|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Heald: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will have heard the Minister say that we had 16 sittings. Is that in order when, according to the Official Report, the final sitting was the 15th sitting?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Our objection is that the regulations mark another stage in the Government's determination to drive out pounds, ounces and other familiar imperial units of measurement, and to replace them with an enforced metrication policy, even when that is unnecessary and unwanted.
The background to the regulations is that in 1999 the Government ended the permitted sale of loose goods--fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and so on--in pounds and ounces. From 31 December 1999, it became a criminal offence to sell those loose goods in the familiar units that we had used for so long. That has led to the absurd prosecution of a market trader, Mr. Thoburn, in Sunderland. His only crime, it is alleged, is that he is selling fruit in pounds and ounces.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does my right hon. Friend share my perplexity about the matter? Some people might consider it a modern thing to use systeme internationale d'unite measures, but the United States uses pounds and ounces in NASA space probes, as well as miles, feet, inches and square yards in other circumstances. Can my right hon. Friend understand what the Government's motive could be for abandoning historical units of measurement such as pounds and ounces in favour of metrication? Metrication is popular in Europe, but it is not understood here.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend is right to give the United States as an example of a country that uses imperial measurements. However, I do not think that they are called imperial units there; rather, they are known as non-metric, or even English, units. Indeed, in some cases in the US, there has been a reversion to such units and away from metrication.
The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr. Kim Howells): The Government have had to address the issue because, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, the previous Government signed up to metrication time and again, and reconfirmed as much in this Chamber, time and again.
The point that I was developing leads on from the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). It is that the metrication process has nothing to do with consumer rights or the protection of consumer interests. In the case of Mr. Thoburn and his sale of fruit and vegetables in pounds and ounces, it is neither suggested nor alleged that he was in any way misleading his customers. Quite the reverse--he was serving his customers in the units they asked for; he was not short-changing them in any way. In the market in Sunderland, there were many other outlets. There is choice in a market, by definition. If he was doing something that his customers disapproved of, they could easily buy their produce from somebody else. He would lose business if he was thought to be imposing his values on an unwilling public. He and his customers were simply exercising choice, and the Government are now denying them that choice.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): The right hon. Gentleman refers to the Thoburn case. Am I right in thinking that the genesis of the regulations can be traced back to 1989 and the European Council of Ministers, whose United Kingdom representative was the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), now foreign affairs spokesperson for the Conservative party?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is getting this slightly wrong. My right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) obtained for this country an extension of the rights of traders to continue to use imperial measurements. This Government failed to do that in 1999, so the guilt lies on the Government Benches rather than ours.
Dr. Howells: I would not want the right hon. Gentleman to mislead the House. Why does he not simply admit that the Government of whom he and the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) were members signed up to metrication and then managed to obtain a 10-year extension which would enable traders to put supplementary measurements on each weighing scale? That is precisely what we did the year before last.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I am afraid that the Minister cannot avoid responsibility in that way. These prosecutions are proceeding because in 1999 the Government failed to extend the right to use imperial units in trade in loose goods. We obtained that extension in 1989--that is a matter of record.
The Government did not even try to obtain an extension in 1999. I have a helpful written answer from the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who is in his place. The hon. Gentleman said:
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Does it not go even further than that? If it was a question of concern for international trade, and a trader insisted on using a unit of measurement that was not acceptable to potential customers on the continent, he would not be able to trade. People trade in the measurements that their customers want.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend is right. Trade exists by satisfying customers. Someone who supplies goods in units that are inconvenient or are not understood will not sell them. People do not need bureaucrats or central Government to tell them that. It is much better to leave such matters to normal commercial intercourse at market level.
The domestic sale of loose goods has no single market implications and does not affect other member states in any way. It is a purely domestic matter and therefore falls under the subsidiarity requirement, which is now written into the treaty of Rome, as amended. Respect for subsidiarity is insisted upon, so if the Government had asked in 1999 whether United Kingdom traders should continue to use pounds and ounces for domestic trade, no case whatever would have been made against the proposition, which would have been allowed. As has been mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham succeeded in obtaining a further derogation when he applied for one. The same would apply in respect of many units of measurement.
It may interest the House to be reminded that some imperial measurements have indefinite extensions. They include the mile and the acre, and pints of milk can still be sold in returnable bottles. The use of such measurements is still permitted because the Government and the European Union know perfectly well that if they insisted on abolishing them in favour of metric measurements, the public would not accept their decision. The principle is already established. When it is convenient for the public to continue to use traditional imperial measurements, they are allowed to do so. Will the