TSI and metrication

“Let there be one measure …”

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Lord Howe

TS Today, January 2009

As an Honorary Vice President of the TSI, and respectful reader of TS Today for many years, it’s taken me some time to find the courage to proclaim just how shocked I was to see the amount of space given over in its November “metrology” feature to the myths, misinformation and illogical arguments of the last ditch defenders of obsolete imperial measurements. I was saddened too to see that a representative of the TSI itself appears to be so confused about what the position of a responsible professional institute ought to be on the question of metrication.

But there’s one overwhelming reason why I simply have to speak up in this way – and that is, I am sorry to have to say, that I have to accept much of the responsibility for the “Very British Mess”, in which we all still find ourselves. For as Britain’s first Minister for Consumer Affairs (in the Heath Government, 1972-74), I was the Minister for Metrication – and the process which had started some seven years before, with general approval, was going well. So well indeed that when I was next in office, in 1979, the Metrication Board reported that the change was nearing completion – and, as Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, I was only too eager to prune public expenditure, by abolishing the Board. And ever since then we’ve been dragging our feet. – at substantial economic and social cost.

Which is why I have, for the last six years been an active Patron of the UK Metric Association, campaigning – along with scientists, educationists, business leaders and consumer representatives – for early completion of this vital item on the national agenda. And why I dare to take advantage of my position as an Honorary Vice President of the TSI by seeking the support of the Institute and its membership.

So let me start from first principles by asking: What is the proper purpose and role of a professional institute?

The role of a professional institute

What distinguishes a professional institute from a trade union or other interest group is that it exists to protect the general public, by establishing standards of competence, training and ethics in the provision of the services of its members. The general public, therefore, have a right to look to the professional institute for objective advice and guidance on matters on which their members have a special expertise.

Thus the Bar Council, the professional institute for barristers, of which I am a (now retired) member, routinely offers advice to government on controversial legal issues and is not deterred from doing so by fear that its advice may be politically unpopular. For example, in 2002 the Bar Council joined with Liberty and other organisations in opposing the Government’s White Paper proposals for reducing the right to jury trial and abandoning the “double jeopardy” principle. This is, of course, in spite of the fact that barristers have a duty to the Court to carry out their work in accordance with the prevailing law.

Similarly, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the professional institute for senior police officers, regularly comments on and advises the Government on politically controversial issues such as the reclassification of cannabis. This is despite the fact the police officers obviously have to enforce the law in an impartial manner.

So it is difficult to understand why the TSI appears to take the view that, because Trading Standards Officers have to enforce the Weights and Measures Act and the Price Marking Order in an impartial manner, their professional institute, the TSI, must remain neutral on the question of completing the metric changeover. Others have described this stance as “an abdication of professional responsibility”. I find it difficult to disagree with this comment.

One system or two?

So if it is the duty of a responsible professional institute to offer guidance to the government and the general public on matters on which they possess some professional expertise, what should that guidance be? Once again, let us return to first principles.

The late Chris Howell, the former and much missed lead officer for the TSI on metrology, once remarked: “Everybody needs a system of measurement: nobody needs two systems.” And of course he was right. I am sure I do not need to rehearse in detail the arguments for a single, legal system understood and used by everybody for all purposes. This is necessary for consumer protection, designing buildings, specifying engineering components, prescribing medicines, signposting distances, fixing speed limits, and forecasting the weather. In all these instances, clarity and precision are essential. Failure to communicate clearly can result in mistakes, waste, accidents and incomprehension. Just as clarity of verbal communication requires that everybody understands and uses the same language, so communication about dimensions and quantities requires that everybody uses the same units of measurement.

Which system should we standardise on?

I am equally sure that TSOs need no convincing of the technical superiority of the international metric system (“SI”) over the random collection of medieval and Roman units that have survived by chance into modern times and are still used by about 5% of the world’s population. Quite apart from the ease of calculation in decimal numbers, the relationships between SI units reflect the underlying physical relationships that they represent and thus reinforce our understanding of the physical world. Given the concern about low standards of science education in the UK, this is not a trivial point.

The clinching argument for choosing metric over imperial units (if we want to standardise on a single system) is that, while it is quite possible to phase out imperial units for almost all legal, trade and official purposes, it would be quite impossible to phase out metric units (not that anybody is seriously suggesting that) since science and technology depend on them and most of the rest of the world uses these units and we would have to continue to accept their exports and their product specifications for our own exports.

So the only rational conclusion that a professional institute concerned with weights and measures should draw is that (a) we should standardise on a single measurement system and therefore phase out other units; and (b) the standard system chosen should be metric.

TSOs’ problems

TSOs have a difficult job – especially in dealing with that minority of shopkeepers and market traders who are so misguided as to defy the law on weights and measures. Their job is made all the more difficult by the lack of encouragement that they get from elected politicians – both national and local – as well as from the tabloid media, who for many years have consistently misrepresented and misreported the issue and turned it into an issue of national identity, which of course it is not. Despite these difficulties, many Trading Standards Departments have successfully followed the LACORS guidelines and achieved general acceptance of weighing and price marking in legal measures in their areas.They should be congratulated for the progress they have made.

TSOs must therefore have been dismayed at reports that a Government Minister actually appeared to be asking TSOs to stop enforcing the law for which he is responsible – apparently on the grounds that it is not in the public interest to prosecute people for “minor offences” (one wonders whether this doctrine would be extended to other fields – shoplifting, perhaps?).

A responsible Institute

In its response to the recent consultation on reforming weights and measures law and of its enforcement, the Government has claimed (not quite accurately) that none of the stakeholders (enforcers, consumer organisations, retailers) has raised the question of completing metrication). From this they claim a mandate for not addressing the issue of a single system of weights and measures. Thus, the near-silence of stakeholders helps to prolong the current “two systems” muddle.

The TSI has the potential to be a powerful influence on Government thinking – if only it would speak its mind. It would be presumptuous of me, as an Honorary Office-Holder, to try to tell the TSI Council what to do. That is a matter for its members. However, I cannot believe that ordinary TSOs, the footsoldiers of consumer protection, who have to cope from day to day with the consequences of the “two systems” muddle, are really content for it to continue indefinitely and unchallenged for ever. So I hope that ordinary TSI members will make their views known to their Council. I hope that, overwhelmingly, that view will be that a responsible Institute should not be “neutral” on an important matter of public policy within their field of professional expertise, and that the TSI should be publicly supporting the completion of the metrication process as soon as reasonably practicable. They might also perhaps quote the original Runnymede text:

“Let there be one measure throughout our whole realm; one measure of ale; one measure of corn; and one width of cloth; of weights also let it be as of measures”

© Geoffrey Howe 2009

This article first appeared in TS Today, January 2009