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Let me go back to the 1999 directive. We sought and achieved agreement at EU level for the use of supplementary indications for a further 10 years. As the right hon. Member for Wells knows, that is precisely what the previous Government did during the previous 10 years and in the eight years before that. It was the right thing to do, and we did it. It provides the opportunity for traders to display supplementary indications alongside metric indications, if traders decide that that would be helpful to their customers. There are about 160,000 weighing machines in this country for measuring loose goods. Some 130,000 of them have been converted. Those figures speak for themselves.
Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead): Though I am, perhaps, an even older fogey than my hon. Friend, does he agree that if the Conservatives are still working on the basis that there are 240 pennies in the pound, we can see why their economic policy is in such a mess?
Dr. Howells: I cannot improve on that. When the great Seb Coe--I found out only yesterday that he is in the other place now--ran the 1500 m in the Olympic games, why did the Conservatives not ask that he should be allowed to run his own bit extra to win a gold medal for a mile? Linford Christie could have finished half a yard ahead of everyone else by running 100 yd instead of 100 m. The Conservative position is nonsense, of course. The Opposition are raising their objection only because
Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): Although we Liberal Democrats recognise the advantage of using common units of measurement for scientific, technological and professional activities, we believe that attempts to implement what is seen by ourselves and the public as heavy-handed measures to impose metrication by compulsion are counter-productive. I fully accept that, as the Minister said, it was the previous Tory Government who started us on this road. It is clearly owing to them that we find ourselves in this situation. However, I do not approve of the way in which this Government are handling the matter.
The European Community directive that the order seeks to impose was originally designed with the intention of harmonising the use by member states of the international system. According to the regulatory impact assessment, that was done for economic, public health, public safety and administrative purposes.
Before the 2009 deadline, after which complete metrication will be a legal requirement, traders are able to make use, as has been said, of supplementary indications. That means that we can make use of dual markings of products, which is quite acceptable. When the original deadline for metrication was announced, it was believed that member states would quickly adapt to the new system, but, clearly, that has not been so. The use of supplementary indications makes life easier for consumers, who are able to work with whichever measurement they are most comfortable with. I am getting on a bit, but by 2009 I shall have got on a bit more, and I might be unable to understand the measurements as well as I would wish.
Mr. Fabricant: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the whole issue is down to freedom--freedom of choice of the consumer, freedom of choice of people who are in trade? Surely it should be up to them what they do. Does he not think that even a Liberal Democrat Government, for God's sake, would be going a bit too far in imposing a standard of measure that was unpopular among those who were forced to use it?
Mr. Cotter: I am delighted at that intervention. I can rip up half my speech; the hon. Gentleman has made my points, which is surprising from a member of a party that has not been notable for its libertarian approach or the way in which it consulted the general public while in government.
It is not the principle of metrication that I oppose, but the way in which the system will be implemented, the speed of implementation and the fact that this Government, having been dropped in it by the previous one, have not fought harder for a lengthier derogation. Why try to force the hand of metrication when, as has been said, there are still a number of units in use, such as the pint of milk and of beer that we very much favour?
More than that, we have a long history when it comes to measures. As a matter of interest--I am sure that this will be of great interest to Members present--the acre of land has been in existence since 732, when it was introduced under the reign of King Ethelbert II, the King of Kent.
The furlong, with which many people, particularly in the racing fraternity, will be familiar, came from the Greeks and Romans. They inherited it as an ancient measure, apparently based on the optimal length of a plough. I could go on at great length about old measurements, but I will just pick out a few. There are many other historical examples of measures that are still referred to, but not used very often. All of us will be familiar with rods, poles and perches. There are many more, such as bushels, cloves, firkins and gills, not forgetting noggins and pecks and, most important for us as politicians, scruples. As we all know, we are extremely scrupulous people, yet a scruple is a measurement.
So the case is made that, as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) said, it is a great lack of appreciation of the liberty of the British citizen that we should not be allowed, even if we have to accept metrication, a derogation beyond 2009. I hope that, as a result of the telling arguments made by me and others, the Government will consider renewing their efforts, even if they have failed at this point, to ensure that after 2009 we will be able to use what are called supplementary indications. People like myself will appreciate being able to see the pounds and ounces, even in small letters, on the product that they want to buy.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): This issue basically relates to a form of xenophobia. There is an assumption these days that we always have to do what is prescribed by the European Union and its institutions. The fact remains that there is a powerful case for renegotiating the arrangements in line with the wishes of the British people. I was fascinated to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter). After all, the Liberal party is above all else a federalist party. I suspect that Liberal Members are trying to make out that they have some form of resistance to the regulations when they are
Mr. Cotter: I do not know whether I should bother to intervene, as I would expect the hon. Gentleman to make the sort of comments that he has made. As he well knows, we support the concept of metrication, but I am protesting about the lack of a libertarian approach, which means that after a certain date we will not be allowed to refer to the previous measurements. That is a key issue and it is the clear point that we are making.
This is an unnecessary proposal. It would undoubtedly increase the damage to the economy that has already been caused by a number of factors, including dissatisfaction and confusion in domestic trade between suppliers compelled to use metric and customers who prefer imperial. Furthermore, it will create confusion in our trade with European and other countries, as a result of variations within the metric system.
There are powerful reasons why the regulations should be resisted. Simply to say that we have to go along with them until 2009 makes a point in itself. The idea of a derogation raises the question whether the Government are opposed to the issue in principle. Why not stop altogether, if that is what they want to do? Why go in for something that is time extended for a period? The Government, like the Liberal party, are giving way on the issue of how long the derogation should continue. They know that there is tremendous resistance to the process, and they want a fig leaf with which to cloak themselves for the time being.