HC Deb 21 May 1965 vol 712 cc1928-37

11.15 a.m.

Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield, Brightside)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 18, after "shop", to insert: so as to be visible from outside the shop at an entrance used by its customers". During the very short passage of the Bill through its Committee stage, there was an Amendment in connection with the notices which had to be displayed relative to the early closing day. Unfortunately, the Amendment was not of the nature which could be accepted, because technically there were flaws in the wording, but the force of the argument was clearly seen and appreciated and agreed to by the whole Committee. In consequence, we agreed that an Amendment should be brought forward at this stage to give effect to this publication of a notice.

This Amendment is the result of that consideration. It is introduced in order to assist customers and enforcement officers to ascertain when a shop will be open or closed. The Amendment makes it clear that this notice specifying the day which the occupier has selected as the early closing day must be clearly displayed to the customers who shop in that establishment. It has been a common practice in the past for such notices to be displayed in parts of the shop where customers could not clearly see them. Indeed, on some occasions, where the law has emphasised that they should he displayed to the general public, such notices have been displayed in a back window or even in an alleyway where very few customers pass by. On this occasion, I think that the Amendment meets the wishes of the Opposition hon. Members, who are as interested as I am.

Amendment agreed to.

11.19 a.m.

Mr. Winterbottom

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I express appreciation to all those people who have helped to frame the Bill and who, by words of encouragement, have brought it to this stage. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Murton) on his success with the previous Bill. I hope that I shall be as successful.

This is a very important Bill which is wanted by almost every section in the distribution trade throughout the country. Section 1 of the Shops Act provides that every shop shall be closed for the serving of customers not later than 1 o'clock in the afternoon on one weekday every week.

Certain exceptions and provisions which are made under the Shops Act apply to the early closing day. I do not need to go into them at great length except to say that most of those exceptions are at the discretion of the local authorities. In the main, the Bill does not seek to alter the principle of the application of the half holiday for shop workers. The authority for most of the exceptions is left in the capable hands of the local authorities.

Because I did not have the chance of doing so on Second Reading, I should like briefly to sketch some of the background. Since I had the privilege of moving the Bill under the Ten Minute Rule, I have had a lot of letters from distributive workers throughout the country raising problems about which they were perplexed. The existing law tends towards perplexity and in certain cases the Bill will help towards simplification. Therefore, I should like briefly to explain what it does.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I use some technical terms, even though I am not a lawyer. I have a rather flexible mind, which does not, perhaps, make it any easier to understand the type of interpretation of Bills which is given by lawyers. Nevertheless, I will do my best to explain simply, in ordinary layman's language, what the Bill does.

The Bill repeals subsections (2) and (3) of Section 1 of the 4Shops Act, 1950. That is the Section which requires the closing of shops not later than 1 o'clock on one weekday each week. With the repeal of subsections (2) and (3) of Section 1 of the 1950 Act, it will no longer be possible for a local authority to make an order fixing the early closing day. My Bill preserves the right to have an early closing day, but the right of fixing the early closing day is transferred from the local authority to the traders. The reason for that is that since the 1950 Act was passed there have been great changes in the world of distribution. Many local authorities feel that by reason of the changes which have taken place, traders should be taken more and more into consideration in the fixing of the half day on which their shops are closed.

Fourteen years ago, the idea of a five-day working week in shops was not thought of. Today, it is a practical proposition and it has been applied in innumerable instances throughout the country. It is, indeed, because of the 1950 Act, and the strict legal interpretation which has been placed upon it, that many agreements covering the application of a five-day working week in shop life are being held up. Whilst the Bill does not remove any of the existing rights, it opens the door to the new modern practices in the world of distribution which, in my opinion and in the opinion of those engaged in it, are beneficial for the industry.

One or two points concerning Clause 4 should be clearly stated so that there is no ambiguity concerning them. Clause 1 provides that a local authority will no longer have power to alter the hours of the staff for the afternoon closing on early closing day from 1 p.m. to a time not later than 2 p.m. Since 1950, that power has been available to local authorities. We desire this change, because no local authority ever thinks of extending the time from 1 o'clock by the permitted hour's extension. Because this provision has fallen into desuetude, we feel that the time has come for it to be removed. It is not being used and, therefore, we might as well remove it from the law. This means, in effect, that an occupier must close his shop not later than 1 p.m. He need not open it at all on early closing day if he wishes to operate a five-day working week.

The relevant words in Section 1(4) of the Shops Act, 1950, giving the local authorities their power are being repealed. For the benefit of chambers of commerce and chambers of trade which are somewhat puzzled about the effect of the Bill upon certain practices, I should like to make clear the effect of the Bill upon certain practices that have developed during the last two or three years, notably in the big centres of population. In six of our main cities, as a result of a decision by the traders in the centres of those cities the half-day early closing period has been abrogated. Two-thirds of the traders have accepted that principle. It has been accepted by the local authorities, but a quid pro quo has been given.

The shops in the centres of those six main cities open six days a week within the limits of the hours prescribed by law, but as a quid pro quo they have guaranteed to the local authorities to give a day off to all their assistants. This arrangement will not be affected by the Bill. Even though certain of the existing powers of local authorities are being abrogated, others of the powers given by the Shops Act are being retained.

Subsection (2) of Clause 4 provides that when the Bill comes into operation, a local authority shall no longer have power to make shops which are otherwise exempt from it subject to the requirement to observe an early closing day by reason of carrying on only a trade or business as specified in the First Schedule to the 1950 Act.

Certain sections of the distributive trade are exempted from giving an early closing day under the 1950 Act. They will continue to be exempted, but there will be no increase in their numbers. It will not be within the power of a local authority to extend those exemptions. This does not affect the provisions of Section 17 of the 1950 Act, whereby shop assistants enjoy a statutory right to a half holiday in shops, whether exempted from the early closing day requirement or not, on at least one weekday in each week. I emphasise that even though there are exemptions under the 1950 Act which are not affected by the Bill, the law still makes it obligatory upon all employers in the world of distribution, whether a shop is covered by a half-day closing order or not, to provide a half-day holiday for each of their employees.

I do not think that there is much more I need explain about the Bill. It might be wise for me to mention the substitution of "early closing day" for the phrase "weekly half holiday". The latter phrase is a thing of the past and everyone, the public and traders, now refers to "early closing day". Although the local authority had power to fix the half day under the Act, the trader has always been able, if he desired, to close on, say, Saturday afternoon. Most traders choose either Saturday or Monday as their half days, first for economic reasons and secondly because one or the other is the most appropriate day on which to give a full day's holiday to their assistants. Most assistants would prefer to have the half day on Saturday or Monday because it means a long weekend for them. Although this has been done by voluntary agreement in many parts of the country, this will be the first time in the history of the distributive trade that shop assistants will get these sort of statutory days off. It is something that was not dreamt of 40 years ago.

The distribution industry provides a service to the country and fears have been expressed about the times at which shops will be open and whether the public will have sufficient opportunities to do their shopping. I assure the House that the Bill does not affect the shop hours from the point of view of the general public. It merely makes provision for shop assistants to have the sort of days off that apply throughout industry in these days of progress. This could be achieved by shops staggering the times at which they close to enable their assistants to have days off. Because the Bill represents a real step forward I commend it to the House.

11.34 a.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Despite the careful exposition of the Bill given by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Winterbottom), there are one or two matters to which he did not refer. He pointed out that the Bill takes away from the local authority the power to fix the day on which shops must close for a half day each week, but there does not seem to be any indication that there will be uniformity of practice in each area.

If the early closing day is left to the individual trader, it might happen that in one area one shop will be closed on Wednesday afternoon, another on Thursday afternoon and others on other days. Would this not cause some confusion? Until now there has been uniformity of practice and, generally speaking, all the shops in each area close on one afternoon of the week. Under the Bill it would seem that the early closing day will be different for a number of shops. It might take the public some time to get accustomed to the idea of one shop being open while another is closed. I do not know whether the sponsors of the Measure have considered the difficulties which might arise.

It has been suggested that the tradesmen in an area will vote among themselves to decide which should be their early closing day. An injustice may be caused to suit the purposes of a minority of traders; for example, a small minority of traders may decide which should be the early closing day, so that the power which now rests with the local authority would be transferred to a small group of traders, with difficulty being caused to other traders and the shopping public.

11.37 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Thomas)

The whole House will wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Winter-bottom) on his success with this Measure so far, on the very able way he conducted it in Committee and on the way in which he addressed the House this morning. My hon. Friend has rendered a great service to shopkeepers and shop assistants throughout the country.

Shop assistants have come a long way from the days when people could shop at 12 o'clock at night. Indeed, I sometimes believe that if shops stayed open all day and all night somebody would be roaming in at any hour to do some shopping. It would, of course, mean that life would be extremely difficult, particularly for shop assistants, although I appreciate that in some countries shops do remain open around the clock.

Hon. Members on both sides have co-operated with my hon. Friend to ensure that the provisions of the Bill meet the reasonable requirements not only of the retail traders but also of the customers and employees in respect of early closing days.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) appeared to be alarmed because power is being taken from local authorities to decide the day on which shops should close. A greater measure of freedom is now being accorded to retail traders. My hon. Friend should know that shopkeepers will naturally move together as much as they can because no shopkeeper likes to lose trade to his neighbour. By and large they will get together to arrange the best day for closing. Only one local authority in three has fixed the early closing day for its area. It has been left to the trade. There is, nevertheless, a substantial degree of uniformity, although on this purely voluntary basis. This will now be feasible in all areas.

Mr. Lipton

What will happen if all the shopkeepers in an area decide to close on, say, Wednesday afternoon but one shopkeeper says, "I do not want to close on Wednesday. I will stay open on Wednesday and close on Thursday afternoon"? Would not that shopkeeper then be remaining open while all the others are closed, thereby getting more business at the expense of all the others?

Mr. Thomas

My hon. Friend should go into business. Perhaps he already is in business. I assure him, however, that it is better business for a shopkeeper to close when his neighbours are closed and open when they are open.

Mr. Winterbottom

It might help if I explain that chambers of trade throughout the country are already having meetings to deal with the problems which might arise once the Bill is passed. I assure hon. Members that they are selecting as their half days the days on which the least business is done. Nobody will keep his shop open on the day when there is the least trade. This is really a practical matter which can be decided by the traders in each area.

Mr. Thomas

Some people have been afraid that this Bill could lead to an expansion of 6-day trading. This is not so. I take this opportunity of reminding the House again that in accordance with subsection (1) of Section 1 of the principal Act—the Shops Act, 1950—every shop has to be closed … for the serving of customers not later than one o'clock in the afternoon on one week day in every week. There are only two statutory exceptions to that. The first is in respect of shops where the only trade or business carried on is trade or business in any of the classes mentioned in the First Schedule to the Act. Examples of these are shops dealing in refreshments, transport accessories, newspapers, fresh perishable products, and medicines. The second exemption is in respect of areas covered by a 6-day trading order made by the local authority in accordance with the procedure laid down in Section 1(4) of the 1950 Act. There are at present very few of these orders, and they are restricted to the central shopping areas of the larger cities. Such orders must relate to a particular class of shops, and can be made only if the majority of the shopkeepers of that class are in favour of 6-day trading.

There seems to be a move by certain firms to increase the number of 6-day trading areas, and it will not be out of place in connection with this Bill to outline some of the dangers of 6-day trading. It seems logical that if shops are to be open for longer hours without any overall increase of trade it can only lead to increased overheads and wages bills, which will be passed on to the consumer in the form of increased prices. Again, since it is only reasonable that employees in shops—and by "employees" I include the shop managers—should enjoy along with the rest of the working community the leasure arising from the increased adoption of the 5-day working week. If the trader is then compelled to operate a shift system, or employ an increasing number of temporary staff in order to keep his shop open for longer hours, this appears to me to be making excessive demands on our available labour resources.

I want to sound a note of warning against too hasty expansion into 6-day trading. There may well be isolated cases where this is necessary in the public interest, but I cannot believe that such cases are common. This does not mean that greater flexibility in trading hours is not needed, and this, of course, is my hon. Friend's aim in introducing this Measure.

I should like to say something about some trades which, in a few local authority areas, are at present covered by orders under Section 1(6) of the principal Act extending the requirement to observe an early closing day to a trader whose business would otherwise be exempted by the First Schedule to the 1950 Act. The trades affected are fish and chip shops—very popular in South Wales and in the North. From the remarks I hear, they are more popular on this side of the Chamber—

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

Not at all—Lancashire, too.

Mr. Thomas

The Tory Party has been democratised—greengrocers, florists, butchers and chemists.

There seems to be the fear that a revocation of these Section 1(6) Orders will result in widespread 6-day trading in these exempted trades, but this seems to be completely out of step with the facts as known in the areas. In three out of four local authority areas in England and Wales, no Section 1(6) order has been made. And although it is legal in these areas for butchers to open six days a week for the sale of meat, greengrocers for the sale of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and chip shop proprietors for the sale of fried fish and chips, and chemists for the sale of medicines, this has not happened.

The majority of such traders voluntarily elect to close on one half day each week. More often than not, they close on the same day as that on which the non-exempt traders close. I therefore have little doubt that, as the Gowers Committee recommended in 1947, it is right to end these powers to make such orders. I accept, however, that in the wider context of a general review of the 1950 Act it would be right to look again at the exemptions contained in the various Schedules to that Act, and this the proposals that the Government will be putting forward will do.

Her Majesty's Government intend shortly to publish comprehensive proposals for an overall review of the law relating to hours of trading. I hope and expect that these proposals will come before the House before the Summer Recess, and I know that the House will in due course give the same consideration to them as it has to the proposals of my hon. Friend. I hope that those outside this House who are affected by the statutory provisions governing retail trading, whether as employers, employed or enforcing authority, will do the same.

We have moved into more enlightened times for those who serve the nation in our shops and, on behalf of the Gov- ernment, I want to give a very cordial welcome to this Measure. I trust that when it reaches another place it may have as speedy a passage as it has had in this House.

Mr. David Price (Eastleigh)

Before the Minister sits down, will he tell us what the Government proposals will be? Will they be in the form of a departmental Report, or a White Paper or a Bill? It would help us if he were able to indicate the form they will take.

Mr. Thomas

I do not want to commit myself, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I believe that the proposals will be in the form of a Bill. If I am proved wrong, I hope that he will not ask me to apologise, but I believe that that may be the form.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.