HC Deb 31 March 1994 vol 240 cc1107-15 1.30 pm
Ms Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a case for the maintenance of Greenwich mean time. As our clocks have just moved forward, this is an especially appropriate time to debate the issue. And as I am discussing Greenwich mean time, I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) is here beside me.

It would be useful to start with a little description of the history and background. The subject goes back a long way. In 1844 an international convention opted for the world to consist of a number of time belts of one hour per 15 degrees of longitude. That world time order means that midday in the United Kingdom is midnight on the other side of the world. The United Kingdom is in the Greenwich mean time zone.

Greenwich mean time, then, is the system that applies to the United Kingdom and Ireland in winter. British summer time—BST—starts when the clocks go forward one hour, as has happened recently. Central European time is the system for Europe, but not for Greece. Europe remains one hour ahead of the United Kingdom and Ireland for 11 months a year—that is, it is on GMT plus one in winter and GMT plus two in summer. That is sometimes known as single double summer time.

Summer time means the practice of moving clocks forward one hour in summer. That ensures more daylight hours in the evening. In the summer months that works effectively because longer daylight hours mean that there is also light in the mornings. In winter there are fewer daylight hours, and the clocks go back one hour in October to create extra daylight in the mornings. That means that on the shortest day of the year day breaks at about 8.30 or 9 am in the south-east and after 10 am in the north of Scotland. In the most northern parts daylight can begin as late as 10.30 or 10.45 am.

Europe, but not Greece, adopts Greenwich mean time plus one hour—central European time—as its system for most of the year. In summer western Europe moves its clocks forward—in effect, that means Greenwich mean time plus two hours—at the same time as we move to Greenwich mean time plus one hour. That trend is reversed by Europe in September, with a move back to GMT plus one. That creates harmonisation with Great Britain for a month, until we move back to GMT in October. The European Commission is trying to regularise the September-October period. Greece is still different, and is on GMT plus two and GMT plus three respectively.

That says it all. The different time zones are part of nature in a sense: they are part of where we are. James Morgan, in a good and effective article in the Financial Times, said simply: The pressure to move the clock forward reflects the familiar vanity that reality is ours to change. But the earth turns on its axis, and Belfast is in a different time zone from Belgrade because it is in a different place. There are many arguments both for and against change, but I believe that there is no argument for change strong enough to do away with the tradition and the advantages of keeping Greenwich mean time.

Today I want to find out whether the Government have made up their mind to come out of the somewhat neutral position, weighing up all the arguments, that they adopted in the document that they issued some time ago. That contained a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but came out with no strong case against change. I want to see whether the Minister can give me that information today.

One aspect has supposedly formed part of the strongest case for the attempted change: road accidents and safety. The most emotive issue is the safety of children. The current system means that children go to and leave school in daylight except in the very north of Scotland and parts of the northern part of Northern Ireland. Under central European time children would continue to leave school in daylight, but would go to school in darkness.

The House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected an extension of the British standard time experiment in the early 1970s. I am not sure whether the Minister was in the House then—I certainly was not—but a significant factor in that overwhelming rejection was the fact that during the experiment there was an increase in road accidents involving children in the mornings. There were many stories of children and school crossing patrols being killed or injured in the blackness of our English winter mornings between 7.30 and 9 a.m. That was when the practice of children wearing fluorescent armbands first started.

It seems to have been forgotten that mornings are darker than early evenings—as we all know, the darkest hour is the hour before dawn. In early evening, people often have their lights shining out from their house windows for a long time before they close their curtains. In the morning, curtains are often left closed until there is proper daylight. Many shop lights do not come on until about 8.45 am, by which time most children are in school, whereas shop lights shine out brightly late in the day until 5.30 or 6 pm.

On the crucial subject of young children travelling to school in darkness, the only argument that the supporters of central European time can advance is that children are more likely to be driven to school in the mornings than in the evenings. That is all very well if the family happens to have a car and there is a member of the family available to drive the child to school, but that does not happen for the vast majority of our children today and the argument provides no comfort for any family without a car.

The Policy Studies Institute and the daylight extra campaign brought out statistics to show that more than 100 lives could be saved by the change. But during the last experiment with continental time, in 1969–70, the number killed on British roads rose compared with the previous three-year period. Road deaths started to fall soon after Greenwich mean time was restored and have dropped steadily ever since.

Some of the arguments advanced have been economic. There are three sections of workers who would be greatly affected by a change from the status quo. The first sector is agriculture, which employs 253,000 workers, many of whom have to work in the dark in the mornings under great physical stress. The Green Paper produced by the Home Office showed that the National Farmers Union expressed great concern that many of the morning tasks on a farm would have to be delayed by one hour if a change were implemented, incurring great costs in terms of extra lights and energy.

The second sector is the building industry, which employs nearly 820,000 workers, who would suffer in a similar way. The Building Employers Confederation calculated the additional costs incurred by the 1960s experiment and brought the statistics up to 1989 figures to show an extra cost of about £7 billion.

The sector of workers in which I have most interest is that of the postal workers. The postal and express sector employs more than 220,000 workers in the United Kingdom and the Union of Communication Workers strongly opposes the change. For many years, the union has expressed concern about the increased stress caused by postal workers working long periods in darkness. At present, a postal worker in a sorting and delivery office may work a shift that commences as early as 4.30 am. Outdoor deliveries begin as early as 7 am. In the winter months, up to the first three or four hours of a postal worker's shift may be spent without daylight. The period is, of course, much longer in Scotland. Despite that and the hazards it brings, Royal Mail employees are still not classed as night workers.

Postal work is already a difficult job. Increasingly in our inner-city areas, there are no-go areas for postal workers. In London, there are one or two estates where postal workers have not been able to deliver because of physical attacks and threats. Those will become far worse if more work is carried out in darkness. A serious problem for the Union of Communication Workers and its members is the number of postal workers who are attacked by dogs. That is not a laughing matter and anyone who thinks that it is has a strange sense of humour. At present a postal worker can at least see the dog coming to bite him or her, but if we go back to the earlier system, many postal workers will be bitten by dogs and will not even be able to identify the dogs. That is a serious point. Postal workers do not want to spend longer working in the dark.

Once again, we seem to be being pushed by Euro-bureaucrats who want us all to be standardised. The Confederation of British Industry says that its members are so frantically busy working to create economic activity that seven hours a day is not enough and that they need eight hours a day. Japan, which is not exactly a country that is not doing well economically, is seven hours ahead of Europe and 11 hours ahead of the Atlantic coast of North America. We cannot say that Japan's economic prosperity has been damaged by the differences in hours. The fact that there are a number of time zones within North America makes absolutely no difference. This is another absurdity resulting from the European Commission's wanting everything to be standardised. It is change for change's sake. There is no argument for changing the present system which cannot be counteracted by another argument. We should not allow the Eurocrats to change something that is widely accepted here.

I welcome differences. I quite enjoy the fact that when I travel on holiday I have to work out what time it is in the country I am visiting and whether it will be a different time. I do not want to be the same as everyone else in Europe and I do not believe that people in this country want to be the same. There is nothing wrong with diversity. I hope that the Minister can tell us what really lies behind the urge to change and to do away with something that everyone accepts.

We should celebrate the difference. We should celebrate the fact that with Greenwich mean time people do not have to go to work in darkness, as they would if there were a change. We can improve our safety record at whatever time of the morning or afternoon: we do not need to change the time to stop accidents on the road—there are other ways to do that. Because of the change in our drink-driving laws, the figures for accidents at the end of the day are less serious then they were.

Let us keep what we have. It works perfectly sensibly and there is no real move for change. I hope that the Government will not allow themselves to get into another mess with change for change's sake. A change from Greenwich mean time will arouse huge opposition. Anyone living north of Birmingham will be wholly opposed to any change. I hope that the Minister will give his views strongly today.

1.45 pm
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Has the hon. Gentleman obtained the permission of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms Hoey) and the Minister to speak?

Mr. Raynsford

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Ms Hoey) on raising this important subject. I thank her and the Minister for making time for me to speak briefly.

My hon. Friend made a strong and persuasive case for retaining Greenwich mean time, and for burying the suggestion that it be abandoned in favour of central European time. This is not the first occasion on which that suggestion has been made. For a period during the late 1960s we experimented with British standard time, but the experiment was abandoned in 1970, when BST—he equivalent of central European time—was rejected on a free vote by a huge majority of 366 to 81. That was a clear and decisive result.

The report of that debate provides some interesting insights. Replying for the Government, the right hon. Reginald Maudling—then Home Secretary—tackled the issue of the safety of children travelling to school. He pointed out that there was no convincing evidence in favour of a change to British standard time for that reason, saying: It is difficult to produce any convincing figures one way or the other. There has been a surprising and sad increase in the number of child casualties between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. which is not wholly explained and rather bedevils the figures on this point. He ended by saying: The figures are not clear enough to base a decision upon. I think that we should assume one way or the other that there is not a large margin either way."—[Official Report, 2 December 1970; Vol. 807, c. 1335.] That was practical evidence, as opposed to the theories and fanciful arguments advanced now by people who claim that changing to central European time will save children's lives. Such people should realise that the reality is much more complex, and that their case cannot be substantiated.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall pointed out, the simple geographical truth is that we are not on the same longitude as central Europe; we are on the western extremity of Europe, and GMT reflects that. Anyone who is uncertain about that should visit the excellent exhibition at the royal observatory in Greenwich, which clearly shows the remarkable British scientific advances made in the measurement of longitude and time in the 17th and 18th centuries. Those advances led to the establishment of an international framework based on the Greenwich meridian in the 19th century. The logic remains today, and provides a convincing reason for us to avoid the rather dangerous tendency towards Euro-federalism. I note from the record of the 1970 debate that Baroness Thatcher was one of those who voted against the introduction of British standard time and in favour of retaining GMT—no doubt expressing her well-known views about Euro-federalism.

The case is strong, and I sincerely hope that the Minister will recognise that. I hope that he will also recognise the value of retaining an element of free voting on this important issue. When the House was free to make its own decision 24 years ago, it did so by firmly supporting Greenwich mean time. I hope that it will have the same freedom if the issue is ever put to the vote again.

1.48 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms Hoey) on her success in the ballot, and on her choice of subject.

The question of which time zone we should adopt in relation to Greenwich mean time is certainly topical. As the hon. Lady pointed out, only last week the clocks were moved forward to put us on to summer time. According to the hon. Lady's definition and that of her hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), we have abandoned GMT until October.

Let me add to the hon. Lady's summary of what GMT means. For purposes including navigation, cartography and the calculation of time, it has for centuries been useful to employ the concept of the meridian—a circle of constant longitude passing through a given place, and through the north and south poles. As regards time, the significance of the Greenwich meridian is that the system of standard time zones is based on mean time on that meridian. The result is that, almost throughout the world, standard time in any particular country is either that at Greenwich, or differs from that at Greenwich by an integral number of hours, plus or minus.

I trouble the House with that explanation for two reasons. First, it puts beyond doubt that whatever future arrangements the United Kingdom adopts for the calculation of time will not, and by definition cannot, affect the existence and value of Greenwich mean time. The universal benefit of GMT, as the basis for calculating time zones, is immutable. I hope that that will bring some comfort to the hon. Member who has the honour to represent Greenwich, who I am glad intervened briefly in the debate. The hon. Member for Greenwich asked me whether a proposed change could be decided by a free vote in the House. Alas, that is not a matter for me. I am sure, however, that the House would want to reach its own considered conclusion on such a matter.

Secondly, the explanation of GMT helps me to comment on early-day motion 935, entitled "Central European Time Zone", which the hon. Member for Vauxhall has signed. That motion calls on the Government to recognise the natural laws of the solar system by keeping the link with Greenwich mean time. I give her an unequivocal assurance that the Government cannot but recognise the relevant natural laws. Those laws are that the sun rises and sets, and that there are fewer hours of daylight in winter than in summer. Those certainties are unalterable by Government, Parliament, or any other human agency. Furthermore, whatever future arrangements we decide on will be linked indissolubly with Greenwich time.

As the hon. Lady said, at present the United Kingdom's time in winter is Greenwich mean time, so that in the summer, from March to October, our time is GMT plus one hour. For shorthand, I shall refer to those arrangements as the status quo. When, in our 1989 Green Paper, we initiated consultation and consideration of the country's future arrangements for time, a majority of respondents favoured, instead of the status quo, a different linkage with GMT—single double summer time, otherwise known as central European time or CET. That sets time in winter at GMT plus one hour, and summer time at GMT plus two hours. The effect would be later sunrises—and so later sunsets—in both summer and winter.

While the responses overall favoured moving to that arrangement, the consultation also revealed strong feelings in favour of the status quo, particularly in Scotland but also in sectors of opinion elsewhere in the United Kingdom. That is among the major reasons why assessment of where the balance of national advantage lies is less than easy. As well as the hon. Lady, many other hon. Members have signed EDM 935, opposing a move to CET. Against that, numerous other Members have signed EDM 389, which strongly advocates such a move.

The main objections to moving to CET that we have received fall into two categories. First, there is concern about the prospect of darker winter mornings leading to general inconvenience and, in particular, fears of more difficult working environments, and of greater risks of accident for those, such as farmers, construction workers, postmen—to whom the hon. Lady referred—and milkmen, who start work outdoors early. Secondly, there is concern that any adverse consequences of moving to CET would have a disproportionate impact in the north, particularly in Scotland.

CET would certainly entail winter morning inconvenience, although that could be overcome in some sectors by changes in working hours. Examples of industry organisations nevertheless so far opposed to CET include the National Farmers Union, and construction industry representatives. The first see difficulties in darker mornings for both arable and livestock farmers. I shall not go into detail on those now, as time has become short. The construction industry focuses on the iciness as well as the darkness of morning work and the fear of entailing greater costs for artificial lighting or time lost waiting for the day to warm up and the possible greater risk of industrial accidents. We take those concerns seriously. It should also be noted, however, that no national increase in the number of accidents in the construction industry was notified under the Factories Acts during the experiment with British standard time between 1968 and 1970, when winter time was GMT plus one hour.

There are fears that the move to CET could be of disproportionate disadvantage to the north of the country and perhaps to Scotland in particular. There are two associated concerns. The first is the lateness of winter sunrise, as mornings would generally stay darker for longer in Scotland, even though the very late sunrises would be confined to the far north. I have some figures, but it is probably better that I set out the more general arguments as I have only a limited time. The second concern is that darker winter mornings in the north could lead to more traffic accidents. The hon. Member for Vauxhall stressed that aspect.

A further consideration, which carries substantial weight, is that people are fully accustomed to the status quo. That is a powerful argument. The advocates of CET need to show not only that its advantages could outweigh its disadvantages, but that they would do so to such an extent that the change, which would affect every person in the country, would be well worth the making.

As I have summarised the case for the status quo, I must also report the main arguments that we have received for moving to CET. Those are that substantial net reductions in road traffic casualties are forecast, that there would be some reduction in the fear of crime, that opportunities for leisure pursuits would increase, that our tourism industries would be boosted, and that there would be benefits to business, travel and communications from sharing the same time arrangements as those adopted in most other western European countries.

Of those arguments, the one relating to road traffic casualties is the most clearly supported by statistical evidence, despite what the hon. Member for Vauxhall said. The Transport Research Laboratory, which did the calculations and analysed the statistics after the debate to which the hon. Member for Greenwich referred, estimates that a move to CET would achieve a United Kingdom-wide net total reduction in road traffic casualties of 140 deaths, 520 serious injuries and 2,000 other casualties each year. The TRL's estimate is that, of those totals, the annual reduction in Scotland would be by 12 deaths, 47 serious injuries and 270 other casualties. Proportionately, that would be a greater reduction than that forecast for elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

I should also explain what is stated in early-day motion 935. Whatever the value of the statistics—I understand that the hon. Member for Greenwich would like to argue, but so would many other people and they are not my statistics—they are not merely 20 years old, but take into account fresh circumstances, such as the welcome reduction in evening drink driving. TRL has taken relevant changed circumstances into account when revising the estimates derived from the 1968–70 experiment with BST.

The reduction in drink driving is not relevant, because the main period of drink driving is in the late evening—roughly 10 pm to 3 am—which is well outside the time that CET would affect.

As to fear of crime, I saw the hon. Member for Vauxhall shaking her head, but successive British crime survey reports show that fear of going out in the dark is especially common among women and the elderly, with fewer journeys made when darkness has fallen. Advocates of CET point out, therefore, that the extension of daylight hours into the late afternoons and early evenings would appreciably enhance the quality of life during the winter afternoons for the people in that category. The survey found that three in five female pensioners feel "very unsafe" walking alone in the dark and that, even among young men, one in 10 feels unsafe at that time. Although CET would mean later sunrises, fear of darkness in the mornings is not nearly so great.

The response to our initial consultation paper and subsequent representations shows that one of the greatest perceived advantages of CET is the enhanced opportunity that it would provide for people to engage in leisure pursuits. For instance, the Sports Council and the Central Council for Physical Recreation support CET for outdoor sports, in which the hon. Lady takes a particular interest.

Ms Hoey


Mr. Lloyd

I have only one minute left. Not only must I fail to reply to whatever point the hon. Lady was about to make, but I must leave out a great many other things that I wanted to say. I want to take this chance to make it abundantly clear that the start and end dates, if they are decided, will be decided by this House, by the interest of this country. The Community is not putting pressure on us—at least, not in respect of what time we choose, although in respect of the end and start dates of the change, yes it is. I agree with the hon. Lady that the decision either to move to CET or to remain as we are needs to be made soon so that the uncertainty about what is to happen in the next two or three years can be dispelled.