Skip to main content

Weights And Measures (Metrication Amendments) Regulations 2001

Volume 623: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2001

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

7.5 p.m.

rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations, laid before the House on 17th January, be annulled (S.I. 2001/85).

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I move this Motion not because of any desire to revert to bushels, pecks, rods, poles and perches, which I remind noble Lords are known throughout the world as imperial measures, but for two reasons: first, because there is absolutely no public or legal demand for it. A survey in November 1997 showed that 74 per cent of the public find feet and inches, pints, pounds and ounces most convenient for their everyday purchases. Most importantly, it showed that 70 per cent of people would prefer a system of dual labelling which would allow the consumer to choose the system which best suited him or her.

Tesco reverted to dual pricing because it found that nine out of 10 of its customers still used imperial measures in their heads. Yet the Government relentlessly pursue their determined drive to abolish those familiar measurements. In my view, that is part of the Government's long-term project to airbrush out our history, including the existence of the United Kingdom, the traditions and status of Parliament itself, in both Houses, and the reduction of England into petty regions in the style of French départements and German Länder.

The date of the survey that I have just mentioned is significant. In 1989 the previous government obtained a 10-year derogation from the EC directive permitting the sale of loose goods such as meat, fish, vegetables and fruit in pounds and ounces. Despite the fact that the Government had two clear years notice of public opinion before the derogation expired on 31st December 1999, they just allowed the date to go by default without lifting so much as a finger to obtain an extension. That was clearly a deliberate decision on the part of the Government.

In reply to a Question for Written Answer from my honourable friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton in July 1999, which at least would have been a reminder, if the Government amidst their so many other preoccupations had overlooked it, the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs said:

"The Government have not discussed the derogation for goods sold loose with Members of the European Commission".—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/99; col. 583W.]

The result is that it is now illegal to sell bananas by the pound or for children to buy 2 ounces of dolly mixtures. However, it is still permitted under EU law for the equivalent in imperial measures to be shown as so-called "supplements" underneath the metric marking. This is technically called in Eurospeak jargon "supplementary indications" or "dual marking". The regulations that we are discussing today are to put an end to even that dual marking on 31st December 2009. These regulations sound the death knell for pounds and ounces in less than 10 years' time. The question I have to ask is, why?

The same question was raised by some of my right honourable and honourable friends in the other place and answer came there none. The only pathetically specious reply that the Minister could dredge up was:

"The directive is to establish harmonised use of the international system of metric units for education, public health, public safety and administrative services".

Before the Government side gets over-excited, it is true that the previous government signed up to the directive. One was negotiated by the Labour government in 1979 just before the Thatcher government came into office. I shall, if I may, revert to that aspect in a few moments.

I remind your Lordships that we also negotiated the derogation which the Government have deliberately allowed to expire, in the same way that my right honourable friend the former Prime Minister established and negotiated the principle of subsidiarity which the Government waive at every opportunity. The Minister in the other place claimed that imperial measures had to disappear into history because of,

"public health and public safety",

as if people would be fainting in the aisles of Sainsbury's if they were confronted with a label quoting prices in both kilos and pounds; as if an eleventh plague would be visited on us if we were allowed to buy a pound of Cox's Orange Pippins.

Harmonisation is another excuse. Well, I can understand the commercial need not to attempt to sell goods in pounds and ounces to countries that have had the metric system for more than 200 years. But what principle of harmony is breached if some market trader in Sunderland sells his customers bananas by the pound? Even if overseas visitors patronise his store, or even Safeway, surely they will not be insulted if they see a sign containing a so-called "supplementary indication". If millions of British tourists—

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry
(Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness a simple question. The regulations that we are discussing simply allow the supplementary indicators to be continued for another eight years. If we do not have them, we will not have the use of supplementary indicators, which are wholly in the consumer interest.

My Lords, the Minister is not correct in that. If we were to reject the regulations, consumers would gain, choice would gain and the public would gain because we would be going back to what was in place before the regulations were brought forward. Perhaps I may refer to some of the regulations on the back of the instrument; for example, the Measuring Equipment (Capacity Measures and Testing Equipment) Regulations 1995, with which I am sure the Minister is well acquainted. The existing provisions allow for the indefinite marking of gallons, pints, quarts or gills and fluid ounces as a supplementary indication to litres and centilitres. The regulations against which I am praying would insert a cut-off date of 31st December 2009. However, if those were rejected, supplementary marking would still be allowed.

I am perfectly happy to discuss the matter with the Minister after the debate, but I have been advised very clearly that supplementary marking would still be allowed. I believe that the Minister will find that to be the case.

Perhaps I may return to the point I was making. If millions of tourists can cope with litres and kilos when they go on holiday and adapt to driving on the wrong side of the road, I am sure that our visitors can manage with dual pricing when they decide to buy a bag of oranges. In other words, what business is it of Brussels or even of our own authoritarian Government how my local corner shop and its satisfied customers do business?

I said a few moments ago that the previous government accepted the directive subject to the derogation. But it was an earlier Labour government, in their dying days in 1979, who negotiated the original directive which referred to,
"laws which regulate the use of measurement in the member states differ from one member state to another…as a result hinder trade".
Which member states were being talked about? They were the United Kingdom and Eire. In what way do imperial measures hinder trade? That ex cathedra statement is not based on the slightest shred of fact or evidence. Indeed, the United States of America has emphatically rejected metrication. If we do not use imperial measures on, say, pots of our highly prized jam, that will hinder trade, as manufacturers will have to run separate production lines to produce different labels.

My right honourable friend the Member for Wells pointed out in the other place the difference in attitude to regulation between the United Kingdom and the Continent. In France, everything is permitted; in Germany, everything is forbidden unless it is permitted; in the United Kingdom, everything is permitted unless it is forbidden. I had my own experience of that in 1974 when I expanded my mail order business into Germany. I had to negotiate a special licence with the German Post Office because it did not allow one to put envelopes on the outside of packets, even though that is done world-wide.

My right honourable friend in the other place also asked why anyone needs permission to display helpful information. In the hope that in the week that has elapsed since that question was asked in the other place the Government have had the time to think up an answer, I ask the Minister exactly the same question. Indeed, I go further. By what right do the Government seek to censor labels on supermarket shelves of pots of marmalade? If in a free country I decide to put political slogans on my products, there is nothing to stop me, much as this Government may dislike my doing that. I have no need to remind your Lordships how Tate&Lyle comprehensively routed the government of the 1940s—perhaps it was the 1950s: I am not sure—with its brilliant "Mr Cube" campaign opposing the government's plan to nationalise it. If, in exercising my right of free speech, I can include on my jar of home-made pickles, which are very good, a statement about class sizes or hospital waiting lists, or even on the shelves of my shop, why do the Government believe that they are entitled to prohibit me from saying that a kilo of onions costs 78p—equivalent to 35p a pound?

The Government have claimed that that causes confusion. Who does it confuse? The customer can rely on which unit of measure and price he or she chooses. In real life, unless one is among the fortunate few whose greengrocer still delivers—whether it is Fortnum's or the very helpful corner shop—most people do not even buy loose fruit by weight. They pick up six bananas or five apples and the person at the check-out tells them what they cost. So why cannot the customer see the price on the shelf in whatever units he or she is most comfortable with?

If we are going to discuss confusion, perhaps I may remind your Lordships about the confusion that was caused by the last compulsory imposition, without an adequate transition, of metrication on this country. We have just reached the 30th anniversary of the overnight decimalisation of our currency. It was done in a most confusing way. We did not adopt a 10-shilling unit, as was the case in Australia and New Zealand. We stuck to the pound. I do not blame the then Chancellor of the Exchequer—now the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan—personally because he followed the advice that he was given at the time. However, as a result, many people no longer understood what they were paying for anything, when 17 shillings became 85p instead of 1.7 new pounds, sovereigns, or whatever. Older people still have difficulty in relating decimal coinage to the old prices, to real prices or to, as so many people call it, real money.

How many of your Lordships realise that your Evening Standard costs you seven shillings and that it costs 5s 2½d to post a letter? Conversion of petrol pumps to litre pricing only disguises the fact that petrol is now more than £4 a gallon. In the case of metrication, we are not just talking about older people. Tens of millions of our citizens have grown up with pounds and ounces, pints and gallons. Millions of those who were born before Harold Wilson invented the "white heat of technology" in 1963 and introduced the now defunct Metrication Board during his 1964 administration will, it is to be hoped, still be alive in 2009. But the Government are clearly saying that those survivors of the pre-Wilson era will not be worth bothering about in nine years' time. That is a clear act of age discrimination.

While I am talking about confusion—I assume that our benevolent Government want to protect the public from being misled in some way by being given more information than is thought good for them—have your Lordships thought about the confusion that is caused by the change to metric quantities? Butter used to be sold in half pound packets. Now it is sold in a 250 gram pack. But 250 grams is nine ounces, so the supermarkets benefit from a 12½ per cent boost in sales. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, is very well aware of that.

I think that he probably is. But as he made a slight mistake previously about the effect of the regulations, perhaps he is not. I do not know.

On the other hand, the old standard 12 ounce—three-quarters of a pound—pot of jam is now rounded down to 340 grams—just one-eighth of an ounce less; not much less; just 1 per cent less jam today, my Lords, but the public have not noticed. By what piece of bureaucratic nonsense is it all right to inform the public that their pint of milk is equal to 568 millilitres but not that a bunch of grapes, at £2.99 a kilo, is equivalent to £1.36 a pound?

The regulations we are considering today go beyond the requirements of the directive, which merely requires the use of a uniform system of measurement; a directive from which the Government deliberately and consciously lost our opt-out. The directive did not prohibit dual pricing or supplementary marking, but, as is typical of this Government in their dealings with the EU, they are adopting their usual submissive attitude and gold-plating the directive. They have put in an eventual time-limit on dual marking. That is the sole purpose of this regulation.

European Union firms that sell to the United States of America are not permitted to sell only in metric measurements. Imperial marking is also required. The EU has responded by graciously permitting even sellers of pre-packed goods to use dual marking. As I have already mentioned, the EU has taken this further and entirely logical step to prevent the uneconomic need for two different production runs, one for Europe and the other for the United States. Indeed, the EU permits dual marking on goods to be sold within the EU and I understand that it extends that permission even to loose goods such as bananas.

However, the Government wish to prohibit that practice from 2009 onwards, but only for British businesses. Europeans will be permitted to sell their goods in bushels, firkins or any other medieval measurement they may choose, just so long as they also use metric measurements. Britain is to be censored and prohibited by an increasingly despotic Government from doing so after 2009. Again, I shall ask the same, unanswered question, which I think is amusing the Minister. I am glad that I have managed to amuse the noble Lord but I hope that, when he thinks about it, he will realise that this is a serious matter. I shall ask him the same question: why?

What the regulation does is to restrict freedom of expression for no reason or benefit whatsoever. If there is no reason for it or benefit from it, I ask again: why? What have we or the EU to fear from giving British shoppers the choice of how they want the goods they buy to be priced and measured? Do we seriously expect shopkeepers to be prosecuted for telling confused shoppers the weight of the goods in pounds and ounces? Will the Minister, in all seriousness, tell noble Lords categorically, here and now, that a Labour government would support such prosecutions?

Once in a while, a piece of nonsense crosses a Minister's desk, although of course the Minister may see plenty of nonsense passing over his desk. Some of those pieces of nonsense have nothing to do with the real world but, occasionally, there is something that the Minister will be able to do about it. I say this to the Minister: sometimes the pieces of nonsense that pass across his desk do no more than provide work for a few bureaucratic, regulation-loving officials. Advisers are there to advise; Ministers are there to decide. In this case, I look to the Minister to stand up for himself and decide that there is no compelling case for this piece of administrative madness.

This totally purposeless regulation should be revoked. To support that proposition, I should like to reverse the question that I have asked several times in the course of my remarks. I shall quote my personal motto, which reflects my personal philosophy. When I meet an illogical piece of obstinacy, I then say: quare non—and why not?

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations, laid before the House on 17th January, be annulled (S.I. 2001/85).—(Baroness Miller of Hendon.)

My Lords, I shall intervene only briefly because the matter has been covered more than adequately in the speech of the noble Baroness. I am not quite sure what is the correct emotion to demonstrate: should we laugh in scorn at this matter, or should we feel gusts of anger at the humiliation inflicted upon our Parliament by the Brussels authorities, for that is what it is?

First, using a single sentence, I shall try to put this matter into perspective. No one in possession of their senses would have any objection to the adoption of a metric system where it is in the interests of Britain to do so. Many of our traders who conduct most of their business with the Continent find it convenient to use metric units. Those who export primarily to the dollar areas do not, because the recipients of their goods are familiar with imperial units. Common sense rules what decisions are made.

So far as concerns the ordinary consumer, it is only a matter of what is most convenient; namely, what each consumer is most familiar with. There can be no justification at all, in terms of public demand, for getting rid of our traditional system of weights and measures.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I do not wish to prevent noble Lords expressing their views about the metric system or their anti-European sentiments; it is obviously very therapeutic.

I point out again that these extremely limited regulations simply extend for up to a further eight years the period during which pricing using both imperial and metric units can take place. That is all that the regulations will do. Obviously, people have views on metric measurements, but tonight we are debating only that one simple proposition.

My Lords, with respect, the regulations do not simply reiterate the status quo. We are now envisaging for the first time the total suppression of imperial units by a given date—admittedly on 31st December 2009. Why on earth we should have anything to do with the year 2009 is beyond me, unless the Government wish to be provocative.

My Lords, I must insist: a previous EU directive brought all supplementary indicators to an end in 1999. The regulation before the House extends the period during which such indicators can be used for a further 10 years. We have negotiated this extension. If we had not done that, the use of supplementary indicators would have stopped in 1999.

My Lords, if the regulations simply extend the status quo and merely give us a terminal date, we should have taken the opportunity to renegotiate the matter so as to escape from the ludicrous provision we are already saddled with.

Perhaps I may put one or two questions to my noble friend, because they will help to clarify the point. I understand the present situation to be that, in this country, it is unlawful to sell units of goods using imperial measurements. What we are allowed to do—the Minister should blush with shame at this, as should we all—is to display our traditional units as "supplementary indicators".

The term "supplementary indicator" has yet to be fully described or defined. However, I gather that the imperial weights and measures must be less prominently displayed than the metric units. To sell using only those "supplementary indicators" is unlawful; it is unlawful today. As noble Lords know, we are presently awaiting the result of a test case where a Sunderland greengrocer, whose name is Steven Thoburn, sold a pound of bananas as a pound of bananas in his shop in Sunderland. What have they done? They have confiscated his scales and, because he persists in refusing to use metric measurements, they are now trying to inflict further punishments. Perhaps I may ask the Minister what are the maximum punishments under the present regime. Are there prison sentences and fines? We might as well have the details put on the record.

My Lords, we can make a joke about this, but I am concerned with far more important matters here than whether one can buy and sell bananas by the pound. Greater issues are at stake here. This case illustrates what is happening. What is meant by the loss of self-government is that unelected bureaucrats tell the citizens of this country what they can and cannot do, when what they are doing has no relevance at all to the European Union. It is an invasion of freedom. In my view, this House and the other place, which is debating this matter tomorrow, should be up in arms and refuse to re-enact these regulations, thereby giving notice to the authorities in Brussels that we will not stand it any longer.

7.30 p.m.

My Lords, I oppose this Motion. I cannot believe that the noble Baroness will wish to press it because she is far too sensible. The technicalities will be explained by the Minister; I wish to make some general remarks.

First, it is not very sensible to have dual systems. It is no more sensible to continue to show pounds and ounces than it would be to have figures showing pounds, shillings and pence, as in some ways the noble Baroness suggested.

Secondly, it does not have very much to do with the bureaucrats of Brussels. Metrication has an interesting ancestry. There was a unanimous recommendation by a Select Committee of the House of Commons that metrication should be instituted in 1862, which, as I far as I remember, was somewhat earlier than the founding of the Common Market.

The Metrication Board was set up to promote metrication in this country. It was recommended in 1968 by that well-known Europhile, that lackey of Brussels, Mr Douglas Jay. He was backed in this by that other Europhile, Mr Anthony Benn. Metrication was introduced into our schools by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher.

This is not a gigantic plot. Every other country in the world has gone metric. Every Commonwealth country has completed metrication. Is that because they are dominated by the bureaucrats of Brussels? What on earth is the noble Lord, Lord Shore, talking about? It was magnificent Churchillian rhetoric, full of sound and fury, but signified nothing.

These changeovers sometimes cause a fuss. It would have been much easier if we had kept the Metrication Board. I remember decimalisation because I was the Minister in charge of decimalisation in 1968. I remember the great "Save the Sixpence" campaign. The sixpence was given, rather weakly, by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, a reprieve for a certain time. It was meaningless because a sixpence—a 2½p coin—had no place in a metric system, and the 2½p coin duly disappeared.

This really is a great deal of nonsense about nothing. It is a pity that the Decimalisation Board, which did a great job, was not followed in due course by the Metrication Board, which, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, explained, was abolished, I think by him, as one of the first acts of the new government He rather regrets that it was done. The Decimalisation Board was a great success. If the Metrication Board had been, the fuss might be somewhat limited.

Do not let us pretend that this is a great story about domination by Brussels. That has nothing to do with it. Why should all Commonwealth countries have adopted metrication? Why should the United States be adopting it as well?

My Lords, perhaps I may bring the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, back to the issue. It is not a question of whether or not we should adopt metrication; it is whether it should be a criminal offence for someone, after 2009, to display his produce in pounds and ounces as well as in kilos. No one is saying that we should not display in kilos, but we should be able to display in both. That is all that the issue is about.

Some say it will die out—it probably will—but why do we buy from the fishmonger in Barfleur, the fish market, "les huitres: le livre". After all, the French invented metrication and they still use their old bourbon levels of measurement in some markets—they do in the vegetable market in Carcassonne—but they do not get sent to the guillotine or the Temple prison in Paris.

I regret to say that governments of both parties have been prone towards the intolerable habit of over-regulating. There is no need to ban it. When people do not want it, it will die like the sixpence. The difference is fundamental; it is not an attitude of anti-metrication but one of live and let live. I thought—I may be wrong; I am being proved wrong—that the Liberal Democrats believed in that. They obviously do not at the moment. They say, "Let's boss people about". The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, may split the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, I do not know, but that is the issue.

I pride myself on being what can be called a "xenophiliac". I rather dislike the way that Brussels governs us, and the two are not mutually exclusive. That is why we should be able to love the pound and love kilos and not send people to the galleys, the guillotine, the Temple or fine them two thousand quid.

My Lords, I am sorry that I was not here for the opening moments of my noble friend's eloquent and emotional speech. It was effective in its way, as always. It matched in emotional content the speech of my old sparring partner, the noble Lord, Lord Shore. However, as a former Minister for metrication—if I may get that on the record—I find the existence of this debate, with its hugely generated emotions, in itself a very sad commentary on the lack of skill and, quite frankly, the lack of candour with which we have set about the metrication process. It is a very distressing state of affairs.

I say "we" because all parties have connived in quiescence and a lack of candour. We have never secured a statutory endorsement by Parliament, which was a mistake. Even as I see the smile on the face of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, I say "we" because his party colleague, the Member for Weston-Super-Mare, Mr Brian Cotter, has made speeches of matching eloquent emotionalism to the ones we have already heard. So it is an all-party shambles.

The myths which underlie the shambles are, first—this has been dealt with already—that this is the fruit of some hideous alien imposition. It is true that it was the French revolutionaries who first started designing the metric system. They had the courtesy, rather remarkably, to ask the then British government to attend consultations about how to do it. With a better excuse in those days than in the present circumstances, the British Government declined the offer.

The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, is right that in 1862 a unanimous Select Committee of the Commons recommended metrication because, in its view, no country—especially no commercial country—should fail to adopt the metric system, which would save time and lessen labour. Nine years later, by five votes only, the House of Commons failed to endorse metrication and decimalisation simultaneously. Decimalisation then would have cost trade £3 million; decimalisation 100 years later in 1971—a long delay even for this country—cost £300 million. That is one of the prices we have paid for it.

Successively, the Hodgson committee appointed by Lord Attlee unanimously recommended metrication in our national interests; the Metrication Board was set up in our national interests; and in 1972 we started teaching our children in metric measures in our national interests. While I was waiting for the debate to begin I was talking to an old friend of mine in Port Talbot, a retired primary school headmistress. I mentioned what we were about to embark upon, and she said how upset she had been when she had taught all the children going through her primary school in metric measures, as she was led to understand was necessary, and found that when they moved on to their secondary schools they were back to imperial measures again. That is no way to run a country.

It is wrong to believe that this is an alien imposition; it is wrong to believe that it is intrinsically bad; it is, above all, wrong to believe that we can continue indefinitely living in a twilight world with both systems having a kind of equal parity. If we were the first Commonwealth country to embark on metrication and are now the only one not to have completed it, does not that lead one to question why we alone have to have this extraordinarily emotional excitement?

It is partly because we have allowed the thing to come among us now in European dress. In 1972, when the Heath government published the metrication White Paper, even that was published before we joined the European Community. We have made the mistake of relying upon that background instead of saying, "Look, guys, this is for us" to the British people. Canada, Kenya, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have done it. New Zealand started it in 1972 and finished it in 1977. If you do it with a properly designed, sustained educative process, you do not need to contemplate prosecution.

My noble friend was right to refer to the use of the livre on the French coast. I have bought a livre of moules marinières in Barfleur. But the livre is a residual designation of a demi-kilo. There would be confusion unless we got it clear in this country that the pound, if we wanted to go on using it, was now to be understood as meaning 500 grams or half a kilo.

The tragedy is that we have not carried this process through in a sensible, systematic fashion. That is something of which we all ought to be collectively ashamed. To have successive governments saying that this is the way we are going, introducing measures to achieve it and letting the schools embark upon it, and successive oppositions remaining hugely excited about it, is not the way to run an adult democracy. I am very sad that that we still find ourselves in that age.

I grieve deeply that, not just my honourable friends—with whom I am very friendly—but the noble Lord, Lord Shore, with whom I am normally on very good personal terms, as I am indeed now, and I should find ourselves divided in this extraordinary fashion at the beginning of the 21st century over a system that we ought to have adopted in the middle of the 19th century.

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, was correct in one of his remarks and incorrect in another. I am not, and am not likely to be, a Front Bench spokesman for this party. That is partly because I do not intend to speak up for my noble friend Lord Taverne on this occasion.

I do not believe that this debate is "much ado about nothing". The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and my noble friend Lord Taverne are too rational about the issues involved. Little things sometimes mean a lot to "little people", as Dickens called them. We need to understand about the European Union. I make no bones about the fact that I am a complete supporter o f our membership of the European Union. But people need to understand that the public in this country are not in love with the EU. They find it bureaucratic, distant, impersonal and arrogant. I believe that the way in which this whole question of measurement has been dealt with is a classic example of just that—as well as, I concede, a failure on our part to be sensible in the way in which we have dealt with education.

People feel put upon by bureaucratic busybodies and, frankly, they feel put upon by us. This is a good example of how we often fail in our duty. I say to the Minister that it is true that we are talking about a derogation for 10 years. But what those of us who are in favour of the Motion disagree with is the guillotine that will come down at the end of 2009 and which will make illegal thereafter any use of alternative, supplementary or additional measurements. That is what I disagree with; and I believe that the House should have disagreed with the previous derogation Motion.

Let us consider what we are dealing with. In Halsbury's Statutes there are 175 pages dealing with weights and measures. The Weights and Measures Act 1985 has 122 pages; and 28 EC Council directives dealing with, weights and measures are still in force. The directives have been amended many times. Let us take, for example, the directive dated 15th January 1980 on,
"Ranges of Nominal Quantities and Nominal Capacities Permitted for Certain Pre-packed Products"—
a snappy little title! We find that the EC Council directive of 1980 was amended by another directive in 1985, another in 1989—the occasion giving rise to the matter with which we are dealing, when, I believe I am right in thinking, Douglas Hurd and Francis Maude were present at the Council which approved the directive from which this comes. Then there were the Units of Measurement Regulations 1986. Those regulations have since been amended on several occasions: three time in 1994, and again in 1995. Trying to get to the bottom of this matter is a nightmare; and that in itself tells us something that we need to hear.

My point is a simple one. On 1st January 2010, it will become a criminal offence for any small trader, shopkeeper or market stall holder to have additional measurements along with the metric measurements relating to any goods for sale. If someone goes up to a small shopkeeper or trader on 1st January 2010 and asks for a pound of apples, the trader will be committing a criminal offence if he supplies them. That is like something out of Alice in Wonderland. It is a nonsense. Above all, it is completely unnecessary. I have studiously tried to understand this, and there is no single justification for such criminalisation.

No one is damaged by allowing the supplementary measurements; no great principle of European trade is traversed by allowing them. Indeed, if one is talking about damage, surely the damage is to the many, many consumers who will understand only our traditional measurements. Let us not forget that the latest survey indicates that 93 per cent of the population prefer to deal in traditional measurements. I believe that we shall find that anyone who is over the age of 40 will in 10 years' time be completely lost if he or she has no alternative indicators. Only bottles of milk and pints of beer and cider will then be allowed in traditional measurements.

My point is that there is a basic libertarian issue here. It is easy for some to say that it does not matter, that it is silly. My noble friend Lord Taverne said that it is not sensible. We are not dealing with sense; we are dealing with choice, and with the right of people to express themselves as they think fit. Measurements are a mode of expression like anything else.

It is easy for this House to fall into the managerial attitudes that are now so prevalent, but it is dangerous. It is dangerous because it alienates the very people whom we as a Parliament ought to be setting out to woo. Those of us who do not want the backlash against the European Union to gather force to the point where the time may come when a party will go to the public seeking withdrawal from the European Union need to understand what people resent and why they resent it. Unless there is a good reason for making it a criminal offence on 1st January 2010 for people to supply goods in alternative measurements—I do not believe that there is one—we damage the cause of the European Union. For that reason, I am strongly against the criminality provision that will come into force at the end of the 10-year period.

7.45 p.m.

My Lords, I assure the House that I shall be brief. I am slightly mystified by this debate. Frankly, I did not intend listening to it, but I was told that it was a matter of some importance and of some constitutional note, so I came into the Chamber. I was greeted with what I had, frankly, slightly expected. I heard a speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, which was passionate—certainly that came across. There was an argument there, although, if I may respectfully say so, one had to dig for it a little in order to try to decipher it. I heard the speech of my noble friend Lord Shore, which was Churchillian in its tone and which seemed to elevate what is, after all, a fairly small issue into Trafalgar, Waterloo, Dunkirk, the beaches: "We must stand and defy these terrible people who somehow or other are going to eat into our liberties".

Then we heard the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. I told the noble Earl earlier, and I shall repeat my remark to the House, that I have begun noting the length of time that it takes him to get to his feet from when he first comes through the door into the Chamber. That interval is getting shorter—

No, my Lords. Perhaps I may, first, amuse the noble Lord before he decides that he must respond.

We have had the benefit of the noble Earl's contributions on two occasions today in what is probably his first appearance for some time. I hope that the noble Earl comes to the House more often. When he comes, he is entertaining; indeed, we all enjoy seeing him. Some of us enjoy listening to him, as long as he does not go on for too long.

We have, again, heard this great libertarian issue. Does the noble Earl wish to intervene now?

My Lords, my only slight defence was that I did arrive slightly late for the Question on fishing that was dealt with earlier today. The noble Lord is right to say that I was fairly sharpish off my feet at that time. However, on this occasion I had made a plan; namely, to arrive, to listen to the opening speech and to the other speakers, and then to intervene with what I hoped would be a constructive and libertarian contribution. The noble Lord may not agree with what I said, but then he is excellent at not agreeing; indeed, he is excellent at showing disdain of a rather patrician kind, which we all have known and have grown to love. But at least three of us can play this game.

My Lords, I am bound to say that to be accused by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, of being patrician seems to me to be a somewhat astonishing proposition even at this hour of the night, and on this particular issue.

We also heard from the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, who said that this is a basic libertarian issue. That was greeted by a chorus of "Hear, hear!" from those on the other side of the Chamber. This is not a libertarian issue. The noble Lord said how terrible it will be when this becomes a criminal offence on 1st January 2010. That prospect seems to appal the other side. It is a very strange way to be appalled: they are appalled by a criminal offence coming into being on 1st January 2010, yet they seem to want it to come into being on 1st January 2001. With respect, that is precisely what will happen if this derogation is not granted.

My Lords, I urge noble Lords opposite to try to follow the argument. That is being a bit patrician! Indeed, it could have come from the lips of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. It is going to be a criminal offence on 1st January 2010 if the derogation goes through. However, as I understand it, if it does not go through it will become a criminal offence at the period of time when the derogation should have come into practice, but did not—

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I call upon his vastly superior experience to mine and ask him how he would contend with the position in which we now find ourselves if we feel strongly that criminalising the sale by alternative indications in 2010 is wrong?

My Lords, I do not quite know how I should deal with the present situation, except perhaps to recognise it. The previous government and the previous Labour government—but especially the previous government under the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher—accepted the principles of metrication for the United Kingdom. We are talking about the process of how that metrication is introduced. As I understand it, the previous government managed to get a derogation for 10 years. The effect of these regulations will be to give a further derogation for 10 years. So we are debating a 20-odd year period, within which metrication is being introduced into the United Kingdom. That is no position from which to start tearing a passion to tatters, as we have heard tonight.

The House would be well advised to listen to the rather wise words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon. I believe that he got it absolutely right: this is something that should have been done a very long time ago. However, it was not done and now should be.

My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, wholeheartedly—and not for the first time. We have heard one illiberal speech from the Liberal Democrat Benches, though not by any means for the first time, which was more than balanced by an excellent and highly liberal speech from the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, as is his wont.

I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and other supporters of the Government that all law—in particular, a new criminal law—any breach of which may result in an individual being fined or sent to prison, should have some moral basis. That applies whether a law affects 10 million or only two dozen people. Similarly, it does not matter what date it comes into effect. Unless it rests on a moral foundation, it is likely to be arbitrary and, most probably, also tyrannical.

Where is the actual morality in outlawing dual marking? Is there anyone in the entire world who would be harmed in the slightest degree if these regulations were rejected? The answer is surely no. Is there any popular demand across the European continent for these regulations; for example, are the Greeks and the Belgians demonstrating in the streets, rioting and insisting that dual marking be outlawed in the United Kingdom? That is certainly not the case. Would the handful of zealots in the European Commission and among the EU bureaucracy really lose any sleep at all if the regulations were rejected? Even here, I suspect not.

Above all, it is the europhiles and euro-enthusiasts, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who should be worried by these regulations. As the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, suggested, nothing is more likely to provoke the British people into hating the EU, and all its works, than this sort of arrogant and unnecessary interference in our purely internal affairs.

On a technical point—here I declare an interest as a patron of the British Weights and Measures Association—it is worth pointing out that bicycle wheels all over the world, including the whole continent of Europe, are measured not in millimetres or even centimetres but in inches. If the regulations go through, we could end up in the year 2010 as the only country in the EU where sellers are forced to advertise bicycle wheel measurements in millimetres, while France, Germany, Italy, and so on, remain free to advertise them in inches. As a number of noble Lords have pointed out, there are also other examples of continuing Continental use of imperial measurements. I hope, therefore, that the House will reject these regulations as we are now—thank goodness!—fully entitled to do.

My Lords, I listened with some interest to those noble Lords who have spoken in favour of these regulations. I listened in particular to my noble and learned friend Lord Howe. So far, I have to say that the arguments fall with my noble friend Lady Miller. As other speakers have said, I cannot see what is to be gained by removing the right of consumers to choose how they buy goods. It is not a question of being for or against Europe, and it is not even a question of being for or against metrication: it is simply a question of being for choice and liberty.

It is certainly true that we must have a legal form of measures and that we have chosen to have the metric system in this country. However, what is generally missed is the fact that any two measurement systems have, by necessity, an exact conversion. It is not a question of using one measurement system to try to short-change the public by using short pints or bent rulers. It is not a question of fraud: one measure is exactly the same as the other. It is just expressed through a conversion factor. A certain quantity of produce will cost exactly the same in pounds and pence whether it is measured by one metric system or, indeed, by old imperial measurements. As far as concerns the public, there is nothing to be gained.

The regulatory assessment that was issued with these regulations says that there is no cost involved in extending dual marking to 2009. If no cost is involved in extending dual marking to that date, it seems to me that there is no cost in extending it in perpetuity. However, there is a cost involved in bringing dual marking to an end. In economic terms, we know to our cost that any regulation introduced in this country is enforced. As the noble Lord, Lord Shore, pointed out, people will be travelling around the country enforcing the regulation and will be incurring costs in the process, as well as imposing costs on those on whom they attempt to enforce it.

However, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, pointed out, there is a more important cost involved; namely, a cost as regards liberty. There ought to be a bias in this country that a strong benefit must be derived from introducing a regulation, or reducing a freedom, before it is implemented. I cannot see any benefit coming from the implementation of this regulation. It will reduce consumer choice and force people to adopt only one source of information.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way, but there is a further cost and that is that on 1st January 2010 everyone will have to throw away their existing scales because it will be a criminal offence from that date to have scales that have both traditional and metric measurements.

My Lords, I accept that point. It occurs to me that there is no calculation in the regulatory assessment we have been given of the cost of introducing this terminal date for dual marking. Does the Minister advocate a date on which dual marking should be abolished? If we had free choice in the matter, would he have advocated it in 1999? Does he advocate that in 2009 as a positive measure? If he believes that the prayer of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, is not an appropriate way of getting ourselves out of this "box", what can the Government do to extend—as it appears that the majority of noble Lords here would like to do—dual marking in perpetuity? What do we have to do to achieve that? Will the Government bring forward whatever measures are necessary to support that intent?

My Lords, I give an example which I hope may be helpful to your Lordships to demonstrate why this matter is so infuriating to those of us who support the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon. It is all about subsidiarity. It is a living example of subsidiarity in your Lordships' House. I enjoy going to the Refreshment Department to order my steak for lunch and dinner. Only comparatively recently, to my horror, I found that the steak was described as weighing 200 grams.

In most London restaurants the steaks are described as weighing eight ounces. We all know what an eight ounce steak is; it is an edible size of steak. We can picture an eight ounce steak in our mind when we order it. But for some reason it is now described as weighing 200 grams. Who has any idea what a 200 gram steak looks like?

I took the liberty of writing to my noble friend Lord Colwyn who is chairman of the Refreshment Sub-Committee. Sadly, he is not present at the moment. However, I saw him coming in so perhaps he will read Hansard. I asked him why it was necessary to have the steak uniquely described in grams. Like other noble Lords, I have no objection to dual marking but we do not have the choice. The figure is given just as 200 grams, whatever that may mean.

I did not receive a satisfactory answer from my noble friend Lord Colwyn. Therefore I wrote—I shall not say higher up as one can hardly get higher than the chairman of the Refreshment Sub-Committee—to Mr Edward Ollard. He informed me that it was a requirement that purchases should be conducted in metric measures and that that was far more convenient for what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, called the managerial mindset. That may be the case for people buying in metric measures. But why cannot we have both measures? Why cannot we have eight ounces? If a product happens to be 233 grams, it can be marked eight ounces or 233 grams. Why is it just marked 200 grams? Incidentally—

My Lords, does the noble Lord feel the same about a bottle of claret, which we all know is 75 centilitres? There is no choice whatsoever there. The noble Lord has to accept that measurement.

My Lords, before my noble friend replies, Berry Brothers used to sell a very convenient pint bottle of claret which was exactly the right amount one wanted until it was forced to sell it only in 75 centilitre bottles. That applies also to imperial pints of champagne and imperial pints of claret, which were exactly the right amount.

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Onslow. I hope that that answers the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard. I do not want to intervene in the cross-Floor repartee. What I tried to explain before the noble Lord, Lord Richard, intervened is that 200 grams is seven ounces or 7.133 ounces. Noble Lords may not know it but they are being short-changed. When they buy a 200 gram steak and they think that they are getting an eight ounce steak they are not, they are getting a seven ounce steak. All I am saying is that surely we could have a choice in this matter. I wonder whether the usual channels could persuade the Refreshment Department to rethink the matter so we could have marked 200 grams or 231 grams and eight ounces. That is a living example of why this regulation is so absurd. If my noble friend divides the House, I shall support her.

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to explain the regulations. I have been longing to explain them because they are simple and they do not need a debate on all the fundamental issues. I remind the House that since 1965 all governments have supported the change to the metric system on a gradual basis and for an ever increasing range of uses because of the global move to metric.

The main directives were adopted in 1976 by a Labour government and in 1980 and 1989 by Conservative governments. The 1989 directive set 31st December 1999 as the date after which grams and kilograms must be used to sell loose goods by weight, mainly fresh foods such as meat, fruit and vegetables. The implementing legislation, which has been challenged in the Sunderland case, was made in 1994.

If we are to play the cards of libertarianism and British history, I remind the House that in Magna Carta for the first time the people of Britain established the case and the need for a single form of measurement in the country. With a general election coming up it is no time for the Conservative Party to line up behind King John on the ground that somehow having a series of weights and measures is a good thing. I say that by way of background.

I now take noble Lords through the regulations that we are debating. The regulations I am discussing are those listed in the schedule to the present regulations and in Regulation 3(2). The regulations set out constructional requirements and limits of error for different classes of weighing or measuring equipment. They also include the option for the equipment to display the quantity weighed or measured by means of a supplementary indication in imperial units.

The regulations serve to implement, in respect of the listed equipment, the provisions on supplementary indications in Directive 1999/103/EC, which amends European Community Directive 80/181/EC on units of measurement. Directive 80/181/EC originally set 31st December 1989 as the period after which non-metric units were no longer authorised for use as supplementary indications alongside metric units on measuring equipment or for other purposes such as the quantity mark on packaging or the unit price of goods.

In 1989 the directive was amended to extend the period for supplementary indications until 31st December 1999. The new deadline—and the other amendments to the directive—were debated on the Floor of another place in 1989. The present Government have now negotiated a further 10-year extension for supplementary indications for two reasons.

First, under legislation made in 1994, goods sold loose by weight were required to be sold in grams and kilograms after 1999. It was clear that consumers would welcome a further 10-year period during which trade weighing machines could display indications in both metric and imperial weights.

Secondly, under US legislation, consumer packages—including imports from the UK and other EU 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 the costs for UK exporters. It was again clear that there was benefit in extending the period for supplementary indications by a further 10 years.

It is also important to recognise that the amending directive was passed by the European Parliament. If UK MEPs had considered that the 10-year extension period was not adequate, they could have tabled an amendment; and they did not do so. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, that it would be open to a future government to seek a further extension if in 2009 there were an indication that a further extension was needed.

It seems wholly perverse, therefore, for the House to turn down regulations which extend the period during which supplementary indications can be used, the provision of which is wholly in the interests of consumers. The regulations extend the period in which supplementary indications can be given for another 10 years. I cannot see what is to be gained for the consumer by turning that down. If people still want supplementary indications in 2009, it will be open to the government at the time to seek to extend them for a further period.

Perhaps I may respond to points made during the debate. Since 1st January 2000 it has been unlawful to use imperial units only. That was as a result of legislation passed in 1994, and debated at the time in the House of Lords.

My noble friend Lord Shore asked about maximum punishments. The maximum punishment is £1,000 and/or confiscation of the weighing machine.

The consumer can ask for goods in imperial measures. The metric equivalent can be weighed out now and after 2009. The libertarian argument fails to recognise that one of the oldest functions of government is to define the legal units of measurement. Just as all governments have always had a monopoly on issuing notes and coins, if there was no legal definition one man's pound or kilo would differ from the next's.

I come back to this point. These are simple regulations. They act entirely in favour of the consumer by extending the period for 10 years. It is not appropriate again to raise the whole question of metrication. Both governments have supported metrication consistently for a long period. It is sensible to extend the measure for a further eight years. If, after that period, there is a wish to do so, it is up to the government of the day to seek a further extension.

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, does he agree that the reason why governments have the power to regulate weights and measures is to prevent the consumer from being confused or cheated? That is exactly what we do by allowing the use of dual measurements.

My Lords, while in the short term it is clearly sensible to allow supplementary indications, as a general principle it is a good idea to have one unit of measurement and to stick to it.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister's indulgence before he sits down. At the end of his speech I believe the Minister said that if a trader or shopkeeper is asked for goods in traditional weights after 2009, it will be possible for him to supply them. However, the shopkeeper will not then be able to use scales or a weighing machine with traditional measurements. Therefore, that will be impossible.

My Lords, the consumer can ask for goods and they can be weighed out in those measurements, but the shopkeeper would have to do that on a metric machine and make the conversion.

My Lords, I do not want to tire the House; we have heard so much. However, when I spoke, the Minister intervened to explain that if I divided the House and won annulment of the regulations, we could not even now have the use of supplementary indicators. On the advice that I have been given, that is not so. If that were so, I would not ask the House to annul this regulation. We on this side of the House are looking for choice; I am glad that many others have joined us on this issue.

I mentioned the Measuring Equipment (Capacity Measures and Testing Equipment) Regulations. I shall not do so again. However, the Minister continues to say that the regulations are sensible. I wish to ensure that noble Lords understand the position. In the schedule there is reference to nine different regulations. The eighth paragraph refers to the Measuring Equipment (Liquid Fuel and Lubricants) Regulations. If the measure were annulled, one comes back to what that regulation states. The fourth point of that regulation states that any indication on measuring equipment referring in metric units of measurement to the quantity of liquid fuel supplied may be accompanied by a supplementary indication. That reflects the strong advice that I received today from a colleague who visited the Library, and from my honourable friends in another place.

We could annul the regulation. The Minister did well in his response. He tried hard, but his arguments are not good enough. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

8.16 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Motion shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 76; Not-Contents, 115.

Division No. 3


Allenby of Megiddo, V.Burnham, L. [Teller]
Astor, V.Buscombe, B.
Astor of Hever, L.Byford, B.
Attlee, E.Caithness, E.
Barber, L.Carlisle of Bucklow, L.
Blackwell, L.Colwyn, L.
Blaker, L.Cope of Berkeley, L.
Blatch, B.Cumberlege, B.
Boardman, L.Dean of Harptree, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L.Dixon-Smith, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L.Elliott of Morpeth, L.

Elton, L.Montrose, D.
Ferrers, E.Noakes, B.
Fookes, B.Northbrook, L.
Glenarthur, L.Northesk, E.
Glentoran, L.Norton of Louth, L.
Greenway, L.O'Cathain, B.
Hanham, B.Onslow, E.
Harris of Peckham, L.Palmer, L.
Hayhoe, L.Park of Monmouth, B.
Henley, L. [Teller]Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L.Rawlings, B.
Hooper, B.Renton, L.
Howe, E.Rotherwick, L.
Islwyn, L.Seccombe, B.
Jenkin of Roding, L.Sharples, B.
Jopling, L.Shore of Stepney, L.
Kelvedon, L.Slim, V.
Lamont of Lerwick, L.Stodart of Leaston, L.
Lindsay, E.Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Lucas, L.Strathclyde, L.
Luke, L.Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Lyell, L.Vinson, L.
Mancroft, L.Vivian, L.
Mayhew of Twysden, L.Waddington, L.
Miller of Hendon, B.Wade of Chorlton, L.
Monro of Langholm, L.Willoughby de Broke, L.
Monson, L.Windlesham, L.


Acton, L.Graham of Edmonton, L.
Addington, L.Greengross, B.
Alderdice, L.Grenfell, L.
Alli, L.Hamwee, B.
Amos, B.Hardy of Wath, L.
Andrews. B.Harris of Haringey, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L.Harris of Richmond, B.
Ashton of Upholland, B.Harrison, L.
Bach, L.Hayman, B.
Barker, B.Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Bassam of Brighton, L.Hollis of Heigham, B.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L.Howells of St Davids, B.
Borrie, L.Howie of Troon, L.
Bragg, L.Hoyle, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.Hughes of Woodside, L.
Brookman, L.Hunt of Chesterton, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L.Hunt of Kings Heath, L.
Burlison, L.Jeger, B.
Carter, L. [Teller]Kennedy of The Shaws, B.
Clarke of Hampstead, L.King of West Bromwich, L.
Clement-Jones, L.Lea of Crondall, L.
Clinton-Davis, L.Lipsey, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.Lockwood, B.
Cohen of Pimlico, B.Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Currie of Marylebone, L.Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
Darcy de Knayth, B.MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
David, B.Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
Davies of Coity, L.McNally, L.
Davies of Oldham, L.Mar and Kellie, E.
Dixon, L.Masham of Ilton, B.
Dubs, L.Massey of Darwen, B.
Evans of Parkside, L.Mitchell, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L.Northover, B.
Evans of Watford, L.Parekh, L.
Ezra, L.Peston, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L.Ramsay of Cartvale, B. [Teller]
Farrington of Ribbleton, B.Rea, L.
Faulkner of Worcester, L.Redesdale, L.
Filkin, L.Rendell of Babergh, B.
Fyfe of Fairfield, L.Rennard, L.
Gale, B.Renwick of Clifton, L.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B.Richard, L.
Gilbert, L.Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L.Rogers of Riverside, L.
Goldsmith, L.Roper, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B.Sainsbury of Turville, L.

Sawyer, L.Tordoff, L.
Scotland of Asthal, B.Turnberg, L.
Sharman, L.Turner of Camden, B.
Shutt of Greetland, L.Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Simon, V.Warner, L.
Taverne, L.Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Taylor of Blackburn, L.Watson of Richmond, L.
Thomas of Gresford, L.Whitty, L.
Thomas of Walliswood, B.Wigoder, L.
Thornton, B.Wilkins, B.
Tomlinson, L.Williams of Mostyn, L.
Woolmer of Leeds, L.

Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.