House of Commons had a late-night debate on 14 March 2001, regarding metric
regulations that would prohibit, from 31 December 2009, the use of non-metric
information. The debate is reproduced here in full:
David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): I beg to move,
That the Weights and Measures (Metrication Amendments) Regulations
2001 (S.I., 2001, No. 85), dated 16th January 2001, a copy of which was laid
before this House on 17th January, be revoked.
House now proceeds to scrutiny of an important regulation touching on the
subject of metrication. Our objection to the regulations
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. Would hon. Members leaving the
Chamber please do so quietly?
Heathcoat-Amory: Our objection is that the regulations mark another stage in
the Government's determination to drive out pounds, ounces and other familiar
imperial units of measurement, and to replace them with an enforced metrication
policy, even when that is unnecessary and unwanted. The background to the
regulations is that in 1999 the Government ended the permitted sale of loose
goods - fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and so on - in pounds and ounces. From
31 December 1999, it became a criminal offence to sell those loose goods in the
familiar units that we had used for so long. That has led to the absurd
prosecution of a market trader, Mr Thoburn, in Sunderland. His only crime, it
is alleged, is that he is selling fruit in pounds and ounces. The court case is
costing tens of thousands of pounds. It is still under way, and we await the
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does my right hon. Friend share my
perplexity about the matter? Some people might consider it a modern thing to
use systeme internationale d'unite measures, but the United States uses pounds
and ounces in NASA space probes, as well as miles, feet, inches and square
yards in other circumstances. Can my right hon. Friend understand what the
Government's motive could be for abandoning historical units of measurement
such as pounds and ounces in favour of metrication? Metrication is popular in
Europe, but it is not understood here.
Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend is right to give the United States as an
example of a country that uses imperial measurements. However, I do not think
that they are called imperial units there; rather, they are known as
non-metric, or even English, units. Indeed, in some cases in the US, there has
been a reversion to such units and away from metrication. My hon. Friend asks
why the Government are so intent on metrication, and I confess my bafflement on
Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): The Government
have had to address the issue because, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows,
the previous Government signed up to metrication time and again, and
reconfirmed as much in this Chamber, time and again.
Heathcoat-Amory: That is not quite the case, as my remarks will show. Doubtless
the Government will try to blame everything on everyone but themselves, but in
this case it will not work. The point that I was developing leads on from the
intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). It is
that the metrication process has nothing to do with consumer rights or the
protection of consumer interests. In the case of Mr. Thoburn and his sale of
fruit and vegetables in pounds and ounces, it is neither suggested nor alleged
that he was in any way misleading his customers. Quite the reverse, he was
serving his customers in the units they asked for; he was not short-changing
them in any way. In the market in Sunderland, there were many other outlets.
There is choice in a market, by definition. If he was doing something that his
customers disapproved of, they could easily buy their produce from somebody
else. He would lose business if he was thought to be imposing his values on an
unwilling public. He and his customers were simply exercising choice, and the
Government are now denying them that choice.
Gordon Prentice (Pendle): The right hon. Gentleman refers to the Thoburn case.
Am I right in thinking that the genesis of the regulations can be traced back
to 1989 and the European Council of Ministers, whose United Kingdom
representative was the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), now foreign
affairs spokesperson for the Conservative party?
Heathcoat-Amory: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is getting this slightly
wrong. My right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) obtained for
this country an extension of the rights of traders to continue to use imperial
measurements. This Government failed to do that in 1999, so the guilt lies on
the Government Benches rather than ours.
Howells: I would not want the right hon. Gentleman to mislead the House. Why
does he not simply admit that the Government of whom he and the right hon.
Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) were members signed up to metrication and then
managed to obtain a 10-year extension which would enable traders to put
supplementary measurements on each weighing scale? That is precisely what we
did the year before last.
Heathcoat-Amory: I am afraid that the Minister cannot avoid responsibility in
that way. These prosecutions are proceeding because in 1999 the Government
failed to extend the right to use imperial units in trade in loose goods. We
obtained that extension in 1989, that is a matter of record. The Government did
not even try to obtain an extension in 1999. I have a helpful written answer
from the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and
Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who is in his place. The hon. Gentleman said: "The
Government have not discussed the derogation for goods sold loose with Members
of the European Commission."--[Official Report, 8 July 1999; Vol. 334, c.
583W.] The Government did not even discuss the matter, let alone ask or insist.
An extension of this right could easily have been obtained. The original
directive was negotiated by the Labour Government in 1979. It includes the
"Whereas the laws which regulate the use of units of measurement in
the Member States differ from one Member State to another and as a result
hinder trade; whereas, in these circumstances, it is necessary to harmonize
laws, regulations and administrative provisions in order to overcome such
is clear from that preamble that the entire rationale was built on the premise
that the use of imperial measurement hindered trade. However, Mr. Thoburn and
his market trader colleagues in Sunderland are not engaging in international
trade. How can it possibly be said that the sale by a market trader in some way
infringes the rules and regulations of international trade? It is preposterous.
Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Does it not go even further than that? If it
was a question of concern for international trade, and a trader insisted on
using a unit of measurement that was not acceptable to potential customers on
the continent, he would not be able to trade. People trade in the measurements
that their customers want.
Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend is right. Trade exists by satisfying customers.
Someone who supplies goods in units that are inconvenient or are not understood
will not sell them. People do not need bureaucrats or central Government to
tell them that. It is much better to leave such matters to normal commercial
intercourse at market level.
Gordon Prentice: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Heathcoat-Amory: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I want to
domestic sale of loose goods has no single market implications and does not
affect other member states in any way. It is a purely domestic matter and
therefore falls under the subsidiarity requirement, which is now written into
the treaty of Rome, as amended. Respect for subsidiarity is insisted upon, so
if the Government had asked in 1999 whether United Kingdom traders should
continue to use pounds and ounces for domestic trade, no case whatever would
have been made against the proposition, which would have been allowed.
has been mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham succeeded in
obtaining a further derogation when he applied for one. The same would apply in
respect of many units of measurement. It may interest the House to be reminded
that some imperial measurements have indefinite extensions. They include the
mile and the acre, and pints of milk can still be sold in returnable bottles.
The use of such measurements is still permitted because the Government and the
European Union know perfectly well that if they insisted on abolishing them in
favour of metric measurements, the public would not accept their decision. The
principle is already established. When it is convenient for the public to
continue to use traditional imperial measurements, they are allowed to do so.
Will the Minister clarify, however, whether those extensions are indefinite?
Could we be required by majority voting to abolish the mile, the acre and the
pint in due course?
Christopher Leslie (Shipley) rose--
Heathcoat-Amory: I give way to the jack-in-the-box on the Government Benches.
Leslie: How cruel; I am not sure that I can recover from that remark. The right
hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) was responsible for pushing through
approval of European Community document No. 4102/89 in April 1989. During
debate on the document, which welcomed metrication proposals, he said that
pounds and ounces would be able to continue only "until the end of the
century." [Official Report, 11 April 1989; Vol.150, c. 839.] Does that sound
like an indefinite period to the right hon. Gentleman?
Heathcoat-Amory: If the hon. Gentleman investigates the matter slightly more
carefully, he will see that the derogation negotiated by my right hon. Friend
applied until the end of the century. He probably anticipated that a less
feeble Government would be in power when it ran out and that they would listen
to what the public wanted and have the determination to do what he had done and
obtain a further extension.
Fabricant: Many five-year derogations have been renewed by Conservative
Governments. On another matter, is my right hon. Friend aware that 74 per cent
of the British public said in a recent survey that they wanted to keep imperial
units? Is not that the motivation of Mr. Thoburn and others who want to provide
what their customers want?
Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend is right. Politicians and Governments have
previously been ahead of the public in their insistence on replacement of some
measurements. It has become apparent to everyone - or at least to Opposition
Members - that the public do not want the regulations. We live not only in a
democracy but in a society in which consumers should be consulted and listened
to. If affection remains for a familiar unit of measurement, the House should
listen to people's concerns and withdraw a forced and artificial switch that is
simply not required. The United States has done that, and we are asking the
Government to listen in exactly the same way.
Ian Stewart (Eccles): Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the gentleman
whom he mentioned earlier, Mr. Thoburn, is breaking the law?
Heathcoat-Amory: It is not for me to assume the role of a judge. Moreover, as
the matter is sub judice, it would be highly improper of me to do so. However,
if the hon. Gentleman wants to pre-judge the case, that could be an extension
of Labour policy whereby we hear the verdict first and the evidence afterwards.
I thought that we might confine that sort of legal procedure to "Alice in
Wonderland". The law is oppressive, and the responsibility for that entire
prosecution and its attendant expense lies firmly with the Government for
failing to obtain that extension of the permitted use of imperial measures in
1999, as I have already described.
Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East) rose--
Heathcoat-Amory: It is perfectly true--
Fabricant: Give way to Metric Mary.
Heathcoat-Amory: The hon. Lady is so charming, I shall give way.
Prentice: The right hon. Gentleman voted for the provision in April 1989 on the
basis that it was "providing adequate transitional periods to enable businesses
and consumers to adapt".--[Official Report, 11 April 1989; Vol. 150, c. 837.]
Why is he doing a U-turn now?
Heathcoat-Amory: Because we are listening to what the public want. We obtained
a 10-year derogation, and it was never envisaged that that would necessarily be
the end of the matter. Is the hon. Lady seriously advancing the proposition
that one Parliament can bind its successor? Is she supposing that a decision
taken 10 years ago was valid for all time, even when it was deliberately
time-limited? Is she advancing that extraordinary proposition? If so, she
should make her position clear. I turn now to the details of the present
Mr. Stewart: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Heathcoat-Amory: I gave way to the hon. Gentleman earlier. I hope that he will
catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that we can hear his views at
greater length, because I think that Labour Members have some explaining to do
on this matter. Under the regulation before the House, to which I shall now
turn in some detail, the Government are seeking to go further than the
provision that I have just described, by bringing to an end the permitted dual
pricing. At present, imperial measurement can be used in what the directive
calls "supplementary indicators". That is, imperial equivalents to metric units
can be shown, provided that they are less prominent and used secondarily to the
metric units. That is the established law. The Government are now announcing an
end to that, in the regulation. As well as ending sales in imperial units in
1999, the Government are now going further by removing the right to show
imperial units at all.
might be asked - this is a matter for the Minister to answer - why anyone needs
permission to display helpful additional information in this way. The answer
could be that, under the system of law that governs these directives, we now
need positive permission to do something. Under the traditional legal system
that has been in place for centuries, we have always taken the view that we
could do what we liked - it was assumed that we had total freedom - unless
something was expressly prohibited. However, it now appears, instead, that it
is assumed that we can do nothing unless it is expressly allowed. That is the
continental legal tradition, and it is now being incorporated into these metric
regulations. Thus it will be forbidden for a trader to put any helpful
additional information about imperial measures under the metric sign. That will
become illegal, which is a most extraordinary proposition as well as a serious
infringement of liberty. I ask the Minister to address the point.
other interesting fact about the regulation is that supplementary indications -
the term describes permission to show imperial units as well - are permitted
under EU law, not to help shoppers, which has never been a consideration, but
so as not to damage EU exports. I return to the point raised by my hon. Friend
the Member for Lichfield. America has not gone metric in the way originally
predicted and willed by the EU Commission, but it has reversed the mandatory
use of metric measurements in federal contracts, revoking that law. Indeed,
many states are moving away from metric altogether. I am advised, for example,
that Louisiana, Missouri and Illinois scrapped kilometres on road signs in
1998, bringing to 18 the number of states that have reverted to using miles.
Through great swathes of the United States, there is movement away from using
Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): May I point out to my right hon. Friend that
that more open-minded attitude to weights and measures, which are a matter that
should be left entirely to the choice of the client and the supplier, also
extends to certain European countries? Is he aware that the leather trade in
Italy uses three square feet--the Lombard foot, the Tuscan foot and the
Neapolitan foot? Many Italian suppliers use square metres, but in export
markets they leave the matter entirely to the choice of the customer.
Heathcoat-Amory: Exactly. Even countries that have used metric measurements for
many years sensibly permit the use of other units of measurement where that is
convenient for industry, trade and customers. I am afraid that, throughout
history, Governments and politicians have pressed metrication on others, even
if it is not wanted and even if it takes away choice. That has been recognised
in the United States, which is moving away from that system. Significantly, EU
firms that export goods to America are not allowed to sell in that market in
metric-only markings. They must show imperial and metric markings. To
acknowledge that fact and the concerns about the damage that will be caused to
industry by having to run two production systems--one metric only, the other
using dual markings--the EU has responded by permitting sellers of pre-packed
goods to continue to use dual markings, even when they sell in the EU. That has
also been extended to loose goods and, indeed, every other good. Even though
dual-use markings were not introduced for the convenience of shoppers and
traders, they are still permitted and will continue to be so.
Even more bizarrely, although that permission was extended to the end
of the previous century by an EU derogation, the Government did not even apply
for a parallel derogation for domestically traded loose goods when that was
clearly required by our own people. In other words, international organisations
and companies in the EU obtained a derogation because that was convenient for
them and important to their marketing to the United States, but the Government
sat on their hands and did not even ask for an equivalent derogation for the
permitted use of imperial-only measurements for loose goods traded in markets
such as that in Sunderland. That shows the feebleness and illogicality of the
Government's position. I want the Minister to say why the derogation and the
regulation apply only up to 2009. The explanatory notes describe that as a
final date. Why, having banned the use of imperial measures for the pricing and
selling of loose goods, are the Government still so intent on banning
supplementary labelling as well? Why are they so sure that the United States
will fall into line? We can easily imagine circumstances in which, as we
approach 2009, the United States persists in its use of imperial measures. We
shall have to go through all this again. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us:
did he argue for a longer period? Did he, indeed, argue for an indefinite
extension? If not, why not? Cannot we all now see that the public are attached
to the continuing use of imperial units? Why, then, should it be made illegal
to display such information from a certain finite date, which the regulations
call a final date? Why are the Government so intent on taking away this
freedom? We all know that they are an interfering, regulatory Government, and
that they are extremely reluctant to challenge any proposal from the European
Ian Stewart: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Heathcoat-Amory: No. We also know that the Government are in a complete muddle
over their metrication programme. That is clear from the ludicrous persecution
of a market trader in Sunderland. Why do the Government not do something right
for a change? Why do they not at least permit the indefinite use of imperial
units alongside their metric equivalents? Why do they not put a stop to this
metric madness, start listening to the public and start standing up for
freedom? Unless we get some very good answers to those questions, we will
certainly oppose the regulations.
Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): I welcome the
opportunity to explain the regulations--[Hon. Members: "Oh no you don't!"] Oh
yes I do. The regulations were made under powers conferred by the Weights and
Measures Act 1985, formulated and signed up to by a Government led by a
Conservative Prime Minister- although, of course, the schizophrenia of the
Conservative party knows no bounds. Conservative Members forget all this, but
it is here in Hansard. The hon. Member for Stafford fought it tooth and nail at
Mr. William Cash (Stone) rose--
Howells: No, I will not give way.
Cash: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Even if the Minister cannot get
metric measures right, and even if he cannot get pounds, shillings and pence or
any other imperial measures right, he should at least know that I am the Member
Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): I do not think that that is a matter for the
Howells: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for that, but I was paying him a
tribute by saying that he stood up against that lot on the Front Bench.
Tonight's debate is really about the Conservative party's paranoia in regard to
the United Kingdom Independence Party. The Conservatives fear that the UKIP
will take votes away from what they call their key seats in what is left of
their heartlands: that is why they have jumped on the ludicrous case of a
so-called metric martyr. It is total nonsense. The intention of the directive
that the Conservatives now criticise, but to which they signed up, is to
establish harmonised use of the international system of metric units for
economic, public health, public safety and administrative purposes in European
Union member states, of which we are one.
directive originally set 31 December 1989 as the date after which non-metric
units would no longer be authorised for use as supplementary indications. The
Conservatives did not negotiate a never-ending derogation; they signed up for
10 years. The right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has forgotten
that, as he has forgotten many other facts, but I now remind him of it. The
current Government recognised that a further extension for supplementary
indications would be necessary for two reasons. First, with the change to the
gram and the kilogram for goods sold loose after 1999, it was clear that
consumers would welcome a further period in which trade measuring instruments
could display indications in metric and imperial weights. Secondly, under
United States legislation, consumer packages - including imports from the
United Kingdom and other European Union member states - must be labelled in
metric and US imperial units. Packing in metric-only for the EU market and in
metric-US imperial for the US market would clearly add to costs for UK
exporters. However, Conservative Members are so fixated with jumping on to the
tawdry bandwagon of their big rival, the United Kingdom Independence party,
that they will say anything. That is what they do these days.
Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Howells: I shall in a moment, I have not finished yet. Conservative Members
will jump on any bandwagon that is rolling along. This bandwagon is not moving
very fast, but it is better than none at all. It is what Conservative Members
do these days. I shall certainly give way to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis
and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). I had always considered him to be intelligent,
but I am amazed to see him sitting on the Opposition Front Bench for this
Gibb: If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, the Government sought an
extension to the derogation for dual measurement, but not one for the directive
on loose sales from bulk. Why did he seek a derogation in one case but not the
Howells: We did not need one. We negotiated a further 10-year extension for
supplementary indications, until 31 December 2009. It is also important to
recognise that a directive was passed by the European Parliament. If United
Kingdom Members of the European Parliament, including Tory ones - there are
Tory MEPs; the Tories did very well in the most recent European elections -
considered that to be such a dastardly act, why did they not table an amendment
to the directive? Not one amendment to the directive was tabled. That is very
strange. I know, however, why there was not an amendment. It was because that
old United Kingdom Independence Party had not found a metric martyr and the
bandwagon had not yet started scraping along the ground. It was therefore not
necessary for a Tory MEP to table an amendment.
Then again, perhaps Tory MEPs simply forgot to table one, just as the
right hon. Member for Wells has forgotten that it was a Conservative Government
who signed up to all this and set themselves a 10-year target to end imperial
measurements and convert entirely to metric. Various regulations have been
made, under the Weights and Measures Acts of 1963 and 1985, to set out
constructional requirements and limits of error for different classes of
weighing or measuring equipment. That has been done to ensure that when that
equipment is used for trade, it will act as a fair arbiter between buyers and
sellers. That applies not only to everyday foodstuffs such as fruit and
vegetables and fish and meat, regardless of whether they are sold loose or
pre-packed, but to other goods used in commerce and industry. It also applies
to central heating oils and to supplies of petrol and diesel fuel. It is an
important task of trading standards officers to check that that equipment stays
within the allowed limits of error. The equipment may drift into inaccuracy
with the passage of time, it may be damaged through misuse, or it may be used
fraudulently. TSOs have an important task on behalf of all of us in ensuring
that weighing and measuring equipment stays within the bounds and continues to
play its role of fair arbiter.
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): The hon. Gentleman is telling us
about the regulations implications, but would he mind sparing a thought for the
housewife who now has to read recipes in metric measurements? The other
evening, for example, I had to make some mashed potatoes. The instructions told
me to take 628cl of water, 235g of potato and a knob of butter approximately 5
cm by 5 cm. By the time that I had looked all that up, worked it out and
discovered that it was about 1 pint of water, half a pound of flakes and a knob
of butter about an inch square, I was bored to death with trying to work it all
out and opened a package of instant rice. The fact remains, however, that
recipes are now all printed in what is gobbledegook to most people. There
should be, if nothing else, a derogation allowing manufacturers of food
products that require measurements to use good old imperial measurements.
Howells: As the hon. Lady knows, I always appreciate her analysis. However, I
must tell her that since 1974 - long after both she and I were in school, I
fear - our children have been taught metric measurements. It may be that we
find them gobbledegook, but I had a look at the best-selling cookery books
today and found that they all contain metric measurements. Some of them have
imperial equivalents alongside the metric, which is very helpful for an
old-timer like me, though not, of course, for the hon. Lady, who is ageless. It
is wrong to assume that our children have not learned about metric
measurements. Even those who were educated way back in 1974 may well be able to
boil an egg these days.
me return to the regulations before us, rather than the United Kingdom
Independence party. The regulations are listed in the schedule to the present
regulations and in regulation 3(2). They cover such equipment as, at No. 1 on
the schedule, industrial beltweighers used for sand and gravel and for loading
grain on to ships, and, at No. 8, petrol pumps, which are shown as measuring
equipment for liquid fuel. There can be no competition on the basis of price if
such equipment does not act as the fair arbiter of quantities bought and sold
so that buyers of those goods can be confident that they are getting what they
pay for. That is the point of the directive.
Fabricant: On that very point, is the Minister not aware that people still
think about the cost of petrol as being £4 a gallon? They do not think
about litres. That is how they know that petrol is so expensive. The Minister
is being unfair to himself in saying that only old fogies like him still
understand imperial units. If that were the case, it would not be that only 7
per cent. of the population said, in a recent survey, that they preferred
metric to imperial units.
Howells: I would love to see that survey and to know where it was carried out.
I suspect that it was conducted in the bar of the hon. Gentleman's club. Let me
go back to the 1999 directive. We sought and achieved agreement at EU level for
the use of supplementary indications for a further 10 years. As the right hon.
Member for Wells knows, that is precisely what the previous Government did
during the previous 10 years and in the eight years before that. It was the
right thing to do, and we did it. It provides the opportunity for traders to
display supplementary indications alongside metric indications, if traders
decide that that would be helpful to their customers. There are about 160,000
weighing machines in this country for measuring loose goods. Some 130,000 of
them have been converted. Those figures speak for themselves.
John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead): Though I am, perhaps, an even older fogey
than my hon. Friend, does he agree that if the Conservatives are still working
on the basis that there are 240 pennies in the pound, we can see why their
economic policy is in such a mess?
Howells: I cannot improve on that. When the great Seb Coe - I found out only
yesterday that he is in the other place now - ran the 1500m in the Olympic
games, why did the Conservatives not ask that he should be allowed to run his
own bit extra to win a gold medal for a mile? Linford Christie could have
finished half a yard ahead of everyone else by running 100yd instead of 100m.
The Conservative position is nonsense, of course. The Opposition are raising
their objection only because they are frightened of losing seats. There is
nothing else to it. I know that some of the hon. Members sitting on the Tory
Front Bench are highly intelligent human beings, and I cannot believe that they
agree with the nonsense that we have heard tonight.
Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): Although we Liberal Democrats recognise the
advantage of using common units of measurement for scientific, technological
and professional activities, we believe that attempts to implement what is seen
by ourselves and the public as heavy-handed measures to impose metrication by
compulsion are counter-productive. I fully accept that, as the Minister said,
it was the previous Tory Government who started us on this road. It is clearly
owing to them that we find ourselves in this situation. However, I do not
approve of the way in which this Government are handling the matter. The
European Community directive that the order seeks to impose was originally
designed with the intention of harmonising the use by member states of the
international system. According to the regulatory impact assessment, that was
done for economic, public health, public safety and administrative purposes.
Before the 2009 deadline, after which complete metrication will be a legal
requirement, traders are able to make use, as has been said, of supplementary
indications. That means that we can make use of dual markings of products,
which is quite acceptable. When the original deadline for metrication was
announced, it was believed that member states would quickly adapt to the new
system, but, clearly, that has not been so. The use of supplementary
indications makes life easier for consumers, who are able to work with which
ever measurement they are most comfortable with. I am getting on a bit, but by
2009 I shall have got on a bit more, and I might be unable to understand the
measurements as well as I would wish.
Cash: The problem will not arise.
Cotter: God willing, the problem will arise. Under the regulations, the
deadline of 31 December 2001 will be imposed and the use of imperial units will
be illegal. The previous Government managed to get us into that situation.
Mr. Fabricant: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the whole issue is down
to freedom, freedom of choice of the consumer, freedom of choice of people who
are in trade? Surely it should be up to them what they do. Does he not think
that even a Liberal Democrat Government, for God's sake, would be going a bit
too far in imposing a standard of measure that was unpopular among those who
were forced to use it?
Cotter: I am delighted at that intervention. I can rip up half my speech; the
hon. Gentleman has made my points, which is surprising from a member of a party
that has not been notable for its libertarian approach or the way in which it
consulted the general public while in government. It is ridiculous to force
metrication on the consumer when the system has not been truly accepted
elsewhere. Indeed, part of the reason for making such progress was the hope
that the United States would turn metrication into practice before 2009. In
fact, the Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation recently voiced its
concern that the United States might not adapt as quickly as had been hoped.
When the deadline expires, those who wish to export their goods may face
significant costs because they will have to produce one set of metric labels
for Europe and very possibly another one for the United States.
is not the principle of metrication that I oppose, but the way in which the
system will be implemented, the speed of implementation and the fact that this
Government, having been dropped in it by the previous one, have not fought
harder for a lengthier derogation. Why try to force the hand of metrication
when, as has been said, there are still a number of units in use, such as the
pint of milk and of beer that we very much favour? More than that, we have a
long history when it comes to measures. As a matter of interest - I am sure
that this will be of great interest to Members present - the acre of land has
been in existence since 732, when it was introduced under the reign of King
Ethelbert II, the King of Kent. The furlong, with which many people,
particularly in the racing fraternity, will be familiar, came from the Greeks
and Romans. They inherited it as an ancient measure, apparently based on the
optimal length of a plough. I could go on at great length about old
measurements, but I will just pick out a few. There are many other historical
examples of measures that are still referred to, but not used very often. All
of us will be familiar with rods, poles and perches. There are many more, such
as bushels, cloves, firkins and gills, not forgetting noggins and pecks and,
most important for us as politicians, scruples. As we all know, we are
extremely scrupulous people, yet a scruple is a measurement.
the case is made that, as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) said,
it is a great lack of appreciation of the liberty of the British citizen that
we should not be allowed, even if we have to accept metrication, a derogation
beyond 2009. I hope that, as a result of the telling arguments made by me and
others, the Government will consider renewing their efforts, even if they have
failed at this point, to ensure that after 2009 we will be able to use what are
called supplementary indications. People like myself will appreciate being able
to see the pounds and ounces, even in small letters, on the product that they
want to buy. I sincerely hope that the Government will consider the matter
William Cash (Stone): This issue basically relates to a form of xenophobia.
There is an assumption these days that we always have to do what is prescribed
by the European Union and its institutions. The fact remains that there is a
powerful case for renegotiating the arrangements in line with the wishes of the
British people. I was fascinated to hear the speech of the hon. Member for
Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter). After all, the Liberal party is above all else
a federalist party. I suspect that Liberal Members are trying to make out that
they have some form of resistance to the regulations when they are completely
in favour of them, simply because they know that the Euroscepticism -
Eurorealism, as I prefer to call it - that has developed over the past few
years has put them on the rack in so many of their seats.
Cotter: I do not know whether I should bother to intervene, as I would expect
the hon. Gentleman to make the sort of comments that he has made. As he well
knows, we support the concept of metrication, but I am protesting about the
lack of a libertarian approach, which means that after a certain date we will
not be allowed to refer to the previous measurements. That is a key issue and
it is the clear point that we are making.
Cash: The lame excuse that has just been given speaks for itself. This is an
unnecessary proposal. It would undoubtedly increase the damage to the economy
that has already been caused by a number of factors, including dissatisfaction
and confusion in domestic trade between suppliers compelled to use metric and
customers who prefer imperial. Furthermore, it will create confusion in our
trade with European and other countries, as a result of variations within the
metric system. There are powerful reasons why the regulations should be
resisted. Simply to say that we have to go along with them until 2009 makes a
point in itself. The idea of a derogation raises the question of whether the
Government are opposed to the issue in principle. Why not stop altogether, if
that is what they want to do? Why go in for something that is time extended for
a period? The Government, like the Liberal party, are giving way on the issue
of how long the derogation should continue. They know that there is tremendous
resistance to the process, and they want a fig leaf with which to cloak
themselves for the time being. It is astonishing that we in this Parliament
Howells: I believe that we should move towards metrication. The use of
measurements has never been an entirely stable regime; it has evolved over the
years. We have until 2009. I give the House the reassurance that if, in 2009,
it is clear that consumers would like a further derogation, we will negotiate
Cash: As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) said,
the motion is no more than another piece in the jigsaw. There are so many other
measurements and units that are not being turned into metric. The Government
are clearly committed to the idea of a European superstate and to the sort of
consolidation that obtained during the Roman empire or any of the other great
empires. That is the way these things go. At present, however, they are picking
and choosing: they do not have the courage of their convictions. That in itself
condemns the pusillanimous manner in which they conduct themselves on so many
issues. The Government know that there are pressures under which they have to
move, because they are prepared to accept the idea of going further and deeper
into the process of European integration. However, they are not prepared to
state that that is precisely what they want. That is why they vacillate so much
over the single currency. Why is it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for
Wells asked, that the Government are not prepared -I would regard it as
outrageous - to take the further step on all measurements and units? I invite
the Minister to explain.
Howells: I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking me the question and giving me
the opportunity to answer it. Like the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs.
Gorman), I would find it difficult to order some commodities in anything other
than imperial. However, when I order a pint, I am determined that I will get a
full pint. The hon. Gentleman's colleagues talked out the legislation that
related to a full pint. They do not want fairness for consumers - they are
ready to allow the breweries to continue cheating them.
Cash: It will come as no great surprise to the Minister to learn that I do not
always agree with what my party has to say on the European issue. We should
bear in mind the fact that it is only in the United Kingdom and in Ireland that
these sorts of proposals are enforced by criminal penalties. I put it to the
House - we shall see how this plays - that the only referendum to be held on
the Nice treaty, unless the Conservative party wins the general election, as it
surely will, will be in Ireland. There are many in Ireland who are becoming
increasingly concerned about the manner in which they are being taken over. The
question for Ireland, as for the United Kingdom, is increasingly, "Who governs
us?" The proposal is a further example of trends that should be resisted and
opposed. It was clear when the measure was first accepted that the Government
did not expect any prosecutions. Mr. Thoburn has been prosecuted but we do not
yet know the outcome, and it is apparent that many members of the Government
regard the prosecution as a big mistake. Do they propose to prosecute others in
the United Kingdom? They have already nodded and winked at the prosecution of
Mr. Thoburn, and it would therefore be extraordinary if they were not prepared
to take the matter further. The proposal is objectionable. It also illustrates
the Government's vacillation and pusillanimity, because they are not prepared
to put their money where their mouth is. We can understand the reason for that:
they are prepared to go so far to comply with European requirements, but they
are not prepared to stand up for the British people. The Minister knows that
that is true.
Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): It is always a pleasure to follow my hon.
Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). His words convince me that the remarks
that I am about to make are right. The Minister's opening comments were
interesting. It was predictable that he would try to blame the current position
on the Conservative party. That is the Labour party's great mantra nowadays.
When they change something for which we were responsible, they claim credit for
it; when they decide not to change something, they blame us. The Minister could
have made a good point, but it eluded him. The Conservative party's record on
the subject of our debate is not entirely pure. When we entered the Common
Market, we were told that it was, indeed, a common market. The White Paper that
preceded the Bill that took us into the European Union stated that there was no
question of losing essential sovereignty. That was a splendid way of putting
it: there was no question of losing sovereignty; we simply lost it. The people
of this country were beguiled or conned into believing that they were entering
a common market. It was never that; the European Union was a political
objective with a political agenda. Recently, that agenda has been worked
items that we are considering tonight are part of that agenda, and of an
inexorable political process of forming not "federal states of Europe" but a
European state. Let us go back many years, longer ago than when I was first a
Member of Parliament. The Conservative party had something for which to answer
then. It says much for our party that we are now capable of facing up to our
actions and, as far as possible, to their consequences. If the Minister had
made the criticism in that way, he would have made a valid point. However, he
is not on such strong ground when considering the regulations. The Government
could have applied for derogations, but they chose not to do that. They allowed
the lapse of a derogation that would have permitted the imperial pricing of
loose goods. They did not even believe that that was worth doing; that says
much about their attitude.
they find themselves in a position to consider whether to renew the derogation
in 2008, their actions will again say much about their attitude. Derogation
means asking a foreign power for permission to continue to use our weights and
measurements. It means going cap in hand to a foreign state and saying, "Do you
mind terribly if we continue to adhere to our own laws, traditions and
customs?" From time to time, a gracious foreign state will say, "Yes, you are
entitled to do that." The mere fact that we have to go through that charade and
consider applying for derogations so as to be allowed to continue our own
customs says much about the European Union. We are moving into a European state
so quickly; it has no pretensions to be anything other than a European state.
The only people who deny that it is a European state constitute a very small
number, both in my party and in the Labour party. In Europe, this debate would
not be understandable. If any European were listening to the debate, they would
not understand what we were talking about. They would say, "What are they going
on about? Surely, in a single state, the state has the right to make the law."
It would be difficult to explain in a few words how illiberal and unattractive
this thing is, at best. The idea that it is necessary to protect traders or to
further trade is simply untrue.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I apologise for having come late to the
debate, but I am looking at the record for 11 April 1989. I may be completely
wrong, but I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman told me whether he voted
in favour of European Community document No. 4102 on units of measurement? I
feel that there is a bit of inconsistency here. Is there?
Nicholls: Even for the hon. Lady, that is a uniquely silly remark to make. To
drift into the Chamber and to ask me to recall whether I voted for a particular
statutory instrument in 1989 is, even by her standards, particularly silly. If
the hon. Lady had been here for the whole of the debate, let alone the whole of
my speech, she would have heard me say that there was something unsatisfactory
about derogations. There is something very unsatisfactory about having to ask
for permission to be able to retain one's rights and customs. However, if that
is the position we are in, it is worth exercising that right. The charge
against the Government is that they did not even think it worth applying for a
derogation in this case.
I said before the hon. Lady made her ill-fated intervention, the idea that it
is necessary to impose such legislation to protect trade is complete nonsense.
The point is that units of measurement are there for the convenience of those
who choose to trade in them. If someone aggressively says, "I intend to trade
in imperial measurements," when what is wanted are metric measurements, either
they will cease to trade in that form of measurement, or they will fail.
Obviously, if someone is trading with the continent and wants to make his goods
attractive on the continent, he will ensure that the pricing is metric. There
is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with metric
measurements, but the idea that they must be enforced on people with the full
rigour of the criminal law to protect trade is nonsense. We are dealing with a
political agenda, plain and simple. We are dealing with a European state that
arrogates to itself the right to ride roughshod over the domestic customs of a
member state. This debate teaches us, more than anything else, that we cannot
go on in this way. We cannot go on playing a part in Europe in a relationship
in which we do not feel comfortable.
Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman
considerable leeway, but I now need to remind him that this is not a general
debate about Europe. We are dealing with the Weights and Measures (Metrication
Amendments) Regulations 2001. The scope of the debate should concentrate on the
desirability of continuing with two alternative systems of measurement in the
given areas for the stated time, and on the nature and costs of the benefits
Nicholls: I will not labour the point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but in trying to
assess the advisability of going along with that, it was worth making the point
that we have a responsibility to understand why we find ourselves in this
position. We have the ability tonight to say that the regulations are simply
unacceptable. Conservative Members should have sufficient confidence to say
that we are not responsible for the regulations. We should vote against them in
due course next week, on paper.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): This issue demonstrates the clear difference
between our party and the Government. We believe in common sense. We believe in
freedom. If ever there were an issue of common sense and freedom, this is it.
When 7 per cent. of the population say that they prefer the metric system and
93 per cent. say that they are happier working with the imperial system, what
common sense is there in any Government imposing this measure on people's
lives? There is no common sense in imposing this measure on people going to
markets, corner shops and Safeway, and even when they measure out their mashed
potato in the privacy of their own home. The Minister asked where I got my
information from, as he could not believe that 93 per cent. of the population
rejected the metric system. I am surprised that a Minister, with all the
resources of the state, does not have access to the information that I have.
The information came in a survey conducted by RSL for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
Ltd; it is on the website members.aol. com/footrule/. There he will find the
information, which is in the public domain. If the Minister takes my word for
Howells indicated assent.
Fabricant: I see that he does. Some 93 per cent. of the population reject this
ridiculous and dishonourable motion. This issue has been rejected, in effect,
by the United States of America. As far back as the 1970s, the USA tried hard
to introduce the metric standard. Members who have been to North America will
know that when they drive on the I5 from Seattle to Vancouver, passing the
Freedom bridge - which, interestingly enough, says along the top, "Two children
born of a common mother" - they will see that on the south side miles are used,
and on the north side kilometres are used, as Canada has adopted the metric
system. Despite the fact that the US enjoys the longest unpoliced border in the
world, it has rejected the system. Britain has rejected it, too. In 1969, the
then Labour Government introduced the Metrication Board. In 1980, the
Metrication Board was abolished; it was a failure. The only success it had was
the introduction of decimal currency. I believe that most people still think in
terms of miles, feet and inches.
fact, it is to the Government's advantage that petrol prices are quoted in
litres. As I have said, when people realise that petrol is now £4 a
gallon - the most expensive in Europe - they will realise how expensive life
has become under this Government. The position is clear; people do not want
this measure. The Government have demonstrated yet again that they are
appeasers in Europe. They chose not to fight against regulations concerning
water boards, which resulted in a firm in my constituency, Armitage Shanks,
having to be sold. I oppose the motion, which is not common sense and does not
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): I did not intend to say anything in
the debate but, having listened to the Minister, under whose politically
correct socialist crust probably beats a heart with a degree of liberalism, I
was upset to hear him make ageist comments about the 40 million or so people in
our country who were not brought up with metric measurements and who still
resort to the imperial measurements because they mean something to them. I know
that I am 5 ft 3 in tall and that I weigh between 9½ and 10 stone. If I
tell that to people, they know what it means. I know what a pint means; I know
how many yards of fabric I want; if I tell someone that I am going a mile up
the road, they know what I mean. I know that I take size 5 shoes and my husband
takes size 10. I know what that means, but the metric measurement of 37 cm
means nothing to me. There is no shame in that, and there is no reason why a
housewife should be forced to interpret her recipes in what is basically a
foreign measurement. It is not a natural measurement; it has not evolved out of
people's sizes and the distance that they travelled in a certain length of
hon. Members have said, all our imperial measurements have evolved out of
elements that relate to people's daily lives, yet here we are forcing them to
think in an entirely foreign system of measurements. In my view it is the
equivalent of forcing them to think and calculate their orders in Chinese. The
Government would do well to take that into account and not to pooh-pooh it.
Making decisions involving shopping and measuring is an important element of
women's daily lives. I should like the Minister to address that point.
Howells: May I attempt to convince the hon. Lady that I am certainly not
pooh-poohing the idea? That is why we negotiated another 10 years of having
imperial measurements on weighing scales, so that we can understand them.
Mrs. Gorman: The Government inspectors have insisted that people
print their packets of food, and shopkeepers weigh their commodities, using a
foreign system of measurement. Tonight we are debating the fact that anyone who
does not do that will be prosecuted. I am trying to touch the heart that I hope
the Minister has, in support of people whose daily lives involve having to
handle commodities in what amounts to a foreign language. If for no other
reason, the Minister and the Labour party would do themselves a power of good
if they did not knock older people, some of whom will still be alive in 10 or
20 years' time, after the current derogation expires, and who would prefer to
continue to use the language of measuring distance, weights and so on that they
have been familiar with since childhood.
Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend agree with the powerful point made by my hon.
Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls)? Is it not almost humiliating
that we are having to go cap in hand to what he correctly described as a
foreign power, to ask for this derogation in the first place?
Mrs. Gorman: I quite agree with my hon. Friend. It does us all a power of good
if, for a change, we take into consideration the concerns of the people whom we
represent here. It has been said more than once this evening that the great
majority of them would prefer to keep the forms of measurement with which they
are familiar and in which they have been educated. If younger people feel
comfortable with metric measures, by all means let them be printed on boxes and
packets. I expect that young people mix up mashed potatoes late at night too,
but there are a large number of people who do not want the metric system to be
imposed on them, and they should not have to use it.
long time ago I used to help small businesses with their problems. The
regulations imposed by European directives were driving them up the pole, so we
decided to go to Europe and talk to the people who drew up those regulations.
They made it absolutely clear that the directives were not obligatory. They
said, as has already been said tonight, that some countries, like ours, impose
them on people, but that we do not need to do that. There is no need to ram the
directives down people's throats, but our civil servants gold-plate them and
make them worse. They make demands that are entirely unnecessary. We are here
to represent people's views, not to dictate to them. That is not why they send
us here, and we should not be involved in doing that. As soon as the Government
learn that and accept that the time is not right to do away with our imperial
measurements, the sooner they will improve their proper role of representing
what the great majority of people in this country feel about this matter.
Christopher Gill (Ludlow): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the
Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). Taking a leaf out of her book, I should
like to tell the House that 140 lb of pigmeat makes 1 cwt of bacon. Many people
in Britain today are familiar with such equations. I could not give the metric
equivalent of that equation, but I make that point to show that I have been in
business, which, regrettably, not too many hon. Members these days have. I know
from my experience in business that to foster trade one has to respond to what
the customer wants. If the customer wants to buy in avoirdupois rather than in
metric, that is what the customer should be allowed to do. Like my hon. Friend
the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), I belong to the party that believes
in choice and diversity. The people who should exercise the choice are the
customers, the British people. That choice must not be circumscribed by the
people in Whitehall who think they know best.
right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) made the important
point that, historically, we in Britain have been able to do anything and
everything unless it was prohibited by the law, which is in complete contrast
to the continental system under which something can be done only if it is
expressly permitted. This is another example of how we are moving more and more
towards a continental system, which, to many of us, is regrettable, and does
not suit the country's nature and mood.
point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) is apt.
We go cap in hand all the time to ask Brussels whether we can keep systems that
we have historically enjoyed for hundreds of years. Such systems have served us
well and there is no reason to change them. When we get a derogation, we say
that we have won a victory. What a victory, simply to have hung on for another
five or 10 years to something that we have enjoyed for centuries. I risk being
ruled out of order in saying this, but my hon. Friend is right when he says
that this is all driven by politics. It is all driven by the determination that
nothing will stand in the way of creating a united states of Europe.
Metrication is another step along that route, just as decimalisation was 20 or
30 years ago.
return to the argument about trade. Our trade with the EU is important and
amounts to a substantial sum, but it represents less than 11 per cent. of our
gross GDP. In other words, 89 per cent. of our GDP is accounted for by trade
within the UK and with the rest of the world. Converting to metrication will
bring no benefit to that. We are doing it simply to accommodate our trade with
Europe, which represents 11 per cent. of our GDP. We are in great danger of
getting things completely out of proportion. As a business man, I would not
rejig the whole of my production and accounting methods and the way in which I
ran my business for customers who represented 11 per cent of my business. I
would be more inclined to ensure that my business was tailored towards the
other 89 per cent.
same equation applies to our consideration of the single currency, which I
appreciate is not the subject of tonight's discussion. The Minister must
understand that a serious desire to encourage trade and create the prosperity
that flows from it requires that regulation be limited. The Government must
stop telling people how they should do things, and allow the market to work.
They must allow customers to exercise their right to choose what products to
buy, at what standard and at what price. They must also be able to decide in
what measurement they want to buy goods, and in what currency they will pay. I
implore the Government, in all their future dealings with the European Union,
to avoid prescription and harmonisation and to leave scope for choice and
diversity, which encourage markets and stimulate economic
Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): I had not intended to speak in this debate,
so I shall be brief. However, I was struck by the Minister's lack of
international awareness, even though my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay
(Mrs. Gorman) hinted that he had a warm and golden heart. I used to be abroad
for about a third of the year, and my international experience is that there
are no hang-ups in other countries about the unit of measure that is used. As I
said earlier, three different types of square foot are used as measures in
Italy: in descending order, they are the Lombard, the Tuscan and the Neapolitan
square foot. Those measures are trusted in some countries, but others,
especially Germany, insist that Italian products are bought in square metres.
The choice is entirely up to customers and suppliers. Nearly all exports to
Asian countries are measured in square feet, and no Italian supplier would
think twice about that.
hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) listed a number of what he
considered to be arcane measurements, including the bushel. However, when I
visited the international corn exchange in Chicago--the largest such exchange
in the world--with the Select Committee on Agriculture last year, I found that
it dealt entirely in bushels. The choice is up to the traders there, and they
are all relaxed about it. When they go home in the evening, I am sure that they
are happy to deal in imperial measurements. I do not see why British citizens
cannot work in international business and deal in metric measurements one week,
then go off the next week and deal in 3½ inch floppy disks. The matter
is entirely one of individual choice. It is not for the state to be
prescriptive and try to impose uniform units of measure.
hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare mentioned the Saxons. The Old Testament
states that it is an abomination in the eye of the Lord to give false measure,
and I accept that it has long been the role of the state to ensure accurate
measurement. However, it is not the role of the state to enforce a uniform unit
of measurement. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) rightly said
that a vast amount of trade in this country is carried out using imperial
measurements. People are used to dealing in certain units, especially when
buying common consumer goods and confectionery. They have suffered quite sharp
product inflation because, although an item's packaging may look familiar, the
actual measure sold in that packaging is considerably less than what people are
used to. The Government should look into that problem with some intensity. By
uniformly imposing metric measure, we are not safeguarding consumers, many of
whom, all unawares, are being ripped off quite sharply. For that reason, I
oppose the regulations.
Deputy Speaker: I think the Ayes have it.
Hon. Members: No.
Division deferred till Wednesday 21 March, pursuant to Order [7