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EU: Non-metric Terms

Volume 687: debated on Monday 27 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they support the European Union’s proposal to make the commercial use of non-metric terms a criminal offence from 1 January 2010.

My Lords, the use of imperial units alongside metric units is permitted by current legislation until 31 December 2009. The Government think that there is a strong case for extending this permission beyond that date and, perhaps, permanently. We await with interest a consultation paper from the European Commission, which is expected to address this issue.

My Lords, my pleasure at finding myself in agreement with one of Her Majesty’s Government’s initiatives is almost too great to bear. Do the Government therefore agree that trade associations in this country, and all over Europe, are very disturbed by these proposals, as indeed is the United States of America, which shares our system? Further, is the noble Lord aware that the commissioner, Martin Bangemann, in 1996 revealed that the reason for this unfortunate measure was that the United Kingdom shared that common system of weights and measures with the United States and thereby enjoyed an unfair competitive advantage? Would the noble Lord care to comment on that? It perhaps gives the flavour of so much of the legislation coming our way from Brussels.

My Lords. First, I confess that when metrication was introduced to this country through Parliament, I did not follow the debate very closely—partly because I was six years old at the time. I do not believe that the dual labelling of cauliflowers will lead to the end of civilisation as we know it. Having said that, the Department of Trade and Industry is well aware of the attitude of industry, particularly on metrication. We have had useful meetings with representatives of a wide range of sectors, and we are very up to date with their views. Currently, most transactions are dealt with through metric units. Of course, we are aware that there are countries such as the United States, for example, that do not use the metric system.

My Lords, can the Minister be a little bit bolder on modernisation, bearing in mind the Labour pride in past modernisation? Is he not aware that metrication is wanted by the vast majority of trade associations in this country and in the other member states, including some of the new ones? Why do we not press ahead with it, allowing for the consultation and bearing in mind that even the youngest school child understands the metric system in this country perfectly, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch?

My Lords, of course there are arguments on both sides. There are those who support the metric lobby and there are others, not necessarily the youngest people, who are more comfortable with imperial measurements. We need to take both strands of opinion into account. The European Commission is looking at the area, so we should await its consultation before holding our own in this country.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, when in 1799 compulsory metric measures were forced on France, the system was so badly received by the populace that the old measures remained in use? Napoleon in 1812, when he had more pressing problems on his mind, authorised the usage of what he called mesures usuelles, which relegalised traditional French measures. They are still in use in France today. With that historical lesson in mind, will Her Majesty's Government tell the European Commission that they will not criminalise the use of non-metrical measures?

My Lords, I do not want to go back in history quite so far as 1812, bearing in mind that we are in 2006. The noble Lord has a point, but the Commission will look at the issue. It has already granted one extension on the regulations on dual labelling that came in in 1989, which have been reviewed and extended until 1999 and then again to 2009. The Commission is looking at a further extension of the use of dual labelling, and even a permanent derogation, so it is too early for me to comment on the issues that he raises.

My Lords, is it not important to hammer home the point that this is nothing whatever to do with the merits or demerits of metrication? What possible public benefit would follow from the likes of me being deprived of the right to know whether I was buying a shirt with a 15 and a half-inch collar? How will the banning of those so-called supplementary indications hamper free trade or the completion of the single market?

My Lords, far be it from me to deprive the noble Lord of his size 15 and a half shirt. However, supplementary indications or dual labelling help the consumer to make an informed choice and allow for proper price comparisons. That is sensible.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a patron of the BWMA. Is the Minister aware that, unless something is done, in just over three years it will be illegal to sell not only the shirt with a 15 and a half-inch collar to which the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, referred, but a pair of size 9 shoes? It will be illegal to advertise a car that does 50 miles to the gallon or an executive jet that cruises at 30,000 feet above the weather. Moreover, what will happen about bicycles? The Minister may not be aware, but they are sold with 26 or 28-inch wheels all over Europe, not merely in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, as I said, the Commission is looking at that. We have already had two reviews that have extended the use of dual labelling, and we may well have further extensions or a permanent derogation of the scheme, so I do not think that the noble Lord’s fears are justified. After all, we still use the mile, the yard, the foot, the inch, the pint, the troy ounce, the acre and other imperial measurements, so perhaps he is being too doom-laden in his warnings.