Myths about consumer protection
With a slow transition from imperial to metric in British shops, consumer protection issues have become obscured.
The EU has allowed the UK to use imperial measurement indefinitely
Weighing in imperial remains illegal. However supplementary indications may continue to be used. Read more
In Britain people have always been able to choose which units they use.
Having one standardised set of units has been a foundation of consumer protection for centuries. Read more
A Sunderland market trader was prosecuted for selling ‘a pound of bananas’.
He was prosecuted for using an illegal weighing machine. Read more
Trading in imperial is about “freedom of commercial speech”.
Consistent weights and measures are essential tools for comparing price and value for money. Read more
The EU has criminalised the use of imperial units in Britain.
British weights and measures legislation has always made it a criminal offence to use units ‘not approved for trade’. Read more
In 2000, it became a legal requirement to weigh and measure loose goods in metric and to provide metric price labelling. Thus every fishmonger, butcher or greengrocer should use metric weighing machines and provide a metric unit price
Additionally, it is permitted to show an equivalent ‘supplementary indication’ in imperial providing it is no more prominent than the metric price. Supplementary indications were supposed to be phased out by the end of 2009 under the units of measurement Directive 80/181/EEC.
In September 2007, the European Commission proposed authorising the use of supplementary indications indefinitely which was subsequently adopted and the Directive revised accordingly. This was widely reported as a return to imperial.
The reality is that there is no change. UK law still requires the use of metric measurement and pricing. Weighing machines that use pounds and ounces remain illegal as is imperial-only pricing.
This notion is a very new one and is completely at odds with the facts. Ancient civilisations and centuries of British rulers have stressed the importance of a single measurement system to protect consumers and traders. A few historic quotes are given below.
Saxon King Edgar decreed:
that one and the same money should be current throughout his dominions, which no man must refuse; and that the measure of Winchester should be the standard.
The Magna Carta stated:
“There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russett, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly.”
Paragraph 35, British Library Translation
First Report of the Commissioners appointed to consider more Uniform Weights and Measures, 1819, stated:
“A general uniformity of Weights and Measures is so obviously desirable in every commercial country, in order to the saving of time, the preventing of mistakes, and the avoiding of litigation, that its establishment has been a fundamental principle in the English construction from time immemorial, and it has occasionally been enforced by penal statues, and by various other legislative enactments.”
Final Report of the Board of Trade Committee on Consumer Protection, 1962, stated:
“A uniform system of weights and measures, nationally used and enforced, is plainly part of the basic vocabulary of consumer protection.”
In every case cited a single system of measurement is authorised with nobody free to choose units they want.
In order to ensure that the public gets accurately weighed goods, the type of weighing machine at the point of sale must be approved and regularly checked. It has always been the case that approved equipment only use units that are legal for trade. Since the year 2000 the units allowed for the sale of loose goods have been metric only. Prices of loose goods are also required to be labelled in metric. Imperial conversions are allowed in addition for assistance.
A customer is allowed to ask for loose goods by the pound but the shopkeeper is required to weigh the goods using metric scales. In any case, most people order bananas by the bunch rather than by the weight and the price of the bunch is calculated from the weight and unit price.
The Sunderland trader in question, Steve Thoburn, was prosecuted for using an illegal weighing machine. He unsuccessfully appealed against the ruling.
If unrestricted expression is allowed in trade, the consumer always suffers. This is why for example the degree of expression allowed by estate agents has been curbed.
A single system of measurement is an important tool for customers to compare prices and value for money. However it depends on clear and consistent rules for both measurement and labelling.
Adopting the metric system does not stop the use figures of speech like “a pound of flesh” from being used. Indeed many cultures continue to use pre-metric units in everyday expressions.
Trading with non-legal units has always been an offence through the centuries. It has been a criminal offence to use the peck and bushel since 1968. Other units whose use has been a criminal offence for some years include the stone and hundredweight. Penalties are set by national governments.
On the wider issue of denying freedom of choice, weights and measures legislation is there to protect the public, by ensuring that the standards used for measuring equipment are maintained, and that traders are providing honest and open information to the public. Trading Standards Officers protect the public against unscrupulous traders. To permit traders and public to pick and choose which units they want to use would lead to anarchy, and the sort of confusion that anti-metric supporters claim to be against. There was no outcry by such people when a UK publican was fined by Trading Standards for selling beer in metric measures! Nor were there any complaints when it became illegal to sell by the stone several years ago.