Stop the clocks: Should we end seasonal time changes?

While the Brexit clock is ticking for the UK, all across Europe the clocks will go back an hour this weekend. But if EU proposals go ahead, the twice-yearly clock changes will stop in March 2021. Informed by an EU-wide consultation which found strong public support for ending seasonal clock changes, the proposal will require member states to choose either year-round summer or winter-time. 

Leaving the EU will exempt the UK from the new requirement. But if we choose to stay as we are, not only will we be in a different time zone to much of Europe, the difference will vary from winter to summer. Confused? You will be, if you travel regularly to and from mainland Europe, but even more so if your daily life involves crossing the Irish border – as was strongly articulated by Dr Katy Hayward in her evidence to the House of Lords EU Committee, at which Demos also gave evidence, in September.

Quite apart from the inevitable chaos for work and personal lives from non-alignment, there may be good reasons for ending seasonal clock changes. Not having to remember how to reset the oven clock is just one. But what does the public think? And should the UK, even if not required to, follow the rest of Europe should the proposals go through? With the exception of a short break from 1968 to 1971, we’ve been changing our clocks for more than 100 years, so it’s certainly time we considered it.

Current public consultations may not be representative

The EU proposals are based on a public consultation which generated an unprecedented response of 4.6 million, 84% in favour of ending the changes. However, this consultation was far from representative: 3 million of these responses were from Germany alone.

A separate YouGov poll of Great Britain found 44% in favour of continuing to change the clocks, 39% saying they should stop, while 17% didn’t know. Support for the status quo was much higher in Scotland than elsewhere, at 56%; a poll in Ireland found a clear preference for ending clock changes and a majority in favour of permanent summer time. However, 80% of respondents said they would be against any measure that created different time zones between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The complexity of these issues, the proportion of people who don’t know what would be best, and the clear differences in priorities between different groups of people, show that a poll by itself is not going to produce a satisfactory solution to this problem.    

What’s the evidence?

Public awareness of the EU proposals is likely to be very low. The issue has received very little media attention, and coverage has focused on health and leisure. There is some evidence of spikes in strokes and heart attacks but mixed evidence around road safety. There are also myths, including that Scottish farmers have insisted the changes remain so that they can milk their cows in the daylight: their objections were based on concerns about children walking in the dark to school. 

If there isn’t clear evidence one way or another, it may come down to personal preference: lighter evenings are better for socialising, while lighter mornings make it easier to get out of bed. But the pros and cons have never been seriously considered, and the British public has not been consulted.

A citizens’ assembly could help the UK decide

Some people clearly have strong views on the clock changes and would like to see a change to all-round summer-time, but this may be the view of a vocal minority. If the UK is to consider following EU member states in ending the change, it needs to consult widely. A simple poll, as carried out by the EU and some member states, will only attract those with strong views and these may not be well informed. 

Other countries are planning consultations and Switzerland is likely to hold a referendum, but one option would be to hold a citizens’ assembly on the clock changes, involving people in different circumstances, including shift workers, parents, people in cities, towns and rural communities across the UK. 

A citizens’ assembly, essentially, is a forum where representatives of the public deliberate on issues, with access to evidence and expert testimony, and try to reach a compromise. Holding one on the clock changes would allow people to see beyond their own immediate preferences and to consider the impact on others, with different lifestyles and needs. Their deliberations could be informed by experts in the areas of health, safety, and wellbeing so that they can consider the pros and cons of any, or no, change. Importantly, politicians could then base their decisions on participants’ conclusions and recommendations. 

While there’s a danger that, with the proposal coming from the EU, discussions about ending the clock changes could be clouded by Brexit: politicians and the public may reject following the rest of Europe on principle. But, after 100 years of changing the clocks, it’s about time we found out what the public really wants. The EU’s proposals give us that opportunity, and it can’t possibly be more divisive than Brexit.