point of view as an agent of simplification.
Even so, it is argued that those opinions are not representative of the total mass of public opinion. Some argue that for this reason trade at the retail level need not follow a general metric change in industry. But the truth is that metrication cannot stop at the factory gate. It is not practicable to confine metrication to some aspects of life while others remain entirely imperial.
Living with two systems of measurement would become increasingly confusing and costly. If both systems continued to be used, many of the benefits that can be obtained from metrication would he lost, for the goods produced by industry for the market at home as well as abroad enter into daily life. The ordinary citizen is, therefore, involved. His position in a progressively metric environment would be difficult, to say the least, if he had to keep switching from one system 1428 of measurement to another in each of his activities. That situation could be even more difficult for the retailer with the problems of purchasing, stock control and pricing.
But the ordinary citizen is clearly en-entitled to be assured that the change takes place only to the extent that it is necessary, only in a way which he or she can understand, and only in a way which will inform him as to the way in which it is taking place. This underlines the importance of the information which the Metrication Board has been providing and will continue to provide.
It is important to understand just how far the change has to take place, as far as the ordinary consumer is concerned, and at what speed. It is important, too, for the consumer to understand that the change can bring positive benefits.
This is the point at which I should explain to the House the extent to which the pace and style of change—but not, I emphasise, the fact of change—is affected by our accession to the European Communities. When we were negotiating to join the Community there was an important directive on Unit of Measurement that had already been adopted by the Six. Naturally that took the use of metric units for granted. But we negotiated that the future of imperial units would be considered by the member States after our accession. So far as there was not agreement in relation to this, we had full authority to retain them until the end of 1979, and beyond that by further agreement.
By late 1976. however, we have undertaken not to discriminate against the use of metric units. This will mean that we shall need to lay some orders under our Weights and Measures Act to permit —I emphasise the word "permit"—goods to be sold in metric units. If our consumers are to receive the extended range of choice that comes from membership of a unified European market, it makes good sense for us to take account of this.
Those are the reasons why we have thought it right that the whole of this process of change should be studied in the interests of the consumer, by people who can see the practical view of the implications of the change.
§ Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)
I have been listening to what my right hon. 1429 and learned Friend has been saying on the important point about accession to the EEC. He said that there must be no discrimination against goods sold in metric measurements by 1976. Does that include the range of goods covered by the Weights and Measures Act 1963?
§ Sir G. Howe
As a general proposition, it includes them, save in so far as there have been exceptions negotiated until 1979. I emphasise again the word "permit". It is to permit the circulation of goods sold in metric units. That is the obligation—and only that—which arises in 1976. But one would then create a situation in which metric and non-metric units would be alongside each other.
§ Sir G. Howe
This is one of the reasons why the Government have thought it right that the whole of this problem should be studied very closely in the interests of the consumer. It is one of the reasons why we secured the appointment of the Metrication Board's Consumer Safeguards Group, and it is why we are paying the closest attention to the report of that group which was published earlier this summer. The Government attach the highest importance to the way in which and the speed at which the change takes place. The Government are determined to see that the consumer is not taken for a ride.
§ Mr. J. C. Jennings (Burton)
May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend a simple, straightforward question? What parliamentary enactment would make metrication legal?
§ Sir G. Howe
It was made legal 76 years ago by the Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act 1897. That made it clear that both metric and imperial measurements and units were equally permitted to be used for trade. That was confirmed by the Weights and Measures Act 1963. There is and has been for many years no need whatever for express authority from Government or Parliament for an industry to discontinue the use of the imperial system and adopt the units of the metric system, which are also set out in the Act.
1430 This is the permissive position as it stands at present. I shall deal in a little more detail with certain prescribed quantity commodities shortly.
Those who have considered the problem so far—the pattern and timing of the change—bodies such as the Consumers Association, alongside the Consumer Safeguard Group, all favour and recommend a quick change-over in relation to the entire range of commodities. But we recognise that some others suggest that some consumers, especially no doubt the older members of our society, would prefer a long transition period. That is the complex problem which is no doubt in the mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page). One can see advantages both ways, in having only one standard range of sizes in current use or, on the other hand, retaining two standards alongside each other, with the risk of confusion if both systems operated alongside each other during an extended period.
But these are complex problems on which the Government, and all those concerned, would certainly welcome the views of the House. They are complex problems which lead me to recognise the extent to which the role of the Metrication Board is changing over the passage of time, because, as industrial aspects of change have been completed, so it is that the consumer aspects become the more significant.
With that in mind I have made the following appointments to the Metrication Board: first, Mr. David Hobman, Director of Age Concern; secondly, Mrs. Janet Upward, Secretary of the National Federation of Consumer Groups. In addition, the House would like to know that I am appointing to the board Mr. Brian Baxter, Director of Yarrow and Company, and Mr. Hugh Scanlon, the President of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers.
§ Sir G. Howe
Probably the most important subject touching the consumer is that to which I have already referred briefly, namely that of prescribed quantities. This is the system by means of which certain goods are marked in 1431 uniform weights and measurements. It is a system on which I have answered questions from a number of my hon. Friends from time to time and I know that some of them wish to see it extended.
It is important that the benefit conferred by this system should be preserved. It is, therefore, important that the replacement of imperial prescribed quantities should take place on the basis of a considered and comprehensible programme. The Government have it in mind to make changes in the prescribed quantities system gradually and in a way to which the consumer can accustom herself. [An HON. MEMBER: "When?"] I will come to that in a moment.
There is one commodity above all others about which all hon. Members will be concerned, namely the pint of draught beer. By no stretch of the imagination is this an item of international trade and, as far as I can see, we shall be calling for a pint for many years to come.
I have had discussions with the food industry and I hope, in the next few weeks, to advertise certain draft orders under the Weights and Measures Act which would provide for the sale of some of these foodstuffs in metric units.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
I note that the pint of beer is to be preserved. Is the pint of milk to be given the same privilege?
§ Sir G. Howe
The pint of milk is not outside international trade to the same extent as the pint of beer, although it is largely so, and the Government have at present no plans for changing from imperial units for the sale of milk. But I should not like to convey the impression that milk is in the same category as a pint of beer.
§ Mr. John Page
I wish to raise an important point regarding draught beer. In paragraph 15 of the White Paper it is stated:…but equally if anyone wants to buy it by the litre or half-litre that too should be lawful.That means that a brewery or public house could sell beer only by the litre, and so push the litre. Does my right hon. and learned Friend feel that it is desirable for the two units, a pint and a litre to be sold side by side?
§ Sir G. Howe
This goes back to the point I touched on about the extent to which we must be careful about the way in which metric units are used alongside non-metric units. I should be interested to hear the views of my hon. Friend and others regarding beer and other products concurrently used in different measures. There is much to be said for separate retail outlets, one metric and the other non-metric or, at least in relation to products other than beer, separately identified places for the sale of non-metric and metric products. But for beer the case for separation is even stronger.
I have told the House that I intend in the next few weeks to advertise draft orders which will provide for the sale of some foodstuffs in metric units. At present I have in mind two modest commodities, salt and pasta and perhaps one or two others. Other more important commodities will follow in, I hope, an orderly fashion. These orders and their timing will be tailored to the particular needs of the industry and of the consumer. Depending on the reaction of the trade and of consumer interests whom I shall consult, I hope to make the first of the orders, relating to salt and pasta, which will be subject to affirmative resolution, before the end of this Session. The actual changes will take effect later.
I realise that, even with this carefully controlled process, the consumer needs to be assured about the impact on prices. This is why the careful presentation of the facts and information will be essential and this is why we see a valuable role in certain limited cases for the concept of unit pricing. The information will need to be presented in general terms as well as in relation to particular cases through all the media, as well as at the point of sale.
Some manufacturers have already offered to put on the pack in which their products are sold, well before the change over date for their products, information to help the consumer to familiarise herself with the new pack sizes and to continue to be able to choose the best buy for her family. I welcome these efforts, and will give further careful consideration to any other measures which may be suggested to help to meet anxiety on this score.
§ Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)
Has is been possible to make any estimate of the cost likely to be faced by the consumer in terms solely of food prices as a result of going metric? I am sure that, if my right hon. and learned Friend has seen the table in the consumer booklet which all hon. Members have received, he will realise that, in any rounding, prices will be rounded up rather than down.
§ Sir G. Howe
It does not follow that all rounding would be towards a higher quantity but I take the point underlying my hon. Friend's question—that the half-kilogram, for example is, broadly speaking, 10 per cent. larger than the pound —but it does not follow that rounding up to a larger unit would mean a higher price per unit. That may be one of the important elements underlying unit prices.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)
In view of the sad accident by which the Weights and Measures (Unit Pricing) Bill was blocked last Friday by an hon. Member objecting to it and not knowing that he was objecting to it, and regretting it afterwards, will my right hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that he will do all he can to ensure that the Bill is put on the Order Paper before the end of the Session, as it has already gone through Committee?
§ Sir G. Howe
My hon. Friend knows that matters of that sort are for the Leader of the House. I will see that the matter is drawn to his attention.
We have already moved a considerable way down the road towards metrication. Industry has already changed over to a considerable extent. It is important for our trade in the modern world, in this increasingly metric world in which we live, that industry should change in this way. Agriculture has a programme which should be completed by 1975–76. Our children, or the great majority of them, are now taught the metric system, which they find simpler than the measures with which most of us grew up.
We are now about to make moves affecting consumer goods. I have explained the reasons for this and I repeat the assurance which I have already given to the House. We shall take closely into account the views which will be expressed in the House and by outside interests.
Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)
The Minister said that the affirmative resolutions to which he referred will come before the House before the end of the Session. Does he mean that these resolutions will be brought before the House before the Session starting in October or November?
§ Sir G. Howe
That is the expectation.
I am referring to the particular commodities which I mentioned because the House will appreciate the importance of the matter being approached in a rational and orderly fashion. That is why I have identified those commodities for which orders will come before the House before the end of the Session. We shall take close account of the views inside and outside the House, because we are determined to see that the changes are brought into effect in a manner which fully informs, and, as far as is possible, protects, the consumer.
§ 4.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Roger White (Gravesend)
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend for the way in which he opened the debate. He said it was a non-party issue. The last debate on metrication, on 27th October 1970, was also on a nonparty issue. My right hon. and learned Friend has given lists of imposing supporters for metrication. He has now included in the list some of our friends across the Atlantic in the United States. But we are far more interested in this Chamber about the measures he announced concerning consumers in this country. I welcome the additional members to the Metrication Board.
The debate on 27th October 1970 was a memorable occasion for many of my hon. Friends and myself, because it was the first time that we had had an opportunity to address the House of Commons. We expressed, and I believe we were right, cur concern about the rise in costs to the consumer right across the board. At that time we knew that industry —I am thinking particularly of the civil engineering and construction industries—. had gone a long way towards metrication.
However, it became clear in the debate that in many instances we had already reached the stage of no return. At the same time we expressed the cost in real terms. I believe that £5,000 million was quoted as the estimated figure in 1968.
1435 Frankly, I should like to know a lot more than I have learned from the White Paper or the Metrication Board on the exact cost of this exercise.
Since that time we have had a number of publications, including the White Paper of February 1972. Indeed, the Metrication Board has published seven quarterly bulletins under the title, "Going Metric", and we have had numerous leaflets and guides of many kinds, culminating with the board's report for 1972, under the chairmanship of Lord Orr-Ewing, published this year.
I believe that it is right that we should be reminded of the words of my right hon. Friend the then Minister for Housing and Construction in the debate on 27th October 1970. He said: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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th October 1970; Vol. 805, c. 166.]I believe that was an important assurance. So did many of my hon. Friends.
During the debate I mentioned the word "stealth". I believed at that time that we were having metrication by stealth. I am pleased to see in Chapter I of the White Paper that the reference to stealth has been quoted. Indeed, on page 2 it states:So there can be absolutely no question of ' metrication by stealth"".That is all very well until we get to page 7 where it states:The Government in any case regard it as most desirable in the interests of our economic prosperity that the maximum practical progress towards the metric system should be made within the next few years.I suppose it depends on one's personal interpretation whether we are going to progress or achieve an objective by stealth or otherwise. None the less, it seems that we are heading for metrication in all its forms, and there is ample evidence in the White Paper, particularly in education. The metric system will be employed to such an extent that future generations will have no option available to them other than the metric system.
§ Sir John Hall (Wycombe)
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Schools Council has made it clear that from 1974 onwards examinations will be set only in the metric system and using the international unit?
§ Mr. White
I certainly acknowledge my hon. Friend's intervention. Indeed, the Kent County Council Education Authority, in its publication "Metrication No. 1", which deals with the teachers' digest of decimal currency, and "Metrication No. 2", which introduced SI units, went as far back as October 1969. So there is no doubt that metrication in schools was to be made very clear to the country in future. Metrication has certainly gone unabated in the schools in my constituency.
Whilst I appreciate what is set out in the White Paper, there are in many respects ample grounds for confirming some of the thoughts and fears that were expressed in the original debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) referred to beer, cider and milk. Those items are dealt with in the White Paper. The White Paper, in Chapter VI,The Effects of Metrication on the Consumer",acknowledges that while there are no restrictions on the quantity of liquids or the manner of their sale, they can be sold in either litres or half-litres alongside traditional pints. If future generations are to learn only the metric system it will be interesting to see where they stand at the bar in another 15 or 20 years. This point is reinforced in other parts of the White Paper.
Another area in the 1970 debate related to transport. Both in the Adjournment debate of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West on 8th July 1970 and in the debate on 27th October, I drew attention to the changes in speed limit signs on our roads. Hey Presto! on page 26, paragraph 107, of the White Paper we have a reference to this point. I certainly welcome the assurance given in the White Paper that there is no reason why we should automatically move to kilometre signs on our roads, and so forth. I am a little suspicious. Does anyone suggest that the skirt has not already been lifted?
1437 In reply to the debate on 27th October much was said about "M day". I recall the late Captain Henry Kirby, when he talked about decimalisation, describing it as funny money ". I should not like to think that we would go ahead with what might be described as muddled measurements. Certainly we can accept that industry has its part to play in terms of metric measurement. I acknowledge the necessity in many ways, through our entry into the EEC, of accepting metrication, but I am opposed to having it forced down our throats through either the Metrication Board or other means until we have had sufficient opportunity to study it far more closely.
§ Mr. Gorst
I have not followed one of the hon. Gentleman's points, which seems to run through his speech. Is he suggesting that metrication is being brought in by stealth? If he is, I draw to his attention that in its annual report the Metrication Board not only listed the many measures it was taking to publicise what it was doing but also called for a much expanded expenditure on publicity.
§ Mr. White
I do not question the activities of the Metrication Board, and of course I acknowledge the words of my hon. Friend. I quoted the example of education, where I believe that metrication has overtaken the country by stealth.
It may be a play on words. It is one of the fears that I expressed in October 1970 and again this afternoon.
§ Sir John Hall
Would not my hon. Friend agree that metrication has been introduced without the consent of Parliament in those areas where its consent is needed?
§ Mr. White
That is one of the reasons why I welcome today's debate. This is only the second time since 1970 that the House has had an opportunity to discuss metrication. While it is true that the Metrication Board produces excellent documents—I suggest at some considerable cost—which we hope industry and others will read, I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's desire to strengthen the report so that the consumer can understand it, too.
Finally, while we are prepared to understand and examine the Metrication 1438 Board's reports, we none the less expect the Government to provide Parliament with more information than they have given hitherto. Three years is far too long for Parliament to decide an issue of such importance not only to the present generation, but to the future.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on Avon)
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White) was, if anything, too kind and moderate about the situation which has arisen. It is time that as a House of Commons we analysed just what kind of situation we have been brought into.
It is freely said by interested parties that the policy of metrication has been accepted and agreed by Parliament. It never has. The start of the process was in 1965 under the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn). At the beginning of this Parliament the Government gave it a kind of tacit approval, but they never brought it to Parliament for approval, and they never have.
It is as well to remember that in October 1970 all the Government did, as they have again today, was to bring up the subject of metrication for debate on the Adjournment. Even then the Minister winding up for the Government had to back-pedal pretty smartish under pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) in order to avoid a Division which the Government knew they would have lost.
Now, two years before the end of the 10-year period which was supposed to have seen metrication completed, why do not the Government bring the policy of metrication as a whole to Parliament for approval? Why have they not brought the White Paper to Parliament for approval? Why are we not debating today, or why have we not debated earlier, a motion, "That this House approves the White Paper on Metrication?" Does anyone doubt that it is because the Government know that nine-tenths of the people of this country are against metrication? In every debate we have had the majority of speeches have been against it. They would be lucky to get such a motion accepted.
That is what we mean by saying that metrication has been proceeding, and is proceeding, by stealth. It is clear what 1439 the Government are trying to do: they are postponing a decision for as long as they can while more and more the process of metrication goes ahead, so that the time will come when Parliament will be faced with a fait accompli and it will not be worth standing up against the completion of the process in any detail.
One could go back and show how the process has been going on. We are told that the construction industries have virtually completed the programme, except for small firms, and we are given to understand by implication that it was done voluntarily by the construction industries, the architects, timber merchants and so on. It is true that their so-called representative bodies gave a kind of approval to this process, and some of the larger firms in the industry have enthusiastically supported it—as large firms always support changes of this kind out of which they tend to make a great deal of money—but the smaller building firms and most practising architects were against it. Many of them are still, partly on the grounds of the increased cost of repairs and alterations to existing houses.
It was the Government which by stealth forced this change upon the construction industry by making it a condition of public tendering for the enormous proportion of construction work which was Government originated that tenders should be in metric. It is no good pretending that the Government did not force this on an industry which, if it had been given a chance to vote on it, would not have accepted it.
§ Mr. Maude
If my hon. Friend will allow me to make my speech he will find that I shall answer that question, but I shall come to it in my own time.
The other way in which this process has been taking place by stealth and, as one can tell from the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend, is to be continued by stealth. is that the safeguards are to be gradually nibbled away one by one until it is possible to say that over an increasing area metrication is accepted and that so little is left that it is hardly worth complaining about it.
1440 I can understand the frustration, indeed fury, of the Metrication Board over the mess it has been landed in. The board thought that it had a mandate to complete the process of metrication by 1975. I suspect that it thought that the Government were enthusiastically intending to pursue that policy. Not only is the Metrication Board frustrated, but the CBI is issuing statements calling upon the Government to pull their finger out smartly and to get the thing done in the proper time.
If the Government are determined to complete the process of metrication, why cannot they now be honest enough to come to the House and ask it to approve a change in the prescribed quantity legislation for essential foodstuffs? Again, we know the answer. They dare not, because they do not believe that the people would support them, and they do not believe that they could get it through the House. They propose to produce a gradual succession of orders, starting with salt and something which I did not hear.
§ Mr. Maude
No doubt creeping up gradually until they get to essential things such as sugar, butter and the other staple foodstuffs used by the housewife. One can proceed in this way if one thinks that it is an honest way to proceed, but the Government should not imagine that it will be popular.
I do not suppose any hon. Member doubts that the changeover to decimalisation was wildly inflationary in its effect.
§ Mr. Maude
If my hon. Friend believes that, he will believe anything. Although I am not suggesting that the possibilities of fiddling in the change to metrication are as great as they were in the change to decimalisation, they are there. Even if it were possible—I do not believe that it is—for the Government, the Metrication Board, the consumer associations and the rest to safeguard the consumer and to keep an eagle eye on every change, the people will not believe that there are not opportunities for fiddling. Psychologically, at a time when inflation is by far the greatest political problem facing the Government, and in terms of living standards facing the 1441 people, it will be folly to make the change.
Far from proceeding in this piecemeal way, hoping to get away with it bit by bit, I believe that the only honest thing the Government can now do is either to take one bite at the cherry if they think they can get it through the House of Commons, or, if they do not think that they can, to state quite clearly that there will be no change in the legislation relating to prescribed quantities of essential foodstuffs within the next five years. If the Government were to say that, the doubts of which the CBI and the food manufacturing industries are complaining would disappear. No doubt it will be inconvenient for a lot of people. A number of people, who have relied on this to make a great deal of money, will be disappointed. However, at least it will safeguard the interests of the housewife.
In my view, it will be politically highly advantageous to the Government to be seen and heard saying this, and they must make up their minds quickly about it. It is no good thinking it can pacify Parliament by initiating an Adjournment debate as a sop every three years and saying that the process of metrication has proceeded another 20 or 25 per cent. until, three or six years from now, during the second or third Adjournment debate, we find the process completed. It is wholly unsatisfactory.
We know it is more convenient for industry, particularly large industries which export, to produce and sell solely in metric quantities. But what we are dealing with and are here to represent is not the interests of British industry, particularly the CBI, but above all, the interests of our consuming constituents. The interests of our constituents, who are consumers, without the slighest doubt demand that they should be safeguarded at this time of inflation against the risk of the kind of metric changes which are now contemplated. I hope that the Government will come clean about this matter and not try to pull the wool over the eyes of Members of Parliament as they have been doing for the past three years.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
I heartily agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) that decimalisation has 1442 caused an increase in prices. I hope that he will agree with me that when decimalisation was brought in hon. Members on the Government side voted for the 10s. unit. Had we had the 10s. unit, I am certain we should not have had as great a rise in the cost of living.
Only last week I asked a Question of the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the halfpenny and said what an inconvenient coin it was. Several members of the staff of the House have said what an awkward coin it is and that they never keep it in their pockets but put it in the box for the blind. This is one reason why people have ceased to understand that it has about the value of an old penny.
But we are not debating that matter today. We are debating metrication, whether we need it, what it is all about and how we can bring it about? I represent a constituency which contains a number of elderly retired people who are frightened of metrication. They do not understand it. They have reached the age at which they look upon any change of this kind as being against them. One of the most extraordinary things about metrication is that when one goes to France or any other country there is little difficulty in translating the currency and the purchasing power into kilograms and the metric system. People are on holiday, it becomes a challenge and they accept the situation and cope with it.
When we introduce metrication in this country people will not be used to it. They do not want it and they can only understand it by translating it. I cannot think in terms of centigrade and Fahrenheit. I have to convert temperature from centigrade into Fahrenheit before I know what sort of overcoat to put on.
§ Mr. Robert Redmond (Bolton, West)
If my hon. Friend proposes to use SI units, the correct term is not centigrade but Celsius. Radio Telefis Eireann gets it right in Ireland, but the BBC, being trendy, still uses centigrade.
§ Mr. Costain
Yes, but I am one of those sensible chaps who proceed step by step.
Why do we need to introduce metrication? Are we just doing it to help the CBI and industry generally? I do not think that anyone, whatever his views on metrication, can deny that those countries that have not changed to metrication are few—the Yemen Republic and Libya are two of the lesser known countries. Surely we as an industrial nation do not want to follow their pattern.
Some hon. Members have said that we are changing to metrication to help the CBI. We must be realistic. This country depends on industry for its exports, so should we, in this House, make it difficult for our manufacturing industries to compete? I do not think we should.
§ Sir John Hall
Although there is something in what my hon. Friend says. I am sure he realises that, although about 130 countries are now on the metric system, fewer than 25 use SI unit, which is the one we shall use.
§ Mr. Costain
We must talk in simple terms. Do not let us make the matter more complicated.
My hon. Friend spoke about the building industry and how it was introduced to the metric system. As Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for the Environment, I usually cannot speak on the building industry, but I am now talking about the past. I had something to do with encouraging the building industry to introduce metrication. One of my colleagues, Ernest Cook, that year was the President of the Federation of Master Builders. He was keen on new ideas and the idea was sold to him by the Metrication Board, and because of his position, he did a tremendous amount to introduce metrication into the building industry.
The industry was encouraged by the fact that Government Departments designed in the metric system. It became almost the going thing to do. That is the problem we have to face. If the Government feel that they need to encourage metrication, surely it is not wrong for them to use their purchasing ability to encourage the use of it. The building industry went into it with a great deal of 1444 enthusiasm seven years ago and has been extremely disappointed that more progress has not been made. Several problems have arisen, not least the difference between the metric size for nuts and bolts. Some trouble has been caused in the local ironmonger's shop by the stocking of wrong-sized bolts for nuts.
The problem is what should we do to encourage it and at the same time safeguard the interests of those who would normally purchase goods that have no real export value? My hon. Friend talked about beer. No one will alter the measurement of a pint of beer. Milk is a marginal item. My view is that the pint of milk should stay.
We cannot change over to metrication by M-day. I thoroughly disagree with the Metrication Board that we should hurry this matter. The conclusions that it puts forward are on the basis, "Let's do it quickly, it will be less painful." I do not believe that is so. The way to educate the public in the use of metrication is to have a dual system, in the same way as a country may have a dual language.
Every package should show the two types of weight. Every package should show the relative price of the two weights. That would gradually educate the public. Children are being educated in the metric system and will accept it. In 10 years' time they will talk in metric terms because it is the modern conception, and some of the children will teach their parents.
In an intervention, my hon. Friend asked "What would happen if a brewer produced litres and pints?". The litre may be found in the private bar and the pint may be found in the saloon bar.
§ Mr. Costain
My hon. Friend says, "Snobby", but that is what two languages are. Is it a crime that there should be two different measures in two different bars? As we move into the next century I am worried that we may be considered to be the odd man out. This House owes some encouragement to industry. I agree very much that we have a deep desire to ensure that our constituents, particularly the elderly ones, are not confused by this system. We must be absolutely certain that no advantage is taken of this, as was taken with the decimal system, to increase prices.
1445 That can be done by adopting the dual system and letting it run a long time, as we have done with the thermometer. I do not take any point about the fact that we do not export thermometers. We are beginning to be educated in understanding the system. There must be a great deal more publicity. We must have scales whereby the two systems can be easily recognised. I do not think people of my generation will ever be completely converted, but I do not see why it should be made so impossible for our children to keep up with the modern trends.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)
Although one may agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. A. P. Costain) that it is generally a step forward to go metric, or, if one takes the view of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) that perhaps it is not, the one thing on which everyone will agree is that the metrication story is a lesson on how not to take decisions.
After the television programme last night, to those who still believe that Parliament has a role in taking decisions it may come as a shock to realise that Parliament has never debated metrication fully in the sense of making a decision and has never decided to impose metrication. No metrication Bill has ever clogged up our programme, as did the Industrial Relations Bill. No White Paper has been submitted for a positive decision. Until today, we have only had one full-scale debate on metrication—on 27th October 1970.
I have referred to the HANSARD report of that debate when I was present. It is significant that of the 11 back bench Members who took part, only one, the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) voiced any enthusiasm for the change. Many of us remember, almost with relish, the brilliant way in which the hon. Member for Working (Mr. Onslow) now a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, caught the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) in the middle of a eulogy on how all civilised forward-looking men were going metric, by asking him the simple question, "How tall are you?"
However, in this debate we have made some progress. The speech by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for 1446 Trade and Consumer Affairs calls for immediate clarification on two crucial points. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon rightly says that the important decision we must make is whether we introduce legislation to change the rules on prescribed quantities, on the measures for tea, coffee, flour and cocoa, commodities which must be sold under our present law in prescribed quantities of 6 ozs., 12 ozs., or pounds.
My hon. Friend suggested that we leave those quantities alone for five years, but the Minister clearly said that under the rules which we have now accepted in the Common Market, we can carry on with imperial units only until 1979 and then request permission for them to be continued. But for prescribed quantities there are rules against which we must not discriminate the sale of foodstuffs in metric units in the year 1976.
Parliament and the people are entitled to know, if we cannot decide on this in Parliament, what the scope is for future decision-making. Is the only decision that we can make, as a Parliament, to be whether we change our prescribed quantities, that is, bring metrication into foodstuffs in the shops, in 1974, 1975 or 1976? Is this the full scope of the decision-making we are now entitled to make? We must have a clear answer.
Is Parliament still free to say that it wants to keep the Weights and Measures Acts arrangements until 1978, 1980 or 1982, or is the full scope of our decision-making only that Parliament can make a decision whether the changeover in the shops should be 1974, 1975 or 1976?
The second matter on which we must have clarification is whether the 1979 Common Market rules apply to all imperial measures. My hon. Friend raised an important question about the changeover from the mile. The White Paper was clear about that and said that the mile would continue. But we must consider whether the change must be made in 1979 or must we request permission from the Common Market to carry on after that date? If we can get answers to these two questions, it will help a great deal and the debate will be worth while. What we are entitled to know and what the country should know is whether any estimate has been made of the cost of metrication in limited known areas.
1447 A pamphlet has been issued by the Metrication Board about the cost of going metric in which it says that it is impossible to give a figure. When a remarkably high figure was suggested in a debate in 1970, we were told that it was impossible to cost this change overall.
Replacement by metric machines might occur anyway. What we are entitled to know is what would be the cost in limited respects. For example, if we changed our speedometers and our road signs from miles to kilometres, what would be the cost of that limited change? We are entitled to make the general point, which the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon made tellingly, that there has been no great enthusiasm within industry for the change to metrication.
The CBI document, which I have read carefully, appears to say that if one is to change, if the Government are committed to metrication, we should get it over quickly. That is a separate argument from a group within industry urging a change to metrication because it will save time and money. We have seen no enthusiasm at all.
Let us consider the Government's own industries, for example, the splendid railways, which are always among scientific pioneers. When in its report for 1971 the board was pointing out how everyone was anxious to move to metrication, we had the remarkable admission from British Railways that it fully supported the plan and that its contribution would be to accept parcels in metric units, but on the strict understanding that it would probably then convert the metric weight into imperial measure and charge the customer on an imperial price scale.
The Post Office at that time made its contribution. It said that it did not want to introduce metrication to the posts for parcels and for letters, but would be glad to have post office buildings built in metric because that was Government policy. The Post Office also expressed delight at having components of its existing machines, which were imperial, put in as long as they worked. That was the full extent of the Post Office contribution.
We have the splendid example—always quoted—of the building industry.
1448 The Government know—and my hon. Friend has emphasised this—that the building industry changed largely because of a change in purchasing. It had no option. The Government order a vast number of schools, hospitals, roads, and so on and inevitably that means change, and the Government's power here is important.
If industry is so keen, if industry sees such enormous benefits, why is not industry going ahead and effecting the change? All the indications are that unless there is a specific push, unless there is the push of Government purchasing power, unless the Government declare a whole policy, there is no great enthusiasm for this change.
A number of firms have instanced advantages which they can see in cost terms. We had the GKN example, which did not work out despite being paraded as a great example at the time. We have had Ford's recent statement. From studying these it seems to me that the full cost advantages which they are envisaging come from standardisation, not from metrication.
Has any consideration been given to the protection of the consumer when metrication is applied to spare parts and continuity of service? Three days ago, we put into our own house one of those splendid things called a kitchen fitting halfway round the kitchen. We now want to complete it because, happily, the Government's stabilisation of prices has been more successful than we thought. We expected prices to go up shortly. My wife and I went into Bow's emporium in High Street, Glasgow on Saturday—a real shop, real people—and we said that we wanted to complete the fitting of our kitchen. We were told, "We are very sorry, Mr. Taylor, the firm has stopped making these because it is changing to metric units. You will not be able to get anything for two months and even then we cannot guarantee that they will fit because they may well be a different size." I asked whether the firm would complete production of the old line and the reply was that the line was being discontinued. This is an example of what happened to me in a Glasgow shop, and the salesman will be only too glad to confirm this.
I am a consumer, and I suggest that similar things could happen to many 1449 other people. It was going to happen to the Post Office, because it said that it would be glad to take spare parts for the machine in metric so long as they fitted. The point is, however, that they may not fit. If we are to protect the consumer, it is crucial that someone should investigate what will happen to consumers who want spare parts or modifications and alterations.
Will my hon. Friend take steps to ensure that, if we have to bring metric units to the shops for tea, flour, coffee and all standard foodstuffs, because the Common Market wishes us to do so, whether we like it or not, in 1976, we choose a time when prices are relatively stable?
We must remember that prices rise and fall because of the rise and fall of world food prices, as we are sometimes told, or because the trade unions have been greedy with wages, or because the employers are taking excessive profits, or for other reasons. If we are to ask consumers, particularly elderly consumers, to safeguard themselves against an escalation of prices in metrication, the only possibility of doing this is if one has the changeover at a time when food prices are reasonably stable.
I suggest to the Government, therefore, that if we are to have this change to standard quantities it should be on a day, within a short period, when we are not experiencing an escalation of food prices. I believe that we have made a mistake in not debating this matter at greater length in Parliament and not making a decision. If we are to drive ahead, however, let us ensure that we can take all possible steps to protect consumers from something which will be unpleasant and expensive for them, and something which I believe should be left to the individual decision of individual industries depending on their assessment of the market and exports.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)
I would not necessarily endorse the concluding sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor), although I find myself in agreement with much of what he said. My feelings are with those who oppose this change. I believe that if we allow those feelings to rule our heads, however, 1450 we are being less than wise. We are meeting under the dismal shadow of decimalisation, and it is beyond doubt that decimalisation contributed significantly towards inflation. It contributed more than anything else, because it destroyed our sense of the value of money. This was largely because of the ridiculous unit that was chosen. Had we chosen the 10s. unit I am certain that many of the problems that confront us today would not do so.
I do not believe that I am duller than most people when I go shopping, but I still instinctively think of 30p being 2s.6d., of 40p being 3s.4d., and 60p being 5s. I cannot help it and most people are the same. That situation has been capitalised on by many people and has certainly led to more increases in prices than any other single factor.
§ Mr. Cormack
I will not be drawn by the hon. Gentleman on that issue, because we are not debating the Common Market.
The 2½p packet of potato crisps-6d. for a packet of potato crisps—illustrates in a nutshell, if I may use an inexact metaphor, what I am talking about. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend on the Front Bench will have taken the message that we must not make this mistake again.
I believe that a ghastly mistake was perpetrated. In a sense, if one wanted to be political, one could say that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) was the father of inflation. Nevertheless, the fact remains that we should be acting like a lot of Mrs. Partingtons, trying to brush back the sea with our mops, if we pretended today that we could prevent metrication. We cannot prevent it, and in the context of the Common Market—I will refer to it—which for good or for ill we are in, we must endeavour to obtain the maximum advantages from our entry.
I know that my hon. Friend, the Member for Cathcart, whose views I respect more than almost anybody's in the House on this matter, is above all a realist. If we are to work within the Community, if we are to have all the benefits that I believe membership can bring, the benefits that are potentially ours, then metrication is something that we must have.
§ Mr. Redmond
Has my hon. Friend seen the circular issued on 26th June by the Food Manufacturers' Federation Incorporated? That federation warns us of the dangers of rushing into metrication until the harmonisation within the Common Market is sorted out. In other words it is saying, "For heaven's sake, do not make standard packs now, until we know what we are going to do." We do not want two reorganisations of packaging.
§ Mr. Cormack
I have not read that circular. I should like to see it. Perhaps it has been sent to me among the mass of material sent to all of us during the last few days.
Naturally, I do not advocate a transition tomorrow. I am trying to be realistic. I acknowledge what I believe to be the facts. It is to our advantage to ensure that the matter is managed properly. All the consumer organisations, without exception, I believe—we have had letters from many recently—believe that it is to our advantage.
I do not wish to bore the House with a lot of quotations, but bodies such as the National Federation of Women's Institutes and the National Council of Women have said that this should happen. I make one quotation:Women will cope with the new measures admirably and will appreciate the simplicity it will bringWe should not treat our housewives as a lot of mugs. At the same time we should give them every possible help and assistance. We should make sure that transitions are properly timed, and in that respect I endorse what my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Cathcart and for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) said.
I do not relish the thought of hectares and vanishing miles, and still less the disappearance of the pint. If it were to be replaced by the litre in the lounge bar in Folkestone, the incidence of drunkenness in that fair city would no doubt mount overnight. Although I do not relish those things, in the ordinary household commodities our housewives must become used as quickly as possible to the fact that metrication will come.
Generations of school children are being prepared now to go out into a metric world, into a European metric world. It is not for us to wish that that might not happen. We may have 1452 our doubts. Our elder citizens may regret it, deplore it, and think nostalgically of the days of their youth. But if Britain is to make a success of its European adventure, it is essential that our young people should be educated in this way. It is nonsense to try to create a situation in the future whereby they will not be able to practise what they have learned.
On the question of assistance, I blatantly admit that what I want to refer to is special pleading. This is the subject of unit pricing of which my right hon. and learned Friend made passing mention in his introductory speech. I have never claimed, nor do I claim now, that this is a panacea for all ills and that this will make metrication immediately intelligible to every housewife in the land. That would be nonsense. But it is a small, significant measure that could help enormously. It has been recognised as such both in the document which has already been referred to and by the Consumers' Association which wrote to me on the subject on Friday last week and said:We hope that the Unit Pricing Bill will be completed since we believe that this could be a most useful piece of legislation during metrication.On Friday the House of Commons made a bit of an ass of itself—I am glad to see the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) smiling and nodding. The Bill, which went through Committee last year, ran out of time and did not have full Government blessing and support, this year went through Committee with full Government blessing. On Friday on Report and Third Reading it was ready to go through. Owing to the excessive zeal of an hon. Friend who thought he was objecting to something else, the Bill was blocked.
That illustrates the nonsense of our procedure with Private Members' Bills. But that is another subject which has been admirably touched on this morning in The Times by the right hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton)—[Interruplion.] I will have my say. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) had his say yesterday. He will have it again today. He cannot repeat his record of last year of speaking five times in five days. The Bill can get on to the Statute Book if time is made available, if seconds can be made available, when we 1453 return in October. I sincerely hope that the Government will do that.
§ Mr. Russell Kerr
Were not the events of last Friday, which the hon. Gentleman so deeply deplored, brought on the Government by their own cowardice in the handling of the Bill?
§ Mr. Cormack
I shall not be drawn, and I would not endorse what the hon. Gentleman said. This is a small, useful measure that may help the housewife. It is up to the Government's business managers to find those few seconds of time in October to give the housewife that added help.
I shall heed the requests of my two hon. Friends who oppose metrication to give them a chance to have their say, but I believe that they are trying to turn their faces against the inevitable. We must accept it, we must use the advantages which it will bring, but we must heed the dismal lessons of decimalisation.
§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
Sitting on the Opposition benches and listening to the debate, as I did to the debate, as I did to the previous debate in October 1970, it seems to me that much of the discontent that is expressed by Government back benches comes from the impression that the Government seek to give that they are not doing that they are doing, and that they are not doing what be compelled to do.
The Minister has stated the Government's belief that metrication is ecomically inevitable. I expressed my views on this in 1970 and stand by them now. I, too, take the view that metrication is inevitable. I defended my arguments in detail and I should like to touch on a slightly different aspect of the subject today. I believe that, because of the Government's evasion of the responsibility of stating categorically what their policy is, they are mishandling the changeover and are guaranteeing that it will not be carried out as efficiently as it should be.
As a result of the Government's prevarication, the public are getting the worst of all worlds. There is the confusion of a completely unco-ordinated drift towards metrication without the benefits that metrication could and should bring. The Consumer Council, before its demise, said 1454 that it believed that conversion to the metric system in Britain would be an advantage to consumers. In effect, this is what the Minister said in his opening speech.
It will be hard to convince people that there are advantages for consumers in cost gains when prices are being increased on conversion and when no cost saving is being passed on. For example, the Minister referred to Ford's announcing that its savings were greater than expected. Nevertheless, the price of Ford cars is higher. In many cases industry is responsible for bad public relations.
We all know that world wool prices have risen astronomically during the past couple of years. It infuriates a housewife when she goes to buy wool for her recreational knitting, if it is recreational, to find that she can buy an old imperial skein for 96p and that if she cannot obtain that measurement she must buy the equivalent metric measurement and pay 108p, which is an extra 12 per cent. It may well be that that is purely attributable to the fact that the imperial skein is old stock.
It seems that it is bad public relations for firms to confuse the issue themselves. If there is a legitimate increase they should at least try to separate the issues so that the public might understand that metrication is not of necessity the cause of a price increase.
§ Mr. williams
That is so. I beleive the manufacturers, conscious of the embrassment which they may cause to some of our pleasantly endowed lady citizens, are arranging for the continuation of the old size system—namely 12, 14, 16. I assume that there are etceteras. I do not quite understand the citizens the mysteries of that system but doubt the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) will explain these matters to us if she has the oppurtunity to do so.
It will not be absolutely necessary for the housewife fully to convert to metric measurement. She will be able to use 1455 the old standard. The public is understandably suspicious that it will yet again be fleeced. That is understandable when we consider the record of the last few years. I do not intend to make a political point. I refer to decimalisation as an example. It must be recognised that there is responsibility on both sides. Nevertheless, for two years the public has had to put up with the fiddling associated with decimalisation.
No doubt the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Proudfoot) will make a constructive contribution should he have the opportunity to do so. We look forward to hearing from the hon. Gentleman that decimalisation did not lead to any fiddling. However, the general impression is that it did.
Then there was the first tranche of the abolition of SET. That was gobbled up by business and not passed on to the consumer. This year there was the changeover to VAT. We were told that because of the abolition of the second part of SET and the abolition of purchase tax the consumer would benefit. I believe that the consumer is now somewhat dubious about the value of such promises. With that cumulative experience it is understandable that the public is cynical when politicians say that there will be more gains from metrication.
The Government should say categorically to industry that they will not condone any price increases at the time of conversion unless those increases are attributable to metric conversion. In most cases that should not arise. It should be up to the manufacturers and to the producers to show that any price increases which take place at the time of conversion are attributable to metrication.
The public is not worried only about price increases. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) referred to the matter which I next wish to raise. I am sorry to delay the hon. Gentleman. I should not consider him to be in any way discourteous if he dashes off to post his letter. The hon. The hon. Gentleman referred to the important factor of lack of co-ordination. I came across a similar instance to that which the hon. Gentleman described. I opened a show house for my local authority.
1456 In the house was a beautiful fitted kitchen, but the refrigerator did not fit it. That was because the kitchen units and the refrigerator happened to be one in metric measurement and the other in imperial measurement. Until producers co-ordinate their activities many more people will find similar experiences as a result of producers not working in phase.
The same type of complaint is made about beds. Beds have gone metric but bedding has not. Therefore, it is impossible to get sheets which fit properly or sheets which will stay where they are put. That is a minor irritant but such irritants are important. They help to create unnecessary confusion.
On Friday night, on a BBC programme called "Nationwide", there was an item on metrication. A check had been made on the quantities in which deodorants are supplied. It was found that they came in 28 ccs, 57 grams, 54 ccs and at 54 milligrammes. How on earth will housewife who is trying to choose between varying packs work out which is often there is confusion when the same and then in size and volume, or where there are odd multiplies such as 28 and 54. Such multiplies are not immediately close to the another. Much of the confusion which caused in unnecessary but it is deliberate. That is the infuriating features.
The cosmetic industry is probably more responsible than any other industry. It is an industry with high profit margins. Which has never encouraged a value for money approach. It should be prevented from creating deliberate confusion. In fact, that is what it is doing. That is why the Government should say that when comparable consumer goods are switched to metric measurement they should be switched in a standard unit—that is to say, weight or volume should be quoted. They should also insist that when there are differing sizes of the same product those sizes should be in easy multiples so that there can be comparison of value for money—for example 25, 50, 75 and 100. Odd figures such as 23 and 53, which do not allow direct comparison, should not be allowed. The Government could deal 1457 with such matters to protect the consumer.
There is ample action which the Government could have taken. I suspect that they were afraid of taking such action because to do so would mean taking extra powers. To do so would mean that the Government would have to declare themselves in a way which so far they have tried to avoid. In fact, the Government have worsened the situation. They have wrecked many of industry's plans for a co-ordinated and phased changed. That is why I said that the Government have achieved the worst of all possible worlds.
Already the CBI claim that the target date has slipped by one year. That slippage will add to the cost to the consumer. The CBI in a metrication document says:Difficulties and upsets to timetables are not always apparent to the outside observer; the sectors of industry affected so far are mainly those which produce for industrial customers. The problems therefore are largely internal to industry; the consequences are not. Costs are mounting sharply as the changeover becomes more protracted, as dual working in imperial and metric standards, dual stocking and distribution are prolonged. These increased costs are inevitably reflected in the prices of the products of British industry ultimately reaching the consumer at home and abroad; as the additional costs of metrication beyond the original estimates are unnecessary and unproductive, they are entirely inflationary.What the CBI is saying, and this is from the memorandum which it has submitted to the Government, is that the avoidable delay which has arisen because the Government will not give a clear lead—and frankly I do not see pasta and salt as forming a clear lead—is leading to delays which in turn leads to inflation.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Peter Emery)
If the hon. Gentleman's party were in power would they immediately introduce total metrication?
§ Mr. Williams
By the time that situation arises, and I envisage that the Government will be forced to go to the full in their parliamentary life, we shall be virtually at the point of complete metrication. No one is suggesting that all orders should be placed concurrently. That could cause disruption and it is not what industry asks for.
Examples of the confusion which has arisen in industry as a result of the break- 1458 down of the attempts to achieve coordination abound. The CBI has told of an aluminium-making firm which has recently been forced to re-cut large quantities of new metric stock bar to imperial size at a cost of £100,000. Because suppliers were not co-ordinating their conversions adequately, stockists are unable to supply preferred metric sizes in bolts and their customers are having to use the old Whitworth stock. In another case metric consignments have had to be flown in from Belgium and in another case an entire design had to be redrawn in imperial terms. There are many more examples and no doubt the CBI will present them to the Minister.
The confusion which has arisen is avoidable but it is still spreading. The CBI says:Many firms are therefore abandoning their original timetables and rephasing the changeover with suppliers and customers as best they can, often in isolation from other manufacturers in the same industry with whom their original plans were worked out.It is not surprising that the CBI makes a plea that the first priority should be for the Government to act to restore confidence. It says:Nevertheless, Ministerial statements and action, and at times the lack of them, have caused widespread doubts in industry".The Under-Secretary would find greater support from his own back benchers if he came out clearly for one thing or another. Let us not wander through this labyrinth of confusion and inefficiency. Bear in mind that this has repercusssions which go far beyond the commercial sphere.
Our schools have already started the switch-over to metric teaching. We now have the absurd situation emerging in which children are working on the Government's original time table for conversion to metric measurements while the real world in which they have to spend their money, and order goods, will not be in phase with them. Education has been pushed ahead of the general race of metrication simply because it followed the Government's original advice.
Why have the Government let this drift to confusion take place? The answer is to be found in a maiden speech by the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White) when we first debated this subject 1459 in October 1970, when only one Government backbencher supported the Government. That led to the most peculiar speech from the then Minister for Housing and Construction who tried to look two ways at once and ended up promising a White Paper. That was October 1970. The White Paper emerged 16 months later in February 1972, stating what was already known in October 1970—that the Government were going metric.
Now in July 1973, 17 months later, we have seen no action as promised in the White Paper to ensure early completion of the move to metrication and we have seen no additional steps to protect the consumer. We have had three years of evasive and destructive inaction and at the end of that time all that we get from the Government is an Adjournment debate at the fag-end of a parliamentary Session.
The Government know very well that they do not want a debate in the middle of a busy week when the forces of their back benchers could be mobilised against them. While the Government have played politics on this issue three years have been wasted, vast programmes scrapped and investment plans frustrated.
For example, the British Sugar Corporation bought machinery to carry out metric packaging. That has been in mothballs for nearly a year because the Government will not allow the Corporation to use it. The industry has asked the Government to change the necessary Weights and Measures orders but they will not do so. Small wonder that Tate and Lyle is saying that it will not buy metric machinery until it sees the ink dry on the Secretary of State's signature on the appropriate order.
This is the type of frustration of investment that has resulted from this inaction. The Government are trying, for political reasons, to push off the day, not to avoid it altogether, of eventual implementation of metrication in the key food sectors. Why was it that the orders announced today concerned pasta and salt? The Government know very well that the food industry has said that it will take between a year and 18 months after receiving the go-ahead in the form of the necessary orders for the industry to implement the change to metric packaging.
1460 The Government are deliberately stalling the introduction of these orders until the implementation date falls outside the last dying days of this administration. They have no intention of bringing forward key orders during the early part of next session. They intend to delay until towards the end of the Session in the hope that there will be no implementation before they go to the country.
§ Mr. Williams
We shall wait and see what happens and which prognostication is correct. If the Government arc to go ahead it is becoming critically important that they take strong clear action at once. The CBI has asked them to introduce the necessary Weights and Measures orders. We see that it is not be done other than in peripheral products. The CBI, the TUC and the Consumers Association have all said that they want the transition period to be as short as possible. The Government have indicated the opposite.
§ Mr. Williams
My hon. Friend may say "Hear, hear" but let him bear in mind that every extra year and month during which dual standards are in operation further delays the educational benefit which the Government have alleged will follow as the result of the switch to metrication. The Government should state clearly which goods will be allowed to retain imperial measurements.
We are all delighted that there has been a reprieve for the pint of beer. The same arguments can be adduced for reprieving the pint of milk. Milk is not a matter of major international trade, and industry does not have to change over its bottling plant. The quantity merely becomes a bottle of milk as distinct from a pint of milk. No one can say that allowing milk to continue on sale in its present measures will bring down the whole edifice of metrication.
The Government could easily give an assurance on milk and could give assurances in other sectors where 1461 metrication will go ahead. Those assurances have not come today. Industry is still waiting to know what the Government intend to do. The Government should insist that where industry goes metric it should use identifiable, manageable and intelligible units with simple mutiples so that shoppers can assess value for money. It should apply unit pricing wherever possible.
Metrication is no great mystery, although the name may not mean much to the public generally. When a housewife buys meat, vegetables or fish she buys what quantity she wants at so much per pound. That is all that unit pricing is about. It is not a cause of confusion but a help for the housewife. The Government should demand that when manufacturers are rationalising on the conversion they should keep a flexible range of products available. Great frustration and irritation has been caused, particularly in these do-it-yourself days, by restrictions in the range of sizes of tins of paint that can now be bought in shops.
The Government should scrutinise the prices on conversion to ensure that there is no increase unless it is due to conversion. Equally, savings should be passed to the consumer.
The Government must start a publicity and education campaign for consumers. In the last financial year the Metrication Board submitted to the Government an estimate in two parts for this financial year. The first part referred to a continuation of the existing publicity campaign at industrial level. The Government approved that. The second part of the estimate dealt with the start this autumn of a campaign geared to the consumer. The Government have not authorised that section. That is part of their furtive approach. They are spending money to persuade industry to go metric behind the scenes, but refusing money to the board to alert the public to the fact that metrication is taking place.
Unless the Government agree immediately to release funds, public education will be deferred at least until the end of this financial year. I suspect that the delay is being caused for the same reason as the Minister of Agriculture refused the NFU's programme to introduce metrication in agriculture by 1975.
1462 He insisted that it be deferred until 1976. I suspect that the Government are trying to sweep the whole issue of metrication under the carpet until they have reached the other side of a General Election. It is time for the Government to come clean.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if the Labour Party win the next General Election they will immediately move to metrication? He keeps evading the issue.
§ Mr. Williams
I have already indicated that we would then have a phased movement to introducing the necessary orders.
§ Mr. Williams
Pasta and salt after three years do not make an impressive list. They are not convincing to industry. It is time the Government came clean with the electors and their supporters, including their supporters in the House. The Government know that they are going ahead with metrication to the fullest extent. Why will they not admit that there is no longer any such thing as voluntary metrication? The situation has advanced too far. The question is how long the process is to take and whether it is to be a co-ordinated change or an unco-ordinated shambles, which is what metrication is deteriorating into. The deliberate attempt at stealth and deception fits ill the Prime Minister's pledge at election time to give more open government.
§ 6.2 p.m.
§ Mr. J. C. Jennings (Burton)
When I intervened in the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs to ask what parliamentary enactment would make metrication legal, it turned out to be a crucial question. It was followed by speeches which developed the theme and which rebutted the planned and highly technical answer of my right hon. and learned Friend. In effect he said that legislation was already on the statute book which allowed a dual system to be worked. That is all well and good. But the whole purpose of metrication legislation. however it comes, is the abolition 1463 of the imperial system and complete substitution of a metric system. Let us make no bones about that.
My first plea to the Government is to come clean. We are following in the dismal path of decimalisation. Decimalisation of money has turned out to be the biggest con trick ever perpetrated on the British public. Even those who have consistently supported it now recognise that it has been a major influence on the whole problem of inflation.
We are in similar danger when, in the most insidious manner, in two, three or more years, metrication will be brought in. How? [An HON. MEMBER: "By stealth."] I prefer to say "by insidious methods". It will be introduced in such a way that no decision is taken by the House until we are faced with a fait accompli.
§ Mr. Jennings
I disagree with people who say, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack), that metrication is unavoidable. The House is all-powerful, and the sooner it realises that, the better. If back-bench Members unite on metrication against the two Front Benches they could stop them. It is no good the Government saying that we are powerless. Why have the Government never given us a debate on metrication, followed by a vote? The answer is that they know quite well that they would be defeated and that we should get a sufficient number of Conservative back benchers to vote against them. Therefore, as happened in 1970, so today we have a nice, cosy, comfortable fireside debate for three hours with no vote at the end and no one caring two hoots about what anyone says.
I warn the Government that they have to come clean. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary can shrug his shoulders, but the people who will finally decide are the elderly who will repudiate metrication completely because they will never understand it and because they will be so unhappy and uncomfortable with it. I remind my hon. Friend that they have votes. It will be the housewives who have already learned a lesson from the introduction of decimalisation. I remind 1464 my hon. Friend that they have votes. After all, who was it who put the Conservative Party in office at the last General Election? It was the housewife.
§ Mr. Jennings
We shall have to wait and see. But the Government have to take note of all this.
Why are we having to deal with metrication in full, which is what it will mean in the end? My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock gave the game away on two occasions in the course of his speech. I am sure that he did it quite unconsciously, but he showed a symptom of the disease when he spoke about metrication in the context of the Common Market and then, two sentences later, said that we lived in the European metric world. We hear a great deal about little Englanders. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock is a little European. He speaks of the European metric world. I remind him that others of us think of the whole world.
The real reason why metrication is essential to this Government and to a Labour Government if that party ever forms a Government again is that we are now in the Common Market and it is necessary that we conform to the standards, regulations and directives of the Commission in Brussels.
§ Mr. Redmond
It is outrageous to blame the Common Market. We needed to sell metric products abroad long before we ever thought of going into the Common Market.
§ Mr. Jennings
I My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) has such a short memory. I have such a long one, certainly in this House—
§ Mr. Jennings
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend made me angry. He knows quite well that I am neither an industrialist nor a salesman.
1465 But I have been a teacher of children. I have probably taught them more about the metric system than my hon. Friend has ever known.
That brings me to my next point, which is that the metric system is nothing new. We have heard a great deal about schools and schoolchildren. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock said that our children were coming into a metric world. Years and years ago, when anyone picked up a ruler from a child's desk—
§ Mr. Jennings
—the ruler was made out in inches along one side and in centimetres and decimetres along the other. For years our children have been brought up from infancy with the metric system. It is nothing new. It is argued that we must bring in metrication laws because our schools are now converted to the system. They have always had it.
I represent a town which lives on its sales of beer. The pint is very important to the people of Burton. Is it not a curious facet of logic that the Government should indicate that in bringing in all these foreign measurements they propose to exclude the pint of beer? I wonder why. The answer is that the working man's pint must not be disturbed, because the working man is a powerful voter. His pint at the bar, in the snug or in the lounge must not be disturbed. Therefore, the Government say that they intend to retain the old imperial pint. However, the housewife is a voter too, and she must have her pint of milk. The two are inseparable, and, though I do not suggest that we should ever mix beer and milk, for heaven's sake let us keep them in pint measures.
Those of us who opposed the introduction of decimalisation and who oppose metrication are judged to be old, decrepit, finished, played out and antediluvian. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Proudfoot) grinning. He has used all those words to describe me. I shall not reveal what I have called him. That would be completely out of order.
Those who call us those names are wrong. We have a right to our opinions, and our hearts are not necessarily ruling our heads because some of us are very hard-headed. What is more, in a very 1466 short while we shall be proved absolutely right about the Common Market and other associated matters.
I am not against change, but I am against change for the sake of it. We need gradual development. The final lesson that this House must learn is that for the next few years we do not want to see any more drastic changes of this description. We have had enough with decimalisation. It would be murder to bring in metrication on top of it. We need time to consolidate all the changes that we have had in the past 10 years in order to give the country a chance to settle down and to give our children, housewives and old people a chance to assimilate the changes. In that way we shall have a far more happy and prosperous Britain than we can look to under metrication.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
I do not believe that we should be having this debate at all if the English aristocracy had not stopped Napoleon and his revolutionary army. In one sense it has been a great pity for this country that we have not gone metric many years since.
I do not agree with the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings) that our children have been taught the metric system for many years. The hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) is right to draw attention to the difficulties that exist in our schools. Our teachers are unhappy not because they have to teach the two systems alongside each other, as the hon. Member for Burton once did, but because they are being asked to concentrate upon teaching the metric system. When we were taught both the metric system and the imperial system, for most of us it was the inside of the ruler which we came to think of and to understand. The problem today is that we are teaching our children to think metric, and it is the metric side of the ruler that they most understand. It is because of that that our teachers point out the importance of getting a decision as quickly as possible. It is because of the change of emphasis and of thinking.
If we are to have this second traumatic experience as adults, it is important that we get it over and done with as quickly as possible. The Government should proceed to metrication quickly. They should 1467 take courage in doing that. Some of us on the Opposition side of the House believe that the Government are proceeding towards metrication but are frightened of the backlash of the electorate and of the electorate's reaction to decimalisation. We believe that the Government are proceeding towards metrication but are doing that as quietly as possible and in a way which will be ineffective and will lead to confusion.
Metrication should be entered into very rapidly. Target dates should be set now for most commodities and most goods. The transition should also be as short as possible. There should be maximum publicity to assist people in the transition.
Decimalisation has been unpopular. Many people think that a lot of twisting went along with decimalisation. Many think that small traders took advantage of decimalisation to exploit their customers. I have no doubt that this will happen with metrication as well. But that is no argument for putting off this great step. The Government will simply have to be very careful that, in spite of that disadvantage, they get as many advantages as they can.
One advantage for the housewife for the future would be to go metric in a decimal way. I see that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) looks surprised by that remark, but she will surely recall that the Consumers Association has suggested that we change to metric unit sizes of, for example, 125, 150 and 200 grammes. It would be wrong to translate the present imperial measures into grammes. While we are making the transition let us have a rational system of sizes to operate alongside our rational coinage. Let us make certain that when we go metric we do it as sensibly as possible.
The Consumers Association has suggested that there ought to be unit pricing in milligrammes on any carton after metrication. It would help, too, to have unit pricing in the old imperial measures as well for some time. If cartons have the new metric weights priced in decimal currency, it would help the elderly and housewives to have the price expressed in the old pounds and ounces as well. But that would be a transitional thing.
1468 The issue of the pint of beer and the pint of milk is important. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Burton is not now present. I have wanted to ask those who say that the pint must be defended at all costs whether they have ever met a good drinker who would rather drink a pint than a pint and three-quarters. Resistance to the larger glasses would not be all that great among some of the heaviest and most regular drinkers.
Despite the electoral consequences and the backlash, the Government should take their courage in their hands and say that, unless we go metric in its entirety, we shall merely be storing up problems for the future. If we do not go metric, we shall very quickly have antiquated units of measurement the reasons for which no one will know. The only reason that one would be able to give would be that it was because the politicians were too frightened to face the public and to say that it was better to go metric entirely.
We should also go metric for horse-racing. We should abolish the mile and the furlong. I am sorry, again. that the hon. Member for Burton is not in the Chamber. He represents the area which contains the finest racecourse in England. We should go metric in horse-racing to get rid of the absurdity of having racing weights which can at present be described as wicked. If we changed the distances over which horses ran, we could change the weights at which jockeys ride. The only reason why these weights are retained, as I understand it, is so that old records can be compared.
I hope that the present Government will proceed to metrication as quickly as possible, as I hope that a Labour Government would do. I hope that it is done in a blaze of publicity and that housewives and consumers generally are protected as much as possible. We politicians should take courage and introduce a measure which we know is absolutely inevitable.
§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Redmond (Bolton, West)
I am grateful for the opportunity of speaking immediately after the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), if only to say that I could not care less about the length of racecourses so long as we can keep the six-ball over in county cricket and the eight-ball over in Lancashire league cricket.
§ Mr. Redmond
Exactly. We want to keep that as well.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme took part in this debate. I was glad to see some members of the Opposition in the Chamber. This is one of the most important subjects which affect the consumer and every individual. In talking about community politics, one could also ask where the representatives of the Liberal Party are. I hope that the electorate of Ripon and Ely will note that point.
When I spoke in the debate in October 1970 I felt that I had taken part in getting the Government to publish a White Paper. That White Paper took a very long time to arrive, but when I saw it I thought that it was an excellent document. What I felt that it was saying was that we were proceeding with metrication with some caution and perspective.
It was the comedienne Eartha Kitt who used to sing a song with the words "Proceed with caution but, lover, please proceed." I thought that was the Government's attitude towards metrication.
Why has it taken all this time to have another debate, and why do not the Government seek approval for the White Paper? As the result of the Government's failure to get approval for the White Paper, those who are solidly opposed to metrication say that the whole thing is being done by stealth and without parliamentary approval. This debate will make no difference to them. The Government are therefore making a rod for their own back by not having moved a motion. This is a continual excuse provided for those who will say that Parliament has debated metrication many times. They say rightly that Acts of Parliament of 1864 and 1897—I think that those were the dates mentioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister—made metrication legal for most purposes.
Therefore, the result is a metric muddle which I have been complaining about for a long time. At 7 o'clock tonight—or should I say 1900 hours—the White Paper will still not be approved and Parliament will have got no further. Equally, the contents of the White Paper will be unknown and we shall lose an opportunity to wipe out so much of the muddle 1470 which arises because the terms of the White Paper are not known.
What annoys me is that there are whizz kids going round saying that Britain is being dragged kicking and screaming into the metric system. But the vast majority of the public, particularly housewives, in their capacity as consumers do not want to know. I am not talking about their business lives.
We all know in our hearts that we adopted what is just about the wrong decimal currency. It has put up the cost of living, and now everyone suspects every change. I did not agree with those who advocated the 10-shilling unit. I was brought up to believe that if one looked after the pennies, the pounds would look after themselves, and I favoured having 100 old pennies in the pound. This would have meant no increase in the cost of living.
People will never be convinced that metrication will not raise the cost of living. I do not agree with those who talk about organisations having carried out surveys which show that there is no widespread resistance to change. It is also claimed that a large number of changes have taken place without problems. I wish some of the people who say this would come to Bolton and let me introduce them to some of the real people of this country who would say what they think about metrication.
We have been dealing in large measure with consumer aspects. I should like to deal with the industrial aspects of metrication. Not enough is said about this. There was a report the other day in the Daily Express about a firm called Brook Motors. The newspaper quoted the firm as stating:If we had not gone metric, it would have been practically impossible to sell our motors in Europe.That is fine. It is also common sense. Brook Motors, the Metrication Board and the Government may like to know that I was selling electrical goods in Europe long before the Metrication Board was ever thought of and before the former noble Lord the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) set up the board or thought about it.
Because I have a metric electric motor in my factory or because my wife's vacuum cleaner is driven by a metric 1471 motor, that is no reason for me to buy petrol in litres or my sugar in kilogrammes, or measure my tyre pressures in centigrammes per centilitre, which do not mean a thing to me.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings) said that he had taught more people about the metric system than I have and then he mentioned decimetres, which do not exist in SI units. We are supposed to use these units if we go metric.
§ Mr. Jennings rose—
I received a delightful letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery), in which he stated
A preference is expressed for the use of units in powers of three from the base unit.Of course everyone understands that. But it is not a preference; until the other day, I had always understood that it was the law of SI units. The system meant that measures of length went from millimetres to metres to kilometres.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) mentioned, there was in the early days of the Metrication Board a picture of a nubile young lady whose vital statistics were said to be 960–560–960. It now looks as though someone has changed all this. The Under-Secretary went on to state in his letter:It is neither correct in terms of SI units, nor helpful in practice to seek rigidly to impose this discipline.In other words, it seems that centimetres were out but are now in again. This means that the young lady in question must be 96–56–96, if she will admit it.
The main implication is that, unless we adopt the metric system, we will lose export orders. I do not accept this. I cannot see how I help the export trade by buying loose toffees out of a jar in 100 or 125 grammes instead of quarter pounds. The manufacturers' trade association concerned had a discussion with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Metrication Board to decide whether the standard weight of loose toffees weighed out in a shop should 1472 be 100 grammes or 125. A toffee manufacturer in my constituency said "Stick out for 125 grammes, because if it was 100 I would sell fewer toffees".
Shirt manufacturers are now marking collars in centimetres. The other day I saw two shirts in a shop window in Bolton. Both shirts were marked "Made in England" and the sizes were 15½ in. or 39 cm. and 14½ in. or 37 cm. This suggests that 1 cm. is half an inch, which it is not. This might be near enough over the range 14½ to 15½ but what happens over the range 14 to 17, as could happen? Beside the two shirts in the shop window was a sports sweater, made in France according to the label and marked "Size 38 in.".
The most important problems will arise in food sales. Along with most hon. Members I have a copy of the report of the Consumer Safeguards Group of the Metrication Board. I wish I had time to deal with it at length but it refers to 260 organisations ranging from adhesives manufacturers to zip fastener manufacturers. Paragraph 2.6 on page 6 states:For example, a kilogram bag of sugar will contain roughly 31 ozs more than the present 2 lb bag.That means that the standard bag of sugar will increase in content by about 10 per cent.
Last Saturday, in a supermarket in my constituency, I checked the price of a 2-lb. bag of sugar. It was 10p. If we are to have another 10 per cent. of sugar, presumably the new bag will cost 11p. When that happens, my wife and all other wives will say that a bag of sugar has gone up by 1p. It may be claimed that people are getting more sugar but this will be no good, particularly if the housewife does not want any more sugar than 2 lb.
The report says that there may be a few cases in which the metric bags are slightly smaller than the corresponding imperial bags. I do not know what they are, because grammes usually round up to half-kilograms, but, if this happens and the price comes down, my wife and all other wives will say "We are getting less for our money".
In the present climate of opinion I suggest to the Government that they are on a hiding to nothing if they bring in the measures that have been suggested. I 1473 referred in an intervention to a letter from the Food Manufacturers Federation. The letter makes a plea for caution and suggests that the change should not be rushed. It also suggests that the industry should wait for harmonisation in the Common Market and not bring in its own standard packs until then, and that the industry could not afford to have two changes.
As has been said today, the CBI is worried because it does not know what Government policy is. It wants to tell its members what to do. I can tell the Government what to say to the CBI and what the CBI should say to its members. I hope the Government will say that they stand by the White Paper and that industry has an important task—to consider its customers and to give them the service they want.
If there is a divergence of view between one set of customers in England and another set somewhere else, it is for industry itself to decide which group should be educated. Industry must do its own marketing and should not expect the Government to do its dirty work for it. If parliamentary authority is needed for the British Sugar Corporation to bring in kilogramme bags, let us give it the authority, but the Government should not be blamed for telling industry that it has to sell sugar in kilogramme bags instead of 2-lb. bags. This is where the whole system is going wrong; industry should be using its own initiative.
We are told that today's schoolchildren know only metric. That is poppycock. They may learn kilogrammes at school, but they learn pounds at home. Kilogrammes are something that happens at their desks; pounds are real things that their mothers are dealing with and they are handling all the time.
Some years ago I was sitting in an office in Copenhagen during a sales trip when my customer had a telephone call. After a short conversation in Danish, he put down the telephone and said "This country went metric in 1912, before my wife was born, but she has just asked me to pick up a pound of butter on the way home." For heaven's sake let us approve the White Paper and let industry get on with looking after its customers as it should.
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)
I have been somewhat saddened to hear so many of my hon. Friends discussing not so much how and when we should bring in metrication, as if or if not to bring it in.
I think that in the interests of consumers it is more profitable for the House to discuss how and when because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack), I believe it is inevitable, and I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) went into some detail in discussing the merits and demerits of how the transitional period should be handled.
One of the fundamental errors propagated during the debate was that our advance towards metrication was the result of our entry into the EEC. In July 1968 the Labour Government decided to accept the recommendation for the setting up of the Metrication Board quite independently of any decision to go into Europe. The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), in what has become his characteristic role of the ostrich walking round with its own bucket of sand, said:Any costs would have to lie where they fell. It was not a Government change, and the Government would certainly not subsidise it.I do not think that anybody, in view of the demands that have come from both sides of the House for Government money to be spent on publicising metrication and ways in which consumers can more easily make comparisons, would agree that that would be an acceptable situation today.
I certainly join my right hon. and learned Friend in paying tribute to the Consumer Safeguard Group of the Metrication Board for the excellent report that it has put out. I think that we should pay more attention to its recommendations than possibly to some other matters. I think that the views of most consumer organisations and interested bodies coincide almost exactly with the views of Macbeth:If it were done when 'tis done, then' there wellIt were done quickly".1475 I am not suggesting that we are about to do a foul deed, if we are about to do it at all. I am merely saying that there is considerable apprehension and I should like to discuss one or two points that have been raised in the Consumer Safeguard Group's Report.
I am disappointed that the Unit Pricing Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock has not been introduced. In its conclusions the Consumer Safeguards Group made it clear that it was highly desirable that unit pricing should be used, especially during the transitional period.
The Group also made the important point, which has been ignored by those who spoke on behalf of industry, that standardised units of weights and measures should be used by all producers of any one product, particularly during the transitional period, and that during that period the time when imperial weight comparisons are shown should be very short.
The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme asked whether a comparison of imperial and metric weight could be shown on the same packet. I was told, and I accept, that this would not be practicable because it would involve a proliferation of numbers after the decimal point which would be even more confusing than metric weight itself. I was not surprised that the hon. Gentleman talked about decimalisation, because when making a metric calculation one uses the decimal system.
However, it never ceases to surprise the rest of the world that we are the only country that has moved to a decimalised system of money that includes a fraction. If there is any anomaly, this is it. Metrication would provide a golden opportunity to move towards standardised or prescribed quantities which are already quite familiar to many people who have shopped in Europe, and we must recognise that many people in all walks of life now go abroad for their holidays.
One important point not mentioned by any hon. Member which I should like to bring to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend is that, whatever prescribed quantities he may have in mind for the eventual movement to 1476 metric weights, pensioners need to buy their food in small quantities. This is very important, for example, concerning milk in litres. The prescribed quantities in the EEC allow for smaller units in most other cases.
Having accepted that it is inevitable that we shall go metric, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to consider doing it in two phases. First, we could go metric with regard to measurement, including liquid measurement. However, I suggest that for the second phase we have metric weight at a future date when the climate not only of opinion but of experience with prices is such that it would not be as totally unacceptable to the housewife as it is today because, with the best will in the world, this could not be achieved by this or any other Government or by manufacturers, who have no wish to swindle the public, without confusion and rounding up resulting.
I will give one example. The excellent table in the Consumer Safeguards book gives a comparison which it is suggested should be displayed on packets. For example, it compares the price of a 1 kilogramme pack with a 2 lb. pack. An interesting comparison is that a I kilogramme pack would be 10½p whereas a 2 lb. pack would be 10p. Taking that a stage further, a 500 grammes pack would be 44p and a 250 grammes pack, which is a familiar unit of weight in this country, would be 2ip. That would inevitably result in rounding up. I cannot imagine a manufacturer or retailer rounding down in that case.
§ Mr. Maude
I do not know whether my hon. Friend has noticed that in the other table which compares the price per pound with the price per 500 grammes, rounding up or down to the nearest half penny produces wild discrepancies in the lower-priced commodities. The differences are enormous in some of them. That cannot be considered as anything but confusing.
§ Mrs. Oppenheim
I have noticed this with some concern. If one goes on bringing down these kilogramme packs to 250 grammes packs one gets anomalies such as 2.125p. Will that end up as 2p or 2–1p? I do not think that anyone disputes that rounding up will take place. Therefore, we shall have to progress not down but up the road to metrication.
1477 Therefore, I should like us to progress first towards metric measure, even including liquid measure, as long as prescribed unit quantities were small enough for pensioners. However, I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to consider postponing metric weight not for electoral or vote-catching reasons, but in the interests of consumers.—[Interruption.] I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that they are politicians, but I hope that some of us have the interests of consumers at heart as well as the catching of votes. I do not think that it is in the interests of consumers in this country to move to metric weights in the foreseeable future because it is impossible to guarantee that this could take place without rounding up, further inflation and confusion.
I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will consider the constructive arguments that have been put forward when he decides about our progress either to metric measurement or metric weight and will pay particular attention to the widespread apprehensions throughout the country which have been expressed in this Chamber today.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Peter Emery)
This has been a short debate and we have had quite a number of speeches. I congratulate hon. Members on the shortness of speeches, which has certainly helped with the debate. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) for intervening now because I know that he wished to speak, but it is right and proper in winding up the debate that I should attempt to answer as many questions as possible.
I begin with the suggestion by a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Burton (Mr. Jennings), for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) and for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White), that the Government are trying to proceed to metrication by stealth, by pulling the wool over people's eyes or without coming clean.
I remind the House what the Government have said quite specifically. Paragraph 18 of the White Paper says
The move to metrication has been taking place over many years, but the Government believe that the time has now come when they must act to ensure the orderly completion of 1478 the process. In doing so they will not hesitate to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the consumer during the period of changeover and to reduce to a minimum any difficulties which the introduction of the new system may cause.At the end of paragraph 32 the White Paper continues:The Government in any case regard it as most desirable in the interests of our economic properity that the maximum practicable progress towards the metric system should he made within the next few years.It is not unreasonable to say that that is putting the Government position absolutely clearly, without prevarication, stealth or anything hidden.
During 1972 the Government introduced the Building Regulations 1972 which substituted metric units for imperial in almost every aspect of building. The Thermal Insulation (Industrial Buildings) Regulations 1972 did much the same. The Weights and Measures Amendment Regulations 1972 on tolerance limits for weighing machines which are recalibrated on conversion to metric units were also introduced. The School Premises (General Requirements and Standards) Regulations 1967 and the Import Duties (General) (No. 7) Order were others. These orders brought forward aspects of metrication quite openly and positively. It is a little strange that hon. Gentlemen should say that the Government have been trying to hide matters and have not been frank with the House.
§ Mr. Emery
That is a fair question. Of course the Government could have done that. But it is not every White Paper that is approved by the House. There have been a number of opportunities for metrication to be debated if hon. Members wished. While I accept that the point made by my hon. Friend is fair, it is also fair that I should make clear the number of times when the Government have made known their policy.
It is also important that we should deal specifically with the points about public sector purchasing. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) both suggested that the construction industry was forced to change to metrication because 1479 of public sector purchasing policy. That is not the case, and it is right that I should say so.
The industry asked for Government support for its programme. The Government agreed to give the lead through designing new projects in metric terms. It is important to say that Government and public sector purchasing could have been used to pressurise many parts of industry into a premature change to the metric system before the optimum time for industry as a whole. The White Paper intentionally eschewed that course.
The Government's objective was and is that public sector purchasing should, save in a few exceptional cases, change over in line with industry's own progress. In our view, that is the most economical way of doing it. However, the principal obligations must rest with industry to ensure that public sector buyers are aware of industry's readiness to supply in metric.
I should like to point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Burton and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) that I, too, am concerned about metrication. I was a director of an institute before I was a Minister. I know that back in 1960 the pressure from people concerned with purchasing in industry was to urge the Government to go faster for their own benefit. I want to make this quite clear: they believed that it would generally be to the advantage of industry.
Industrial stocks in Britain are already too high as a result of the duality of the imperial and the metric system. The Institute of Purchasing and Supply estimated that stocks were as much as 50 per cent. greater than those of other developed industrial countries of comparable size because of this problem. It is clear that improvements in inventory management will be of no avail and costs will be increased if dual stocks have to be held longer than necessary.
It has been suggested that industry will not benefit by turning to metrication. That has been, and is now being, contradicted by nearly every reputable expert and everybody who has studied this matter, including the Metrication Board, the CBI and many of the professional organisations.
1480 The hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) suggested that we should automatically accept what the CBI says and do it immediately. That is not, has not and will not be the approach of the Government. We believe that long-term consumer protection is of major importance in metrication.
§ Mr. Alan Williams rose—
§ Mr. Emery
I have only five minutes. If I have misrepresented the hon. Gentleman, I immediately withdraw.
The consumer aspect of protection must be to ensure that consumers can make comparisons, which are the most important part of shopping. Comparisons when consumers use a single system that is easily understood and accepted by most organisations are of considerable assistance to consumers.
I want to refer to some of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim). In protecting the consumer, we frequently forget the old, the blind, the deaf and other categories of disadvantaged persons who have their own special difficulties in adapting to change, as they will have with change to the metric system.
The Metrication Board, in collaboration with the voluntary bodies concerned, is working out how these people can effectively be helped. The board has stated clearly that when any special needs of each class of person have been identified it intends to share with voluntary bodies the job of developing specially designed aids to meet their needs. The small quantity argument, as put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, is immediately accepted.
The matter of spare parts, as raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart, is not a new problem, and it is not associated only with metrication. It is associated with standardisation and rationalisation, and it has been associated with the changeover of lines from one type of production and one type of new unit to another. It is wrong to try to suggest that this is something that came about because of metrication even though in the case instanced by my hon. Friend it did. This is nothing new, and it is not a problem that can be put at the door of metrication.
1481 The leading consumer and women's organisations recognise that the change to metrication must come. For example, the Consumer Standards Advisory Committee of the British Standards Institute said:BSI and its Women's Advisory Committee … have consistently represented to the Government the disadvantages of living with two measurement systems for an indefinite period.Such a permissive policy is confusing to the consumer and to the supplier, discouraging to schools and an inevitable brake on industrial progress to full metric working … the change would be of real value in the home, on the High Street and in the schools.The committee has no doubt that women will cope with the new measures admirably and will appreciate their simplicity. That was from a woman's organisation about the way in which women will cope with this particular matter.
In conclusion, I emphasise that the Government recognise the need to strike a balance in their approach to metrication. The Government and I consider and recognise the two strident different views that have been put forward in the debate. The consumer's position must be safeguarded. In large sections of the community—they are in my own constituency just as they are in the constituency of hon. Members who have spoken—there is a natural aversion to changing from what is well known and 1482 what has given service in the past to something new, but few people deny that the metric system, when understood and established, will be simpler for the consumer.
The Government believe that, with thorough study and preparation, the problems for the consumer in the period of transition to metric measurements can and will be overcome, and that information and education is imperative to this end. We do not believe that ensuring safeguards for the consumer is inconsistent with progress towards metrication. Education and protection can go hand in hand with a rate of advance which should be acceptable to industry generally.
The drive to get the change accepted is very much within the hands of industry. but as a background management should know that the Government are firm in their resolve that the benefits and savings brought about by a metric structure within industry should quickly accrue to enlarge our exports, to increase our competitiveness and to strengthen our efficiency. All those are necessary adjuncts to the growth that this nation needs above everything else to bring benefits to industry, to consumers and, indeed, to the nation as a whole.
§ Motion. by leave, withdrawn.