Political and Legal Chronology and Documents

Here we present some of the most important events along Britain’s road to compulsory metrication. Many of the documents are discussed in detail in the Yardstick, and we indicate the relevant issue where applicable. 

Origins of Britain’s 1965 (non-compulsory) metrication policy 

May 1962 – report by the British Standards Institution proposing a “Change to the Metric System”. See Yardstick 69 for commentary.

October 1963 – further report by the British Standards Institution “British Industry and the Metric System”. See Yardstick 69.

February 1965 – confidential memo by the Federation of British Industries. See Yardstick 68.

17 February 1965 – letter by the Federation of British Industries to the President of the Board of Trade. See Yardstick 68.

24 May 1965 – Hansard, statement by the President of the Board of Trade on metrication. See Yardstick 69.

27 October 1970 – Hansard, Commons debate on metrication policy.

Coming of the 1971 EC Directive, compelling future metrication

26 April to 16 December 1971 – correspondence between UK government Ministers regarding forthcoming EC units of measurement, Directive 71/354.

16 July 1971 – Note by the Law Officers “Legislation to give effect to Community Law”. See Yardstick 64 for relevance to the February 2002 Metric Martyrs appeal verdict.

18 October 1971 – EC metrication Directive 71/354, listing authorised metric units for “economic, public health, public safety and administrative purposes”. (see page 1, Article 2)

24 July 1973 – Hansard, Commons debate on metrication policy.

Divergence: the UK abandons compulsory metrication in November 1979, while the EC compels it in December

6 April 1978 – letter by Conservative Party consumer affairs spokesman Sally Oppenheim, while in Opposition, opposing statutory metrication.

 14 November 1979 – letter by Sally Oppenheim as government Consumer Affairs Minister, confirming an end to statutory metrication. 

14 November 1979 – Hansard, the Conservative government winds down the Metrication Board

20 December 1979 – At the same time the British government was ending statutory metrication, EC metrication Directive 80/181, replacing Directive 71/354, was requiring that the UK set a date, before December 1989, for the phasing out of imperial units (page 2, top right-hand column).

1988-1989 Deadlines are set for compulsory metrication

25 May 1988 – letter from Lord Young at the DTI, to Geoffrey Howe, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, discussing how to implement the EC Directive.

25 October 1988 – a DTI press notice and consultation paper on the implementation of EC Directive 80/181. It states, “The terms of the 1979 Directive mean that further moves to adopt metric units are inevitable”.

16 November 1988 – an example of the standard letter sent by the DTI to members of the public during the consultation period.

11 April 1989 – Hansard, House of Commons debate on the EC Directive.

27 November 1989 – EC Directive 89/617 (amending Directive 80/181) sets deadlines for metrication: 31 December 1994 for packaged foods and other goods; and 31 December 1999 for foods sold loose (see page 1, Article 1, points c and d).

Implementation of metric regulations in 1995: packaged foods and other goods

1 February 1995 – letter from Peter Lilley, Minister for Social Security, to Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, asking whether people might think the government had “gone barmy” with the implementation of the EC metrication Directive. See Yardstick 61.

22 June 1995 – anticipating public enquiries, the House of Commons Library produces Research Paper 95/78, “Metrication and the sale of goods”.

August 1995 – two DTI leaflets: for retailers, regarding non-foods loose; and a shopper’s guide, regarding packaged food.

18 September 1995 – the Times reports Vivian Linacre’s campaign against metrication under the mantle Imperial Measurements Preservation Society. Two weeks later, the campaign is relaunched as the British Weights and Measures Association, at a press conference in London on 29 September.

1 October 1995 – on this date, regulations compelling metrication for packaged foods and loose non-foods come into effect; the Daily Mail reports on the chaos in the week leading up.

5 October 1995 – the DTI produces a new standard letter, which makes reference to the next stage of metrication, affecting loose foods, on 1st January 2000.

1997–1999 Labour opposes metrication while in Opposition; but reaffirms metrication of foods sold loose, once in government

20 February 1997 – letter from Labour Party consumer affairs spokesman Nigel Griffiths, in Opposition, opposing the criminalisation of imperial units.

23 October 1997 – new standard DTI letter, following the election of the Labour government, announcing a “complete reappraisal” of metrication policy.

12 January 1998 – in view of the DTI’s reappraisal, BWMA asked Member of Parliament Gwyneth Dunwoody to table Early Day Motion No 627, “UK Weights and Measures” – it is signed by 89 Members of Parliament.

28 January 1998 – the House of Commons Library updates its 22 June 1995 Research Paper 95/78 with a covering letter.

27 October 1998 – the DTI modifies its standard letter; whereas the letter the year before referred to a “complete reappraisal of our policy”, the wording of this new letter is “reappraising the policy implications”.

March 1999 – DTI produces a Shopper’s Guide, and Retailer’s Guide, to prepare for metrication of foods sold loose. Note that these guides were printed in March, four months before the formal outcome of the DTI’s reappraisal of policy.

23 July 1999 –The DTI’s announces the result of its reappraisal; it will proceed with the implementation of the EC Directive and apply metrication to foods sold loose.

14 October 1999 – the DTI produces a new standard letter.

1999-2000 Legal battlelines are drawn on compulsory metrication

22 December 1999 – Legal Opinion by Michael Shrimpton, commissioned by the UK Independence Party, advising that imperial units remain lawful. Michael Shrimpton subsequently produces two more legal notes: on 23 January 2000, and on 7 August 2000.
24 January 2000 – letter from DTI to LACOTS (Local Authorities Coordination of Trading Standards) regarding the Shrimpton Legal Opinion, asserting that the European Communities Act 1972 “prevails even over subsequent primary legislation”.
3 February 2000 – telephone note of Legal Opinion, given informally by barrister Quinton Richards, advising that imperial units are lawful under Article 10 of ECHR (freedom of expression).
July 2000 – an article “A Fine Metric Muddle, Minister” by Chris Howell, Lead Officer for Legal Metrology at the Institute of Trading Standards, published in “Trading Standards Review”.
4 July 2000 – Sunderland greengrocer Steven Thoburn has his imperial weighing scales seized by local trading standards officers. In the subsequent months, charges are brought against four other traders, John Dove, Julian Harman, Colin Hunt and Peter Collins. 
15 August 2000 – Eleanor Sharpston QC’s Legal Opinion, produced on behalf of LACOTS, advising that the metric regulations are lawful, plus a summary version.
11 and 20 October 2000 – two letters from DTI Minister Kim Howells, summarising the government’s standpoint on the legality of the metric regulations.

2001-2004: Metric Martyrs: the trials and appeals

15-17 January and 1 March 2001 – Steven Thoburn is put on trial at Sunderland Magistrates Court for using imperial weighing scales.

9 April 2001 – District Judge John Morgan declares Steven Thoburn guilty in a 40-page judgement.

4 May 2001 – letter from William Hague, Conservative Party leader in Opposition, stating his Party’s opposition to compulsory metrication. This is reaffirmed by future Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron on 20 December 2002.

5 November 2001 – Michael Shrimpton’s skeleton argument to the Divisional Court of Appeal, appealing the verdicts of all five traders convicted of using imperial weights and measures (Thoburn, Dove, Harman, Hunt and Collins).

20-22 November 2001 – the traders’ appeal is heard by the Divisional Court at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, presided by Lord Justice Laws and Mr Justice Crane.

18 February 2002 – the appeal is rejected; the Divisional Court’s verdict in full, and a shortened summary. See Yardstick 63 for commentary.

10 May 2002 – the Metric Martyrs try to appeal to the House of Lords, but Sunderland City Council lodges objections.

15 July 2002 – the appeal to the House of Lords is blocked – an account of the one-hour Appeal Committee Hearing is contained in Yardstick 63.

12 August 2003 – the Metric Martyrs’ lodge an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, supported by the Legal Opinion by Alex de Santos.

12 February 2004 – the European Court of Human Rights rejects the Metric Martyrs’ appeal.