Chimes of the times: UK frets over Big Ben silence as Brexit looms

Westminster’s Elizabeth Tower, one of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions, is due for conservation work.


The famous clock’s bells are set to stop ringing at midday local time over safety concerns, silencing an emblem of continuity as Britain grapples with Brexit negotiations.

The decision will protect builders working on the site, amid fears that prolonged exposure to the 118-decibel bongs from the 13.7-tonne Big Ben bell – which chimes out the hour – could damage hearing.

But the debate has swiftly moved into the political sphere.

The shutdown will coincide with Britain’s impending departure from the European Union – a period set to be politically turbulent and economically fraught.


The bongs are a venerated part of British life, used at the start of radio and TV newscasts and the midnight countdown to New Year’s Day. The sound is also familiar to many people beyond Britain, as it is broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Pro-Brexit members of parliament have criticised plans to shut down the chimes for what would be the longest duration in the clock’s 157-year history.

Prime Minister Theresa May is among those who have raised concern.

“Of course we want to ensure people’s safety at work, but it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years,” she told reporters.

She hoped a House of Commons commission would “look into this urgently so that we can ensure that we can continue to hear Big Ben through those four years.”

The Commons has said that it “will consider the length of time that the bells will fall silent”.

“Of course, any discussion will focus on undertaking the work efficiently, protecting the health and safety of those involved, and seeking to ensure resumption of normal service as soon as is practicable,” it says.

Under the plan, a lamp at the top of the neo-Gothic bell tower is also set to be turned off for the first time in more than 70 years, but it is not yet known when it will go dark, or how long it will be off for.

Brexit bongs

Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons, held emergency talks on Friday with Speaker John Bercow, who chairs the Commons panel that approved the measures.

The commission has agreed to meet next month to review whether the bongs can be heard on certain exceptional days.

Under current plans, the bells would still ring on important occasions such as Remembrance Sunday in November, which commemorates Britain’s war dead, and New Year’s Eve.

A trio of MPs from May’s Conservative Party are calling for the clock to be back in action on the eve of March 29, 2019, when Britain is due to leave the European Union.

“It would be very fitting if Big Ben was to chime us out of the EU. We need to go out with a boom as we regain a sovereign parliament once again,” said MP Andrew Bridgen.

Distraction from Brexit?

The 96-metre (315-foot) high tower is the most photographed building in Britain. The renovation is estimated to cost £29 million ($A47 million).

But politicians have claimed that when they agreed to the work, they did not know the chimes would be silenced for four years.

A YouGov poll published on Saturday found that 44 per cent of Britons believe Big Ben should be silenced during the renovations, except for special occasions, while 41 per cent said it should operate as normal.

Should Big Ben be silenced for 4 years while renovations take place (except for special occasions)?

Yes 44%

No 41%长沙桑拿,长沙SPA,/xGW2NAtbq9 pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/vDm1s0A5Wb

— YouGov (@YouGov) August 17, 2017

Some MPs have suggested the bells could ring outside of the conservation team’s working hours.

But the Commons said starting and stopping the clock took around half a day, and this would be neither practical nor “a good use of public money”.

Some commentators have dismissed the Big Ben debate as superficial or a distraction, given the far greater stakes of Brexit.

In March, May triggered the two-year countdown for leaving the EU – but critics say that, as the clock ticks to the crucial deadline, her government is adrift and divided.

“Perhaps the cabinet room could be relocated to within six feet (two metres) of the bell,” suggested The Guardian’s Marina Hyde.

This way, she said, ministers could be provided “with a frequent reminder of the need to acquire a clue, like, months ago.”

Related Reading

Death toll in Spain attacks rises to 15 – Catalan government

All 15 fatalities in Spain’s twin attacks have been identified, the Catalan regional government’s justice minister, Carles Mundo, told a news conference on Monday.


“They have all been identified and their families have been notified,” he said.

The 15 comprise of six Spanish nationals, three Italians, two Portuguese, a Belgian, a Canadian, an American and a British-Australian, he added. Among them were two children.

Authorities are looking for Younes Abouyaaqoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan-born man, whom they believe was behind the wheel of a van which left a trail of dead and injured on Barcelona’s famed boulevard.

They have extended the search to all of Europe as details emerged of how he fled on foot through the streets of the old town before disappearing.

Catalonian police released images of what they call the alleged perpetrator on Twitter, saying he is “dangerous” and “could be armed”.

They described him as around 5’11”, of dark complexion, short-haired and possibly with a beard. 

He is dangerous and could be armed. He is sought as the alleged perpetrator of the Barcelona attack on August 17. He was the van driver pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/zKM5kV0RzM

— Mossos (@mossos) August 21, 2017

The Catalan regional government said all European police forces were now searching for Abouyaaqoub and authorities could not rule out that he had slipped across the border into France.

“This person is no longer just being sought in Catalonia but in all European countries, this is an effort by European police,” Joaquim Forn, in charge of home affairs in the northeastern Spanish region, told Catalan radio.

Forn confirmed that police were now almost certain Abouyaaqoub was the driver.

“Everything points to that,” he added.

CCTV images appear to show Barcelona attack suspect.Reuters

Authorities have stepped up checks at Spain’s borders.

They also raided more homes overnight in Ripoll, a town in the foothills of the Pyrenees and close to France where many of the suspects in a 12-strong cell thought to be behind the attack had lived.

Others thought to be part of the suspected Islamist militant network have been arrested, shot by police or killed in an explosion at a house in Catalonia a day before Thursday’s van attack.

The attack in Barcelona was linked to another hours later in the resort down of Cambrils, further down the Mediterranean coastline from Barcelona.

A car crashed into passers-by there and attackers got out to try and stab people. Five suspects were shot dead, while a Spanish woman died in the attack.

Abouyaaqoub abandoned the van after zig-zagging down Las Ramblas avenue at high speed, police have said. Witnesses had seen him walking away unarmed from the scene, they said.


Spanish papers El Pais and La Vanguardia said they had seen images of the man leaving Las Ramblas then crossing through La Boqueria food market, another tourist attraction, before disappearing.

El Pais published CCTV footage on Monday of a man wearing a black and white shirt similar to the one Abouyaaqoub wore when he was caught on a bank security camera the night before the attacks.

Spanish political leaders from all the main parties were due to meet later on Monday to review security measures as part of cross-party efforts to unite on anti-terrorist efforts.

Floods kill more than 800 in south Asia

Widespread floods have killed more than 800 people and displaced over a million in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, with aid workers warning of severe food shortages and water-borne diseases as rains continue to lash the affected areas.


Seasonal monsoon rains, a lifeline for farmers across south Asia, typically cause loss of life and property every year between July and September, but officials say this year’s flooding is the worst in several years.

At least 115 people have died and more than 5.7 million are affected in Bangladesh as floods submerged more than a third of the low-lying and densely populated country.

Reaz Ahmed, the director general of Bangladesh’s Disaster Management Department, said there are rising concerns about food shortages and the spread of disease.

“With the floodwaters receding, there is a possibility of an epidemic. We fear the outbreak of water-borne diseases if clean water is not ensured soon,” Ahmed told Reuters.

With some rivers running above danger levels, 225 bridges have been damaged in Bangladesh, disrupting food and medicine supplies to people displaced from their homes, said aid workers.

In the Indian state of Assam bordering Bangladesh, at least 180 people have been killed in the past few weeks.

Torrential rains have also hit the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur, killing at least 30 people.

Floodwaters of the Brahmaputra river had earlier in July submerged the Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary in Assam. The floods have since killed more than 350 animals, including 24 endangered one-horned rhinoceros, five elephants and a tiger.

Meanwhile, in the eastern state of Bihar, at least 253 people lost their lives where incessant rains washed away crops, destroyed roads and disrupted power supplies.

A senior official in Bihar’s disaster management department, Anirudh Kumar, said nearly half a million people have been provided with shelter.

In Nepal, 141 people were confirmed dead, while thousands of survivors returned to their semi-destroyed homes.

Call to combat fetal alcohol syndrome

Rates of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder among Aboriginal children are up to 12 times higher than a newly-determined universal average that has triggered concern among experts.


Almost one in every 100 children worldwide suffer from the condition, which is caused by consumption of alcohol during pregnancy, according to research published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The findings have sparked calls for greater intervention to cut the rates across the globe.

“The findings highlight the need to establish a universal public health message about the potential harm of prenatal alcohol exposure and a routine screening protocol. Brief interventions should be provided, where appropriate,” the authors conclude.

Addiction and mental health researchers in Canada conducted a meta-analysis of 24 studies including 1416 children and youth diagnosed with FASD.

Several Australian studies were included, among them a 2015 examination of an Indigenous Australian population which found 12 of every hundred children had the disorder.

One of every 13 women who consumed alcohol while pregnant was estimated to deliver a child with FASD, according to the analysis.

Meanwhile, a University of Sydney study initiated by concerned Aboriginal community leaders earlier this year revealed children with FASD are more likely to fail at school, have attention problems and talk about suicide.

The findings, reported in the Journal of Development and Behavioural Pediatrics, were based on surveys of parents and teachers of primary school Aboriginal Australian children living in remote communities in Fitzroy Valley, Western Australia.

Within the Fitzroy Valley study population, 55 per cent of mothers reported drinking alcohol during pregnancy and of these, 87 per cent drank at high levels. All but two of the assessed children were Aboriginal.

“These findings highlight the need for support for families, carers, and teachers to handle the behavioural and mental health problems in children with FASD,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Tracey Tsang of the University of Sydney.

“This is particularly challenging in remote and disadvantaged communities,” said Dr Tsang.

Sydney University’s Professor Elizabeth Elliott said in addition to difficult behaviours, children with FASD have learning, developmental and physical problems.

“FASD is preventable and we must educate young women about the harms of alcohol use in pregnancy,” Prof Elliott urged.

Shorten condemns ‘disgusting’ posters against same-sex marriage

Bill Shorten has blasted a “disgusting” poster carrying the slogan “stop the fags” which has been seen in a Melbourne laneway in the lead-up to a postal survey on same-sex marriage.


The poster, which depicts a child cowering below two people brandishing rainbow belts, lists statistics from a widely discredited study on children raised by same-sex couples.

It appears to trace back to the message board of a neo-Nazi website.

“Labor opposed this postal survey because we feared exactly this kind of hurtful filth would emerge,” Mr Shorten posted on Facebook.

“This kind of garbage isn’t ‘debate’, it’s abuse. I’m so sorry that LGBTI Australians have to put up with it. Let’s make sure there’s an overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote in response.”

Spotted in Melbourne – Heffernan Lane. How is this for a unity moment? @TurnbullMalcolm @cityofmelbourne @AdamBandt @VicGovAu @abcnews pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/syL7vqRJLK

— Dan Leach-McGill (@DanLMcG) August 19, 2017

A 2016 study by Reverend Paul Sullins from the Catholic University of America claims children raised by gay parents are at higher risk of abuse, depression and obesity.

But gay rights activist Rodney Croome said the Australian Institute for Family Studies found children raised by same-sex couples had the same outcomes as other children, contradicting claims made in the poster.

“Overall, research evidence indicates that children raised in same-sex parented families do as well emotionally, socially and educationally as other children,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Shorten has urged opponents of marriage equality not to throw other issues into the mix in the lead-up to a postal survey.

“If we have got to have this vote, don’t muddy the waters, don’t cloud the issues by trying to throw every issue in including the kitchen sink,” he told reporters in Sydney.

Attorney-General George Brandis has declared he won’t be “tricked” by Tony Abbott and others trying to broaden the marriage debate into one about religious freedom.

Mr Abbott doubled down in response to Senator Brandis.


“The best way of standing up for traditional values, the best way of saying that you don’t like the direction our country is headed in right now, is to get that ballot paper out and vote no,” he told 2GB radio on Monday.

The former prime minister warned of potential consequences for religious educators, adoption agencies and school programs if same-sex marriage was legalised.

“If we have officially sanctioned de-gendering marriage, it’s very hard not to see de-gendering come in in so many other areas as well,” he said.

“It isn’t just about marriage. Sure, marriage is the immediate focus, but there are lots and lots of implications here, and we’ve got to think them through before we take this big leap into what I think is the dark.”