Breaking a Law That Doesn\’t Exist

An extraordinary thing happened one week last September. Gunther Verheugen, a vice-president of the European Commission, announced that Brussels had abandoned its policy of forcing Britain to go exclusively metric.

The British, he said, could use non-metric weights and measures as long as they wished. Indeed he went further. The belief that it was a criminal offence under an EU directive to sell in non-metric measures, he said, was an invention of the "tabloid press", which had "repeatedly and erroneously printed stories" of "people having to buy their food from markets in kilograms rather than pounds".

Mr Verheugen\’s announcement won front-page headlines in the national press. Yet, only a day later, trading standards officials made a mockery of his statement by seizing two sets of "illegal" imperial scales from a stall run by the sister of Colin Hunt, one of the five original Metric Martyrs, in London\’s Ridley Road market. This event was totally ignored – except by this column.

Just before Christmas the stallholder, Janet Devers, a 63-year-old pensioner, received a 67-page document from Hackney Council charging her with 13 criminal offences, including use of her old imperial scales. Yet only a month earlier, in a letter to the British Weights and Measures Association, one of Mr Verheugen\’s senior officials had stated that "use of pre-2000 weighing instruments in imperial-only units" remained entirely legal under EU law, since "the directive does not prohibit the use of such instruments".

Mrs Devers was told the council\’s costs, for the time of the officials who seized her scales (£68 an hour each, equivalent to £141,000 a year) were already £2,000. Fees for Hackney\’s lawyers will bring the total much higher – apart from any fines to which she might be liable (up to £5,000 each), for offences which Mr Verheugen insists do not exist.

However, that does rather depend upon our taking the word of a European politician as to what the law is in England. I\’m not wholly convinced that I\’d want to base a defense upon that. It rather depends what Parliament actually passed into law, not what it was supposed to.

8 comments on “Breaking a Law That Doesn\’t Exist

  1. There seems to be confusion here between what the government is required to do under any EU directives, and what it has chosen to do. Various UK governments have gradually nudged us further toward going metric over the last century, independent of anything to do with the UK.
    Thus it is quite right that certain imperial measures remain “legal” under EU directives, whereas they are illegal under UK law.

  2. I may be talking total bollocks, but AIUI none of the the “metric martyrs” were ever charged with “using imperial only scales”. What they were charged with was using uncertified scales (the fact that you can’t get imperial only scales certified any more is a side issue.)

  3. Apocryphal I’m sure but the story goes that the USA, which was one of the original signatories to the Convention du Mètre in 1875 was asked some years later how it had progressed in converting to metric units. The reply came that it was “getting there, inch by inch.”

  4. To add to the above, my ex -who is French but had lived in Cyprus & then the UK – was perfectly comfortable with Imperial Units. It was metrication that she had trouble with. It was me who had to convert clothes sizes into centimetres for her. She’s only in her forties but can remember her grandmother’s generation using l’onze as a kitchen measure.
    I read somewhere that Napoleon passed a law that reversed the Revolutionaries’ stipulation that only metric units could be used in commerce & to this day they still bottle wine by the pint(within a spoonful anyway).

  5. pj – yes. And in most French markets to this day, you can buy things by the “livre”.

    Do they get persecuted by their local authorities?

    Don’t be silly.

  6. “Do they get persecuted by their local authorities?”

    Oh yes they do. I was staying with a friend in Angers, and we went to the local suburb market. A local farmer, selling tomatoes, was having one Hell of a time selling them: they contain blemishes, and some are split. The market inspectors constantly shut down his stall, sent him a multi-dozen page threatening letter in legalese that hopelessly confused him. He has been running a campaign against the market inspectors (who are “only obeying EU orders”) for months now, without success.

    His story, which he was pleased to tell anyone who would listen, was pretty much from the same mould as all our stories. It’s a myth that the French don’t enforce petty EU regulations..

  7. Is that not the bloke in the fedora who conducts public dissections?

    No, that the bloke that got caught romping buck-naked on the beach with his well-paid (by taxpayers obviously) secretary, who, by the way, was not his wife.

    As far as EU standards, I am continually being confronted with the reasoning the the standards are voluntary but you have to meet the standards to sell a product in the EU????

    Tim adds: EU standards voluntary? In hte UK they are part of the crominal law!

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