Second Reading

Part of Consumer Rights Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:44 pm on 1st July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative 5:44 pm, 1st July 2014

My Lords, I am glad to take this opportunity to say something that I said quite recently and identify an important aspect of consumer rights. The debate on this subject gives me great excuse to return to something I referred to the other day: namely, our total failure to change our system of measurements to a system which we had for a period, when we took account of the metric possibility. That is where we have to go.

There is no doubt now that we have a double shambles in the absence of any competent, comprehensive system of weights and measures. One can give endless examples of it. We have metres and kilometres for athletics but miles per gallon for cars. More important still, the metric system is used in schools—it is what pupils are taught—but, all too often, pounds and ounces are used in the market. Manifestly, that destroys consumer relations. It increases costs, confuses shoppers and managers, leads to serious misunderstandings, causes accidents, wastes our children’s education and, frankly, puts us all to shame.

Almost 800 years ago, Britain’s first charter of human rights, Magna Carta, proclaimed that there should be one measure of wine throughout the whole realm, one measure of corn and one unit of cloth. That was the principle that we should have established. In fact, we have been dithering for almost 150 years. As long ago as 1862, a Commons Select Committee unanimously recommended that we adopt the metric system. A century later, in 1965, the decision was finally taken to go metric over the next 10 years. The noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, kindly referred to my presence on her right shoulder. We were among the first two consumer Ministers and therefore sing a common song, if she will allow me to say so.

For a very long time, we had shambles. We then did go metric for 10 years but unfortunately, the Metrication Board, when I was Chancellor of the Exchequer, greedy to find ways to save money, produced its final report saying that it had completed its task, so I readily abolished the Metrication Board, so I am not only clear in my sights of the problem and solution here but clear of my guilty responsibility for having allowed it to happen. Plainly, we cannot go on as we are with two confused, competing systems. It would be madness to go backwards, but also madness to disregard what the rest of the world has done.

The United States has talked about this a lot, but not taken any measure to move in the right direction. It sent one remarkable missile towards the moon. One mistake was made in the design of that missile. I think that the cost was something of the order of $500 million. That was because one crucial measurement in the wrong system was injected into the construction of the missile. We have not yet achieved that scale of disaster, but we have been foolish in having disregarded the fact that our Commonwealth has, almost completely, done the right thing. Australia, Kenya, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Jamaica have long completed the entire change, and even Ireland, our lovable neighbour, completed the process as quickly as the other countries.

This is not too much of an interjection or injection that would be unjustified in this debate; it relates wholly to consumer rights and to all other rights, rightnesses and common sense. When I mentioned this only a few days ago in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, responded rather cautiously. He said:

“The first is to try out a somewhat novel idea, and maybe it will be one for the Government to take away and work on, and the second”—[Hansard, 10/6/14; col. 303.]—