HL Deb 25 July 1934 vol 93 cc1088-93

LORD LAMINGTON had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether they will lay on the Table of the House before its adjournment a report on the working of the twenty-four-hour system from the B.B.C.; and move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am not going to weary you with a long speech, but only want to put the simple question. I am inclined to wonder whether the Government's announcement, to which at the time I took exception, that it was waiting for a Report on this system from the B.B.C., was not likely to prejudice the system in the minds of the public. I am not a listener to the B.B.C, at any rate in London, and I was not aware how far this prejudice had been entertained by the public, but I have here a letter from Sir James Marchant, who says: I have many friends here and in town whom I meet daily, and not a single one approves this most unfortunate experiment. It is simply ridiculous to tell us afternoon tea is at 16.40 to-day, and so on. We resent it being thrust upon us. It arouses opposition which might otherwise not arise … It is doing harm and not good to the cause we advocate. He is a supporter of the system. I therefore reiterate that it is unfair to have this system of experiment. Why do not they enquire of the three great Departments of State which are mainly concerned? Not having any idea of what the answer of the Government will be, I will defer any further remarks that I have to make until later.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies for the Government, making, I presume, the usual thoroughly unsatisfactory reply, I should like to say a few words about the miserable bungling evasion which has characterised successive Governments in dealing with this trivial and unimportant question. It is more than sixteen years ago that a Committee thoroughly enquired into this subject, and recommended it unanimously, and so far as I know every single Postmaster-General—the Post Office is the only Department concerned—has been in favour of the change. Whenever I have approached them they have said: "I am in favour of it, and no doubt the advocates of it are perfectly right, but I have to consult my colleagues, and cannot do it without their consent." As a matter of fact, he need not consult anybody. It is merely an administrative matter.

One can understand what would happen if he consulted his colleagues. He would go to his colleagues in the Cabinet and suggest that it was a good scheme, that it was going to cost nobody anything, and would be for the general convenience, but the reply he would get from his colleagues would be: "It is all very well from the point of view of your Department, but what we want to know is whether it is any good for getting us votes." The Postmaster-General would have to admit that he did not see any prospect of their getting votes by passing this particular measure. Then his colleagues would say: "Not only do you tell us that we cannot get any votes by making this change, but we know that there are a great number of people who are very much opposed to it. There is, for instance, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury"—whom I am happy to see in his place—"and there is the noble Lord, Lord Banbury, and there are all the people who are under the impression that the introduction of summer time is responsible for the drought and for other misfortunes, which occur in agriculture."

No doubt you could add to those the people who believe that the earth is flat and all those who entertain peculiar views. "Well," they would say, "this is a very formidable body of opinion; we really cannot run the risk of falling out with these people, therefore we had much better leave it alone." Then I suppose the Postmaster-General, whoever he may be, revolved the matter in his mind and thought he would arrive at a compromise. And, as a compromise, he or somebody or other has selected the B.B.C. as the body upon which to perform what is known in theatrical parlance as "trying it on the dog." A more unsatisfactory solution could not possibly have been suggested.

I have done my feeble best to explain that this is not a colloquial question at all. You need never make use of these figures which perplex the people who cannot count. It is purely a matter of time tables and HO forth. Imagine the effect produced upon the people who cannot count, if it were announced that Professor Boreham or somebody of the kind is going to hold forth at quarter past eighteen. That is the kind of thing that would irritate anybody, I am not sure that it would not irritate me; but it is perfectly unnecessary. It is no question of making use of these numbers in conversation; it is merely a question of time tables. As nobody has been able to make any valid objection to the proposed change, it really is exasperating to find that nothing can be done because of the ignorance and the prejudice which prevail.

I remember that in one of the poet Schiller's masterpieces he uses an historical phrase in which he says, "The gods themselves fight against ignorance in vain." I do not class my noble friend Lord Lamington as a god, or even a demigod, neither do I claim myself to belong to so distinguished a circle, but it is a fact that this proposal is rejected simply on the grounds of ignorance and prejudice. Nobody has adduced any valid argument against it, and the only satisfaction which I feel at the prospect of a Labour Government ever coming into office is that I have had an undertaking from those Benches that when they come in they will put it into force.


My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the opposition to this is largely based upon prejudice, or upon inadequate information, and I think a good example of this is contained in a resolution recently passed by a Northern branch of the National Union of Manufacturers to this effect: This meeting regards the arbitrary attempt by the B.B.C. to foist upon the public, without sanction of Parliament or other known authority, a system of time reckoning contrary to the custom of the country as an act of high-handed impertinence and gross abuse of a privileged position, and desires that this opinion shall be known in appropriate quarters. Your Lordships will no doubt thank me for making this opinion known in appropriate quarters. But it is an illustration of what my noble friend Lord Newton referred to, and a curious combination of touchiness and pomposity. It is the mentality of the people who squealed and who rioted in the eighteenth century when the calendar was reformed; it is the mentality of people who insist upon printing their price-lists in terms of pounds, shillings, pence and occasional halfpence and disdain to quote in yen, pesos, or in lire, because it is contrary to the custom of the country. I hope that those who are interested in this great reform will not be discouraged by this innovation of the B.B.C. from continuing their efforts to bring it about, least of all by branches of the National Union of Manufacturers passing a ridiculous resolution of this character.


My Lords, my noble friend behind me originally put this Motion down for a week ago to-day, on the 18th July, and I was very sorry he did so, because I knew that if the debate had taken place on that day we should not have had the presence of my noble friend Lord Newton, and, really, a debate on this subject without the presence of Lord Newton would have been more than I could stand. I am very glad it was put off for a week because we have him back looking fresh and well from his foreign travels and, I am glad to say, in his old form. In answer to my noble friend's Question, I have to say that no formal report has been received by His Majesty's Government from the B.B.C. as regards the experiment which has been going on now for some one or two months, but my right honourable friend the Postmaster-General understands that the Corporation will before very long make a statement on the subject.

As regards the general question, as my noble friend is aware, His Majesty's Government have had under consideration the question of extending the use of the twenty-four-hour method of expressing time in the light of the information given them by the British Broadcasting Corporation, following the experiment which has been carried out by the Corporation. The Corporation considers that, taking into account the difficulties attending the experiment, the results warranted further investigation by the Departments concerned. His Majesty's Government appreciate the action of the Corporation in the matter, but I am authorised to say that after carefully reviewing the whole question of adopting the twenty-four-hour notation for official purposes, they have come to the conclusion that there is still no sufficient evidence of general public demand for the change to justify them in taking any action in the matter. I fear I have no Papers which I could lay in this connection.


My Lords, it is, I think, a surprisingly negative answer that we have had from the Government. I asked my noble friend whether he would not ask the Government to address the Army and Navy and Air Force about the result of their thorough testing of the twenty-four-hour system over a number of years—they have had plenty of experience—as to how far it affects their private lives. Of course it does not affect their private lives at all, nor does the experiment of the B.B.C. affect the private lives of people. As showing how very widespread the movement has become, I dare say your Lordships saw a notice in The Times with regard to the Continental timing system at a congress held in London. It stated that: The twenty-four hour system of time keeping is to be used at the Fifth Annual Congress of the International Federation of Surveyors, which is to take place in London from July 18 to 21. For the convenience of delegates from France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, and Poland. the programme of the Congress has been arranged on the twenty-four-hour system. Does not that give any light to the Government to show how beneficial is this system and how (much easier it makes life?

I am not aware of a single organisation connected with travelling, commerce, and the coastal trade round these shores that does not ask for this system, and there is also the very strong attitude of the Astronomer Royal. Obviously there is somebody in the Home Office who does not know what is going on in the outside world, and the Government obey his dictates. Many representatives of the Government have stated that personally they approve of the system. I know one high official in the Post Office—I shall not mention his name—who approves of it, and yet somebody objects to it. Who is it? The only thing to be done is to put down a resolution asking for the name of the objector! It is a wanton waste of effort for the Government to say they will not do it because there is not sufficient public demand for it. There is a public demand, and I sincerely trust that there will be some sign on the part of the Government that they realise that this is a system that adds to the public convenience. I suppose members of the Government do go abroad to the Continent where the system is in vogue. Do they find it inconvenient? Many thousands of the public also go abroad to the Continent. Do they find it inconvenient? Why cannot the Government pluck up courage and introduce this system? It is certain to come, as Lord Newton has said. It will come if the Labour Party get into office, but I hope the Government will have the sense to anticipate the Labour Party. I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.