Hackney Council gets it right

Local Councils get a lot of stick, often undeserved, so when they do something right, we should congratulate them. So hats off to the London Borough of Hackney for striking a blow for genuine consumer protection – that is, for upholding that most basic consumer right – a fair and transparent system of weights and measures that enables consumers to compare quantities and prices on a “like for like” basis.

According to press reports, Janet Devers, a market trader from Hackney was convicted on 8 October at Thames Magistrates’ Court on eight charges under the Weights and Measures Act – including using old imperial scales that lacked the official stamp. Other charges included selling by the “bowl” without giving a proper indication of quantity or weight. Four other charges (not specified in the press reports) will be heard in the Crown Court next year.

Assuming that all this is true, it is a long overdue victory for consumer protection. Ms Devers is reported to have claimed that she broke the law in the interest of her customers.  Perhaps she really believes this, but the truth is that failure to display weights in the same units as most shops and supermarkets (i.e. grams and kilograms) prevents shoppers from comparing prices and hence value for money. Maybe that is not their intention, but it is the result. Unless you are good at mental arithmetic and know the conversion factors, how can you compare tomatoes at 49p/lb in the market with the same tomatoes at £1.05/kg in the supermarket?  Which is better value?  In fact, in this example, the supermarket is cheaper, but many customers would not realise this and would go for the smaller number.  So the market traders benefit and customers are disadvantaged.

It is a sad story, since an otherwise honest trader has been misled into futile defiance of the law and thereby incurred a criminal conviction and crippling legal costs.
So who are the real culprits in this sorry saga?  There are at least four.

Firstly, the xenophobic politicians who have tried to use the metrication issue as a stick with which to attack the European Union.  The original so-called “metric martyrs” challenged the law in 2002 and lost comprehensively in all the courts (including the European Court of Human Rights). Yet, desperate for publicity, they have tried to rerun the same  political stunt – with the predictable result that a gullible market trader is potentially ruined.

Secondly, Trading Standards Authorities throughout the country bear some responsibility for allowing the impression to grow that Weights and Measures laws are not a priority, and that their staff will turn a blind eye to flouting laws on weighing and price marking. As a result, the whole system of weighing and price marking has broken down in some markets and small shops around the country, and customers have difficulty in knowing whether they are getting what they are paying for. If Councils had adopted a “zero tolerance” approach at the outset (i.e. in 2001) the situation might well have been resolved long ago.

Thirdly, the media (both broadcasters and newspapers) have consistently misreported the issue since the 1990s, treating it as a European or “free speech” issue rather than as the consumer protection issue that it really is. Even the BBC (sometimes thought of as slightly more reliable than the tabloids) was yesterday misquoting European Commissioner Verheugen as saying that “metric rules were never meant for market traders selling loose
goods such as fruit and vegetables”. These words do not appear in his press statement (which can be read at  http://ec.europa.eu/unitedkingdom/press/frontpage/11092007_en.htm. What he actually said was that “there is no problem whatsoever with Brits  …  using pounds and ounces alongside their metric equivalent” (our emphasis).  However, newspapers with an  anti-metric agenda have conveniently ignored the facts.  After all “Council bureaucrats victimise honest trader” makes a better headline than “Council upholds consumer protection laws”.

Fourthly, the UK Government has consistently shirked its responsibilities to explain and justify the metrication programme. It has never issued adequate information or mounted a proper publicity campaign. Although its stated policy is that the UK will gradually convert to exclusive use of the metric system, it has taken no new initiatives since 2000, has ruled out further progress on road signs, has failed to give a lead on enforcement of
the existing law – and it has tried to divert criticism by blaming the EU instead of justifying its policy.  As a result local Councils like Hackney (and, earlier, Sunderland) have been left on their own, and many have been intimidated by threats from militant opponents of metrication.  It is political cowardice led by the Government.

UKMA therefore calls on:

  • politicians to stop encouraging market traders to break the law;
  • Councils to give greater priority to enforcing the law, so that consumers can compare prices on a fair basis; in particular, they should stamp out the practice of selling by the “bowl”;
  • the media to publish corrections to the inaccurate stories recently published;
  • the Government to have the political courage to explain and defend their metrication policy and take steps to complete the programme within a reasonable timescale.

Oh, and as for Ms Devers, she is really the unfortunate victim of this situation, so I hope she will now be sensible and save herself greater worry and expense by dropping her futile resistance to the law.  In return, it would be nice if Hackney Council, having sent a clear signal to market traders throughout the country, were to be magnanimous and waive the legal costs on condition that Ms Devers undertakes to price and weigh her goods in accordance with the law. That would not exactly be a happy ending, but it would probably be the most satisfactory outcome possible.

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15 Responses to Hackney Council gets it right

  1. Roddy Urquhart says:

    Thanks for flagging the hypocrisy of the xenophobic politicians. I am in my early fifties and I recall very well, that in the time of Mrs Thatcher as Education Secretary, our maths textbooks which had £sd and imperial were replaced by modern ones with decimal currency and metric. My marks improved drastically after that!

    It is lamentable that while politicians of most colours subscribe to the principles of the Magna Carta, there has been an ignoring of the principle of the single system of units. "There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russett, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly."

    As a result there have been a bunch of spurious "freedom of speech" arguments articulated which basically aim to remove any form of consumer protection.

    Now that many people are facing harder times it is even more essential that there is price transparency and that people can compare like with like. Today that means using metric price labelling in accordance with the law.

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  2. Pat Naughtin says:

    Congratulations, Robin.

    It seems to me that your summary accurately tells the story of the traders who have sadly been duped into illegal acts in the false belief that they are resisting influences from Europe.

    As we know, the story is much older. People have fought for honest weights and measures throughout history.

    I suspect that the first English proponent of a universal measure in 1668, Bishop John Wilkins, was doing so because he was reacting to unfairness in the market. I suspect that he might have been heard pronouncing in a resonant voice from his pulpit: 'Divers weights, and divers measures, both of them are alike are abomination to the LORD'.

    Cheers,

    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia

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  3. PhilH says:

    No one advocating progress in metrication should take any pleasure in seeing market traders being prosecuted, rather it is preferable that they simply comply with the law requiring metric for trade, but it is hard to sympathize with Janet Devers.

    She must have known what she was getting into and what the risks were. If it is the case that she was persuaded, against her better judgment, by others with an obvious political agenda then it falls to them to compensate her.

    Hopefully the decision by the Crown Court judge to refer most of the charges back to the magistrates court was, not only legally correct but in recognition that this case is an obvious attempt to misuse the British courts for political purposes.

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  4. Crooked Miles says:

    The selling of goods by the bowl is hardly a time-honoured tradition, and certainly isn't consumer friendly, as the consumer has no basis of seeing whether they have been given a fair measure.

    Supermarkets are frequently criticised for "bogof" deals on fruit and veg, as they favour large families over little old ladies living on their own. And the bowlful approach is really the market equivalent of the bogof but without the assurance of fair measures.

    But if consumers and traders really want to trade in bowlfuls, all they have to do is weigh the bowlful and charge the corresponding price. Most people would not find that unreasonable.

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  5. Tabitha Jones says:

    It's such a pity that in this country you can be prosecuted for using such wonderful measurements just because a few metricists don't like them. If she wants to sell fruit by the tub or veg by the pound, why stop her? She understands them and most normal people know what a pound is, or that 454g (500g) is about a pound. What a waste of police time.

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  6. PhilH says:

    In response to Tabitha Jones:

    The adoption of the metric system in the UK for all trade and official purposes goes well beyond the wishes of "a few metricists".

    I for one could easily make a case for the international metric system as being "wonderful" just in terms of the logical, mathematically beautiful and systematic structure behind it compared to the archaic, historically vague, duplicitous, irrational and dishonest so called "imperial system".

    As for wasting police time, you can put that down to the disingenuous, hypocritical, subversive campaign of xenophobic political campaigners exploiting public ignorance about perfectly normal legal regulation of weights and measures in trade, which is common to all civilised societies throughout the world.

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  7. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Tabitha,

    In case you did not read the comments on the Daily Telegraph website, (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/10/12/dl1203.xml) may I take the liberty of reproducing my posting there:

    "In order to preserve a level playing field, the Government has rightly prescribed certain terminology that may and may not be used when traders describe their wares. In particular, the Government has seen fit to require traders to price many types of fruit and vegetables by the kilogram, not by the bowl, the pound or any other unit. These rules apply equally to Fortum and Mason, to Harrods, to Tesco and to street market traders. Why does Mrs Devers try to claim exemption from these rules? What is she trying to hide?"

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  8. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Kudos to the author of the article for doing a masterful job of properly reframing the issue (see the works of Dr. George Lakoff, U of California, Berkeley for more on framing). Let us hope that more of the public will appreciate the issues as the article presents them.

    I also got to learn about the acronym "bogof" (which I have never heard here in the States but looked up via Google 🙂

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  9. DM says:

    I recall some years ago seeing a centre spread in the Ilford Recorder over Mrs Devers brother Colin Hunt?
    They Clearly showed this trader displaying signs for his produce in price per LB only - BUT He was using price per KG scales !!

    Now get this, if you are very handy with maths and a customer self selects a quantity of produce and takes it in the bag to be price weighed in price per Kg how does that customer know the correct price per KG has been entered? The customer doesn,t and far be it from me to allegedly state that higher pricing per Kg were entered, than the equivelent of price per Lb on display, but I see no reason to do that other than the possibilty to accidentally defrauding that customer !! QED.

    This lost cause by UKIP and the Metric Martyrs and the British Weights and Measures group run by one man - has taken a huge amount of effort time and money, wasted police and trading standards, and the courts resources and as Tabitha states it clearly - but then who has been wasting everyones time? I would put it to you Tabitha - the traders, certainly not the public and certainly not the highly qualified metrology officers of Trading Standards who after all are the servants of the people ensuring a fair and level playing field for all.
    This 10 year battle for the last remaining few who want to insist on fighting progress, uder the banner of what!? escapes me.

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  10. Han Maenen says:

    I wonder why Tabitha wants to be able to buy 'tubs' of produce. A tub can be everything and you can be cheated by it big time. Using unstamped scales and weights can also cost you, as they grow more and more inaccurate as time goes by.

    Something else about these 'wonderful' measures.In a number of US states the so-called 'commercial acre' is recognized as a measuring unit. It measures only 36 000 ft2 or 0.334 ha. So watch out when you want to buy land in the USA! When a number of years ago Spanish bakers attempted to sell 'kilograms' of bread weighing 900 g, the authorities came down on them like a ton of bricks. Or should these bakers have been allowed to do this?

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  11. Tim Bentley says:

    In response to Han Maenen

    I think the authorities were in error,they should have come down on the bakers like a 'tonne' of bricks!

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  12. Han Maenen says:

    I just read something that is of interest to UKMA. The British Government wants to go soft on Metric Martyrs in the future.
    See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7677438.stm

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  13. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Sadly, the BBC web site reports that the government is planning to establish guidelines to discourage TSOs (and presumably Councils) from doing what Hackney Council has done. Ms. Devers is thus likely to be allowed to continue to do exactly what she was doing all along.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7677438.stm

    [Don't jump to conclusions. The BBC report may not be accurate, as it makes no sense.  The Minister cannot change the law, nor can he require TSOs not to enforce the law.  Guidance issued by LACORS already recommends that enforcement action should be "proportionate" (who would advocate "disproportionate" action?).

    So it may just be the usual cynical media spin on a non-event. - Ed]

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  14. laura says:

    Perhaps we should reevaluate this in the light of recent whistleblowers claiming Hackney were deliberately targeting Colin Hunt and his family and ignoring other market traders. The oft quoted Lacors Guidance does not sanction victimisation.

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  15. philh says:

    Whilst it may be true that complaints from the public oblige enforcement officers to investigate, enforcement of the law does not require such complaints before action can be taken.
    For example if a trader is found to be giving short measure from trial purchases then there is a clear obligation to act even though members of the public may not have noticed.
    It remains to be seen whether the allegations of victimisation have any foundation. Personally I can't see why Hackney Council would be interested in doing so. Such claims would on the other hand be a very convenient ploy for someone trying to appeal against a conviction.

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