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Summertime (Scotland)

Volume 518: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Wright.)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for providing me with the opportunity to raise an issue which, although not considered earth-shattering in its political significance, tends to provoke extremely lively debate on both sides. The question is whether it would be better for the UK as a whole to move away from Greenwich mean time and to adopt what is confusingly entitled single/double summertime. This would mean that instead of living in GMT, as we currently are and have been since the end of last month, we would have GMT+1 hour during the winter and GMT+2 hours in the summer.

We have this debate every year in this country, and the debate is particularly keenly followed in Scotland where, among certain commentators and politicians, there is always the temptation to indulge in the “poor us” victim mentality. This was effectively illustrated last week when John Scott, the Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament, asked the Scottish National party Minister, Fiona Hyslop, about the campaign to move to single/double summertime, and said:

“Does she agree that Scottish children walking to school in darkness is not an acceptable price to pay for an extra hour of sunlight in Sussex?”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 11 November 2010; c. 30349.]

There are times when I feel like holding my head in my hands and weeping for my nation, when such nonsense passes for intelligent discourse. First of all, there is the small point that it is not possible to create, reduce or ration the amount of daylight available to any part of our globe. That is a matter for God Almighty and the immutable laws of the physical universe.

Secondly, there is a dangerous laziness in summoning forth the bogeyman of the Auld Enemy. It plays fast and loose with the Union—it should be noted that Mr Scott’s party was once proud to describe itself as the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, though admittedly that was many years ago now—in the hope of currying favour with a particularly aggrieved audience; and there is always an aggrieved audience for such messages, which is why it is so dangerous to indulge them by raising the spectre of a change which, it is alleged, would have a beneficial effect on England while disadvantaging Scotland.

I believe that claim to be nonsense. I also believe that there is much more support in Scotland for the change than has previously been the case. There have been various claims in support of a change to single/double summertime, some of which are harder to justify than others. The change would boost Scotland’s tourism industry, we are told. It would help us to reduce our greenhouse emissions, we would be a fitter and healthier nation, our streets would be safer to walk on, trade between Britain and Europe would increase, the lamb would lie down with the lion and Trident would be beaten into ploughshares. Actually, I made those last two up, but I hope that the point is made. The advantages claimed for the change are many, and they are valid, but I do not blame some of the public for being unconvinced by some of them.

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that the fact that he has given up his blog means that hon. Members and the wider public will not have an opportunity to see his views being promoted on the internet, and will he perhaps reconsider giving up his blog so that he can take forward this important issue?

I am almost grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point and intruding into personal grief. Now that I am no longer a blogger, I may consider going into politics.

On a more serious note, the hon. Gentleman brings up an important issue that will be debated in a private Member’s Bill very shortly. May I commend what he is saying to the House? I did some studies on this in Scotland and found that the farmers who were once against this, on passionate and logical grounds, are now either neutral or in favour of it. They appreciate the extra hour in the evening, because many of them have diversified into the tourism market where bed and breakfast and so forth provide value. The other aspect is road deaths. A net decrease in road deaths would be a significant improvement were the clocks to be changed. I welcome the debate that has been brought to the House tonight.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making those valid comments and trying to pre-empt the points that I hope to make in the next few minutes.

It is up to the Lighter Later campaign and its many supporters here in the Commons to make the case for all the benefits that will accrue from pushing the clocks forward an hour, and they can do that during the debate on the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who is in the Chamber. I will return to that issue shortly.

As a father of young children, I approach this subject from a particular direction. The other alleged benefits that I mentioned earlier notwithstanding, it is the effect on Scotland’s road safety record, particularly as it affects children, that most concerns me. We already know that road accidents are more likely to occur in the evening peak hour than in the morning. One will often hear the protest that drivers are not fully alert first thing in the morning when they drive to work, and are more alert as they return. I do not believe this to be the case, and the evidence is indeed to the contrary.

The 1998 study by Transport Research estimated that a move away from GMT would lead to an overall reduction in road deaths and serious injuries of 0.7% in Scotland alone. Based on the figures for 2009, that would mean 20 fewer deaths and serious injuries on Scotland’s roads, and 30 fewer casualties across all categories of severity.

John Scott MSP said that Scottish children should not have to go to school in darkness. Mr. Scott represents Ayr, and I grew up in that same county, and I know that by December children there will be doing precisely that anyway. Dawn can arrive after classes have begun.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way because he has been very generous with his time. I note the points that he makes in relation to John Scott MSP, whom I know well. He is a farmer in Ayrshire, so I was rather surprised that he did not agree with some of his farming colleagues. I am old enough to remember the last experiment in Scotland when I was a pupil. Will my hon. Friend say something to reassure those parents who have heard tales of children going to school in the dark with the high-visibility armbands securely attached to the duffle coats and torches to get them to the end of their streets?

That is a valid point. It will have to be met head on by the supporters of the campaign, because there is no doubt that in the 1968 trial, although road deaths throughout the vast majority of Scotland reduced significantly, there was a small increase in the number of road deaths in the far north of Scotland. Of course that has to be taken seriously, and I will say as much later on, but let us remember that when it comes to generating publicity on a particular campaign, it is far easier for the media to publicise deaths and injuries on the road than to publicise deaths and injuries that were avoided.

We, as parents and—all of us, I think—as former children, know that when children head out to school in the morning on, say, a 10-minute journey, they allow almost exactly that amount of time for the journey. The return journey, however, is a different matter. It may sound counter-intuitive to suggest that children will be in a bigger hurry to reach school in the morning than to get back home again in the afternoon, but it makes perfect sense. Children adopt a more relaxed approach as they head home, perhaps taking diversions to friends’ homes, popping into a shop or chatting with friends at the school gate.

We see exactly the same phenomenon in our working lives. I saw it as a Transport Minister and when I worked in transport planning before being elected to the House. The evening rush hour is being extended every year and becoming longer and longer, as flexible hours mean more people leaving the office later, more people perhaps heading to the pub or to the shops on the way home, and evening buses and trains carrying the same total number of commuters on their return journeys as they did in the morning rush hour, but over a significantly longer period.

However, too much time in this debate—too much attention—is focused on the journey to and from school. In any one year, children in Scotland spend as much time travelling between home and their friends’ homes, and walking to and from various places of recreation, as they do travelling to and from school. Indeed, during the very darkest mornings in December and early January, children are on holiday from school and do not have to make those journeys at those early times, but they still make journeys later in the day, when the light is fading and they are far more at risk from passing cars.

Will my hon. Friend consider the remarks of the former Prime Minister, our right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), who, at a regional Cabinet meeting in my constituency earlier this year, told a representative of the tourism industry that he saw real benefits of £3.5 billion in the move that my hon. Friend advocates and thought that there were merits in the idea of a three-year trial? I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that those comments are helpful to his campaign in Scotland.

My right hon. Friend will know that I set great store by the comments of our right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) will forgive me, however, I must say that it is one of those claims that the public will have some difficulty accepting. Politicians throw such figures about all the time—£3.5 billion here, £10 billion there—but they do not have a great deal of meaning. Until we have a proper, scientific analysis of all the evidence, it will be quite fair for people to remain sceptical, but I shall come back to that issue, because the private Member’s Bill deals with it.

Scotland’s road traffic record is poorer than the records for England and Wales. Scots are 27% more likely to suffer serious injury as a result of a road accident than our compatriots south of the border. That is partly a simple consequence of lower car ownership—again, a counter-intuitive argument, as one might expect fewer cars to mean fewer road accidents. However, 20% more journeys are made on foot in Scotland than in England, meaning that Scottish pedestrians are more numerous, pro rata, and therefore more at risk.

I spoke rather blithely earlier of the other benefits that might—might—accrue to Scotland if the changes take place, and I wish to place on the record my sincere belief that those benefits would be real, if unquantifiable in advance. Of course, it would benefit Scottish industry if our trading hours were more in line with Europe’s. Incidentally, those Scots and some English who say that Scotland should stick with GMT even if England chooses to move to single/double summertime should remember that Scotland’s biggest trading partner is also our closest neighbour within the Union, and such a move would indeed be damaging to Scottish commerce.

There are arguments in favour of the premise that our tourism industry, our energy consumption, our community safety and our participation in healthy activities would all benefit from a move to single/double summertime.

If the hon. Gentleman is a strong believer in putting the clocks forward an hour, surely he realises that those benefits would be magnified if we put the clocks forward two hours, three hours, four hours, five hours or whatever, but then we might see the nub of the problem and exactly what was being foisted on some people. Does he agree that in a spirit of conciliation, therefore, we need a shorter, symmetrical period either side of midwinter? Rather than changing the clocks seven weeks before midwinter and 14 weeks afterwards, as we do at the moment, why do we not have a five or six-week period either side of midwinter? We would then shorten wintertime by half and probably reach a consensus that would be welcomed throughout the UK.

I am not sure what the Gaelic is for “coming at you out of left field”, but that intervention rather fits the description. On the hon. Gentleman’s first proposal about moving summertime more and more hours forward, if he wishes to bring a Bill to that effect to this House, I will be happy to express my opinion.

Inevitably, and rightly, there will be detractors—[Interruption]—as we can hear. Fair enough—there should be a public debate, but one based on facts, not on the exhumation of the English as evil bogeymen aiming to steal the sun from the Scottish sky.

To return to the substantive point and away from the hon. Gentleman’s hyperbole, does he support the shorter, more symmetrical period, or not?

I will not belabour this particular point. I am speaking in favour of a move to single/double summertime. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands the meaning of that.

There is a serious point here. We have 53 days on one side of the winter solstice and about 100 days on the other side. It is not symmetrical, and therefore this proposal would make sense. I ask SNP Members to allow the Bill to go through to Committee stage so that such detail can be debated. It needs to be given more time so that the country can understand the detail instead of the Bill being kicked into touch by talking it out on a Friday, which happens so often. I hope that the SNP will listen, wake up to what the nation is calling for, and support this proposal so that we can have a debate and see it through to fruition.

The problem with such debates, in most cases, is that various Members raise specific and detailed technical objections which prevent the progress of the Bill and which, nine times out of 10, are intended to do so. The Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Castle Point is before the House, and I hope that the House will make a decision in due course.

Contrary to some rather excitable critics—yes, I am looking at you, John Scott MSP—the Daylight Saving Bill would not implement any permanent change to single/double summertime. It would simply oblige the Government initially to conduct a cross-departmental analysis of the potential costs and benefits of advancing time by one hour for all or part of the year. Only at that point, and entirely dependent on the results of that analysis, would a three-year experiment of single/double summertime be triggered. Crucially, if the analysis were to conclude that the anticipated benefits were unlikely to be realised, the three-year pilot would not go ahead. Given the very sensible caution outlined in the Bill—I congratulate the hon. Lady on promoting it—it is very difficult to see how any serious objection to it could be maintained, even by those strongly opposed to the scrapping of GMT.

I may be wrong in my support for single/double summertime. The critics of the Lighter Later campaign may be wrong. Even—this is extremely far-fetched, I confess—John Scott MSP might be wrong. But until we properly analyse all the available data, we will never know. Instead, we will have the same old arguments, twice a year, every year, when the clock changes come around in October and March.

I have called for this debate because I think that it is right that the Scotland Office sets out its own policy position. It has considerable influence in the Government and could, I imagine, scupper the hon. Lady’s Bill if it so chose. I intend to be present on 3 December when the Bill has its Second Reading. I hope that the Minister will also be present to support it so that we can draw a line under this debate once and for all.

I commend the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) for Glasgow South on securing tonight’s Adjournment debate. Perhaps his much lamented retirement from blogging has left his nights, light or dark, free for more exciting and productive activities such as this debate. However, given the lateness of the hour, he can be confident that Scotland’s nocturnal cyber-nats will be following our every word.

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views and his support for the introduction of what is generally known as double summertime, which would see the United Kingdom using central European time. He is right to say that not everybody in Scotland is against such a change, but he should acknowledge that most are against it, as the Secretary of State for Scotland has made clear to colleagues in the Government. It is for those supporting change to make and win their case across the UK, including in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and that has not happened.

The Minister has just said that the majority of Scots do not support the measure. On what evidence does he base that assumption?

The Scotland Office has carried out consultation on the Bill, both formal and informal, which supports the view that the majority of Scots do not support the measure at this time.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time, given how long I took over my comments. He said that a majority of Scots do not support the change, but he is now talking about consultation and qualitative research. If he is to maintain that a majority of Scots oppose the change, he has to come to the Dispatch Box with evidence of quantitative research by a polling organisation and the Scotland Office. Does he have that information?

Quite the contrary. The hon. Gentleman and those who support the campaign have to win the argument with the public in Scotland, with the body politic and with civic society.

Just to clear up the issue, will the Minister agree to place in the Library all the information to which he has referred, which enabled him to make the claims that he has just made?

As the hon. Gentleman will understand, it is not possible to set out that information in the way that he seeks. What is possible is for those who support the change, such as the hon. Member for Glasgow South, to make their case and win the argument with the people of Scotland. He was very careful not to say that he was speaking on behalf of people in Scotland, because he knows that there is not majority support for the change in Scotland at this time. Rather than argue about polling evidence, which all of us in the body of Scottish politics know is amazingly unreliable, he should concentrate on winning the argument in Scotland if it is what he truly believes.

I appreciate that the debate is about how Scotland feels, but does the Minister accept that there is a spurious argument that the only objections to the policy are from Scotland? In reality, they will come from all over the UK. I have just checked, and found out that if we had the policy in place, sunrise tomorrow in London would be at 8.24 am, and on Christmas eve it would be at 8.50 am. May I suggest that even Londoners would find that objectionable?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, the objections are not just from Scotland.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out clearly the position of the Government as a whole, including the Scotland Office: no change can be made without the consensus of the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland as well as Scotland. There can be no specific policy in relation to Scotland, because consensus across the UK is the key factor. Let me make it clear that, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South alluded to, the Government are unequivocally opposed to any differentiated time zone for Scotland.

Why has the Prime Minister—like the leader of the Liberal Democrats, I am afraid—changed his position on that issue since the general election? He said quite clearly before the election, including to tourism representatives in the south-west, that he favoured the change. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), then the shadow Tourism Minister, explicitly said that he favoured the move. Is this just another broken promise by the coalition?

I certainly accept that the former shadow Tourism Minister is a powerful advocate of the case, but what the Prime Minister said then, and what he says now, is that we welcome an informed debate in all parts of the UK. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor might say, on this issue we are all in it together or not at all.

I am aware that my hon. Friend has been following this issue carefully, but I would ask that his Department show some leadership and a little bit more interest, rather than just saying, “Oh, it’s for the others to make the case.” There is definite interest in the matter, because Scotland and the entire country can benefit. It is time that the Scotland Office considered the matter in detail and carried out an overt study, rather than one that they are not willing to publish, and then supported a three-year experiment. There would be a massive benefit to Britain, including Scotland, and I hope that the Department will embrace that rather than have a laissez-faire attitude.

I do not accept that it is a laissez-faire attitude to reflect opinion in Scotland within Government. We should welcome the debate and challenge those people who feel strongly about the matter to go out and win that debate in Scotland. It is quite clear that they have not yet done so. I agree that this has to be a factual debate and that it does not have to be an emotional one. Even if we move to double summertime, it will not mean that the United Kingdom has any more daylight hours.

Is the Minister aware that the last three opinion polls conducted in Scotland show that a majority of the Scottish public are in favour? I can give him that evidence tomorrow morning.

I have that evidence, but as my hon. Friend will know, the answer is determined by the question, and many people will say “yes” when they are asked whether they like lighter evenings, but they do not necessarily take on board the full consequences of all the issues in the survey. Although I accept and acknowledge that opinion may be changing in Scotland, I do not believe that the majority of people in Scotland support this change.

Might it not be an idea for those parliamentarians who are passionate advocates of change to resign and force a by-election on this very issue and test the opinion themselves?

That is another interesting suggestion. I was going to agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about the change in wintertime and the fact that the change in October is so much closer to the shortest day than the change in the spring, and that is a live issue that people mentioned to me when I was in the Western Isles 10 days ago. We must also recognise that for people living in the Western Isles and the most northerly parts of Scotland, such a change would have a significant impact on their lives in winter when daylight would not come before 10 am, and that cannot be just glibly set aside.

Given that the Minister is very keen for there to be more accurate data on this information and on having an informed debate, will he make it clear that he and his Department will support the Bill’s getting a Second Reading, so that that further research and informed debate can take place?

That will be a matter for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills during the course of the debate, which is to be held on 3 December. I hope that all those Members with an active interest in this matter will ensure that the debate explores all the issues that cannot be explored in the short time that we have available this evening, and that those people who promote the view will continue to gather the evidence that they believe will support their conviction that the benefits of lighter evenings would outweigh the costs of darker mornings. Judging by his contribution, that is the sort of informed debate that the hon. Member for Glasgow South wants to move to, and we would welcome that in this Parliament and in the Scottish Parliament.

Secondly, a consensus within Scotland will need to be built, to convince the body politic, Civic Scotland and the Scottish public to support them. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) might tell me to the contrary, but I was unaware that the Scottish Labour party in the Scottish Parliament supported such a measure and had promoted it by speaking actively in its favour. I might have been wrong in that regard.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South highlighted the important issue of road safety and made some telling points. Thankfully, the UK already has one of the best road safety records in Europe, but the UK and Scottish Governments recognise that we can always do more. The introduction of central European time is not a panacea in that regard. Road safety experts acknowledge that other initiatives could have a greater impact. Indeed, even proponents of change acknowledge that the change may result in more road injuries in Scotland during the morning peak.

I have a lot of respect for my hon. Friend personally and professionally, but I question some of his facts, because according to the statistics that I have seen, road deaths fell in Scotland during the 1968 to 1971 experiment. The statistics and analysis suggest that if the experiment were repeated, road deaths would fall again. I do not know where he gets his data from, but he needs to share them with us if we are to have a full and frank debate.

I recognise the passion with which my hon. Friend speaks, but his contributions have not necessarily been made from an objective viewpoint in relation to Scotland. The Government want and welcome an informed debate. As has been clearly stated, hon. Members will have the chance to debate this issue on 3 December on Second Reading of the Daylight Saving Bill, which is a private Member’s Bill sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris). They need no encouragement from me to take that opportunity.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).