Skip to main content

Decimal System

Volume 515: debated on Tuesday 12 May 1953

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [ Sir H. Butcher.]

11.26 p.m.

I rise this evening to bring to the attention of the House a matter that sooner or later will have to provide a change both in our trading system and in our educational system. I refer to going over from the old-fashioned system of arithmetic to the decimal system. Speaking of the decimal system, we have to make clear the distinction of two facts. There is the question of decimal currency and the metric system. Of all the nations in the world I believe we are the only great trading nation that has not gone over to the decimal currency. Even so, a great many of our own Dependencies, Colonies and Dominions have gone over to decimal currency. I refer to the West Indies, to East Africa, Ceylon and Canada. We do not know what difference the fact of Canada going over to the dollar system has made in our trade with that great Dominion.

I was listening on the wireless last week to a commentary which referred to the great trade, both import and export, which Canada had with the United States, and we have to find out how much of that is due to the fact that Canada has gone over to the dollar system, which is a decimal currency. There is a very good decimal currency in our East African possessions, Zanzibar, Uganda, Tanganyika and Kenya, which is based on the shilling. For instance, threepence is 25 cents, sixpence is 50 cents, ninepence is 75 cents and a shilling is 100 cents. You can take your English money there, and they will give you your change for any English money in their own decimal currency. It works easily and it could work in this country without any difficulty at all.

This brings me face to face with a very important Report which has been brought to the attention of the British public. It has been made to the Secretary for Overseas Trade by a Commission which has been visiting the Caribbean. I am going a little wider in this debate this evening because this Report was published after I had indicated the subject of tonight's debate. It links up with it, because the importance of the Report and of the Commission is this; there are 12 Caribbean Republics, and they are all dollar-paying. I have been maintaining for the last four years in speech after speech in this House and in books and articles which I have written that it would be far wiser for us to get our dollars from this part of the world rather than to try to get them from the United States.

In 1948, I told Sir Stafford Cripps, that sooner or later our goods would become competitive in the United States, who would then raise their tariffs to keep us out. That is only natural when a manufacturing country competes against another manufacturing country within its own borders. There are 70 or 80 millions of people in those 12 Republics who like us and want to trade with us. Instead of diverting goods to them and getting dollars, we are insisting upon trying to force our goods into the United States, upon an unwilling market.

Since that time I have tried again and again to make the Government realise the importance of these 12 Republics. I appealed to the late Sir Stafford Cripps while he was President of the Board of Trade, and again when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, urging that these were dollar-paying countries, have a big market and were not manufacturing countries. They have no domestic field to shelter, and they will allow competition as active as you like in their country without trying to raise tariffs to keep our goods out.

We can far better deal with those countries if we adopt the metric system. We cannot expect people whom we want to buy our goods to mess about working out our farthings, pence, shillings and pounds, and inches, feet and yards, when they can trade with many other countries on the metric system. This system is very easy, while ours is very complicated. We learn that 24 grains make one scruple and three scruples make one gram, while even our ounces are of different weights. Troy ounces are different from ounces avoirdupois. The metric system is always done with tens. Our numbers 10, 100 and 1,000 work on a decimal system, but our weights and measures do not. If we wish to sell our goods, we shall not be able to do so on our old-fashioned weights and monetary systems.

In this Report Brigadier Crosland whom the Secretary for Overseas Trade sent to the Caribbean, largely on my urging that here was a possibility of acquiring dollars, says:
"Prices and terms must be in a decimal currency and the metric system."
Whereas I could not persuade the last Government, the present Secretary for Overseas Trade sees the wisdom of it; but I warn him that without the metric system he will not get that trade. We shall have to look to other places than the United States for our dollars, because exactly what I warned the Government about is happening. The United States is forcing up its tariffs against us. We know what happened recently over the Chief Joseph Dam tenders, when this country outbid every American tender and offered highly competitive quality and dates of delivery. Instead of accepting the British tender the Americans have asked for new tenders.

We have seen what has happened over the Comet aircraft. Our machines proved to be the best in the world, and the Americans are not going to allow their companies to use the Comets. Lord Brabazon said that it was with astonishment that it was learned that America was refusing to validate our certificates. They said that they had no experience on which to base their assessment of our calculations. After the war, when we had no large ocean-crossing aircraft, we had to buy Constellations. Now, when we are putting better machines into the air than they can produce, they are adopting every artifice they can to prevent American Companies buying Comets. Recently, Mr. Simpson introduced into the House of Representatives a Bill to:
"deprive the President of his power to lower tariffs and that Congress should take over the job of tariff making."
If tariffs are raised higher it will be impossible for us to compete in that country.

Are we to continue trying to force our goods into the United States, or are we going to take advantage of the opportunity which we ought not to have neglected four years ago, when I first raised the matter here? The market could have been ours then. Now we shall have competitors. One big order which we might have got from Venezuela has gone to Italy. Germany will be compet- ing. If we could capture the markets in the Caribbean area we would have permanent markets from which to draw dollars. There are between 70 million and 80 million people there, and manufactured goods have to be imported. If we produced the right goods at the right prices we shall have an equal opportunity of competing in those markets.

I warn the Secretary for Overseas Trade that if he hopes to capture that market he must go over to the metric system, or he will be putting an obstacle in his own path. We shall not get these people to waste time with our obsolete measurements, which are pretty well abolished all over the world, when they can get their needs supplied in the simple metric system. We shall either have to quote in dollars or go over to a proper decimal currency ourselves.

Does the hon. Member seriously think that we should have got the Venezuelan contract if we had had a decimal system, in the face of the other much stronger forces which are at work at the moment?

I do not know the details, but I know the countries of which I am speaking. I have addressed their Parliaments and spoken to their leading politicians. We should certainly have stood a much better chance if we had quoted in the metric system.

All British estimates and tenders are quoted in the currency of the country to which we want to sell. We do not quote in pounds, shillings and pence but in dollars, or whatever is the currency of the country concerned.

I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman has misunderstood my point. I can name a dozen cases where that is not so.

I have explained what happened in that case. We had done everything as it should have been done, but unfair methods were employed against us. Instead of trying to force our way into this market we should take advantage of the possibility of working our way quickly into the markets in this Caribbean area, where we can earn dollars. Our biggest export to the United States is whisky, and they will take that whether or not we force it on them; but they are actively engaged in keeping out our manufactured goods which compete with their own interests in the United States.

This is an important matter. Sooner or later the market in the United States will be very difficult for us. It will not be a case of competition but of obstruction, and if we have to get dollars, the only other opportunity we have is to trade with the Caribbean countries. I advise the Secretary of Overseas Trade to study these countries properly. I thank him for having told me, "It is on your persuasian, because of your book and your writings that we have sent this Mission out." The Mission has come back with a very favourable report. It may be that we have got some orders in spite of our obsolete methods of arithmetic, but it will be much easier to get orders if we trade with these people in a system of calculation which they can understand.

11.44 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Follick) for the manner in which he has raised this interesting subject. The hon. Member started his speech by stressing the matter of increased instruction in the use of the decimal system. This is a matter which affects both schools and commerce. I propose to deal mainly with the use of decimals—and, more particularly, with the metric system—in connection with its effect on our overseas trade.

First, let me say a word about instruction in schools. This is not a matter which affects the Board of Trade, as the hon. Gentleman will realise. As the hon. Gentleman gave me notice of this I have taken advice on the subject.

It is a traditional and valued feature of our public education system that there is no central control over the curriculum of individual schools. It follows that it is not really possible to generalise about what should be taught, since practice varies generally, but I am advised that the broad picture at present is that the work of most secondary school pupils will involve some study of decimals and that they will acquire some knowledge of the metric system of weights and measures. There can be no question of the Minister of Education requiring schools or instructing them to pay more attention to the teaching of decimals and the metric system, but schools are not blind to the requirements of post-war life, and it can be expected that they will adjust their practice if, for instance, it is clearly shown that children going into commerce and industry require more adequate instruction in the metric system than they at present receive.

From the point of view of the United Kingdom and British industry and commerce the disadvantages of the change over to the metric system, particularly in the present economic circumstances of the country, are quite considerable. But we must look at them. I fully accept the strong case which the hon. Gentleman has made out but we must weigh this carefully before we make any decision. If we switch over too ruthlessly we may be faced with a situation where our weighing and measuring equipment may well have to be modified and the engineering industry particularly would require or might be required to re-equip itself not only with measuring equipment but also with tools, gauges and other implements. Moreover, during the critical situation that might arise during the transition stage from one system to another there might be additional cost involved in holding double stocks of spares, and the countries already using the metric system would be at an advantage.

The Government's attitude to the recommendation on the subject in the Report of the Hodgson Committee on Weights and Measures is contained in a reply given by the President of the Board of Trade on 11th November, 1952, when he said quite categorically:
"Her Majesty's Government are not prepared to proceed with the recommendation for the eventual abandonment of the Imperial for the metric system of weights and measures."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 1952; Vol. 507, c. 28.]
This leaves open the question of how far we should encourage the voluntary use of decimals and the metric system in commerce, particularly overseas. The hon. Gentleman referred very kindly to the suggestion in the Crosland Report. I hope to say a word or two about that, but there are a few general remarks I should like to make about the use of the metric system in international trade.

It is quite true that many countries have adopted this system and we fully recognise the importance of our trade with those countries which include such important markets as some of the O.E.E.C. countries and Latin America. Our first interest in international trade as Britons must be the British Commonwealth of Nations. The Commonwealth countries are our closest friends, our cousins and allies. They are our largest sources of supply for raw materials and food. On the other hand, they form the most important market for our exports, nearly half of which go to those countries. The volume of trade for which the Commonwealth is responsible amounts to about a third of the world's trade.

The Commonwealth countries still use the Imperial weights and measures and, if one includes that great and important market for British products, the United States, one finds that in total nearly half the world's trade is conducted by countries using the Imperial system. We are pledged, as a Government, and, indeed, as a nation—this is not a political matter —to play our part in expanding trade with the Commonwealth and in developing its resources. It is vital for us also to expand, as far as we can, our exports to the United States. We clearly must not attach too much importance to achieving uniformity on the basis of the metric system in weights and measures used in commerce in view of this extremely widespread use of the Imperial system.

I would like to revert to the question of the use of the metric system in connection with our trade with the Caribbean countries since the hon. Gentleman has mentioned this. I know how long he has displayed an interest in this matter. As far back as 1948, he was pressing the then President of the Board of Trade to take action in this matter. He had to wait, unfortunately, for the present Administration to follow his lead. I have his speech here. I would like to congratulate him on his foresight. I have read the hon. Gentleman's interesting book on the subject and share his enthusiasm for developing our trade relations with the "Twelve Republics." I congratulate him too on the efforts he has made and which I shall be glad to follow, as far as I can.

The Crosland Mission's Report is an admirable one. It makes many recom- mendations, amongst which is the questions of weights and measures. These countries are rapidly developing. They offer excellent opportunities for our exports, particularly in capital goods. We want to see a great increase in them. We shall do everything we can to follow up the Commission's Report. One of the many examples I have noted is not only the recommendation on weights and measures, but on the use of the appropriate language. The hon. Gentleman has the great advantage of speaking many languages.

We must see that sales literature and instructional manuals are printed in Spanish or the language concerned. We must see that attention is given to modifications in design or styling to meet the special needs of the market concerned. Attention should be given particularly to market research and packaging. I do not say, for a moment, that exporters are not generally aware of the need for this, but I consider it does occasionally occur that, where exporters are seeking to sell in an unfamiliar market, they miss these small points.

As an example of what the Government are doing, I need only mention the recent extension to the dollar countries of Latin America of the full range of dollar drive facilities, which the Export Credits Guarantee Department have for some time made available for North America, a fact which is not recognised by many people on both sides of this House, in industry, or in the trade unions. I would welcome the assistance of hon. Members on both sides in publicising this. With the co-operation of the Dollar Exports Council, we are vigorously following up the various recommendations made by the Crosland Mission in their Report.

I acknowledge with gratitude the work the hon. Gentleman has done to assist us. I can assure him we shall do our best, but we do not think at present that his recommendation technically can be followed. Our Imperial Commonwealth markets and our Colonial markets are our vital markets, and are our real solution, but we cannot afford to neglect any market, however small, in any country.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Six Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.