The Government has published its “Choice on units of measurement: markings and sales” consultation document about their plans to remove the requirement for traders to show the metric equivalent alongside imperial units.
The document bangs the drum for the imperial system while saying nothing about the merits of the metric system. You would expect a Government document to be more balanced than this, to consider all options for measurement reforms, and evaluate the pros and cons of each reform (e.g. maintain the status quo, complete metrication, encourage metric only pricing, etc.). It promotes the notion that we should go backward by removing the requirement to show metric units in the retail trade. The survey asks leading questions to encourage respondents to choose imperial-only pricing or imperial units with a metric equivalent. It fails to provide options to choose metric-only pricing.
The document contains some factual errors.
It talks about “the transition to metric units in the late 1990s” and claims that “The UK officially adopted the metric system in stages between 1995 and 1999.”. The adoption of the metric system began many years before the mid-1990s, e.g.
- 1864: The first Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act permitted the use of the metric system.
- 1897: The second Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act permitted the use of the metric system for all purposes in the UK.
- 1914: The Met Office switched to millimetres for rainfall.
- 1960s: The construction industry went metric.
- 1970: The Commonwealth Games switched from yards to metres.
- 1970s: Round metric sizes were introduced for food packaging.
- 1975: Post Office tariffs went metric.
- 1981: Weight restrictions on British roads changed from tons to tonnes.
The consultation document also errs when describing the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) as independent. It is factually untrue to refer to the task force as independent. It is a purely political body consisting of three Tory MPs, all of whose views were well known before they started their deliberations. They were Iain Duncan Smith, George Freeman and Teresa Villiers. None of their recommendations are based on evidence.
The document says that “consistency in measurement supports fair trade and empowers consumers”. This undermines its arguments for using mixed units in trade and for removing the requirement to use metric units in markets and shops. These proposals will do the opposite. They undermine consistency.
It discusses the merits of using imperial units, with or without the metric equivalent. Nowhere in this document does it discuss the merits of using metric units only. It is all about undoing the metrication of the retail trade and letting traders use different measurement systems. It is not just about pounds and kilograms. Imagine some petrol stations selling in litres and others selling the gallons, some energy companies pricing in kWh while others price in therms. It is a rogue’s charter. In its effects it is no better than allowing use of £sd units alongside decimal currency. It undermines consumers’ ability to find the best deals and save money. It is especially bad in this cost of living crisis.
The Government’s proposals will reinforce the measurement muddle that is entrenched in the UK. It admits that it will, saying “We recognise that metric units remain essential for both science and international trade and the review will be focussed on the use of units of measurement in domestic trade.”. It seeks to perpetuate the use of a dual system of weights and measures. It fails to admit the Government’s share of the blame for the muddled usage of metric for some purposes and imperial for other purposes.
If the Government wants to know what is wrong with this, it should read the 1972 White Paper on Metrication, which says this about the use of dual units:
“… to attempt to keep imperial units for the individual shopper while industry was on metric would be both confusing and costly. It would also deny us the very real savings which stand to be gained when turning over completely to metric.”
“The Government recognise that the period during which some foodstuffs are sold in imperial quantities and some in metric will present problems for many shoppers.”
Reference to ‘The Government’s Plans’ in the consultation document implies that the outcome of the consultation has been prejudged. That makes a nonsense of the word “consultation”.
It asks how far to go in the use of imperial units but not whether their use should be reduced or phased out. This is a biased unprofessional document. As an official consultation document, it is a disgrace.
It contains several survey questions. Here are the general points to make when responding to the Government consultation:
- Any change will bring about additional costs (e.g. trading standards would need to purchase and calibrate a whole new set of devices to monitor any shops that choose to use imperial, increase business costs in pricing, labelling and marketing). This will come at a significant cost that will necessarily be borne either by consumers or taxpayers, neither of which is sensible at a time of pressure on both consumer prices and on public finances.
- The whole of the UK should benefit from the same system of measurement; detaching the regulations for GB from those for NI will create a new barrier to GN-NI trade and harm the integrity of the Union. The NI protocol can only be changed with the consent of the EU, which is unlikely to be forthcoming. The only way around this is to break international law, incur the odium of the rest of the world and threaten the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) itself, i.e. provoke a trade war.
- The US itself does not use imperial units, but the so-called “customary units” which are different in many respects (e.g. same unit names in both systems such as pints and gallons represent different quantities). The difference between UK ‘imperial’ and US ‘customary’ units would be a source of great confusion for any goods imported/exported and therefore the only common standard – metric – would be beneficial for trade.
- It is also the case that not only European countries, but most of the world outside the USA, has now gone metric for most purposes. This includes the entire Commonwealth outside the UK.
- Call out the bias in the wording of the questions and the poor quality of the consultation (e.g. how far do you want to go for imperial measures?, no option to mention scrapping imperial, lack of metric options, or even whether we should go in this direction, etc). Tell them if a question is irrelevant or silly and why (e.g. “What would be the consequences of your business having the freedom to sell products in imperial measures, if you wished?”, “Do you have experience of buying solely in imperial units?”) instead of giving a direct answer. Such questions are designed to encourage you to tell the Government what they want to hear rather than get your honest opinion. Do not fall into this trap.
- Challenge the lies within the Government paper – e.g. we started to go metric in 1995 and adopted it in stages between 1995 and 1999. In fact, the Government of the day started the Metrication Programme in 1965 at the behest of the Federation of British Industries [now the CBI].
- It is also likely to make it more difficult for consumers to budget (e.g. are the applies for a £1 a pound cheaper than the ones for £2 a kilogram?), further driving the cost of living crisis. If petrol and diesel are sold in litres in some petrol stations and in gallons in others, it makes it harder to tell which is the cheapest. You can say the same about the energy market if gas and electricity are sold in therms and kilowatt hours by different suppliers.
- This proposal has already been widely ridiculed around the world in foreign media. It is harming the UK’s international reputation and runs counter to the Government’s aims for us to be seen as “Global Britain”.
- Make it clear you want an option to see metric units used in trade and commerce, even if the survey does not offer this option.
- The professional associations of retailers, market traders and weights and measures inspectors have expressed their opposition to these proposals. They have condemned them as regressive, damaging and expensive.
- In regard to choice, it has always been legal for traders to use imperial measures provided that there is a metric equivalent displayed with equal prominence. By giving them the “choice” to eliminate the metric equivalent, the net effect would be to deprive customers of the choice of buying in metric. Only traders get to choose the measurement units used, never consumers.
- It has been the U.K.’s policy to metricate since Victorian times, and a firm decision to proceed with this was made in 1965. Metric units are now very much the norm in most walks of life, ranging from science and medicine to athletics and the kitchen.
- The consultation document acknowledges that metric measures will continue to be used. It is therefore proposing that the country should be locked indefinitely into the use of dual units. This is undesirable and inconvenient.
- Generations of schoolchildren have only been taught the metric system in schools since the mid-1970s. Presenting them with alien and unfamiliar imperial units will exclude them from purchasing decisions.
Remember to use your own words when responding to the consultation.
You can read the Government consultation document and respond online at:
The consultation closes at 11pm on 26 August 2022.