Glaring omission from Queen’s Speech

The new coalition Government claims to be determined to clear up the “mess” left behind by the previous Government. So it is notable that Her Majesty’s gracious speech included no proposals to tackle one of the biggest “messes” of all – the intractable muddle of incompatible measurement units with which her UK (but not other Commonwealth) subjects have to struggle.

Now that the General Election is out of the way and a new government installed, there is an opportunity for politicians to take a decisive step toward completing the metric conversion that was begun nearly half a century ago. UKMA has argued that, without decisive Government intervention, the current muddle of conflicting measurement systems will continue indefinitely.  One way of speeding things up would be the passage of a “Weights and Measures (Completion of Metrication) Bill”.  Such a Bill might include some of the provisions listed below.

Ostensibly, the policy of all governments since 1965 has been that the United Kingdom should – in stages – switch from imperial to metric units of measurement for an ever-increasing range of uses” (quoted from a letter from Tony Blair to Lord Howe in 2004). However, in recent years the Government have taken no significant practical steps to achieve that object, and they are explicitly relying on the false hope that “this is a matter that will solve itself in time” (quoted from Baroness Thornton, Hansard, House of Lords, 25 Feb 2010 : Column 1081).  The reality is that the Government has virtually given up on the great metrication project and wishes that people wouldn’t keep mentioning the subject.

What the noble Lady presumably meant was that, as the older age-cohorts of imperial-educated people die out and are replaced by younger metric-educated people, the transition from imperial to metric as the default system in common use would occur “naturally”.  However, if that were true, it surely would have happened before now.  It was in 1974 that the then Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, required metric units to be taught in the maths and science curriculum.  Thus, anybody born after 1964 (i.e. well over half the working population aged 18-65) would have received at least their secondary education in metric units.  Yet there is little sign that this transition is occurring.  The popular media are still predominantly imperial, or they mix metric and imperial indiscriminately. In order to function effectively in the UK in the 2010s, adults need to be fluent with both systems.

If the “very British mess” of trying to operate two incompatible systems of measurement at the same time is ever to be ended, then it is idle to pretend that the changeover will happen of its own accord.  It will require decisive government action – and this inevitably will have to include legislation.

MetricViews suggests that a new Act of Parliament – perhaps called the “Weights and Measures (Completion of Metrication) Act” – will be needed.  It could include some or all of the following clauses:

(a)  A statement of the purpose of the Act – perhaps along the lines of the Australian or American declarations1 quoted below.

(b)  Declaration that metric is the primary system for all legal and official purposes in the UK unless otherwise required by international agreements (i.e. currently aviation and maritime navigation)

(c)  Duty on all organisations in receipt of public funds (inc. Government Departments and Agencies, the Crown, local authorities, statutory bodies, schools and universities, police, BBC, contractors on publicly financed projects, charities receiving grants) to work toward becoming primarily (and eventually exclusively) metric.  This could include an appropriate clause to be inserted in all procurement contracts and grant agreements.

(d)  Power of Secretary of State to direct such public agencies (either selectively or generally) to cease using non-SI or non-SI-compatible units

(e)  Establishment of Commission to manage remaining stages of transition to primary or exclusive use of metric units

(f)    Power of the Secretary of State to give directions to the Commission

(g)  Reserve power of Secretary of State to take over enforcement powers of local authorities under the Weights and Measures Act where they are failing to act

(h)  Cut-off date (say, 5 years) for ending the exemption of “road signs, distance and speed measurement” from the requirement to use SI units

(i)    Power to prohibit manufacture, import and sale of measuring instruments that show non-SI units (might need to be some exemptions, eg. for legacy components and artefacts)

(j)    Requirement that measurement units used in advertising and product description shall be metric, with optional supplementary indications (to be enforced against advertising agencies, estate agents, newspapers, internet service providers – but not against private individuals). (It would be counter-productive to enforce against private individuals as this would simply lead to the creation of “martyrs”).

Ideally, this Bill should have been part of the new Government’s legislative programme.  Indeed, without Government support it would have little chance of becoming law. However, if the Government is reluctant to propose this measure at present, then perhaps an individual Member (of either House) – with the assistance of the Parliamentary draftsmen – would be prepared introduce it as a “Private Member’s Bill” – possibly under the “ten minute rule.”  Whether it then attracted Government support or not, it would obviously have to be published, might attract some publicity, and would put down a marker for future reference.


1Quotations from other legislatures:

“The object of this Act is to bring about progressively the use of the metric system of measurement in Australia as the sole system of measurement of physical quantities.” (Metric Conversion Act, 1970)



“Sec. 205b. Declaration of policy

It is therefore the declared policy of the United States–

(1) to designate the metric system of measurement as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce;

(2) to require that each Federal agency, by a date certain and to the extent economically feasible by the end of the fiscal year 1992, use the metric system of measurement in its procurements, grants, and other business-related activities, except to the extent that such use is impractical or is likely to cause significant inefficiencies or loss of markets to United States firms, such as when foreign competitors are producing competing products in non- metric units;

(3) to seek out ways to increase understanding of the metric system of measurement through educational information and guidance and in Government publications; and

(4) to permit the continued use of traditional systems of weights and measures in non-business activities.” (Metric Conversion Act, 1975)

This entry was posted in General, Law and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Glaring omission from Queen’s Speech

  1. Ezra Steinberg says:

    This posting is of course spot on.

    In contrast to the UK, I have learned via correspondence with an Irish resident that the situation in Ireland is much better in terms of adoption of metric by the populace. It is reasonable to put this down to the pro-EU and concomittantly pro-metric stance (or at least not anti-metric stance as a proxy for anti-EU sentiments) taken by most of the Irish.

    I find it also noteworthy to learn from this correspondent that there has been a notable shift towards daily metric usage in the media and personal conversations since the conversion of road signs to metric, presumably because of its daily visible impact and "presence" in the minds of the populace. I am also told that Fahrenheit has virtually disappeared from weather reports in newspapers, radio, and television, and therefore in the daily conversations of the man and woman "in the street".

    As this posting so cogently argues, only a firm government hand will lead the UK out of the muddle and down a comparable path to full metrication.

    But if there is to be increased government transparency (as enunciated by the new PM), shouldn’t we be able to find out Professor Beddington’s opinion on the affect the metric muddle on the UK’s competetiveness and thus his advice to the government?

  2. John Steele says:

    As an American, allow me to suggest following the Australian policy.

    Section 205(b) (the US policy) sounds quite grandiose, but we completely failed to "walk the tralk."

    The concern of "such as when foreign competitors are producing competing products in non- metric units;" really seems pretty humorous in retrospect, and we seem to have done a MUCH better job on (4) than on (1) - (3).

    In particular, later action by Congress completely gutted (2).

  3. Martin Vlietstra says:

    South African metrication was helped by the prohibition of any measuring device that had imperial calibrations. That was in about 1970. Forty years on, we have had an electronic revolution - today I saw an estate using an LED-based measuring device (which was probably dual unit). Gone are the days of tape measures. Ten years ago I bought a digital thermometer in Germany - it has a °C/°F switch.

    This suggests to me that banning measuring devices that display imperial units is not a practical proposition - too many devices have dual units so that the same model can be sold in multiple markets. My suggestion therefore is to place a minimum statutory price on certain articles - for example any thermometer that has a °F display (switchable or otherwise) may no tbe sold for less than £10. (Plastic thermometers that are available in any hardware store cost less than £5). Similarly, any device that has a stones display may not be sold for less than £30.

  4. philh says:

    The legislation proposed in the article has the merit that it would not be out of character for the UK. Any attempt to interfere with prices in the private sector would be.

  5. Ken Cooper says:

    Philh suggests that any attempt to interfere with prices in the private sector would be out of character for the UK.

    For many years (up to around 15(?) years ago) there was supposed to be a 50p tax applied to butane cigarette lighters. This tax was imposed to protect UK match manufacturers. That's why you never used to see "5 lighters for £1" in supermarkets while they were commonly available at car boot sales after being brought in from abroad.

    I'm not convinced as to the practicality of Martin's plan though. £5 °F thermometers would just appear at markets/car boot sales instead of hardware stores

  6. philh says:

    There is nothing uncharacteristic about adding a tax levy on selected commodities in the UK e.g. booze, baccy and fuel.

    What, as far as I know, would be a new departure would be a law prescribing the actual price charged to the consumer. This has always been left to the discretion of the retailer.

    For example supermarkets have been known to offer spirits at knock down prices as a loss leader in spite of increases in duty.

    I suppose, to adapt the South African model, there might be a precedent in levying a special tax on instruments that do not comply with a requirement for metric-only displays.

  7. Ken Cooper says:

    "There is nothing uncharacteristic about adding a tax levy on selected commodities in the UK e.g. booze, baccy and fuel."

    Agreed, but similar items are taxed in the same way. The same tax is applied to 20 Benson & Hedges as is applied to 20 Marlboro. In the example I gave above, the tax on cigarette lighters was applied as a measure to implement a political policy (protecting match manufacturers in Nottingham) rather than as a revenue raising exercise applied to all goods in the sector. As I state above, this law was effectively ignored and was eventually repealed.

    As such I would suggest that the proposal to set a minimum price for imperial equipment for sale to the general public would be effectively unenforceable and would be widely ignored. In addition, can you imagine the reaction in the likes of the Daily Mail should such a proposal be adopted? The anti-metricationists would have a field day!

    "What, as far as I know, would be a new departure would be a law prescribing the actual price charged to the consumer. This has always been left to the discretion of the retailer"

    I know that this isn't exactly a recent example, but in a Weights & Measures context, the 1266 Assize of Bread & Ale laid down a scheme to control the amount of bread or ale obtainable for a farthing or penny respectively, depending on the current price of wheat, barley or oats. Short weight or quantity was punishable by a fine or in more serious cases flogging or the pillory. The attempt to control the weight of bread obtainable for a specified price continued until the Bread Act 1836 which required bread to be unadulterated and sold by weight.

  8. Derek says:

    Saturday's Guardian had a report on a public lecture given on 27 May 2010 by the government's chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington. The report included the following:

    'Beddington said that he had yet to have a formal meeting with David Cameron or Nick Clegg, but he said the coalition government faced a slew of scientific issues.

    "If you then think about how the UK as an economy is going to compete in the future, the underpinning of science and engineering having the best quality students, the best quality scientists and engineers is absolutely imperative." '

    One wonders if Prof. Beddington accepts that the UK's measurement muddle deters some of the brightest students from considering a career in science and engineering (a topic considered in the previous article on Metric Views, "Kids don't count"). And if he does, will that be included in his advice to government?

    Unfortunately, we are unlikely to find out.

  9. Jeremiah says:

    One way to help control the sale of non-metric and dual measuring devices (ie measuring tapes, rulers, thermometers, weighing scales, etc) would be a requirement that only certified devices be offered for sale in any shop. The government could easily refuse to certify non-metric and dual instruments in the same way they don't certify non-metric weighing scales used in trade.

    Manufacturers and importers would be discouraged from producing such items if they knew they could not be certified. Manufacturers and importers could also be encouraged not to produce non-metric or dual products as a means to keep the product lines simple. Use the same metric only standard for the whole world.

  10. A says:

    Is the UKMA doing anything to bring this issue to the attention of the government?

    It goes without saying that Metrication is of great importance and if the government really does want to get the country out of its troubles, they should be encouraged and persuaded to Metricate. Otherwise anything that the government does is in vain and just a hopeless exercise.

  11. Ian R says:

    I read an unconfirmed report today that the new transport secretary Philip Hammond was horrified to discover that the kilometre is used in official documents. It says he has banned its use and ordered all documents to be converted back to miles. If this is true, I feel so helpless in achieving the final changes to get us out of this ‘very British mess’.

    As a British child of the sixties, all my ten years of post-primary school education was taught in SI units. Full metrication is so logical. It is a real disgrace that successive governments have allowed this mess to continue.

    I have been reading the blogs on this site for some time and would echo the posting from A on 3-Jun regarding the current status of the UKMA in raising concerns with the new government. It seems that the UKMA website has had no substantial updates for over a year, making me question (perhaps wrongly) how active the campaign is. I would love to be able to DO something to help push for change!

  12. Robin Paice says:

    As Ian R says, the report is unconfirmed. So it is either invented by the Mail/Express journalist, or, if accurate, a piece of grandstanding by the Minister to appeal to readers of those comics. Obviously, Mr Hammond has no power to change the law, which requires metric usage except on road signs.

    The UKMA website is currently under review, and I hope that changes will be apparent by the autumn. However, it is primarily a general guide to the metric system and a presentation of the case for change - rather than a running commentary on current events. That is the function of this blog. If Ian would like to find out more about UKMA's activities in the last year, he is welcome to join. Go to The annual report will be available to members in the next few weeks.

  13. Jeremiah says:

    My thought is why were these people doing reports in kilometres to begin with? Where did they get the metric values? I don't think anyone actually started with numbers in imperial and just converted them to metric just to have them in metric. I wonder if the data that was reported in metric came from a metric source, such as a survey map.

    When I was in Asia back in the '90s, it was very common for for people who spoke English to use "miles" when quoting distances to English speakers. The problem is they didn't translate any of the numbers. When driving from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh in Malaysia, a companion asked the driver how far away it was. The driver responded 200 miles. A minute or so later, we approached a sign and the distance stated was 200 km. When I noticed the sign, I asked the driver how it was possible for Ipoh to be both 200 miles and 200 km away. I was told I was the only one to question that and also that was the common practice in the way distances are reported to foreigners who wanted to hear miles. The foreigners were none the wiser and the driver didn't have to sit there and try to do a calculation before giving an answer.

    With these two points in mind, what will stop anyone in the future who makes a report and must now use imperial from simply just changing the names and leaving the metric numbers as they are? And who will be the wiser?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *