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A heavy hitting consultation or the easiest diet in history?

As it’s a bank holiday weekend, I thought we’d take a quick look, external to the regular Week in Parliament, at something else that cropped up this week and caused me some amusement. On Wednesday, the House of Lords performed scrutiny on the newly introduced Weights and Measures Act 1985 (Definitions of “Metre” and “Kilogram”) (Amendment) Order 2020, which did exactly what it said on the tin.

Why did “metres” and “kilograms” need redefining, you may well ask? And why couldn’t they have redefined kilograms to be considerably lighter? I know I was asking the second question… Well, until 2019, the “kilogram” was the only remaining measurement whose definition was based on an actual physical standard, rather than a more abstract definition drawn from fundamental constants.

The “Official kilogram”

There was, in the vaults of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, an actual kilogram. A physical lump of metal that was ‘the official kilogram’. In 2018 however, noting that the ‘official kilogram’ (or the “International Prototype of the Kilogram” to give it it’s technical name), had in fact lost some weight (albeit only about as much as I managed during my last attempt at a diet- approximately 50 micrograms), the Bureau redefined the kilogram with reference to the Planck constant, one of the fundamental physical constants of the universe. Confusingly of course, the fact that the ‘official kilogram’ had lost weight did not mean that it was now wrong, but rather that everything else in the world measured in kilograms was wrong.

But what, I hear you cry, has this to do with consultation? (“Stay on target”, I can hear my colleagues shouting…) Well, to change the official values of the weights in UK law to keep them in line with international standards, requires regulations to be introduced, which thanks to the provisions of the Act they are introduced under, requires consultation! In this case, the consultation took place between 15th and 27th August 2019, and brought in a variety of stakeholders, ranging from the National Physical Laboratory to the UK Weighing Federation. As Lord Callanan, introducing the regulations to the House noted, “no concerns were raised by any of the stakeholders”.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of both the consultation in the Yukon on abandoning seasonal time changes that we highlighted back in March, and the (sadly apocryphal) reported attempt to legislatively redefine pi, usually cited as having taken place in Indiana. Nevertheless, I remain disappointed that none of the consultees proposed knocking a few grams off the kilo…

About the Author

Stephen serves as the Institute’s Legal and Parliamentary Officer. Before joining the Institute Stephen studied Law at Bangor University and pursued a Masters’ degree in Aviation and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal. After this, he returned to London and was called to the bar in 2016 at the Honorable Society of Gray’s Inn, before deciding not to go into practice and move towards public policy work instead. Within the Institute, Stephen provides legal, political and policy analysis of UK and global current affairs of interest to consultors and consultees.

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