Today’s announcement by the European Commission that it is to propose that “supplementary indications” (such as lbs and oz) should be allowed indefinitely does NOT mean that traders can go back to weighing and pricing in imperial measures – so says the UK Metric Association (UKMA). [Press release issued on 11 September.]
In fact it will be business as usual. Just as they do now, traders will have to weigh or measure goods in metric units (kilograms, litres or metres) at the checkout and also display prices in metric units – with the option of a supplementary indication in non-metric units.
UKMA Chairman, Robin Paice, commented: “While we regret this proposal to prolong the current muddle of metric and imperial units, it will only delay but not stop the inevitable move toward all-metric shopping. Many of the big supermarkets have already stopped giving obsolete imperial prices, and we expect this trend to continue. There is no question of going backwards.”
The current EU Directive (80/181/EEC) requires that supplementary indications must be phased out after 31 December 2009 and that the UK must “fix a date” for changing to metric road signs and speed limits. However, the Commission is expected to propose that this deadline should be lifted and that the UK can keep imperial road signs for as long as it wants. This proposed amendment to the Directive will have to be considered by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers and then translated into UK law.
The Commission’s proposal follows a consultation in which many American and European exporters asked that the permission to use supplementary indications should be continued. Their reasoning was that the USA requires dual metric/US customary (not the same as imperial) marking whereas the EU would have required metric-only. Thus packers would have required two different packages for the two markets, and this was claimed to be a significant business cost.
However, UKMA has argued that, even if it is a significant cost, there is no need to allow supplementary indications on packaged goods produced and sold within the EU, and there is particularly no need to allow supplementary indications on goods sold loose in shops and markets. The derogation (exception) could have been limited to goods imported from or exported to a non-metric country – i.e. the USA. “Why should the refusal of the Americans to accept the world system condemn the British to endure indefinitely the misery and muddle of incompatible weights and measures in shops and markets.” asks Robin Paice. “It undermines consumer protection (one of the Commission’s claimed new stated objectives) wastes our children’s education, and just prolongs this ‘very British mess’.”
Unfortunately, the Commission placed more weight on the lobbying of powerful business interests. Moreover, the UK Government, while paying lip service to metrication, has effectively called a halt to the completion of the changeover, and it is thought that they would have tried to resist the phasing out of imperial measures in 2009. Sources within the Commission have indicated that it wished to avoid a confrontation with the UK Government.
Robin Paice added: “Although this decision is disappointing, it does have a silver lining. Hitherto all discussion of the metric system has been bedevilled and distracted by the European issue. But if the EU is withdrawing from its involvement in weights and measures, it means that we can argue the case for completing metrication without having to refute silly arguments about Brussels Bureaucrats.”
“Every country needs a system of weights and measures that everybody understand and uses for all purposes. Nobody needs two systems. Completing metrication is in the British national interest, and it is time that the UK Government acknowledged this and showed a bit of leadership.”