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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 September, 2004, 21:33 GMT 22:33 UK
Head-to-Head: Metrication
Steve Thoburn
The late Steve Thoburn (right) was the original metric martyr
This week millions of British children will start school, where they will be taught almost exclusively in the metric system.

But they will leave school to find that most measurements - miles, pounds, pints, feet, yards and inches - are still given in the imperial system.

Metric campaigners say it is high time Britain fell into line with the vast majority of countries all over the world who use the system.

But anti-metric campaigners, who draw parallels with the fight to save Britain's currency, say it does not make sense to force British people to switch to a system they are unfamiliar with. They argue that the current situation works perfectly well.

Robin Paice, Chairman, UK Metric Association

Every country needs a system of weights and measures which everybody understand and uses.

This is necessary for consumer protection, designing buildings, specifying engineering components, prescribing medicines, signposting distances, fixing speed limits, and forecasting the weather.

In all these instances, clarity and precision are essential.

The time has come for the government to finish the job which was started 39 years ago
Robin Paice
UK Metric Association

Failure to communicate clearly can result in mistakes, waste, accidents and incomprehension.

Just as clarity of verbal communication requires that everybody understands and uses the same language, so communication about dimensions and quantities requires that everybody uses the same units of measurement.

Unfortunately the UK has a muddle of two systems: litres for petrol and fizzy drinks, pints for beer and milk, metres and kilometres for athletics, miles per gallon for cars, the metric system for school, and yet, all too often, still pounds and ounces in the market.

We have got into this mess because the government decided in 1965 (long before we entered the Common Market) we should go metric within 10 years - and then failed to carry it through.

We clearly need to standardise on one single system.

Nobody would seriously argue that Britain could revert to exclusive use of imperial measurements. We must therefore go forward and fully adopt the International System of Units (the metric system), which is used by 94% of the world's population, including all the Commonwealth.

There are other advantages of going metric. It is a proper system in which units are inter-related; it is easy to learn and to use because it is mainly decimal; it is adaptable to all situations - the same units can be used in both cookery and scientific research.

The time has come for the government to finish the job which was started 39 years ago and make Britain a fully metric country, with a target date of 2009.

John Gardner, Director, British Weights and Measures Association

People use different tools for different tasks. The same is true of units of measurement; administrators and scientists use metric because its decimal base makes calculations easy.

Other groups, such as consumers and retailers, prefer pounds, ounces and pints because their sizes and divisions are more suited to perception and practical work.

The different characteristics of the metric and traditional systems have enabled the two to exist side by side for over a hundred years, their uses allocated by people opting for the system that best suits their needs.

If the metric system was better for all purposes, everyone would use it
John Gardner
British Weights and Measures Association

The only measurement confusion that arises is that caused by the government cajoling or compelling people who prefer traditional units to use metric.

The result is that different units are used for the same purpose leading to abuse, such as the "rounding down" of consumer goods on conversion from lb/oz to metric.

But rather than learning from experience and leaving choice of measurements to the marketplace, the metric lobby says, "look at the muddle, let's use even greater metric force".

It is time for the government to cease its intolerance of traditional measures.

If the metric system was better for all purposes, everyone would use it. By its very nature, it is not and can never be. Yet, whole communities find themselves having to have to justify why they wish to use a different system.

The role of government should be to protect people, for example, by ensuring that a bottle described as "one pint" really does contain a pint, or a package saying "one kilogram" does weigh a kilogram.

To use legal force and criminal sanctions to force people to describe a pint as "568ml" is offensive and absurd. People should not have to apologise for making simple, harmless choices.

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