Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, I shall intervene only briefly because the matter has been covered more than adequately in the speech of the noble Baroness. I am not quite sure what is the correct emotion to demonstrate: should we laugh in scorn at this matter, or should we feel gusts of anger at the humiliation inflicted upon our Parliament by the Brussels authorities, for that is what it is?

First, using a single sentence, I shall try to put this matter into perspective. No one in possession of their senses would have any objection to the adoption of a metric system where it is in the interests of Britain to do so. Many of our traders who conduct most of their business with the Continent find it convenient to use metric units. Those who export primarily to the dollar areas do not, because the recipients of their goods are familiar with imperial units. Common sense rules what decisions are made.

So far as concerns the ordinary consumer, it is only a matter of what is most convenient; namely, what each consumer is most familiar with. There can be no justification at all, in terms of public demand, for getting rid of our traditional system of weights and measures.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I do not wish to prevent noble Lords expressing their views about the metric system or their anti-European sentiments; it is obviously very therapeutic.

I point out again that these extremely limited regulations simply extend for up to a further eight years the period during which pricing using both imperial and metric units can take place. That is all that the regulations will do. Obviously, people have views on metric measurements, but tonight we are debating only that one simple proposition.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, with respect, the regulations do not simply reiterate the status quo. We are now envisaging for the first time the total

20 Mar 2001 : Column 1355

suppression of imperial units by a given date--admittedly on 31st December 2009. Why on earth we should have anything to do with the year 2009 is beyond me, unless the Government wish to be provocative.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I must insist: a previous EU directive brought all supplementary indicators to an end in 1999. The regulation before the House extends the period during which such indicators can be used for a further 10 years. We have negotiated this extension. If we had not done that, the use of supplementary indicators would have stopped in 1999.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, if the regulations simply extend the status quo and merely give us a terminal date, we should have taken the opportunity to renegotiate the matter so as to escape from the ludicrous provision we are already saddled with.

Perhaps I may put one or two questions to my noble friend, because they will help to clarify the point. I understand the present situation to be that, in this country, it is unlawful to sell units of goods using imperial measurements. What we are allowed to do--the Minister should blush with shame at this, as should we all--is to display our traditional units as "supplementary indicators".

The term "supplementary indicator" has yet to be fully described or defined. However, I gather that the imperial weights and measures must be less prominently displayed than the metric units. To sell using only those "supplementary indicators" is unlawful; it is unlawful today. As noble Lords know, we are presently awaiting the result of a test case where a Sunderland greengrocer, whose name is Steven Thoburn, sold a pound of bananas as a pound of bananas in his shop in Sunderland. What have they done? They have confiscated his scales and, because he persists in refusing to use metric measurements, they are now trying to inflict further punishments. Perhaps I may ask the Minister what are the maximum punishments under the present regime. Are there prison sentences and fines? We might as well have the details put on the record.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, perhaps they have the galleys.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, we can make a joke about this, but I am concerned with far more important matters here than whether one can buy and sell bananas by the pound. Greater issues are at stake here. This case illustrates what is happening. What is meant by the loss of self-government is that unelected bureaucrats tell the citizens of this country what they can and cannot do, when what they are doing has no relevance at all to the European Union. It is an invasion of freedom. In my view, this House and the other place, which is debating this matter tomorrow, should be up in arms and refuse to re-enact these regulations, thereby giving notice to the authorities in Brussels that we will not stand it any longer.

20 Mar 2001 : Column 1356

7.30 p.m.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, I oppose this Motion. I cannot believe that the noble Baroness will wish to press it because she is far too sensible. The technicalities will be explained by the Minister; I wish to make some general remarks.

First, it is not very sensible to have dual systems. It is no more sensible to continue to show pounds and ounces than it would be to have figures showing pounds, shillings and pence, as in some ways the noble Baroness suggested.

Secondly, it does not have very much to do with the bureaucrats of Brussels. Metrication has an interesting ancestry. There was a unanimous recommendation by a Select Committee of the House of Commons that metrication should be instituted in 1862, which, as I far as I remember, was somewhat earlier than the founding of the Common Market.

The Metrication Board was set up to promote metrication in this country. It was recommended in 1968 by that well-known Europhile, that lackey of Brussels, Mr Douglas Jay. He was backed in this by that other Europhile, Mr Anthony Benn. Metrication was introduced into our schools by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher.

This is not a gigantic plot. Every other country in the world has gone metric. Every Commonwealth country has completed metrication. Is that because they are dominated by the bureaucrats of Brussels? What on earth is the noble Lord, Lord Shore, talking about? It was magnificent Churchillian rhetoric, full of sound and fury, but signified nothing.

These changeovers sometimes cause a fuss. It would have been much easier if we had kept the Metrication Board. I remember decimalisation because I was the Minister in charge of decimalisation in 1968. I remember the great "Save the Sixpence" campaign. The sixpence was given, rather weakly, by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, a reprieve for a certain time. It was meaningless because a sixpence--a 2½p coin--had no place in a metric system, and the 2½p coin duly disappeared.

This really is a great deal of nonsense about nothing. It is a pity that the Decimalisation Board, which did a great job, was not followed in due course by the Metrication Board, which, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, explained, was abolished, I think by him, as one of the first acts of the new government. He rather regrets that it was done. The Decimalisation Board was a great success. If the Metrication Board had been, the fuss might be somewhat limited.

Do not let us pretend that this is a great story about domination by Brussels. That has nothing to do with it. Why should all Commonwealth countries have adopted metrication? Why should the United States be adopting it as well?

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, perhaps I may bring the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, back to the issue. It is not a question of whether or not we should adopt metrication; it is whether it should be a

20 Mar 2001 : Column 1357

criminal offence for someone, after 2009, to display his produce in pounds and ounces as well as in kilos. No one is saying that we should not display in kilos, but we should be able to display in both. That is all that the issue is about.

Some say it will die out--it probably will--but why do we buy from the fishmonger in Barfleur, the fish market, "les huitres: le livre". After all, the French invented metrication and they still use their old bourbon levels of measurement in some markets--they do in the vegetable market in Carcassonne--but they do not get sent to the guillotine or the Temple prison in Paris.

I regret to say that governments of both parties have been prone towards the intolerable habit of over-regulating. There is no need to ban it. When people do not want it, it will die like the sixpence. The difference is fundamental; it is not an attitude of anti-metrication but one of live and let live. I thought--I may be wrong; I am being proved wrong--that the Liberal Democrats believed in that. They obviously do not at the moment. They say, "Let's boss people about". The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, may split the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, I do not know, but that is the issue.

I pride myself on being what can be called a "xenophiliac". I rather dislike the way that Brussels governs us, and the two are not mutually exclusive. That is why we should be able to love the pound and love kilos and not send people to the galleys, the guillotine, the Temple or fine them two thousand quid.

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, I am sorry that I was not here for the opening moments of my noble friend's eloquent and emotional speech. It was effective in its way, as always. It matched in emotional content the speech of my old sparring partner, the noble Lord, Lord Shore. However, as a former Minister for metrication--if I may get that on the record--I find the existence of this debate, with its hugely generated emotions, in itself a very sad commentary on the lack of skill and, quite frankly, the lack of candour with which we have set about the metrication process. It is a very distressing state of affairs.

I say "we" because all parties have connived in quiescence and a lack of candour. We have never secured a statutory endorsement by Parliament, which was a mistake. Even as I see the smile on the face of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, I say "we" because his party colleague, the Member for Weston-Super-Mare, Mr Brian Cotter, has made speeches of matching eloquent emotionalism to the ones we have already heard. So it is an all-party shambles.

The myths which underlie the shambles are, first--this has been dealt with already--that this is the fruit of some hideous alien imposition. It is true that it was the French revolutionaries who first started designing the metric system. They had the courtesy, rather remarkably, to ask the then British government to attend consultations about how to do it. With a better excuse in those days than in the present circumstances, the British Government declined the offer.

20 Mar 2001 : Column 1358

The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, is right that in 1862 a unanimous Select Committee of the Commons recommended metrication because, in its view, no country--especially no commercial country--should fail to adopt the metric system, which would save time and lessen labour. Nine years later, by five votes only, the House of Commons failed to endorse metrication and decimalisation simultaneously. Decimalisation then would have cost trade £3 million; decimalisation 100 years later in 1971--a long delay even for this country--cost £300 million. That is one of the prices we have paid for it.

Successively, the Hodgson committee appointed by Lord Attlee unanimously recommended metrication in our national interests; the Metrication Board was set up in our national interests; and in 1972 we started teaching our children in metric measures in our national interests. While I was waiting for the debate to begin I was talking to an old friend of mine in Port Talbot, a retired primary school headmistress. I mentioned what we were about to embark upon, and she said how upset she had been when she had taught all the children going through her primary school in metric measures, as she was led to understand was necessary, and found that when they moved on to their secondary schools they were back to imperial measures again. That is no way to run a country.

It is wrong to believe that this is an alien imposition; it is wrong to believe that it is intrinsically bad; it is, above all, wrong to believe that we can continue indefinitely living in a twilight world with both systems having a kind of equal parity. If we were the first Commonwealth country to embark on metrication and are now the only one not to have completed it, does not that lead one to question why we alone have to have this extraordinarily emotional excitement?

It is partly because we have allowed the thing to come among us now in European dress. In 1972, when the Heath government published the metrication White Paper, even that was published before we joined the European Community. We have made the mistake of relying upon that background instead of saying, "Look, guys, this is for us" to the British people. Canada, Kenya, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have done it. New Zealand started it in 1972 and finished it in 1977. If you do it with a properly designed, sustained educative process, you do not need to contemplate prosecution.

My noble friend was right to refer to the use of the livre on the French coast. I have bought a livre of moules marinieres in Barfleur. But the livre is a residual designation of a demi-kilo. There would be confusion unless we got it clear in this country that the pound, if we wanted to go on using it, was now to be understood as meaning 500 grams or half a kilo.

The tragedy is that we have not carried this process through in a sensible, systematic fashion. That is something of which we all ought to be collectively ashamed. To have successive governments saying that this is the way we are going, introducing measures to achieve it and letting the schools embark upon it, and

20 Mar 2001 : Column 1359

successive oppositions remaining hugely excited about it, is not the way to run an adult democracy. I am very sad that that we still find ourselves in that age.

I grieve deeply that, not just my honourable friends--with whom I am very friendly--but the noble Lord, Lord Shore, with whom I am normally on very good personal terms, as I am indeed now, and I should find ourselves divided in this extraordinary fashion at the beginning of the 21st century over a system that we ought to have adopted in the middle of the 19th century.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page