HC Deb 08 April 1930 vol 237 cc1967-72

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict the opening of shops and trading on Sunday; and for other purposes connected therewith. The Bill that I have been asked to endeavour to introduce is one which has been brought before the House in previous Sessions. It is practically speaking, non-controversial; at any rate, it does not raise any of those great, questions on which opinion in this House is divided, and it is backed by Members of all parties in the House. It deals with a grievance felt by literally tens of thousands of small shopkeepers who are unable by themselves to remove it, and who look to this House for assistance in enabling them to get the reasonable facilities for rest and recreation enjoyed by practically all other classes of the community. I had many opportunities in many years' residence in East London to observe how, year by year, the amount of Sunday trading increased, and in my own constituency I have been astonished at the number of cases and the fervour with which, in the poorer streets, small shopkeepers have pressed me and pressed others to get the assistance of the House in dealing with this matter.

There have been numbers of Acts passed through this House dealing with the hours and conditions of shop assistants, requiring shops to be closed for a weekly half-holiday and limiting the hours in which shop assistants can be worked, but the case of the small shopkec per working his business by himself with the aid, possibly, only of members of his family, has practically been untouched. It is perfectly true that if they wished to close their shops, theoretically they can, but anyone familiar with the lives they live and the circumstances in which they live and work, knows how difficult in practice that very often is. Even when there is a majority in the district who are prepared to close their shops, a small, recalcitrant or misguided minority will prevent anything happening, and those who complain bitterly of the burden it is for seven days a week to sit in their shops and serve behind their counters, dare not run the risk of losing their customers to a rival in the next street or the same street, and they are too near the poverty line, their livelihood is too precarious, for them to take anything which seems like a risk. They want their rest, just as other people want rest, and for reasons which all of us respect and recognise in the case of working-class people and others. It may surprise Members of the House that this question of Sunday closing has not been dealt with by this House by any Act since the reign of Charles II. The Lord's Day Observance Act required all shops to close for more or less religious reasons. As a matter of fact, in most parts of the country that Act is ignored, or else regularly broken. In Westminster, for example, 90 per cent. of the general shops are open on Sunday morning, and 40 per cent. of the fruiterers are open all day. In Plymouth, on an examination being made recently, 800 shops were found to be open, and in Birkenhead, nearly 600. In the city of Hull, where they seem to have tried to apply the Act, there are some hundreds of shops open, and the city gets a regular revenue by imposing the maximum fine permitted, which is 5s. each week for opening on the Sunday, and the tradesmen seem to regard it as a sort of licence duty. The Act, indeed, is obsolete and more or less ignored, and, because of this situation. all over the country the practice of opening shops on Sunday is increasing. Though most people concerned resent it, without the assistance of this House it is impossible to deal with it. It is an extraordinary thing that this country, which has set the example in the matter of hours of work to the rest of Europe, which has given France, for example, la semaine Anglaise, in which all shops, with certain exceptions, are closed on Sunday, is now rapidly falling behind the Continental practice.

This Bill proposes, in general, to prohibit Sunday trading, but it makes certain necessary and definite exceptions. It excepts the sale of refreshments for consumption on the premises in railway refreshment rooms and similar premises, and it excepts the sale of motor and aircraft accessories, the sale of medicine and the sale of newspapers, and it also gives power to local authorities, either on their own initiative or under pressure from the Home Office, to make exemption orders authorising certain classes of shops engaged mainly in the supply of foodstuffs and perishable goods, to open for a very limited number of hours on Sunday. Its machinery is elastic, so that the local authorities can adjust it to the circumstances of their particular districts. In some districts it is the custom for a great deal of trading to be done by street markets and by hawkers. These are brought within the general provisions of the Bill, but sufficient elasticity is allowed for these special circumstances to be dealt with, without any hardship, and there will be provision also for the special circumstances of those of the Jewish faith who are accustomed to close on Saturday but to open on Sunday.

It is a Bill, which could be dealt with, without occupying very much of the time of the House, by the Committee which has already been dealing with a similar Bill for applying this provision to barbers, or the Committee which will deal on a more comprehensive basis with the hours of shop assistants. It fills a gap in our legislation, and will provide something which is urgently desired by a very large proportion of the tens of thousands of small shopkeepers who employ no shop assistants themselves. I have special pleasure in bringing it before the House, because I recall in my younger days with what a sigh of relief my own mother found it possible to shut the shop and get a clear day off on Sunday, and I also recollect what benefit it was to her when, under the Shop Hours Act 20 or 30 years ago, it became possible to coerce or persuade a small minority, and to get for herself and those employed by her a reasonable chance of ordinary recreation and rest by earlier closing. That was impossible without the assistance of this House. This Bill would afford the assistance of the House in the same manner to the tens of thousands of small shopkeepers who suffer under this similar disability.


It is with much regret that I must ask the House to refuse leave to introduce this Bill. It is not so innocuous a Measure as my hon. Friend would have the House believe. The Bill is one which is promoted by the Federation of Grocers' Associations of the United Kingdom, and it is the feeling of those whom I represent in this House, the shop assistants, that this Measure will, in fact, permit shop assistants to work on Sunday, or legalise the working of shop assistants on Sunday where it is illegal for them to work to-day. Though it is perfectly true that there is an increasing number of shops which are open on Sunday, and certainly something ought to be done by this House to stop it, this is not the way to do it. It is at the moment illegal for shops to open on Sunday. If this Bill passes, it will mean that it will be legal for some shops to open on Sunday, and there is no protection whatsoever in the Bill for those who are working in those shops. There is no restriction of hours. There is no suggestion of restriction that they should not work longer, and it is because of that want of protection that we protest against this Measure.

We say that this is not the way to deal with the question. The way to deal with it is the way in which the hairdressers have dealt with it. This House has given a Second Reading to the Hairdressers' and Barbers' Shops (Sunday Closing) Bill. This morning that Bill passed unanimously through its Committee stage, and I hope sincerely that the House will agree to that Bill being passed into law. When it is, it will be illegal for hairdressers' saloons to be open on Sunday. The Bill under discussion is a very reactionary way of dealing with the situation. Right back in 1911 the Liberal Government of that day, in introducing a Measure for the closing of shops and the restriction of hours of work of assistants, had special Clauses compelling shops, with certain exceptions, to be closed on Sunday. This is going right away from the principle that was suggested in that time. Again, may I plead with the House, not for the first time—I pleaded in 1924—that you should not nibble in this way at such closing orders as exist to-day?

This House withdrew from the protection of compulsory early closing the girls who work in sweetshops, and now they have to work until half-past nine o'clock at night, and they have received nothing by way of compensation. Last year the House made it possible for tobacconists' shops to be withdrawn from compulsory closing legislation, and no compensation was offered to those whose hours of work were extended: and now it is the proposal of this Bill to allow shop assistants to work on Sunday and to give them no compensation at all. For these reasons I ask the House to refuse to legalise the opening of shops on Sunday, not merely for the sake of the small shopkeeper but for the sake of those who work in the shops as well. In my humble opinion the right way of dealing with this matter is to compel all shops to close on Sunday.

Question put,

"That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict the opening of shops and trading, on Sunday; and for other purposes connected therewith."

The House proceeded to e Division. There being no Members willing to act as Tellers for the Ayes, Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Noes had it.