First test for metric scales of justice

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A greengrocer will make history on Tuesday as the first person to appear in a British criminal court accused of selling fruit and vegetables illegally in pounds and ounces.

A greengrocer will make history on Tuesday as the first person to appear in a British criminal court accused of selling fruit and vegetables illegally in pounds and ounces.

Steve Thoburn, 36, the "Metric Martyr", is fighting a test case that will make him a hero for anti-European campaigners. He plans to march on Sunderland magistrates court with his loyal customers and a European Union flag-burning butcher. The media circus is likely to catapult him into the national spotlight.

The Sun and the UK Independence Party (slogan: "the only party telling you the truth about the European Union") have already paid £2,500 each into Mr Thoburn's fighting fund, while the Tory party leader, William Hague, has sent a message of support.

The prosecution brought against Mr Thoburn, who faces a fine of £5,000 and up to six months in jail, stems from a European directive that came into force on 1 January. The change made it a criminal offence to sell loose goods - such as fruit, vegetables, meat and fish - only in pounds and ounces.

The directive allows for traders to sell in imperial measures, but only if metric signs are given more prominence - and while scales may weigh goods in pounds as well as kilograms, at the point of sale all transactions must use metric weights.

Mr Thoburn's road to martyrdom began in April when a trading standards officer visited first his market stall, then his shop in Southwick, two miles from Sunderland city centre, and, using a toffee hammer, smashed the official stamp on three sets of scales because they only weighed goods in pounds and ounces.

Scales are illegal without the official stamp, embossed in metal on the side of the scales. But Mr Thoburn carried on using them rather than spending £1,500 to replace each set.

On 4 July, the trading standards officer returned with two police officers, and seized the scales. Mr Thoburn was later charged on two counts of using illegal measures.

The grocer cuts an unlikely figure as an anti-European cause célÿbre. "He is going to be in court as an icon and a martyr," said Neil Herron, a Sunderland fishmonger and Mr Thoburn's campaign manager.

"I wish people would stop calling me a martyr," retorted Mr Thoburn. "This has all been bloody scary. Nobody is going to send me to jail for selling a pound of bananas. The wife wouldn't let us go.

"But if it's good enough for McDonald's to sell a quarter pounder, it's good enough for me to sell a quarter pound of vegetables. Rather than take on the big boys, they take on a small-time greengrocer like me instead."

A public meeting attracted 250 supporters and, on a publicity-seeking trip to London, the duo sold kippers and bananas illegally on an imperial-only scale outside Parliament before delivering a petition to Downing Street.

"I wasn't political before. My intention was to make as much money as possible to keep my wife and kids. But you cannot help but be political now because the rules and regulations from Brussels are telling us how to run our businesses," said Mr Herron. "If it's good enough for Tony Blair to have his son, Leo, weighed in pounds and ounces, then it's good enough for a haddock," he said.

Mr Thoburn has employed Michael Shrimpton, a barrister, who will argue that the European regulations are illegal and unenforceable because they contradict Parliament's own Weights and Measures Act 1985, which allows goods to be sold in either pounds or kilos and does not give preference to one system or other.

If Mr Thoburn is successful - and he is determined to go all the way to the Lords - it would, claims the anti-European lobby, throw into doubt Brussels' power to set UK laws.

At Mr Thoburn's shop in Southwick - the sign "Come on In and Save £s (and ounces)" emblazoned across the top in red letters - his customers promised to be in court on Tuesday. "I have given a few bob to the fighting fund," said Rita Myers, 62. "When you get to my age you don't want to be bothering with kilograms. You just want pounds and ounces. Except sugar - you get that in kilos but it's different. With pounds and ounces you know where your money is going."