How to respond to imperial-only measurement proposals

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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].
  7. 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.
  8. 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”.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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:
https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/choice-on-units-of-measurement-markings-and-sales

The consultation closes at 11pm on 26 August 2022.

20 thoughts on “How to respond to imperial-only measurement proposals”

  1. A few other points to added to Ronnie’s already comprehensive list (in no particular order).

    1. Who signed the document? The secretary of state? The minister? A deputy minister? The senior civil servant? A senior civil servant? Were they so ashamed of it that they did not want their name (or at any rate their title) to appear?

    2. What do we mean by “imperial units”? Boris Johnson has stated “pounds and ounces”. Would this permit traders to use scales that display pounds and decimals of a pound? It is my belief that fractions of a pound in “Imperial units” should either be vulgar fractions or ounces, but that the use of decimals of a pound are part of “United States Customary units”.

    3. Ever since the Magna Carta, the government has taken upon itself the authority to control the units of measure used in trade. Should there be a dispute between buyer and seller, then a single system of units of measure simplifies proceedings. One of the underlying causes of the French Revolution was the right of the lord of the manor to define units of measure in respect of dues payable to him, the right of the trader to define units of measure in respect of dues payable to him and so on. The king’s units of measure only applied to dues payable to the king.

    4. In the consultation document, Para 1.3 states “Currently, imperial units are only authorised for use on their own in specialised fields, such as for sales of draught beer and cider and milk in returnable containers, where the pint is be used, and transactions in precious metals where the troy ounce is used.” The use of the words “such as” makes this a misleading statement as those words imply that there are more examples. This is not the case – these are the ONLY examples.

    5. The document does not explore how many people have been taught how to manipulate data using the imperial system (ie addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and of course more complex operations like taking averages). GCE, CSE on O Level exams were converted to metric units between 1972 and 1974. Assuming that the only people who were taught how to manipulate imperial units were those who had reached their tenth birthday before 1970, then only those people who were born before 1960 would have learned how to perform these operations. According to Wikipedia, Nadine Dorries is the only member of the British Cabinet to fall into this category.

    I agree with Ronnie that this consultation document is a downright disgrace. There is however one possible saving grace – maybe it was written by Sir Humphrey himself in such as manner as to make the case for reverting to imperial units so ludicrous that the minister will hide the response to the consultation and allow the whole thing to sink without trace.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Martin:

    Re your 3rd paragraph, you are probably only thinking of trade, but imperial units are (unfortunately) also authorised on road signs. I do not for one moment think Boris Johnson or anyone else thought through the implications of allowing – reverting – to the use of imperial units for trade, i.e. the need to be able to weigh in those amounts on the corresponding scales. Or are traders all going to be allowed to use dual scales and mix and match between the scale options? Plus of course the need to have inspectors who can check on amounts sold in imperial units and the need to teach those units in schools and how to manipulate them. Perhaps it’s the general public that’s being manipulated here, though. Taken for a ride comes to mind.

    Like

  3. @Metricnow: Yes, I was only thinking about trade – the consultation document is only about trade (excluding alcoholic drins).

    Like

  4. I recently received an email from beis.gov.uk, in response to an email from myself.
    Apart from repeating all the usual ‘government tag lines’, two lines that appear to be contradictory seem to say a lot.
    First line says: –
    “The consultation gives respondents multiple opportunities to provide a full range of views, via the free text boxes and email.”
    True, and apparently free and fair, as most of us understand, but who is going to read any of them?
    Second line seems to basically over rule this option with: – “your response will be most useful if it is framed in direct response to the questions posed, though further comments and evidence are also welcome”.
    That confirms they only want the pro imperial, direct responses, other comments … make up your own story.

    Like

  5. @BrianAC – It might be worth contacting your MP and asking them to ask the minsiter to justify the statement ” full range of views” when in fact the allowable responses (via a selection) are s limited.

    Like

  6. Martin,
    My MP is already well aware of my views on this issue. Realistically though it is a waste of time, but we hope it may resonate somewhere at some point. One reply from the MP’s agent: –

    Dear Mr xxx,
    Thank you for contacting xxxxx about units of measurement.
    It has been the policy of successive UK Governments since 1965 to adopt metric weights and measures.
    However, the Government is reviewing the use of imperial units for markings to ensure that businesses have more choice over the measures they use. This exhibits the sovereignty that we have regained now that the UK has left the EU and it is an important step in taking back control of our national rules.

    The ‘however’ is the standard waffle going on to point me to the consultation document. My MP is one of the faithful imports of the Brexit ++ brigade for the 2019 election. Hell bent on saving all things imperial for another century.

    My ‘however’ though is we can only hope the current PM selection may come up with a more sensible leader.
    My reality is that this will be pushed through as a parting ‘gift’ by Johnson between the end of the ‘consultation’ on the 26th August and his departure soon thereafter. It will be the hardest of the available options.

    Like

  7. Brian,

    What England is doing now reminds me of what Mao Zedong did to China post 1945. Not only did he isolate China but reverted it to the stone age. When he died in 1974, his successors were in shock and awe as to how far behind technically China was from the rest of the world. It took the Chinese 30 + years to finally get back to the top and that was after luring the West to the hugest technology transfer in history. England would take centuries if it ever can to revert tot he modern era.

    Cambodia tried the same thing under Pol Pot. He drained the cities of its people forcing them into rural concentration camps. It took a war with Vietnam to end his short lived regime.

    So you see there are rulers that come along with the intent to push the nation they rule back to stone age and see nothing wrong with it. They tell the people they will live in the glorious new age of the past empire but in reality they will struggle like their ancestors did in the 18-th century. The empire may have been a wonderful time for the elite, but for everyone else it was a time of misery.

    Like

  8. I like The Guardian but I am disappointed that they included Fahrenheit (second place in parentheses) after the high temperature listed in degrees Celsius in their article on the current heat wave in the UK:

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/jul/18/uk-weather-heatwave-boris-johnson-checked-out-airport-runways-closed

    They added Fahrenheit only once at the top of the article. All other temps are given in degrees Celsius only. So, what’s the point? Do it everywhere consistently or (my strong preference) ditch Fahrenheit altogether. Weird editorial policy.

    More disconcerting is a photo included further down in the article that shows a man carrying a 16″ Chrome Stand Fan from STRATUS (in bold letters on the box). Why is this allowed in the UK? Why would a manufacturer even want to put inches instead of centimeters on the outside of the box that the fan is packaged in? Any one have any idea?

    Like

  9. @Ezra,
    That I think is what is know as a typically British mess!
    The first point is easy. It it fairly standard editorial practice to explain terms in the first instance in the article. Thus we get a ‘translation’ to all things technical like degrees and metres, even Prime Minister (PM), as if we need explaining.
    The second, along with car wheels, computer disks and records, there are many things that have to be in inches. All things to do with video and photography the most annoying, fans are one of those. Not something I am a fan .
    Not only is all this still allowed, with the current government there are moves to allow more of this or even require it.
    Repost from my comment above “This exhibits the sovereignty that we have regained now that the UK has left the EU and it is an important step in taking back control of our national rules.” In other words, lets ditch all things European and go American!

    Like

  10. @BrianAC
    Hmmm, not sure the UK should follow in the USA’s footsteps on much of anything these days. Sadly.
    Let’s hope the UK charts a new direction on many different fronts (including metrication) and does it sooner rather than later (more likely than not after a general election, I suspect).

    Like

  11. Ezra,

    16 inch fans are trade sizes like half-inch pipe, clothing sizes, wood sizes or 16 inch wheels, etc . These items are neither made to these sizes nor made in inch units. They are a fully metric made product. Trade sizes or trade descriptors allow the manufacturer some leeway in manufacturing and advertising. It allows them to be close without being cited if the product doesn’t match the size stated. If they change the size slightly, say to make it a bit smaller, they don’t have to change the description. Check out these products with a metric tape or ruler and see how close they really aren’t.

    Like

  12. @Ezra Steinberg says: 2022-07-20 at 01:48
    PM Johnsons’ parting words to the house (and his successors elect) “stay close to the Americans” and “deregulate where possible”. That sums it up I guess.

    Like

  13. @Ronnie
    Which consumer organisations and trading standards authorities has the UKMA written to about this consultation?

    The points listed in the article are far more likely to have an effect if they come from organisations that have some capacity to influence the Government.

    Like

  14. The biggest and most obvious argument I can think of to the Imperial Unit proposals is

    If it ain’t broke, don’t mend it.

    The preface to the document is about exploring new opportunities as a result of BREXIT – OK, fair enough, even if we disagree the line that they are taking, but nothing in the preface suggests that anything is broken, so there shoudl be an option “DO NOTHING”.

    Like

  15. Brian,

    If it is the goal of England to “stay close to the Americans”, it will have to do a better job than just trying to adapt to FFU. For one, the entire British Aisles will need to switch road driving to the right side. Every car will have to be replaced with a steering wheel that is on the left side of the car. Funny though that American driving is the same as Europe.

    Then there is the issue of Electricity. The US industrial 3 Φ voltage is 480 V; and the 1 Φ voltage is 120 V. The frequency is 60 Hz. This compares to England using 400 V and 230 V; 50 HZ, which happens to be the same as Europe and a number of other countries. England will need to change this to the American standard.

    To be close to the Americans, England will need to change the spellings and meanings of many of the words that differ. The English will have to start speaking with an American accent. The Royal family will have to go and the Prime Minister will have to be replaced with a President. Parliament will have to be replaced by a Congress with only 2 parties permitted. Republicans (Conservative -right wing) and Democrats (Liberal – left wing).

    And most importantly the notion of returning to the old currency … that notion will have to be banned. Pounds and Pence will have to be replaced with dollars and cents, and 20 pence pieces with 25 cent pieces. No more pound coins, it will have to be dollar bills.

    I may have left some things out, but I think the items I have listed will get the point across.

    Like

  16. If we are to “stay close to the Americans”, we must ditch the imperial gallon in favour of the smaller US gallon…

    Maybe we could give petrol stations the option?

    Like

  17. This is indeed the way we are going, as I have suggested elsewhere. Not so much the American gallon, but more the USC fl.oz in all the American refreshment outlets, and US fl oz and US pints on kitchen measuring jugs, feet instead of yards with long distances, pounds instead of whatever for heavy weights (should be cwt if we really wanted the old stuff back), but the media seem not to realize this, and decimal pounds rather than lbs and ozzes for smaller weights.
    In my view this is a great advantage to the realisation that metric is the way to go, and maybe why professional cooking went fully metric in such a short space of time.
    In short, British imperial is not what the media are using now, imperial is dead, it is either metric or USC, they are the facts of life today.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. The document produced is ridiculous and full of errors. It would have been far more sensible and mature to have produced a study based upon the advantages [which are considerable] of completing the transition to metrication.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. James,

    Those who produced the document as ridiculous and full of errors plus being biased towards picking imperial did so on purpose. They are also well aware of the studies and their results that completing metrication is the most economical way to go. But, their intent is to bring about confusion and destruction of the economy. Something they think they will personally profit from.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: