Time Signals

– in the House of Lords at 3:05 pm on 22nd June 2005.

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Photo of Lord Tanlaw Lord Tanlaw Crossbench 3:05 pm, 22nd June 2005

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I declare an interest as a fellow of the British Horological Institute.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they will take to address the problems caused by the difference of up to seven seconds between the BBC time signal received by digital and by analogue radio and television receivers.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, this is, of course, a matter for the BBC and not for the Government. Live digital broadcasts are delayed by a second or two when compared to analogue and by up to seven seconds for radio streamed via the Internet. While that slight and relative discrepancy is not a big issue for most viewers and listeners, it will obviously be a concern for those who rely on the six pips to get the time accurate to the second. There is no obvious solution. Even if the BBC were to broadcast the signal slightly earlier, there still would be an unavoidable and unpredictable delay occurring at the receiver end that was variable from one product to another.

Photo of Lord Tanlaw Lord Tanlaw Crossbench

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for his Answer, does he not agree that this is the first time that the integrity of the BBC's time signal has ever been questioned? It is sending out two time signals: one is for analogue radios, which is the correct time up to 1/5,000th of a second; the other signal is digital which is erratic, as the Minister explained. Instead of questioning the integrity of clock and watch manufacturers, is not the simple answer that the BBC ceases to transmit the six pips to digital receivers and gives a spoken statement? It can be extremely misleading and may lead to many accidents.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, there is a balance to be struck in relation to the noble Lord's clear concern about accuracy. If that concern was the total premium, the digital pips would have to disappear. It may be that that will have to happen. The BBC is looking at the situation to see whether there is any engineering solution or whether to continue with the service on the grounds that, for the vast majority of viewers and listeners, the pips on digital give a fairly clear indication of the time.

Photo of Viscount Astor Viscount Astor Spokespersons In the Lords, The Family & Culture, Media & Sport

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, has done this House a service by bringing this issue to your Lordships' attention? The Minister explained that there are normally six pips to enable us to recognise the hour. Does he realise that once a year there are seven pips, usually on New Year's Eve, because the Earth's rotation is slowing down and a seventh pip is required, no doubt due to the Government's economic policy in that area? Does the Minister agree that we will forgive the BBC for being a couple of pips late if it returns the weather forecast to its original state on the television?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, I should confess that I am not a time lord and more of a Doctor Who—perhaps I should say "Lord Who". The answer to the noble Viscount's question is straightforward. Of course he is right. That adjustment has to be made because the Earth's travel around the Sun is not precise and we are not able to measure it with the precision that is indicated.

We have, of course, got atomic clocks to which people can refer. The Great Clock of Westminster—sometimes referred to as Big Ben—is governed by that. Railway digital clocks are governed by a signal sent out from the National Physical Laboratory. So we maintain accurate time in this country, but there is a problem with regard to the broadcast. I am sorry if on this occasion I am obliged to give the noble Viscount the pip.

Photo of Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Spokesperson in the Lords, Culture, Media & Sport

My Lords, according to a sports-loving friend of mine, there is some benefit to the delay. Apparently, if you nip quickly from a Sky digital broadcast to a BBC analogue one, you can see an instant replay. That sounds a little macho to me, but he swears that that is the case.

On the move from analogue to digital on the national scale, it is to be welcomed that SwitchCo has now been launched to oversee the process and that we have a timetable. But can the Minister indicate what the Government propose to do, when analogue broadcast is finally switched off, to help those who either cannot afford or have chosen not to buy the necessary equipment to allow them to receive a digital signal? Is their switchover a cost that the Government envisage the BBC carrying?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, we have a timetable that is to begin in 2008 and will not be complete until 2012. The noble Baroness has raised some important points that we shall need to consider. We hope that we will have to deal with only a very small fraction of the public, those not able to avail themselves of digital services. We intend to address the question, but at present the move towards digital is extremely encouraging. Over 60 per cent of the nation already enjoys digital services.