Eyes wide shut

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The Independent Online

While criss-crossing time zones in South-east Asia a couple of weeks ago, I went without sleep for 32 hours. When I did finally get to bed in Bali, I slumbered through a wake-up call and missed a 10am meeting with the Indonesian culture minister. Fortunately, nothing of great import depended on it - I was supposed to be discussing tourism, not saving the world from Osama bin Laden - and I woke up restored after 12 hours. But it was a reminder of how quickly brain function is impaired by sleep deprivation, a technique favoured by interrogators. And, apparently, by the British Government, which arbitrarily decided to prolong last Thursday's parliamentary session through the night in an attempt to force the House of Lords to back down from its opposition to the Prevention of Terrorism Bill.

While criss-crossing time zones in South-east Asia a couple of weeks ago, I went without sleep for 32 hours. When I did finally get to bed in Bali, I slumbered through a wake-up call and missed a 10am meeting with the Indonesian culture minister. Fortunately, nothing of great import depended on it - I was supposed to be discussing tourism, not saving the world from Osama bin Laden - and I woke up restored after 12 hours. But it was a reminder of how quickly brain function is impaired by sleep deprivation, a technique favoured by interrogators. And, apparently, by the British Government, which arbitrarily decided to prolong last Thursday's parliamentary session through the night in an attempt to force the House of Lords to back down from its opposition to the Prevention of Terrorism Bill.

It usually takes three days without sleep for hallucinations to begin, but while normal people were waking up and having breakfast on Friday, it was still Thursday at the Palace of Westminster. Reports of midnight debates and dawn votes filled Friday papers - technically Thursday's papers for MPs and peers, who must have been experiencing both a sense of déjà vu and a despairing awareness of being parted too long from their loved ones. (Sorry, joke. Among MPs of the old school, who recently voted for a partial restoration of unsocial hours at Westminster, other MPs are the nearest they get to having loved ones.)

Once this kind of marathon confrontation begins (I refuse to glorify it with the adjective "epic"), the only thing that matters is winning. We were told that bladders filled to bursting (thank you, Andrew Marr, for that detail) and tempers flared as the legislation shuttled back and forth between the two chambers - well, of course they did, irritability being one of the first symptoms of sleep deprivation. So is impaired judgement, as we are reminded by those motorway signs exhorting drivers to take a break every few hours and avoid accidents. Ordinary mortals shouldn't be in charge of machinery in a state of exhaustion, but apparently it's OK for sleep-deprived ministers to be in charge of a whole country. As it happens, I think the Lib Dems and Conservatives were right to oppose this rushed and unsatisfactory piece of legislation - the Government has had three-and-a-half years since 9/11 to come up with something better, for heaven's sake. But the longer something like this drags on, the more exhausted and entrenched each side becomes. Coincidentally, a movie about sleep deprivation is soon to open in the UK, featuring a man whose "every waking minute has become an unremitting nightmare of confusion, paranoia, guilt, anxiety and terror", otherwise known as Charles Clarke. Sorry, that was another joke: even after starving himself for two weeks to look the part of the sleepless hero of The Machinist, the actor Christian Bale is considerably more appealing than the Home Secretary.

In the end, Clarke came up with a compromise, promising a review and new legislation next year and leaving the opposition parties trying to work out the difference between that and the sunset clause they had demanded. By then the debate had been going on for more than 30 hours and ministers were short-tempered, sounding not like statesmen but people whose cerebral cortices were urgently in need of a rest. What really shocked me was that no one seemed to question whether the members of either chamber were up to making sensible decisions about paper clips, let alone a matter as grave as terrorism.

This was Westminster at its absolute worst: a contest between people who were visibly sleep-deprived and running on high levels of adrenalin, making a mockery of the Government's commitment to family-friendly policies. No wonder this country has a culture of long hours and over-work when legislators set such a terrible example. Someone from Westminster Council should have closed the place down on grounds of health and safety - for our sake if not for the welfare of MPs and peers.

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