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Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, was correct in one of his remarks and incorrect in another. I am not, and am not likely to be, a Front Bench spokesman for this party. That is partly because I do not intend to speak up for my noble friend Lord Taverne on this occasion.
I do not believe that this debate is "much ado about nothing". The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and my noble friend Lord Taverne are too rational about the issues involved. Little things sometimes mean a lot to "little people", as Dickens called them. We need to understand about the European Union. I make no bones about the fact that I am a complete supporter of our membership of the European Union. But people need to understand that the public in this country are not in love with the EU. They find it bureaucratic, distant, impersonal and arrogant. I believe that the way in which this whole question of measurement has been dealt with is a classic example of just that--as well as, I concede, a failure on our part to be sensible in the way in which we have dealt with education.
People feel put upon by bureaucratic busybodies and, frankly, they feel put upon by us. This is a good example of how we often fail in our duty. I say to the Minister that it is true that we are talking about a derogation for 10 years. But what those of us who are in favour of the Motion disagree with is the guillotine that will come down at the end of 2009 and which will make illegal thereafter any use of alternative, supplementary or additional measurements. That is what I disagree with; and I believe that the House should have disagreed with the previous derogation Motion.
Let us consider what we are dealing with. In Halsbury's Statutes there are 175 pages dealing with weights and measures. The Weights and Measures Act 1985 has 122 pages; and 28 EC Council directives dealing with weights and measures are still in force. The directives have been amended many times. Let us take, for example, the directive dated 15th January 1980 on,
My point is a simple one. On 1st January 2010, it will become a criminal offence for any small trader, shopkeeper or market stall holder to have additional measurements along with the metric measurements relating to any goods for sale. If someone goes up to a small shopkeeper or trader on 1st January 2010 and asks for a pound of apples, the trader will be committing a criminal offence if he supplies them. That is like something out of Alice in Wonderland. It is a nonsense. Above all, it is completely unnecessary. I have studiously tried to understand this, and there is no single justification for such criminalisation.
No one is damaged by allowing the supplementary measurements; no great principle of European trade is traversed by allowing them. Indeed, if one is talking about damage, surely the damage is to the many, many consumers who will understand only our traditional measurements. Let us not forget that the latest survey indicates that 93 per cent of the population prefer to deal in traditional measurements. I believe that we shall find that anyone who is over the age of 40 will in 10 years' time be completely lost if he or she has no alternative indicators. Only bottles of milk and pints of beer and cider will then be allowed in traditional measurements.
My point is that there is a basic libertarian issue here. It is easy for some to say that it does not matter, that it is silly. My noble friend Lord Taverne said that it is not sensible. We are not dealing with sense; we are dealing with choice, and with the right of people to express themselves as they think fit. Measurements are a mode of expression like anything else.
It is easy for this House to fall into the managerial attitudes that are now so prevalent, but it is dangerous. It is dangerous because it alienates the very people whom we as a Parliament ought to be setting out to woo. Those of us who do not want the backlash against the European Union to gather force to the point where the time may come when a party will go to the public seeking withdrawal from the European Union need to understand what people resent and why they resent it. Unless there is a good reason for making it a criminal offence on 1st January 2010 for people to supply goods in alternative measurements--I do not believe that there is one--we damage the cause of the European Union. For that reason, I am strongly against the criminality provision that will come into force at the end of the 10-year period.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I assure the House that I shall be brief. I am slightly mystified by this debate. Frankly, I did not intend listening to it, but I was told that it was a matter of some importance and of some constitutional note, so I came into the Chamber. I was
Then we heard the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. I told the noble Earl earlier, and I shall repeat my remark to the House, that I have begun noting the length of time that it takes him to get to his feet from when he first comes through the door into the Chamber. That interval is getting shorter--
We have had the benefit of the noble Earl's contributions on two occasions today in what is probably his first appearance for some time. I hope that the noble Earl comes to the House more often. When he comes, he is entertaining; indeed, we all enjoy seeing him. Some of us enjoy listening to him, as long as he does not go on for too long.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, my only slight defence was that I did arrive slightly late for the Question on fishing that was dealt with earlier today. The noble Lord is right to say that I was fairly sharpish off my feet at that time. However, on this occasion I had made a plan; namely, to arrive, to listen to the opening speech and to the other speakers, and then to intervene with what I hoped would be a constructive and libertarian contribution. The noble Lord may not agree with what I said, but then he is excellent at not agreeing; indeed, he is excellent at showing disdain of a rather patrician kind, which we all have known and have grown to love. But at least three of us can play this game.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I am bound to say that to be accused by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, of being patrician seems to me to be a somewhat astonishing proposition even at this hour of the night, and on this particular issue.
We also heard from the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, who said that this is a basic libertarian issue. That was greeted by a chorus of "Hear, hear!" from those on the other side of the Chamber. This is not a libertarian issue. The noble Lord said how terrible it will be when this becomes a criminal offence on 1st January 2010. That prospect seems to appal the other side. It is a very
Lord Richard: My Lords, I urge noble Lords opposite to try to follow the argument. That is being a bit patrician! Indeed, it could have come from the lips of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. It is going to be a criminal offence on 1st January 2010 if the derogation goes through. However, as I understand it, if it does not go through it will become a criminal offence at the period of time when the derogation should have come into practice, but did not--
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I call upon his vastly superior experience to mine and ask him how he would contend with the position in which we now find ourselves if we feel strongly that criminalising the sale by alternative indications in 2010 is wrong?
Lord Richard: My Lords, I do not quite know how I should deal with the present situation, except perhaps to recognise it. The previous government and the previous Labour government--but especially the previous government under the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher--accepted the principles of metrication for the United Kingdom. We are talking about the process of how that metrication is introduced. As I understand it, the previous government managed to get a derogation for 10 years. The effect of these regulations will be to give a further derogation for 10 years. So we are debating a 20-odd year period, within which metrication is being introduced into the United Kingdom. That is no position from which to start tearing a passion to tatters, as we have heard tonight.
The House would be well advised to listen to the rather wise words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon. I believe that he got it absolutely right: this is something that should have been done a very long time ago. However, it was not done and now should be.
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