The hour has come to rethink when the clocks are changed

Safety campaigners argue that walking home in the dark exposes children to greater risk. Picture: Greg Macvean
Safety campaigners argue that walking home in the dark exposes children to greater risk. Picture: Greg Macvean
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It may be you turn up an hour early for a lunch with friends, or spend that precious extra time trying to change the clock on your oven. Whatever the inconvenience, you can blame William Willett.

One fine summer morning in 1905, he was out on horseback riding in his native London when he was struck by the number of households still deep in slumber, their shutters firmly closed.

Although Willett was a builder to trade, the realisation would prove to be his eureka moment, as he hit upon the idea of carrying those early hours of sunlight to the day’s end. “Why should man be the slave of the clock?” he asked. It was a question that would have far-reaching consequences, although to this day, there remains no consensus in Britain as to the merits of the clocks going back at this time of year.

A YouGov survey last year found that just 33 per cent of people across the UK believe the clocks should continue to be changed before and after the summer, with 40 per cent calling for an end to the Daylight Saving Time (DST) system. However, the view among Scots is the reverse, with 41 per cent backing the status quo and only 31 per cent against the twice-yearly change.

The disparity can be traced back to the early 20th century, when Willett’s idea gained favour and resulted in the first step towards brighter evenings and darker mornings. For all its supporters, the Summer Time Act 1916 invited condemnation from Scotland.

The Unionist Party MP, Alexander Bruce, declared the law introducing British Summer Time (BST) as a “foolish measure”, before undermining his argument somewhat by imagining a scenario involving a woman giving birth to twins, where “the second one will be born fifty minutes before the other child born before it”.

If the quality of debate has advanced – opponents in Scotland nowadays cite the impact on rural communities and schoolchildren traipsing to school in the dark – the argument continues to rage on. A century after BST was rolled out as a wartime measure to reduce coal consumption, the issue refuses to fade away.

Only four years ago, Conservative MP Rebecca Harris sought to hold a trial where the UK’s clocks would be moved forward to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) plus one hour in the winter and GMT +2 in the summer. However, the lights went out on her private members bill, with former first minister Alex Salmond criticising the campaign to “plunge Scotland into morning darkness”.

There may be no attempts to bring legislation back to the table at the present, but if history is any guide, it will not be long before the fight resumes, and on BST’s anniversary, the spectre of Brexit may also prove defining.

A bewildering array of statutory laws, rules and instruments has informed the past century of DST, with over seventy pieces of primary and secondary legislation. The most recent is The Summer Time Order 2002, which amended The Summer Time Act 1972 to permanently harmonise the BST changeover dates with the rest of Europe.

Significantly, the order was informed by an EU directive known as 2000/84/EC. Until its introduction, many member states across Europe abided by different start and end dates to summertime. The directive, however, brought a uniform observance of DST, starting on the last Sunday in March and ending on the last Sunday in October.

But with post-Brexit UK’s place in the market far from certain, the directive’s legitimacy could be on borrowed time.

While the majority of EU member states may be content with the status quo, there is evidence that several are not.

A 2014 study of the application of summertime in Europe, commissioned by the European Commission, found that five member states indicated that if the directive was no longer in their place, they would act. Two nations stated they would consider scrapping the changeovers altogether, with a further two suggesting they would be open to altering the dates.

The latter consideration is one that has found favour in Scotland. Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, believes the sporadic campaigns to bring the UK in line with Central European Time (CET) represent an unnecessary and ultimately dangerous idea, one that strikes him as particularly ironic after June’s referendum. “It would be a bizarre scenario if Brexit Britain ended up joining the European time zone.”

Instead, he proposes a different change which would address what he described as a long-standing “asymmetry”, where the clocks go back later in the year and go forward earlier.

“I think there might be an opportunity for the UK to look at having a shorter winter,” he said. “Despite all the technicalities involved, GMT could come into force around five weeks before midwinter and end seven or eight weeks after midwinter.

“The reality is that this is an issue that has nothing to do with the political construct of a state, it has to do with our position on the planet and the time the sun rises.”

Opponents of DST, however, do not believe such steps go far enough. One of the most vocal groups calling for change is the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA, which has long regarded DST as a dangerous innovation which directly brings about a spike in road traffic accident deaths.

The society warns that every autumn when the clocks go back, pedestrians, children and cyclists are put at peril. It said that in 2015, pedestrian deaths rose from 27 in September to 42 in October, before rising again to 45 and 58 in November and December respectively.

It advocates Single/Double Summer Time (SDST), which in line with Harris’s proposal, would move the clock forward to GMT+1 in the winter, and GMT+2 in the summer, increasing evening sunlight all year round. The system, RoSPA says, would have the net effect of saving around 80 lives and 212 serious injuries a year.

Tom Mullarky, the society’s chief executive, points to other benefits such as a tourism spike, increased recreational time and decreased fuel costs and CO2 production. “It is the only way we can make so many material improvements to our country, at a stroke, at no cost,” he said.

Yet there have been historic questions surrounding the rigour of the road safety argument in calling for an end to DST. RoSPA has long pointed to the experiment in Britain which saw BST used all year round between March 1968 and October 1971, claiming that it prevented around 2,500 deaths and serious injuries during each year of the trial.

However, the enterprise coincided with the introduction of the Road Safety Act 1967 and the breathalyser, which had an immediate impact. During October 1967, for example, casualties fell by 12 per cent compared with the same month the previous year. Over the first year, the reduction stood at 10 per cent, the equivalent of 1,152 fewer deaths.

RoSPA believes the time of day is a crucial factor in addressing road traffic accidents. Scrapping DST, it believes, would be particularly beneficial for children.

Kevin Clinton, the society’s head of road safety, explained: “Child pedestrians are particularly vulnerable during the afternoon school run, when they digress on their way home and so are exposed to traffic risk for longer than their morning trip to school.”

While RoSPA’s position has hardly changed over the years, there has been a gradual softening on the part of a body historically disinclined to any move that would bring the UK’s clocks in line with those of Europe.

For years, farmers in Scotland were staunchly opposed to a forward shift in the clocks on the grounds that farmers working in the far north of the country would disproportionately suffer during the long, dark mornings.

That position changed with the introduction of Harris’s bill, with NFU Scotland accepting that a review into the potential impact of the change was worth having.

Four years after that bill was scuppered, the union remains open-minded, although it believes those in favour of putting the clocks forward have yet to make a convincing case.

Bob Carruth, a spokesman for NFU Scotland, said: “We remain sceptical about some of the arguments that have been routinely offered in support of the change and nervous of the potential impacts, but we are open to further independent analysis.

“For our part, we would obviously be particularly interested in the consequences for agriculture and rural communities in Scotland where the impact of winter and summer on daylight hours is most extreme.”

While technological advancements mean the modern farm is well lit and increasingly mechanised so as to cope with darker mornings, the union still has misgivings.

“The effect on agriculture of changing the clocks by an hour has reduced over the years but it is important to bear in mind that regardless of what the actual time is on the clock, there are only a set number of daylight hours available to farmers and crofters, during which they still have to carry out the bulk of their daily work and enjoy some social life,” Carruth explained.

“Carrying out such farm work during hours of darkness remains inherently more dangerous than doing it during daylight. And it is not always an option to delay this work.”

In its negotiations to date following the UK’s decision to the leave the EU, Carruth said the matter of DST has not come up, a sign of the greater priority afforded to issues such as access to new and existing markets and the formation of a new agricultural policy. That is not to say, however, it will not come to the fore over the coming months.

Carruth added: “While discussion on CET appears to be off the table in the current Brexit debate, it would be important to bear in mind that the impact of any move to CET would not be uniform across the UK, so we need to analyse the particular Scottish issues around such a proposal.”

Politically, the issue looks unlikely to rear its head in the near future. “I think the UK has enough problems at the moment without further deharmonisation from Europe,” MacNeil observes.

For its part, the Scottish Government insists that scrapping DST would adversely affect Scotland and its opposition to any such move is absolute, while the Scottish Conservatives do not support any change to the existing system. Scottish Labour does not have a policy view on the issue.

It is not alone. Though the subject of daylight rouses passions in a great many people, others are more relaxed. On the Shetland island of Unst, the UK’s most northerly community, where the sun rises as late as 9.13am in the foothills of winter and sets a little over five-and-a-half hours later, the prospect of another hour of darkness would be keenly felt.

But Gary Cleaver, who runs a textile crafts business from the village of Baltasound, believes there are more important considerations at hand. “At the end of the day, there are still 24 hours in a day whether they’re light or dark and it’s what you do with them that counts, he said. “If they start trying to change the law so there’s only 23 hours in a day, that’s when I’ll get vexed.”