HL Deb 21 February 1940 vol 115 cc585-96

3.33 p.m.

LORD LAMINGTON had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether in view of the fact that hundreds of thousands of the people of this country now serving in the Navy, Army, Air and defence forces used the twenty-four-hour system it would not be desirable that the Post Office should work on the system for general purposes and move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, for the reason given in my question it would seem an appropriate time for the Government to adopt the twenty-four-hour system. My noble friend Lord Newton and myself have for several years brought this subject forward, but some time has now elapsed since we last did so. Therefore perhaps I may tell your Lordships in a few words what has taken place in the past in regard to this matter. The system was adopted in the last Great War. Then in 1920 the Home Office appointed a Committee, of which the noble Viscount, Lord Stonehaven, was Chairman, to inquire into the matter. That Committee reported unanimously in favour of the adoption of the principle of the twenty-four-hour system, and said that whenever it had been tried it had worked very successfully. Not many years ago Lord Stonehaven stated in debate in this House that in what had happened since he saw no reason to change the opinion to which he and the Committee over which he presided arrived.

Twice a Motion in favour of the system has been carried in your Lordships' House. Although the Government have disregarded that action of your Lordships, the Government spokesmen have never put forward any real argument against the system. On the contrary, those spokesmen for the Government have themselves said that personally they approved of the system. Amongst those who thus expressed approval were the noble Marquess, Lord Londonderry, the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, and on one occasion the noble Lord, Lord Marley, when he spoke for the Labour Government then in office. I think I can say that there has never been a single concrete objection raised against it. There has never been any real argument given why it should not be adopted. The only thing that has been said by Government spokesmen was that there was no public demand for it. I may point out in this connection that there was no public demand for Summer Time. It took the late Mr. Willett ten years of advocacy before he could persuade the Government to accept his proposal. I can remember, too, that in the last century the late Mr. Henniker Heaton was years before he could induce the Government to adopt his Imperial penny post system. It is no argument to say that the public have not expressed a demand for this change in our system of hours. The B.B.C. had a test to find out what proportion of the pub[...]lic was in favour of a change. I do not[...]think anyone doubted what the answer would be. People who utilise the existing system naturally do not think of the benefit that would result from the adoption of this new system. The B.B.C. [...]themselves, I believe, are in favour of the change which I now advocate. I had a letter from a former head of the B.B.C., who said that the B.B.C. approved of the system, that they use it themselves in the case of their engineering and outside broadcast branches, and that they have found it very satisfactory and particularly useful for the Empire service.

There has never been any real argument advanced against this change. We have had in your Lordships' House a Peer saying he did not want to get a new watch or a new clock, as he would have to do if this system was adopted. Also, outside the House, people have been heard to object to the idea that instead of having what they call a five o'clock tea they would have to have a seventeen o'clock tea, or a twenty o'clock dinner. Of course there would be no real change in the habits or customs of the people or any inconvenience to anybody. It is not a mere fad. At the present time thousands of our young men are having to be put through the test of learning how to use the system, because it is absolutely essential to the conduct of the present war, whether on land, at sea or in the air, that our forces should know how to use it. There must be one single system for the notation of time in war, and surely it is desirable that everybody should be made thoroughly acquainted with what is the best system for arranging and working any organisation in wartime. At the present time I understand that on the home front the A.R.P. in some cases have the two systems working side by side. That seems to me an extraordinary inconvenience. Why allow such a confused situation to arise?

This new system, it seems to me, is long overdue. I think every secondary school in the country ought to use the system so that the scholars in those schools, when they leave, will be thoroughly familiar with it. Another consideration is in relation to the members of our forces overseas coming home on leave from France. A correspondent has pointed out that our soldiers leave France on the twenty-four-hour system and when they arrive at home they find the a.m. and p.m. system in force. That is a great inconvenience. They have difficulty in working out the time for their journey and notifying relatives or friends at what hour they may be expected. I repeat that there is no justification for the Government refusing to adopt this system, which would cause no trouble to anybody. While no valid objection has ever been made against it, there are some cogent reasons given by those who advocate it. I have a letter from Dr. Spencer Jones, the Astronomer Royal, who says: The heavens are not divided into two halves, and the astronomer is compelled to use the twenty-four-hour system. Nature leaves him no choice. The twenty-four-hour system is the system of nature. He goes on to say: The adoption of the twenty-four-hour system in other countries has proved an unqualified success. It is difficult to believe that a system which has been found necessary in all those spheres of activity in which accuracy is essential and which has proved satisfactory in practice in other countries, is not suitable in this country. That is strong evidence of how very desirable it would be to have this system in vogue.

Both the Royal Astronomical Society and the British Astronomical Association use it, and the Royal Society advocate its use. I was speaking to the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society the other night and he strongly endorsed it. If it is objected that it is only the scientific societies who favour the change, I would add that the London Chamber of Commerce approves the system and that a resolution in favour of the system was put forward by the London Chamber and carried at the annual meeting of the Association of British Chambers of Commerce. The Federation of British Industries also approve the system. Imperial Airways have adopted the twenty-four-hour system and so have travel agencies. Newspapers such as Modern Transport are also in favour of the system. The Editor of Modern Transport, in a letter to me, wrote: …the identity of the vital interests of Great Britain and France is such as to make the matter more urgent than hitherto; for misunderstanding about the time of trains, ships or aircraft might well have grave results…it seems strange that, whilst our statesmen emphasize so strongly the close liaison in all spheres of interest now existing between Great Britain and France, so simple an adjustment as a change in the written description of the hours following noon should be deemed impossible.

Two nautical almanacs are in use. The smaller one used by the Navy is on the twenty-four-hour system. The Admiralty list of tides is on the twenty-four-hour system and so is the Air Almanac. These are compiled by Dr. Sadler who is strongly in favour of the adoption of the system. The convoy system, at the present time, is run on the twenty-four-hour method. I understood until this morning that all merchantmen had not adopted the system, but I had a message from the secretary of the Navigators and Engineer Officers' Union who said that now all merchantmen use the system. Some time ago the Editor of the Nautical Magazine wrote to me strongly supporting the system, particularly for the benefit of coastal navigation. He said that coastal shipping needed the system badly, but could not adopt it unless the system also operated on land. Now I understand it is becoming more often used by coastal shipping, but it would be much more efficiently carried out if the system operated on land. The Nautical Magazine is a paper of considerable repute and very wide circulation all over the world. I would like to quote a few sentences from a letter written to me by the Editor. He wrote: At this time when so many sea disasters are taking place and foreigners calling for assistance and probably giving time in twenty-four-hour system, it must be confusing to…our seafarers.…Some, in fact most, merchant seamen admit that the twenty-four-hour system would be an advantage to them, but they are up against the British public on shore.

If the railways would give an undertaking that they would adopt it, I believe it would be of great advantage to anyone who travels, and particularly to those making long cross-country journeys. At the time of one of our former debates on this question, I had a letter from one of the railway companies in which they themselves made a mistake between a.m. and p.m. The adoption of the system would be for the benefit of the whole community. I repeat that there would be no disturbance of ordinary life. People would be quite unaware of the change, for the most part, unless they were taking a railway journey. If it is desirable to have the twenty-four-hour system used on cables, as it is, why should it not be used on all Post Office telegrams? In the eighteenth century, Lord Chesterfield, the celebrated writer of letters to his son on the Continent, was much troubled by the confusion of dates between the Continental new style and the English old style. He went to the Duke of Newcastle, then head of the Government, and asked that the almanac of England be brought into line with the Continental calendar. The Duke said he would have no new-fangled system, and that a change might incite an uprising of the people if they believed, as they possibly would believe, that they would lose eleven days of their life. However, Lord Chesterfield was not disheartened and he got into communication with those who had experience of the new system, Lord Macclesfield, then President of the Royal Society, and Dr. James Bradley, the Astronomer Royal. With their help a Bill was drafted which went through the House of Lords.

I am encouraged by that to hope that some action by your Lordships to-day may induce the Government to give way and not let bureaucratic objection stifle a very useful reform. To-day no legislation is necessary. All that is required is an order from the Postmaster-General that the twenty-four-hour system should be adopted for the arrival and departure of mails and that new tablets should be put on the pillar-boxes. It will not be necessary to-day to convert a whole nation because already hundreds of thousands use the twenty-four-hour system. They are conversant with it and would not be likely to raise any objection. In former days the Government refused to take action for fear that people might get excited. To-day the Government do nothing because there is no excitement. Something should be done to simplify our present system because that would be an advantage for the whole kingdom. I beg to move.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, when I hear my noble friend bring forward this familiar suggestion, I am always reminded of the case of Galileo pleading that the earth moved and being persecuted by Cardinals and other officials. My noble friend is in no danger of being imprisoned or tortured by permanent officials; all that they can do to him is completely to disregard all that he says. There is nothing fresh to be said on this subject, but there is a certain amount of interest attaching to it owing to the fact that it is a singular and, I am glad to think, a very rare instance of extraordinary official obstinacy which has no justification of any sort or kind. This is a proposal which cannot hurt anybody. It does not offend anybody in any sense, and there is nothing whatever to be said against it. In fact, I might go so far as to say that there is no opposition to it at all, or at all events no opposition worth considering. The only tangible objection I have ever heard against it was made by my noble friend Lord Cranworth, who I regret is not present here this afternoon. Lord Cranworth said that the agricultural community, or at all events a large proportion of them, were under the impression that the wet seasons were caused by the adoption of Summer Time. He thought, therefore, that if an alteration of the clock were made it would produce the most alarming consequences. I may add that the opponents of Summer Time managed to mix up theology with the question, because there were many people who went about saying that we were proposing to interfere with what they called "God's time"; in other words, implying that Providence had a special consideration for the Greenwich meridian.

In addition to these people that I have mentioned, I believe that some of the listeners to the B.B.C. have also protested. I cannot think what they have to protest about, because the functions of the B.B.C., so far as I know, are purely aural, and nobody proposes to interfere with the aural matter at all. Everybody will be at liberty, if this proposal is adopted, to talk about "a.m." and "p.m." as much as they please. The only thing that matters is the written word. Whilst these people are occupying themselves with protesting against a harmless innovation, I wonder that they do not do something else. I wonder, when they complain of the difficulty of deciphering figures, that they do not take the case of the Bible and of the Prayer Book; those two books are full of Roman figures which are far more difficult to deal with than anything that we propose. The Psalms and all the chapters in the Bible are defined in Roman figures. They might with just as much justification protest against their watches and clocks being marked with Roman figures instead of the ordinary Arabic figures.

As I have said, there is no real opposition to this change at all. There is nothing to attack in it. It does not offend anybody. It is not a political question, and it is certainly not a theological question, as is apparently the view of some people. It is not an economic question, and it does not offend anybody in any sort of way. Neither does it cost anything. If it was an expensive experiment, I could understand the opposition, but it is not going to cost anything at all. If it has any economic effect at all, it will be to make an economy, because it will certainly result in considerable saving on the part of the railway companies. It is no good my going on, however, expatiating on the advantages of the change, because these arguments have been used over and over again, and everybody is familiar with them. I own, with deep respect, that neither my noble friend nor myself will be able to make the least impression upon the Government and the permanent officials, but, if they will not pay attention to us, if they look upon us as antiquated cranks, I will produce much better and stronger evidence in favour of the proposal. I have a letter in my pocket from a man whose name will certainly inspire respect here, who is one of the really efficient people in this country: I allude to Lord Ashfield. Everyone knows what his position is. I shall not take up the time of the House by reading his letter, but he writes to me that he is strongly in favour of the proposal because it would enormously simplify both the drawing up and the interpretation of time-tables.

That is my only object: I want to simplify these things. At the present moment, owing to our system, Bradshaw is a sort of literary jungle; it is almost impossible to find one's way about in it at all. In fact, it is almost as difficult to decipher as the horrible Gothic text used by the Germans, which is of such an unsatisfactory character that even the natives cannot distinguish between the different letters. I often wish that when the future of Germany was under consideration at Paris the use of this particular type had been forbidden. If we adopt this proposal, all these difficulties will disappear; and, quoting the authority of Lord Ashfield, there is no doubt that all the intelligent people connected with transport are in favour of the change. They will not move, however, until the Government—either the Home Office or the Post Office—help them.

I do not know which noble Lord is going to have the privilege of reading out the draft with which he is supplied for the purpose of answering this Motion, but no doubt the draft will be of the usual kind, which does not carry conviction to anybody, not even to the noble Lord who has the honour of reading it out. As I say, I do not know who is going to discharge this duty, but I know perfectly well what he will say, or rather what he will be told to say by his brief. He will be told to say, I expect, that the listeners to the B.B.C. objected, and then the reply will fall back, there being no reason against the adoption of the proposal, on the old, threadbare device of saying that there is no public demand for it. Of course there is no public demand for it. When is there ever any public demand for anything; of the kind? If we had waited for public demand or for public manifestations of approval in the year 1751, when the calendar was altered, we should now be fifteen days out in the calendar. It is all very well to talk about public opinion. It is easy to excite public opinion about certain things, but it is exceedingly difficult to excite the public on any question of social reform. If, for instance, somebody was to start a correspondence in the Press regarding the laws of first class cricket, proposing that there should be four or five stumps instead of three, or something of that kind, the newspapers would be flooded with letters from excited correspondents which would last for months; but a proposal of this kind does not excite any interest at all.

The British public are strangely unimaginative. They can be worked up on a political, Party question, to a certain extent. You can get them to agitate for votes and you can get them to agitate for anything which they think will fill their pockets, but to appeal to them for any social reform is perfectly useless. There has never been any public manifestation in favour of anything of the kind. I have cited the question of the calendar but there are in fact many other questions upon which the public would never express its opinion at all. If we had waited for public opinion, we should never have had compulsory education in this country; there would certainly not have been vaccination, or any legislation against many of the nuisances from which we have suffered in the past. All these things would have been left alone. Here is a case, however, where, as I say, there is no trouble at all in bringing this proposal into operation. It would not cost anything, it does not require any legislation, and the only reply of the Government is that there has been no public demand for it.

It may be strong language, but personally my opinion is that this is a most contemptible contention. Governments do not come into office in order to give effect to whatever may be the public clamour at the moment. It is the duty of the Government to administer the affairs of the country in an intelligent way, and if it is satisfactorily proved that a particular change which involves no trouble at all ought to be brought about, then I think they are not fulfilling their duty if they refuse to take any action with regard to it. Well, I am afraid that my noble friend and myself are wasting our time in appealing to the present Government. They are not going to pay any attention to us, and I do not think we shall get anything out of these people so long as they are in office. Nobody desires less than I do to see noble Lords opposite in office, but I confess that if that calamity did occur, it would in my opinion be slightly mitigated because they have given an undertaking that they will deal with this particular anomaly. I comfort myself with that assurance.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, this is a subject that has been debated many times in the past few years in your Lordships' House, in fact it might almost be called a hardy annual. The noble Lord in raising the matter again has suggested that the Post Office should adopt this change with a view of other Government Departments adopting it afterwards. But successive Governments have never thought that there was any public justification for the change, or that it would be right to make it, but that no material advantage would be gained thereby. The B.B.C. adopted this method for a short time in 1934, and, in proof of the fact that there was no public demand for it, it is interesting to know that while there were eleven letters of protest, there was only one letter in favour of it. I think that speaks eloquently for the fact that this change is not required.

On the first of this month the Financial Secretary to the Treasury replied in another place to a question by Mr. Joel asking that this system should be adopted by many Government Departments, and said that it was up to the head of each Department to decide for himself whether it was really wanted. The Post Office has already used the system in all radio and telephone messages to countries where it is now in use, and it is also used in all correspondence to countries where it is used for shipping purposes, railway purposes and air-line services. It may be seen therefore that where it is necessary to use the system it is used. If it were adopted generally it would mean that many changes would have to be made. All the post boxes would have to be altered, all the notices would have to be altered, postmarks would have to be altered, and in the opinion of His Majesty's Government the public might not understand clearly what was required of them, and it might have the result of leading people not to post their letters at the right time. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, pointed out that this system is already used by hundreds of thousands of people in the Navy, the Army and the Air Force, but it is perfectly obvious that there must be millions in this country who are not using it.


Because they have not got the chance.


No, but at the same time the Navy, Army and Air Force are not in any way muddled by having to use both systems. The question of cost was raised. I am informed that the cost would not be less than £20,000, and I am sure your Lordships will agree that we do not want to spend any more money at the present time than is absolutely justified. Therefore at a time when many restrictions and inconveniences are being imposed on the public the Government do not think they would be warranted in making such a change, which they do not think desirable.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, I confess I had hoped that in these critical times we should have had a more satisfactory and sympathetic answer from the Government. Apparently the real difficulty is that of expense, but in these days £20,000 spent on the introduction of this system would not be very much if there was justification for it. I maintain that there is perfect justification. It is desirable for the simplification of our defence system, and also for the general purposes of the country. I feel that this reform is bound to come soon, and the sooner the better. Apparently the Government have gone to the trouble of making some contact with other countries in regard to the postal services, but on the whole I think their reply is unsympathetic. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.