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Mr. Leslie rose--

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I give way to the jack-in- the-box on the Government Benches.

Mr. Leslie: How cruel; I am not sure that I can recover from that remark.

The right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) was responsible for pushing through approval of European Community document No. 4102/89 in April 1989. During debate on the document, which welcomed metrication proposals, he said that pounds and ounces would be able to continue only

Does that sound like an indefinite period to the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: If the hon. Gentleman investigates the matter slightly more carefully, he will see that the derogation negotiated by my right hon. Friend applied until the end of the century. He probably anticipated that a less feeble Government would be in power when it ran out and that they would listen to what the public wanted and have the determination to do what he had done and obtain a further extension.

Mr. Fabricant: Many five-year derogations have been renewed by Conservative Governments. On another matter, is my right hon. Friend aware that 74 per cent. of the British public said in a recent survey that they wanted to keep imperial units? Is not that the motivation of Mr. Thoburn and others who want to provide what their customers want?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend is right. Politicians and Governments have previously been ahead of the public in their insistence on replacement of some measurements. It has become apparent to everyone--or at least to Opposition Members--that the public do not want the regulations. We live not only in a democracy but in a society in which consumers should be consulted and listened to. If affection remains for a familiar unit of measurement, the House should listen to people's concerns and withdraw a forced and artificial switch that is simply not required. The United States has done that, and we are asking the Government to listen in exactly the same way.

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the gentleman whom he mentioned earlier, Mr. Thoburn, is breaking the law?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: It is not for me to assume the role of a judge. Moreover, as the matter is sub judice, it would be highly improper of me to do so. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants to pre-judge the case, that could be an extension of Labour policy whereby we hear the verdict first and the evidence afterwards. I thought that

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we might confine that sort of legal procedure to "Alice in Wonderland". The law is oppressive, and the responsibility for that entire prosecution and its attendant expense lies firmly with the Government, for failing to obtain that extension of the permitted use of imperial measures in 1999, as I have already described.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East) rose--

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: It is perfectly true--

Mr. Fabricant: Give way to Metric Mary.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The hon. Lady is so charming, I shall give way.

Ms Prentice: The right hon. Gentleman voted for the provision in April 1989 on the basis that it was

Why is he doing a U-turn now?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Because we are listening to what the public want. We obtained a 10-year derogation, and it was never envisaged that that would necessarily be the end of the matter. Is the hon. Lady seriously advancing the proposition that one Parliament can bind its successor? Is she supposing that a decision taken 10 years ago was valid for all time, even when it was deliberately time- limited? Is she advancing that extraordinary proposition? If so, she should make her position clear.

I turn now to the details of the present regulation.

Mr. Stewart: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I gave way to the hon. Gentleman earlier. I hope that he will catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that we can hear his views at greater length, because I think that Labour Members have some explaining to do on this matter.

Under the regulation before the House, to which I shall now turn in some detail, the Government are seeking to go further than the provision that I have just described, by bringing to an end the permitted dual pricing. At present, imperial measurement can be used in what the directive calls "supplementary indicators". That is, imperial equivalents to metric units can be shown, provided that they are less prominent and used secondarily to the metric units. That is the established law. The Government are now announcing an end to that, in the regulation. As well as ending sales in imperial units in 1999, the Government are now going further by removing the right to show imperial units at all.

It might be asked--this is a matter for the Minister to answer--why anyone needs permission to display helpful additional information in this way. The answer could be that, under the system of law that governs these directives, we now need positive permission to do something. Under the traditional legal system that has been in place for centuries, we have always taken the view that we could do what we liked--it was assumed that we had total freedom--unless something was expressly prohibited.

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However, it now appears, instead, that it is assumed that we can do nothing unless it is expressly allowed. That is the continental legal tradition, and it is now being incorporated into these metric regulations. Thus it will be forbidden for a trader to put any helpful additional information about imperial measures under the metric sign. That will become illegal, which is a most extraordinary proposition as well as a serious infringement of liberty. I ask the Minister to address the point.

The other interesting fact about the regulation is that supplementary indications--the term describes permission to show imperial units as well--are permitted under EU law, not to help shoppers, which has never been a consideration, but so as not to damage EU exports.

I return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield. America has not gone metric in the way originally predicted and willed by the EU Commission, but it has reversed the mandatory use of metric measurements in federal contracts, revoking that law. Indeed, many states are moving away from metric altogether. I am advised, for example, that Louisiana, Missouri and Illinois scrapped kilometres on road signs in 1998, bringing to 18 the number of states that have reverted to using miles. Through great swathes of the United States, there is movement away from using metric measurements.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): May I point out to my right hon. Friend that that more open-minded attitude to weights and measures, which are a matter that should be left entirely to the choice of the client and the supplier, also extends to certain European countries? Is he aware that the leather trade in Italy uses three square feet--the Lombard foot, the Tuscan foot and the Neapolitan foot? Many Italian suppliers use square metres, but in export markets they leave the matter entirely to the choice of the customer.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Exactly. Even countries that have used metric measurements for many years sensibly permit the use of other units of measurement where that is convenient for industry, trade and customers. I am afraid that, throughout history, Governments and politicians have pressed metrication on others, even if it is not wanted and even if it takes away choice.

That has been recognised in the United States, which is moving away from that system. Significantly, EU firms that export goods to America are not allowed to sell in that market in metric-only markings. They must show imperial and metric markings. To acknowledge that fact and the concerns about the damage that will be caused to industry by having to run two production systems--one metric only, the other using dual markings--the EU has responded by permitting sellers of pre-packed goods to continue to use dual markings, even when they sell in the EU. That has also been extended to loose goods and, indeed, every other good.

Even though dual-use markings were not introduced for the convenience of shoppers and traders, they are still permitted and will continue to be so. Even more bizarrely, although that permission was extended to the end of the previous century by an EU derogation, the Government did not even apply for a parallel derogation for domestically traded loose goods when that was clearly required by our own people.

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In other words, international organisations and companies in the EU obtained a derogation because that was convenient for them and important to their marketing to the United States, but the Government sat on their hands and did not even ask for an equivalent derogation for the permitted use of imperial-only measurements for loose goods traded in markets such as that in Sunderland. That shows the feebleness and illogicality of the Government's position.

I want the Minister to say why the derogation and the regulation apply only up to 2009. The explanatory notes describe that as a final date. Why, having banned the use of imperial measures for the pricing and selling of loose goods, are the Government still so intent on banning supplementary labelling as well? Why are they so sure that the United States will fall into line? We can easily imagine circumstances in which, as we approach 2009, the United States persists in its use of imperial measures. We shall have to go through all this again. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us: did he argue for a longer period? Did he, indeed, argue for an indefinite extension? If not, why not?

Cannot we all now see that the public are attached to the continuing use of imperial units? Why, then, should it be made illegal to display such information from a certain finite date, which the regulations call a final date? Why are the Government so intent on taking away this freedom? We all know that they are an interfering, regulatory Government, and that they are extremely reluctant to challenge any proposal from the European Union--

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