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.