The UK Metrication Association (UKMA) held its first national members’ conference in London on Saturday, September 22 with the theme “It’s time to change”. The conference concluded with a call on the government for a unified programme to complete metrication in the UK.

The association met to focus on how to quicken the pace of metrication in the UK; a process that started in the mid-1960s and is still incomplete. In his welcoming address, director of the UKMA, Chris Keenan, said: “The changeover to standard, international measurements is happening at a snail’s pace. Many aspects of life remain in an imperial time warp”. He contrasted the UK with all Commonwealth nations such as Australia, which followed British leadership in the decision to go metric, but enjoyed a rapid and successful change of units. The UKMA joins British industry in lobbying for a more speedy full adoption of metric measurements.

Lord Howe of Aberavon, a patron of the UKMA, was unable to attend Saturday’s meeting, but said, “Our country’s almost wilful incompetence, alas, in managing the metrication issue is a classic display of the way in which inertia can somehow develop its own momentum”. Other MPs from the major parties, including most recently Ian Taylor (Conservative, Esher & Walton), have voiced their support for the association’s aims.

Members attending the meeting discussed issues including:

  • How the simplicity of learning metric calculation has been squandered because children have been prevented from using metric outside the school-gate. Over a generation of mathematics teaching has been wasted by not phasing out imperial units. Practical numeracy standards have been undermined by the failure to use metric units in everyday life.

  • Consumers’ need for good, clear price labelling. Current dual labelling (prices per kilogram and per pound) is leading to confusion, both unintentional and sometimes even fraudulent. The UKMA discussed best practice in food price labelling.

  • The massive safety benefits of metrication of British roads. Foreign drivers on UK roads and British drivers in the rest of the world are being put at serious risk by our continued usage of imperial speed limits and distance markers. Car manufacturers are reluctant to change automobile instrumentation partly because of the premium they charge UK motorists.

  • Best practices for buying food and writing recipes. The UK is the only country using a dual measuring system. Choice of dual measures continues the confusion and gives little incentive to the consumer to adjust. The UKMA campaigns for exclusive metric usage in the kitchen given that all food is now packed in metric units and metric scales have been available for over 25 years.

The conference concluded with a call to recognise that it is now 36 years since the decision was taken to introduce the metric system in Britain, and yet successive governments have done nothing to educate the public on either the benefits of metrication or how to changeover units in practice. In contrast, the 1971 British Government implemented a very successful campaign to switch to decimal currency through a two-year public education programme.

As a result of this the British public varies considerably in its proficiency with units. Indeed, many people are not particularly proficient with either metric or imperial units. British society is left with a confusing mixture of the new and old measures, to the detriment of practical numeracy and potentially safety.

The UK Metrication Association says that it is time to change this situation through a properly implemented metrication programme. Specifically, the UKMA agreed to write to Tony Blair to call on him to undertake the following steps:

  1. To set up an inter-departmental body to coordinate the completion of the metrication process. This body should, in the short-term, organise an extensive public education programme (similar to the 1971 decimalisation programme) to illustrate the benefits of using the metric system.

  2. To reform current labelling and advertising regulations to give clear prominence to standard metric pricing in order to ensure that the consumer has accurate and fair information.

  3. To reform traffic sign regulations to permit wider use of the metric system in the short term and to work towards complete use of metric units on all public highways for safety reasons.

  4. To set a firm “M-day” for completing metrication in Britain.