Joan Smith: We don't need an extra hour of darkness

Backing a Bill to save lives and energy, and lift spirits

Sunday 31 October 2010 00:00 BST

It's that grim point in the calendar when the clocks go back an hour. Tonight ushers in the first of the dark evenings that mark the onset of winter, and all we get in return is a useless extra hour of light in the mornings, when many of us are still in bed. What's even more galling is that the whole business is unnecessary, imposed on the entire population of this long, thin country even though the only people to benefit – and that's arguable, as I'll demonstrate in a moment – are a relatively small number living in the far north.

Since time immemorial, we've been told that it would be hugely unfair on farmers and schoolchildren in the north of Scotland if we didn't return to Greenwich Mean Time for the winter. That means not only darker evenings but remaining out of step with our business partners in Western Europe, where most countries are an hour ahead of the UK throughout the year. This week, there will be an attempt in Parliament to address this idiocy when a Private Member's Bill introduced by Rebecca Harris, Conservative MP for Castle Point in Essex, has its third reading. The Bill would put Britain's clocks one hour ahead of GMT in the winter, and two hours in the summer, for a three-year, experimental, period.

It's not the first time MPs have tried to make this shift, but the difference on this occasion is that the Bill has the support of climate change campaigners and sporting organisations as well as road safety campaigners. According to a recent poll, it also has the support of two out of three members of the public.

The scientific case for change was put powerfully last week when a Cambridge academic, Dr Elizabeth Garnsey, told a House of Commons committee that reverting to GMT in the winter wastes 0.5 per cent of Britain's energy production and causes 500,000 tons of unnecessary carbon dioxide.

At the same time, Dr Mayer Hillman of the Policy Studies Institute published a report arguing that people would be happier and healthier if the clocks were not put back in the autumn, and even made the heretical suggestion that the change would cut road deaths in Scotland.

The SNP MP for the Western Isles, Angus MacNeil, reacted angrily in the summer when David Cameron appeared to suggest that he wasn't irrevocably hostile to looking again at the subject. MacNeil said dismissively that people in the south should be encouraged to "get up earlier to enjoy the morning sunshine".

Labour's James Kelly was equally forthright, complaining that moving to Continental time would "quite literally leave Scotland in the dark", and endanger children walking to school on winter mornings.

In fact, research shows that children are at slightly greater risk in the afternoon than the mornings: nationally, 54 per cent of accidents involving child pedestrians occur between the hours of 3pm and 7pm. According to a report published earlier this year, a slight increase in morning accidents caused by a darker start to the day would be balanced by a much larger decrease in evening accidents, as was the case between 1968 and 1971, when the clocks stayed year round at GMT plus one hour.

Public opinion in Scotland is almost equally divided, with a small majority against change. But opposition is entrenched among Scottish politicians, who scoff at scientific evidence and appear to regard maintaining the status quo as a matter of national pride. If that's the case, perhaps it's time to consider the most radical option, which is allowing England and Wales to be an hour ahead of Scotland. Since the arrival of Eurostar, it's never made sense to me that London and Birmingham are on the same time as the Hebrides – but not Paris or Brussels.

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