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)