In 2019 Prime Minister Boris Johnson said measuring goods in pounds and ounces was an “ancient liberty”, promising to bring about an “era of generosity and tolerance towards traditional measurements”.
Earlier this year, the Government commissioned a study into the possible economic benefits of reintroducing imperial markings on UK-produced goods. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will spearhead the study with Minister for Brexit Opportunities Jacob Rees-Mogg expected to be heavily involved.
According to CTSI, the study must include a full impact assessment, including costs to businesses, clarity of options for consumers, and any new processes for regulating markets.
“It would need to start by looking at the implementation point of view from a government, local authority and Trading Standards perspective, and a lot of that is asking questions about capacity and resource,” says CTSI Chief Executive, John Herriman. “Then there would need to be questions raised to ensure compliance and enforcement. That needs to be fully investigated, particularly given the fact we’ve had cuts in Trading Standards services across the country.”
CTSI has previously called for a consultation and full assessment of the proposed reintroduction of imperial, has advised the Government to consider the impact on the consumer, and delivered a letter to Consumer Minister Paul Scully seeking assurances that assessments will be informed by professional bodies.
“The Government will review the law to identify how we can give more choice to businesses and consumers over the units of measurement they use,” a BEIS spokesperson told the Journal of Trading Standards. “This is an important step in taking back control of our laws to ensure they work best for British business. An assessment of the economic impact will be carried out in due course.”
Thinking on the ground
The metric system – which took the place of imperial as the main unit of measurement in the UK in the 1970s – is used across the European Union and beyond, in countries including Brazil, China, India, Japan and Australia. The United States, Burma and Liberia use non-metric systems. There is suggestion that the fact the UK still relies on certain imperial standards – such as pints and miles – creates a confusing system. However, Trading Standards officers point out that the current system allows traders to list both units depending on consumer preference and understanding.
“Some shops provide both now,” says Iain Hoey, CTSI Lead Officer for Metrology. “You can have metric and imperial markings in shops, which probably benefits the older consumer. Many local butchers for example have imperial as well as metric.”
Consumer understanding should be at the heart of the assessment, says Hoey.
“I think we should be concentrating on making sure consumers are getting what they pay for. Consumers need to be able to make clear value judgements,” he says. “Especially as the cost of living increases we should make sure that consumers are able to clearly assess quantity in terms and values they’re familiar with.”
As many UK-produced goods are likely to be sold on international markets as well as domestically, an introduction of imperial would require the formalisation of a dual system in which metric is also included on all products in order to conform with rules in other jurisdictions. For Herriman, the impact assessment must consider whether this could add unnecessary confusion.
“From a consumer perspective there is a risk of losing simplicity,” he says. “There’s a challenge there. By introducing additional complexity here, a dual system could confuse consumers, and therefore you end up with consumers who have potentially less confidence as a result of a two-tiered system.”
Hoey says the impact assessment should also focus on what the change would mean for businesses, whom he fears could face heavy costs and upheaval.
“The replacement of equipment would be hugely detrimental to merchants. It would lead to reconsiderations around advertising and most pre-packed goods would need to be remeasured,” he says.
For Trading Standards Officers, a change to or addition of imperial markings would “make things significantly more difficult,” says Herriman.
“The baseline unit of measurement is metric. If officers then have to do things in pounds and ounces as well, we would end up running a dual system. We would therefore have to inspect things both in metric or imperial or have to convert from one to the other. At the very least it just makes it a much more confusing world.”
Those involved with the impact assessment would have to consider the cost of providing Trading Standards officers with new or adjusted measuring equipment and training – which would most likely need to come from local authority coffers, says Hoey. Given current budget constrictions, that could be a challenge.
“The Government should be ensuring that Trading Standards is properly funded and resourced to ensure that consumers are getting the correct mode and metric quantities, rather than introducing a new system, especially in this period of unprecedented inflation,” says Hoey.
Corridors of Whitehall
Hoey points out that the impact assessment would also need to consider the changes that would be required not only to the Weights and Measures Act, but other associated and unrelated rules and regulations that quote metric. A specific plan would also need to be assessed for Northern Ireland, where EU regulations are still followed in line with the Protocol.
Acknowledging that Brexit has been built on the premise that the UK now has a “certain degree of freedom”, Herriman suggests the assessment must focus on whether or not a reintroduction of imperial could support economic recovery and the Government’s Levelling-Up agenda. To inform that, he suggests that CTSI, the British Retail Consortium, the Federation of Small Businesses and the licensed consumer organisations should be included in the assessment processes.
“The important thing is that they’re making sure they’re getting the experts’ opinion, so that the impact assessments can reach a balanced conclusion,” he says.