HL Deb 27 February 1947 vol 145 cc1132-8

6.42 p.m.

LORD MERTHYR rose to ask His Majesty's Government, whether they will ask for the inclusion upon the agenda for the forthcoming session of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations of proposals for the reform of the Gregorian calendar; and whether they will instruct the British delegate at that session to vote for the introduction of a reformed calendar at the earliest convenient date; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, Christmas Day, 1946, fell on a Wednesday, and it must have occurred to a very large number of people that this was a cause of great inconvenience. It meant that there were two working days at the beginning of the week, then there were two holidays and then there were one and a half working days. To how many people did it occur that this troublesome thing was quite avoidable; or that by changing the calendar that inconvenience could be removed? It is with the object of removing such an inconvenience—and there are many caused by the present calendar—that I am asking my question this evening.

Since I drafted this Motion the first part of it has become no longer important, because I have heard, and I hope rightly, that the matter has already been placed on the agenda of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. But that leaves the second part of my Motion, and it is upon that that I wish to dwell this evening. I do earnestly plead for the support of His Majesty's Government in this matter. Before the war this subject was discussed at very great length by the League of Nations. The support of the British Government was eagerly looked for, and I am sorry to say that it was not forthcoming. The Government of the day adopted an entirely non-committal attitude. They would neither support the proposed change nor oppose it. I hope that now, when ten years or more have gone by, a different attitude will be shown towards this reform. I understand, and I am very pleased to hear it, that it has been approved by the trade union movement, and by many other bodies in this country. Foreign countries do look to the United Kingdom for guidance in this matter, however, and so far, I am sorry to say, they have been disappointed.

It is a matter of some topical interest, and I think urgent, because the Council which is going to discuss it is about to meet. I am therefore all the more anxious to hear what the attitude of the United Kingdom Government is going to be. I have here a draft Resolution which is to be put before the Economic and Social Council, and it is that Resolution for which I desire support. I need hardly point out that in this matter united action among the nations is most desirable. It is made more necessary by the fact that this scheme involves the omission of one day from a week once in a normal year, and twice in a Leap Year, and it will be obvious that if the countries of the world have different practices in that regard a somewhat confused position, to say the least, will arise.

Before the war the proposal for a reformed calendar was supported by at least fourteen nations, who gave it very active sympathy and support. It was opposed, I believe, by a very small number, some three or four. Out of a very large number of schemes which were considered by the League two emerged as practical, and I wish to have it on record that whilst I personally sympathized very much more with the scheme for a thirteen months calendar, as I said when I raised this matter in your Lordships' House previously, yet as the support for that scheme has diminished and support for the twelve months reformed calendar has taken its place, I say most emphatically that such a twelve month reformed calendar would be vastly better than the one we have now. I would also like to acquaint your Lordships with the fact that a Bill has already been introduced into both Houses in the United States and it has been reintroduced into the House of Representatives in this Session and referred to a Committee on Foreign Affairs.

I will detain your Lordships for only a very few minutes on the details of this question. Shortly put, it is this. If we omit one day from the weeks of the year, the 31st December (not being a weekday), the calendar will become fixed. The omission of a day would have to be done twice in a Leap Year, and the proposal is that the 31st December in every year, and what will be the 31st June in every fourth year, will be omitted from the week. The effect of that will be that, instead of a wandering calendar which we have now, by readjustment of the months all the quarters of the year will be exactly equal. There will be only three different patterns of months, whereas there are now twenty-eight different patterns. January 1 will always be a Sunday, and in every month throughout the year the date will invariably fall on the same day of the week. Your Lordships will see that a vast amount of inconvenience that we now suffer will be removed. In particular may I say that whereas there are now anything from twenty-four to twenty-seven working days in our months, there will, if this reform be adopted, always be twenty-six. Will that not be a very great advantage to business and commerce? It will afford a vast improvement in costing and accounting and to the business world generally.

I would point out that this question does not necessarily affect the date of Easter. It will still be possible, if it is so desired, to have the date of Easter wandering, as it does now, over a period of about a month. But it would be, I suggest, a very convenient opportunity to fix Easter on April 15 of every year, which would be, of course, a Sunday. Your Lordships know that in 1928 a Bill was passed through your Lordships' House to fix the date of Easter, but owing to a clause being inserted that it had to obtain total religious consent it has never been allowed to become effective. As I say, Easter need not be affected by this Motion, but it could be.

I am satisfied, having made a study of this question, that the really genuine objections are extremely few. There are, it is true, a good number of frivolous ones. Some people say that the anniversaries of their birthdays would be entirely missing, and so forth, but I believe that there are no serious and weighty objections to this proposal. May I conclude by giving a reason why it is considered to be urgent? It is almost essential that if this scheme is adopted it should be begun in a year when January 1, in any event, falls on a Sunday. That means that it can only be begun approximately every six years. The next year in which this coincidence occurs is 1950, and there is little enough time between now and 1950 to get the measure introduced. If it is not done by 1950, then the new calendar could not be begun without a great deal of inconvenience until 1956, at the earliest.

I put this forward as a labour saving device. I anticipate that many people will say: "We have not time to do this sort of thing at the present moment," but I seriously suggest that if the calendar were reformed the whole business world would feel that some weight had been lifted from it and our lives would be made more convenient and easier in a great number of different ways. I am not suggesting that any feeling of vast relief would be experienced by any individual, but I am suggesting that the number of people who would be, to some extent, even perhaps only a small extent, benefited by this particular reform would be enormous, and they would be found in every country of the civilized world. The expense, in my view, would be, if anything, trivial. In fact, after the reform had once been accomplished, money would actually be saved. It is for that reason that I think it should be given preference over other reforms, such as reforms of weights and measures and several others which, though very desirable, would undoubtedly be expensive. It is for those reasons that I respectfully and earnestly urge His Majesty's Government to give a far-sighted and enlightened lead to the other countries of the world through their representative at the forthcoming session of the Council to which I have referred. I beg to move for Papers.

6.54 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, I am sure, need not have felt that there was any necessity to apologize to your Lordships for raising this subject this evening. Indeed, I think he ought to be congratulated on the tenacity of purpose which he has exhibited over a very long period of time, during which he has probably met with rather less encouragement than he might, not unnaturally, have expected. This subject was last discussed by your Lordships on a Motion introduced into this House by the noble Lord in 1936, and he then developed, as he has done this evening, what will indeed seem to many of his listeners a weighty case for a reform of the calendar which we now enjoy, or, as some may say, which we now endure because we are unwitting slaves of habit.

On the previous occasion the noble Lord had the support of Lord Des-borough. Some of us had the privilege of being present on that occasion and we remember the effective contribution that Lord Desborough made to the discussion. We recognized how much his heart was in the subject, and how much time and thought he had devoted to it. We miss, all the more, on this occasion, the combination of ripe judgment and enthusiasm which marked his observations in time past. It is unnecessary for me to follow the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, even if I were able to do so—and I feel quite incompetent to compete with the noble Lord in this particular field—through the historical background of the question, or to assure your Lordships that His Majesty's Government are, naturally, willing to lend their support to any measure which promotes more order in human relations or international affairs. I will not venture to offer an opinion on the merits of the noble Lord's case or to say whether the proposed reform would, in fact, eventually do what he imagines it would do. But I can certainly say that if this question should be raised for discussion at a committee of the United Nations the British delegation from this country would give it their most serious consideration.

Now, if I may turn to the words of the noble Lord's Motion for a moment. I can endorse what he said at the beginning of his speech. I am informed by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary that the Brazilian delegation to the United Nations have already communicated to the Secretary-General a Motion on the subject for the forthcoming session of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. The Foreign Secretary understands that the amount of business to be transacted in that session is so great that it is thought, by those competent to judge, to be unlikely that the topic will be reached, but it may well be that the Brazilian delegation will put it down again for a subsequent session. If the subject thus comes up for discussion at the United Nations in the Economic and Social Council, any vote by the British Delegation will, of course, be given in the light of the circumstances prevailing at the time, and after hearing arguments by other delegations. I hardly think it would be fair for the noble Lord to expect the Government to commit their delegates to taking the view that he is asking that the delegates shall be committed to, without having listened to the arguments which will be put forward.


Can the noble Earl say whether Parliament will have any opportunity of expressing an opinion on this subject, other than at the moment upon this Motion, before the Government commit us to some treaty proposals?


I have no doubt that if Parliament so desired an opportunity would be given for discussion and for its views to be expressed—views which, of course, would weigh considerably with the Government. But I am trying to impress upon the noble Lord and upon the House that the Government cannot commit themselves to support the view that the calendar should be reformed in advance of the arguments that will be used when this subject comes up for discussion.

I am anxious, however, not to mislead your Lordships in any way, and I must therefore say that His Majesty's Government have at present no information to suggest that the position has substantially changed since the discussions on the matter took place in connexion with the League of Nations in 1937. His Majesty's Government are still unaware of any substantial demand in this country for a radical reform of the calendar, and there are no indications that there has been any lessening in the opposition to it which has been expressed in many quarters in the past. The attitude of the Church of England has been that it could not support a change unless it were generally acceptable to all Christian communities. In the past, the Roman Catholic Church has strongly opposed a change, in the absence of overwhelming evidence from all nations of a practically universal desire for it, and His Majesty's Government have at the moment no information that this policy has changed in any way.

The root difficulty as I see it—and indeed as was admitted by the late Lord Desborough himself—is that the subject is indissolubly bound up with that of a fixed Easter. I need not remind your Lordships of the circumstances in which a limited measure on that question—to which reference was made by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr—was passed by Parliament in 1928 as the Easter Act. That measure fixed Easter as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April, but postponed indefinitely the operation of the new date. I am bound to say that nothing has come to the notice of His Majesty's Government which suggests that there has been so marked a change toward the question of fixing Easter as to justify them in reviving even that limited issue.

I hope that in these observations I have not given the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, cause for thinking that His Majesty's Government regard as out of the question the possibility of agreement being reached, but I have thought it only right to state to your Lordships the plain facts of the situation as the Government see them. This is an interesting and, indeed, a fascinating subject of study, and I feel sure we all owe a debt to the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, for directing our attention to the subject and for giving us an opportunity for further reflection.


My Lords, in thanking the noble Earl for his reply and for speaking so fully with regard to it, I should like to say that I have no just complaint with the attitude the Government will take at the session of the Council and which the noble Earl has outlined. I do agree—I must agree—that they must hear the case before they decide upon it. I only want to add this: What he said about religious agreement is not in accordance with the information that I have had. Possibly that information may be incorrect, and I should like to look into the matter further. I am very much obliged, and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn