HL Deb 11 February 1937 vol 104 cc123-32

LORD LAMINGTON had the following Notice on the Paper:—To ask whether His Majesty's Government, having refused the adoption of the twenty-four-hour system by the Post Office on the ground that there was no public demand for it, will now reconsider their decision in view of the fact that a Home Office Committee in 1919 reported in favour of the system; that their Lordships' House has approved of it; that the Navy, Army and Air Forces use it; that the Astronomer-Royal, the Principal of the Royal Society, the Prin- cipal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Principal of the Royal Association have given their approval; that the Meteorological Office uses the system; that the B.B.C. favoured the system; that publications such as Nature, Modern Transport, the Electrician and Nautical Magazine have given their support to the system; that the British Chamber of Commerce, also various travel societies have advocated the change; whether the fact that the system is used in the air guides does not constitute a demand for the change by those connected with the business life of the country; and whether, in view of a large number of foreigners visiting this country this year, the adoption of the twenty-four-hour system will now take place as early as possible; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion I have down on the Paper is one that for a number of years I myself, or the noble Lord, Lord Newton, who I regret to say is still abroad, have introduced to your Lordships' House. It is by no means a new proposal on our part. I put down the Motion chiefly because I wanted to try to emphasise the amount of support that the proposed change now has. The Government have never refused or the ground that they were unfavourable to the proposal, but simply because there was no public demand for the adoption of the twenty-four-hour system. I think that the list of people and institutions mentioned in my Notice show that there is a very big public demand. In the first place it will be remembered that the proposal was the subject in 1919 of an, inquiry by a Departmental Committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Stonehaven. The Report of that Committee was very favourable to the adoption of the system. Then, as I have said, the matter has been discussed several times in your Lordships' House since 1928 or earlier, and on two occasions at least it has received the support of your Lordships. It seems to me rather a slight on the part of the Government to ignore the pronounced opinion of your Lordships' House. It is not as if it were a matter suddenly sprung upon your Lordships' attention. It has been considered for years and it is a matter upon which your Lordships are very competent to express an opinion. You may not be representative in the sense of being elected, but you are very representative because you have many avocations and pursuits and occupations which entitle you to give a sound opinion on such a matter.

I need not recite the whole list of people and institutions set out on the Paper. I put them on the Paper in order to give emphasis to the tremendous demand there is among certain sections of the public for the adoption of the system. You have certain learned societies mentioned on the Paper and to them I might add the Royal Geographical Society. Although the society have not adopted the system in London, yet whenever an expedition goes out under their auspices they ask those in charge to keep records on the twenty-four-hour system. Chambers of commerce have advocated the introduction of the system and I have a letter, sent in 1934 from the British Chamber of Commerce to the then Home Secretary, asking him to have the system adopted. The British Broadcasting Corporation favoured the system under the late Viscount Bridgeman, who was Chairman of the Corporation. Travel agencies like Cooks, and British Airways want it established. Then there are newspapers which support the system, including Modern Transport. In that connection I remember that Mr. Frank Pick, who is so prominent in the world of transport, was quoted by my noble friend Lord Newton as advocating the system on the ground that it was essential for the proper working of transport.

Other publications which support the system are the Electrician, Nature, and the Nautical Magazine. I should like to quote from a letter written by the Editor of the Nautical Magazine in 1934. In that letter he said: I have written to every member of the British Nautical Instrument Trade Association and have had several replies, all in approval of the change. What I was endeavouring to find out was, would it: be policy to give the tides in Brown's Nautical Almanac in the 24-hour system, or a.m. and p.m. as at present.

This morning I had another letter from him saying: The tidal information in Brown's Nautical Almanac for 1938 has to be supplied by the Liverpool Tidal Observatory, and they wished to give it in the twenty-four-hour system, but from inquiries which were again made, I am sorry to say we will require to give the tides for 1938 in a.m. and p.m.

This is a very important matter to our coastal sea trade, and that letter is testi- mony to the fact that the system is wanted by our coastal shipping.

It is very strange that those who have replied for the Government in the past have themselves favoured it while refusing Government sanction for the system. The late Earl Russell was in favour of it, but for some unknown reason had to reject it on behalf of the Government. The noble Marquess, Lord Londonderry, and the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, were in the same position, and my noble friend opposite, Lord Marley, spoke in favour of it but had to resist it at the instance of the Department he then represented. I have a letter from an Under-Secretary to the Post Office who favours the system very strongly, but has to say that the Government cannot adopt it. There has never been any reason given why it should not be adopted. It would not mean any great expense. All it would mean is that the Post Office would have to alter the times of collections on the letter boxes and would have to provide some new dies for stamping letters and telegrams. Foreign cablegrams are already stamped in this way, so that it would be a very small matter to increase the number of dies in order to treat correspondence in this country in the same fashion.

Very few people would be aware of the change. Some people seem to think that their whole habit of life would have to be altered. It never seems to strike them that their friends in the Army and Navy and the Air Service have their work based on this system, and I have never heard any complaint made that their lives are inconvenienced by the adoption of this system. Still, people are obsessed in an extra ordinary fashion by the idea that the whole tenor of their lives would be altered. It has even been suggested that they would have to get new watches and new clocks with twenty-four-hour dials. It is perfectly ridiculous. I do not suppose that 1 per cent. of the people would be aware that any change had been made in the manner of their lives. In one letter approving of my Motion reference is made to the large number of foreigners who are likely to come to the country this year. If they do come, surely things might be made easy and attractive for them. About two or three years ago there was an international conference held in England and for the convenience of the delegates to that conference the twenty-four-hour system was adopted.

There would be practically no perceptible change if the system were adopted. It would, of course, affect railways and there, I think, it would be a distinct gain. People say that it is a simple matter to look up the times of a train journey in Bradshaw, but it is not simple when you have to make a long journey or make breaks in a cross-country journey. It is very puzzling when you have a train running from a.m. to p.m. or vice versa. No doubt it would cost the railway companies a little, but after all we see that they are proposing to spend vast sums on big new buildings, very fast trains and so on. This would be a comparatively trivial matter. I am sure that they would find it remunerative in these days of hard competition with motor traffic. If people could make out their trains more easily, they would be much more likely to travel by train than to take these distant journeys by motor vehicles. I put to your Lordships what seems to me to be an incontrovertible case for the change. The obstacle to it I cannot understand. Which office objects, the Post Office or the Home Office? I understand that the Home Office is the deciding authority, but why, when questions are asked relative to the work in the Post Office, the Home Office should have anything to do with the matter at all, I do not know. I cannot possibly see what objection there is to the introduction of the system. I have had very unfavourable replies hitherto from the Government in your Lordships' House, and I hope that they may now see the wisdom of making the alteration. I beg to move.


My Lords, the day is yet young, and we might spend with some profit a few minutes in discussing the Motion put forward by the noble Lord. I propose to take part, for a moment, because he mentioned my name in this matter. I always feel that I am not destined ever to be in a majority in any political movement, and he has put up such a noble fight as a pioneer in a sea of indifference—indifference marked in this House by the small attendance: even the Gallery has five times as many of the future generation as of the present generation present. I have no doubt that they have come to hear the noble Lord on the twenty-four-hour clock, and I hope they are edified. I need hardly remind your Lordships of the old story that any admiration for the House of Lords can quickly be cured by seeing it work. My noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, overcome by the eloquence of the noble Lord a year or two ago, actually purchased a watch with the twenty-four hours marked on it.


Does it


It goes occasionally, like my watch at the end of the month, but comes back again from time to time. Unfortunately his belief in the support of the noble Lord by the Government has not been justified, and I am bound to say that I fear that indifference is still w despread and education has not been adequately undertaken. Nevertheless, I believe that the alteration would be a good thing. I commend the energy and the hard work of the noble Lord who s put forward this Motion once again, and I still hope that some day the Government may give it favourable consideration.


My Lords, taking a brisk look round your Lordships' House it seems to me that I am the only member on either Front Bench who has not already replied to my noble friend on this Question at some date or other. In view of the fact that so many of my distinguished predecessors have failed to convince him—neither the Earl of Lucan, nor Lord Templemore, nor Lord Marley, nor the Earl of Feversham and the rest—that his Motion is undesirable, I can only come into the fray with the old Saxon battle-cry on my lips: "Edgar the good has fallen ! Are you too good to fall?" But I also feel embarrassed in so far as I am quite unable, I am very sorry to say, to gate a different reply from that which he s been given so frequently in the past to the request of the noble Lord. That is very simple: the Government are unable to move in this matter because the public are not sufficiently interested in it. The Government are not at all shaken in that view by the formidable list of societies and eminent men who appear in favour of it in the Motion put down in my noble friend's name. All that this list implies and means is simply that the suggestion of the twenty-four-hour clock is admirable for disciplined bodies of men who are easily trained in its working and whose activities are apt to extend for more than twenty-four hours at a time. No one denies that proposition in the least. It is in fact ideal, I agree, for the notice boards of institutions, societies, navies, armies or air forces.

The Government feel, however, that the mover of a Motion of this kind has to go a great deal further before he can justify urging the Government to take action upon it. He must prove either that such a serious dislocation in the national life is being caused by adherence to our own traditional form of keeping time that the Government ought to act and act quickly, or else he must show that the public as a whole are really desirous of such an alteration. I think it is rather a remarkable fact, and I have read all the debates that have taken place on this subject, that not a single member of your Lordships' House has ever produced a concrete case of personal inconvenience due to the system in use today. The only reason that has ever been given is that the twenty-four-hour system is convenient, neat and logical and is easy to defend by the processes of the mind. No one has ever pretended that he has missed an appointment in your Lordships' House by twelve hours.


We are too intelligent—on this side!


No one has ever, so far as I know, arrived at one o'clock in the morning al Euston to find that he was really due for a lunch-time train. No one has ever put any concrete example before your Lordships of the disadvantages of the system as we know it. I can, further, say this: that if the inconvenience of the present system has never been demonstrated, the public demand for the change in the system is much further from having been demonstrated. As has already been pointed out by the noble Lord opposite, the attendance of your Lordships hardly makes us suppose that there is a passionate mob outside waiting to hear what the fate of this Motion is to be. Whitehall is probably empty.

We have had an opportunity recently of testing public opinion on this very matter. As my noble friend is aware, the B.B.C. held an inquiry and conducted an experiment to see whether the public wanted the change or whether they liked it when they got it. They conducted that experiment for two months. They gave out their times in the twenty-four-hour notation and printed them in the Radio Times in the same way, and the result was that they received 3,077 letters opposing the change and 401 letters in favour of it. They divided their experiment into three periods, in the first period printing both methods of keeping time together, in the second period only the twenty-four-hour system, and then, as they found their public still did not like the twenty-four-hour system, they went back to printing them both together again. In the middle or peak period, when they were using the twenty-four-hour system only in their papers and their announcements, they received on an average 112 letters against the change and ten letters in favour of it. In view of the fact that the people who are most likely to be disconcerted by any such change are not people who are very keen or very accustomed to putting pen to paper, I should have thought that those figures spoke for themselves as far as public interest was concerned.

Therefore I ask your Lordships to hesitate before you pass this Motion. I think it is a danger of paternal Governments, which you have to have nowadays, to try to play the heavy father too much. I should regret very much if this House or my noble friend got the reputation of being like the chorus of the Senior Burgesses of Oxford University, who went about saying, "Let us find out what everybody is doing and then take steps to stop them doing it." A case must be made out before you alter the habits of life of our people. I think a much stronger case has to be made out for the inconvenience which is caused by our present system before you force people to change their habits of mind.

So far as the foreign habit is concerned, I would say this: after all, we are serving a life sentence in this island, and it is a little hard that our conditions of service should be dictated by those who only come in for a very short time and pass out again, having no doubt enjoyed their visit. Also it is not right to think that you are going to "sell England," in the American phrase, to foreigners by merely copying everything that is done on the Continent. It is not the way to persuade foreigners that [The Marquess of Dufferin and Ava.] England is a good place by giving them inferior veal instead of good Southdown mutton; it is not the right way to destroy a village like Broadway and build a papier maché ch?teau of the Loire in its place. We must stand or fall surely on our merits and demerits, and one of our characteristics is a profound belief in our present system of time and our present system of currency.

I do not pretend for a moment that there would he a fatal dislocation in our national life if the change were adopted, but I do think that you can underestimate the dislocation if it were not adopted. After all, my noble friend is asking us to make a calculation, to decode something every time we tell the time. Those calculations are not really easy to make, and if I were of an unkind nature I should be inclined to sit down immediately, having just asked my noble friend to give me, as quickly as he would be able to tell me the time, the answer to a very simple calculation that every householder has to make, and that is, when summer time comes, will be put his clock on or will be put it back? I doubt very much, if I had sat down then, whether I should have got as immediate an answer as he would have given had someone asked him what the time was. I feel therefore that for the reasons I have given there is no public demand for this change, and the Government cannot see the point of putting a great number of people to a certain amount of inconvenience by taking away the system to which they are all accustomed, and of whose pitfalls they are well aware, and forcing upon them in its place a system which in general, I feel, they profoundly distrust.


My Lords, I confess that the noble Marquess who has just answered me has given a more reasoned and eloquent reply than we have ever had before in these debates, but when he talks about changing the habits of the people it is just the one thing you would not do. I maintain that not one person in a thousand would be aware of the change if the Post Office adopted this system; it would not change their habits a bit. The Navy, the Army and the Air Force do not find any change in their lives. My real object is to lead up to the railways adopting the system. As regards the experience of the B.B.C., of course if the Government referred the matter to them it would be fatal. It is very obvious that people using the wireless not be prepared for this system; they would merely be annoyed. There is no necessity to refer it to the B.B.C. The full information is available, and I maintain that it would be a most desirable change to make for the general transaction of business and for transportation in this country. But I admit that there are not a great number of Peers present this afternoon to support me—I think they all thought the Government would be sensible and would give a favourable reply—and in these circumstances I will not press my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.