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Mr. Kennedy : It seems to be a ministerial endorsement of circumspect illegality, as far as I can see, or a softly-softly approach. That may be sensible and welcome, but we, as a country, cannot have it both ways.
Mr. Beith : I never mentioned jack boots. I have never seen a trading standards officer in jack boots. They normally dress rather as hon. Members here are dressed. They simply come along, as I have known them do in my constituency, and challenge traders for illegally dispensing packaged goods in non-metric quantities, and it seems to me certain that those same officers will come along within
Column 852a short time of this legislation coming into force and tell traders that they must stop meeting the requests of old ladies who say, "Please will you give me 5 lb of potatoes". For that situation to prevail in this country seems to be plainly ludicrous.
The Minister spoke about the consultation exercise. I very much agree with the hon. Member for Tatton that the Minister is either misreading the public mood or indulging in what would be quite understandable wishful thinking, given the measure he has to defend and, indeed, clarify for the House, in saying that the response to that consultation exercise would mirror attitudes in the country as a whole. That really is an exercise in wishful thinking by the Minister. Given that public opinion will be, I should have thought, rather strong on these matters, it would be as well either for the Government to launch a fresh consultative exercise or at least to embark on a programme of public education on inevitable changes towards metrication.
Secondly, in the DTI's own analysis reference is properly made to transitional periods, some of which will stretch over a decade and more. None the less, I hope that the DTI, or the relevant sponsoring departments in other parts of Government, will be sympathetic to any transitional difficulties which industries or small businesses will encounter as a result of having to change working practices and, perhaps, machinery or implements for the conduct of their business. I hope that the Government will respond positively to that point. It is obvious that enthusiasm, or the lack of it, for this measure crosses party boundaries. My party will treat this as a conscience issue. The only point on which I seek a categorical assurance is that we shall continue to be able to talk about, to raise glasses of and to down drams well into the future.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy), who clearly understands, as only a member of his party could, people who are proposing a schizophrenic situation. He said that his party would treat the issue as a matter of conscience and would vote both ways upon it. I remind him of the words of Mr. Gladstone at the time of the Turkish-Bulgarian difficulties. He said that he regarded it as a great insult that he had been accused of being a democrat.
If harmonisation, whatever that may mean, is to be undertaken, surely it is unwise to undertake it on the basis of the wrong system.
I was the Member of Parliament who saved the mile. Under the Labour Government of 1974 to 1979 it was to be abolished on the basis that it would be an industrial danger to Britain if the mile were not the same as the kilometre. I asked the Minister how many things were
Column 853measured in miles. I said that we do not measure miles of baked beans or miles of wire. Eventually the mile was saved. I see that the mile that I saved in the face of the idiocies of the then Government's concepts is again under threat.
If we harmonise measurements, why not get right the concept of the measurements that we intend to harmonise? My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) referred to the fact that during the French revolution there was a 10-day week.
Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : If there is one concept on which measurements and mathematics are badly based, it is the repeat factor of 10. The decimal system is idiotic. If 10 per cent. is added to 10, we get 11--a prime factor that is useless. If we take 10 per cent. away from 10, that leads to nine, which is three times three. That is equally useless. A repeat system of counting should be at two squared, two cubed or two to the power of four, which is the best. Very few people understand it, but--
Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : I do not know what Woy Jenkins was into, but I should be vewy suwpwised if he did not buy his clawet in dozens. At least under the duodecimal system it involves 2 squared by 3. If people are asked how much cake they want, they do not ask for a fifth of it. They say, "Halve it and halve it again", so two is the concept. People count on their fingers not because there are 10 of them, but because they are there. It would not matter if they had three fingers or 23 fingers on each hand, people would still count to 10. People with four fingers still count to 10. It is a fatuous concept that 10 is holy. As a counting system, 10 is the worst figure on which to base trade. It has no concept in sensible measurement or arithmetical relevance.
When we used the imperial system, at least children in school had to use their minds instead of a calculator or an easy system. Children can do their 10 times table, but it does not exercise their minds ; they should know the other tables to understand the importance of arithmetical measurements. The sensible systems--the pint, the yard, the mile--all have much more relevant bases for intelligent measurement than any decimal system.
We are discussing a European matter. The measurement from which Europe started was the duodecimal system, the Roman system, which was a much more intelligent basic system.
If we are to change the system to a common system, we should change it to the right system, not to a stupid system. The decimal system is a foolish system. It has no helpful basis in trade ; it costs enormous funds because of the complication of its mathematical incidences. If we are to change, let us stand up for a system of counting whereby the change is either at 12 or 6, thus making a major salvation in the costs of industry. In all seriousness, let us not move to something just because we do not understand
Column 854that the repeat system is wrongly based. If we are all to use the same repeat system and the same weights system, let us use the most commercially sensible one.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : The absurdity in the mess of arrangements for the use of imperial and metric measurement that we have heard about tonight is principally because the European Community has bent over backwards to take account of British and Irish sensibilities over weights and measures systems.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said, it would have been far better had we moved much more quickly to the metric system, rather than maintained the imperial system with it. What hon. Members seem to forget is that at least those of us of my generation have children going through school who are being taught the metric system of weights and measures and are perfectly able to cope with all that that means. If there are difficulties for older people like the lady--she could be in my constituency or in the constituency of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon- Tweed (Mr. Beith)--who wants 5 lb of potatoes, the enterprising shopkeeper will sell her 2.27 kg and not worry about what the weights and measures people may say.
The use of two different systems at present gives rise to absurd situations. For example, as is my wont, I was doing the family's weekly shopping last Saturday at Leo's co-operative retail superstore in Pyle, in my constituency, and I happened to buy some coleslaw, of a reduced dressing variety, loose across the counter. It was sold in imperial units. As I wandered across towards where the prepackaged variety was on sale I thought that I would check to see whether I had got a bargain. Of course, the prepackaged variety was being sold in 227 g packs. Only because I knew that this is as close as we can get to half a pound was I able to make the calculation.
It would be perfectly easy to have common quantities displayed in both metric and imperial measurements for, say, the next 10 years to enable people, like some here who seem to find difficulty in using the metric system, to use it in an intelligent way. If there is concern about the doorstep pinta, the milkman can sell it as 0.5683 litre. Then we would know that we still had our pinta.
We are making a lot of fuss about something that is really not all that important provided that the public know exactly what they are getting. There is no need to be afraid of this directive. In fact, there is provision for the measurements that are used most commonly domestically-- for example, the pint and the mile--to be protected for a very long time. I anticipate that no hon. Member need worry about being forced to give up the nomenclature "pint" when he is buying in a pub or picking up the pinta at the doorstep.
This is really a fear of facing the future--things that our children are currently being taught in school. The fuss that we are making about this directive is indicative of the general problems that we face in meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow) : I rise to make a brief plea for the continuance of the mixed system. We have a classic example of that system, of course, in the motor car. When W. O. Bentley set out to design his motor
Column 855car in 1919 he said that it would be a 3 litre model. The wheel base was in feet and inches, and the car developed so much horse power--imperial horse power, not metric horse power. From the birth of the motor car this was the system of measurement of power and engine size, and we have all understood it.
In any case--going from that form of transport to the railway train--we all know that the gauge of the track in this country is 4 ft 8 in, and I defy anyone to express that in metric terms. I fear that if one were to go to any British Rail workshop and say, "In future we are going to have tracks of 1.853322 m" there would be even more engines off the rails than there are at present.
The House will recall that in George Orwell's "1984" Winston Smith bought an old man a drink in a pub which served nothing but litres and half litres. The old man said that half a litre was not enough and that one litre was too much as it set his bladder running. That is a classic example of "metricism". We are faced with a tyranny and hon. Members should remember that poor man in "1984". It is clear that the pint is designed for the British stomach.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) spoke about the little old lady who buys 5 lb of potatoes. Apart from the fact that if she does that with regularity she will be little no longer, she understands what 5 lb of potatoes looks like, as we do. We all understand what a 15-stone or an 18-stone man looks like. If I went to meet a stranger and somebody else told me that he weighed 200 kg I would not have a clue about him. Does that mean he is enormous or little? If I were told that he weighed 15 stone I would know the sort of person for whom I would have to look out.
I do not like all the talk about "phasing in" as it represents an uncertain process. The next thing will be a proposal, "phased in during two years", that we all drive on the right-hand side of the road. What a recipe for disaster. I suppose that, first, we shall have lorries driving on the right, followed by buses. The whole thing would be a complete muddle.
I am always worried when I hear of Governments giving "permission" for things as that implies that Governments have more in their gift than they actually have to give. My hon. Friend the Minister should keep a wary eye on the Commission on the other side of the Channel. Any further proposals to do away with the imperial measures, which we all know and which the man on the Walthamstow omnibus understands, will receive short shrift.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : I shall be brief as I know that this debate has to end shortly. I want to put down the marker that I do not like the directive and I do not like the idea that the proposal would authorise the United Kingdom and Ireland to fix a date for ending the use of miles, yards, feet and inches, even though the Minister may say that the Government will not exercise that right. If this legislature had any sort of adequate scrutiny over the flood of statutory instruments which pour out of Departments at the rate of more than 2,000 per year, it might be arguable that all hon. Members could keep an eagle eye out for any Minister, who is but a pawn in the
Column 856hands of civil servants, slipping one or two subclauses into a subparagraph of a statutory instrument--which is not amendable in any case--to get rid of the mile, the yard, the foot or the inch. In reality, however, this place does not give adequate scrutiny to statutory instruments, and any change to our measurements will be implemented by such means rather than by primary legislation. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments cannot report on the merits of a statutory instrument ; it can report only on its technicalities. A statutory instrument cannot be amended and I do not believe that we have the power to keep an adequate grip on Government to stop some surge of ambition by a Minister deciding to metricate. I view the proposal before us with great caution.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) has already said, it is not true that industry has been progressively metricated. We have not, for example, adopted universally the metric thread, which is a basic component of engineering. We consider ourselves to be a manufacturing nation, albeit less so under the present Government. There is American fine thread and unified thread, both of which are a basic requirement for any country exporting motor vehicles. The notion that metrication is a basic prerequisite to building up our manufacturing base to achieve more exports is not universally true. Millions of people use miles, yards, feet and inches as a matter of convenience and we should continue with the duality. If it is convenient for consumers to do that, why not let them do it? Why should we not retain gallons rather than litres as a matter of consumer choice?
It would be to our advantage in many respects to stay as we are. We would not have to calibrate instruments again. If people want the option of using metric measurements, they can use them, but I object to this creeping harmonisation for no purpose other than the harmonising of everything that the Commission can get its hands on. In view of what the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) said about changing the side of the road on which we drive, I warn the House that there is a strong desire on the part of the members of the transport committee of the EEC to make us do that. It is the stated aim of many in the Strasbourg assembly that we should make that change. Let us retain the dual system of weights and measures and let this directive meander on for the next 40 years while we do nothing about it. I hope that hon. Members will take that view and vote against it today.
Mr. Skinner : Frankly, I get fed up listening to this sort of hypocrisy from Tory Members who take part in debates on EEC directives and often speak against them, but when it comes to a vote, as it will today, they--and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) in particular--are missing as usual.
Mr. Beaumont-Dark : Despite the cleverness of the hon. Member for Bolsover--I have his permission to say how clever he is--it is no good him saying that one is missing from this or that vote on a Common Market issue. Which Government sold this country out?
I repeat that our votes on these directives matter not at all. We are given an hour and a half's debate to humour us. If we voted unanimously against what is proposed, it would still happen. That is why it is a waste of time having these debates and voting at the end of them.
Mr. Maude : This has been a fascinating debate in which contributions have ranged from the crusty reaction of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), to the radicalism of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) and the revolutionary approach of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn). Not content merely that we should oppose any further move towards metrication, my hon. and learned Friend thinks that we should unravel the whole system of counting and should abandon 10 as the base for anything. I fall neatly in the middle in this interesting debate.
I take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) who says that such debates are simply for show and mean nothing. They are important, especially when they take place at an
Column 858early stage in negotiations. That is the case with this debate. Such debates genuinely allow the Government to gauge mood and they inform the negotiating process. I should be disappointed if any hon. Member felt that contributions to the debate are not noted. They are noted and fulfil an extremely important purpose.
Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford) : Is it right that this proposal was put forward in an explanatory memorandum in January? My hon. Friend the Minister has taken the opportunity to bring the measure before the House long before the Council of Ministers has to make a decision, which is expected before the end of the year. I congratulate the Minister on bringing this matter to the House so that it can express an opinion.
Mr. Maude : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That has been our intention and, as I say, matters are at an early stage of negotiation. The European Parliament has not yet made a final decision and there is still some way to go.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) is making her debut on the Opposition Front Bench, but if she is I warmly congratulate her on her appointment. We have faced each other in Committee. She made a distinguished contribution to the debate.
The hon. Lady asked whether the Commission might produce another proposal, but I have nothing to add to what I have said. As hon. Members know, there is nothing to prevent the Commission from producing further proposals, but there is no reason to suppose that it proposes to do so.
The form of words used in the group of measures, which it is in our power to retain for as long as we wish, is the most liberal--if I may use that word--that it is possible under law for the Commission to propose. There is no possibility under the law of that being further amended.
The hon. Member for Gateshead, East and some of my hon. Friends asked about consultation. There were approximately 140 responses to the 700 letters that we sent out. Only two were firmly against the proposals and the others were in favour or neutral. I repeat that the consultation and the fairly wide publicity that the proposals received in the media did not elicit very strong feelings in one direction or the other. On that basis we have gone forward with the discussions.
The hon. Lady asked whether there would be further consultations. I do not anticipate further public consultations this side of the directive being agreed. At some time in future when domestic legislation has to be amended to give effect to the directive, it will be right to have detailed and extensive consultation about the way in which the directive is implemented and its timing. Of course I give the undertaking that that will take place.
The hon. Lady asked about costs and whether the mile could be argued to be a barrier to trade. There are those who argue that the continued use of the mile is a barrier to trade. We do not agree that it is a significant one, but car manufacturers have to produce cars with two different distance meters. That is, of course, a trifling inconvenience compared with that of having to put the steering wheel on the other side. None the less, it is argued by some to be a barrier to trade, but it is in our estimation a trifling one.
Column 859The cost of converting road signs into metric units would be very large indeed. It would be in the region, we estimate, of £30 million to £50 million, and clearly that is a powerful reason for not proceeding.
Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport) rose
The hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) paid me a slightly backhanded compliment--I hope that I am correct in referring to it as a compliment. He referred to specific requests for transitional periods. A number of those have been made and as far as possible they have been accommodated in the proposals. The hon. Member asked whether he and his constituents would continue to be able to drink drams and I can confirm that they will. I shall be happy to join him for one as soon as the debate is finished. It being one and a half hours after commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business).
The House divided : Ayes 107, Noes 27.
Division No. 155] [11.46 pm
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Browne, John (Winchester)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Currie, Mrs Edwina
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Fenner, Dame Peggy
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn