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Column 1097Why did the Secretary of State, not only to us at a meeting but afterwards on the record to the media, say that he was looking at that proposal and then deny it later ?
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, this is in danger of becoming an abuse of the House. He has already taken 20 minutes and the Minister will not have much time to wind up.
Mr. Taylor : I was about to finish my last paragraph. I had understood that the convention is that the time is in the hands of the hon. Member proposing an Adjournment debate, some of whom speak for just one minute and leave the remaining time available to the Minister, and vice versa. I wanted to make some important points. On several Adjournment debates, Ministers have replied to me incorrectly on the history of this matter.
In addition, as to replacing water rates with the council tax system, we believe that the only solution is for national funds to tackle the problem. Otherwise, the problem of 30 per cent. of the clean-up being funded by 3 per cent. of the population cannot be tackled. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have argued that point. It will not do to blame Europe. It was not Europe but the Government who initiated this problem. And the Minister must answer that charge.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : We have heard a monologue lasting more than 20 minutefrom the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), without much substance. The rate of increase in water charges in the south-west in recent years has been a cause of concern to the Government. My hon. Friends have been vigorous in their representations to Ministers on that matter, as is clearly evidenced by the presence today of my hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe), for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson). With other hon. Friends, they have been extremely conscientious in ensuring that Ministers appreciate the concerns of those living in the south-west. I appreciate the fact that some Opposition Members share their concerns.
Water and sewerage charges have been rising across the country as a whole in recent years. That has been necessary to help pay for the multi-billion pound investment programme in the water industry. How often do we hear calls from Opposition Members for more investment ? "Spend more money" is practically the rallying call of the Labour and Liberal parties but they complain as soon as more money is invested in the industry. Such complaints are all the more perverse because the previous Labour Government, supported by the Liberals in the Lib-Lab pact, starved the water industry of the money it needed for investment.
When the water authorities were constituted in 1974, their investment stood at some £1.4 billion at current prices. The Labour Government, due to economic mismanagement, simply could not afford to keep up that rate of investment. That Labour Government was marked by rising inflation, economic mismanagement and poor public spending control so that, in December 1976, the Labour Government, propped up by the Liberals, had to
Column 1098announce overnight a moratorium on the letting of new construction contracts by water authorities. That moratorium signalled public spending cuts for the next two years. South West Water's capital expenditure was actually reduced by 6 per cent. in cash terms. So we do not need lectures from the Liberal Democrat or Labour parties on investing in the water industry.
We have reversed their neglect. To do so, increases in water bills would have been necessary even had the water industry remained in the public sector. But privatisation has allowed water companies access to the financial markets to enable them to obtain part of the funds that they need for their investment programmes, in the form of long-term private sector loans.
Overall, water companies are investing some £3 billion a year. If the companies are to continue to undertake the investment required of them, they must be profitable and able to reinvest those profits in the water infrastructure. We hear many cheap comments from Opposition Members about the water companies' profits. South West Water's last annual report, for the year ended March 1993, states that the company made a pre-tax profit of £92.7 million, but it reported capital spending of £203.7 million in the same period. South West Water's capital investment in the south-west was, therefore, more than double its pre-tax profit.
I acknowledge that in recent years water and sewerage charges have risen more rapidly in the south-west than in other parts of the country, but let us have some sense of proportion. The average South West Water bill for the coming year is £304, which is £40 more than the average bill in the Anglian region and £48 more than the average in Wales. So customers in the south-west are paying on average less than £1 a week more than customers in those regions and the average bill for the coming year will be 83p a day, for water delivered for all purposes and for taking waste water away. That shows that the cost of water in the south-west still represents good value for money.
South West Water's charges have increased more rapidly than those elsewhere because of the company's substantial capital investment programme. It is investing, and plans to continue to invest, between £200 million and £250 million a year, every year until 2000. Much of that spending programme is needed to clean up bathing waters and beaches in the south- west and to comply with the European Community bathing water directive. My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) made some telling remarks about that directive. People do not want dirty beaches and they should not have them. South West Water is spending millions of pounds to clean up the beaches and no one has ever suggested that schemes to clean up beaches that fail European Community mandatory standards should be deferred. I am glad that South West Water's "Clean Sweep" coastal sewage treatment programme is well under way. That is good news for local people and for tourism. People welcome those environmental improvements, but there will also be important economic benefits because clean beaches and safe bathing waters are increasingly necessary to attract and retain a thriving tourist industry, on which many jobs in the south-west depend.
Last year, many people in the south-west became concerned about the scale of possible future price increases set out in South West Water's market plan. That plan was published in May last year and set out three possible options for typical household bills in 2000, which is six
Column 1099years away. The options were : £400, £450 or £500, depending on assumptions made. The hon. Member for Truro suggested that those were actualities, but it is important to make it clear that they are hypothetical bills that are six years away.
South West Water argues that if it is to meet the higher standards that will be legally required by 2000 it will have to levy a typical charge of £450 in that year. It is important for us to recognise that those figures were the company's estimates only. We are not talking about charges this year, next year or in 2000. Charge increases from 1995 onwards will be subject to the new price limits, which the Director General of Water Services, Mr. Byatt, will announce in July, following his first periodic review of all water company prices. The hon. Member for Truro suggested some ways in which the director general could reduce water bills in the south-west. Essentially the Liberal Democrats want some form of cross- subsidisation. They want other parts of the country to help to meet the costs of sewage treatment in the south-west. To put it bluntly, that would be a form of cross subsidy, but why should there be such cross- subsidisation from customers in other parts of the country ? Such subsidies are not consistent with transparency or accountability. Nor is it desirable for water and sewerage services to be paid for out of general taxation rather than charges to consumers.
Doubtless the hon. Gentleman's colleagues in other parts of the country will explain to their voters the Liberal Democrat view that their bills should be increased and that they should pay twice in their bills to subsidise the south-west. I somehow doubt that they will do so because a consistent theme of the Liberal Democrat party is that its members can always be guaranteed to say different things in different parts of the country.
Some people have argued that it is unfair for the south-west, with only 3 per cent. of the nation's population, to have to pay to clean up 30 per cent. of its beaches. But that argument ignores the fact that other parts of the country have particular geographical problems--for instance, East Anglia has a problem with nitrates and the north-west has a problem with lead. Those problems also require additional investment, which has to be paid for by the customers in those areas.
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) rose
Mr. Baldry : No, I cannot give way. The director general will announce in July the new annual price limits for South West Water and for other companies, for a ten-year period beginning 1 April 1995. I was not given a proper opportunity to answer this important debate by the hon. Member for Truro, but I suspect that much of what I have to say I shall say by way of a press release in the south-west--because the hon. Gentleman abused our procedure. The director general and the Government are keen to ensure that future price rises are not a penny higher than necessary. That is the action that we are taking to ensure that we comply properly with the directives, and to ensure that bills in the south-west are kept as low as possible
Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath) : Our former highly respected colleague Sir Richard Luce, who was a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister for many successful years, had a letter published in The Times on 25 October last year. It began as follows :
"Having just returned from the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Cyprus I am absolutely clear that in recent years the British people have forgotten about the Commonwealth. Very few of the younger generation know about it. The British Government gives the impression that it has other preoccupations."
Although the Prime Minister played a full part in that meeting in Cyprus, being there for the five days, I too detected an unfortunate tone of indifference to the Commonwealth creeping into Government pronouncements of the time.
It has been brought to my attention by supporters of the Commonwealth that in the new national curriculum there is, alack, no reference to the Commonwealth--an omission that I find both surprising and wrong, although I appreciate that it may be mentioned under another heading, such as the nature of community.
The Government have failed to stir the imaginations of the younger generation or their interest in the Commonwealth ; perhaps a reference in the national curriculum would be the right way forward. If the Minister has a better proposal, I should like to hear it. When Her Majesty the Queen visited the Commonwealth Institute last May, she remarked :
"The institute brings the reality of the individual countries of the Commonwealth alive, and demonstrates the role the Commonwealth can play in the world and among its members."
Unfortunately, as the House will know, in September--owing, I believe, to an excessive Treasury squeeze on the FCO budget, and to a belief that the institute should raise more of its own money--the Government announced, without prior consultation, the decision to stop all future funding of the institute. That represented a massive blow to a popular and important institute.
Writing in The Spectator last October, John Simpson, the perceptive BBC diplomatic correspondent, likened Britain's approach to the Commonwealth these days to that of a father who has left home and is inclined to forget the birthdays of his children. He thought that Labour's interest in it had faded and that
"nowadays there is no political support for the Commonwealth at Westminster . . . For the Right wing of the Conservative party the Commonwealth represented little more than a large extended begging-bowl. There were no imperial echoes in Thatcherism . . . As for the left and centre of the party, they are concerned only with Europe ; for them, there is no alternative."
He took a certain journalistic licence, but there was a kernel of truth in what he wrote.
The purpose of this brief Adjournment debate is to give the Under-Secretary of State, whose lighthearted steps to the golden beaches I have had reason to delay on several previous occasions, the opportunity to tell the House what role he sees for the Commonwealth--it hardly bears repeating that the Commonwealth is not the British Commonwealth--and what role the Government are to play in assisting, guiding and encouraging that future.
I want to spend a few minutes giving him some help with that task. I speak as an enthusiastic and committed supporter of the European Union, who has found in
Column 1101practice over the years that it is only on the rarest of occasions that the interests of the European Union and the Commonwealth are seriously divorced, let alone contrary.
Let the Government help the British people to reappraise the value of the Commonwealth at the end of this century, not just to the United Kingdom but to the world.
For many years, the Commonwealth was distorted by the vexed issue of South Africa, by tired and tedious references to a colonial past and by a false picture of Britain's role in the modern world. Times have changed ; South Africa is about to have a crucial, historic election and I welcome in principle South Africa's return to the Commonwealth fold.
There are powerful advantages for Britain in being a member of this unique collection of 50 nations which together represent 1.5 billion people--a figure even greater than the population of China. The Commonwealth has some of the fastest growing economies such as Singapore and Malaysia. In mentioning Malaysia, cordial relations should be speedily restored between our Commonwealth countries. The Minister will know that one of his colleagues had the opportunity to congratulate the Malaysian defence forces yesterday on the part that they played with great courage in rescuing the British Army mountaineers.
The Commonwealth has the world's most populist democracy--India--and such key regional players as Australia, Canada and Nigeria and 25 per cent. of United Nations members belong to it.
I visited New York last year with a parliamentary delegation and I was told that the Commonwealth delegates have regular co-ordinating meetings and work well together. I hope there is concerted effort to canvass the support of those delegates for Britain's continued seat on the United Nations Security Council and that it is partly regarded as a Commonwealth seat and not just a European Union seat. Britain should be able to assist the Commonwealth also through its membership not only of the European Union, which is getting ever larger, but of the G7 countries and because of the important part Britain plays in the deliberations of the International Monetary Fund and the World bank.
I should like to think that Britain remains the Commonwealth psychological centre, helped by the presence here in London of the Commonwealth Secretariat in one of our historic old houses. At the important Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting--I have the highest possible regard for the role of our royal family on such occasions--Britain had the opportunity to get its point of view across to 49 other members with their cross section of religion, culture and levels of development. But Britain also has the opportunity to gain a special insight into a vast and ever- changing range of world problems, including those concerning health, social issues and the environment.
We should never forget the occasions when Commonwealth countries have been able to help us when we were in trouble. The invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 was one such moment in recent history. As a former member of the executive committee of the British section of the Commonwealth Parliamentary
Column 1102Association, and as a member of the House of Commons who has participated in a number of CPA visits to Commonwealth countries, including Australia and Zambia, I draw attention to the association's splendid work. Commonwealth Members of Parliament are frequently surprised, when they meet in different corners of the world, to learn how much they share in common. In our divided, turbulent and frequently violent world, greater understanding is vital. Its value is unquantifiable.
The CPA can help buttress Commonwealth Parliaments. I recall the encouragement a British delegation tried to give a Speaker in an African country who was under unwarranted pressure--in fact, he was receiving personal threats--from the head of state. After all, this House has a deep historical knowledge of such matters and a good record of putting the high and mighty, insensitive and arrogant in their proper places. New hon. Members do not have the international background that some of their predecessors had--particularly of those who served abroad during the last world war. Also, the last group of Conservative Members of Parliament elected did not include, for the first time in many years, someone from the diplomatic community. They welcome visits to Commonwealth countries.
The secretariat has played a useful part in building stronger democracies. Multi-party democracy is being restored in many Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth is busily engaged putting its own house in order and that effort should be both sustained and acknowledged. Experts of the highest quality have been despatched to help strengthen democratic systems and the rule of law. Governments have been assisted in adopting international best practice in their administrative, judicial and regulatory functions. That work is immensely important and offers hope to future generations. I will focus on the mounting of 11 election observer missions--a crucial and comparatively new activity involving this House. Such missions are undertaken only at the invitation of the Governments concerned and with the agreement of all major political parties. Independent observers closely examine all aspects of the conduct of the election and decide whether the result reflects the wishes of the people. Recently, elections have been held and observed in Zambia, the Seychelles, Ghana, Kenya and Lesotho.
Time allows only a brief reference to the Harare declaration at the 1991 Commonwealth summit, which takes forward the core Commonwealth beliefs and defines 10 key areas of action. They include the protection and promotion of fundamental political values, equality for women, access to education, promoting sustainable development, protecting the environment, and combatting drug trafficking. Britain is heavily committed to success in them all.
In his letter to The Times in support of the Commonwealth, Sir Richard Luce wrote of
"a vast and unique network of contact between the people of the Commonwealth fostered by the provision of scholarships and fellowships and the work of many Commonwealth professional organisations. Recently representatives from over 500 universities in the Commonwealth were able to meet in Swansea."
Britain fully supports such activities and gives £14 million for Commonwealth scholarships--50 per cent. of the total. We also pay 30 per cent. of the secretariat budget, and I am
Column 1103told that we provide the building free. Like the European Union, the Commonwealth represents a highly successful club. As John Simpson put it, it is
"a matter of considerable prestige to be a member. Angola and Mozambique, though former Portugese possessions, are both seeking to join : it represents security for them, and a way back from the utter despair they have endured".
I am greatly encouraged by the number of Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, as well as British people, that one can now find working in Commonwealth countries in Africa and Asia. The Commonwealth, under its superb Secretary-General, has built up a considerable life of its own, and we have every reason to be proud of it.
I end with some words that Chief Anyaoku used in his report last year to the Heads of Government :
"The very existence of the Commonwealth and its history in modern times give grounds for optimism in postulating future possibilities for international co-operation . . . The Commonwealth has grown out of the deepest and most enriching currents of its times : decolonisation and national freedom, individual liberty and democracy, racial equality, development and the struggle to alleviate poverty, international co- operation and understanding across historical divides, and the quest for world peace."
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd) : My hon. Friend should be congratulated for raising this subject. Members such as he ensure that we discuss matters which we would otherwise perhaps not discuss often enough. I know from his remarks that he has demonstrated that there is no lack of political support for the Commonwealth at Westminster when there are Members such as he in the House. My hon. Friend mentioned the size of the Commonwealth. It represents a large cross-section of the world, with 1.5 billion people. I think that it is best described as an organisation with a membership which is one quarter of the human race. My hon. Friend mentioned the enormous powerful commercial interests and advantages which accrue to Britain through its membership of the Commonwealth. He mentioned Singapore and Malaysia. It would be right to add India to that list, as another burgeoning economy in the Commonwealth. As in the case of most international organisations, the role and image of the Commonwealth has changed immeasurably in the past few years. It is, in spite of being one of the oldest and by no means the smallest, probably the least discussed and has the lowest profile. That lowness of profile is one of its strengths. It gets on with its business quietly and effectively behind the scenes. Of course it was an invention of the British, originally designed to make the transition from empire to independence as smooth as possible, but it has some notable advantages nowadays over other institutions. Perhaps its greatest advantage is that it has no fixed, unchangeable objective. Its strength is in its continuing vocation for informal co-operation and contact. It is not an organisation with voting rights or elaborate machinery for dealing procedurally with disagreements between members. All those features are its strengths. My hon. Friend has expressed some disappointment that the word "Commonwealth" is not mentioned in the national curriculum. He is being a little unfair. If I were to challenge him to read the national curriculum in its entirety, and to list the number of subjects of interest about which he would like schoolchildren to be taught, he would
Column 1104find that the Commonwealth is not the only subject that is not mentioned in the national curriculum. Frankly, he is asking more of the national curriculum than is possible. I would have thought, like my hon. Friend, that all types of occasions provide opportunities to demonstrate to schoolchildren Britain's membership of the Commonwealth, and the interest in the Commonwealth of so many British subjects whose parents came from Commonwealth countries.
From what I have said, it is obvious that the great challenge facing the Commonwealth now is to consider how its future relevance and its flexible role will develop. I am happy to endorse my hon. Friend's comments about the present Commonwealth Secretary-General. He has been enormously successful and has built well upon the initiatives of his predecessors. He has done a particularly good job in promoting good government and on election monitoring. That is an area in which the Commonwealth is particularly well qualified and where it has a special contribution to make. I welcome that and see it as giving new life to the Commonwealth.
In 1991 at Harare the Heads of Government opened a new chapter in the Commonwealth's history. The declaration on good governance made at that meeting has since proved its worth. It gave the Commonwealth new unity and purpose in promoting good governance and democracy. It certainly demonstrates the Commonwealth's relevance today. My hon. Friend touched on a number of the successful elections that have taken place since 1991 which led to democratic government in Commonwealth countries. There have been elections in Zambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho and the Seychelles. They were all undertaken with observer missions, to which my hon. Friend referred, and with Commonwealth assistance. The Secretary-General's good offices were instrumental in bringing to a peaceful end the recent troubles in Lesotho.
Last year's conference in Cyprus was able to concentrate on the practical and constructive work of the Commonwealth. As we know, its members have important shared economic interests and agreement was reached on a range of important subjects.
The Limassol statement on the Uruguay round expressed the Commonwealth's strong collective commitment to a comprehensive, equitable and balanced conclusion on the general agreement on tariffs and trade. Other important areas were covered. Additional measures were called for to reduce the debt burden of developing countries. A strengthening of co-operation in combating the international menace of financial crime, proposed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, was agreed by members. As a result, a financial crime workshop for Commonwealth small states, which are so vulnerable to sophisticated international financial crime, will be held in Port of Spain in May this year.
Mr. Cyril D.Townsend : While my hon. Friend is talking about smaller states, what is the Government's view on inviting into the Commonwealth countries such as Angola--by no means a small state in terms of size--which have not previously been part of the British empire ?
Mr. Lennox-Boyd : It would be nice to think that my views would prevail just like that. I can give only a tentative opinion on what I believe is the Government's view. It is a matter for the Commonwealth, not the British
Column 1105Government. We are an important part of the Commonwealth and we favour the accession of new states, provided that they meet the essential criteria that we expect of a civilised nation and have an interest in being a member of the Commonwealth by reason of geographical location and proximity to other Commonwealth countries. I am happy to say that I think that we would give that proposition a fair wind, but I can give my hon. Friend a more considered reply by letter if he so wishes.
There is no doubt that Britain's entry into the European Community, to which my hon. Friend referred--and our membership now of the European Union --has benefited Commonwealth countries. It has allowed them greater access than ever before to European markets. The Lome convention offers to 69 developing countries, many of them Commonwealth members, the most favourable trading regime that the European Community gives to any of its trading partners. All industrial goods, except rum, can enter the Community market free from tariffs and quotas, and even rum should soon be exempt. My hon. Friend mentioned the Commonwealth Institute. The Government emphatically do not want the institute to close. The decision to withdraw our grant in aid after March 1996 was taken with great reluctance against a very tight Foreign Office budget. We want the institute to use the fine building on Kensington High street, provided by the Government, to promote the Commonwealth but to draw after 1996 on non-Government funds to do so. I know that many of the institute's supporters believe that its facilities and programmes could still have a useful function. The Foreign Office is giving the institute a full grant for the current and the next two financial years to enable it to develop a relaunch programme. In addition, separate finance of up to £2.4 million was made available last month to meet redundancy costs. We do not for a moment underestimate the difficulty of the task facing the institute in the next two years but nor do we share the pessimism that has been expressed by a number of colleagues.
I now draw the House's attention to other aspects of our interests in the Commonwealth. Let us consider aid. Because of our shared tradition and common values, it is right that by far the largest part of Britain's official aid programme should go to Commonwealth countries. In recent years, that has amounted to 65 per cent. of the aid that we provide bilaterally. We have always contributed up to 30 per cent. of the secretariat's programme and running costs which, in 1993-94, amount to about £3 million. We have contributed equally towards the Commonwealth fund for technical co-operation since its birth in 1971.
Column 1106We also provide substantial support each year for scholarships and training awards for students from Commonwealth countries. For instance, the British Chevening scholarships scheme funded 987 scholars and fellows from 49 different countries in 1992-93. A further £600,000 a year goes to the Commonwealth Foundation. We should not forget the role that Britain has played in promoting the interests of our Commonwealth partners in the international financial institutions and through the European Union. Our aid, like that of other major donors, is closely linked to the drive in recipient countries to secure better government and improved respect for human rights.
My hon. Friend mentioned South Africa, and I wish I had a few more minutes to develop the argument slightly further than he took it. It is enormously important that the Commonwealth is playing such an active role there. For well over a year, the Commonwealth observer mission has been in South Africa, helping to bring an end to the cycle of violence and assisting in the transition to a non-racial democracy. The Commonwealth has helped in the training of mediators and marshals specialising in crowd control and provided assistance in the form of training to the proposed national peacekeeping force. As my hon. Friend knows, plans are currently being finalised to mount, in co-operation with the UN, the Organisation for African Unity and the European Union, the largest ever Commonwealth election observer mission to observe South Africa's first non-racial democratic elections on 27 April next.
I must bring my remarks to a halt in a moment or two. I conclude by saying that Commonwealth members have important shared political and economic interests. Britain's membership of the Commonwealth, as of so many other international organisations, presents and will, I hope, continue to present challenges and opportunities. We regard membership as a strength, bringing different perspectives to bear on mutual problems. Because of its population and geographical diversity, the Commonwealth brings a particular perspective that gives it a valuable and relevant role in the world today.
The living proof is there to see. The Commonwealth is standing the test of time extremely well. We have only to consider all the initiatives that it has produced. In October a number of Members of Parliament, including several of my right hon. Friends and myself, will attend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association annual conference in Banff. Later in the year we have the Commonwealth Law and Education Ministers meetings. The Commonwealth Year of Sport is to be celebrated in Canada in August, with the Commonwealth Games. And of course, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting will take place in New Zealand in the autumn of next year.
Ms Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) : I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a case for the maintenance of Greenwich mean time. As our clocks have just moved forward, this is an especially appropriate time to debate the issue. And as I am discussing Greenwich mean time, I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) is here beside me.
It would be useful to start with a little description of the history and background. The subject goes back a long way. In 1844 an international convention opted for the world to consist of a number of time belts of one hour per 15 degrees of longitude. That world time order means that midday in the United Kingdom is midnight on the other side of the world. The United Kingdom is in the Greenwich mean time zone.
Greenwich mean time, then, is the system that applies to the United Kingdom and Ireland in winter. British summer time--BST--starts when the clocks go forward one hour, as has happened recently. Central European time is the system for Europe, but not for Greece. Europe remains one hour ahead of the United Kingdom and Ireland for 11 months a year--that is, it is on GMT plus one in winter and GMT plus two in summer. That is sometimes known as single double summer time. Summer time means the practice of moving clocks forward one hour in summer. That ensures more daylight hours in the evening. In the summer months that works effectively because longer daylight hours mean that there is also light in the mornings. In winter there are fewer daylight hours, and the clocks go back one hour in October to create extra daylight in the mornings. That means that on the shortest day of the year day breaks at about 8.30 or 9 am in the south-east and after 10 am in the north of Scotland. In the most northern parts daylight can begin as late as 10.30 or 10.45 am. Europe, but not Greece, adopts Greenwich mean time plus one hour--central European time--as its system for most of the year. In summer western Europe moves its clocks forward--in effect, that means Greenwich mean time plus two hours--at the same time as we move to Greenwich mean time plus one hour. That trend is reversed by Europe in September, with a move back to GMT plus one. That creates harmonisation with Great Britain for a month, until we move back to GMT in October. The European Commission is trying to regularise the September-October period. Greece is still different, and is on GMT plus two and GMT plus three respectively.
That says it all. The different time zones are part of nature in a sense : they are part of where we are. James Morgan, in a good and effective article in the Financial Times , said simply :
"The pressure to move the clock forward reflects the familiar vanity that reality is ours to change. But the earth turns on its axis, and Belfast is in a different time zone from Belgrade because it is in a different place."
There are many arguments both for and against change, but I believe that there is no argument for change strong enough to do away with the tradition and the advantages of keeping Greenwich mean time. Today I want to find out whether the Government have made up their mind to come out of the somewhat neutral position, weighing up all the arguments, that they adopted in the document that they issued some time ago. That
Column 1108contained a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but came out with no strong case against change. I want to see whether the Minister can give me that information today.
One aspect has supposedly formed part of the strongest case for the attempted change : road accidents and safety. The most emotive issue is the safety of children. The current system means that children go to and leave school in daylight except in the very north of Scotland and parts of the northern part of Northern Ireland. Under central European time children would continue to leave school in daylight, but would go to school in darkness.
The House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected an extension of the British standard time experiment in the early 1970s. I am not sure whether the Minister was in the House then--I certainly was not--but a significant factor in that overwhelming rejection was the fact that during the experiment there was an increase in road accidents involving children in the mornings. There were many stories of children and school crossing patrols being killed or injured in the blackness of our English winter mornings between 7.30 and 9 a.m. That was when the practice of children wearing fluorescent armbands first started.
It seems to have been forgotten that mornings are darker than early evenings--as we all know, the darkest hour is the hour before dawn. In early evening, people often have their lights shining out from their house windows for a long time before they close their curtains. In the morning, curtains are often left closed until there is proper daylight. Many shop lights do not come on until about 8.45 am, by which time most children are in school, whereas shop lights shine out brightly late in the day until 5.30 or 6 pm.
On the crucial subject of young children travelling to school in darkness, the only argument that the supporters of central European time can advance is that children are more likely to be driven to school in the mornings than in the evenings. That is all very well if the family happens to have a car and there is a member of the family available to drive the child to school, but that does not happen for the vast majority of our children today and the argument provides no comfort for any family without a car.
The Policy Studies Institute and the daylight extra campaign brought out statistics to show that more than 100 lives could be saved by the change. But during the last experiment with continental time, in 1969-70, the number killed on British roads rose compared with the previous three-year period. Road deaths started to fall soon after Greenwich mean time was restored and have dropped steadily ever since.
Some of the arguments advanced have been economic. There are three sections of workers who would be greatly affected by a change from the status quo. The first sector is agriculture, which employs 253, 000 workers, many of whom have to work in the dark in the mornings under great physical stress. The Green Paper produced by the Home Office showed that the National Farmers Union expressed great concern that many of the morning tasks on a farm would have to be delayed by one hour if a change were implemented, incurring great costs in terms of extra lights and energy.
The second sector is the building industry, which employs nearly 820,000 workers, who would suffer in a similar way. The Building Employers Confederation calculated the additional costs incurred by the 1960s experiment and brought the statistics up to 1989 figures to show an extra cost of about £7 billion.
Column 1109The sector of workers in which I have most interest is that of the postal workers. The postal and express sector employs more than 220, 000 workers in the United Kingdom and the Union of Communication Workers strongly opposes the change. For many years, the union has expressed concern about the increased stress caused by postal workers working long periods in darkness. At present, a postal worker in a sorting and delivery office may work a shift that commences as early as 4.30 am. Outdoor deliveries begin as early as 7 am. In the winter months, up to the first three or four hours of a postal worker's shift may be spent without daylight. The period is, of course, much longer in Scotland. Despite that and the hazards it brings, Royal Mail employees are still not classed as night workers.
Postal work is already a difficult job. Increasingly in our inner-city areas, there are no-go areas for postal workers. In London, there are one or two estates where postal workers have not been able to deliver because of physical attacks and threats. Those will become far worse if more work is carried out in darkness. A serious problem for the Union of Communication Workers and its members is the number of postal workers who are attacked by dogs. That is not a laughing matter and anyone who thinks that it is has a strange sense of humour. At present a postal worker can at least see the dog coming to bite him or her, but if we go back to the earlier system, many postal workers will be bitten by dogs and will not even be able to identify the dogs. That is a serious point. Postal workers do not want to spend longer working in the dark.
Once again, we seem to be being pushed by Euro-bureaucrats who want us all to be standardised. The Confederation of British Industry says that its members are so frantically busy working to create economic activity that seven hours a day is not enough and that they need eight hours a day. Japan, which is not exactly a country that is not doing well economically, is seven hours ahead of Europe and 11 hours ahead of the Atlantic coast of North America. We cannot say that Japan's economic prosperity has been damaged by the differences in hours. The fact that there are a number of time zones within North America makes absolutely no difference. This is another absurdity resulting from the European Commission's wanting everything to be standardised. It is change for change's sake. There is no argument for changing the present system which cannot be counteracted by another argument. We should not allow the Eurocrats to change something that is widely accepted here.
I welcome differences. I quite enjoy the fact that when I travel on holiday I have to work out what time it is in the country I am visiting and whether it will be a different time. I do not want to be the same as everyone else in Europe and I do not believe that people in this country want to be the same. There is nothing wrong with diversity. I hope that the Minister can tell us what really lies behind the urge to change and to do away with something that everyone accepts.
We should celebrate the difference. We should celebrate the fact that with Greenwich mean time people do not have to go to work in darkness, as they would if there were a change. We can improve our safety record at whatever time of the morning or afternoon : we do not need to change the time to stop accidents on the road--there are other ways to
Column 1110do that. Because of the change in our drink -driving laws, the figures for accidents at the end of the day are less serious then they were.
Let us keep what we have. It works perfectly sensibly and there is no real move for change. I hope that the Government will not allow themselves to get into another mess with change for change's sake. A change from Greenwich mean time will arouse huge opposition. Anyone living north of Birmingham will be wholly opposed to any change. I hope that the Minister will give his views strongly today.
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich) rose
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Ms Hoey) on raising this important subject. I thank her and the Minister for making time for me to speak briefly.
My hon. Friend made a strong and persuasive case for retaining Greenwich mean time, and for burying the suggestion that it be abandoned in favour of central European time. This is not the first occasion on which that suggestion has been made. For a period during the late 1960s we experimented with British standard time, but the experiment was abandoned in 1970, when BST--the equivalent of central European time--was rejected on a free vote by a huge majority of 366 to 81. That was a clear and decisive result.
The report of that debate provides some interesting insights. Replying for the Government, the right hon. Reginald Maudling--then Home Secretary-- tackled the issue of the safety of children travelling to school. He pointed out that there was no convincing evidence in favour of a change to British standard time for that reason, saying :
"It is difficult to produce any convincing figures one way or the other. There has been a surprising and sad increase in the number of child casualties between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. which is not wholly explained and rather bedevils the figures on this point." He ended by saying :
"The figures are not clear enough to base a decision upon. I think that we should assume one way or the other that there is not a large margin either way."--[ Official Report , 2 December 1970 ; Vol. 807, c. 1335.]
That was practical evidence, as opposed to the theories and fanciful arguments advanced now by people who claim that changing to central European time will save children's lives. Such people should realise that the reality is much more complex, and that their case cannot be substantiated.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall pointed out, the simple geographical truth is that we are not on the same longitude as central Europe ; we are on the western extremity of Europe, and GMT reflects that. Anyone who is uncertain about that should visit the excellent exhibition at the royal observatory in Greenwich, which clearly shows the remarkable British scientific advances made in the measurement of longitude and time in the 17th and 18th centuries. Those advances led to the establishment of an international framework based on the Greenwich meridian in the 19th century. The logic remains today, and provides a convincing reason for us to avoid the rather dangerous tendency towards Euro-federalism. I note from the record