On 16 June 2021, the government published a set of proposals from the independent “Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform” (TIGRR). These proposals aim to reduce regulation of British businesses, thereby providing them with an advantage over foreign competitors.
In Proposal 17.1, it proposes to “amend the Weights and Measures Act 1985 to allow traders to use imperial measurements without the equivalent metric measurement.” It justifies this proposal with the following explanation:
“It is currently an offence under the 1985 Weights and Measures Act to use imperial measurement as the primary indicator of measurement without an equally prominent metric measurement for trading. This has long been identified as an example of overly prescriptive EU regulation, with notable prosecutions of small traders in the early 2000s. This change would require amendment of the 1985 Weights and Measures Act through primary legislation.”
This shows little understanding of the current law. Imperial measures cannot be the “primary” unit, even with metric “equivalent” shown. Imperial units are only permitted as supplementary indications.
A big problem would be any goods marked with imperial-only pricing would probably not be permitted into Northern Ireland, which would remain subject to Single Market rules for products. This would drive a bigger wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The authors of the report want to let traders choose imperial, metric or dual pricing. We have been here before in the 1970s. At that time, there was a voluntary initiative for the metrication of retail trade. Traders had similar pricing choices to those proposed this report. However, this led to a major market failure in the sales of floor coverings such as carpets when one major High Street retailer found commercial advantage in reverting to sales by the square yard. Consumers could not be persuaded that prices of £12 per square metre and £10 per square yard were almost the same. Overwhelmingly, they preferred the apparently cheaper imperial-priced carpets. As a result, in 1977, the metric changeover of the retail trade in floor coverings went into full-scale reverse.
Have the members if TIGGR learnt nothing from this market failure?
As a result, almost everyone recognised in 1977 that there had to be cut-off date for pricing in imperial measures. This had the support of the overwhelming majority of MPs, the Chambers of Trade and a huge range of retail trade, industry, engineering, consumer, trade union, elderly person, sporting and educational organisations. The necessary Order was drafted by the Board of Trade in 1978 but the Government, concerned about a possible general election, played safe, and the Order was never put to a vote. After a change of government in 1979, the proposed Order was abandoned.
British politicians had failed to implement the change to correct this market failure and prevent others like it. It took over 20 years before the metrication of the retail trade was completed.
If the TIGGR proposal is adopted, we will have come full circle – back to the 1970s. It would look like history repeating itself. How are consumers supposed to compare pounds with kilograms, yards with metres, pints with litres? It will weaken price transparency and consumer protection. Like the adoption of square yards by a carpet retailer, the use of pounds and ounces for selling fruit and veg is not about tradition but about market advantage. Hence the rapid switch from gallons to litres by petrol stations in the 1980s. Few resisted that.
It is unclear how this proposal will support innovation and growth. Indeed, it is possible that the increased muddle and the cost from supporting two measurement systems will reduce Britain’s competitiveness. It’s still all about metric martyrs and sustaining the myth that the UK’s metric changeover began, not in the 1960s, but with accession to the European Common Market in 1973 . For them, opposition to the metric system is an article of faith.
Although it has been said many times before but it is worth repeating that we need a single system of weights and measures that everyone can understand and use. We don’t need two systems.
You can find the TIGRR report at the following link:
You can find more information about the market failure in carpets and floor coverings in the 1970s at the following link:
https://ukma.org.uk/press/articles/jhumble/ (“Historical perspectives by the last Director of the UK Metrication Board” by Jim Humble)