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Weights And Measures Act 1963 (Bread) Order 1977

Volume 387: debated on Tuesday 29 November 1977

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4.29 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Bread) Order 1977, laid before the House on 3rd November, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Bread) Order 1977, laid before the House on 3rd November, be approved. It may be for the convenience of the House if I speak at the same time to the second order standing in my name. Both orders have the same objective, in that they represent a further stage in the gradual change-over to the metric system in the retail sector of our economy.

The groundwork for these draft orders has already been laid—first, in previous orders providing alternative metric ranges for the products concerned; secondly, when Parliament passed the Weights and Measures Act 1976 which provided the powers to phase out Imperial size ranges; and thirdly in the Department's metrication report to Parliament in April of this year, which set down the Government's proposed timetable for ending the prescribed Imperial sizes for individual products. The detailed consultations which have been held with interested parties since the publication of the report have shown an encouraging endorsement of the tentative cut-off dates. The removal of uncertainty for consumers and for industry alike which this approach achieves has, I assure your Lordships, been widely welcomed.

I will deal first with the Bread Order. It may help noble Lords if I recall that the existing Metrication Order, which was concerned with introducing alternative metric quantities for loaves of bread, allows bread in quantities of more than 300 gm. to be sold in prescribed metric quantities of 400 gm. and multiples of 400 gm. At 300 gm. and below bread may be sold in any weight. If these provisions are compared with those relating to imperial weights there is virtually no change. At the moment bread weighing over 10 oz. must be made to weights of 14 oz. or a multiple of 14 oz. Fourteen ounces is 397 gm.—a fortunate proximity to 400 gm. The difference between the "imperial" and "metric" small loaves will therefore be only 3 gm.; this is under 1 per cent. of the weight of the loaf. The standard "metric" loaves will, therefore, be indistinguishable from their "imperial" predecessors.

There has been some criticism of this from two different points of view. The first point made is that 400 gm. and 800 gm. are not "proper" metric quantities and that metric loaf weights should more properly have been based on the kilogram and the half kilogram. There is some logic in this, and future generations might well find 400 gm. and 800 gm. to be "odd" sizes. I confess I find 14 oz. an odd size already. But bread is a product, rather like draught beer or bottled milk, where there is no overwhelming economic or consumer argument for changing sizes on metrication. The practicalities need to be considered, and to increase bread weights to 500 gm. and 1000 gm. would have involved the bakers in complete re-tinning and complete conversion of their equipment. This would have been extremely costly and would undoubtedly have affected the price of bread. The practical arguments for reducing the metrication costs to minimal proportions, as will be the case in the minor switch to 400 gm. and 800 gm., are, therefore, in our view, overwhelming.

The second argument is that, since the proposals will not result in any distinguishable change in bread sizes, there is no justification for this legislation. This, I suggest, ignores the fact that it is the Government's policy, and indeed has been the policy of successive Governments, to bring to an end, at a reasonable pace, the use of two entirely different systems of weights and measures in this country, because of the costs and confusion involved.

On the actual draft order now before your Lordships I can be brief. This envisages an end to the baking of "imperial" loaves from 2nd May 1978 and to their sale on 8th May 1978. This is timed to coincide with the plans of the baking industry to go metric over the May 1978 bank holiday weekend, and it allows a short period for the disposal of old "imperial" loaves from the shops. I am sure your Lordships will be glad to learn that the price of bread will not be increased at the changeover. However, the baking industry have indicated that they would expect the very slight increase in the dough weights to be taken into account at the time of any subsequent adjustment to the price of bread.

I will turn briefly to the second order on the Order Paper, the draft Various Goods Order. This proposal is aimed at removing the imperial option provided in previous metrication orders for salt, cereal breakfast foods in flake form, oat products, biscuits, tea and edible fats. A two-stage method of procedure, as adopted in the case of the sugar order approved last July, has again been used. This provides for an initial cut-off for packing and importing operations, and a later final cut-off for retail sales. During the various transitions between the two stages the offences connected with imperial packs will apply only to the act of packing and importing. Thus it will still be legal to sell or possess for sale such packs until the final cut-off. The varying lengths of the transitional periods provided are based on generous estimates of the shelf life of the individual products concerned. The Department are satisfied, from their consultations with those concerned, that these proposals are as fair as can be devised in taking account of the needs of manufacturers, others in the distribution chain—particularly the retailers—and, above all, consumers, who want the shortest changeover periods possible.

In the case of salt, cereal breakfast foods and biscuits metrication is already well advanced, and these products are widely available in the shops in metric sizes. First metric packs of oat products and tea will start appearing in the shops next year, and edible fats will follow in mid-1979. Basically the staggering of dates sterns from the need for the industries concerned to minimise conversion costs. But this step-by-step approach brings other important advantages. First, it builds consumer confidence in, and acceptance of, the metrication programme. Secondly, it facilitates the monitoring of prices during the changeover. Prescribed metric packs are generally 10 per cent. larger than the imperial packs they replace, and it is important to ensure that, in this situation, the consumer continues to get at least the same value for money. Therefore, there is a standing "reference" to the Price Commission to monitor the effect of metrication on prescribed quantity goods. I assure your Lordships that their reports so far have been extremely encouraging. They have clearly demonstrated that retail prices have not increased as a result of metrication, after allowances are made for the increased contents, the 10 per cent. increase in most cases. Indeed there are some cases where metrication has resulted in better value for money for consumers. The Government have, therefore, not found it necessary so far to use the powers they have to take any special steps on pricing and metrication. This, I am sure your Lordships agree, is to the credit of the industries concerned and to the retail trade. My Lords, with that experience already behind us, and looking to a future programme of metrication, I have confidence in recommending these orders to your Lordships. I, therefore, move the Bread Order.

Moved, That the draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Bread) Order 1977, laid before the House on 3rd November, be approved.—( Lord Oram.)

4.40 p.m.

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Oram, for introducing these two orders. They are two further pieces of the metrication jigsaw puzzle in which we have been involved for some 12 years and which it is hoped will be completed in four or five years time. Although I think that we should approve these orders, there is one aspect of the Various Goods order to which I should like to refer. When I was asked to speak to these orders I was told that it was a quite straightforward affair and so I blithely agreed and proceeded to read them.

Unfortunately, when reading the Various Goods order I did not begin with the Explanatory Memorandum. However, I got on quite well until I reached the following paragraph which says:
"An order specified in column 1 of the Schedule hereto shall have effect after the date, or the date appropriate to the goods in question, specified in relation to that Order in column 2 of that Schedule as if the provision specified in column 3 of that Schedule were omitted as respects all goods to which the Order applies or, as the case may be, as respects relevant goods referred to in the said column 1".
I thought that would have been a very good thing for Beachcomber to have written some years ago! Having read that paragraph several times and carefully studied the Schedule, I eventually worked out what I thought it meant. To my great relief my deductions were pretty well confirmed by the Explanatory Memorandum which was a little easier to understand. The noble Lord, Lord Oram, has now made it all very clear to us and I am extremely grateful to him. However, I wish that I had heard what he had to say before I started work.

In view of the frequent recent statements by the Government that small businesses are to be helped and encouraged, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he thinks it fair that the proprietor of a small store or a village grocer's shop should have to wrestle with such an instruction? Perhaps the noble Lord will say either that it will be clear to those who are accustomed to receiving these orders or that they will be accompanied by simple instructions. Alternatively, could it be that it is only I who find it so difficult? Perhaps I am making too much of this, but I do not think so. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Oram, will tell me what he thinks. In any event, I repeat that in my opinion, these two orders should be approved.

4.44 p.m.

My Lords, every change like the decimal currency change has resulted in members of the British public being muddled every time they go to the shops. Decimal currency sparked off a psychological "happening" in this country that we have never known before; namely, a large number of people stopped counting their change when they came out of a shop. Every single change we make that makes it more difficult to shop, the easier it is to twist the customer.

Only the other day I was coming out of a baker's shop when a man said to me: "Eventually I shall be able to put a small loaf in my waistcoat pocket". I think that where we have a major change such as this which is likely to muddle customers there should be real effort on the part of those selling the goods to explain to people precisely what they will get for their money. We should try to instil in our people a little more of the sense of thrift that our forbears used to have.

My Lords, I thank the two noble Lords who have commented on these orders. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Cullen of Ashborne, that the point he has made about the technical drafting of the order has been made before by his colleagues when we were dealing with other matters. It is certainly true that the kind of paragraph which the noble Lord quoted is necessarily complex. Like him, I puzzled it through and it made sense to me. However, I agree that very few people will be able to engage in that puzzling. I think that the noble Lord recognises that not many people really need to go into the exercise that he and I have gone through because the small traders and others receive their advice from experts who understand these matters. Indeed, the Department and others, publish explanatory material in simpler, more layman's language.

Therefore, although I fully sympathise with the noble Lord in terms of the intricate language, I assure him that it is necessary to make the order legally exact. We suffer but our suffering is all in a good cause. My noble friend Lord Rhodes rightly raised the question of change leading to the possibility of people being taken for a ride. However, I have assured him, and I assure him again, that the Government, with the advice of the Price Commission, carefully follow these matters. As I indicated in my opening remarks the reports from the Price Commission about price changes consequential upon these metrication changes, have been extremely reassuring.

However, the noble Lord causes me to comment that if these difficulties arise when these changes take place, all the more reason for us to get on wholeheartedly with the change. In this instance it is a change that, I think, most people recognise must come in order for us to be in line with the rest of the world. With one or two minor exceptions the rest of the world is metricated, and we must get in line. The sooner we can bring about this change, the better for consumers and all concerned. However, that does not mean that we must rush into it. It must be done carefully. The programme, which I have indicated is set out in the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection publication Metrication, indicates a rational approach timetable-wise, to this necessary change.

On Question, Motion agreed to.