Government to clarify law on metric units in advertising

A Government Minister has promised to advise industry bodies that the law requires the use of metric units in all product description and advertising.

In what could be a significant step in the progress toward completing metrication in the UK, Baroness Jolly, the Minister responsible in the House of Lords for consumer affairs, undertook to consult with “relevant industry bodies to remind them of the current legal position and the importance of providing clarity for consumers.”

The Minister was responding to Lord Taverne’s amendment to the Consumer Rights Bill at its Report stage on 24 November.  This amendment would have made it explicit that the law requires the use of metric units for all product description and advertising – even if those units are not “in use for trade”.  Lord Taverne had drawn attention to the explanation of a previous Minister (David Willetts, MP) that the Weights and Measures Act only applies when goods and services are being sold by reference to quantity, and that the Act does not apply to mere descriptions.  This statement by Mr Willetts was consistent with similar advice invariably given by Trading Standards Officers throughout the UK.  As a result of this (now apparently erroneous) advice, consumers are faced with a mixture of litres and cubic feet in stating the capacity of fridges and a muddle of metres, feet and inches in property advertisements.

What Baroness Jolly has pointed out is, firstly, that the Act does apply to advertisements if they relate to goods and services that are being sold “by reference to quantity”, and, secondly, that the separate Units of Measurement Regulations provide that metric units are the legal unit for any purposes beyond “use for trade”.  Therefore, she concluded, Lord Taverne’s amendment was unnecessary since the law already covered the situations that he had described, and so she asked him to withdraw his amendment.

In agreeing to withdraw, Lord Taverne commented:”If the Government do in fact live up to their promise and ensure that the professions and those responsible for enforcement tell people exactly what the law is, which is that it requires that metric units should take priority even in advertisements and descriptions, that will meet my objections.”

An interesting contribution to the debate came from Lord Deben (formerly John Gummer), who was a Cabinet Minister in the Thatcher and Major Governments.  His support is indicative that despite the the noise made by populist opponents of metrication, there is considerable unspoken sympathy in high places for completing the  process – now lasting almost 50 years since it was announced to the British Parliament – not to mention 800 years since Magna Carta.

We now await the details of the Government’s advice to the industry.  In time this should see an end to consumers having to compare central heating boilers in kilowatts and “British thermal units” (per hour) and relate carpets measured in square metres to room sizes in square feet.

The full text of the debate in the House Lords can be read at this link, (scroll to column 723).  A recording of the debate can also be viewed on Parliament TV at this link (fast forward to 18:08).


15 thoughts on “Government to clarify law on metric units in advertising”

  1. Does this mean that energy supply companies will need to show tariffs in megajoules? They can of course use kilowatt-hours as a supplementary unit.


  2. It is gratifying to see that Government are taking an interest. I am, however, sceptical that it will make any great difference since the intent is only to remind, with no apparent mention of enforcement or sanctions for non compliance. Through the non adoption of Lord Taverne’s amendment the issue of lack of clarity in the current legislation will not be addressed. This can only mean that claims, similar to that made by the Meteorological Office, supported by the National Measurement Office (Government bodies no less), that the Units of Measurement Regulations don’t apply to forecast wind speed, will arise from others.


  3. Mary

    Since a joule is equivalent to a watt.second then it is easy to see that there is a relationship between megajoule and kilowatt.hour. Both use SI but, for the purest, MJ may be preferable. However, it isn’t something I’d personally get hung up about. Let’s just use and celebrate SI as a wonderfully rational system.


  4. I agree with Arty in that we should rejoice in what we have been offered. However, I personally would like to see the Joule (I think it would be GJ though) used in energy bills if only to start the ball rolling to oust the ever present calorie, Calorie, cal, Cal, kcal total confusion. For my part though, I am looking forward to the possibility of buying a new TV in metric (even a pizza!). The first advertiser to use metric will probably get the sale. Will it really happen?


  5. For the benefit of readers who may wonder whether the kWh is more easily expressed in MJ or GJ.

    1 kW = 1000 joule per second. So over a period of 1 hour (3600 seconds) the energy expended is 1000 J/s x 3600 s = 3600 000 J

    Hence 1 kWh = 3.6 MJ


  6. “Metric given priority” means dual-units are permitted, I assume?


  7. @BrianAC. I have just checked a New Zealand and an Australian department store’s website.

    They are both selling TVs in inches as this seems to be the industry world standard. So the chances of the UK changing this maybe somewhat remote.;pgid=8u_cGko23sRSRpVFSSBZTvsy0000nUJmyOe7;sid=514_1RoVTqp3x06QLweywAq54kuFgR8AXQo6wKBB

    Admittedly there are 3 areas I tend to use imperial measures, Diagonal TV screen measurement, Car Tyre size and Tyre pressure.

    But hopefully this move will stop Estate Agents from only measuring room size in feet and inches.


  8. Does Baroness Jolly’s statement truly imply that, apart from:
    (a) the use of the mile, yard, foot or inch for road traffic signs, distance and speed measurement;
    (b) the use of the pint for dispensing draught beer and cider;
    (c) the use of the pint for milk in returnable containers; and
    (d) the use of the troy ounce for transactions in precious metals.
    Metric units are to be used. If so, how are the Met Office and the media to be persuaded that wind speeds are to be reported in km/h, that land area is to be described in hectares in both advertising and televised property and “countryside” programmes ? What would be the consequences of non compliance ?


  9. @ Arty 2014-12-09 at 20:01
    I am wondering if it is going to happen at all. It is at best going to be painfully slow.
    However I do believe that if this idiotic anomaly of selling in metric but advertising in Imperial is at least clarified as being wrong then change will must happen.
    Even if we can just stop estate agents from using feet and acres in advertising then this removes a prop for the TV media. I would only guess that the met office already use m/s for wind speed, that is what my weather station is set to. I am sure they would have less of a problem with that than with km/h for the UK public.
    I think you will also find that it is only (or mostly) the (TV) media that use acres and miles in countryside programmes, an area of great interest to me but which I can never watch because of this stupidity. RSPB, NT and others use hectares and metres for sure. Footpath signs in my area are often in metres (modified by ARM I guess), so the will is there, we just need government backing.


  10. @ColinH 2014-12-08 at 15:55

    I am well aware that the world use inches for TV sets, that includes France and Germany. However, we in UK are ‘always different from the rest of the world’, so I live in hope. If the law says metric first then metric first it will be. I would be more sceptical that it will ever happen at all.
    Of course we all have to use inches for car tyres, it is part of a critical specification, there will be no way round that for many years. I don’t think TV sets have the same life and death consequences (well, for some maybe).
    I do question how and why you still use PSI for tyre pressures though?? That was one of the first to go. PSI is not even quoted in car handbooks now, I have used bar (now kPa) for about 25 years, I hardly know the approximate PSI figures now.
    I don’t use inches for anything.


  11. Has the government done anything yet with this? Any news of any sort?


  12. @Esra
    It is impolite that you get no reply, so I will cautiously say that things are moving in the right direction. However, the ‘other side’ are watching, listening, waiting to sabotage, so I for one am giving few details. In any case it could be a case of wishful thinking on my part.
    A few weeks ago the answer would have been quite different.


  13. @ Ezra
    The answer to your question is that the Director (Regulation) of the National Measurement Office sent out a rather anodyne letter to a very restricted range of industry organisations. For example, she wrote to the RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors – a professional body) rather than to the estate agents industry body or the online advertising websites such as Rightmove or Zoopla. (Most estate agents are not members of the RICS).

    It is too early to say whether this will have any effect but I leave you to draw your own conclusions.



  14. It’s obvious that estate agents and developers prefer to only report sizes in old units as that makes them look bigger than reporting in square metres.

    I wonder what would happen if people all over the country would start reporting offending advertisements to their local trading standards office now it’s clear that estate agents are breaking the law…


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