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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman considerable leeway, but I now need to remind him that this is not a general debate about Europe. We are dealing with the Weights and Measures (Metrication Amendments) Regulations 2001. The scope of the debate should concentrate on the desirability of continuing with two alternative systems of measurement in the given areas for the stated time, and on the nature and costs of the benefits involved.
Mr. Nicholls: I will not labour the point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but in trying to assess the advisability of going along with that, it was worth making the point that we have a responsibility to understand why we find ourselves in this position. We have the ability tonight to say that the regulations are simply unacceptable. Conservative Members should have sufficient confidence to say that we are not responsible for the regulations. We should vote against them in due course next week, on paper.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): This issue demonstrates the clear difference between our party and the Government. We believe in common sense. We believe in freedom. If ever there were an issue of common sense and freedom, this is it.
When 7 per cent. of the population say that they prefer the metric system and 93 per cent. say that they are happier working with the imperial system, what common sense is there in any Government imposing this measure
The Minister asked where I got my information from, as he could not believe that 93 per cent. of the population rejected the metric system. I am surprised that a Minister, with all the resources of the state, does not have access to the information that I have. The information came in a survey conducted by RSL for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Ltd.; it is on the website members.aol. com/footrule/. There he will find the information, which is in the public domain. If the Minister takes my word for it--
This issue has been rejected, in effect, by the United States of America. As far back as the 1970s, the USA tried hard to introduce the metric standard. Members who have been to North America will know that when they drive on the I5 from Seattle to Vancouver, passing the Freedom bridge--which, interestingly enough, says along the top, "Two children born of a common mother"--they will see that on the south side miles are used, and on the north side kilometres are used, as Canada has adopted the metric system. Despite the fact that the US enjoys the longest unpoliced border in the world, it has rejected the system.
Britain has rejected it, too. In 1969, the then Labour Government introduced the Metrication Board. In 1980, the Metrication Board was abolished; it was a failure. The only success it had was the introduction of decimal currency. I believe that most people still think in terms of miles, feet and inches. In fact, it is to the Government's advantage that petrol prices are quoted in litres. As I have said, when people realise that petrol is now £4 a gallon--the most expensive in Europe--they will realise how expensive life has become under this Government.
The position is clear; people do not want this measure. The Government have demonstrated yet again that they are appeasers in Europe. They chose not to fight against regulations concerning water boards, which resulted in a firm in my constituency, Armitage Shanks, having to be sold. I oppose the motion, which is not common sense and does not represent freedom.
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): I did not intend to say anything in the debate but, having listened to the Minister--under whose politically correct socialist crust probably beats a heart with a degree of liberalism--I was upset to hear him make ageist comments about the 40 million or so people in our country who were not brought up with metric measurements and who still resort to the imperial measurements because they mean something to them.
I know that I am 5 ft 3 in tall and that I weigh between 9½ and 10 stone. If I tell that to people, they know what it means. I know what a pint means; I know how many yards of fabric I want; if I tell someone that I am going a mile up the road, they know what I mean. I know that I
There is no shame in that, and there is no reason why a housewife should be forced to interpret her recipes in what is basically a foreign measurement. It is not a natural measurement; it has not evolved out of people's sizes and the distance that they travelled in a certain length of time. As hon. Members have said, all our imperial measurements have evolved out of elements that relate to people's daily lives, yet here we are forcing them to think in an entirely foreign system of measurements. In my view it is the equivalent of forcing them to think and calculate their orders in Chinese. The Government would do well to take that into account and not to pooh-pooh it. Making decisions involving shopping and measuring is an important element of women's daily lives. I should like the Minister to address that point.
Dr. Howells: May I attempt to convince the hon. Lady that I am certainly not pooh-poohing the idea? That is why we negotiated another 10 years of having imperial measurements on weighing scales--so that we can understand them.
Mrs. Gorman: The Government inspectors have insisted that people print their packets of food, and shopkeepers weigh their commodities, using a foreign system of measurement. Tonight we are debating the fact that anyone who does not do that will be prosecuted. I am trying to touch the heart that I hope the Minister has, in support of people whose daily lives involve having to handle commodities in what amounts to a foreign language. If for no other reason, the Minister and the Labour party would do themselves a power of good if they did not knock older people, some of whom will still be alive in 10 or 20 years' time, after the current derogation expires, and who would prefer to continue to use the language of measuring distance, weights and so on that they have been familiar with since childhood.
Mr. Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend agree with the powerful point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls)? Is it not almost humiliating that we are having to go cap in hand to what he correctly described as a foreign power, to ask for this derogation in the first place?
Mrs. Gorman: I quite agree with my hon. Friend. It does us all a power of good if, for a change, we take into consideration the concerns of the people whom we represent here. It has been said more than once this evening that the great majority of them would prefer to keep the forms of measurement with which they are familiar and in which they have been educated. If younger people feel comfortable with metric measures, by all means let them be printed on boxes and packets. I expect that young people mix up mashed potatoes late at night too, but there are a large number of people who do not want the metric system to be imposed on them, and they should not have to use it.
A long time ago I used to help small businesses with their problems. The regulations imposed by European directives were driving them up the pole, so we decided to go to Europe and talk to the people who drew up those regulations. They made it absolutely clear that the
There is no need to ram the directives down people's throats, but our civil servants gold-plate them and make them worse. They make demands that are entirely unnecessary. We are here to represent people's views, not to dictate to them. That is not why they send us here, and we should not be involved in doing that. As soon as the Government learn that and accept that the time is not right to do away with our imperial measurements, the sooner they will improve their proper role of representing what the great majority of people in this country feel about this matter.
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). Taking a leaf out of her book, I should like to tell the House that 140 lb of pigmeat makes 1 cwt of bacon. Many people in Britain today are familiar with such equations. I could not give the metric equivalent of that equation, but I make that point to show that I have been in business, which, regrettably, not too many hon. Members these days have.
I know from my experience in business that to foster trade one has to respond to what the customer wants. If the customer wants to buy in avoirdupois rather than in metric, that is what the customer should be allowed to do. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), I belong to the party that believes in choice and diversity. The people who should exercise the choice are the customers, the British people. That choice must not be circumscribed by the people in Whitehall who think they know best.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) made the important point that, historically, we in Britain have been able to do anything and everything unless it was prohibited by the law, which is in complete contrast to the continental system under which something can be done only if it is expressly permitted. This is another example of how we are moving more and more towards a continental system, which, to many of us, is regrettable, and does not suit the country's nature and mood.
The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) is apt. We go cap in hand all the time to ask Brussels whether we can keep systems that we have historically enjoyed for hundreds of years. Such systems have served us well and there is no reason to change them. When we get a derogation, we say that we have won a victory. What a victory, simply to have hung on for another five or 10 years to something that we have enjoyed for centuries.
I risk being ruled out of order in saying this, but my hon. Friend is right when he says that this is all driven by politics. It is all driven by the determination that nothing will stand in the way of creating a united states of Europe. Metrication is another step along that route, just as decimalisation was 20 or 30 years ago.
I return to the argument about trade. Our trade with the EU is important and amounts to a substantial sum, but it represents less than 11 per cent. of our gross GDP. In other words, 89 per cent. of our GDP is accounted for by trade within the UK and with the rest of the world.
We are in great danger of getting things completely out of proportion. As a business man, I would not rejig the whole of my production and accounting methods and the way in which I ran my business for customers who represented 11 per cent. of my business. I would be more inclined to ensure that my business was tailored towards the other 89 per cent. The same equation applies to our consideration of the single currency, which I appreciate is not the subject of tonight's discussion.
The Minister must understand that a serious desire to encourage trade and create the prosperity that flows from it requires that regulation be limited. The Government must stop telling people how they should do things, and allow the market to work. They must allow customers to exercise their right to choose what products to buy, at what standard and at what price. They must also be able to decide in what measurement they want to buy goods, and in what currency they will pay.
I implore the Government, in all their future dealings with the European Union, to avoid prescription and harmonisation and to leave scope for choice and diversity, which encourage markets and stimulate economic activity.