Lighter Evenings (Experiment) Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:20 pm on 24th March 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Sainsbury of Turville Lord Sainsbury of Turville Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Trade and Industry, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Science and Innovation) 12:20 pm, 24th March 2006

My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, for his full and helpful explanation of the Lighter Evenings (Experiment) Bill. He made an extremely good case as far as one can for moving in this direction, but I have to say that my reply on this may be disappointing to him and to my noble friend Lady Billingham. I also make a fundamental point in response to the noble Lord, Lord Quinton: it is not the case that everyone agrees that there would be huge benefits and no costs. In fact, there is almost a complete split over the benefits and disbenefits.

Noble Lords will be aware that the topic of introducing lighter evenings is a perennial issue and, indeed, was the subject of a debate in the House earlier this year. As those interested in the issue are also well aware, we have already undertaken an experiment of a similar kind. From 1968 to 1971 the British Standard Time experiment was carried out where continuous summer time, in other words GMT plus one hour, was adopted throughout the year in order to test public opinion. Objections were raised by the farming and construction industries, as well as others involved in outdoor work such as postal workers and milkmen, particularly those in the north of England and Scotland who experienced difficulties because of the late sunrise in winter. At the time they made their views very clear and there could be no mistaking their opinion. As a result of the experiment, following a vote in Parliament it was abandoned.

It has been said that not many people start work early in the morning. I am afraid to say that lots of people do so, on construction sites and other places. It is not only the noble Lord, Lord Laing, who gets up to make his excellent biscuits; many others work or are making their way to work. Unlike the noble Lord, they do not like travelling in the dark. The noble Lord was a well-known workaholic, which meant that he produced wonderful biscuits for supermarkets, but I do not know that he is totally representative of the people of this country. I accept that that was a different world, but it is not clear to me that it was different in ways relevant to this particular issue. Yes, it was a horrible world in which people boiled Brussels sprouts to the point where absolutely no taste was left in them, but I fail to see how that is relevant to the question of summer time.

Opinion on a move to Central European Time was canvassed more recently in a 1989 Green Paper published by the then government entitled Summer Time: A consultation document. The responses revealed again the huge divergence of opinion that existed on this issue. In fact, whenever the subject is raised, a wide range of views is expressed. What is also of interest and relevance here is the fact that another country has experimented with this more recently. The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, tried to explain away the situation in Portugal, but the point is that it did in fact move to Central European Time in 1992, but reverted to Greenwich Mean Time in 1996. It was concluded that the small energy savings could not justify the inconvenience the change created. It caused particular inconvenience through its impact on schoolchildren, which became a big issue in Portugal. The change had a very disturbing effect on children's sleeping habits as it would not get dark until 10 or 10.30 in the evening. It was difficult for children to go to bed early enough to have sufficient sleep. This had inevitable repercussions on standards of learning and school performance. Difficulties were also encountered with children leaving for school in complete darkness. Moreover, insurance companies in Portugal reported a rise in the number of accidents.

The Government are well aware of the 1999 road study by the Transport Research Laboratory, and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that it provides the most substantial and important evidence here. However, so far as one can make out, it was not borne out by the experience in Portugal. On electricity consumption savings, these were reported to be insignificant.

I shall make one further general point about the Bill before I respond to the specific points. Certain provisions of the Bill amend Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. Its effect would be to alter the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. No doubt noble Lords will be aware that this would trigger the Sewel convention. The relevant provisions would therefore require the consent of the Scottish Parliament. Without that consent, the Government would be obliged to table amendments to the Bill to ensure that the convention is not breached. There is no likelihood of the Scottish Parliament agreeing to that change. It is also not realistic to talk about introducing a time difference between England and Scotland. If it is not a problem, what on earth is the argument for saying that there are huge benefits in aligning ourselves with Europe? Either there are benefits from aligning with other countries or there are not, but if there are, clearly a time difference between Scotland and England would have to be a disbenefit.

I turn to one or two of the specific points made in the debate. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, I did not say that I know what people think; rather I merely reported that whenever this issues comes to Parliament, there is no surge of enthusiasm for it in the House of Commons, which suggests that members of the public are not going to their MPs and saying that they very much want the scheme. Further, one should always declare the response rate whenever one refers to polls. Polls of this kind can be deeply misleading because those who want to see change will respond, while people who do not particularly care or are against it may not respond. One must be careful with that kind of poll. One need only say at this point that the Bill will go to the House of Commons and representatives in the other place will no doubt reflect what they believe to be people's opinion.

As regards trade with our EU partners, we simply do not find that there is any strong push from business to change the summer time arrangements, which would suggest that it is content with the current system. Indeed, trade investors have not raised it as an issue. Finally, such a change would have a negative impact on trade with the Republic of Ireland and Portugal as they are on Greenwich Mean Time. On energy savings, the Building Research Establishment has produced figures which indicate that a change would not lead to a reduction in energy use. Again, I did not say that all people would leave all lights on all day, merely that more people would do so, which would counteract the effect of any other energy savings. I have not seen the California study, but if it is important I shall reflect on it.

On a reduction in crime rates, again different groups have different views on this issue. Assaults on and thefts from postal workers increase markedly from summer to winter due to the dark mornings, a situation that could only be worsened by imposing extra hours of darkness in the morning. There are just so many hours of darkness and if criminals want to commit a crime during those hours, they will simply choose the darker hours in which to do it. I do not think that they would be put off by the hours being different.

The other main argument has always been the question of health benefits, tourism and sport, and how the change would bring a boost to people's morale and the health of the country by reducing cases of seasonal affective disorder. It is possible that we would all benefit mentally and physically from a change to lighter evenings. The mood of the nation could be improved, but equally other people think that the darker mornings are very depressing. Again, this is a question of balance. Some people would like it and some would not. Further, if it really could be shown that moving to double summer time would have an effect on obesity in children, I must say that I would be enormously enthusiastic about it. But there are rather deeper issues which lead to obesity in children than simply the amount of daylight in the evenings.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, of course it is not easy to change when summer time starts and ends. It is covered very sensibly, I think, by the European Union in the 9th EC directive so that there is co-ordination across countries over when they begin and end summer time. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, that I do not think any part of industry would greatly suffer from this move. It is an issue for people who have to work early in the morning, and that could have an effect on the construction industry.