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The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness a simple question. The regulations that we are discussing simply allow the supplementary indicators to be continued for another eight years. If we do not have them, we will not have the use of supplementary indicators, which are wholly in the consumer interest.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the Minister is not correct in that. If we were to reject the regulations, consumers would gain, choice would gain and the public would gain because we would be going back to what was in place before the regulations were brought forward. Perhaps I may refer to some of the regulations on the back of the instrument; for example, the Measuring Equipment (Capacity Measures and Testing Equipment) Regulations 1995, with which I am sure the Minister is well acquainted. The existing provisions allow for the indefinite marking of gallons, pints, quarts or gills and fluid ounces as a supplementary indication to litres and centilitres. The regulations against which I am praying would insert a cut-off date of 31st December 2009. However, if those were rejected, supplementary marking would still be allowed.
Perhaps I may return to the point I was making. If millions of tourists can cope with litres and kilos when they go on holiday and adapt to driving on the wrong side of the road, I am sure that our visitors can manage with dual pricing when they decide to buy a bag of oranges. In other words, what business is it of Brussels or even of our own authoritarian Government how my local corner shop and its satisfied customers do business?
I said a few moments ago that the previous government accepted the directive subject to the derogation. But it was an earlier Labour government, in their dying days in 1979, who negotiated the original directive which referred to,
My right honourable friend the Member for Wells pointed out in the other place the difference in attitude to regulation between the United Kingdom and the Continent. In France, everything is permitted; in Germany, everything is forbidden unless it is permitted; in the United Kingdom, everything is permitted unless it is forbidden. I had my own experience of that in 1974 when I expanded my mail order business into Germany. I had to negotiate a special licence with the German Post Office because it did not allow one to put envelopes on the outside of packets, even though that is done world-wide.
My right honourable friend in the other place also asked why anyone needs permission to display helpful information. In the hope that in the week that has elapsed since that question was asked in the other place the Government have had the time to think up an answer, I ask the Minister exactly the same question. Indeed, I go further. By what right do the Government seek to censor labels on supermarket shelves of pots of marmalade? If in a free country I decide to put political slogans on my products, there is nothing to stop me, much as this Government may dislike my doing that. I have no need to remind your Lordships how Tate&Lyle comprehensively routed the government of the 1940s--perhaps it was the 1950s: I am not sure--with its brilliant "Mr Cube" campaign opposing the government's plan to nationalise it. If, in exercising my right of free speech, I can include on my jar of home-made pickles, which are very good, a statement about class sizes or hospital waiting lists, or even on the shelves of my shop, why do the Government believe that they are entitled to prohibit me from saying that a kilo of onions costs 78p--equivalent to 35p a pound?
The Government have claimed that that causes confusion. Who does it confuse? The customer can rely on which unit of measure and price he or she chooses. In real life, unless one is among the fortunate few whose greengrocer still delivers--whether it is Fortnum's or the very helpful corner shop--most people do not even buy loose fruit by weight. They pick up six bananas or five apples and the person at the check-out tells them what they cost. So why cannot the customer see the price on the shelf in whatever units he or she is most comfortable with?
If we are going to discuss confusion, perhaps I may remind your Lordships about the confusion that was caused by the last compulsory imposition, without an adequate transition, of metrication on this country. We have just reached the 30th anniversary of the overnight decimalisation of our currency. It was done in a most confusing way. We did not adopt a 10-shilling unit, as was the case in Australia and New Zealand. We stuck to the pound. I do not blame the then Chancellor of the Exchequer--now the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan--personally because he followed the advice that he was given at the time. However, as a result, many people no longer understood what they were paying for anything, when 17 shillings became 85p instead of 1.7 new pounds, sovereigns, or whatever. Older people still have difficulty in relating decimal coinage to the old prices, to real prices or to, as so many people call it, real money.
How many of your Lordships realise that your Evening Standard costs you seven shillings and that it costs 5s 2½d to post a letter? Conversion of petrol pumps to litre pricing only disguises the fact that petrol is now more than £4 a gallon. In the case of metrication, we are not just talking about older people. Tens of millions of our citizens have grown up with pounds and ounces, pints and gallons. Millions of those who were born before Harold Wilson invented the "white heat of technology" in 1963 and introduced the now defunct Metrication Board during his 1964 administration will, it is to be hoped, still be alive in 2009. But the Government are clearly saying that those survivors of the pre-Wilson era will not be worth bothering about in nine years' time. That is a clear act of age discrimination.
While I am talking about confusion--I assume that our benevolent Government want to protect the public from being misled in some way by being given more information than is thought good for them--have your Lordships thought about the confusion that is caused by the change to metric quantities? Butter used to be sold in half pound packets. Now it is sold in a 250 gram pack. But 250 grams is nine ounces, so the supermarkets benefit from a 12½ per cent boost in sales. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, is very well aware of that.
On the other hand, the old standard 12 ounce--three-quarters of a pound--pot of jam is now rounded down to 340 grams--just one-eighth of an ounce less; not much less; just 1 per cent less jam today, my Lords, but the public have not noticed. By what piece of bureaucratic nonsense is it all right to inform the public that their pint of milk is equal to 568 millilitres but not that a bunch of grapes, at £2.99 a kilo, is equivalent to £1.36 a pound?
The regulations we are considering today go beyond the requirements of the directive, which merely requires the use of a uniform system of measurement; a directive from which the Government deliberately and consciously lost our opt-out. The directive did not prohibit dual pricing or supplementary marking, but, as is typical of this Government in their dealings with the EU, they are adopting their usual submissive attitude and gold-plating the directive. They have put in an eventual time-limit on dual marking. That is the sole purpose of this regulation.
European Union firms that sell to the United States of America are not permitted to sell only in metric measurements. Imperial marking is also required. The EU has responded by graciously permitting even sellers of pre-packed goods to use dual marking. As I have already mentioned, the EU has taken this further and entirely logical step to prevent the uneconomic need for two different production runs, one for Europe and the other for the United States. Indeed, the EU permits dual marking on goods to be sold within the EU and I understand that it extends that permission even to loose goods such as bananas.
However, the Government wish to prohibit that practice from 2009 onwards, but only for British businesses. Europeans will be permitted to sell their goods in bushels, firkins or any other medieval measurement they may choose, just so long as they also use metric measurements. Britain is to be censored and prohibited by an increasingly despotic Government from doing so after 2009. Again, I shall ask the same, unanswered question, which I think is amusing the Minister. I am glad that I have managed to amuse the noble Lord but I hope that, when he thinks about it, he will realise that this is a serious matter. I shall ask him the same question: why?
What the regulation does is to restrict freedom of expression for no reason or benefit whatsoever. If there is no reason for it or benefit from it, I ask again: why? What have we or the EU to fear from giving British shoppers the choice of how they want the goods they buy to be priced and measured? Do we seriously expect shopkeepers to be prosecuted for telling confused shoppers the weight of the goods in pounds and ounces? Will the Minister, in all seriousness, tell noble Lords categorically, here and now, that a Labour government would support such prosecutions?
Once in a while, a piece of nonsense crosses a Minister's desk, although of course the Minister may see plenty of nonsense passing over his desk. Some of those pieces of nonsense have nothing to do with the
This totally purposeless regulation should be revoked. To support that proposition, I should like to reverse the question that I have asked several times in the course of my remarks. I shall quote my personal motto, which reflects my personal philosophy. When I meet an illogical piece of obstinacy, I then say: quare non--and why not?
Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations, laid before the House on 17th January, be annulled (S.I. 2001/85).--(Baroness Miller of Hendon.)
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