The UK Government wants to bring back imperial weights and measures to the UK, with reports suggesting the Prime Minister wants to announce a consultation on the move to coincide with the Queen’s Jubilee.
Ministers are keen for the UK to reintegrate things like pounds and ounces into British life, and the plan has been framed by some commentators and politicians as a move away from metric regulations imposed by the European Union.
Ferret Fact Service looked into this claim and found it Mostly False.
Currently, the UK uses a mix of imperial and metric units. Most product weights are now in metric, with UK law allowing only returnable milk bottles and beer or cider to be sold by the pint.
Otherwise, businesses must include metric measurements — such as grams, kilograms, millilitres or litres — when selling packaged or loose goods.
The UK Government first announced an assessment of rules surrounding imperial measures in September 2021, stating in a policy document on ‘Brexit opportunities’ that it would “review the EU ban on markings and sales in imperial units and legislate in due course”.
But what was the EU’s role in the UK’s adoption of metric measures?
The EU uses the International System of Units (SI), which is the modern form of the metric system. Using SI units is mandatory in the EU. This has been in place since before the UK joined the precursor to the EU, the European Economic Community (EEC),
Adopting metric units for things such as weights and measures was one of the requirements to join the EEC, but the UK was able to negotiate temporary exemptions to the rules which meant it could still use some imperial measures. This exemption initially lasted until 1989, but was then extended to 1995. Units which were exempt included miles, yards, and pints.
The law was brought into UK law through the Units of Measurement Regulations in 1994. This made it a requirement for goods to be sold using SI units (such as kilograms, metres etc) but left certain imperial measures in place, such as beer served in pints and road signs in miles.
This law then extended to loose goods in 2000, such as vegetables and meat sold by greengrocers and butchers. This caused controversy, with some business owners refusing to sell their products in metric units.
The EU abandoned plans to enforce the use of metric only units in the UK in 2007, ruling that British goods could continue to use imperial units. European Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry said: “There is not now and never will be any requirement to drop imperial measurements.”
This means that shops can sell items with imperial units if they wish, as long as the metric weights are also prominent on the packages. Beer, cider and milk can also be sold in pints, while miles continue to be used on roadsigns.
It is not accurate to say the move towards metric units was entirely a result of laws imposed by the EU.
The UK, like many countries across the world, began the process of moving towards metric measures well before the European Union came into existence. The Weights and Measures Act in 1864 introduced metric units in the UK, but did not make them compulsory.
The UK Metrication Board was set up in 1969, to oversee the switch to metric units across British industries, and much of British industry was using some form of metric units before the EU directives came into force.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly False
Imperial units were never “outlawed” in the UK. There were attempts made by the European Union to make the UK adopt the metric system for weights and measures, but the UK Government negotiated exemptions, and the plan was abandoned by the EU in 2007. Shops in the UK are able to include imperial units on products, so long as the metric units are also shown. The UK’s move towards using metric units predates joining the EU.
Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Go to community.theferret.scot, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join our Facebook group.
Photo Credit: iStock/LunaKate