Fifth Standing Committee on
Thursday 1 February 2001
[Mr Jimmy Hood in the Chair]
The Non-automatic Weighing Instrument Regulations 2000
Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Non-automatic Weighing Instruments Regulations 2000 (S.I. 2000, No. 3236).
I wish to register our objection to this statutory instrument immediately. In doing so, I fully accept that it has been the policy of successive British Governments since 1965 to promote the greater use of metric units.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) rose
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): Is the hon. Gentleman deliberately talking in imperial units?
Mr. Page: I am pleased to see that the Members at the back are awake. I sincerely hope that instead of their normal trappist approach to such matters, they will give us their contribution in a few momentsbut I strongly suspect that they have had their outing for the day now, and that they will sit there quietly and mull over the rest of the proceedings.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): My hon. Friend may not have noticed that the hon. Gentlemen to whom he referred are in fact dealing with their post this morning, so I suspect that they will not be paying full attention to the debate.
The Chairman: Order. I am sure that hon. Gentlemen are not dealing with their post in Committee, because if they were, they would not be in order.
Mr. Page: Thank you Mr Hood.
The aim of the policy of successive Governments has been based on the combined belief that the use of metric measurements would assist UK commerce and industry to compete more successfully in international markets, and that savings could be made by abandoning the traditional imperial measurements used in our domestic market in favour of the international system of units approved in 1960. That is the theory. The Administration then headed by the late Harold Wilson believed that the process of change and public education could be completed within 10 yearsbut we must remember that he was a gentleman who worked on the premise that a week was a long time in politics. Obviously, for him 10 years would be more than ample time in which to complete that task. That has not proved to be the case, however.
The scene shifts: 36 years on, despite European Economic Community directives in 1971, 79 and 89, the process of conversion has not been completed, and remains controversial. I shall say little about the case of the metric martyr, the Sunderland trader Steven Thorburn
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Shame. Why not?
Mr. Page: For reasons that the Committee will understand: the case has not been resolved by the courts. However, I shall make a few comments that may satisfy my right hon. Friend.
That case is one of the reasons why we prayed against the statutory instrument. The Government are arrogantly proceeding with a statutory instrument which removes the choice of using weighing machines displaying pounds and ounces, even though the result of the case is not known. What will result if the metric martyr is found to be right in his claim? What happens if he is allowed to continue to use pounds and ounces?
The Chairman: Order. The regulation does not deal with metrication per se. The case to which the hon. Gentleman refers is not being prosecuted under the regulations. It may not be sub judice, but it is certainly not relevant to this narrow set of regulations. The hon. Gentleman could stay in order if he made a brief reference to the case, but I invite him to concentrate more on the regulation.
Mr. Page: I fully accept your guidance, Mr. Hood.
The regulation does not contain any reference to the ability to weigh in pounds and ounces. Not only did I read the document through in great depth, but I spoke to a prominent manufacturer of weighing machines. He said exactly what you have said, Mr. Hood, but he also confirmed that the ability to weigh in pounds and ounces, even if one wished to do so, did not exist. I humbly make the point that the regulation has come in before the case has been decided. If the court decides in favour of our metric martyr, the manufacturers of those weighing machines would not be able to comply with that decision. I do not know whether any hon. Members listened to the ``Today'' programme, but there he was in a market square in Brussels, where a fellow trader gave us the distinct impressionI shall not try to imitate the Belgian accent
Hon. Members: Go on.
The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): Cheer us all up.
Mr. Page: The traders gave the impression that they could sell their product over there in ``livres'', which I am given to understand translates as pounds. I can see you giving me a steely-eyed look, Mr. Hood, so I shall move on to my concerns and complaints about the regulations.
Consumers in the United Kingdom still prefer to deal in the old imperial units and measures: they still want their pint of milk or their pint of beer. Major retailers offer customers pre-packed goods in pounds and ounces as well as in grams and kilograms, and that is all within the rules and quite in order. Why do they do it? They do it because vast numbers of their customers prefer products to be sold in imperial measures: they still think in imperial measures. Most members of the Committee will have gone into stores where carpets, DIY equipment, clothing patterns and timber are on sale in a confusing mixture of imperial and metric measurements.
The brave words of decades ago came from both parties, not only from the Government of the daybut parties can change and see the light. I shall not give examples of Governments who have changed their policies over the years, although clause 4 comes to mind. However, despite the brave words, the British people still wish to use imperial measures in many areas. The sooner the Government recognise that they are trying to go against the grain of public opinion, the better. No Government, and least of all the late, forgotten and rightly unlamented Metrication Board, have been able to persuade them otherwise. As one trading standards officer put it last summer, there has been a massive failure on the part of the authorities to educate the public on the merits of metrication.
I am surprised that the Government have chosen to introduce this statutory instrument now. As I have said, it is characteristically poorly timed, and it is inappropriate because the assumptions of successive Governments of both major political parties, on which the original directive was based, were poorly founded. They assumed that our domestic customers would happily and willingly adapt to the metrication of weights and measures, and that the United States would move towards adopting metric measures in due course. Those assumptions have proved to be insecure, at the very least.
In our view all bets are off. The original directive has failed in its intention. One of the main arguments for having instruments that can weigh only in metric measures was that the United States would happily convert to grams and kilograms. That has not proved to be the case As we know, Tesco carried out a survey of its customers' opinions, more than half told the company that they found the metric system confusing, and three quarters wanted the imperial measurement displayed. Surprise, surprise; that is exactly what a good company has done to meet customer demand. Tesco is going the right way about itnot telling customers what it wants, but asking them what they want. That is the difference. This Government are telling people what they want. The measure under discussion is a classic example of shutting off choice, which the Opposition rightly believe that people should have.
Mr. Forth: Is my hon. Friend aware of any survey of opinion, or proposal for a referendum, by the Governmentgiven that they are keen on referendumson this matter? Is my hon. Friend not puzzled that they appear to want to blunder ahead and impose this unpopular measure on the people without making any effort to establish people's opinions? The Greater London Assembly was imposed when hardly anybody in London wanted it. Will this be another such case?
Mr. Page: I have many responsibilities in this world, but dictating Government policy on referendums is, to the best of my knowledge, not one that I have at the moment.
Mr. Forth: Ask the Minister.
Mr. Page: This Government will only hold a referendum when they know that the result will be what they want. That is why we have not had a referendum on this matter, or on issues such as the euro. I will move on
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) rose
Mr. Page: Ah, there is life after death.
Mr. Winnick: If the hon. Gentleman's party wins the general election, whenever it comes, does he agree with his right hon. Friend? Would he hold a referendum on the issue? Will he use all his powers of persuasion?
Mr. Page: We have done some sample analysis, and have discovered, as Tesco has, that the vast majority of people would like to have a choice between imperial measurements and kilograms. We therefore see no reason to have a referendum[HON. MEMBERS: ``Ah!''] We would give people a choice. We would allow them to make the decision[Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order. I am sure that hon. Members will give each other the right to have their say without interrupting from a sedentary position.
Mr. Page: Thank you again, Mr. Hood.
We are a party of choice; we are not a party of diktat and direction. Therein lies a gulf wider than
Mr. Forth: The channel.
Mr. Page: Very good.
I mentioned earlier that the original directive was founded on the basis that the United States would move towards the adoption of metrification throughout the country, and that the same would happen in this country. All bets are off because plainly, that is not happening. There is no evidence of the United States moving further towards adopting metric unitsCongress removed the mandatory requirement to use metric measurements in federal contracts in 1998, and at least 18 states have abandoned the use of kilometres on road signs and reverted to miles. The plain fact is that the United States is going in the other direction. Companies such as Tesco are showing that their customers want to have a choice. Government statements that metrification is now under way in the United States, and that European Union states hope that the United States will accept metric-only labels, show, I regret to say, a detachment from reality. As I understand it, that is a disease that has affected certain Ministers. Spin is not always an adequate substitute for substance. We believe that people should be free to choose whether they buy goods in imperial or metric measures. Retailers should be free to supply goods in the way that their customers want. That means allowing retailers to use weighing instruments using not only the metric system but the imperial system.
The elaborate procedures set out in the regulations for ensuring that weighing instruments are manufactured in accordance with the EEC directives, bear approved identification numbers, have the necessary certificates and have CE markers and stickers affixed, are nothing more than excessive regulation to block off the possible use of pounds and ounces. The Sunderland court case has not yet been decided, so the Government's attitude is arrogant no matter what the courts say. Pounds and ounces are out for this Government. Small traders have already had to meet the cost of acquiring new equipment at a minimum cost of £450 per weighing machine, or adapting existing machines at an average cost of £102. They now face the prospect of the enforcement procedures and the fines envisaged here for infringing the requirements of a statutory instrument. That seems completely incompatible with the Government's protestation that they are friendly to small businesses.
The Government failed to secure an extension to the derogation. I must correct that: they did not even try to get an extension to the period in which loose goods such as fruit and vegetables could be sold in imperial measurements. They could have tried to do that in negotiations with our EU partners, but they chose not to, in the fallacious belief that no one would notice. That was slipped through late in the 1999 session, as we were about to set off with our buckets and spades, and I am now looking at the guilty man on the Government Front Bench who slipped it through, when we could have debated and argued about it.
My respect for the Minister is considerable. He is a hardworking, dedicated and effective Ministerexcept in this one area,where he has failed. He has failed the small business men in this country and he has certainly failed the vast majority of people who would prefer to buy their apples, pears and potatoes in imperial measurements rather than metric. I realise that he is here under sufferance, and that he must follow the line. Unfortunately, that line does not reflect the views of the people in this country, or even meet the test of electoral popularity that dominates thinking on all Benches at the moment. In opposing this statutory instrument, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and I have good sense and popular support on our side. They should both be heeded.