HL Deb 21 December 1932 vol 86 cc509-19

LORD NEWTON moved, That in accordance with the recommendations of the Home Office Committee appointed in 1910 to report upon the advisability of adopting, for official and other purposes, the twenty-four-hour system of expressing time, it is desirable that the system should be introduced into the Post Office, and that the railway companies should be invited to adopt it in their time-tables from a certain date,.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this Motion I have no intention el occupying the time of your Lordships' House for long because the arguments are perfectly familiar. The sole object of the Motion is to simplify railway timetables and to make date marks upon letters and telegrams more intelligible than they are at present. In case there should be any noble Lord present who is unfamiliar with the story perhaps I may explain shortly the history of the circumstances. During the War one of the discoveries which was made was that our system of denoting time as a.m. and p.m. was of no use at all and only led to complete confusion. The result was that we adopted, in common with other civilised countries, what is known as the twenty-four-hour system, and the experiment proved so successful that the Government of the day set up a Committee presided over by my noble friend Lord Stonehaven to consider the whole question and the Committee reported unanimously in the words which are contained in my Motion.

The Committee pointed out that there. would be no public expense if this proposal were carried out, that the railway company were prepared to adopt the system if it were adopted by the Post Office, and that any expense involved would be recouped by the economy resulting from the adoption of the new system. They examined representatives of scientific bodies and the representatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and pointed out that all these bodies had adopted the practice. They further pointed out that it is in use in every country in Europe, in India and in some of the Colonies, and that in no instance where it had been adopted was there any question of abandoning it. It is employed by the B.B.C., it is used for meteorological reports and it is also used in Whitaker's Almanack. In the circumstances, as no public expense was to be incurred, and in view of the unanimous recommendations of the Committee, one would have thought that something would have been done, but now, fourteen years after the Report, the Government in the shape of the Post Office have stolidly refused to look at the proposal favourably.

I have approached every Government since the War and in no single instance have I or my noble friend Lord Laming-ton ever received a reasonable or adequate reply. When I say that, I do not consider it adequate or reasonable to be told that the people upon whose education perhaps five or six thousand pounds have been spent, are unable to do a common suns in subtraction. I class such an objection with another which I understood was raised in certain quarters against the introduction of summer time by certain people who believed it to be the cause of wet summers. There seems to me to be about equal sense in the two objections. The only reasoned objection I have heard was one made by the noble Lord, Lord Moyne, on the last occasion when I brought this subject forward. The noble Lord, at all events, had an argument to advance, although it seems to me it has no substance. His argument was that the day is naturally divided into two, one half devoted to rest and the other half to work. I should like to see him submit that argument to a trade union. What sort of reply would he get if he put it to a trade union that half the day was to be spent in work? I am old enough to remember—what in these days would be described in the popular Press as a slogan—a doggerel rhyme which, if I remember rightly, ran something like this: Eight hours work, Eight hours play, Eight hours sleep, And eight bob a day. That is an ideal which has been reached long ago. We have got beyond that stage, but at all events it is a more sensible division of the day than that suggested by the noble Lord to whom I have just alluded.

The fact is that nobody can adduce any reasonable arguments against the proposed change. No attempt has ever been made to bring forward any reasonable argument. I have been told till I am sick of hearing it that the Post Office decline to undertake this experiment because there is no general demand for it. Why on earth should there be? In the first place, the general public has not sufficient imagination ever to think about such a question, and whoever heard of a general demand for anything unless it was for some political or pecuniary advantage? Last time I brought this subject forward I was answered by the noble Lord opposite, Lord Marley, who was, I am bound to say, more sympathetic than any of his predecessors. When I complained of this hollow argument that there was no public demand, he suggested to me that I should go on a hunger strike myself and produce a public demand in that way. Quite frankly I am not prepared to do anything of the kind, and I am afraid I should not be successful if I endeavoured to persuade the Astronomer Royal to parade the streets outside here with bills asking for a twenty-four-hour day. Nor would it be much good to ask a prominent gentleman in the railway world, Mr. Pick, for example, to burn down a church, one of the recognised methods of drawing attention to an alleged grievance.

It seems to me—I was almost going to say contemptible—childish to argue that because there are no public demonstrations and no Press stunt, there is no need to pay any attention to a demand put forward by sensible and responsible people. No one, I submit, has ever made any serious attempt to answer our contention and it seems to me that the Government might perfectly well accept my Motion as it stands. There is nothing about a date in the Motion. No doubt the Government would almost be able to find some convenient excuse for not putting this proposal into operation until a date that suited them. If they will agree to do this, I would be willing to amend the Motion, inserting limiting words; but if they are not prepared to do anything of the kind to meet me half way, I shall feel obliged to take the sense of the House on the question.

Moved, That in accordance with the recommendations of the Home Office Committee appointed in 1919 to report upon the advisability of adopting, for official and other purposes, the twenty-four-hour system of expressing time, it is desirable that the system should be introduced into the Post Office, and that the railway companies should be invited to adopt it in their time-tables from a certain date.—(Lord Newton.)

LORD LAMINGTON, who had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government what objections there are to the introduction of the twenty-four-hour system of expressing time by the Post Office, for official purposes, and whether such a change was not recommended by the Home Office Committee appointed in 1919, and move for Papers, said: My Lords, I should like to express my satisfaction that my noble friend, who has recently recovered from an accident, has been able to be here to submit his Motion. My Notice is to much the same effect, but it is more limited in character for the simple reason that I want to try to pin down the representative of the Post Office who will no doubt answer on this point as to what are the real objections of the Post Office for not introducing this twenty-four-hour system. I have raised this matter for five or six years in your Lordships' House and we have been told time after time that if the Post Office will give the lead then the railways will follow suit. I do not know what possible objection the Post Office can have. It cannot be that of economy. It has been mentioned before that they have these stamps already in use for foreign or Dominion cablegrams on the twenty-four-hour system. Another possible objection might be that the change would involve altering the hours of the various post offices. But these are trivial sources of expense even in these hard times.

The noble Lord, Lord Marley, who was referred to by my noble friend as being sympathetic, practically favoured the introduction of this system, and so did his predecessor, Earl Russell, in private, although not in public. Who is the official in the Post Office who stands in the way of the introduction of this system? According to my information, some leading officials favour it, but there is somebody who will not have it. I have put down my Motion in order to get a clear answer on this point. I think my noble friend the Chairman of Committees on one occasion did mention, in regard to the introduction of this system for railways, that he thought it would be very complicated. I live in Scotland and have to make these long journeys, and it is most confusing, when taking a through train, to understand the change from p.m. to a.m. The twenty-four-hour system would make the matter absolutely simple. You would know where you were.

Lord Newton mentioned three Services, the Army, Navy and Air Force, which have adopted this system. It was absolutely essential in war time and they also use it in peace. Surely it would be in the interest of the Post Office to see that this system was adopted for the ordinary purposes of their undertaking. Take the Test Matches played in Australia,. It would be very much simpler, if you had a twenty-four-hour system, to know exactly at what hour play was being carried on. I remember during the last Test Match that I and some friends tried to work out the time, and it was almost impossible to tell exactly what the hour was when the match was being played. There is another point which I should like to make. I am not sure that I am altogether in approval of these stunts, but from time to time foreigners are invited to come from abroad and enjoy our climate and amenities. The foreigners who have been able to enjoy the principle of the twenty-four-hour system must find great confusion and very great difficulty in unravelling the intricacies of a railway journey from the South of England to Scotland. It would be far simpler for foreigners to have a system to which they are accustomed.

The noble Lord referred to the B.B.C. I looked in The Times to see how they make their announcements as to various services, and there I saw that in regard to foreign stations it was stated that the hours of transmission were p.m. unless otherwise stated. It is to be presumed that the a.m. was eliminated on the score of the confusion that would result. As to the argument that the alteration would lead to confusion here, I would point out that the first twelve hours would remain exactly as now, and that the introduction of the twenty-four-hour system would only lead to only temporary confusion as regards the other half of the twenty-four hours. I do hope that the noble Earl who is going to reply will state definitely what are the objections to the introduction of this system into the working of the Post Office.


My Lords, I did not mean to speak, but my name has been mentioned as being sympathetic to the proposal. I think the House will admire the persistence with which Lord Newton has continued to press for this very important reform. I may say that I am glad that he did not have to go on hunger strike, and I am sure the House is glad to see Lord Newton back after his recovery. The point has been raised that probably the Government will answer that because there has been no demand for the measure therefore there is no need for anything to be done. That is a rather dangerous doctrine to advance on the part of any Government. We all saw before women obtained votes that they had to put in an immense amount of public demonstration, and we have recently had other demonstrations demanding action with regard to the means test and unemployment, which have had some result in alleviating certain conditions. It is doubtful whether you could get public opinion to take action along those lines on this question, but I suggest that from the point of view of the argument raised, as to the Army, Navy and Air Force, the railways and the Post Office, there is an argument which might cause the Government to give a sympathetic answer to this question. If the noble Lord decides to take this matter to a Division the whole of the Party behind me on these Benches will go into the Lobby with him—I shall go into the Lobby with him.


My Lords, I feel bound to support my noble friend because I happen to be associated with the Home Office Committee which launched the whole idea. We went into the question immediately after the War, and we could find no objection to the system. It had been worked during the War by all our Services, and no country which has adopted it has ever abandoned it. There is also this interesting point, that when my noble friend raised the question Lord Marley said he was authorised to say on behalf of the Government of which he was then a member that careful and sympathetic consideration would be given to the whole question, and as his sympathy with this question has now gone the length of his promising to vote with my noble friend, should he divide the House, it would be interesting to know what has been the result of the consideration that was given to the question. A little, later Lord Marley said that if my noble friend would put a question in six weeks' time, if there had been no Report before then, he held out some hope that the Government would be able to give an answer. It would be satisfactory to have this matter disposed of one way or another. It has been before the country for a very long time, and although in many ways people opposed to all change would object to this particular change, still the fact that it has been so successful in other countries, and particularly operates in the direction of simplifying communication with our Dominions—for this reason and for others which have been given very often in this House I hope my noble friend who will answer for the Government will see his way to accept the Motion.


My Lords, I wish in a few words to support the Motion. To my mind the question of railway time-tables is far the most important one in this connection. Until the moment when some genius discovered the twenty-four-hour system there was always trouble with the question of railway time-tables. Every country that has accepted the twenty-four-hour system, I believe, has no more trouble at all. All kinds of dodges have been tried instead of the twenty-four-hour system, such as specially dark-printed italics and things of that kind; but, like all conventional signs, they are not the slightest use unless you know what the conventional signs mean, which most people do not. So that I really hope that the House will support my noble friend. But I may perhaps add that I am not altogether hopeless about the railway companies, because the railway companies are very peculiar people. 'When the Royal Commission on Transport issued their recommendations the railway companies issued a statement to the Press that they had not the slightest intention of taking the least notice of anything that the Commission had recommended. Well, in point of fact, they were all the time making preparations to carry out a great many of their recommendations. So that I live in hope.


My Lords, this subject has been brought up each year during the last three years by my two noble friends, and I am afraid that I cannot very much vary the answer which has been given to them by the representatives of the Home Office in the House. Personally, I am not an opponent of this proposal, and as regards Lord Newton's remark about the difficulties of this system, of which we have heard on other occasions, to me personally—and I say it in no boastful spirit—the difficulty of calculation has no terrors. I could deduct twelve from seventeen with the result of 5 p.m., and I see no difficulty in that. But I understand that my two noble friends only wish to have this system for the purposes of the railways and the Post Office, not for all general purposes. For example, when hospitably inclined, I take it, they would not ask their friends to dine at 20.15. I see that the Astronomer Royal returned to the charge yesterday in The Times in support of my noble friends, and this morning a letter appears from another gentleman who put forward the suggestion that we should have two circles on our clocks and watches to mark the two periods of twelve hours each. I do not think that would be an improvement or a convenience to anybody.

But it all comes back to the same point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Marley, last year, when, after there had been consideration of the matter by the Government during a certain number of weeks, he found that the Government were still not prepared to introduce this reform. The view of the Government is that so far the public has not shown that it wants the change. Except for a few letters which have appeared from time to time in the Press and these discussions in your Lordships' House, there has been an entire lack of public interest in the matter. It is quite true that the change could be introduced at small cost, and that the railways, I understand, intimated—and I believe they have intimated again this year—that they would be quite prepared to adopt the innovation if the Government would give the lead. But the Government consider that there is no point in making the change unless it is going to be a real help to the public. It is considered that in a small island like ours the need for the twenty-four-hour system cannot be very great. Railway journeys cannot be very long, because you can get to Edinburgh or Glasgow in eight or nine hours and to Plymouth and Penzance in considerably less time. Telegrams also can never take more than a few hours between the despatch and the receipt. You never hear, either, of a person missing an appointment because he has mistaken a.m. for p.m.

Successive Governments have considered the matter from the point of view of public advantage and have felt that, in the absence of a strong and general demand for the change, it would be wrong to try to impose on the public a system of notation which may confuse rather than assist. The present is certainly not a time to spend money, even a small amount of money, on experiments of this nature, and the Government could not undertake to introduce this change or to ask the railway companies to do so unless they were convinced of the existence of a much stronger public feeling than there is any-reason to imagine exists at the present time. I regret very much that I cannot accede to my noble friend's suggestion that I should accept this Motion with any addition of words—no date being named—because he only suggested that after the Home Office representative had gone away, 'and I have not been able to ask the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary or anybody else. and I could not take it on myself to accept the suggestion. Therefore I am afraid I must ask my noble friend to be satisfied with the answer which I have given him.


My Lords, I am sure the noble Earl would be greatly surprised if I did accept the statement he has made with any satisfaction at all. It is the speech I have listened to now for about five years and surely the House must have observed that not one single argument is brought forward against the proposal itself. Take the question of expense. There is no question of spending money at all. It is not going to cost the Post Office a penny. And, as regards the other expenditure, the railway companies are prepared to incur it in view of the benefits which they will obtain as the result of employing the system. We come back to the old story that there is no public demand. What has that got to do with the utility of the proposal? The utility of the proposal is admitted. The noble Earl himself has admitted that he is in favour of it. He has stated that he can count. If he can count, other people can do so, too.

It is not a question of the noble Earl only being in favour of it, but every other noble Lord who has had to reply for the Government has also admitted that he is in favour of it. If I am not mistaken, every single Postmaster-General of recent years has been in favour of this proposal, and I do not think I am betraying any secret when I say that the present Postmaster-General is personally in favour of it himself. It therefore comes to this, that there must be some senseless opposition somewhere or other. Nobody has a higher respect for the permanent officials than I have, but it is quite evident to me that there is a solid and unreasoning opposition on the part of some official and that unfortunately he has so far been successful. I am sorry to trouble the House, but, as I think my noble friend is very unreasonable in not accepting my suggestion, I shall therefore propose to take a Division on the question.


My Lords, I do not know whether I am in order in speaking again, but I only wish to reinforce what was said by my noble friend Lord Newton. The noble Earl, Lord Lucan, has stated that there has been no public demand for a change, but that is a futile argument. Another point he has made is that this is a small island. But the Post Office has ramifications all over the world, and this question arises every day and every hour. He seems to be unaware of that fact. We have to realise that in regard to cablegrams and foreign telegrams it would be to the great ad- vantage of the public if this change were instituted.

On Question, Motion disagreed to.


My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government whether the League of Nations——


My Lords, on a point of order I do not think my noble friend Lord Newton understood that the Question had been put.


My Lords, I put Lord Newton's Motion. The Question was, "That this Motion be agreed to." The first time I put it nobody said anything. I put it again and the Not-Contents had it.