Motion to Consider
The Motion was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, this order was laid before the House on 16 March 2020. The purpose of this statutory instrument is to update the Weights and Measures Act 1985 with new definitions for the metre and kilogram units of measurement. I emphasise that this does not represent any change in policy; it is simply about updating the unit of measurement definitions in UK law to align with those agreed internationally. It ensures that UK legislation is in step with the rest of the world.
I emphasise that the values of the units of measurement themselves are not changing. A kilogram will weigh the same as it did before the definitions were amended and a metre length will also still be the same. Therefore, there will be no direct impact on business or consumers. Businesses will not need to change their weighing or measuring equipment and consumers will have no need to be made aware of the changes. Perhaps I may give some background for the aid of noble Lords, providing the context of the changes that have been made and the processes that sit behind them.
The new definitions have been approved by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. Currently 102 countries, including the UK, are members or associated members of the bureau. In fact, the UK was a founding member in 1875, alongside France, India and the US, recognising, even then, the need for consistency and accuracy of measurement to support fair and effective international trade.
The UK has remained at the forefront of both legal and scientific metrology for over 140 years since the bureau was founded. The bureau’s key objective,
“to … be the coordinator of the world-wide measurement system, ensuring it gives comparable and internationally accepted measurement results”,
is relevant even today. It ensures that the International System of Units—also known as SI base units—is uniform and accessible for the purposes of international trade, high-technology manufacturing, human health and safety, protection of the environment, global climate studies and the basic science that underpins all of those.
An accurate and agreed standard is essential to ensure consistency in weights and measures across all these applications. For example, it is critical not only that medicines are measured accurately to ensure correct dosage, but that consumers of any goods sold based on measurement have transparency and get what they pay for. This is vital, as in the UK some £342 billion-worth of goods are sold based on the measurement of their quantity, equating to some £6.23 billion every week. In addition, £280 billion-worth of goods per year are weighed or measured at the business-to-business level.
Originally, the definitions to determine the value of a unit of measurement were based on physical standards. Historically these might have been references to parts of the human body, utensils, or amounts that animals could carry. In more recent times, the physical standards became more sophisticated. For example, until now the kilogram was defined by reference to a piece of platinum and iridium that was held in a vault near Paris. As the definitions have developed, they have moved away from physical standards, as those physical standards can deteriorate over time and become less accurate. Even the slightest dust or cleaning can lead to deterioration of the metal and affect accuracy.
Until now, the kilogram was the only remaining definition based on a physical standard. Following decades of discussion, scientific research and testing, the new definitions for seven base units of measurement were agreed and recognised by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in November 2018. The new definitions were deemed by the bureau to come into effect on 20 May 2019. Under the EU withdrawal agreement, we are proposing to implement the definition changes on the same date as member states of the EU: 13 June this year.
The seven base units of measurement with these new definitions are the metre, kilogram, ampere, second, candela, mole and kelvin. The definitions that we are concerned with today are those of the metre and kilogram. The new definitions are based on a set of seven defining constants, drawn from the fundamental constants of physics and other constants of nature, from which the definitions of the seven base units are deduced. For example, the value of a kilogram can now be determined from Planck’s constant, which remains accurate under all circumstances. It is interesting to note that the redefinition of the kilogram was made possible using technology developed here in the UK. The UK’s National Physical Laboratory, one of the leading national metrology institutes in the world, played a key part in the redefinition of the kilogram. This change ensures that unit of measurement definitions are scientifically robust and accessible to all globally. It also ensures uniformity and accuracy and will stand the test of time, because no dust or cleaning will affect them.
For the UK to stay in step with the rest of the world and meet our obligations under the withdrawal agreement, we have taken steps to amend our legislation. In September 2019, regulations amended the definitions for all seven of the SI base units in the Units of Measurement Regulations 1986 and made amendments to certain definitions in the Weights and Measures Act 1985. Those amendments, in Statutory Instrument 2019/ 1211, were made using powers under Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 and are timed to come into force on 13 June 2020.
The Weights and Measures Act also contains the definitions of the metre and kilogram units of measurement. I have been advised that amending them requires the use of powers provided for in the Weights and Measures Act itself. That is why this new statutory instrument is before your Lordships today: to amend the Weights and Measures Act definitions of the kilogram and the metre. This will ensure that all of the UK’s law is consistent and up to date, and that we are complying with the terms of the withdrawal agreement. Our intention is that this amendment should come into effect alongside the Weights and Measures Act 1985 (Amendment) and Units of Measurement Regulations 1986 (Amendment) Regulations 2019, which is SI 2019/ 1211. That will happen on 13 June this year.
To conclude, this statutory instrument is simply about making UK legislation consistent and up to date, reflecting the new scientific definitions that underpin the legal and scientific metrology framework. There is no policy change. This is simply a technical change to ensure that the UK is in step with the rest of the world and therefore meeting our obligations under the withdrawal agreement. I emphasise once again: there is no direct impact on businesses or consumers, and I commend this order to the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction, and his officials for their clear exposition of this order. The order reflects our interlinked world. It is vital that measurement is agreed across borders. As the notes explain, this is clearly essential for international trade, high-technology manufacturing and basic science.
Standard weights have been vital in coinage and valuable metals, going back to ancient times, where we can see that coins were devalued by having slices taken off them to make additional coins. As the Minister said, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures was established in 1875. By then, the industrial powers of Germany and the United States needed increasing standardisation, as the chemical and pharmaceutical industry was developing. Medicinal pills, with which we are so familiar, were introduced so that doses could be standardised. We can see the economic damage of the lack of such agreement even today in Africa. Rail lines in one country, formerly under one colonial ruler, meet the border of another which was formerly under another colonial power, and the gauges do not match. Colonial powers were looking to bring goods to the ports and out to them. They were not concerned about infra-African trade, and that disadvantage remains.
As science and industry develops—for example, in nanotechnology—measurements need to be further refined and standardised. This would certainly not be a time to hanker after some ancient era of Britain—or any other country—going its own way in measurement. If we are to compete and trade internationally, or even with our major partners in the EU, and in the science, we need to ensure that we are in line with international, tighter and more precise definitions. In the future, we will not be able to rely on EU mechanisms for checking this; we will need to build capacity to do so ourselves. Can the Minister assure me that we will do so?
As the Explanatory Note says, there is no reason to review this decision, as it is putting us in line with international practice. What will be needed is a watchful eye on whether we need to take action if further and tighter definitions come along, as they surely will. Are we also taking action to ensure that developing countries are brought into this system to facilitate their own science, health and trade, and, as we seek globally, to help tackle climate change? In the meantime, it is very nice to be able to agree the Minister, at least in this area.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his introduction to this measure and for the clear way in which he set out the background to what we are being asked to consider. I was attracted to this measure simply because, as a lawyer, I appreciate that weights and measures are part of our law and fundamental to a great deal of what goes on in trade and in the scientific community.
However, when I began to look at the measure and its definitions, it seems that we find ourselves in an extraordinary position. The measure sits rather uneasily with the first rule of law, which is that the law should be accessible, clear and predictable, particularly where, as we find in this case, a criminal sanction is attached to a breach of the rules that the law lays down. One has to have regard to the context set by the Act itself: the Act lays down what the units of length and mass are to be for any measurement of length and mass that is to be made in this country: the yard or metre, the pound or the kilogram, as the case may be. We are given formulae that define exactly—the word “exactly” is used—how to measure a yard by reference to a metre, and a pound by reference to a kilogram.
When we look at the schedule, we see that, among other things, “METRE” and “KILOGRAM” are set out in capital letters, to highlight their prominence in the whole system, whereas everything else is in lower case. The whole process is policed, if one can put it like that, by Section 8 of the Act, which provides that no person shall use for trade any measurement which is not included in the schedule. Section 8(4) provides that a person who contravenes that provision shall be guilty of an offence which is punishable by a fine on summary conviction of up to £1,000. The word “exactly” is crucial to the whole process.
The interesting thing is that the existing definition of “metre” is sufficiently clear for the Oxford English Dictionary to publish it in full, whereas it would be very difficult to do that with what we have now. We now have a greatly expanded definition and my concern is that, if a lay man were to look at these things, he would find it frankly very difficult to understand. The definitions as they will now stand cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as accessible or clear to members of the public. Of course, I understand the value of this for other reasons, but that is my principal concern.
Therefore, can the Minister explain in simple language how a tradesman who is trying to remain within the law should interpret these new definitions? If that is not possible, why should we adopt these since we are no longer in the EU?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for presenting these draft regulations with such clarity on what I believe is World Metrology Day. I strongly support these regulations, which, as he quite rightly said, do not actually change anything in a legal sense.
The Explanatory Memorandum makes it clear that these regulations are for purposes that are very much in our interest domestically in terms of furthering international trade, high-technology manufacturing, global climate studies, and, very topically, safety and security, as well as basic health and the basic science underpinning these; this is all set out in paragraph 7.3. The Government and the Minister are quite rightly committed to these aims.
I particularly commend the Government on two aspects of their approach. The first is their keeping the devolved Administrations very much in the frame. Coming in the speakers’ list, as I do, between two distinguished Scots, that seems an enlightened thing to support in any event. These are reserved matters, but it represents best practice to share information. The Government are absolutely right to do that and I commend them.
Secondly, the Government are clearly working closely with the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, based in Saint-Cloud, just outside Paris. As the Minister said, we are a founder member of the organisation. Its head is a Briton, the physicist Martin Milton. Clearly, this international engagement is very much in our interest and represents global Britain at its best. I would appreciate it if the Minister could say a little more about engagement with the bureau. It is very important that we engage with international organisations going forward, and not just this one. Involving as it does 102 member states and associate states, this is very much an international body. As I understand it, this does not have a European Union dimension at all; it is truly international across the piece.
As I say, I strongly support these regulations. They do not change the law, but represent best practice and are very much in the United Kingdom’s interest.
My Lords, I am very pleased to follow such a noble and distinguished Welshman. I too thank the Minister for his fascinating introduction, particularly his remarks on the platinum lump near Paris used to define the kilogram. He will therefore not object when I remind him that it was also the French who created the metre in the 1790s. It was described as being one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole along a meridian through, of course, Paris. That is not an easy thing to calculate, but they did it. Notably, though, its introduction came about following the French Revolution, when the new French Republic wanted to throw its weight behind a new system which distanced itself from the ancien régime—interesting in today’s circumstances.
Let us fast forward many years. I am old enough to remember when we changed from inches, feet and yards, ounces, pounds and tonnes to metres and kilograms, way back in the swinging sixties. However, I am a bit surprised that—given the present Prime Minister and Government, and as we are on a path to what they describe as becoming a free country—we are not being asked to revert to those units, along with our new blue passports.
Given—unfortunately in our case—the motivation to put weight behind a new regime that distances itself from the European Union, to the dismay of many, but not to me, we are still bound to meet our obligation under EU law as applied under the withdrawal agreement, as the Minister said. Positively, as a result, we are continuing to ensure that the United Kingdom keeps abreast with the European Union and worldwide developments on this instance of metrology.
The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, mentioned the devolved authorities. What consultation has taken place with them? In the case of Scotland, is a legislative consent Motion required and, if so, what is its current position in consideration? Since this movement is to ensure uniformity across the world, have these changes been discussed with our Crown dependencies and overseas territories to make sure they are also in line? I alerted the Minister to these questions, and I will be interested in his reply.
Finally, I am looking forward to the day when a metre is no longer best known as half the social distance that we are obliged to keep apart, so that we can once again meet in the Palace of Westminster and discuss these matters in a far more convenient and fruitful way.
My Lords, the early 1970s saw a series of changes that I began learning about while at primary school. At that time, many people were confused about how the country was taking steps towards the adoption of metric measurement, decimalisation of the currency and membership of what was then generally still known as the Common Market. There was little awareness in this country about the history of the metric system being adopted in many other countries as older systems, some of them based on units set in Roman times, were replaced.
It was not appreciated by everyone in the UK at the time that we remained free to sell pints of beer, use road signs based on yards and speed limits set in miles. Governments did little to persuade people that metrication was not being forced upon us in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, described French revolutionaries and the Emperor Napoleon doing some two centuries ago. This failure accounts for some of the prejudice against metric systems, even though they have been central to arrangements that allow countries to trade successfully with each other.
As my noble friend Lady Northover said, they have had an important role in public safety as well as protecting consumer interests. International standards are generally a good thing, which is why this order makes sense. The principle of international standardisation was recognised in the Weights and Measures Act 1824, but that applied only to the British Empire as we sought to impose the standard imperial system of weights and measures upon it. Parliamentary Select Committees throughout the 19th century kept recommending the general adoption of metric systems, only for progress to be blocked for fear of a public backlash.
Meanwhile, British scientists were at the forefront of the metrication movement. It was the British Association for the Advancement of Science that promoted the centimetre, gram, second system of units as a coherent method of measurement. It was the British firm Johnson Matthey that was accepted by the General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1889 to cast the international prototype metre and kilogram, although it was not until 1965 that the UK began an official programme of metrication. We have dragged our feet or, I should say, our 30 centimetres on this. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us on progress on metrication generally, given the importance of international standards to trade.
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on so expertly taking us through the order today. I hope noble Lords will spare a thought for my late mother who, having been brought up in Denmark where she was used to metrication, moved to the UK in 1948, where she learned a whole new times table of feet and inches, only to have to revert back to metrication in the 1960s and 1970s.
Following on from what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said about potential criminal offences, can my noble friend explain what the role of trading standards officers in England will be when this change is applied and what resources are available to them? I cannot imagine the number, so perhaps he can say how many infringements there have been. I am conscious of the fact that trading standards officers, and local authorities generally, will have a huge draw on their resources, particularly with regard to Covid-19. It would be interesting to know how much pressure this will put on them.
My noble friend did not refer to the consultation, but the statutory instrument states that the Secretary of State consulted a range of bodies. Will my noble friend explain how wide that consultation was and what form it took?
There is clearly a different system in Northern Ireland. Can my noble friend give assurances that there are no problems on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in so far as any different standards that might apply? I assume that Northern Ireland will simply apply this order separately.
What future relationship will we have with the International Bureau of Weights and Measures? We have always been there as a sovereign state. Will that continue on the same basis?
With those few remarks, I welcome the order and the opportunity I have had to learn a great deal more about the metre and the kilogram than I perhaps knew in the past.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, on the clarity of his exposition at the start of the debate on this very complex matter. It is also nice to see him at the virtual Dispatch Box once again. To tell the truth, I am rather missing him from all the debates that we had together on Brexit. It is a shame, in a way, that he has gone to another department—certainly his successor does not appear to wish to engage the House on the issues of our future relationship with Europe in quite the same depth that he was so nobly and willingly keen to do—so it is a pleasure to be debating something with him again today.
This is essentially a very technical measure; I thought the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, put it very well in explaining its importance. However, in the past this business of weights and measures has of course been of no small amount of political significance. I would just like to make some comments on that.
We will all remember the great brouhaha of the early 2000s about the “Metric Martyrs”, the refusal of traders in some of our markets to go along with these standards. They were taken to court, and this was described by the Daily Mail as the EU’s “bureaucratic bullying”. I think it was described by many people who were opponents of the EU at the time as a classic example of the EU bullying its way into something that good Brits wanted to have nothing to do with. What makes the row about the Metric Martyrs quite poignant is that, of course, one of the people who were greatly involved in it was a man called Mr Steve Thoburn, a trader in Sunderland. It was a case involving Sunderland City Council that brought this issue to prominence, and of course Sunderland was the city that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.
Yes. I believe that the Government should now be acknowledging that this issue is nothing to do with EU sovereignty but was to do with international standards, and that it is desirable for Britain fully to follow international standards. I humbly suggest that the Minister, as a former North East MEP, writes to the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and all those others—
My Lords, it may be worth remembering that the time recommended for each contribution is three minutes. On that basis, I now call the noble Lord, Lord Wei.
My Lords, I also thank the Minister for the clarity of his opening remarks. I welcome this change. I am going to disagree with the previous speaker and some of the others, because I believe that there is an interesting nuance to this measure and its context that goes way beyond the debate around the metric system versus imperial.
In fact, it is true to say that Britain and British scientists and thinkers have played a key role in developing the metric system, with the likes of Kelvin and, more recently, Kibble, who developed some of the techniques that have led to the current definitions that we are discussing today. Undoubtedly, in future the accuracy that this change will bring will be of great benefit in many fields: astronomy, quantum physics, computing and telecommunications, as well as more generally in business.
To me, this measure starts to potentially exemplify a positive trend towards decentralising control. No longer will we need to reference a lump of metal in Paris; we can actually develop our own understanding of these measures in laboratories in Britain. I am therefore saddened that the Explanatory Note says that we have to align with Europe in order to develop these standards. We were part of developing this system, so I do not think we necessarily need to reference any other country. In my view, we need to be able to make our own decisions, especially with Brexit, sovereignly about what measures we want to move forwards, and if our choice is to align with international standards then that should be our choice.
I have a question for the Minister: until recently there were apparently only two laboratories in this country that had the instruments to do these measurements. I would be keen to know whether there are more labs that have been equipped, resourced and encouraged to make these measurements on a regular basis around the country, so that we can decentralise even away from London or wherever we take our national standard from, and local communities, local scientists and manufacturers of weight and measurement instruments can actually develop these standards in accordance with the natural norms of the Planck measurement and so on.
I welcome this move and, while I would not say that it is necessarily about internationalism, although it is good to have common standards for trade, I would encourage the Government to give us clarity in the coming months and years on how we will develop our own sovereign decision-making on this. For example, will future decisions on changes are made to this system and others fall under the purview of chief scientists?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear, concise and measured introduction. Weights and measures are critical to almost every element of life, not least trade. We are in an enviable position here in the UK because of the National Physical Laboratory and indeed the UK Accreditation System which is ably chaired by my noble friend Lord Lindsay, and I pay tribute to him for all his work in that area. Given that, can my noble friend the Minister say how the Government will use the advantage we have across weights and measures standards in the post-Brexit world? I believe that we have a clear competitive advantage that we can exploit. This demonstrates that weights and measures are not just about quantity; they are also about quality.
I was lucky enough to be one of the directors of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Whenever we were asked to give a sense of how big something was in terms of space, we would use football pitches. If it was for length or height, we used London double-decker buses. This instrument shows that we have clear, accurate and world-leading means of taking measurements, many of them stemming from our history here in the UK. It is perhaps a shame that we are not bringing these regulations into force on the anniversary of the Metre Convention, but it is excellent that this debate is being held on its anniversary, the title for which is “Measurements for global trade”—just so.
Will the Minister consider what the most difficult unit of measurement is and how he would go about measuring it? I refer to the House of Lords minute. I wish these regulations godspeed—however we choose to measure that.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for giving us the chance to speak on this important subject. Indeed, we used to speak of nothing else but the Planck and Avogrado constants in the Bishops’ Bar, so let me make some mischievous points today.
The current definitions have been in effect since 1985, and they have worked perfectly. Since 1889, the IPK has been used to define the mass of the kilogram. It is a golf ball-sized object made of 90% platinum and 10% iridium and is regarded as the most perfect object to define its weight because of its stability. There is the original IPK itself, six sister copies and hundreds of national prototypes that are held by world Governments.
The excuse for this change is that the boffins say that the IPKs are unstable because their weight varies over time by up to the weight of 50 specks of dust. Their masses are calibrated as offset values. For instance, K20, the US’s primary standard, originally had an official mass of 1 kilogram minus 39 micrograms in 1889. In 1948, it was down 19 micrograms, or 19 specks of dust, but the latest verification shows it to be precisely identical to its original 1889 value. These specks of dust variations are accounted for all the time by using offset values. It is like the North Pole and magnetic variation, which everyone simply recalculates by taking the variation into account. For 130 years, there has never been a problem with any national IPK distorting the weight of a kilogram, so why change it?
The 1985 Act states that a metre is defined as:
“the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second.”
Can my noble friend tell the House whether that simple definition has caused any errors over the past 35 years? Have there been critical measurement mistakes because the second has not been defined as
“taking the fixed numerical value of the caesium frequency Delta nu caesium, the unperturbed ground-state hyperfine transition frequency of the caesium 133 atom.”
Will I have to return my tape measure to B&Q since the metre scale no longer corresponds to 1.09361 yards? Will the Minister tell us what practical differences these changes will make?
In conclusion, I would prefer my noble friend to tackle the law-breaking by many councils which are illegally introducing metric measures on road signs. The law is absolutely clear: metric units are not permitted on distance signs, whether by themselves or in conjunction with imperial units. Distances must be in miles and yards only, and that applies to all traffic signs, not just those for motorists. Yet there are countless examples of councils erecting illegal signs in metric units. Will my noble friend therefore take up this matter urgently with the Department for Transport to make sure that all councils obey the law of this country and not what they might wish it to be?
My Lords, those who review Hansard tomorrow may find the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, using words that they never expected him to utter. I think that many of your Lordships have been going back to their science, chemistry and physics lessons to prepare for this debate. As a science graduate, it is a pleasure to hear a bit of science, albeit in this context. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, questioning the Minister about the unit of time used to measure Members’ speeches. I have been allocated eight minutes for this summation, and I believe that I will use less than that, which will make up for some of the other, more elastic interpretations of the minute.
I join other speakers who have commended the Minister on the clarity of his explanation. This is a challenging piece of secondary legislation, and he has done a magnificent job in explaining it, so much so that I feel that there may be a future in home schooling or suchlike for him, so I congratulate him.
During the Brexit campaign, there were many spurious reports about people campaigning or indeed being told that exit was an opportunity to return to the great British verities of pounds and ounces in our shops; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, reflected a little of that in his speech. I am therefore pleased that the Minister is sticking to his metres, and I am relieved by his reassurance, which I hope will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that this will not change the weight of potatoes in his carrier bag.
The question on reinforcement asked by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, is important, and the general enforcement of weights and measures is the sharp end of this Bill.
It is difficult to introduce anything that has not been said around the Bill. However, I have a point around internationalism, which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and my noble friend Lady Northover, were particularly adept at introducing. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, made the point that the metre was originally adopted in 1799, and my noble friend Lady Northover set out the internationalism aspect. In effect, this is a parable of international co-operation, which was to a large extent European. We are dealing here of course with the metre and the kilogram, but the whole suite of SI measurements rests on a foundation of seven defining constants.
The noble Lord, Lord Wei, and the Minister alluded to the role of UK scientists. Looking back, we have the Planck constant: Max Planck was a German physicist; the Boltzmann constant: Ludwig Boltzmann was Austrian; the Avogadro constant: Amedeo Avogadro was Italian; caesium hyperfine splitting frequency—caesium was discovered by the chemist Bunsen and the physicist Kirchhoff, both of whom were German. The luminous efficacy of specified monochrome source is a harder call, but Joseph Fourier from France is an important precursor of the ability to measure that. However, the Minister and others will be pleased that when we come to the speed of light in a vacuum, I name James Maxwell, the brilliant British scientist, who first proposed light as an electromagnetic wave, as its progenitor. That leaves us with the elementary charge—the charge of a proton. Here we have to thank the American, Robert Millikan, for his famous oil drop experiment—I am sure all your Lordships remember it—which helps to measure that.
Of course, this is making a point, and the Minister is right to highlight the role of British institutions and scientists in this. However, the SI system is founded on centuries of international scientific co-operation. This is, therefore, an opportunity to speak up for international scientific co-operation. Long may it continue. These days, never has it been more needed to combat the situation we find ourselves in.
My noble friend Lord Rennard and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, talked about the history of weights and measures. I think the history of science and co-operation is a much more important aspect. Schemes such as Erasmus and Horizon Europe are the basis on which European scientific co-operation were founded. I hope the Minister agrees that these are very important and must continue, so that we can continue to do the important things that this SI sits beneath. I also hope he shares my wish that the immigration Bill is not used to make things harder for scientists, technicians and their families to contribute to the future of science in this country.
I welcome this SI and the debate we have had and look forward to the answers the Minister can give us, particularly on the questions about enforcement. Overall, in a world in which unilateralism is seen to be the name of the game, this is a beam of multilateral light.
My Lords, it seems an amazing slice of luck that we are debating this on World Metrology Day, which—as others have noted—celebrates the signing of the Metre Convention by 17 nations, most of them European, in 1875. It sought to co-ordinate international measurements and the development of the metric system. I congratulate the Minister on the clarity of his exposition. I thought I detected an internationalist, perhaps even a European, in his tone. As other noble Lords have said, this instrument plays up the importance of international agreements, particularly across trading nations.
Neatly, the current worldwide measurement system is known as the International System of Units, or SI, and today’s SI reflects revisions to this system so that, as colleagues have said, it is based on the fundamental constants of physics and other constants of nature. The seven base units, including metre and kilogram, were therefore redefined. This SI amends the Weights and Measures Act 1985 to reflect this. Despite these changes, a kilogram will still have the same mass and a metre will still be the same length, as colleagues have said. While, like others, I would like to play my part in shortening the 2-metre distance to allow people to get closer to loved ones, I am glad that we use this measurement as a way of ensuring a safe space for social distancing.
As the Minister said, the order partially implements Commission directive 2019/1258. However, perhaps he could give us some clarity on what parts of the Commission directive are not implemented and why. Does the UK want to continue reflecting the EU’s metrological definitions after the transition period? We need an answer to that.
As I understand it, this order is connected with similar regulations from last year. All come into force on 13 June this year. Does the Minister know of any issues in how these regulations interact with each other? Such changes seem small in comparison with the extreme events of the moment, and rightly so, but they remain important. I was struck by the aim of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures to ensure that our measurement system is uniform and accessible worldwide for the purposes of international trade, human health and safety and, most importantly, the protection of the environment.
I have enjoyed this wide-ranging debate, particularly the contributions from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and the noble Lord, Lord Fox, with his plea for internationalism. I hope the Minister can assure us that internationalism will remain at the heart of our measures on weights and measures. I support these changes.
My Lords, I too thank noble Lords for their valuable contributions to what I thought was an extremely interesting, albeit short, debate. Of course, metrology is a subject that may at times seem a little remote and archaic, but it is actually of fundamental importance to all our lives: from the medical weighing of babies to the food that we eat, metrology affects us all in everything we do. As soon as humans started to trade, they needed common units: for measurements to have meaning, they must use common standards. That is why it is so important that we have agreed global standards that can ensure accuracy wherever they are used. I remind noble Lords once again of the huge volume of goods sold in the UK alone on the basis of measurement of their quantity. It is £342 billion- worth of goods, equating to £6.23 billion every week; and a further £280 billion-worth of goods per year are weighed or measured at the business-to-business level.
I shall now address some of the points raised during the debate. I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, for his very kind remarks: I too enjoyed sparring with him over Europe, and I am sure there will be lots of opportunity to do that in the future. I can confirm, in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, that we do have capacity to build our own mechanisms now that we have left the EU, and that the Government are committed to maintaining the UK’s role as a leader in international metrology and in science.
In answer to the queries raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, no tradesmen will have to change their practices as a result of these changes. The value of the units of measurement themselves are not changing, as I said in my introduction: a kilogram will still weigh the same as before the definitions are amended. We are adopting the new definitions to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of metrology, which is where we want to be, and, while this does implement a European directive, which we have agreed—of course, we are obliged to do so under the withdrawal agreement—that is not the most significant aspect from our policy perspective. These changes have the support of the British science community, led by the National Physical Laboratory, and they reflect our ambition for the UK to remain a leader in international science.
My old sparring partner, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, raised the question of a legislative consent Motion. I am pleased to tell him that units and standards of weights and measurement are reserved in Scotland under Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, and therefore it was not necessary for any legislative consent Motion to be tabled. That said, of course we have made contact with all the devolved Administrations to inform them of the proposed changes, and no objections have been raised. I can also confirm that this order does not extend to Crown dependencies or British Overseas Territories. These are separate jurisdictions and must make their own provision for updated units of measurement.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, raised the question of progress on metrication. The Government recognise that many people have an attachment to the imperial system and a preference to use imperial units in their day-to-day lives. At the same time, we recognise that the majority are not familiar with imperial units and that the use of metric is a necessity for British businesses to compete in markets around the world. The system that we have in the UK takes account of both preferences—the need for both imperial and a single, comprehensive set of units of measurement—by allowing for indications, in trade use, to be provided in imperial and metric, as people so choose.
It is important that consumers can tell how much of a product they are buying so that they can easily make comparisons to identify the best deal. Being able to compare prices and quantities is a fundamental principle of fair trade, and that is why, on the whole, today we have a single metric system of units of measurement. However, now that we have left the EU—much to the chagrin of the noble Lord, Lord Liddle—it is entirely for the UK alone to decide on any future approach to meet the needs of all British people and businesses.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering asked about enforcement. I can confirm that trading standards’ responsibilities and resources are not affected. Enforcement of the Weights and Measures Act will remain the responsibility of local authority trading standards departments.
In response to the question about consultation, statutory consultation was undertaken in accordance with the requirements of the enabling powers in the Weights and Measures Act. On 15 August 2019, the Government wrote to organisations representative of those with an interest in the changes, setting out the approach that we intended to take to update the legislation and seeking their views. They were asked to respond by 27 August 2019.
I can give my noble friend the names of some of the consultees: the National Physical Laboratory; the British Standards Institution; the UK’s national accreditation body, UKAS; the Royal Society; the Royal Academy of Engineering; the Institute of Physics; the Institute of Measurement and Control; the Legal Metrology Experts Group, representing trading standards departments; and the UK Weighing Federation, representing manufacturers of weighing equipment. Discussions were also held with the NPL, and no concerns were raised by any of the stakeholders. As I said earlier, a statutory consultation was undertaken in accordance with the requirements of the enabling powers.
The statutory instrument before your Lordships will bring in, on 30 June, the changes that are needed to maintain pace with the international definitions. I close by reiterating that no policy change is involved here. Although it is important, this is simply a technical change to ensure that the UK is in step with the rest of the world. In making the change, we will also be meeting our obligations in line with the EU withdrawal agreement. A kilogram will weigh the same as before the definitions were amended and a metre will still be the same length, but now they will be based on the most up-to-date science. I commend this draft instrument to the House.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.