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British Time Harmonisation

Volume 738: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to harmonise British time with that of the United Kingdom’s main European trading partners.

My Lords, the Government have no current plans to harmonise British time with that of the majority of the United Kingdom’s main European trading partners. Nevertheless, following a debate on a Private Member’s Bill in the other place in the previous Session, the Government have commissioned an evidence-scoping study on advancing the clocks by one hour, to inform debate. However, the Government would not propose any change without UK-wide consensus.

My Lords, that is quite interesting as far as it goes. However, has the noble Lord considered the benefit that lighter evenings would have for road safety and recreational activities?

Yes, my Lords. A change of the sort proposed would create lighter evenings during the winter months and could therefore increase the opportunities for sport and outdoor recreation—although of course some people prefer to exercise in the mornings rather than in the evenings. Some research suggests that the adoption of daylight saving could also lead to a reduction in road traffic accidents, resulting in fewer deaths and serious injuries. However, evidence is needed, including evidence concerning the potential psychological effects involved. There are concerns, for example, that the impact of prolonged darker mornings during the winter may potentially see an increase in cases of seasonal affective disorder.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that this experiment was tried out around 40 years ago and proved so massively unpopular, not only in Scotland but right across the north of England and elsewhere, that it was terminated and thrown out by a vote in another place? Does he agree that it was a mistake then and it would be a mistake now?

My Lords, there are arguments in both directions. Not only, as my noble friend said, did this country try it in the 1960s and then change back again three years later, but Portugal tried it in the 1990s and changed back again too. These are complex matters. The Prime Minister has said that there needs to be consensus before any change.

My Lords, when working on Wall Street I had to clear share offerings in five different time zones within the United States in 24 hours. Does the Minister agree that time zones are more appropriately determined by geography than by commerce?

I think that I would, my Lords. On the subject of trade, it seems likely that there could be benefits for some businesses that trade with European states particularly that are not in our time zone, and indeed with other parts of the world further east. There could also be some losers from the trade perspective. One of our most important EU trading partners, the Republic of Ireland, shares our time zone, of course, so a rigorous analysis of all the overall impacts would be needed before any conclusions could be formed.

Does the Minister agree that the people who trade with Europe could get up an hour earlier, and that this would spread the load on the transport infrastructure and create less congestion on the trains and the road network? The more that we can spread start times at work, the better it will be. There is a lot of merit in that.

My Lords, the point about that is that people who trade with Europe are already getting up an hour earlier.

Will the Minister please comment on the fact that everything should be done, in this House and the other place, to ensure that at this time business has every single break to allow us to create jobs and make profit to pay tax? Will he reflect on the fact that, at the end of the day, if we are going to be internationally competitive, we have to be internationally attractive? That would mean that we could get the reward from the infrastructure investment in high-speed rail and in Eurotunnel. For once, let us sink a little bit of nationalism into the better cause of actually making money for the country.

That was a wide-ranging question, my Lords, but I always listen to the noble Lord with great respect and interest.

My Lords, will the Minister develop his idea on how consensus will be achieved? I reflect on the fact that, in theory, we are in summer time at the moment; perhaps we ought to change its name after the current spate. Seriously, can he give us some indication of the positive impact for business if we made this change? My recollection of the change 40 years ago is not quite that there was such an overwhelming rejection. It might have been less welcome the farther north you went, but it would still have some benefits.

We have already had a bit of a discussion about the effects on trade and I do not think that I have a great deal to add. However, if I detect a sense of hesitancy in the noble Lord about going for a change, I can quote to him what the Prime Minister said:

“I want us to have a united time zone. It's up to those who want to make the change to make the argument to try to convince people right across the country that it's a good thing”.

My Lords, I recollect the experiment 40 years ago, which was voted for overwhelmingly in another place as an experiment and then voted against overwhelmingly at the end of it. Bearing in mind what was said just now about industry, will the Minister recall the damaging effect on the construction industry, with late starts in the morning?

Does my noble friend agree that there is a great danger of introducing permanent summer time without total agreement? The outstanding example is China, which has imposed a uniform time zone across the whole country, with the net effect that the western end of China has to quote both in Chinese time and in western time. There is a chance of everybody getting totally confused.

My Lords, I am aware of the situation in China; I lived in that part of the world for nine years. Everything that my noble friend said is absolutely right.