Two brief anecdotes illustrate the difficulties still being experienced by customers because neither the Government nor “consumer advocates” will try to help them adapt to metric units in the supermarket.
A woman in her 60s approaches the fresh meat counter of the supermarket. “Half of that mince, please” she orders. The male shop assistant lifts the pile of minced beef, divides it roughly in two and weighs half of it on his scales. It comes to 800 g. “That’s £4.80” he announces. “Is that alright?”
“What?” the woman exclaims. “I don’t want all that. I asked for half a pound”. The assistant glances heavenwards and silently weighs out the mince again. This time he announces: “227 grams – that’s £1.36. Is that better?” Grudgingly, the woman accepts the offer, collects her package and departs muttering darkly, while the assistant exchanges meaningful glances with the next customer.
A man in his 70s presents himself at the deli counter and peers at the shopping list that he has been sent out with. “A quarter of ham, please” he ventures.
The female assistant slices 250 g, shows it to the customer, who nods vaguely and accepts the package, oblivious of the criticism that he will receive when he gets home for buying more than double quantity.
Anecdotes like these are not a representative sample and prove nothing in themselves. However they do illustrate the continuing difficulties that some customers experience in their daily shopping. In these two cases, the customers were both over 60, but – contrary to the Government’s complacent assumption – it is not only older people who have failed to adapt to the UK’s official, legal system of measurement.
The truth is that both customers and traders have been badly let down by successive governments that have introduced metric units while providing no effective help to make the change. Perhaps even more disappointing is that organisations that purport to defend consumer interests (such as the Consumers’ Association – “Which?”) have also ducked the issue.
It was always implicit in the 1965 decision to “go metric” that eventually retailing would have to fall in line. However, with the agreement of the European Commission, successive politicians kept postponing the decision – until in 1994 the Conservative Government amended the Weights and Measures Act to require metric weighing and pricing of “loose goods” with effect from the end of 1999. This presented the incoming Labour Government in 1997 with the problem of managing the change.
To their discredit, instead of embarking on a programme of public information and education, the Labour Government decided to pretend that the change need not affect consumers. The relevant Minister advised that customers could continue to order goods in imperial measures, and shopkeepers would have to weigh out the metric equivalent. Thus, the onus for educating consumers was placed on the retail trade, and it is little wonder that some of them objected to this imposition and refused to co-operate.
Even more contemptible is that, when Trading Standards Officers in Sunderland, Hackney and elsewhere tried to carry out their legal duty to enforce the law, Government Ministers tried to distance themselves from the law that they had supported. Instead they tried to blame the situation on the European Union (who actually were blameless spectators) and thus reinforced the erroneous identification of metrication with “Europe”. Most recently, the responsible Minister in the last Government went to the limit of his legal powers (and perhaps beyond) by trying to prevent Trading Standards Authorities from enforcing the law.
As far as retailing is concerned, the problems include:
- Supermarkets generally price and label primarily in metric units (sometimes with the imperial equivalent), whereas many small shops and market traders price and label in imperial only. In this way they prevent customers from comparing prices and value for money as between supermarkets and street markets (it is not true, as is sometimes claimed, that they cater for separate groups of consumers – there is considerable overlap).
- As was illustrated in the anecdotes above, many customers do not realise how much they are buying and are vulnerable to the many scams employed by retailers.
- “Unit pricing” (the indication of the price per kilogram, litre or metre, usually in the small print at the bottom of shelf labels) is little used or understood – even though it is a vital method of comparing value for money, especially since prescribed package sizes were abolished last year.
- Goods are permitted to be described and advertised in either metric or imperial units. This means that, in order to function effectively, customers have to be fluent with both systems – whereas many people struggle with one or the other – or with both.
- Similarly, product manuals or instructions may be in either metric or imperial units. Some people are therefore unable to understand the instructions and may operate machinery incorrectly.
- It is difficult to monitor fuel consumption (in either L/100km or “mpg”) since petrol and diesel are sold in litres, but distances are signed (and odometers are calibrated) in miles.
Meanwhile that great defender of consumer interests, the Consumers’ Association (“Which?”), sits on its hands, claiming that there is little or no consumer detriment.
So what can be done to retrieve the situation?
- Firstly, and above all, we need a loud and clear statement from the Government that the UK is a metric country, and that the primary (and soon the only) system of weights and measures is the metric system. (This has of course been said before sotto voce, for example by Tony Blair in 2004 in a letter to Lord Howe, and indeed in the 1999 review of progress. However, the message has clearly not got through, and many people – perhaps the majority – are unaware of it). It needs a clear statement from the highest level – i.e. the Prime Minister – preferably to Parliament in “prime time” – so that the media and the general public are fully aware.
- Secondly, the Government must grasp the painful nettle that is road signs. As long as these remain imperial, people will not believe or accept that the UK is a metric country. Although this may seem a long way from the old lady and her “half of mince”, it is in fact crucial, since the use of miles, yards, feet and inches on road signs spills over into other fields – such as weather forecasts, the purchase of timber, the sizing of clothes, describing the weight of new-born babies and general media usage. The obstinate refusal of the Department for Transport to set a date for sign conversion – or even to admit that it will happen one day – is now the biggest single obstacle to completing metrication in the UK.
- Thirdly, the Government should require all publicly-financed organisations (including Government Departments and Agencies, local Councils, the BBC, private contractors on public projects, and charities in receipt of grants) to work toward becoming exclusively metric. In theory, this is already the case (see paragraphs 7 and 8 of this Guidance), but in practice the advice is widely ignored or unknown.
- Fourthly, the late lamented Metrication Board (abolished in 1980) needs to be re-invented – but this time with real powers of enforcement.
- Fifthly, The other measures in our draft “Weights and Measures (Completion of Metrication) Bill” should be considered for implementation.
- Finally, the Government needs to explain the reasons behind these actions and provide proper help to those people who have genuine difficulty in making the change.
Opponents of metrication will of course complain that such an approach would be draconian, illiberal and unpatriotic. No doubt attempts would again be made to link the issue to “Europe” (even though the EU is now out of the picture). Many politicians will baulk at the anticipated onslaught from the Daily Mail. Yet the fact is that the voluntary approach has failed, and if responsible opinion-formers are not prepared to line up behind a set of reasonable proposals such as those described above, then we are condemned to more decades of muddle and confusion such as that experienced by the old lady with her request for “half of mince”.