A Government Minister has promised to advise industry bodies that the law requires the use of metric units in all product description and advertising.
In what could be a significant step in the progress toward completing metrication in the UK, Baroness Jolly, the Minister responsible in the House of Lords for consumer affairs, undertook to consult with “relevant industry bodies to remind them of the current legal position and the importance of providing clarity for consumers.”
The Minister was responding to Lord Taverne’s amendment to the Consumer Rights Bill at its Report stage on 24 November. This amendment would have made it explicit that the law requires the use of metric units for all product description and advertising – even if those units are not “in use for trade”. Lord Taverne had drawn attention to the explanation of a previous Minister (David Willetts, MP) that the Weights and Measures Act only applies when goods and services are being sold by reference to quantity, and that the Act does not apply to mere descriptions. This statement by Mr Willetts was consistent with similar advice invariably given by Trading Standards Officers throughout the UK. As a result of this (now apparently erroneous) advice, consumers are faced with a mixture of litres and cubic feet in stating the capacity of fridges and a muddle of metres, feet and inches in property advertisements.
What Baroness Jolly has pointed out is, firstly, that the Act does apply to advertisements if they relate to goods and services that are being sold “by reference to quantity”, and, secondly, that the separate Units of Measurement Regulations provide that metric units are the legal unit for any purposes beyond “use for trade”. Therefore, she concluded, Lord Taverne’s amendment was unnecessary since the law already covered the situations that he had described, and so she asked him to withdraw his amendment.
In agreeing to withdraw, Lord Taverne commented:”If the Government do in fact live up to their promise and ensure that the professions and those responsible for enforcement tell people exactly what the law is, which is that it requires that metric units should take priority even in advertisements and descriptions, that will meet my objections.”
An interesting contribution to the debate came from Lord Deben (formerly John Gummer), who was a Cabinet Minister in the Thatcher and Major Governments. His support is indicative that despite the the noise made by populist opponents of metrication, there is considerable unspoken sympathy in high places for completing the process – now lasting almost 50 years since it was announced to the British Parliament – not to mention 800 years since Magna Carta.
We now await the details of the Government’s advice to the industry. In time this should see an end to consumers having to compare central heating boilers in kilowatts and “British thermal units” (per hour) and relate carpets measured in square metres to room sizes in square feet.