Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th July 1968.

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Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East 12:00 am, 26th July 1968

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about metrication.

In May 1965, the Government announced their support for the adoption of the metric system of weights and measures in industry which had been proposed by the Federation of British Industries. They also accepted that the metric system would spread outwards from industry and become in time the primary system for the country as a whole. The Government consider that this will bring substantial advantages. More than three-quarters of world trade is now conducted in metric units. All the Commonwealth countries except Canada have changed to the metric system or are about to do so, and studies are in progress in the United States and Canada.

In 1966, my predecessor appointed the Standing Joint Committee on Metrication, representing industrial management, the trade unions and the Government, to encourage, assist and review the progressive adoption of the metric system by British industry. A report by that Committee will be published today by Her Majesty's Stationery Office. I have placed copies in the Library of the House, and copies are available in the Vote Office.

The Report makes three main recommendations. First, that manufacturing industry can make the change efficiently and economically only if the economy as a whole moves in the same direction on a broadly similar time-scale, and in an orderly way. Second, that a Metrication Board should be established to guide, stimulate and co-ordinate the planning for the transition for the various sectors of the economy. Third, that any legal barriers to the use of the metric system for all purposes within the United Kingdom should be removed.

The Government accept the recommendation that a Metrication Board should be set up as soon as possible. Every sector of the economy need not move at the same pace. But there will be unnecessary confusion and expense, and great difficulties for industry, unless there is central machinery for co-ordinating the programmes of change for the various sectors.

The Board will be advisory. The adoption of the metric system must be gradual, through democratic procedures based on the widest consultation. Membership of the Board will, therefore, reflect the interests of industry, the distributive trades, education—for which there are important implications—and, particularly, the general public and consumers. The Board will need to ensure that the distributive trades and consumers are consulted and have ample notice of proposed changes.

No compulsory powers will be sought. There can be no question of compensation; the costs of adopting metric weights and measures must lie where they fall.

The Government agree that programmes for the different sectors of the economy can be properly co-ordinated only if there is some general guidance on the timing. They therefore accept the end of 1975 as the target date for all provisional programmes, with the qualification that if this date proves to be unreasonable for any particular sector, the programme may aim at an earlier or later date. An initial task of the Metrication Board will be to submit to the Government an appreciation for each sector, including, so far as practicable, the costs and other considerations involved. In the light of this, programmes can be drawn for individual sectors. The Government will not be committed to endorse the programme for any sector of the economy before final proposals for that sector are submitted.

The Government accept that legislation will be needed to remove obstacles to the adoption of metric units and to define the units to be used. Further consultation is, however, needed before the timing of the legislation can be decided. Arrangements will be made to coordinate the interests of Government Departments so that they play their full part—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] This is an important statement. I hope that the House will listen—so that they may play their full part in the consideration of programmes and so that the public sector keeps in step as the programmes develop.

The educational system will need to keep pace with, and to some extent anticipate, changes. The conversion will stimulate industrial and commercial modernisation and the rationalisation of production by variety reduction. We must also use it to help our export trade by harmonising our standards with those of our customers overseas.

The adoption of the metric system in the United Kingdom will represent a major change affecting many aspects of the national life, and I hope that publication of this Report will lead to a wide public discussion of the issues involved