HL Deb 10 April 1986 vol 473 cc304-6

3.5 p.m.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether there are any plans for the future of the atomic clocks in the observatory at Herstmonceux, Sussex.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, the need for the Royal Greenwich Observatory to maintain an independent group of atomic clocks has been greatly reduced by the availability of co-ordinated universal time, via satellite. In consequence the SERC does not intend to replace all the atomic clocks at the observatory as they become unserviceable.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Can the noble Earl say whether, considering the contribution that this country has made to the world in the matter of time and navigation—the Greenwich meridian is a notable item—we are therefore to rely on other countries for our time? What will happen to our traditional six pips?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, it may come as a surprise and perhaps a shock to my noble friend to learn that we rely on other countries for our time at the present moment. This will not change, because the independent clocks throughout the world are co-ordinated in France; and in fact the headquarters have always been in Paris and a co-ordinated universal time is available via the Navstar Global Positioning System satellite service. However, I can cheer up my noble friend by telling him that the observatory will in fact continue to provide the six pips by reference to the international atomic timescale available by satellite and its remaining clocks.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is it not the case that the Question asked and the Answer just given raise a much more general question of the future of the observatory at Herstmonceux, and the SERC's intentions in relation to that observatory? Will the Minister intercede through the usual channels to ensure that this House has an opportunity to discuss this much more serious and wide-ranging issue?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, as the noble Lord said at the end of his supplementary question, this is a very wide-ranging issue. In fact there is no connection between the two: neither has anything to do with the other. The decision not to replace the atomic clocks has nothing to do with any proposed move by the Royal Observatory.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, may I ask my noble kinsman whether this is a field of science where there is especially good international co-operation, particularly with Europe?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I am delighted to tell my noble kinswoman and the House that this is indeed the case. I think we have all seen on television recently the international experiments with Halley's Comet in which a number of countries, including Russia, joined. Also, of course, in the field of astronomy, the astronomers get together internationally very much in this field.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend, instead of concerning himself with clocks giving universal time, will consider encouraging those atomic clocks that we do have to concentrate more on extended hours of British Summer Time.

The Earl of Swinton

Perhaps, my Lords, we ought to send them up in meteorological balloons.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, is this not the final blow to our great British national sovereignty, that Greenwich no longer controls timing throughout the world?

The Earl of Swinton

No, my Lords. I did say in my first supplementary answer that the international timing, since its inception, has been controlled from Paris.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, is it not true that in the last resort it is our great friend the sun up above us which controls the time?

The Earl of Swinton

Sometimes, my Lords, during Question Time in this House, I wonder who on earth does control the time.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is this not one of those rare occasions on which the Government would be well advised to put the clock back?

The Earl of Swinton

No, my Lords.