HL Deb 23 July 1930 vol 78 cc746-53

LORD LAMINGTON, who had given Notice to ask whether it would not be for the public convenience were the twenty-four-hour system introduced into the working of the postal and telegraph services; and to move for Papers, said: My Lords, I would ask the attention of the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for one moment. When I protested against the breach of the undertaking he gave just a week ago, he said there would be a delay of only a very few minutes before my Motion was reached. As a matter of fact an hour and a half has elapsed. In regard to the Motion I have placed on the Paper, when I brought forward a similar Motion last year with respect to the time-tables of the railway companies in the kingdom, it was resisted on the plea that the railway companies were unwilling to take the initiative themselves and that there was not sufficient public interest displayed to warrant them making the change. For long years I have thought that the change from the present system to the twenty-four-hour system was a desirable one to make. Last year a letter signed by the Astronomer Royal and other persons eminent in science appeared in The Times advocating the change. Following upon that letter the Government were approached with the result that I have just mentioned. And the Government themselves were unwilling to approach the railway companies.

However, this year I am asking the Government to make a change in a matter over which they have full control. After all, it is a very trifling change. I believe I am correct in saying that all cablegrams and foreign telegrams have the time noted upon them according to the twenty-four-hour system, and all I am suggesting is that this system should be extended to our internal telegraph service and the postal service. It would be a great convenience sometimes to discover when a letter was posted in this country and at what hour. It is true that the indication marks are often illegible, but there is no reason why the stamping should not become more efficient or why it should not be based on the system that I advocate. I might say that this change was advocated forty years ago by the Astronomer Royal, and that nine years ago a Committee appointed by the Home Office approved of the change for official and public purposes. It will be remembered also that the Navy, the Army and the Air Service have adopted the system. At the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, they work entirely under it, and of course it pertains on the Continent, I fancy throughout.

The trifling objection has been made, and was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, last year, that people say they would not understand what the twenty-four-hour clock meant. I do not think they do full credit to their brains. I do not think that any member of your Lordships' House or anybody else who goes on the Continent will find difficulty under the system in arranging appointments for any social gathering or entertainment, and I do not see why there should be any difficulty in this country. I am not proposing an artificial system. On the contrary, I am proposing a return to a primitive and simple system of dividing the day into twenty-four hours instead of dividing it into two halves which have no real meaning whatsoever. In my opinion this change is bound to come very shortly, and I should like the noble Earl who, I understand, is going to reply to my Question to have the credit of making the change during his term of office.


My Lords, I am very glad that my noble friend has again raised this Question, which is a very simple one. This is a simple reform which ought to commend itself to every sensible person, and I hope that my noble friend will persist in it until he becomes, if I may say so, an intolerable nuisance, because one has to arrive at that condition before one can get anything effected. The last time that the Question was discussed in your Lordships' House, last year, there was a long correspondence in the newspapers on the subject, and the arguments against adopting this proposal really sank to the lowest depths of fatuity. They were of two kinds. The first argument was the difficulty of calculation; in other words, after spending hundreds of millions on education in this country it is deliberately asserted, and it comes to this, that people cannot count beyond twelve. I have even encountered this objection amongst members of your Lordships' House. All I can say is that if a noble Lord or anybody else finds great difficulty in reading the announcement that this House will meet, say, at 16 p.m. instead of 4 p.m., or finds difficulty in accepting an engagement asking him to dine at 20 p.m., that does not approach for a single moment the difficulty which confronts anybody who attempts to study the figures with regard to cross-country railway journeys in this country. That is a far more difficult problem which confronts us every day than the problems suggested by objectors to this proposal. I am sure that I shall have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, who sits upon the Cross Benches, in regard to the simplification of railway time-tables.

The other argument, and the only other argument that was adduced against the change—I think it must have emanated from fanatical Free Traders—is that it would be a really scandalous thing if we in this country imitated the example of other civilised countries. The cry was, "For Heaven's sake let us remain as we are. God keep England as it is, because if we follow the example of other civilised nations we shall inevitably be demoralised and possibly ruined." I hope that we shall not hear these futile and ignoble arguments from the Front Bench opposite. In fact, I feel certain we shall not, because, fortunately, the Government reply is going to be delivered, I understand, by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who is, if I may say so, an extremely sensible person. Last year it was suggested that the railways should be the first to undertake this very necessary innovation, and it was suggested by the noble Lord who represented the Post Office at that time—I think it was my noble friend Lord Londonderry—that the railways ought to be the first to take this question up. The managers of the big railway companies appear to be persons of very modest character, because they said they would not undertake any reform of this nature until they were perfectly certain that the public wanted it, and until the public intimated their desire for it they were not going to move.

I would like to ask, how are you going to get the opinion of the public upon a question of this kind? You can get the opinion of the so-called public upon the selection of players for a test match, you can get their opinions upon what horses are likely to be placed in a big race, but even then you can only obtain these opinions in consequence of the solicitations of the various baits and inducements that are placed before them by those two patriotic noblemen who control the majority of the newspapers in this country. I do not think it is the least use waiting for an opinion of that kind to proceed from the public. It really is no use waiting for the public, speaking generally, to express a sensible opinion upon a question of this kind. Somebody has to set an example, and, as my noble friend has suggested, it is obviously the Post Office that should be the Department which should take some action in the matter.

What I suggest to the noble Earl who is to reply is that, like every other reform, this reform should proceed gradually. What I suggest is that if he is alarmed at the magnitude of the proposition, he should begin in a piece-meal way by employing the system for telegrams only, and, if that modest experiment proves to be successful, then it will only be a question of time before the principle is adopted gradually not only by the Post Office but by the railways and by all the Government Departments. After all, we are not even proposing anything new. The principle was adopted during the War, and I never heard anybody find any fault with it. It is a principle which prevails in every civilised country except our own, and in our Dominions, and it does really seem ludicrous that we should be deterred by the ridiculous arguments which have been produced hitherto from adopting a sensible course like everybody else.


My Lords, after the challenge addressed to me by my noble friend Lord Newton, I cannot refrain from saving a word or two on this subject. I believe that the general idea of the railways, whenever they are asked to do anything, is to put forward one stock excuse, and say: "It is no use doing that; we must wait until we get everything perfect." What they say is: "We cannot possibly introduce the twenty-four-hour day until we have the four-week month and the thirteen-month year."

VISCOUNT CHURCHILL indicated dissent.


At any rate, if the Great Western Railway Company is guiltless of that, I have heard it put forward on behalf of the railways, and certainly I am accustomed to that kind of argument. I do not want to mention names, but at railway company meetings I understand that that argument frequently makes its appearance—that it is not the slightest use doing anything until there is a plan by which everything can be made perfect. I hope the railway companies will be content to make progress rather more slowly, and to do one thing at a time. I really do not see why they should not do the same as all the French railway companies do, and I think all the railways on the Continent do. May I say that recent occur- rences have led me to have considerable hopes of what the Great Western Railway are doing, and that I suggest the noble Viscount, Lord Churchill, could be a pioneer in this matter?


My Lords, the noble Lord who asked this question put it in a delicate and gentle way, but he was followed by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, whose very violent observations about fatuity rather alarmed me. I thought it was a pity that after he had been so violent about the extreme stupidity of people who could not understand this system, he himself should have referred to 20 p.m., which is in itself a contradiction of the system. But I was a little relieved afterwards when he suggested that the remarks were not intended to be applied to me. I can assure him that, although I am no doubt what he would call a fanatical Free Trader, I should not think of resisting this innovation on the ground that it would introduce French morals into this country, which he appeared to think was a possible suggestion. The noble Lord spoke about the opinion of the public. The opinion of the public is, of course, ascertained as a rule by their giving voice to it in some way or other, by writing letters to the newspapers, by Questions in another place, by pressure on Members of Parliament, and both noble Lords, I think, will have to admit that the public taken as a whole have not shown any burning desire for this change.


None whatever.


Therefore I do not know why he should expect a natural Conservative like myself to adopt these revolutionary proposals which come from the other side. There are in this country, I suppose you may say, two great institutions in which time and timekeeping is rather of the essence of the matter. One is the railways and the other is the Post Office. The railways had this suggested to them some time ago. The noble Viscount, who has been invited by Lord Monkswell to start it on his railway, did not seem enthusiastic, and the railway companies on that occasion said the same thing, that they did not think there was any demand by the public for it. I agree that the system is not at all difficult to learn, and that it has, personally, many conveniences. The noble Lord who asked the Question was good enough to say that if the reform were made I might get the credit for it, but he is mistaken, because my Office has nothing to do with the Post Office, and in this matter I have only to express their opinions. I can get the discredit for expressing those opinions badly, but the credit for anything achieved must go elsewhere.

I think noble Lords would probably admit that if this change is to be made those two great time-keeping bodies ought really to make it together, and that it would be inconvenient for one to make it without the other. If the change were made, I have no doubt the public might get used to it in a comparatively short time; but it involves, in the case of the Post Office, and I dare say in the case of the railways, too, a certain initial expense, and there seems to be no reason to incur that expense when there is really no public demand for it. I would remind both noble Lords that no matter how much you make these scientific changes, the public do not always take too kindly to them. For instance, in France years and years after kilograms had been adopted, the French people in the country habitually spoke about pounds, and I very much doubt whether even the noble Lord, Lord Newton, would not ask his friends to luncheon with him at 2 o'clock instead of 14.0 hours in future even if the change were made, although of course his friends would all be able to understand What he meant.

But the feeling in the Post Office is that there would be a certain amount of confusion and that that confusion would be increased if the Post Office were the only place in this country to adopt the change. Therefore, they do not, I am sorry to say, see their way to adopt the suggestion made by the noble Lord. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, made the further suggestion that it might be tried on telegrams, where it, would not very much matter. I am not sure how far that would carry it. After all, a comparatively small section of the public use telegrams. A very large number of people never see telegrams from one year's end to another, but I suppose he feels that is would educate members of your Lordships' House and other people who he said suffer from the fatuity of being unable to understand it. I will put the sug- gestion before the Postmaster-General, but I am afraid I must say that he should not build too much hope upon that.


My Lords, I am extremely disappointed with the answer given by the noble Earl. As the noble Lord, Lord Newton, remarked, I thought there might be a reasonable chance of pressing on the Post Office the desirability of this change. The noble Earl said that the public did not take kindly to any scientific change, but the present system is not a scientific system. It is very arbitrary, and really the ordinary simple system is the division into twenty-four hours. I think after the reply which has been given I cannot press the matter further, but I do think the noble Earl might press upon the Post Office at least the point made by my noble friend that the change might be made in regard to internal telegrams. After all, they now have foreign telegrams stamped with the time on the twenty-four-hour system and therefore it should not add very much to the expenses even of our poor country to extend the system to internal telegrams. The same, I think, might be said in regard to the stamping of letters. However, I will not press the matter and I 'beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.