Minister failed to explain metrication failure

Even though Conservative MP Paul Scully, the former Minister for Small Business, Consumers & Labour Markets, failed to acknowledge that British measurements are still in a mess, he admitted that “Being able to compare prices and quantities is a fundamental principle of fair trade and that is why, overall we have a single metric system of units of measurement today.”. Ministers should take heed of his words. The use of a single metric system of units of measurement enables consumers to compare prices and quantities but this is now under threat. The recent imperial units consultation and the Retained EU Law Bill are threatening to reverse progress on metrication, reintroduce imperial units and bring back rival systems of units of measurement for trade and commerce.

Over two years ago, I wrote to Mike Freer, my local MP, to ask him for his opinion about what went wrong with the Metrication Programme that began in 1965. I sent him the following email:

“Dear Mike Freer

The British started the Metrication Programme in 1965 and planned to complete it by 1975, a 10-year timescale. You can find background information about it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metrication_Board.

It is now over 50 years since it started and the British still have a measurement mess with mixtures of imperial and metric units in many aspects of British life with no end to the measurement mess in sight. Some things are exclusively imperial (e.g. pints in pubs), some are exclusively metric (e.g. glasses of wine in pubs) and some are dual units (e.g. miles per gallon and litres per 100 km fuel economy measures, most measuring equipment, many height limit road signs for bridges). What went wrong with the Metrication Programme and why have the British failed to complete the transition to the metric system?

Ronnie Cohen”

He wrote back to me to tell me that this is not a question he is in a position to answer. So I wrote back to him to ask him to pass on my email to the relevant minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) for a reply. In my reply, I said that “I am aware that BEIS has responsibility for weights and measures. I would be interested to hear what HM Government has to say about the failure to complete metrication in the UK.”. My MP duly wrote to the relevant minister in BEIS for a reply. He received the following reply to my enquiry on 15 July 2020 and forwarded it to me on the following day:

“Dear Mike,

Thank you for your email dated 1 July to the Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP, enclosing correspondence from your constituent, Mr Ronnie Cohen of [ADDRESS REDACTED], regarding metrication. I am replying as this matter falls within my Ministerial portfolio.

I recognise that the UK’s system of measurement remains an important issue for many people across the UK and that there are divergent views on the which system is best for Britain. The current UK system takes account of these divergent views, while recognising the need for a comprehensive, consistent and scientifically based set of units of measurement.

Being able to compare prices and quantities is a fundamental principle of fair trade and that is why, overall we have a single metric system of units of measurement today.

The majority of trade in the UK is now conducted using metric units, but there are exemptions for certain traditional measures for specific uses, some of which you mention in your letter. In addition, information can always be provided in both imperial and metric.

The majority of measurement legislation derives from the EU and in relation to the above, the UK negotiated exemptions for certain measures. Once the transition period ends, it will be entirely for the UK alone to decide on any future approach to its system of measurement, to ensure it meets the needs of consumers and businesses.

Thank you for taking the time to write, I hope this information is useful in responding to Mr Cohen.

Paul Scully
MP Minister for Small Business, Consumers & Labour Markets
Minister for London”

The minister did not answer my question nor did he acknowledge the British measurement mess. He also failed to acknowledge the widespread unofficial use of imperial measures in many aspects of British life (e.g. pounds for fruit and vegetables by market traders and small shops, miles per gallon fuel economy measures, square feet by estate agents, imperial product descriptions, etc). Why can’t we get proper answers from ministers about the very British mess that we got ourselves into regarding our mixed, confusing and muddled use of measurements?

9 thoughts on “Minister failed to explain metrication failure”

  1. What is so frustrating about this is how much of this can be solved by simply switching the road signs to metres and kilometres like pretty much the rest of the world (with the notable exception of the USA). It would go so far to eliminate this current fudge and unlike other areas it is something that is entirely down to the government to complete.

    There is no good reason for it, other than lack of political will to see it done. Even the massively inflated cost-estimates are such a tiny percentage of expenditure and it is a pretty easy thing to get use to.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. @Alex M
    Excellent suggestion. The experience in Ireland of converting road signs to metric is very telling in how it moved the Irish to think and use metric in everyday conversations and in their media.

    Even Canadians use “kilometers” all the time instead of “miles” because all of their road signs were converted to metric in the 1970’s and this, despite having almost all of their citizens living within 2 to 3 hours of the USA-Canada border and being constantly bombarded with American television shows and films, all of which are a constant source of the American version of “Imperial”.

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  3. The Minister refers to ‘the current UK system’. He does not acknowledge that there is not a proper, single UK system. There’s bit of metric and bits of imperial. That is not a system. It is a mess and a failure to do the job, the transition to metric, properly and fully. No other country that has moved away from British measurements to the metric system has landed itself in this mess. Why has the UK? You clearly mention many instances where metrication has not been properly introduced and where imperial units still hang around ((e.g. pounds for fruit and vegetables by market traders and small shops, miles per gallon fuel economy measures, square feet by estate agents, imperial product descriptions, etc). I think Ronnie Cohen should write back to the Minister to ask about these areas where modern weights and measures legislation has not been properly applied. It surely cannot be a question simply of what businesses or consumers prefer, if indeed they have ever set out a reasonable justification for not using metric units, the units taught in school as the system of weights and measures in the UK. Weights and measures are a competence of the State. Imperial was in its day. You could not use other measures at the time when Imperial was in use. Why are they still tolerated when the UK is supposed to have ‘gone metric’?

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  4. @metricnow
    Rather the UK having gone metric, it appears that under the Tories the UK has gone mad. Sadly.
    We’ve gone through the looking glass and that’s the world we live in now. So, which way to the tea party with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare? Today is my Unbirthday! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The problem in the UK was that originally metrication was seen as a boost for exports so was put under the control of the Board of Trade. It has remained there ever since (except that the Board of Trade has been renamed a number of times). While it is true that the National Physcial Laboratory comes under the auspices of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), neither education, health or transport come under that department. As a result the BEIS has trouble influencing the use of road signs, weights and measures quoted to patients or the teaching of weights and measures in the schools. The one department that does have an influence on these matters is the Treasury and we all know what their answer is.

    When South Africa adopted the metric system, the metrication program came under the Prime Minister’s office and once the metrication program was complete, its on-going maintenance of standards was handed over to the department that oversaw the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research).

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  6. Whatever you argue for, my stride is still a yard, a metre is too much. All the rest is confusing and just earns someone more money. When it comes to weight, who cares? Why do we not accept that some things are the same however we choose to measure them? If we went for total metrication it will not change the facts, and anyway someone somewhere will fiddle the books to earn from the argument.
    Julian

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  7. @Jullian Imperial units are not ‘natural’. Human bodies come in all different shapes and sizes so whatever you set it to will not be applicable to most people. Such imprecision was acceptable in the past but now society is more complex and it makes life much simpler/convenient to use one easy to use and simplistic system throughout life. As oppose to a ridiculous hodgepodge of various units for different situations which means that people are unable to properly comprehend either.

    Road signage is by far the most egregious example of the failure to complete metrication and the one that is ultimately down to government to do so. With doing so having many benefits such as the fact that it is the international standard and it is very simplistic. There are 1000 metres in a kilometre which is a round number and it negates usage of fractions which just adds pointless confusion where people are unable to properly grasp the information provided on the signs. Imperial units have not been taught as a separate system in schools in the UK for half a century and doing so should really be an unnecessary waste of time that could be better spent teaching them something useful.

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  8. @Julian swift:

    In my view it is a myth that a stride is one yard. For most people, using a stride to pace out a distance in yards is an unnatural exercise. A much better unit is to use a pace as a unit of measurement. According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_step), a pace in the Australian and Canadian armies is 75 cm and in the British Army 30 inches. Thus, if you pace out a distance, you count your paces and and take 3/4 of the number to get the distance in metres or 5/6 to get the distance in yards. Whenever I umpire a cricket match, I surreptitiously pace out the distance between stumps – I expect 26.67 paces to give me 20 metres (which is very close to 22 yards) which is almost always the case (except in junior matches where shorter pitches are used).

    Liked by 1 person

  9. @Julian swift:

    You wrote “When it comes to weight, who cares?” In the 1990’s there was a case where a baby’s weight was being recorded by both social services staff and medical staff. The woman from social services was “old school” and recorded the baby’s weight in imperial units. The midwife used metric units. Because the units were interspersed with each other, nobody noticed that the baby was not putting on weight. This only came to light during the coroner’s inquest.

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