Select Committee on European Scrutiny Nineteenth Report




COM(99) 40

Draft Directive amending Council Directive 80/181/EEC on the approximation of the laws of Member States relating to units of measurement.
Legal base: Article 95; co-decision; qualified majority voting
Document originated: 4 February 1999
Forwarded to the Council: 5 February 1999
Circulated by the Council in the original language:
11 February 1999
Circulated by the Council in English:
12 February 1999
Deposited in Parliament: 25 February 1999
Department: Trade and Industry
Basis of consideration: EM of 8 March 1999
Previous consideration: None
Committee's assessment: Politically important
Committee's decision: Not cleared; further information requested


  4.1  Directive 80/181/EEC aims to harmonise the use in the Community of units of measurement, "for economic, public health, public safety or administrative purposes". The Directive replaced earlier Directives, adopted before the United Kingdom joined the EEC, providing for the use of the International System (SI), a version of the metric system which had been adopted internationally in 1960.

  4.2  In 1976 and 1979, directives were introduced which included programmes for phasing out non-SI units. The proposal for the second of these, Directive 80/181/EEC, was debated by the House on 19 December 1979.[4] It authorised a transitional period to 31 December 1989, during which other units of measurement could continue to be used, alongside SIs, as "supplementary indications" of quantity. These included imperial units, customary in the UK and Ireland.

  4.3  As the Commission comments in its EM on this amending Directive, the change to the SI system has taken a long time "due to the need to take account of the customary systems previously in use in the Union". In 1989, a Directive[5] amending Directive 80/181/EEC, extended the transitional period to 31 December 1999, during which supplementary indications of measurement could continue to accompany SIs. However, it required that the use of imperial units of measurement for most of the purposes covered by the 1980 Directive be phased out by the end of 1994. Exceptions were made, permitting the continued use until the end of the transitional period of imperial units in certain "specialized fields only". These included the sale of goods 'loose from bulk', such as fruit and vegetables. As a concession, it permitted the UK and Ireland to fix their own dates for ending the use of imperial units for certain "specific uses only", such as the pint for sale of draught beer and the mile for road traffic signs. This proposal was debated on the Floor of the House on 11 April 1989[6].

The Commission proposal

  4.4  The amending Directive now proposed would:

(1)  extend until 31 December 2009 the period during which units other than SIs are permitted to be used as supplementary indications;

(2)  bring the legally authorised units, that is SIs, into line with international agreements and decisions that have been taken on SI units, by:

—   amending the symbols for Celsius temperature, in line with the ISO 31-0 standard of 1992;

—  amending the definitions of units of plane angle and solid angle, in line with the ISO 31-1 standard of 1992;

—  incorporating new factors and prefixes for multiples and submultiples of SI units, as agreed by the 19th General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1991;

—  replacing the experimental values for the electronvolt and the atomic mass unit by definitions of those units and their symbols; and

(3)  provide for the re-examination at a later date of the application and functioning of the Directive.

  4.5  The extension does not apply to the sale of goods 'loose from bulk' and other "specialized" uses.

  4.6  After the expiry of this transitional period in 2009, the UK and Ireland will continue to be permitted to set the date for ending the use of imperial units for certain "specific" purposes, such as the pint for draught beer. Apart from that derogation, the Directive will only permit the use of SI units.

  4.7  The purpose of the extension is to allow EU manufacturers to avoid having to comply with different requirements for quantity labelling for the US market. US legislation, in particular the Fair Packaging and Labelling Act, prescribes the simultaneous use of the US customary inch-pound imperial units and the SI.

  4.8  Noting that all the Member States have adopted the SI as the legal system of units of measurement, the Commission says that, while some sectors have been slow to change, "positive progress" has been achieved in others, especially foodstuffs and household goods. It assesses that the extension should have only a limited impact on consumers, as it is only those manufacturers that could have difficulty with marketing products in the USA that will take advantage of it. The products particularly affected are cosmetics and toiletries, artists' paints and some foodstuffs. Federations representing those industries and UNICE[7] have been consulted. The issue was also covered at meetings of the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue in 1997 and 1998, when both the US and EU were asked to find a permanent solution to the labelling problem.

  4.9  The Commission comments, in its EM, that in its "firm view", shared by European manufacturers, a global system based on the SI should be agreed. It regards the extension of the transitional period as an interim measure and notes that a Working Group of Member States experts has called on it to ask the United States Government to change its requirement for dual indications, as a short-term solution. The long-term solution, it suggests, is for the United States, the only industrialised nation in the world that does not use it, to adopt the SI.

The Government's view

  4.10  The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Dr Howells) says in his EM of 8 March that the Government agrees that uniformity in the definition and use of units is essential if a system of measurement is to be effective in promoting trade and protecting the consumer. He also says that the Government agrees that EU manufacturers should not be subject to different labelling requirements according to the market in which they propose to sell their goods. The Government therefore supports the ten-year extension for supplementary indications.

  4.11  The Minister notes that the amendments to the Directive would not impose costs on the private sector or on Community or UK public funds. The Department, he says, has:

"...maintained a dialogue with the Commission and with UK and other EU manufacturers. The Commission has consulted Member States and EU manufacturers about the justification for the proposal, particularly on extending the deadline for supplementary indications."

The British Weights and Measures Association

  4.12  This Association has written drawing attention to the fact that the derogation permitting the continued exclusive use of customary units, that is imperial units, for goods sold 'loose from bulk' or 'weighed at the point of sale', principally fruit and vegetables, expires on 31 December 1999. It says:

"This is of entirely domestic concern, affecting trade within Britain — overwhelmingly small businesses — and the daily lives of the whole population, but of no importance whatever to a single European market. Yet, for no good reason, this derogation is not to be extended.".

  4.13  The Association comments that the announcement of the extension for dual labelling gave the false impression that use of imperial weights and measures generally had been granted a "ten years reprieve". It continues:

"So a large proportion of traders and even larger proportion of the public still do not realize what is in store. The metric-only régime for fresh foods, etc (what most people buy most days) is to be imposed by stealth."


  4.14  We appreciate that the proposal from the Commission applies to certain provisions only of the Directive. It is uncontroversial, but we note that the Government has not taken advantage of this amendment to attempt to negotiate a further extension of the derogation permitting the continued use of imperial units in the UK for purposes such as the sale of fruit and vegetables 'loose from bulk'. The issue has been considered by Parliament and debated on several occasions over the years, but the representation from the British Weights and Measures Association suggests that there is still opposition to this provision of the Directive.

  4.15  We ask the Minister whether the Government considered seeking to negotiate an extension of the derogation concerned, to comment on the points made by the British Weights and Measures Association, and to tell us what steps it intends to take to raise public awareness before the legislation comes into force at the end of the year.

  4.16  Meanwhile, we do not clear the document.

4  Official Report, cols. 809-834. Back

5  Directive 89/617/EEC. Back

6  Official Report, cols. 837-862. Back

7  Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe. Back

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