Tue 26 October 2021

Though it stands no chance of return, trading standards officer Pippa Musgrave explains why the nostalgia for imperial measures is a deflection from the problems of Brexit

Newspaper headlines last week suggested that Boris Johnson intended to reinstate imperial weights and measures as part of the UK’s ‘post-EU freedoms’. 

As a qualified Weights and Measures Inspector, I was closely involved with the final acts of metrication in 1999 and the subsequent ‘metric martyr’ court cases, and believed that the re-introduction of imperial units – a policy even Nigel Farage disowned as “drivel” in 2011 – had been consigned to the dustbin of history. Why?

Firstly, there is the cost of such a reintroduction. Local authority Trading Standards has seen significant budget cuts over the past decade of between 40% and 70%. Metrological test equipment is not cheap. A local standard weight can cost up to £10,000. An inspector’s working standard weight box costs £3,000. A local standard mass comparator costs around £30,000. Even an inspector’s working standard tape measure costs £1,000 to certify.

And it isn’t just the cost to the enforcement community. There is a significant cost to the industry. Since the imperial system was abandoned, certificates of approval for imperial equipment have lapsed. The cost of certification can be many thousands of pounds, especially for complex systems such as supermarket checkouts, EPOS software and liquid fuel measuring apparatus.

Then there is the need to re-educate the population as to how to use the imperial system. Imperial units have not been taught in schools since the mid-1970s. Who is going to pay for new primary school lessons about feet, inches, stones and gills?

Then there is the confusion of operating two systems simultaneously. This would be an opportunity for unscrupulous traders to swindle their customers, but that is not all – dual measurement systems can lead to some horrific cases. I once led a project investigating the use of weighing equipment in NHS and private hospitals. This followed a case in which a teenage cancer patient had been given a fatal dose of radiation therapy. The reason for the fatal dose was that the teenager’s nurse had weighed her patient on imperial scales and miscalculated the metric dose of medication.

Boris Johnson talks of ‘Global Britain’ but re-introducing imperial measures is an isolationist policy. It would put Britain in the same camp as Myanmar and North Korea

A Short History of Metrification

In 2019, Ian Hoey, the lead officer for legal metrology at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, said that “to deviate from the metric system would introduce significant barriers to trade, adversely affect the free movement of goods and undermine the UK’s position as a signatory of the METRE convention”.

Indeed, metrication has never been a policy linked to the UK’s EU membership. The policy’s roots go far deeper.

The UK first signed up to adopt a single system of measures – S.I. units – in 1856. Metric measurements became legal for use in trade in the UK in 1875. Using metric units for trade science and medicine is government policy dating back to the 19th Century.

Hoey also said in his report to government that, annually, £622 billion worth of trade relating to the sale of goods by mass, took place in the UK. With that significant amount of trade, the additional complexity of reintroducing imperial units would mean higher costs and less choice for both consumers and businesses.

Boris Johnson talks of ‘Global Britain’ but re-introducing imperial measures is an isolationist policy. It would put Britain in the same camp as Myanmar and North Korea. Yes, the US uses imperial, but its measures have subtle differences. Membership of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), in which both Canada and Mexico use the metric system, means that there is increased visibility of metric units in America.

Johnson’s announcement was an attempt at deflection; a ‘dead cat’ thrown on the table to deflect from a record rise in inflation and continuing supply chain issues. However, he should remember that dead cats only bounce once. The fetid corpse of this particular feline has long since rotted.

For 25 years, Pippa Musgrave was a Trading Standards professional. She is a qualified Inspector of Weights and Measures, a qualified Food Standards Inspector and a Trading Standards Officer, and a full member of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute


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