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Point of Order

3.32 pm

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You may be aware that today the Government published a sports strategy, an event to which they appear to attach some importance. There has been some difficulty in supplying copies of the strategy to hon. Members who were seeking them this morning, having heard all about the strategy from the Minister for Sport who was talking on the radio this morning and also writing in the national press. Would it not have been more appropriate, not to say more courteous, if the strategy had been announced here first?

Madam Speaker: I, too, heard the Minister early this morning on the radio. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I have investigated the circumstances behind his complaint. I understand that Ministers launched the sports strategy to the press at 9.45 this morning. There was no parallel announcement in Parliament, and the document concerned was not generally available in the Vote Office until much later this morning. This is a clear breach of the conventions that apply to announcements of this sort, and it is totally unacceptable to me and to the House.

It seems to me that there is a situation developing in some Departments in which the interest of Parliament is regarded as secondary to media presentation, or is overlooked altogether. I hope that Ministers will set in hand a review of procedures right across Whitehall to ensure that the events that took place this morning are never allowed to occur again.

The Minister for Sport (Kate Hoey): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I thank the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) for raising this point of order. On behalf of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I apologise for the administrative error that took place in not ensuring that the document was here this morning for hon. Members. I appreciate that this was not done correctly. However, I hope that what I said on the radio this morning did not go into the detail of the paper in any way.

I accept what you have said, Madam Speaker. I believe that the House has been treated discourteously. That point will be made to my Department, and I apologise unreservedly on its behalf.

5 Apr 2000 : Column 976

Weights and Measures (Amendment)

3.34 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I beg to move,

From 1 January this year, it became a criminal offence--unbelievable though it seems to many millions of our fellow citizens--for a British shopkeeper or market trader to weigh out a pound of apples or meat and to sell that produce to his customers. Any trader who continues to use traditional British units of measurement faces a fine of up to £2,000, the possibility of a term of imprisonment and the prospect, if convicted, of a criminal record, with all that that entails for the person's public reputation. My Bill is intended to put right that absurd and unwanted piece of over-regulation.

UK customers do not want the current law. When I do my weekend shopping in Princes Risborough high street, I am met by local traders and shoppers in my constituency who tell me that they have been made to feel like foreigners in their own country. They do not understand the need for the new law.

To make matters more absurd, that law is not even being enforced by the trading standards officers whose duty it is to do so. The fact that no prosecutions seem to have been made since 1 January shows that trading standards officers--for good reason--are fighting shy of bringing proceedings, even though they know well that many traders continue to defy the law because that is what their customers want them to do. I agree with those trading standards officers who have chosen to turn a blind eye; it would be an utterly disgraceful waste of scarce public money were taxpayers' resources to be squandered on such prosecutions.

Nevertheless, the threat of criminal penalties remains on our statute book. The law has a surreal quality. I can order a pound of mince from the butcher, but the butcher is not allowed to sell me a pound--he has to measure out the metric equivalent.

The absurdity goes further than that. Goods can be described using traditional measures, but may not be priced or advertised thereby. One can ask to buy so many metres of 54 in curtaining. That is complete nonsense.

If people want to use metric measurements, they should be entitled to do so. That should be a matter for individual traders and their customers to decide. Indeed, examination of the statute book reveals that as long ago as the 1860s the Metric Weights and Measures Act 1864 allowed the use of metric units for contracts. In 1897, the use of metric units for trade was made lawful. My Bill will do nothing to prevent consenting adults from continuing to use metric measurements if they choose. I am against a law that compels people to use metric units when they would prefer to use traditional British units.

The case is usually made that the new law flows from a European directive. I looked up the key measure--European directive No. 80/181 EEC of 20 December 1979. Like all European Community directives, it has a preamble listing the various reasons why the Community considers that item of legislation to be necessary. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)

5 Apr 2000 : Column 977

always referred to such provisions as the "whereas" clauses. The key clause states:

    Whereas the laws which regulate the use of units of measurement in the Member States differ from one Member State to another and as a result hinder trade . . . it is necessary to harmonise laws, regulations and administrative provisions in order to overcome such obstacles.

I draw the House's attention to the key elements: the purpose of the legislation was to prevent the hindrance of trade, and the harmonisation envisaged was in order to overcome obstacles to trade between different member states. I do not see how a criminal penalty on a British greengrocer or butcher who sells loose goods to customers in the high street or town square market has any bearing on free trade within a single European market. The legislation on the statute book flouts the principle of subsidiarity that is enshrined in European treaties and is not proportionate to the problem that the directive purports to identify.

Nor is it true that criminal sanctions are demanded by the directive. The Government have produced no evidence so far that other member states have implemented such sanctions, let alone enforced them.

There was a 10-year derogation from the directive for the sale of loose goods and goods weighed at the point of sale. There is no reason why the Government should not have sought to renew it and extend it much further. Indeed, a derogation was agreed by the Community for packaged goods because that was essential for exports to the United States not only from Britain, but from every country in the European Union. The United States insists on dual marking--metric and imperial--for pre-packaged goods for sale in shops.

Ministers could have sought a similar derogation for loose goods for sale in Britain, but they chose not to do so. They have admitted that they did not even discuss the idea with the Commission, or with other member states.

The Government have offered some small comfort, saying that it is possible for traders to provide supplementary labels alongside metric measurements, but that would involve a lot of work and expense for traders. On pain of criminal sanction, they must show metric units and give those priority. My Bill would abolish criminal penalties for a trader who uses pounds, ounces, feet, inches and other traditional British units of measurement by biting on the Weights and Measures Act 1985, which lays down penalties for use by traders of units of measurement other than those prescribed by law.

If traders and customers want to use metric measurements, they should be free to do so, but the same freedom should apply to people who prefer to buy and sell goods in the traditional British way. The law is an example of unnecessary and over-burdensome regulation. It needs to be changed.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Lidington, Mr. David Amess, Mr. Nick Hawkins, Mr. Stephen Day, Mr. Nick St. Aubyn, Mr. John Hayes and Mr. Simon Burns.

5 Apr 2000 : Column 978

Weights and Measures (Amendment)

Mr. David Lidington accordingly presented a Bill to make the use of imperial weights and measures no longer subject to proceedings for a criminal offence: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 9 June, and to be printed [Bill 104].

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you confirm that it is still the expectation of the House that if a Minister misleads the House, even if he be Prime Minister, he will set the record straight at the earliest possible opportunity? Can you tell us what the earliest possible opportunity would be for the Prime Minister to set the record straight and to correct his blatantly untrue statement that the previous Government had neglected international debt?

Every major initiative, including the Ottawa terms, the Trinidad terms and the sub-Saharan Africa initiative, was introduced by the previous Government, who set an example to the world by rescinding £1 billion of Government debt and converting it into loans--the biggest relief by any country in the world.

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