Over twenty years ago, a group of market traders were prosecuted for using imperial measures (without showing the equivalent in metric units) and using unauthorised scales that could only measure in imperial units. Newspapers called this group the Metric Martyrs after Chris Howell, then weights and measures spokesman for the Institute of Trading Standards Administration (today the Trading Standards Institute), said that they could martyr themselves if they wanted to. As Ministers are thinking about allowing traders to choose imperial or metric units, we look at what is wrong with the Metric Martyrs’ arguments for freedom of choice in measurement usage.
On 9 April 2001, several market traders were found guilty of using illegal scales and breaching the Price Marking Order, which mandated prices to be shown in kilograms. They appealed the verdict, but all their appeals were rejected.
The use of imperial scales is incompatible with legislation requiring goods to be weighed and sold in metric units. The imperial scales that the market traders used could not be independently verified to be accurate by trading standards officers. Without the imperial testing equipment to do this, there was no way to verify that they were using honest scales. Testing of weighing equipment is essential to ensure their accuracy and prevent short measures.
The Metric Martyrs campaigned for the freedom of traders to choose the measurement units they used. They wanted to be able to sell in imperial weights and measures only. It is normal for countries to impose penalties for using unauthorised measurement units and scales. All around the world, including the UK, countries have weights and measures regulations that specify which units are legal and, by definition, which ones are not. The UK has had such legislation for hundreds of years. These laws are essential for price transparency and consumer protection. They prevent cheating and fraud.
Governments around the world, including the UK government, exercise the right to regulate the use of weights and measures in trade and that includes prescribing what units are legal for trade. Using any units other than the legal ones is an offence and will incur penalties.
Contrary to claims that the traders were prosecuted for selling fruit and vegetables by the pound, they were prosecuted for failing to display the equivalent metric units with equal prominence and for using unauthorised scales. Traders are allowed to display prices in lb as long as they display prices in metric units with equal prominence.
The whole Metric Martyrs saga is not about opposition to weights and measures regulations per se, but resistance to the metric system and its erroneous association with the European Union. Weights and measures legislation exists to ensure fairness, transparency and prevent cheating. If Ministers give in to pressure to bring back imperial measures, it will be another blunder to add to the UK metric conversion’s comedy of errors. Given the UK’s recent economic difficulties and post-Brexit decline in trade, it is more important than ever that the UK joins the modern world, including the full adoption of the metric system.
6 thoughts on “Why the Metric Martyrs were wrong”
when the French Revolution broke out, the revolutionaries sought to remove as many oppressive laws as they could. One such oppressive law (or rather lack of law) was the lack of a national system of weights and measure. The weights and measures used for government purposes (the livre du roi and pied du roi) were well defined, but were only used for assessing the king’s taxes. Lesser nobles had their own sets of weights and measures as did individual merchants. Many were not above having two sets of weights or measures – one for buying and one for selling. This contrasted with the system in England where the Magna Carta decreed that there should be one system of units throughout the realm – a concept used in antiquity by the Romans, Greeks and many other civilizations.
In France, the revolutionaries commissioned a panel of five leading scientists to design a system of weights and measures that would replace the mess that was in place. No restrictions were placed on the panel. The result was the original metric system.
Thus the Metric Martyr’s argument that the traders should have the right to decide what units of measure be used overlooks that it was exactly that concept that led to the metric system being developed.
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I complained to my local Trading Standards about a butcher who was selling vegetables labelled in imperial units only, pointing out that the trader was in breach of the Weights and Measures Act 1985. This itself was not straightforward to do as the complaint had to go through Citizens Advice. Trading Standards were not interested though in taking any action, stating that it is was only possible for them to investigate the most ‘serious’ cases due to limited resources.
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Martin Vliestra wrote:
“This contrasted with the system in England where the Magna Carta decreed that there should be one system of units throughout the realm – a concept used in antiquity by the Romans, Greeks and many other civilizations.”
The Magna Carta is often held up as something we should be proud of and hold to. Yet we abysmally fail when it comes to having one system of units that is used throughout the realm. Measurement is basically a ‘free for all’.
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I would be tempted to write back and ask what qualifies as a serious offence to them under the Weights and Measures Act 1985? The mislabelling of produce is an offence that lies right at the start of the buying and selling chain of operations. Does the customer have to have been conned before Trading Standards take action? Surely their job is to ensure that the customer is not conned in the first place.
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I did follow this up with a complaint about my local Trading Standards in the way my complaint was dealt with and that they were failing to enforce the legislation and ensure compliance with the law. This is when they responded that they have to target resources at the most serious cases causing the most consumer harm or detriment. In the end I spoke to butcher and pointed out the legal requirement for metric labelling, which to his credit he did comply with, so a result in the end.
‘Freedom’ for traders to choose measuring units will lead to cheating. Before metrication, measuring units have often been used to hide price increases or to confuse buyers. In Germany, for instance, the mile – much longer than the English one – used for travel with stage coaches before that country went metric was simply made shorter if the fare was to be increased. Then you paid the same fare per mile, but in fact you paid more. In the USA a unit called the Commercial Acre, is allowed in certain states. It is considerably smaller than the statute acre, so be careful when you want to buy ‘acres of land’ in the USA. Here is more information about that unit. At least Britain uses only one acre, the statute one.