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NHS: Metric Units

Volume 717: debated on Thursday 25 February 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether all National Health Service bodies comply with the requirement that weighing scales used in the National Health Service display metric units only.

My Lords, NHS use of weighing equipment is regulated by local authority trading standards. LACORS, the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, which runs trading standards, conducted a national medical weighing project and published a report in July 2009. We are working closely with LACORS to address the concerns raised in the report. A new comprehensive safety alert will be published in March.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Is she aware that the importance of this topic relates to the fact that the dosage of many powerful drugs is now calculated according to the weight in kilograms of the recipient? If, in error, such a calculation used imperial units, there would be a serious risk of under-dosage or, more importantly, major over-dosage. Does she further understand that last year, LACORS, the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, carried out a major survey that found that 30 per cent of weighing machines in hospitals were switchable between metric and imperial units and that a staggering 10 per cent were permanently switched to imperial units only?

The noble Lord raises a very important question indeed. The problem is that all noble Lords, if they weigh themselves, think of their weight in stones and pounds and not in kilos but all medical facilities, anaesthetics and clinical decisions are taken internationally on the basis of kilos. It is very important indeed that the weighing that is done in hospitals and all medical facilities is accurate. That is why we will issue a new alert in March—we issued one last year. We are making progress. The noble Lord is absolutely right—this is a very important issue that we must get right.

My Lords—and my lady—I must begin by declaring two interests: as long ago as 1972, I started two years as the Minister for metrication in Edward Heath’s Government, and for many years I have been a patron of the UK Metric Association. Is the Minister aware that on 7 December 2008 her noble colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, when he was the Minister of science, wrote to the chairman of the UK Metric Association as follows:

“The Government’s longstanding policy … is to move towards full metrication in time … We recognise that a single system of units of measurement as a reference point is vital for fair trade and consumer protection”?

Is she further aware that since I was concerned with this topic decades ago, almost every country in the British Commonwealth—including the Republic of Ireland—has completed that process absolutely fully? Is it not time for all of us, in all parties—I come to the crucial point—now to work together to clear up this long-standing and very British mess?

I absolutely agree with the noble and learned Lord. He is completely right. All our children have been educated using metric calculations throughout and that is quite right. This is a matter that will solve itself over time but it is our job in government to move as fast as we can towards people recognising and feeling comfortable using metric calculations.

My Lords, the Minister has said that it is important and the noble Lord, Lord Walton, has, as ever, pointed out in detail why it is so important for safety and the saving of lives. It is a matter which has been around for some time. It is many months since it was brought forward. Rectifying it is not a matter of huge expense. The professionals are very clear about metrication. Why has it taken such a long time for the Government to respond with what is a very simple instruction to put the matter right, and not an expensive one at that?

We have not taken a long time. We have been working with LACORS for several years to take this matter forward. However, the purchase and installation of weighing machines is done at the local level. The decision to replace and monitor weighing machines is taken by PCTs. What we must do—and what we have been doing—is make sure that they are regularly inspected and the instructions are completely clear. I am happy to provide the noble Lord with the alert that will go out in March. It is completely clear what needs to be done at the local level.

The other issue is that LACORS has been focusing on NHS facilities and hospitals. It is now moving its attention to doctors’ surgeries, health visitors and other places, such as private hospitals, to ensure that their machinery is also as good as it should be and in order.

I am sorry. Does what the Minister just said apply to weighing machines for domestic cooking? All my cookery books give measurements in pounds and ounces and my weighing machine is not metric.

My cookery books give a mixture of pounds and ounces and metric measurements, and my scales give both. That is probably how most people’s are these days. Perhaps the noble Baroness should consider asking someone to buy her some new scales for her next birthday.

My Lords, the National Patient Safety Agency has reported that one of the reasons for poor nutritional care in our hospitals is the,

“lack of equipment, and particularly a lack of availability in weighing scales”.

Today, the Government’s own advisers on malnutrition have written to her colleague, Mr Hope, urging him to,

“discuss with your fellow ministers how the apparent lack of policy on malnutrition might be remedied”.

In those discussions, will the Minister ask that all NHS hospitals have the weighing equipment that they need to help identify patients at risk of malnutrition?

The National Patient Safety Agency has indeed expressed concerns about the impact that weighing scales have in relation to inaccurate readings, or possibly the inability of staff to operate the equipment properly. Training is a very important part of this whole drive to get these things right. I will take away the point the noble Earl has made and make sure that my honourable friend takes it into consideration.