HL Deb 16 April 1970 vol 309 cc601-9

5.23 p.m.

LORD SOMERS rose to ask Her Majesty's Government: Whether they are aware that their "progressive" moves are not according to the will of the people or to the advantage of the country. The noble Lord said: My Lords, as I have been told that my Question will be answered by the noble Lord the Leader of the House, I am confident that I shall have a very fair and clear answer, and I can tell the noble Lord that I am perfectly prepared to receive it. During the term of office of Her Majesty's Government we have had a good many Bills and regulations introduced which we have been told were in the cause of progress. The purpose of my Question to-night is to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the fact that it is quite possible to progress in the wrong direction. Some of these moves have not been in the interests of the majority of the population, and since it is the majority of the population who put the Government into office I feel that the Government should pay some attention to them. I am not sure whether I have all the various items in their chronological order, but if I have not I hope your Lordships will forgive me.

I think it all started with the 24-hour clock. This is no very great evil, but it is an infernal nuisance. I have now become quite adept and it does not take me more than two or three minutes to work out what time my train leaves—or perhaps, in these days of nationalised inefficiency, I should say what time it should leave. But there is no doubt that it is an extreme nuisance, and to have to put all those zeros in places where there might be a figure seems to me rather absurd. Why do we have to say that a train leaves at 09.03 hours, instead of at 9.3? I hardly think that that is a saving of time, or that it makes the position any clearer. The sad thing is that even the railway staff do not seem to understand it, because over the loudspeaker at Victoria Station I have frequently heard a train announced as leaving platform so-and-so at "17 hundred" hours. Well, my Lords, 24 hours I can take, but not 1700. I think that is going a little far.

I now come to the all-figure telephone numbers. These are even more of a nuisance. One can remember names (although even that I sometimes find a little difficult), but to remember only numbers is out of my reach altogether. I find it very difficult to remember that the Whitehall exchange, which was once very familiar to me as WHI, is now 930. In fact, I was once mixed up even over that: I made it 390, which is very easy to do. That change, again, is an infernal nuisance to the average citizen. I believe that when it was introduced it was said that it was to bring us into line with the Continent. It may be very convenient to that handful of businessmen who are constantly making Continental calls, but for the remaining 99 per cent. of the population it is an extreme nuisance.

The next move was the introduction of British Standard Time, which is rather more serious. That is more than a nuisance, and it can be positively dangerous. In the winter, when we may, if we are working, have to drive off before 8 a.m., British Standard Time can be extremely dangerous where roads are concerned. If we have had rain during the previous day and then a hard frost at night, the road the next morning is an unbroken sheet of ice, and not even the white heat of modern technology can melt it.

I have had some figures from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents apropos this change. Apparently, in the winter of 1967–68, before British Standard Time was introduced, from November to February there were 3,795 fatal and serious accidents. During the next winter, after British Standard Time had been introduced, there were during the same period 4,665 accidents—an increase of 870, or approximately 22.9 per cent. That is not a matter to pass over lightly. I sincerely hope that Her Majesty's Government will have serious thoughts about ending this measure, because it is more than the average member of the public can cope with.

We come next to the Concorde. My Lords, the Concorde is a very fine achievement, but its production has wasted an enormous amount of the country's money which might well have been spent on other things. And who will benefit?—a handful of businessmen who presumably find it convenient to reach New York in four hours instead of six, or whatever the figures may be. And what percentage of the population do they represent?

The next progressive move was natural gas, or North Sea gas. This, again, is a marvellous feat of engineering and science, but the trouble is that it was foisted on to the public before the scientists and the engineers had really experimented sufficiently with it to find out whether it was safe. There have already been some extremely serious accidents. I know that in my own area, Epsom, we are threatened with natural gas very shortly. I do not know how soon it is going to come: I only know that when it does come I shall most certainly go over to either electricity or oil. I am not going to run the risk of having my house blown up.

Now we come to the crowning glory of all, my Lords—decimal coinage. I believe that there is actually still time for Her Majesty's Government to retract on this, but I think it highly unlikely that they will, despite the fact that I have not heard a good word for it from anybody to whom I have spoken and that there is a great campaign against it. What good is decimalisation going to do, and who will benefit? So far as tables for conversion to foreign currencies are concerned, it will make no earthly difference, because you must always have a conversion table between any two currencies, even though they are both decimal, because the unit is not of the same value. I cannot see how we are going to benefit from this at all.

Then, of course, we are threatened in the near future with the metrication of weights and measures. This will be the last straw. If it is to come, let the Government be really logical and introduce a 10-month year, a 20-hour day and a 10-day week. Surely that would be possible. It might be necessary to slow down the revolutions of the earth slightly, but I am sure that, with the great advance of modern science, it should be perfectly possible, and the gain in having decimalised time would be enormous.

I have no doubt that before many years have passed we shall see a movement to introduce driving on the right instead of the left, again to bring us into line with other countries. Why? Why do we have to be like everybody else? Does it follow that we are the better for it? Incidentally, the change from left to right will cost an absolute fortune. Every single traffic sign, every traffic light, every road construction will have to be altered, and it will involve an immense amount of time and money. I suggest that during the transitional period, while the changeover is going on, it might not be a bad plan to allow drivers to drive on whichever side they choose. This, of course, would have the great benefit of reducing the number of cars on the road and also of reducing the number of the population, which at present is becoming rather a problem. My Lords, those are my complaints on "progress", and I sincerely hope that we shall soon begin to progress in the right direction.

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, before I reply I wonder if the noble Lord would inform your Lordships whether his speech is meant seriously. I admit that the last bit was rather light-hearted, but was he serious about the rest of it?


Indeed, my Lords, yes.


It is only that I was not quite sure whether to reply at all. I have taken part in a number of odd debates in this House, but this is certainly the oddest of them all. If I have one or two slightly hard things to say to the noble Lord, any wrath I may feel is mitigated by the fact that ho is practically always here; and is a constant and courteous attender of your Lordships' House. For that I have an affection; but I should have had more affection if I had had the slightest idea what this debate was about.

I thought, when the noble Lord talked about "progressive" measures, he was going to refer to a number of social reforms—homosexual reform laws, obscenity and so on—so I collected a lot of material on those matters and satisfied myself that a very large number of them had started in your Lordships' House and had been passed by an over-whelming majority. The noble Lord will not mind if I say to him that he has been somewhat incommunicado lately because either he has been in Malta or his sailing ship, in which no doubt he was returning in preference to one of these modern gadgets, was becalmed in the Bay of Biscay; and it was not until to-day that, with great courtesy, he sup-plied us with a list of the subjects that he was proposing to raise.

I am bound to say—and I hope the noble Lord will accept it—that the recital of a series of personal and subjective views on matters, nearly all of which have already been debated in both Houses of Parliament, can hardly be said to make for an objective debate. I do not complain that he made it into an Unstarred Question, because I appreciate that he has had this subject on the Order Paper for quite a long while and had been unsuccessful in persuading his colleagues to arrange for it to be taken as a regular Motion. But, again, it is a very odd Unstarred Question. I really think, though, that when we debate some-thing in this House we ought to have some idea in advance what it is going to be; and, as I say, were it not for the regard in which he is held, I think others would be saying some rather hard things


My Lords, may I apologise to the noble Lord the Leader of the House? I quite realise the position, and I accept his rebuke. I did in fact tell the Chief Whip's secretary (I think it was last night, or was it this morning? I cannot remember) what I was going to speak about, but as I arrived home only on Tuesday night I was not able to do more.


I agree that I did know, and this great wodge of papers which I produced for what I thought was going to be raised in this debate is all wasted. None the less, I have acquired some useful information, including, as I say, the amount of interesting, progressive material of a different kind which your Lordships were responsible for starting.

But I think I am bound to say that in this House we should feel free to debate anything. We should not shrink from either constructive or, occasionally, destructive debates or criticisms of the Government, But at least I think we should have a reasonably clear objective in view, and I repeat that the noble Lord has covered a very wide range of subjects. I was in some slight hesitation as to whether I should answer them at all; but I think that I must make some reference to them.

I am a little surprised that such a distinguished musician as the noble Lord is so frightened of numbers. I always thought that musicians were particularly good at numbers; and I make no offensive point when I say that the noble Lord clearly cannot have been in the Army, the Navy or the Air Force during the Second World War, because if it had taken him three minutes each time to work out the 24-hour clock then I think he would have been in very great danger of not being in time for the battle—unless he had a good N.C.O. to read the 24-hour clock for him. I must say that it is not Her Majesty's Government who are responsible for this progressive move, one which might have come many years ago: it is British Rail; and I must resent his highly partisan remark about a nationalised industry in this matter. I must say that I personally prefer the 24-hour clock. I find it more intelligible and more reliable. Anyone who learned to use it in the war is, I think, accustomed to it.

I do not know, but I think that this ties in a little with the noble Lord's concern about British Standard Time. I feel that he is finding himself disorientated in this more progressive age. I should think, for instance, that he would suffer greatly if he spent a winter in the Arctic. There we set our clocks to the radio programmes, and sometimes to the moon, during the winter night; and some-times according to whether we were hungry or not. Man is fairly adaptable to these things. But British Standard Time was introduced as an experiment; and it was debated and approved in your Lordships' House, after repeated recommendations by a large number of bodies that the experiment should be introduced. We have debated this, and I do not think that we can debate it again to-night. There will be opportunities to do so; the Government are bound to report on this, and there is a proper inquiry. I shall be interested to hear what the citizens generally think of it. I know a great many who welcome it. Of course, accident statistics will need to be taken into account. Although some are available, I should prefer at this stage not to comment on them.

Then we move on to all-figure telephone numbers. This was very fully explained in this House. The truth of the matter is that we are running out of letters that are appropriate. Perhaps the noble Lord does not want subscriber trunk dialling as a universal practice; he may not wish to be able to dial home when he is in Malta. But it is no use relying on letters if we are to dial across Continental boundaries. As I say, this change was explained fully in this House. Obviously the noble Lord was not satisfied, but I am afraid that this is inevitable. What he should be complaining about really is the invention of the telephone. Many noble Lords object to the telephone and I agree that it is regarded as a most baleful instrument. But it has now gone too far. Would that the noble Lord could turn the clock back on this occasion! But I am afraid that we are advancing inevitably toward all-figure telephones. Of course I should say again, on the subject of all-figure telephones, that this is, I realise, all part of the 100 years of Tory and Liberal misrule. But the telephones and British Standard Time, which was welcomed in this House, are subjects that we have debated.

Now we come to the next subject, which I think was the Concorde. We shall not debate it again. That project was started by the Conservative Government. It was started in 1962, and God bless them! —well we do not know whether to bless them or not; although a lot do not —they gave us no option in the agreement but to go on with it. I should not want now to start attacking this highly interesting and technical advance; but it was not part of the progressive moves of this Government.

Then the noble Lord referred to North Sea Gas. I think that really his conflict in this matter is with God, and not with Her Majesty's Government. But the agent of God, the baleful agent of God, was of course again the Tory Government, who introduced the Continental Shelf Bill and a number of other things and under whose red-hot, burning technology, exploration of the North Sea was started; and we saw the example of other forms of gas being used in other countries. I really do not think it is our fault. I am very, very sorry about it, but I hope that it will be all right— although I am interested to hear that the noble Lord would himself be happy to go back to oil lamps. I suggest that he leaves out electricity.

Now we turn to decimal coinage. The noble Lord obviously—I am sure he is a student of Trollope—would have been in trouble with the Duke of Omnium on this matter; he had a great dream on the subject of decimal coinage. I happen to dislike decimal coinage because personally I am a duodecimalist; but un-fortunately I am not able to impose my will. I think that decimal coinage had been discussed at great length and it arose, if I remember rightly, out of a Committee set up by Mr. Selwyn Lloyd. So I think that the Government are exonerated even on this. Let us take some of the credit; but the Tories can have the blame on that one.

Aonther subject, I think, was metrication. Metrication, in one form or another, has been a fact for about a hundred years. I honestly do not think that that subject is one which it would be right to pursue on this occasion. I have a lot of further notes, but I think that the noble Lord's damning attack on the Government falls to the ground. I admit that he did it in a kindly way and urged us in fact to reform ourselves. But what worries me is that the noble Lord is himself a very dangerous radical. I am surprised that during the hundred years of Tory misrule we ever saw abolition of the red flag in front of motor cars. That was a most retrograde step! That stage coaches should give place to the fiery monster of the steam locomotive and then, alas! the disappearance of the steam locomotive and the arrival of the diesel, electricity, and perhaps even the Hovercraft!

I am not sure whether the noble Lord is a Member of the Conservative Party: but I think he ought to go on to the Cross Benches, for he cannot afford, to belong either to the Conservative Party or to the Liberal Party. What wicked things they have done! They abolished patronage. The terrible days of Lord Linoleum are now gone. One can no longer purchase commissions. But the greatest crime of all—and this is really what makes my heart bleed and for which I condemn the Opposition—was the introduction of Life Peers!