HC Deb 11 December 1970 vol 808 cc825-905

Order for Second Reading read.

11.24 a.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

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

I suppose that, first, it would be appropriate if I thanked whatever gods may be that they so ordained that I was first in the Ballot. Second, I should like to thank with particular sincerity the officials of the House who have been kind enough to lend me some assistance in drafting, and also to thank a very large number of outside organisations—an astonishingly large number—which have been in touch with me and have helped to guide me.

This is what is sometimes called a Friday Parliament. Although in the last 15 minutes we have heard some hearty murmurings which were predictably along party and doctrinal lines, it is broadly true that on Fridays party affiliations and personal prejudices sit a little lightly.

This Bill, which I seek to promote with other sponsors, is blessed by almost the whole of the Liberal Party even though it is not present now, is opposed by some Conservatives and supported by others, and is supported by some Labour Members and opposed by others. That is the sort of approach which one expects to a Private Member's Bill—

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

I should be interested if the hon. Gentleman would tell the House what Labour Members support this Bill. I am advised that the Labour Members whose names are on the Bill have withdrawn their names from it.

Mr. King

I cannot answer for whatever information the hon. Member may have. I can only trust the assurances given me by Labour Members, which I always assume to be true.

It is also true that Private Member's Bills on Fridays have, in recent years, had considerable success. I notice in the statistics that out of 18 Bills last Session, two-thirds were successful. This again is an indication of what I hope will be an all-party approach.

One cannot mention this subject of shop hours without some emotional history in one's mind. My mind goes back to the Chartists, to the first success in Manchester when, I think in the year 1844, there was secured the first half-holiday for clerks. It was followed by a celebration soirée and the arrangement of horse bus expeditions for those who were so released.

One is conscious of great Parliamentary names—Cobden, Manners, Hook, Bates, the Dean of Manchester, the non-Conformist leader Dr. Vaughan, all of whom interested themselves in this subject. I am conscious particularly of Sir John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury, who for 30 years promoted shop hours Acts in this House, sometimes with considerable success. I could wish that some Liberal Member were present so that I might point out his relationship to another Lubbock, whose ancestor he was. He, too would have been interested in this matter had he been here.

Some successes were secured—curious successes—one, for example, being that where female shop assistants are employed in a shop there must be one stool for every three girls, which I may say is still the law. Whether they shared the stool or took it in succession is not known. All those Acts passed on to the consolidating Act of 1912, and finally, to the Act of 1950.

Let us pay tribute to those early pioneers who did so much for the shop assistants and to the general climate of opinion which promoted the rights and well-being of working people. Let us also point out that because of their work I believe there became possible the liberalising Measures of 1950 and 1965. Throughout history every Parliament has had a social problem, and to that problem we have usually found a solution. Unfortunately, too often the solutions remain when the problems have gone. This is, indeed, one of the main problems of Parliament. In some Elizabethan year, no doubt, there was a social problem about going to church. An Elizabethan Parliament ordained that there should be Is. fine for those who did not attend church on Sundays. The problem to that solution has gone, but the solution remained into the 20th century. That is the sort of situation which we want to avoid.

The 1950 Act, I suggest, is a relic of the past which we should no longer tolerate. It is wrong in theory. It is an attempt by Parliament to fix working hours. I should have thought there was general agreement by the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the trade unions that the actual fixing of working hours is not an appropriate parliamentary duty. Parliament may set up machinery. For instance, it has set up wages councils. Parliament may produce a climate of industrial opinion. But it is at the point of negotiation betwen trade union and employer that the hours should be fixed.

I have said that the present situation is wrong in theory. It is equally wrong in practice. I ask the House to consider, first, the simple question of the date. I invite hon. Members to cast their minds back 20 years to the time when the 1950 Act was passed and visualise themselves walking along the high street then. That high street bears little or no resemblance to the high street of today, with the great names familiar to us all—Tesco, Fine Fare, and all the other supermarket chains. In 1950 we should not have seen one of them there.

There has been a great change. New forms of trading have emerged. There are, for instance, the mobile shops. In my village, as I look out of my window early each morning I see the mobile grocer's shop approaching. A great deal of trading is done through the mobile shop; yet it was unknown, or all but unknown, at the time when the Act was passed and is not covered by the Act's provisions.

There is also the problem, a growing problem, of shops run by Indians in immigrant areas. There are in the Act exemptions from many of its provisions if a shop is run by a proprietor whose own family living in the premises work in it. So long as the shop was run by Joe Bloggs and his wife and daughter it worked quite well. Now, however, there is a growing number of shops run by immigrants—no doubt, they do a useful service, and I make no criticism of them—the kind of shop run by a proprietor who has many relations living with him, all of whom may well bear the name Singh. The only point I make is that shop inspectors are all but abandoning the problem as being one in respect of which the writ of English law no longer runs and into which they are no longer prepared to probe. That is the sort of feeling which I should like to see avoided.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

I am reluctant to intervene, but this is an important point, and a statement like that has wide implications. Could the hon. Gentleman give some evidence to show that the law is not now being applied to distributive units run by immigrants?

Mr. King

If the hon. Gentleman had waited a little he would have heard the evidence.

Mr. Loughlin

I apologise.

Mr. King

Here is one example. Launderettes—I do not say unknown in 1950, but certainly not known on anything like the present scale—are working at all sorts of hours, and much of what is done there, I make bold to say, is illegal. In addition, there are new forms of trading. One which is now emerging on a considerable scale, so I am told by shop inspectors, is the sales party, a sort of party given by a suburban housewife who invites friends and neighbours to her house and makes a little on the side by modelling and selling frocks. This can go on at all hours of the day, and, again, it is not covered by the Act.

I come now to some of the absurdities. Hon. Members may know, for example, that in a public house—I mentioned this on the radio this morning—one may often see boxes of chocolates on sale at a guinea or 30s.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if there are breaches of law we ought to take no notice of the law itself?

Mr. King

If the hon. and learned Gentleman will wait until I reach the end of my argument, he will understand what 1 am saying. I have just mentioned that public houses will now have boxes of chocolates at a guinea or 30s. which their customers can buy. I do not know how many hon. Members realise that if a person buys a box of chocolates in a public house at half-past nine it is the law that he must eat all those chocolates before leaving the "pub"—a rather sick-making process. If he takes the chocolates outside or takes them home, he is acting illegally and a prosecution is possible.

There is a curious feature of the law in this respect which I do not understand and which I am sure, no hon. Member would readily defend. At 9.30 in the evening it is perfectly legal to buy tobacco, which most doctors now describe as more or less a poison, but it is illegal to buy a loaf of bread—a distinction which I find it hard to defend. One hears of quite absurd cases. One occurred in Cheshunt a year ago, where a prosecution took place because a shopkeeper had sold some Alka Seltzer tablets, and the question at once arose whether it was a medicine.

I come now to the point which the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) raised, the question of enforcement. There are 20,000 local authorities, and it is their task under the law to enforce the Act. They employ—I confess this figure astounded me when I first heard it—5,000 inspectors. True, not all these inspectors do this work alone—naturally, they do other things as well—but that is the inspecting force. It will interest the hon. Gentleman to know that in 1969, despite those 5,000 inspectors, not a single prosecution took place.

One may praise the inspectors and say that they worked with great tact. No doubt they did, and to some extent that is a good point; but it is even more to the point that local authorities throughout the country are more and more shutting their eyes to breaches of the law which they think in their hearts ought not to be enforced and which they know in their minds cannot be enforced. That is the fact, and it is important.

Obviously, it is desirable to seek the views of shop-workers, of their unions, of employers and of the consumer. But someone else should be thought of, the shop inspector who does this job. I have here an issue of the magazine The Inspector, published by the Institute of Shop Inspectors. It is the inspectors' own magazine published by and for the men who really know the position. This is what it said: The 1950 Shops Act, which was a piece of legislation which would have done justice to Machiavelli, is riddled with loopholes, is confusing even to legal minds, and in many cases quite incomprehensible to the layman. It leaves a great deal to the whims and wishes of the local authority whose actions are often coloured by the personalities of the governing body or the prejudices of local government officers. That is what the inspectors say, and in conversation—I have talked to them at some length—they will say a great deal more than that, and in language even stronger.

The law is breaking down. Those who know most about the subject know that the law is breaking down. I put it to my hon. Friends on both sides of the House—if I may so refer to them on this occasion—that we may argue about what the remedy should be, and it may well be right that some of the provisions of the Bill should be amended, but there ought, surely, to be unanimity, or near unanimity, that a law which does not work is a law which is better repealed. Whatever the measure or quality of the reform, reform is now needed.

Having dealt with the present situation, I come now to the present needs. Broadly speaking—there are many exceptions with which I shall not complicate the issue now—shops are required to close at 9 p.m. on one day a week and 8 p.m. on other days. What is the evidence of need? What do the public require? First, let us consider the common sense of the matter in general terms. People cannot shop while they are working. Most shops open from 9 a.m. until 5.30 p.m. From 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. 65 per cent. of the adult population are working or travelling. On the face of it, that is a lunatic situation.

It is also a changing situation. Hon. Members will know from their own experience how women at work, both single and married women, have to makeshift to do their shopping. My secretary, for example, often says to me at lunchtime. "Do you mind if I am back 10 minutes late?"—and off she goes like a distraught hen, losing her lunch, running about the shops so as to bring home the food for the family. Is there any hon. Member who has not come across that in his own experience? It is a situation which working women ought no longer to be asked to tolerate.

I spoke of the situation as changing. In this context, it is a worsening situation. Forty per cent. of wives are now at work. We are dealing not with a small number but with millions of women who suffer what I have described.

Those are generalities. Now let me be more concrete and give some figures. I will take them in two forms: first, what do the shops say? Second, what do the people say? I should like to present the statistical evidence on the shops, beginning with hours. Some of the evidence is American and some English. The American evidence is from a 1968 Focus published by the Consumer Council, an organisation to which hon. Members opposite are friendly. It is the result of research by Colin Harbury, lecturer in economics at Birmingham University, who says: … peak shopping hour in U.S. supermarkets was said to be 8.30 p.m. on Fridays … over a fifth of the entire week's sales are made after 6 p.m.". Now I turn to England, and I take Birmingham, because evidence from that city is available. I refer to a group of supermarkets there. Twenty per cent. of the entire week's trading comes from late-night shopping. Incidentally, that group of supermarkets was later made to close because what it was doing was illegal.

So the demand for night shopping is statistically shown. That evidence relates to hours, but there is also evidence on days.

Again, I take the United States first. A chain of supermarkets in Alabama does 7 per cent. of its trade on Mondays, 8 per cent. on Tuesdays and 31 per cent. on Fridays. In England the position is practically the same. The Birmingham evidence is of 9 per cent. of the trade being done on Tuesdays, 34 per cent. on Fridays and 34 per cent. on Saturdays.

Here is where shop assistants have something that may well be to their benefit. In the town which you and I both know, and part of which you represent, Mr. Speaker, a major departmental store closes on Monday, and this practice is becoming increasingly common. The figures bear out that the tendency to close on Mondays will grow as the years go by.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)


Mr. King

This sort of thing can grow only if there is freedom, and that is the freedom for which I speak.

Mr. Hughes


Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to try to intervene, he will ask the hon. Gentleman if he may intervene.

Mr. Hughes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. King


Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has given statistical evidence from America and England. Has he any statistical evidence which might help Scots Members to understand the problem in Scotland?

Mr. King

I had better leave that to Scots Members. My experience is that English Members are not popular when they intervene in Scots affairs.

I now turn to what the people say, and evidence produced by the Consumers' Association, which represents 600.000 people. I pay tribute to the association, which has been very helpful. The information I shall give is from research completed between 25th and 29th November, 1970. This is the first time that the results have been revealed. I do not doubt that they will be published in the association's magazine, Which?, in due course. This is the second time that such research has been done, but this is the most up-to-date.

The question asked was: If shops for the full range of day-to-day shopping (e.g. food, chemist's goods, dry-cleaning) were open one or more days in the week until 10 p.m. would you find this useful or not useful? That is the fairest possible question and test of public reaction. The answers were: all 40 per cent.; housewives working full-time, 58 per cent.; those aged 16 to 24, 53 per cent. That interested me. I do not want to waste time in quoting too many figures. The percentage progressively falls the older the population. It is interesting sociologically that for the C2 class, the slightly above average skilled working people, the figure was 46 per cent.

In summary, that evidence shows that working wives desperately want such hours, the slightly above average wage-earner particularly wants them, and, above all, they are wanted more by the young than the old, so that the tendency is growing. That is fairly concrete evidence. There are pages of other statistics which will be available to anyone who wants them.

Mr. Walter Padley (Ogmore)

I hope to catch the eye of the Chair later to develop this point, but it is one worth intervening to make now. When any referendum is taken the result depends on the question asked. I wonder what the reply would have been if the housewives and the rest had been asked whether they wanted those hours at the cost of substantially higher prices, which would certainly result.

Mr. King

This is the trouble with giving way. If only the hon. Gentleman had been patient, I was going to deal with that. It is a great mistake to give way. Hon. Members who have intervened have not asked any sensible questions yet.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)


Mr. King

Much as I should like to give way to the hon. Gentleman, I had better not do so just now.

With the evidence I have just given in mind, we must address ourselves to what the Bill should seek to do. But, first, I look for neutral evidence, because I am not so arrogant as to think that I know everything. I prefer to ask people who have given months and years of study to the question. I have evidence from three such people, and I start with Sir Ernest Gowers, who in 1947, I think, produced the first report on the matter. That was a long time ago, and things have been moving steadily since then. I do not claim that he would have supported me—I do not think that he would—but he wrote: Whatever the closing hour, we were told, there would always be some customers who left their shopping to the last moment. We believe that arguments such as these, appropriate enough in the days when shops used to stay open until midnight, are now out of date. … We asked many advocates … the question when a woman who worked in a factory or office up to, say, 5.30 p.m. was to do her shopping. No one gave us a satisfactory answer. Some said on her way to work, some in the luncheon hour, and some on the late day. We do not believe there is a satisfactory answer. I come next to a body which I am sure will appeal to hon. Members opposite.

Mr. J. T. Price


Mr. King

I have given way five times, and that is enough. The little Neddy was set up by hon. Members opposite, and I think that they will treat its opinion with respect. The quotation I have here is from its report in 1966: The general opinion of the group was that the number of evening trading schemes was growing and that flexibility of the trading day, within the present laws on hours of trading, was desirable as long as adequate safeguards were provided for the employees … I quote also the Home Office White Paper produced under the authority of the last Government: The Government believe that these objectives"— efficiency— can best be realised by a movement towards great flexibility in retail trading arrangements. I turn to the Consumer Council. I am all too conscious that it is to be abolished by my Government. I must say, even in the presence of my Whips, that I think that that decision is unfortunate. I know that hon. Members opposite think that it is unfortunate. They have said so in unmistakable terms. If they genuinely think so, the corollary is that they should pay some attention to its opinions. No one has done more to forward the Bill than the Chairman of the Consumer Council, who writes: I am delighted to learn that you are thinking of introducing a Bill to liberalise shopping hours. This has been a long-standing campaign of the Consumer Council. Hon. Members will find the Consumers' Association's views to be identical.

The British Tourist Authority and tourism brings into this country £150 million a year and deals with 6¾ million visitors—has also written to much the same effect.

So, apart from the vested interests—those which own the shops or work in them—the organisations expert in this matter, all the liberal, progressive organisations, many of them set up by hon. Members opposite, are unanimous in thinking liberalisation of shopping hours to be desirable.

With that overwhelming support from independent persons, how shall we bring about the liberalisation? The 1950 Act is divided into five Parts. What I propose is moderate. I am not concerned—I do not think that the House would primarily be concerned—with three of those Parts. I do not propose to touch Part IV, which deals with Sunday trading. I do not think that the sponsors of the Bill propose that the existing Sunday trading regulations should in any way be interfered with.

An Hon. Member

There is a Bill before the other House.

Mr. King

I cannot be responsible for what is done in the other House. I am talking about my Bill.

Part II of the 1950 Act deals with conditions of employment and the conditions under which employees work. I would hope that that Part of the Act would be strengthened. Indeed, I have deliberately put Clause 2 in my Bill—I hope that his has not caused misunderstanding—to provide a peg upon which Amendments may hang to strengthen the position of the employee. I have no doubt that the existing penalties for offences against the employment of young persons should be strengthened, and I hope that they will be. Here, too, is an opportunity in a wide field which the House has not had for many years to strengthen the position of the employee. I certainly hope that advantage may be taken of it.

I propose a total repeal of Part I of the 1950 Act. The effect of this would be that on weekdays shops and their employees and clients can evolve a pattern of shopping hours which suits them.

In a memorandum issued by a trade union it was stated that these proposals were prompted by pecuniary and commercial motives. That was an unwise thing to say. The Chairman of the Consumers' Association is Mrs. Roy Jenkins. The Chairman of the Consumer Council is Dame Elizabeth Ackroyd. They, and they alone, have been responsible for prompting the Bill. Much might be said about those two eminent ladies. I do not think that anyone, on reflection, would wish to repeat that observation.

Furthermore, that observation is untrue in another context because—I move on now to the employers—the Chamber of Trade, the Retail Consortium and the National Grocers' Federation are all opposed to what I propose. This is far from being prompted by commercial motives. The shop owners who are in favour of the Bill are mostly the small shop owners, who have five organisations, including the National Union of Small Shopkeepers. Therefore, if there be a division and there is cross-thinking on this matter—opinion is by no means one way or the other—it is broadly true that the small shopkeeper is in favour of the Bill and the bigger shopkeeper is against it.

I should like to deal with the union memorandum to which I have referred. Obviously, every union is rightly anxious to further the interests of its members. This is my ambition as much as it is theirs. Here is a legislative opportunity to do that very thing. The arguments used in that memorandum—I will take only two—are that there is only a limited amount of goods to be sold and that if we lengthen the shopping hours we thereby increase wages and the price of those goods will rise. The second argument which is used is that 75 per cent. of retail shops employ four or fewer employees and no shift system is practicable.

In my view, both those arguments are met by this statement. It is not the function of the Bill, overall, to increase working hours, nor do I believe that that will be the result. I can give evidence of this. It is the function of the Bill so to liberalise shops, their employees and their customers that the shops can open when they wish to open.

If hon. Members seek concrete evidence of that, I will gladly give it. The existing law allows shops to open 114 hours in a week. They do not do it. The existing law allows shops to open every day until 8 p.m. Only a tiny minority does so. In other words, it is not the law which governs the situation. What governs it is negotiations between employer and employee. The difficulty of getting staff and the wishes of the customer all play a part.

The law in this respect has become a dead letter. Indeed, so far from arguing that longer shopping hours mean longer working hours, the reverse is true. Where a shop employee tends to work long hours is where the shop is traditionally open from 9 till 6, which often gives an eight or nine-hour working day. When a shop is open from, say, 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. or even later, the shift system comes in and the shop employee tends to have his working hours reduced to six. That is to his benefit.

I recently went round a shop called Escalade. That shop is open during normal working hours and again from midnight to 2 a.m., which is perfectly legal. I talked to many attractive girl shop assistants. They loved it because, first, they had extra pay when they worked in the middle of the night and, secondly, because when they worked—it was entirely up to them whether they did so—from midnight until 2 a.m., they got the next morning or afternoon off. This is what shop assistants desire.

I end by recapitulating what I have briefly tried to explain. There is an overwhelming demand for the Bill. Statistics prove it beyond any reasonable doubt. Whatever vested interests may say, whether they be the vested interests of the employee, the shop owner or the worker, there are millions of consumers who have a right to be heard. I do not believe that we have given them the justice that we ought to give. That is the consumer.

I turn to the employee. I believe that what is proposed by the sponsors of the Bill can be substantially to his advantage. I foresee a pattern evolving in which, no doubt, in Piccadilly and the King's Road, one might indeed find shops open half the night and goods there will be more expensive, as they always are in a shop in Piccadilly. What will be found there, however, is not what is found in Tottenham, and what is found in Tottenham is not what will be found in working-class suburbs or the stockbroker belt. In freedom, there will evolve a shopping pattern which is congenial and well liked by those who shop and no less liked by those who run the shops and work in the shops.

I remember an architect who designed buildings on a university campus once saying that he was not planning any paths. He proposed to wait 12 months until those who occupied one or other of the buildings walked to and fro. After 12 months he would see what paths they naturally took and those would be the places to put the footpaths. That is the analogy in the Bill which I seek to promote.

Finally, I quote a respectable Liberal source: Law and Government should do only what the community is incapable of doing for itself. Where it is capable of helping itself, let it do so. This is a plea to strike off our shackles, because I believe that freedom advances the interests of us all.

11.59 a.m.

Mr. Walter Padley (Ogmore)

I rise to offer unconditional opposition to the Bill. Since there has been much talk of interests in this House in recent times, I declare mine. I have a lifelong association with the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, as did my father before me. I have had 21 years service as a sponsored member of that union in this House, and 16 years as the national President of the Union. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman began by saying that though it was called the Shops Act, 1950 there was a long history—

Mr. Wilfred Proudfoot (Brighouse and Spenborough)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would tell the House how long it is since he has worked in a retail store.

Mr. Padley

The answer is 1938. The last time I worked in the consumers' Cooperative Movement in an executive capacity was the day before the General Election of 1950. It would have been rather difficult for me to have combined the presidency of one of the largest trade unions in Britain with membership of the House, and to continue to serve behind the counter, in an office or in an executive capacity. However, that does not disqualify me from claiming that my lifelong association enables me to speak with some knowledge of the problems, and with much greater knowledge than the mover of the Second Reading of the Bill.

I was about to begin by referring to Sheffield in 1825, but since the lion. Gentleman has talked about 1844 I shall simply remind him that when Lord Avebury, to whom the former hon. Member for Orpington, Mr. Lubbock, was related, began to introduce his Bills, they were Bills for voluntary action, not compulsory action. Around that time there were early closing riots, with picketing and, I regret to say, violence. One of my distinguished predecessors as President of my union landed in Wormwood Scrubs as a result of one of those riots.

The hon. Gentleman is correct that many distinguished Members of the House have advocated the cause of early closing. He omitted the name of Sir Charles Dilke, who was the first regular champion of shop workers in the 1890s, year in and year out. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) represents his old constituency of the Forest of Dean, and our London headquarters is named Dilke House in Sir Charles' honour.

I regret that we are discussing this matter again. I had hoped that we had ended these discussions a long time ago, on Wednesday, 19th November, 1952. On that occasion I rose at 1 o'clock in the morning, at 3.46 a.m. the Chief Whip moved the Closure, and 557 hon. Members voted in either Lobby on the annulment of the Winter Closing Order. I was then able to remind the House that Sir Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister, was still the President of the Early Closing Association, and that the then Mr. Speaker had been the Parliamentary Chairman of the Early Closing Association. That was in the middle of the night in November, 1952, and yet the House is asked to be so unwise as to give a Second Reading to this Bill.

I can assure hon. Gentlemen opposite that the unanimous views of the Labour Party Conference, the Trades Union Congress, the Standing Joint Committee of Working Women's Organisations and the Co-operative Congress—representing 13 million consumers—far larger and more representative than the Consumer Council or the Consumers Association—will be fought for on the Floor of the House and wherever else that they need to be fought for. Historical evidence, not only in Britain but throughout the world, demonstrates that there is an inseparable link between the hours during which shops are permitted to be open and the working conditions of shop assistants.

In presenting the Bill, the hon. Gentleman gave the impression that this was some aberration of Britain. He cited the United States of America, but Alabama has never been my ideal for establishing a just society for shop workers and consumers, be they married women or single men.

Why is it that the countries with traditions most like our own in Western and Northern Europe and Australasia have had exactly the same struggles and, on the whole, more progressive legislation from the shop workers' point of view than has existed and still exists in Britain? It is because of the connection between the welfare of shop workers and the period during which shops are allowed to be open.

As the hon. Gentleman read the figures from Focus it seemed that the supermarket in Birmingham, U.S.D.A.W. permitting, could have done exactly what the supermarket in America was doing. with existing laws, in so far as there is the possibility of one late night of 9 p.m., unless Birmingham is one of those local authorities which has made just over 1,000 orders clipping an hour off the late night, and/or an hour off the general closing hour, as is permitted under the 1950 Act.

I referred to the debate in the middle of the night in 1952. We were then promised a Bill based upon the Gowers Committee's Report, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I found it significant that the hon. Gentleman used selective evidence, I hope unintentionally, which misleads the House. He quoted Gowers but not the findings of the Gowers Committee's Report. The findings of that Report were that one hour should be cut off the 9 o'clock late night and one hour should be cut off the 8 o'clock general closing hour in the 1950 Act.

Mr. Evelyn King

The hon. Gentleman is attributing to me something which I did not say. I specifically said that Sir Ernest Gowers would not support the Measure. I made that quite clear. I then went on to quote the specific thing he said about liberalising shop hours. I gave the balance of what the Report recommended and the matter I sought to quote.

Mr. Padley

I am glad that my remark has enabled the hon. Gentleman to make that clearer than it sounded to me. During the debate in the middle of the night, the then Home Secretary gave a categorical undertaking that the then Conservative Government would introduce a Bill based on the Gowers Committee's recommendations. They did in fact introduce one in the 1956–57 Session. It went through the Lords, but was dropped for lack of time when it reached this place.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

I would like to correct the hon. Gentleman on that, and he can make what he likes out of it, but it was not dropped for lack of time; it was dropped because of pressure from these benches on the Government of the day.

Mr. Padley

All I can say it that I was attending a conference of the International Federation of Commercial, and Technical Employees in Munich; I returned before the conference was over; and the reason given to me by the Home Secretary of the day was that, unless we could facilitate the progress of the Bill, lack of time would mean that it would be dropped. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to dispute my memory of a discussion in which I personally took part as one of the principal leaders of the organisations which were consulted.

Let me turn to the question of the consumer. I mentioned the consumers' Co-operative Movement, far and away the largest and most representative consumers' organisation. Reference has been made to women workers. What is overlooked, though, is that 70 per cent. of those who work in shops are women, and almost half of that 70 per cent. are married women. Indeed, it is true to say that the distributive trades are the largest single employer of women in general and of married women in particular, and it seems to me a strange argument to say that shops employing hundreds of thousands of married women and hundreds of thousands of single women are to stay open for the peculiar hours to which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dorset, South has referred.

He cannot dismiss this question easily, when one remembers that of the shops of Britain, as he said, 75 per cent. employ four persons or fewer, that number including the working proprietors or managers. It would be quite impossible in these circumstances to organise shift systems. Those shops would lose trade if the hon. Gentleman's Bill became the law of the land, and as they lost trade there would be increasing pressure to extend their hours of opening, and, with the more hours of opening, either more people would be employed or overtime rates would be paid.

In his statement the Secretary of State for Employment this morning said that cost inflation was the greatest problem facing Britain. It is strange that we should go on to discuss a Private Member's Bill which would wipe out the most important part of the Shops Acts and which would be bound to increase distributive costs and prices. Since the hon. Gentleman quoted Alabama he might read the Anglo-American Productivity Report on the relative costs of retailing in the United States of America and in Britain, and he would find that unrestricted opening hours lead to substantial rises in the costs of distribution and in retail prices.

Although the hon. Gentleman himself made the point I want to repeat it. In manufacturing industry the continental shift system of working all round the clock can be defended on the ground that expensive equipment should be used 24 hours a day in order to get extra output; but, in the distributive trades, the goods to be distributed are those produced at home or those which are imported. It is a fixed sum.

Mr. Evelyn King

Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that is exactly what is happening in the shops trade, in that there are shops in Piccadilly Circus where huge rents have to be paid and it is obviously economic for them to open 24 hours a day to make enough to cover those rents; and that equally, for shops in suburbs, or in back streets of a suburb, it is not economical to open 24 hours a day and so they do not open all day? Let natural economic forces have their play.

Mr. Padley

With due respect to him, the hon. Gentleman refuses to see this in its totality. The right hon. Gentleman, making his statement about the electricity workers' dispute, talked about cost inflation; not about the cost inflation of a shop in Piccadilly or the cost inflation of a shop in a back street of Birmingham, but the cost inflation of Britain as a whole, and the Shops Act refers to Britain as a whole. The point I am making is valid: that if we abolish legal restrictions about shop hours, if shifts apply in the larger shops, extra will be paid in wages, and men and women will be withdrawn from productive industry, manufacturing industry, the only place where they can come from. [Interruption.] Well, if the hon. Gentleman is going to say that the result of his Bill will be to produce an acute staff shortage in the distributive trades I would ask him to square that with his other argument, that this Bill will enable better service to be given to the community. He cannot have it both ways.

Mr. Arthur Probert (Aberdare)

My hon. Friend has referred to the fact that the hon. Gentleman opposite had overlooked the totality of the situation. Would he not agree that if a large store keeps longer hours, to be run, therefore, perhaps, more efficiently, the back street store would have less opportunity to sell than that shop, and that it would become thereby less efficient?

Mr. Padley

I think there is a good deal in that, but I wanted to come on to the point about shops which employ four people or fewer including managers and working proprietors.

If shops are opened to compete with supermarkets, then to avoid bankruptcy, or to avoid a manager losing his job at 56 or 57 because due to economic pressure, alternative employment is unlikely to be available, we shall find scores of thousands if not more men working what the Americans call the B to B shift—be there when the shop opens and be there when it closes. Remember that the manager of the traditional grocer's shop, for example, is responsible for stock, cash, and leakage, and he has to be there when the shop opens and be there when it closes. This would inflict very real hardship, and, in the process, reduce the efficiency of the service to the community.

Reference has been made to employers' organisations and trade associations. We ought in this to get our proportions right. I mean, the National Union of Small Shopkeepers has a very imposing name, but I doubt if it has 10,000 members. On the other hand, the National Federation of Grocers, which has a less imposing name, I suppose, in so far as it refers to grocers, has probably a membership of about the same size as that of my own union, which is well over 300,000. It is no accident that it takes the same view of the Bill as that taken by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.

It is clear that if the Bill is allowed to go through it will result in hardship to staff. It will result, too, in higher prices to the consumer, and to a decline in services. The hon. Gentleman has inserted in the Bill a reference to doing nothing to damage the conditions of shop workers—presumably he means within the confines of the Shops Act. The truth is that the distributive trades need a Shops Act as a long-stop, just as we need Wages Councils and Wages Councils Orders, as a long-stop to prevent unfair competition and the activities of rogue elements.

I hope that the House will decline to give the Bill a Second Reading, but if it does allow this Measure to go further I hope that it will be fought and fought bitterly to the end.

12.21 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor)

I realise that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley) has long experience of the unions, but it is 31 years since he was in the trade himself. I do not, of course, hold that against him, because I have never been in the trade. The hon. Gentleman quoted what was said by Sir Ernest Gowers. If he looks more closely at what was said, he will find that Sir Ernest was in favour of a liberalisation of shop hours, and that he went on to say that it is now the public's turn for consideration. The hon. Gentleman raised an important issue when he said that on the Continent many manufacturers were using their plant on a three-shift basis so as to get the maximum possible productivity out of their expensive machinery. If one follows that to its logical conclusion, it is more than ever essential that we should have a liberalisation of shopping hours to enable people who are unable to shop because they are working normal hours to do their shopping at other times.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)

Is it not also true that the Gowers Committee recommended regular closing and compulsory evening closing?

Dr. Glyn

The hon. Gentleman is correct, but I was answering the specific point made by the hon. Member for Ogmore when I reminded the House that the Gowers Committee had said that it was the public's turn for consideration. No one can possibly say that the two sides must not be considered. The customer must be given some consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) drew attention to the absurdity and anomalies of the present legislation. I think that the real point that he brought out is that if there is a law which it is difficult to enforce the value of that law is almost nil.

I shall not detain the House for long, but my hon. Friend deployed certain independent evidence. I do not want to go over that ground again, but it is always difficult in a Private Member's Bill to include all that an hon. Member would like to include, and it is really for the Government eventually to overhaul the whole of the legislation. But that does not prevent the House, on a Friday, from considering very seriously the contents of a Bill which is before it. It may be argued that this is piecemeal legislation, but if its object is to improve the situation I suggest that the House should give it serious consideration.

My hon. Friend referred to mobile shops as a new pattern of trading. This is not quite accurate. I suggest to him that what we are seeing is a return to the mobile shops that used to exist in country districts a long time ago. They were overtaken by events, but now the public are demanding them back again. They are not really a new feature but a restoration of what was a normal practice before the war.

There is in this country now a completely new pattern of life, and it is against that background that we must consider shopping hours. Nowadays, in many families both the husband and wife go to work, and the old idea that the wife stayed at home and went out to do her shopping is rapidly disappearing. In my experience it is often the husband who has to do the shopping. If we move into the system of having a three-shift working day in industry, we must adapt the whole of our trading pattern to that idea.

For many years the practice in Paris has been for most shops to remain open over the weekend, to suit the worker. The working day in offices in France is somewhat longer than it is here. It has been the practice since the end of the war for most shops to close on Monday.

In France one finds that after their day's work people go to the shops to buy one or two bottles of wine—in some cases more—and to do their other shopping. I feel that we are in a period of transition, in which we have to consider what the customer needs. Hon. Gentlemen opposite may say that people have refrigerators and deep freezers, but I put it to them that those facilities do not cater for every eventuality. In addition, of course, not everyone has that equipment. Furthermore, many people prefer to buy fresh rather than frozen food. I think that we should, if possible, try to bring about a liberalisation of shopping hours.

Nobody disputes that we must consider the person working on the shop floor. This is essential, and I notice that Clause 2 says: Nothing in this Act shall be construed as amending the law regarding the conditions of employment of shop assistants. That is very important.

The House of Commons must move with the times. We have on our Statute Books legislation which is both archiac and unenforceable. In those circumstances, and because of the need to keep pace with the change in the pattern of our lives and the possibility of 24-hour working in industry, we must move with the times, while making sure that in meeting the genuine needs of the public we satisfy ourselves that those who work in the shops are protected and get a fair deal.

12.30 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Torney (Bradford, South)

Hon. Members have referred to their experiences of working in shops or in the distributive industry. I am new to the House and I may not understand all its ways, but I claim to have a tremendous inside knowledge of the modern distributive trade. Twenty-three years have elapsed since I worked behind a shop counter—which I did for many years—and that period of 23 years has been spent dealing intimately with every phase of distribution.

For that period I worked as an area organiser for the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers, by which I have the honour to be sponsored to this House. I declare my interest in that respect. My service as an area official meant that I worked in various localities. I was very close to the workers in the shops. I regularly attended meetings, talking to shop workers and discussing their problems. I also talked to various employers and listened to them describe the problems that face them in their everyday working life. I regularly visited shops and talked to the workers, shop managers and employers. Until a week after the last General Election 1 therefore had an intimate knowledge of the distributive industry.

The distributive industry is more important than many people think. We know that without the skill of the workers in that industry there could have been a terrible collapse during the war. Those workers had to operate the rationing system, which was terribly difficult. Members of my trade union played their full part.

Listening to the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) I wondered whether we were trying to legislate only for conditions in Piccadilly. I sincerely hope that that is not so. When I go to the Table Office with my Questions I am often turned down on the ground that we cannot legislate for localities; we have to legislate for the whole nation. Piccadilly and such places are exceptional. A Bill of this kind can affect consumer interests and shopping habits, and also the lives of the people who work in the shops. We must therefore consider its global effect.

Dr. Glyn

Perhaps the hon. Member did not properly hear what my hon. Friend said. He said that there are peculiar conditions about Piccadilly, but what we should be considering is the fact that there are varying circumstances in all parts of the country, and that each area ought to have the shopping pattern that suits it best.

Mr. Torney

I appreciate that point, but considerable play was made by the hon. Member for Dorset, South about Piccadilly. He also talked about leaving the question of closing or opening hours to the whims of local authorities. I agree that what would work in Piccadilly would not work in the back streets of Birmingham or even in the centre of Birmingham. The Bill gives power to local authorities to make changes to suit their local conditions. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot criticise the whims of local authorities and then say that we want something special because of the situation that exists, say, in the centre of London.

Mr. Proudfoot

Surely the hon. Member knows that the cost of shop property in the Midlands is very high, and that the same conditions apply in the centre of his constituency as in the centre of London.

Mr. Torney

I cannot accept that. My constituency is South Bradford, but I know all about the centre of Bradford, and because I was born in London I know about the centre of London. It is not possible to make a comparison in respect either of the shopping areas or the cost of properties in those two cities. All I can say is that if I wanted to buy a house I would rather buy it in Bradford, and not in London, with the fantastic prices that are charged down here.

The hon. Member for Dorset, South talked about the law being ignored. That may be true. He also told us that there were 5,000 inspectors. I do not know how much he knows about distribution, shops, the Shops Acts, and inspectors—local authority enforcement officers—but I can assure him that in most instances a local authority employs a number of inspectors who have to undertake the enforcement of numerous Acts of Parliament. The 5,000 inspectors to whom the hon. Member refers would not be enforcing merely the Shops Acts, they would be enforcing many other Acts. I would hate the House to have a false impression and imagine that 5,000 inspectors were going round daily checking upon the way in which the provisions of the Shops Acts were being fulfilled—because they are not; they have many other jobs to do.

The hon. Member also talked about shift work. I shall go into that point in some detail later, but I want to link it for the moment with the question of inspectors. We may think of improving the second part of the Bill in order to give greater protection to employees. In other words, he wants legislation relating to shop workers, which will mean not 5,000 part-time inspectors but 50,000 full-time ones. The law is useless unless it can be enforced.

The pamphlet of U.S.D.A.W. said: One is entitled to ask whether those wanting to alter the law on shop closing hours have the consumers' interests at heart, as they claim, or rather whether their motives are pecuniary or commercial. The membership of the union are impolite enough to hold the latter view. There is nothing wrong in that lucid comment.

One only has to look down the average high street, in Bradford, Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham or Leicester, to see the tremendous efforts of traders to attract customers with gimmickry like money off, two for the price of one and sales. This is the way that commercial business is done, one trader trying to put something over on another; it is not just the consumers' interests which are considered.

The hon. Member for Dorset, South seemed to lack knowledge of the industry. He talked of chocolates in pubs. I occasionally go into a pub and have occasionally seen boxes of chocolates, but I rarely see anyone buy them unless as a peace-offering for his wife. The volume of this trade can be ignored. The bulk of our trade—I am not talking about Piccadilly—in the heart of the country, in Yorkshire and the Midlands and the North, is done on Friday and Saturday, in the great tradition of a man and his wife shopping together.

Honest traders might complain of Tupper parties to which women invite their friends and sell them things, but the amount of that trade is infinitely small and not worth worrying about.

Mr. Proudfoot

Has the hon. Member heard of mail order?

Mr. Torney

Yes, I have heard of that, which is very prominent in Bradford, but the hon. Member for Dorset, South did not mention it. He talked of launderettes. I rarely see workers there. They are based more on automation and the slot machines which we have had from time immemorial. That has nothing to do with this issue.

Having worked in a shop and been associated closely with thousands of shop workers and employers, I have seen the drudgery that shop work can mean and the pressures that these workers can be under. Most shop workers are women and possibly half are young women. They probably have boy friends or husbands who work in factories where a five-day week has been established for many years. They cannot join their men at the weekend.

As a lad, when I worked behind the counter until 8 o'clock every night, apart from the weekly half-day, and 9 o'clock on Saturdays, holiday time, Christmas and Bank Holidays, was miserable, when the Shops Act was discarded temporarily and shops stayed open as long as they liked. This is what the Bill would allow. My employer used to send me down the street to see who was open and how many customers they had. Is that efficiency or greater productivity? They did not want to shut ten minutes before Joe Bloggs in case they lost a little trade. This is the kind of anarchy which the Bill will help us drift back to.

Not only are the shop workers' hours anti-social, but their wages are low. Not only are they low in the provinces but in central London as well. I worked as a full-time trade union officer in the Midlands and I assure the House that shop workers' wages throughout the country leave very much to be desired. It is already difficult to attract people, especially youngsters, into the distributive industry. In addition to anti-social hours and low wages, the earning potential generally in this industry is low. If the law is altered in the way proposed in the Bill, it will be even more difficult to recruit shop workers.

It is one thing to urge shops to remain open until 9 p.m. or later. It is another to afford the staff to do the job properly. This brings me to the question of shift working, about which the hon. Member for Dorset, South appears to have little knowledge. I have been in negotiations with employers on many occasions on this subject. These have been conducted in a spirit of intense good will.

I would hate hon. Gentlemen opposite to imagine that all trade unionists are ogres and out to do the employer down. Most of the negotiations in which I have participated have been surrounded with good will and a desire on both sides to do what is best for the distributive industry and to give adequate protection to its workers. Both sides of this industry agree that it is difficult, often impossible. to organise shift working, certainly without tremendously increased wage bills.

Anybody who has had anything to do with distribution in recent years appreciates that wages represent probably the most important factor in trading. Indeed, many firms are going to the wall because of this factor, and not only co-operative enterprises. Shops in Birmingham, Leicester, Derby and elsewhere have closed. In high streets throughout the country quite large stores are going to the wall because of this factor, and even the famous national organisation of Debenhams has shops lying empty. This is indicative of the problems faced by this industry.

To run a shift system one must recruit more staff. The result is a larger wages bill. The only way to recoup this money is to pass it on to the consumer. How, therefore, can it be said that this Bill will help the consumer when it is bound to result in higher prices?

Mr. Iremonger

The hon. Gentleman has not considered the consequence if those extra costs result in greater convenience being given to the customer who wants to shop later. Competition will come into operation from those whose costs do not go up as a result of their giving a less convenient service.

Mr. Torney

It does not work like that. More than three-quarters of the shops in Britain employ fewer than four people, including the manager or working proprietor. How can one operate a shift system with four workers? Employers with whom I have negotiated have said that a shift system cannot be worked with a small staff, and they have been referring to staffs of up to a dozen. Only the very large supermarket type of store will be able to work such a system. Even so, I know the manager of one such store who frequently sweats tears of blood trying to think of ways to organise his staff so that he can provide an adequate service to his customers.

Even a shop employing 20 people will find it difficult to operate a shift system during the two or three hours of the day when half of the staff must be away for meal and other breaks. Between noon and 2.30 p.m. is often the busiest time for some shops, but it is at that time that staffs are frequently having their meal breaks.

Mr. Loughlin

Is it not a fact that the costs of distribution are related to the costs per £ of sales? If the volume of sales remains static, as it is bound to do, labour costs are bound to increase. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Interventions prolong speeches. Many hon. Members wish to take part in this debate.

Mr. Torney

The abolition of legislation governing closing hours will result in many shops going to the wall, partly because of the facts I have mentioned and partly because of increased competition. The multiples will be fighting each other to see which can stay open later.

Are we to have a situation in which our shops workers, who already work unsocial hours, work split shifts? This is what will come. I have already dealt with the dreadfully uneconomic side of this matter. Does it mean that managers, assistant managers and shop assistants will be called upon to start work at, say, 8.30 in the morning, break at 1, 2 or 3 o'clock for three or four hours, and come back at 6 or 7 o'clock and go on until 10, 11 or 12 o'clock midnight? What else can it mean? It may be argued that shop workers will still work only seven or eight hours a day, but it is clear that this will be a worsening of their conditions. They certainly do not want that.

In the food sector, which is an important side of distribution, the margins of profit are very low. There is a tremendous amount of gimmickry going on in the food sector, in which we already have late-night closing on certain days of the week. Late-night closing one day a week has created tremendous problems for the management of stores. What will happen if this practice is extended to other days in the week? Obviously in the attempt to gather more trade in their efforts to keep themselves solvent managements will say, "We will steal a march on our competitors. We now keep open until 8 o'clock on Friday. We will go to 9 o'clock on Friday. If our competitors follows suit, we will stay open until 8 o'clock on Thursday or on Tuesday", and so on.

The whole point—

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members being present

Mr. Torney

I was going to develop the argument that—[interruption.] I am happy to develop the argument—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. If the hon. Gentleman would proceed with his speech and not worry about being prompted by others, the House would enjoy it a lot more.

Mr. Torney

I was trying to develop the point—

Mr. Wellbeloved

On a point of order. I did not quite understand the reference to being prompted. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) and I were merely having a quiet conversation about matters to which we hope to draw attention. I hope that the remark from the Chair was not intended as a reflection on any hon. Member.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Indeed, it was not meant to be a reflection on any hon. Member. In fact I did not think at the time that what I heard came from that quarter.

Mr. Loughlin

Further to that point of order. I do not want to be difficult. As far as I know, the conversation, which was quietly conducted between the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) and myself, did not relate to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) who was on his feet. It certainly was not unruly conduct. It was a whispered conversation. This has been customary in the House in my experience. I hope that the Chair is not making a reflection on me.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I was not making any reflection on anybody. However, it is important that the Chair should be able to comprehend what is going on. Therefore, it is much better for an hon. Member, as far as he can, to get on with his speech, unless he wishes to give way to another hon. Member in the ordinary course of events. That is to what I was referring. I should like the hon. Member for Bradford, South to be able to make his speech.

Mr. Torney

I was about to develop the potential of trade. I am sure that this a move for commercial and pecuniary reasons. I will not accept that it is anything else.

I have explained the real problems confronting both sides of distributive industry. Surely there is one whole cake to divide—the cake of trade to be done. There is so much money to be spend and so much purchasing power in the nation. All stores and shops are competing to secure their share of the cake. If the total trade in this country is being accomplished in, say, 40, 42, 46 or perhaps 50 hours per week, is there any advantage in cutting the cake into smaller portions to be consumed in perhaps 60, 70 to 100 hours per week? This is the point which I find difficulty in understanding. We have so much trade which is successfully being done now. If we extend hours of opening until 10 o'clock or 12 midnight—indeed, we have had reference to midnight shifts: midnight until 2 a.m.—

Mr. Maurice Orbach (Stockport, South)

We have this already.

Mr. Torney

Yes. Indeed, thought is being given to extending it.

There is still only so much trade to be done. Is there any real advantage for the mass of consuming public and for the mass of employers to put themselves to such difficulty? As has been stated, the overheads will go up tremendously. Social conditions for workers will worsen. Firm B may lose business to Firm A. It is foolhardy to sacrifice skilled workers in the distributive industry and economic prices, in so far as there are any now, and push prices up when the net result can only be the same.

This move will pander to the worst elements in the consuming public. When I worked in a shop it was always said that when we shut the door at 9 o'clock on a Saturday night, as we did in those days, somebody would rush up at that very moment and want to buy a pair of socks or a tiepin. We used to say that if the shop stayed open until midnight, at a minute past midnight someone would bang on the door wanting to purchase something.

Is it social or economic sense to pnder to the tiny minority who want to shop in this way'? Are we not overstating the hardship to the housewife? I have not noticed amongst hon. Members opposite the same concern for the housewife whilst prices have climbed so dreadfully in the past few years and are still climbing.

The present system works well, as anyone in distribution understands. I was in distribution until just after 18th June. The majority of married women who work in distribution are part-timers. Masses of married women work part-time in offices and factories. Therefore, any hardship is minimised. Within the existing law, late-night trading is becoming fairly universal in large supermarkets, particularly in larger shopping areas. Supermarkets are open until 7 or 7.30, if not 8 o'clock. There does not seem to be any real hardship in those areas. I have not heard housewives say recently that they have any problems.

A shop needs double its ordinary complement of staff on Friday and Saturday, but even if they could be obtained it would not be economic to employ them. On Monday to Thursday filling up the shelves, taking stock, dusting and preparing for the weekned is all that needs to be done, apart from serving a few customers. The bulk of the trade is done on Friday and Saturday. Consequently, there is no real hardship.

This is not done because the shopper cannot get from work in time because the shop is shut. It is done from long-established habit. U.S.D.A.W. has tried at different times and in some localities to change this but has miserably failed. We have tried to shut shops for some periods at the weekend to give our members better social working conditions and more leisure, but we could not change shopping habits, which are well ingrained into people. Men want to shop with their wives on Saturday afternoon or perhaps on Friday afternoon for foodustuffs, because many factories in industrial centres close at 4 p.m. or 4.30 p.m. on Friday until 8 a.m. on Monday. Compare a break of that duration with that enjoyed by the unfortunate shop worker, who can work until 6 pm. or later on Saturday before he gets his one-day break.

It is argued that some city stores close on Monday to give the shop worker a continuous break. This practice has not developed because of any snag in the present legislation. It has developed because of U.S.D.A.W.'s efforts and because of the general evolution towards a five-day week. The vast majority of industrial workers now work a five-day week from Monday to Friday. Unfortunately, shop workers cannot do that, because of the service they must give and are giving. Consequently, Monday closing has developed in larger stores in some towns in response to U.S.D.A.W.'s efforts to secure for shop workers condiitons that are at least somewhat similar to or nearly as good as those operating in other industries.

If the Bill goes on to the Statute Book, regardless of the assurances which have been given by the hon. Member for Dorset, South it will be a black day for shop workers. Do hon. Members know that even in this period of the twentieth century, when we are supposed to be so progressive and so tolerant of each other's views, in the distributive industry there is one of the most backward group of employers in Britain, though there are exceptions? I have known instances in my more recent service as a trade union officer when action has been taken against people working in a shop because they joined or tried to organise a union in their place of work. Dismissal is not the only way of stopping something. There are other, more subtle ways. The employees can be given a very ditasteful job to do. They can be told that their promotion will suffer if they associate themselves with a trade union. This is fact. It happened in the Midlands when I tried to organise the employees in a large departmental store to join the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. It happened because the employers were backward, unprogressive and anti-trade union. They were apparently afraid that the conditions of their workers would be improved.

Even if this Bill were enacted there would still be employers who would ignore it; they have ignored past law and they would ignore any law which sought to tighten up and improve the conditions of their employees. We would need a colossal army of inspectors to enforce the provisions of this Bill. Those inspectors are just not to be had. Even if the local authorities had the money, or if the Government were prepared to vote the money, the inspectors do not exist. The skilled trained men are not there to do the job. Today will be a black Friday if this Bill passes on to the Statute Book, because until the employers are more enlightened and until the workers, too, are more enlightened and are prepared to join trade unions in greater numbers—

Mr. Wellbeloved

May I interrupt my hon. Friend? He has a vast experience in negotiating in the retail distributive trades. Could he tell the House the sort of reaction that he would expect from large multiple distributive retailers and from people like the National Federation of Retail Grocers who, as he probably knows, also share his view and are against this proposed legislation? Could he say a word or two about the englightened employers who do not want this Bill?

Mr. Torney

I thank my hon. Friend. When I spoke about the bad employers in distribution, I said that there are exceptions. There are some very good employers. I would not for a moment suggest that they are all bad. The large multiple firms understand this difficulty to which I have referred. If they were compelled to keep open until 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock at night because their competitors down the street did so, they would have to employ more staff. They would need more lighting and there would be more general overheads. The cost would be much greater.

I have actually suggested a shift system to some employers, and it has been refused. I have tried to be helpful. Trade union officers are not the bad people that they are made out to be. Trade union officers do a good job in helping to run industry. I have approached employers, after having consulted my membership, obviously, and I have suggested an experiment in operating shifts. In some cases we have operated these experiments but we have been compelled to drop them. The employers have reluctantly, and with appreciation for our efforts, said "No, this will not work. It is too costly".

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The more enlightened and better employers do not want this sort of thing. They know that the trade that they are doing cannot be appreciably increased unless they steal a march on their competitors. Everyone can increase trade by giving goods away. Obviously, if a shopkeeper sells his goods at a loss he will do more trade than the man next door, but that is useless because at the end of the year he will probably find himself in the bankruptcy court. The only thing which would encourage many people to keep their shops open later would be the fact that the shop down the road was keeping open later, and in the end they would have no more trade than they are getting at the moment. Initially, perhaps, they would do it in order to get back the trade that they had lost as a result of the other fellow keeping open later, but, having got the trade back, they would obviously be back to square one.

That is where we would be with this Bill. Ultimately we would all be back to square one, tradewise. Shopkeepers would be doing no more trade. We would make life tougher for many more shop workers. We would drive many of them away, and in doing so we would lose a lot of skill from distribution. We need more skill, not less, in distribution. The net result would be to pander to that very tiny minority of consumers who wish to go out and buy something, rather selfishly, at a time when everybody should be at home watching the television or in bed.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Has my hon. Friend considered that the consumer's real interest is in low-priced goods? It is not just a case of increased costs in the shops. Has he considered the increased costs to the manufacturaers? If manufacturers must organise their delivery of goods to the shops to meet a whole proliferation of varying shop opening hours, does not this mean that manufacturers themselves will have to work a shift system with their delivery services? Will not this also contribute to an increase in the cost of living for the consumer?

Surely, therefore my hon. Friend will agree that this proposal is bad, not only in the interests of his union but in the interests of the consumer—whose interests, after all, are paramount—which are to keep costs as low as possible?

Mr. Torney

My hon. Friend has a very good point there. When the housewife goes to the shops she pays a great deal of attention to prices, especially in these days when the £ is worth less and less as time goes on. She wants the cheapest, but she also wants the best possible quality. That applies not only to food but to pots and pans, clothing and shoes.

I do not believe that the mass of the shopping public are really bothered about having a few more hours in which to shop at night. If the public were presented with the choice of continuing with the present shopping hours, with the flexibility that is given at present to local authorities from area to area, or to have more time in which to shop but to pay more for the goods, I am certain that the great mass of ordinary working people would opt for the low-priced goods, whether it be for food or anything else, but particularly for food because it is so important. We all have to buy food every week. I do not buy a suit or a shirt every week; I cannot afford to, though perhaps some hon. Members opposite might. It is important, therefore, to keep the price of food as low as we can. In view of many of their utterances during and since the election, I should have expected right hon. and lion. Members opposite to oppose any move which could have as one of its results a rise in the price of goods.

I have spoken for a long time, I know, and I end by reinforcing my plea on behalf of the shop worker. The shop workers of this country, by and large, are doing a good job for the consuming public. I want to see the workers in our many thousands of shops carrying on doing a good job for the consuming public and, if possible, even improving their efficiency to that end. But the consuming public, in their turn, would not expect the shop workers to have worse conditions, worse hours of work, worse fringe benefits or worse wages, than those which they would expect for themselves at their own places of work.

1.32 p.m.

Mr. Harold Gurden (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

If there were any excuse for the speech we have just heard from the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney), I suppose that it would be that he and his hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley) have declared their interest, and it is the interest of their union which we have heard expressed. We have so far heard no other case against the Bill.

Mr. J. T. Price

That will come.

Mr. Gurden

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) on introducing the Bill. It is long overdue. My hon. Friend has clearly shown that the law as it stands is nonsense, is quite absurd, and has fallen into disrepute. This is a serious charge to make in modern days, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will note that successive Governments have failed to modernise the law relating to shops. Many hon. Members consider that it is the Government's duty to delay no longer and that, should this Bill fail, they should introduce their own.

We have heard, as I have said, the biased view of the trade union concerned in distribution. We have heard no argument whatever opposing the case put by my hon. Friend that the law needs revision. It has not been refuted that the law is nonsense, yet the opponents of the Bill have made no constructive suggestions about what ought to be done.

I realise that several other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall take only a few minutes. First, I remind hon. Members opposite that they do a great disservice to their union members and to the country if they do not realise that the Bill ought to have their support. Under the present law, it is their own members who suffer because they cannot, so they tell me in my constituency, go out and do their shopping when they have done their day's work in a factory, in an office or even in another shop. If a certain number of shops were open at other hours, taking advantage of what is proposed in the Bill, shop workers themselves would have a decent opportunity to do a fair amount of shopping at competitive prices. As matters stand, however, they are as hard hit as anybody, and I refuse to believe that the majority of shop and distributive workers would not support the Bill if there were a referendum among the union members.

All we hear, I suppose—I repeat, "I suppose"—is the union officials putting the case on their behalf and, perhaps, on behalf of a small number of their members.

Mr. Padley

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers has a rule under which every one of its 1,500 branches is entitled to send a delegate to its annual delegates meeting. This means that we usually have to meet in the Empress Ballroom, Blackpool. On no occasion has a single vote been cast in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests. Therefore, the Executive Council has never considered it necessary to take a poll of the members, when, as I say, a delegate meeting so large as to need the Empress Ballroom has been unanimous year after year.

Mr. Gurden

I can only advise the hon. Gentleman that it is about time a poll was taken, and not only in his union but in many other unions, too. I believe that what we say on his side today more nearly represents the view of members of every union, including U.S.D.A.W.

We should be foolish if we thought that what is proposed in the Bill would affect what the shop workers themselves wanted. They are well able to look after themselves nowadays. I imply a tribute to the hon. Members opposite who have spoken when I say that the workers would not be affected adversely if the Bill became law, for they are quite strong enough to dictate the terms to the employers. They would not suffer.

If there were, by chance, a foreign visitor listening to this debate, or reading it if it were fully reported, he would be greatly amused to realise that, in this so-called democratic country, we have in 1970 a law which prevents people from doing their shopping late in the evening or early in the morning. He would think that we needed our heads examined. He would wonder what sort of Governments we had had to allow that sort of Victorian practice to continue.

Mr. J. T. Price


Mr. Gurden

I ask the hon. Gentleman to forgive me. Time is pressing, since we had such a very long speech from the hon. Member for Bradford, South. I shall finish in a moment, and the hon. Gentleman may have his opportunity then.

It is high time that the Bill was put on the Statute Book. If it is not, as I have said, we shall look to the Government to introduce a similar Bill themselves.

1.40 p.m.

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

The hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) has introduced a short Bill which will shock all liberal-minded people in this country if they choose to read what is taking place. I deliberately say "liberal-minded people" because I notice that on the Bill are the names of not only the hon. Gentleman but also two Liberal Members.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Richard Sharples)

There is also the name of a Socialist Member.

Mr. Price

I dealt with that point in an intervention. Two Labour Members' names are attached to the Bill, but I have made some inquiries about that and I find that they were attached under a misapprehension. I was advised yesterday that they have been taken off. No doubt the Bill was already printed. I can say quite categorically that not a single member of the Parliamentary Labour Party supports the Measure.

I do not want to waste time on that kind of quibble. The authorship of the Bill lies at the door of the hon. Gentleman who introduced it. Some of the other hon. Members whose names appear on it are not with us today, so we assume that they have given purely nominal support.

I shall have to say some critical things about the hon. Gentleman, so I am sorry that he is not now present. His speech was made in the usual soporific tones that we hear when reactionary legislation is brought before us. He cooed like a dove and paid lip service to the pioneers of shop legislation, but has not even troubled to return to listen to an answer to his case.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden), whom we all respect, says that trade unionists would welcome the Bill. Every conference of the trade union movement that I have ever attended—and I have been pretty active in that sphere for most of my life—has been dead against returning to the rotten old days of unregulated shop opening.

I welcome the hon. Member for Dorset, South back to the Chamber. It would be a good thing if he informed himself a little more about the history of shop legislation. So far as I know, he is a recent recruit to enthusiastic reformers in the opposite direction. They are not liberal reformers but reactionary. I say that deliberately. The hon. Gentleman quoted Lubbock and other figures of the past who spent years seeking the reform of the rotten old shop system. The hon. Gentleman has surely never read, for example, the classical work in which the whole history is described in the most eloquent terms, the book "They Also Serve", the story of the shop worker, by the late P. C. Hoffman, who was a great authority on the question. If I had time, I should love to quote many passages from that work, which describes in the most lucid and terrible detail the situation in shops when they were not regulated, when shop assistants were bound apprentices to their employer, when they lived on the premises.

One of our greatest novelists of this century, the late H. G. Wells, began his life as a shop worker and wrote one of his most classic works on the conditions in shops. That was his thinly-veiled autobiographical novel, "Kipps". Wells, drawing on his own experience of what life was like in shops, said in the first chapter: The indentures that bound Kipps to Mr. Shalford"— the employer— were antique and complex; they insisted on the latter gentleman's parental privileges, they forbade Kipps to dice and game, they made him over, body and soul, to Mr. Shalford for seven long years, the crucial years of his life. In return there were vague stipulations about teaching the whole art and mystery of the trade to him,"— that was because in any contract there must be a consideration— but as there was no penalty attached to negligence, Mr. Shalford, being a sound, practical business man, considered this a mere rhetorical flourish, and set himself assiduously to get as much out of Kipps and to put as little into him as he could in the seven years of their intercourse. What he put into Kipps was chiefly tea-dust, colonial meat by contract at threepence a pound, potatoes by the sack, and watered beer. That may seem a nostalgic reference to a state of affairs that many people think is medieval, but it is not so long ago as all that.

Had it not been for the efforts of people like Lubbock and others whom the hon. Gentleman cited in introducing the Bill, there would be no shop legislation today. There have to be pioneers. It is strange that the hon. Gentleman should use the blessed word "pioneers" to put a cloak of decency on this dubious Bill. Hoffman had as the title of his first paragraph: Pioneers, Oh Pioneers! Dealing with the group of people that the hon. Gentleman had the good grace to quote this morning, Hoffman said: James E. Thorold Rogers —a name that many of us remember as a great authority on these matters— in his Six Centuries of Work and Wages, says in Chapter XIV: 'For more than two-centuries-and-a-half the English law, and those who administered the law, were engaged in grinding the English workman down to the lowest pittance, in stamping out every expression or act which indicated any organised discontent, and in multiplying penalties upon him when he thought of his natural rights. I am not deceived by the hypocrisy which the preamble of an Act of Parliament habitually contains and the assertions which are as habitually contradicted by the details of the measure.'

Mr. Gurden

It is 1970 now.

Mr. Price

I do not want to waste time going into irrelevancies. We are dealing with shop legislation, and I want to keep in order.

The hon. Gentleman who has just intervened from a sitting position made the charge in his short speech that nobody on this side of the House has attempted to answer the arguments of the hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill. But he did not put any substantial argument to us. He said that it was a liberalising Measure, but it is nothing of the kind. It goes entirely in the opposite direction, removing the only protection which preserves a reasonable, balanced, scientific approach to the distributive trades by giving a reasonable guarantee of decent hours to those working in them, and decent prices for the consumer.

The hon. Member for Dorset, South spoke of wholesale evasion and gave a number of fanciful illustrations of what happens in pubs, speaking of counters with boxes of chocolates mixed up with the beer. He said that these are winked at by the police, and I should not be surprised. They do not represent a substantial proportion of shopping in this country. One hon. Member made the humorous point, which we all enjoyed, that the boxes of chocolates may be placed in certain pubs so that the man who has had too much beer will buy a box of chocolates to take home to the old lady to make his return more pleasant than it would otherwise be. Such a piffling argument in support of a major Measure that would not reform shop legislation but destroy it is a bit much.

Then, the hon. Member came to the question of shop inspectors. Those of us who have any experience of the industry know that there are many dedicated and able shops inspectors in large towns, but in the countryside, in the small townships by the hundred, the shops inspector is a kind of Pooh-Bah. He is Lord High Everything Else, to use a Gilbertian term. He is the shops inspector and sometimes the sanitary inspector, the weights and measures inspector and the public health inspector all rolled into one, simply because small local authorities cannot all afford to employ, on a professional basis, all the inspectors they would require to enforce certain aspects of the law.

Does the hon. Gentleman, who is sitting there listening to me so attentively—I hope that he is listening and that he does not feel too offended by what I am saying in fairly forceful terms, not wishing to be offensive—feel that as in certain spheres of public activity there are breaches of the law because of an imperfect inspectorate the way to deal with those breaches of the law is to abolish the law altogether? Does he agree that because the country is now suffering from a serious crime wave, when we have more dangerous criminals than many of us like and we are deeply concerned about it, we should up-end the criminal law because we cannot catch all the chaps who are beating the book?

That is a strange argument from a Conservative, and particularly from a Conservative who, when I first came to the House, was sitting with me on the Labour benches. Nobody is more zealous in the cause of reaction than an apostate who has crossed the Floor. We are rather shocked by this.

A friend of mine said to me the other day that the present Government were reactionary. I agree that they are; in terms of a liberal-minded person, they are a very reactionary Government. My friend reminded me that they were going further back than the period of Mr. Butler and Mr. Macmillan, with whom I had the pleasure of serving in this House and debating on many occasions. The Butler-Macmillan period of Tory rule was a liberal Government compared with what is happening today. The Government and people like the hon. Member for Dorset, South, who has brought this silly little Measure before the House, are going back, not to Butler and Macmillan, but to Peel in the last century. We are naturally expressing today our indignation that anyone who thinks that the great British public is waiting for all the shops to be open all night should want to open them all night. The next thing will be that the pubs will be open all night, because public house keeping closely follows what happens in the shopping world.

Does anyone suppose that to remove all kinds of control and open the floodgates so that anybody can open when he likes is a move to liberalise or make the country more efficient? What about the 2½ million people who work in the shops? I have had the honour of knowing them very well and having their support in my elections and in all sorts of ways. They have been part of my life. Of the 2½ million people employed in our shops, 70 per cent. are women, most of them young women. The hon. Gentleman is bringing forward a Measure which will allow shops to be open 24 hours a day at any time which suits their commercial convenience.

I do not suggest that the small shops will be open all night, but I am quite sure that if a Measure of this kind had the misfortune to find its way on the Statute Book, it would not be the National Association of Small Shopkeepers, whom the hon. Member cited, who would take advantage of it; it would be the big boys in the supermarkets, who would be in a position to have a three-shift system and would employ young girls in the middle of the night.

Does anybody suppose that any girl who has decent parents and decent standards herself will be tied to any employment which leaves her trailing on the streets at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning with all the footpads, criminals and sleazy characters about? Has the hon. Gentleman ever considered—[Interruption.] The Minister of State, Home Office must not think that I am being rhetorical or putting forward a fanciful argument. We must face the implications of what is being suggested. I and my colleagues who oppose the Bill will want to know where the Government stand on it.

Since the Minister is obviously taking an interest and not regarding this as a frivolous debate, may I say to him that during my 20 years' membership of the House I have always objected to serious matters being brought before the House under the device and cloak of Private Bill legislation. I have even opposed my own Government on many occasions when major questions have been brought forward on a Friday under Private Bill legislation.

To bring in by Private Bill legislation a Measure like this, the little Clauses of which refer to the 1950 Act, and which will substantially destroy our shops legislation, is a step which should not commend itself to the Minister or to any representatives of Her Majesty's Government. This is far too serious a Measure to be disposed of by Private Bill legislation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. For the sake of the record, the hon. Member is referring not to Private Bill legislation but to Private Member's legislation.

Mr. Price

I am grateful for the correction, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ought to have said "Private Member's Bill legislation". I know the difference—and there is a difference—but I am not very good at semantics. I am dealing with ideas and putting them as forcefully as I can without dressing them up in too much technical language. If I wanted to address the House on the technicalities of the Bill, we should be here for several days, but I know that one or two of my hon. Friends who have made a profound study of the Gowers Report, for example, wish to speak. The hon. Member for Dorset, South had the audacity to quote the Gowers Report, ostensibly to support his argument. The Shops Act, 1950, is based upon the recommendations of the Gowers Report. However, I leave that aspect to one of my hon. Friends who has made a study of it.

I have had an indication from one short speech from the benches opposite that this is merely a sort of trial run which is calculated to stimulate the Government to take the matter over and bring in reforming legislation. I wonder. We are more interested in the Government's reaction to this than to what private Members say about it. We know that these little Measures, which are introduced insidiously by the back door, are often a trial run for people who are prompting those Measures.

The hon. Member for Dorset, South quoted something else this morning. I do not need to make notes about this; I listened to him attentively and with great respect. He said that the Bill was supported by the National Association of Small Shopkeepers. I do not want to be unfair to that organisation, but it is not a very representative body. It is a sort of shopkeepers' goose club of some kind. I put it no higher than that. The hon. Gentleman quoted a more important body on the employers' side of the distributive trade, the National Grocers' Federation. I do not think that he tried to enlist the support of that federation, which is a far more representative body, in support of his Bill, because it is opposed to it.

I am glad to pay tribute in this short debate to the liberal-minded attitude of some of the big employers in the distributive trades who know very well that if they are to be driven to using shift systems and increasing the overheads and on-costs of their operations, this can only be reflected in higher prices to the consumer. Imagine, for example, any street-corner shop, for which, presumably, the hon. Gentleman purports to speak; he was speaking for the National Association of Small Shopkeepers, or he had been briefed by it or something. How do those small shopkeepers think that they will exist if the big boys open their shops past midnight or for any hours they like? They would be completely smothered. I know that in small towns there are no supermarkets—

Mr. Evelyn King


Mr. Price

I will give way in a moment. The hon. Gentleman quoted London chiefly. I am still an unrepentant provincial. I come from Lancashire. All this business of citing London on these massive questions as typical of what happens in the country is something which I find difficult to entertain. But the hon. Gentleman cited London and, therefore, he must take my word for it that in London one has side by side the big shops with big financiers behind them and the well-organised supermarkets, and they will be in competition with the small shops, which will get the rough edge of the deal with this sort of competition.

Mr. Evelyn King

The hon. Gentleman might care to know what I said instead of what he thinks I said. He is totally wrong. I quoted no statistics about London. I cited statistics from Birmingham. He is equally wrong in his preceding remarks, when he tried to deal with the trade associations which are for and against. I said that the big boys—the Chamber of Trade, the retail consortia, the National Grocers' Federation—were against. I then quoted all five of the others that were for. I said that the trade was split but that broadly the small traders were in favour and the big traders were against. The hon. Gentleman should listen to what people say and not put words into their mouths. That is a silly way to debate.

Mr. Price

I did not think I had misrepresented the hon. Gentleman. It is also on the record. Anybody can read it tomorrow. I do not run away from arguments. We are having an exchange of opinions this afternoon. I was under the impression that the hon. Gentleman referred to London. If he referred to Birmingham, the same situation applies. Birmingham is a great conurbation, a metropolis. What is the difference in terms of big shops and little shops all mixed together? If I have made an error I thank the hon. Gentleman for his correction. But that does not alter the principle involved or the sense of what I say. I do not usually talk rubbish or piffle in the House. I have been here too long to take that sort of advantage.

We could debate the matter at greater length on a more suitable occasion. because there are other matters to be discussed and other people wish to speak. I will draw my remarks to a close earlier than I would otherwise have done.

I put to the House and liberal-minded members of the Conservative Party—there are still a lot about—that anybody who proposes to abolish all restrictions on shopping hours is not responding to public opinion. Recently I have been involved in a public controversy about the activities of some market research organisations; for example, prying into the private lives and entering the homes of thousands of people every day with the most loaded questions on little dicey papers, "Do you agree with this and that?" They are building up a data bank of the private opinions of citizens. That is not the question today, but the hon. Gentleman quoted some statistics in support of the Bill drawn from that sort of operation. He did not name the research association but he quoted a university researcher, who may be a more objective and liberal person. But many commercial research organisations, employing thousands of people every day of the week, make unsolicited approaches to thousands of citizens. They ask for opinions on all kinds of things, with questions loaded in such a way that they know the answer which they are likely to get in most cases.

The majority of people do not want to see a complete opening of shops at any time of the day that it suits the shops to open. If that took place, there would be no greater efficiency. It would be returning to anarchy, because no one would know when the shops would be open. They would open on the late nights until 12 or maybe 1 o'clock, but on the other days, as the hon. Gentleman thought, perhaps on Mondays and Tuesdays, they would shut to give the staff some time off. Does anybody want a shop that is not open for a particular time every day? Would it be a service to the community if shops opened and closed as they do in Ireland? In Dublin one can walk into pubs at any hour because there are no licensing hours to control the trade. However, the publican might say, "We have been busy and we are shutting for a couple of hours." All the hard drinkers then go to another pub which does not shut at that time. Do we want this with shopkeeping?

Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for making a small literary error earlier in my speech, and for taking a long time. I ask the House to reject the Measure out of hand. Though it is only a Private Member's Bill, it is a very dangerous Bill and one which will be resisted by 2½ million shopworkers and all the liberal-minded people in the country who appreciate what is taking place.

2.4 p.m.

Mr. J. R. Kinsey (Birmingham, Perry Bar)

We have been treated this morning to the inability of the Opposition to project their minds forward or even to live in today's conditions. There is little point in reading Victorian novels to the House when we are talking of today. The Opposition display a hidebound nature that is completely lacking of any consideration for the consumers of the country, and they are doing the greatest disservice to the trade and its ability to be profitable and to serve the consumer.

Unlike hon. Gentlemen opposite who have been speaking from the trade union point of view, I welcome the Bill. I speak as a small retailer who has to work with and compete within the system as it is at present, and I have to meet all the on-costs of business and do it at my most enterprising and in the way that I am best able.

I was on holiday this year in the delightful resort of Tenby. Hon. Members on both sides of the House can name any seaside resort where the shops are open until 10 o'clock at night, taking advantage of the seasonal trade as they have to do if they are to be competitive and exist as an economic unit. This highlights the sense of what the Bill is trying to do for the rest of the trade, which is to allow it to take advantage of the peak business potential in various areas. That is the important factor in the Bill. It worked in Tenby to the advantage of the town, the traders, the local work force and the holiday-maker.

I am delighted to say that it even worked to the advantage of Birmingham, because when I was looking around the shops I saw on the shelves many trinkets made in Birmingham. These would never have been sold unless they had been sold at that time, at the hour that the customer was willing to purchase them to take home as a gift. That is the factor of the benefits which the Bill seeks to give to the people not only in holiday resorts but throughout the country. In moving the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) rightly pointed to the working housewife crying out for a shopping pattern to help her to shop at leisure. She is constantly at a dash and under the pressure and strain of coping with a family. If anyone needs a little help it is this lady. She is out to help the family in general and to improve the standards of the children of the home. She contributes so much to the country that we should try to help her.

The late night shopping, the extra two hours, has become a regular pattern of shop working throughout the country, and where that pattern is available it is very well used. That shows the need there is throughout the country to extend services which the shopping public enjoy.

My next point is that, contrary to what the Opposition have been saying, the proposals in the Bill would keep prices down. I know that in saying that I am speaking contrary also to the U.S.D.A.W. circular, but I believe that U.S.D.A.W. and the Opposition are taking a short-sighted view and not looking at all the factors which are governing the present patterns of trade.

If we examine the present trend in distribution we see that outside the shops in the main shopping centres in our cities and towns and their suburbs—the main centres, the prime positions—there are the familiar national trade signs. All hon. Members will be familiar with these and with this fact. Quite often, if the familiar trade signs are not recognisable it is because they are behind unfamiliar ones which are put up outside the main positions. The small trader is being forced out of these main positions, because there is a takeover of trade by the multiples. Why is this? It is because of the cost factor and the high rents, which, doubtless, it is absolutely necessary to charge in main shopping centres.

Shopkeeping is highly competitive at the moment. Shopkeepers compete with one another, but also, such is the trend of business, there could be mergers which would take away from competition, and decline in competition is beginning to take place in these areas. We must ensure that this does not happen—not in this country. It has happened elsewhere. We must keep it away from here. We must always keep the challenge of one trader with another. Always the private trader, the small man is a challenger. He must always be there.

The proposals in this Bill are absolutely tailor-made for the small man who wants to work and will work in building up his trade. He has built up his trade, is absolutely geared to it, and is willing to work the hours in return for the greater trade which improved business gives him. He is grateful for the chance to challenge and to grow, and his reward is that growth. This legislation will help him. He is the balancing—

Mr. W. T. Williams (Warrington) rose—

Mr. Kinsey

I think we have had too many interjections and it will be better if we make our own speeches, and the hon. and learned Member can make his own in due course. The opposition has had a pretty fair amount of the time in this debate.

The small man is the balancer in the competitive pattern.

Mr. Palmer

Will the hon. Member allow me?

Mr. Kinsey

I suppose I should-the Front Bench.

Mr. Palmer

This is a Private Member's Bill and the hon. Member ought not to talk so easily about "the Opposition" in connection with, a Private Member's Bill.

Mr. Kinsey

I am referring to the opposition to this Bill as the opposition—and the opposition is in the usual place of the Opposition on these occasions.

The small man is the balancer in the competitive pattern, the ever-present challenger to the established big business; he is the adjuster of the pricing ticket. Quite frankly, I welcomed the point which the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) made when he was talking about someone rushing around to see what the different shopkeepers were doing. What a wonderful thing for the consumer, the customer, that he has this chance! What a pity it will be if there is no other shop to run to, to check the ticket from shop to shop, or another shop to go to when the big man decides to close! If we allow present legislation to continue, that is what will be the case. It is absolutely essential to keep this competitive basis.

This is a good opportunity to have regard to the U.S.D.A.W. circular and to the working hours of shop assistants. Of course, whatever the shop owner is prepared to do about long hours for himself we cannot expect the workers to match them, and it is sensible to remember that; after all it is not their business; and it is up to the owner to compete against that difficulty, using whatever forces there are available to him.

I believe that the main centres will follow their normal business patterns, which have been established over the years. Their opening hours for them have proved right for those businesses.

The workers themselves are protected. They are protected by the 42-hour week. As the U.S.D.A.W. circular tells us, that is longer than most workers work, but then, again, that is the norm of the business, and they are protected. No doubt about it, the multiples will keep to their pattern because it is an economic pattern for them.

From where will come the extra staff necessary if the proposals of the Bill are permitted? I have been running business, and with the restricted numbers of staff there are in the distributive trades, there is no great flood of ready-made labour for this work. So part-time workers have become a valuable source of labour, and I pay tribute to them—to the wife and mother who is looking for a part-time job, maybe when her children are at school or when her husband is at home. This sort of work just suits the widow on supplementary benefit seeking to be independent of State aid and who, by this means, can gain a little independence; the lady with a grown-up family no longer dependent upon her and who is anxious to earn a little extra. These people, I am sure, will be the sources of staff supply; it can be provided by part-time labour, which is suitable for much of this work. The part-time worker is absolutely suitable to the trade, and the Bill's proposals would enable these people to work in hours when they want to and in hours when they are wanted.

The Bill would also greatly help the enterprising shopkeeper to keep open to suit the patterns of trade peculiar to his own trade in the place where it is. I was pleased to note how well my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South knew the different patterns of trade in different areas. Different patterns apply from area to area, and they apply even from trade to trade.

Incidentally, if a shopkeeper keeps open at any time when he is not allowed to, the man from the council comes along. The local councils set the local hours. The hon. Member for Bradford, South did not seem to realise that they have this control. The small shopkeepers find themselves frustrated, and not only do they find themselves frustrated, but they are even regarded as criminals because of their endeavours to serve the public.

I can assure the House that the people we are talking about, who want to take advantage of this Bill, know the patterns of their different trades and that they are out to serve the public. They are not open to sit and knit. They are open for business, and they know better than the man from the town hall and better than the man from Whitehall.

If I may say so to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South, there is to me one big disappointment in his proposals, for there is no proposal for extending Sunday trading, and the Bill would have provided a wonderful opportunity for doing that. No doubt about it, if that were proposed in the Bill it would give the opponents of the Bill, who are in high dudgeon about it already, even further cause for disagreement. However, I hope my hon. Friend will consider this, for we should look at all these things which affect shopkeeping.

I should particularly like to mention the motor trade. One can buy oil, petrol and car accessories on a Sunday, but one cannot buy a complete car. One of our big car-selling organisations in Birmingham, Bristol Street Motors, has been campaigning for this for some years. It points out, quite rightly, that buying a family car is a family affair; thus car buying should be at a time when all the family can take part in it. This brings me to a point made previously, that in Coventry, I understand, one can buy a complete car on a Sunday. In Birmingham we are restricted; in Coventry they are not, and they can buy a complete car.

It is wrong that different authorities should administer the laws in different ways. What applies to one part of the country should apply to another. The Bill will bring benefits not only for the trade but for the consumer. We can all benefit from the enterprise of the people who are willing to serve.

2.20 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

The hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) has used his luck in the Ballot to introduce what is, to say the least, a very controversial Measure. It is not a party Measure. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Kinsey) talked about opposition as though it were opposition by the Labour Party as the Opposition. It is opposed on grounds of good sense, as I shall try to show.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dorset, South on at any rate affording us an opportunity to debate legislation affecting shops and their employees. I am sure that everyone will agree that the Bill is wide-sweeping. It seeks to sweep away restrictions which have been operating for many years. The hon. Gentleman would leave it to the occupiers of shops to decide for themselves, whatever their business, the hours during which their shops would be open to the public. Indeed, if they wanted, presumably they could keep open all day and all night.

Mr. Evelyn King

The position at the moment is that, if they wish, shops can keep open for 20 hours in a day, so no great change is proposed by the Bill.

Mr. Weitzman

The Bill as drafted gives shopkeepers the right to stay open all day and all night if they wish, but the hon. Gentleman has realised that if he leaves it there it will invoke considerable opposition in relation to conditions of employment and trading on Sunday, and so he has inserted in Clauses 2 and 3 provisions that those matters shall not be affected by the Bill, but it is difficult to see how the Bill can possibly be worked without affecting conditions of work and, in some cases, Sunday trading.

I realise that at first blush it is an attractive proposition to say that there should be freedom for shopkeepers to do what they please or to quote a phrase that is often used by hon. Gentlemen opposite, to stand upon their own two feet, and that members of the public should have freedom to shop and to obtain the kind of goods they want whenever they please. In other words, hon. Gentlemen opposite say that there should be freedom to sell and freedom to buy.

This is not the first time that that argument has been put forward. It has been put forward on various occasions when Statutes dealing with shop closing have been introduced and debated, and after considerable argument has been rejected in no uncertain way. The Shops (Hours of Closing) Bill of 1928 contained a Clause exempting shops which employed no assistants from the statutory hours of closing. It was argued that to compel the one-man shop to conform to a compulsory closing hour was an unwarranted and unwanted interference with freedom. It was said, on the other side, that it was necessary to include him for his own protection, and that to exclude him would make the Bill unworkable. An Amendment to omit the Clause was successfully moved, and an attempt to restore it in another place was defeated.

The hon. Member for Dorset, South apparently does not care to listen to what is being said against his proposals. I remind him that in 1927 a Departmental Committee was appointed to inquire into the working of the Shops (Early Closing) Acts. Provisions dating back to the Shops Acts of 1912 and 1913, as well as the later Acts of 1920 and 1921 as renewed annually, were considered. The Committee's Report said in paragraph 12: The experience of the last ten years shows that a general closing hour, such as 8 p.m., has been of great benefit to shop assistants and shopkeepers. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Gowers Committee. That Committee, appointed in 1946, was asked to inquire, inter alia, into the provisions of the Shops Act relating to closing hours, generally and local, and to report as soon as possible whether any alteration should be made with regard to closing, and whether any such alterations were necessary.

The Committee reported in April, 1947, and anyone who reads that Report will appreciate the great volume of evidence, oral and written, which it received. The Committee said in paragraph 9, and I press this upon the hon. Gentleman if he cares to listen: Popular opinion regards the welfare of the shop assistant as the raison a être of the closing laws. That is not wholly true, at any rate historically. The original stimulus to the early closing movement came at least as much from small shopkeepers seeking to protect themselves from one another as from those concerned with the welfare of shop assistants. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate the point that it was in the interests not only of shop assistants but of shopkeepers themselves that the early closing legislation was brought in.

In paragraph 12 of its Report the Committee referred to the unsuccessful attempt in 1928 to exclude one-man shopkeepers from the Act and said: We have no evidence to suggest that experience has shown this decision to call for reconsideration, and we shall regard as settled policy the proposition that a uniform statutory closing hour is desirable and has other beneficial social consequences besides the protection of the shop assistant from exploitation. The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that the whole of this argument was considered by the Gowers Committee and it did not suggest for a moment that early closing was other than beneficial both to the shop assistant and to the shopkeeper.

The provisions of the Shops Act, 1950, together with the Shops (Airports) Act, 1961 and the Shops (Early Closing Day) Act 1965 set out the position in law today. The Shops Act, 1950 which is the main Measure, was a consolidating Act. It brought into the one Statute all the previous Acts of Parliament dealing with early closing. We then had the Shops (Airports) Act, 1962, which exempted shops in a designated airport, and the 1965 Act which gave the shopkeeper the right to select the weekday that he wished for early closing, and the right to change it every three months.

I have looked at the debates on those Measures very carefully, and I can find no move whatsoever to remove the restrictions proposed to be removed by the Bill now before the House. There was no suggestion that the restrictions were other than beneficial both to the shopkeeper and to the shop assistant.

The hon. Gentleman now proposes to bring in a Bill to abolish the restrictions on early closing, except for Sunday trading. What would be the result of the Bill becoming law? It would mean that any shopkeeper could keep open for as long as he pleased. It is true that Clause 2 proposes to leave intact the conditions of employment of shop assistants, and Clause 3 the law relating to Sunday trading, but may I put to the hon. Gentleman as strongly as I can a point which has been made by other speakers. If shops are open for longer hours, this must mean either longer hours of employment for the assistants, or engaging additional assistants, which must add to the cost of the goods sold. Hon. Gentlemen opposite talk about reducing prices. This Measure, if brought into law, must contribute to further inflation.

We know that the retail trade is highly competitive. If one shop opens for longer hours, its competitors in the trade will have to follow suit. There will be competition by one trader to beat his neighbour, and the man who wants to close at an earlier hour will be compelled, if he wishes to stay in business, to keep his shop open for longer hours.

The owner of the one-man business is compelled to keep long hours, possibly obtaining the assistance of his wife or a member of his family on a part-time basis—to their detriment—if he is to meet the challenge of other traders. I mention specifically the assistance of his wife and members of his family on a part-time basis because, under Section 18(1) and Section 20(2) of the Shops Act, 1950, every young person—that is, every person under the age of 18—who is wholly or mainly employed in the business of a shop is deemed to be a shop assistant. Under Section 74 of that Act, a shop assistant is defined as any person wholly or mainly employed in a shop in connection with the serving of customers or the receipt of orders or the despatch of goods. One sees, therefore, that under the provisions of the Bill—despite Clause 2—there is scope for the employment, for long hours, of persons on a part-time basis—for example, of persons engaged in other occupations using their leisure time to work as shop assistants for considerable periods. I understand that nearly two-thirds of those employed in shops are women. There are many young girls and many married women. Married women clearly have their home duties and their social duties to see to, and they undoubtedly suffer if they perform this continual employment.

The Bill, therefore, would be to the detriment of shopkeepers and their assistants. Moreover, whatever the hon. Member may have put forward in the way of statistics or in terms of support from various quarters, common sense tells us that there is no proof of any great demand on the part of the shopping public for this extension; in the Measures that I have mentioned and the discussions that have taken place on the subject of early closing there has been no question of any great demand for the extension of shopping hours.

The Shops Act, 1950, which codifies all former Statutes, contains many exemptions from early closing. That has been used as an argument by the hon. Member for Dorset, South in suggesting that, because there are exemptions, or because some officers do not take up breaches of the provisions, or because the law is not enforced, there is some ground for his Bill. On the other hand, the hon. Member will know that Schedule 1 to the Act of 1950 gathers together, in concise form the exemptions contained in previous Statutes—the sale of refreshments, newspapers, intoxicating liquor, meat, fish, cream, and many other things—and that the Fifth Schedule contains a similar list of exemptions for closing on Sundays. There are also in the Act provisions for exemptions with regard to exhibitions, shops in seaside resorts, and non-profit making concerns.

There may be a case, in some instances, for extending these exemptions, or for altering them in some way. The Bill does not pretend to do that; it wipes away all early closing, leaving only the prohibition with regard to Sunday trading. The shopping public, especially in view of these considerable exemptions, has ample scope under the existing law to carry out its shopping. The exemptions are very wide. They have been used by the hon. Member to suggest that there is a disparity in many quarters. The fact remains that these exemptions permit the shopping public to shop over long hours, and that the exemptions are sufficient for their purposes.

From a pecuniary point of view, the Bill will no doubt appeal to some people who are anxious to obtain further gain, but I hope that I have shown that it is unnecessary from the point of view of the public; that it will tend to increase prices and will worsen the lot of the shopping assistant. It is a retrograde step, and I hope that the House will refuse to give it a Second Reading.

2.34 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Richard Sharples)

It might be for the convenience of the House if I intervene at this stage to give some indication of the Government's general attitude to the Bill. Whatever opinions may have been expressed about the content of the Bill, the House must be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) for using his place in the Ballot to introduce a Bill on such an important subject. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the manner in which he introduced the Bill and the amount of research that he must have done to enable him to do so.

I do not pretend that these proposals are wholly uncontroversial, but I have no doubt that opinion has changed greatly in recent years in favour of introducing greater flexibility. Although the Bill deals with a very complex body of law its aim is quite simple. We should be absolutely clear what it proposes to do. By seeking to abolish all restrictions on the hours during which shops may be open on weekdays it represents a radical change from the restrictions of the past 50 or 60 years. During that time the pace of social and economic change has been such that it may be doubted whether the present restrictions any longer serve such a useful purpose.

As the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) pointed out in a very interesting speech—although I do not agree with his conclusions, I was interested to hear what he had to say—shops legislation has quite a long history. In considering the Bill it is useful also to consider the history of past legislation in the context of what we may be doing in the future. The earliest Shops Bill was introduced in 1873. Like other following Bills, it made no progress. In 1886 a temporary Measure, which had to be continued by way of the Expiring Laws Continuance Act, limited the working week of young people under the age of 18 to 74 hours. According to the Report of the Select Committee on Shop Hours in 1892, that Act remained generally un-enforced and even to a great extent unknown. In 1892 the provisions of the 1886 Act were made permanent. The administration was entrusted to local authorities. There were amending Acts in 1893 dealing with inspectors' salaries, 1895 remedying certain defects, and 1899 providing for seats for shop assistants.

The powers of local authorities—and this was the first time that the question of shopping hours came in—to make closing orders were introduced by the Shop Hours Act, 1904. Weekly half-holidays and mealtimes for shop assistants and the closing of shops for one half-day a week were introduced by the Shops Act, 1911. The Act of 1912, to which the hon. and learned Member referred, consolidated the earlier legislation. In 1913 an amending Act made special provision concerning persons employed in the catering trade.

The first really important restriction on shopping hours was in 1916. In that year the Home Office said that it was considering a proposal for shops to close early during the winter months in order to economise on coal in wartime conditions. Orders were made, fixing closing hours at eight p.m. on days other than Saturday, when it was nine p.m. and the weekly half-holiday, when it was one p.m. These were followed by further Orders, by the Shops (Early Closing) Act, 1920, and by an amending Act of 1921 making provision for later hours for fruit, sweets, table waters and the like. These were temporary Acts, renewed annually until embodied in the Shops (Hours of Closing) Act, 1928.

Further Acts relating to Sundays followed in 1936, and, finally, the present consolidating Shops Act was enacted in 1950. This did not take into account the Gowers Report, which was only considered after that—[Interruption.] Although the Gowers Report had been published, the 1950 Act did not take account of it because it was a consolidating Measure. The 1950 Act was followed by two short Acts in 1962 and 1965. The present legislation on weekday trading hours applies to Scotland as it does to England and Wales.

This is all past history, but it is important to realise that the introduction of general closing hours in the form we know them today was distinct from and largely unrelated to the previous legislative efforts to improve the conditions of shop workers. Right from the beginning, the two matters have very largely been treated separately. There is no historical reason for assuming that the two are necessarily interdependent.

Now let me summarise the provisions of the existing law very briefly. The Act of 1950 requires shops generally to close at eight in the evening except for one day, called "the late day", when they can open until nine, and for an early closing day, when they must close at one. There are limited exemptions, subject to local authority requirements, in respect of tobacconists and confectioners. The goods listed in Schedule 2—basically meals or refreshments and perishable goods—are also exempt. The general closing hours can also be modified on special occasions, and in holiday resorts and at exhibitions or shows.

So far as the early closing day is concerned, local authorities can exempt shops of any particular class if the majority of their occupiers are in favour. They can also exempt shops in holiday resorts; Schedule 1 exempts certain trades and businesses altogether. Local authorities also have powers to make closing orders, fixing the closing hour of all shops at a time not early than seven p.m. The Act of 1962 exempts traders at designated airports from the general closing hour requirements. The Act of 1965, amongst other things, allows shopkeepers to choose their own early closing day.

One point on which there can be no disagreement, whatever our views on the Bill, is the complexity of the present law. The difficulty about restrictive legislation of this sort is that it has to provide for various detailed exemptions and modifications. Inevitably such law is difficult to understand and frustrating to enforce.

Not the least of the advantages of the simple approach of this Bill is that it would do away, at one swoop, with a complex tortuous and frustrating body of legislation. The Bill would repeal the whole of Part I of the Act of 1950, with a number of consequential repeals and amendments to other parts of the Act. It would repeal the Acts of 1962 and 1965.

Although the present general closing hours apply to shops permitted under Part IV of the Act to trade on Sundays, the Bill specifically provides that nothing in the Act shall apply to Sundays. Nor does it at present amend Part II of the Act, which deals with conditions of work of shop assistants.

The Government's general approach to matters affecting commercial activity and consumer choice is broadly in favour of as much freedom and flexibility as possible. We therefore welcome, in principle, anything designed to increase an individual's ability to adapt to economic and commercial circumstances. We see a number of advantages in the abolition of restrictions on weekday trading.

On this our general approach does not, I think, differ greatly from that of the party opposite when in office. The previous Government published a paper "Retail Trade Hours" in 1965, containing proposals for new provisions on closing hours as a basis for discussion. There is one extract from the introduction to that document which I should like to read to the House: Her Majesty's Government desire to make two things clear. First, they regard retail distribution as a key sector of the economy, in which, if the national objectives for faster economic growth and rising living standards are to be achieved, there will need to be, as in other sectors, greater efficiency in the use of resources and in particular greater productivity. There is also the obvious need to ensure that retail distribution provides the maximum service to the community consistent with efficient use of resources and reasonable working conditions for its employees. The important words are these: The Government believe that these objectives can best be realised by a movement towards greater flexibility in retail trading arrangements rather than by further restrictions. So as to be quite clear, I should add that they went on to put forward proposals on how that flexibility should be achieved, and added: The Government are not in any sense committed to the proposals now put forward. But that did not qualify the earlier part about the movement towards greater flexibility, which the Labour Government then advocated.

Mr. Loughlin

Would the hon. Gentleman also underline—this is necessary in the context of this debate—the fact that the previous Government made no suggestion of abolishing Part I of the existing Act?

Mr. Sharples

No, Sir, but a considerable modification of Part I was proposed, as the hon. Gentleman will see if he takes the trouble to study the paper produced by his party when in office.

I would emphasise that, although there may be disagreement between the political parties and among hon. Members on methods, there appeared to be little difference of substance between the parties at that time on the broad approach to this problem, which is the solution of flexibility.

The law is confusing and many people find it unnecessarily restrictive. The Home Secretary has received a number of repreentations from local authorities proposing legislation to allow individual shopkeepers, as they see fit, to dispense with the early closing day and remain open six days a week. We have also had complaints about the very limited exemptions for late night trading. The abolition of restrictions would allow retailers to meet local needs more flexibly, for example where shift working is prevalent, and would remove a number of anomalies of early closing days.

Mr. Orbach

The hon. Gentleman says that the Home Office has not received any representations from local authorities. Has that or any other Department received representations from traders' organisations such as the National Grocers' Federation asking for the removal of these restrictions? It is well known that that federation and other bodies, especially of small traders, including the Trades Advisory Council, are against the Bill.

Mr. Sharples

I will be commenting on that later. I do not think the hon. Gentleman was present when, in introducing the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South referred to the representations which he had received and to the results of inquiries which he had made among organisations of that kind.

The whole question of legislation affecting shops' hours was covered by a committee appointed by the National Chamber of Trade. It reported in 1962 and recommended that the provisions on evening closing hours should be repealed, though it still favoured an early closing day. The legislation committee reported: It was quickly evident that the present Act was made to cover the circumstances of the early years of this century, which were entirely different from today's requirements. Over the years the Act has worked so badly that the Committee believes it would be better to have no Act than to attempt to maintain the present one.

Mr. Padley

The hon. Gentleman has quoted what was said by a committee of the National Chamber of Trade. What is the attitude of local chambers of trade generally and what representations, if any, has the Congress of the National Chamber of Trade made?

Mr. Sharples

As far as I know, there has been no official comment since that legislation committee reported—[Interruption.] To my knowledge there has been no official view expressed by the National Chamber of Trade.

Mr. Padley

Since that report eight years ago?

Mr. Sharples

Yes. Since then things have, I believe, moved generally in the direction of flexibility.

Another advantage in accepting the principle of the Bill is that local authorities would be relieved of a good deal of enforcement work. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South pointed out that about 5,000 local authority officials in Great Britain are concerned with enforcing the Shops Act, among a number of other duties.

Although prosecutions under Part I of the Act are relatively rare, there is no doubt that the burden of explaining it and advising on its complicated provisions is irksome. At a time when we are anxious to reduce the burdens of local as well as central government, we should not be slow to take advantage of every opportunity to relieve local authorities of such obligations.

Mr. Torney

Is the Minister aware that the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) said he would be agreeable to Part II of the Bill being amended to give greater protection to employees? Is is not a fact that although the removal of the present restrictions might save a certain amount of enforce ment work, shop workers would have double their present work to do because of the additional work that the Bill would place on them. Is the Minister further aware—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Interventions must be brief. I remind the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) that he had a good innings.

Mr. Sharples

I would not agree with hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) in that intervention.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South on the way in which he has tackled this complex piece of legislation. I am sure that he will not be surprised to hear me say that if the Bill receives a Second Reading, as I hope it will, its drafting will need to be looked at rather closely. We will need to make sure, for example, that the list of repeals is comprehensive. There is also the question of Sunday trading hours, which are the subject of a Measure now being considered in another place, and I feel that the discussion of these two issues should be considered separately.

If, so far, I have appeared to stress what I see as the advantages of the Bill, I would not wish to give the impression that I am unaware of the feelings of those who are anxious about its effects.

Mr Palmer

I understand that the Home Office is conducting a survey into this matter in an effort to test public opinion. When is it hoped to complete that survey, and can we be told something about it?

Mr. Sharples

I am not able to give the House that information today.

Mr. Padley

Further to the Minister saying that a Bill concerned with Sunday trading hours is being considered in another place, and that these two subjects should be considered separately, may I ask him whether he believes it to be reasonable that British shop workers should be asked to work all day and half the night throughout the week and all day on Sundays as well? Can these two subjects really be discussed separately?

Mr. Sharples

Yes, I think they can. Indeed, they are being discussed separately now.

The House will have been interested to hear the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Kinsey) about small shopkeepers. My hon. Friend speaks with great personal knowledge of this subject. I share his view that the small shopkeeper has nothing to fear from the introduction of this Measure—[Interruption.]—and I agree that the small shopkeeper may have quite a lot to gain as a result of the greater flexibility which he will be allowed.

Mr. Orbach

For bankruptcy and suicide.

Mr. Sharples

It has been suggested that the Bill will do away with closing hours without providing for extra time off to compensate workers for any increased hours they might have to work. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley), who has taken part in debates on this subject previously, reasonably and forcibly expressed this view. He has held distinguished positions in the union of which he spoke. There is anxiety lest the Bill will introduce longer working hours, that staff shortages in the retail trade will be aggravated, that shops will open longer hours to do the same volume of business and that costs and retail prices will increase. I recognise these fears but I believe, after careful study, that the vast majority of them are ill-founded.

Concerning shop workers, nearly all retail trades and the majority of employees in retail distribution are covered by wages councils, and overtime rates are laid down in Wages Regulation Orders. Therefore, almost any risk of exploitation can be guarded against through the existing machinery. Moreover, my hon. Friend has said that he is prepared to consider an Amendment to Part II of the Act.

I do not believe that the abolition of restrictions would lead automatically to a large-scale increase in working hours regardless of demand and cost. A shopkeeper is surely not going to keep open much longer than he does now if it is uneconomic to do so. If the demand from the consuming public, which also has to be considered, does not exist, or if the cost of staying open is too high, working hours will not be increased.

Apart from these considerations, it is difficult to see how in modern conditions a special case can be made out for shop workers to be treated differently from other employees in other sectors of commerce and industry where, by and large, the times of work are not and, indeed, cannot be regulated by statute. If special statutory protection is needed for shop workers, then the device of opening and closing hours is not the right method to achieve this purpose.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr that many small shopkeepers will benefit from the greater freedom under the Bill. This is particularly the case where they serve small communities and are able to offer the family shopper advantages and services which the big multiples cannot provide. Above all, a climate of increased competition would favour the more enterprising and efficient. The Bill represents a welcome move in the direction of greater freedom for the retail trade.

To sum up, I do not think that the abolition of restrictions on closing hours would lead to a massive extension of weekday trading or large-scale opening at nights. At present very few shops open as long as they are permitted to do so by law, and I doubt whether, once things settle down, the removal of restrictions would mean many shops staying open much later than they do now.

I do not seek to underestimate the concern about conditions of shop workers, but I doubt whether in practice the Bill would have much effect on conditions.

It will be clear, therefore, that the Government welcome the Bill in principle. Should the Bill receive a Second Reading, I hope that we shall be able to offer more tangible support in helping my hon. Friend to amend the Bill in a way which will achieve its honest objectives.

I hope that the House will be allowed to come to a decision about the Bill this afternoon. It will be a great pity, and will be noted by those outside, if an attempt is made to prevent the House reaching a decision on a matter which should be decided by the House.

3.2 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)

I think that the House will agree that we have had an interesting debate which has been part contemporary and part historical. We should be grateful to the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) for giving us the opportunity of having the debate. But whether the main proposal in the Bill, which is to sweep away all safeguards on hours of opening for shops, is good is, I think, in view of the debate, very doubtful.

I could not help noticing that the hon. Member for Dorset, South concentrated a lot on what I will call the "chocolate box" cases. But the main effect of the Bill, which the hon. Gentleman does not deny, will be vastly to alter the legislation on shop hours.

This could hardly be in doubt, because the Economist on 28th November said: Another onslaught is under way on the weary question of shopping hours. … It all happened rather suddenly, because Mr. Evelyn King, who is sponsoring the Bill, came top of the Private Members Ballot. Therefore we must not suppose that this is the end of a long crusade on the hon. Gentleman's part.

I am anxious to emphasise what I think is the principal point, that we are dealing with the serious social question of shop hours. As has already been said, in Victorian times and well into the 1930s progressive opinion—this was not a party matter by any means—was always for restricting shop hours. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley) referred to the work of the Early Closing Association and to the fact that the late Sir Winston Churchill was one of the presidents or patrons of that famous association. Though I cannot claim any personal experience of working in a shop, my mother told me that when she was a young woman she ran a small shop and had to work in it in those days from early morning until 11 o'clock at night on a Saturday. She often told me—this left a deep impression on my young mind—that even then a customer would arrive at one minute to eleven.

It is easy for hon. Gentlemen to brush aside the past, but in a country like ours with a great tradition for liberal reforming legislation we should not brush it aside. We should be proud that those who went before us cared about these causes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) said, no one depicted with greater feeling any sympathy the lot of the Victorian and Edwardian shop assistant than H. G. Wells, and some of that remarkable man's early, and I think best, novels were based on his personal experience working as a shop assistant. I make no apology for being a little historical. The Minister of State was also historical.

In the 1930s a new aim came into sight, which was a move by shopkeepers themselves to reduce costs by concentrating shopping in a shorter period of time. This was a move by the trade itself. There are fashions in all things, including progressive thought; and fashions in progressive thought change. From many quarters now, apparently on the assumption that the age of universal prosperity is with us, the demand is to keep the shops open at all hours.

We can all guess—a number of hon. Gentlemen have attempted to make their own guesses—at what is the state of public opinion about any question at any time. In this matter the guess of one hon. Gentleman is just about equal to that of another. I concede that the hon. Member for Dorset, South and his supporters can call in aid one or two bodies of organised opinion such as the Consumer Council and the National Board for Prices and Incomes. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Board, but I have a quotation from its report here.

Unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, who is a more than loyal supporter of his Government, these are now voices from the grave, because the new Conservative Government thought so little of both the Consumer Council and the National Board for Prices and Incomes, the opinions they held and the advice they gave that they have decided to abolish them. Therefore, although it is perfectly fair to quote what these bodies said when they were alive, the force of the views that they expressed from the point of view of Government supporters is reduced considerably by the fact that the Government do not propose to continue them in being.

Mr. Evelyn King

Were those bodies right or wrong? That is the point.

Mr. Palmer

I will come on to that point. I am surveying the debate as it has gone and am attempting to be fair about it.

It is possible to call in aid also the Gowers Report. It has been called in aid up to a point, but Gowers was also very much in favour of uniform hours for shop opening. It is easy for hon. Members to quote part of any report that is favourable to a particular case, but it is necessary then for others in a debate of this kind to put the balance right. I do not doubt for a moment that there are more than a few people who would wish to buy where they like and when they like. I think it would be foolish to deny it. Therefore, since so many people feel this way, or are said to feel this way, and with so many wives out at work, one would think that there would be a demand for longer opening hours within the existing legislation. One would think also, according to the conventions of the market economy, that trades and businesses would respond to this alleged public demand for longer opening. But that does not seem to be the case.

Why do not shops now keep open to the permitted hours if there is such a demand on the part of the public? In practice, in my experience, the majority of shops close at 6 o'clock, though they can remain open to 8 o'clock and, if they wish, till 9 o'clock on one day in the week. It is perhaps surprising to people who have not studied the matter, but I believe that a shop may open immediately after midnight if the shop-management wishes to do so. Under the present legislation, therefore, there are only four hours of the 24 which are not covered.

I know that the hon. Gentleman uses his eloquence to say, "If it is only four hours, why not go the whole way?" But this argument is as broad as it is long. If it is only four hours, it is a little hard to see what all the fuss is about. As I say, there is nothing to prevent shops at the present time taking full advantage of the existing legislation.

Mr. Proudfoot

If the hon. Gentleman looks around he will find that many stores now have a night stock crew from 8 p.m. till midnight. They use light and heat, and, at the expense of paying wages to two extra people, they may remain open to the public. In fact, I saw one the other night in Victoria Street.

Mr. Palmer

I do look around me. No doubt, what the hon. Gentleman says is accurate. But one can also go into any high street anywhere and find shops not open after 5.30 or 6 o'clock. As I say, if there is this public demand and if the laws of market economy are operating, why are not shops taking advantage of the existing permitted hours? They are not doing so.

Take the situation in relation to off-licences. There has been a change there. I think I am right in saying that at one time off-licences had to operate according to public house licensing hours. They are now permitted to operate according to normal shopping hours. The curious result has been that in many places when a member of the public—and I count myself amongst them—wishes to go out from about 6 o'clock to 9 o'clock to buy a bottle of wine, he will find that many of the off-licences which were formerly open at this convenient period are now closed. So there again, here is a trade that is most useful, no doubt, to the majority of mankind, and to womankind too, for that matter, but it is apparently not putting itself particularly at the convenience of the public, although the situation has been liberalised to enable it to do so.

Therefore, simply on the basis of argument, and I have listened to all the speeches—I will come on to the special interests in a moment—it is hard to show that present laws, with all their contradictions and with all their anomalies, and the jokes about the sale of chocolates in pubs, and so on, are placing any great restraint in the way of longer opening of shops. It is hard to find any real evidence to that effect, and none has so far been brought forward in this debate.

The Minister of State referred to the last official inquiry. I understand that his Department is conducting, perhaps, a quieter inquiry; I do not know, and he did not seem very forthcoming about it. But the last official inquiry—in 1964, I think, at the time of the Labour Government—produced the Government Paper to which he referred, Retail Trading Hours. Those proposals were put to every section of the trade, and there was such a medley of opposing views that in the end no legislation was brought in. Again, there was no evidence that the great mass of the consuming public were anxious for any change.

Mr. Sharples

The hon. Gentleman has referred to that Government Paper. It would be interesting to know whether his party—I take it that he speaks as its official spokesman—still agrees that the move should be towards greater flexibility, which was the main conclusion in the introduction to the report, stating the firm opinion of the Government then.

Mr. Palmer

This is a Private Member's Bill. I am commenting on the matter generally, with, I hope, at least the confidence of my party, if I may put it like that, but it would be hard to say just where we stand at present. We will listen to the arguments in the future, as we have listened to them in the past. However, I concede the perfectly fair point that the last statement of official Labour policy was given in the Government Paper to which the Minister of State referred, and there it stands. We are now developing our opinions further.

I have been trying to survey the case for extended hours; that is, the case for the Bill itself, which would repeal the first Part of the Shops Act, 1950. I think that I have been fair about it. I have given the views of two bodies of some weight, adding that they have been killed off by the Government. True, we have, also, the favourable view of the Consumers' Association. Perhaps if the Home Office inquiry goes ahead, it will produce extra evidence, but that is not available yet.

It is no light matter to propose to sweep away all the safeguards which did historically for the shop assistant what the Factories Act did for the factory worker. There is, at least, good reason to pause, especially when we remember the weight of opinion on the other side of the argument—that is, against the proposal put by the hon. Member for Dorset, South—is impressive.

Declaring my interest, I come now to the views of the Co-operative Movement, to which there has been no detailed reference in the debate so far. The Co-operative Movement has vast experience in this matter because, as the House knows, it is organised on the principle of self-help by consumers for themselves. As one who has, in his time, attended many quarterly meetings of members of cooperative societies, I assure the House that I have never heard in any of those democratic assemblies—and they are usually very democratic indeed—any swelling demand for longer opening hours.

The official position of the Cooperative Movement is plain enough. The movement operates a vast number of shops of all kinds in this country. I understand that it would accept some liberalisation of present legislation, according to genuine need if that were proved, and especially the sweeping-away of anomalies—many such anomalies could be cited if there were time—but the Co-operative Movement believes that uniformity of shopping hours is a good principle, and here, as I said before, it can call in aid the Gowers Committee.

The Co-operative Movement argues that unlimited opening, if acted upon, would push up costs. That point was made eloquently by some of my hon. Friends, and it is particularly impressive coming from a trading movement in a position to study these things and estimate costs. It is the conviction of the trading side of the Co-operative Movement that unlimited opening, if acted upon—and there is some doubt whether it would be—would certainly push up costs.

As an employer, the Co-operative Movement is sympathetic to trade unionism, and trade unionism among shop-workers is very strong in the movement. That is a point to be taken into consideration, because if there is strong trade union organisation in a particular branch of trade and there is weaker trade union organisation in other branches in spite of all efforts, the more progressive employer is at a disadvantage compared with the less progressive employer.

I have stated plainly the views of the co-operative societies as they have been represented to me. There was an argument earlier about where the rest of the retail trade stood. I know that there are hon. Members opposite, particularly my former opponent in the Cleveland Division, the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Proudfoot) who has a great deal of experience and knowledge of these matters, but as I under- stand it, the representative bodies of the retail trade are generally against the Bill. The retail grocers are very much against it. I understand that a number of the representative organisations of the smaller shopkeepers also were very lukewarm towards the Bill.

I spoke this morning to the Research Department of the Co-operative Union, which is a knowledgeable body keeping in touch with every section of the retail trade. It works in close co-operation with the rest of the retail trade.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Is my hon. Friend aware that not a single national bona fide trade body has been prayed in aid in support of the Bill?

Mr. Evelyn King

I seek not to argue but to state facts. I am probably the only person in the House who can state these facts—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—because I have written to every single body, and I have their replies here. Broadly, those which are opposed to the Bill are the Chambers of Trade, the Retail Trade Consortium and the National Grocers' Federation. Those which support it are the City of London retail traders, the Retail Distributors Association, the National Market Traders' Federation, the Cash Register Traders Association, and the National Union of Small Shopkeepers. All that we can tell from that is that there is a division of opinion, and that on the whole the small men are for it and the big men against it.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Ironmongers, butchers—

Mr. Palmer

I was trying to be balanced about this, but the hon. Gentleman concedes that the Retail Trade Consortium, a very wide-ranging body, is against the Bill. I understand that there was a meeting this week of the Retail Trade Consortium, when opposition to the Bill was reinforced.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about small people being for the Bill. That is his opinion only. I should have thought that those that might be a little more kindly disposed towards it would be the big department stores, for obvious reasons. I say nothing against the small shopkeeper, but whether he wishes to work all the hours that are made I believe to be doubtful.

I come now, because this has played a tremendous part in the debate, to the most important objectors of all—that is, the workers in the industry. They are represented more than adequately in this House by that good union, U.S.D.A.W. My hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore and Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) have spoken and I have a feeling that if my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) catches Mr. Speaker's eye, he will be adding his powerful advocacy. They have said in the debate that their union is tremendously against the Bill.

The Bill has been represented by some hon. Members as a clash between the interests of the consumer and those of the workers. The truth is that we are all consumers and in a decent society, apart from the young and the old, we should all be workers as well. But the better-off we are, the more we stress our consumer interest. The less well off we are, we are bound to take into account our worker interest. This is one of the great divides in modern industrial society.

I say that because of the argument, which has also been used, that so many women go out to work and that, for this reason, unrestricted opening of shops is desirable so that they and their families may consume. A vast number of the women who go out to work, however, go out to work in shops, and their working interest is important. Seventy per cent. of shopworkers are women. If we are to have 24-hour opening of shops, in my view that would put a very heavy burden upon those women, many of whom, if they cannot escape working these hours will give up working.

Reference was made to shift working. I confessed earlier that I had no experience of life in a shop, but I have certainly had considerable experience of shift working in the electricity supply industry. If there is an industry which is very much in the news at the moment which understands shift working, it is electricity supply. To work shifts efficiently in that industry, it is necessary to employ four teams of workers who move right the way round the clock. That is the way it is done, and that is the way in which, under conditions of ideal efficiency, it must be done. But electricity is a monster industry and I do not suggest that it would be necessary to go as far as that if shift working were to be introduced into shops, but it would be necessary to employ many more people unless there is to be exploitation of the workers. Certainly, it is bound to add to costs. That cannot be denied.

The hon. Member for Dorset, South and the sponsors of the Bill have to answer how the safeguards of workers, which are mentioned in the Bill, are to be enforced in an industry where the small unit is still dominant. It is very difficult to find an answer to that question. I do not know whether the aim—perhaps not consciously, but this might be its effect—is to drive the small shopkeeper and the co-operative out of business in favour of the multiple. If so, the promoters should say so.

I have listened to the debate and the arguments, and I have done my best to sum up as fairly as I can from this side, remembering what my own party said in the White Paper. In theory, this is a Private Member's Bill, on which hon. Members are free to divide as they wish without broad considerations of party policy entering into it. The Minister of State gave a general blessing but even he seemed to have some doubts. In my view the Bill is too big and complicated a subject for private legislation in the first place. Secondly, although there are admitted loopholes and anomalies in the present law on shops and trading conditions, there is no proof whatsoever, and none has been advanced during the debate, that unrestricted opening hours would help the situation. Therefore I hope that the House will defeat the Bill if by chance it should go to a Division.

3.31 p.m.

Mr. Wilfred Proudfoot (Brighouse and Spenborough)

I have listened to the debate with great interest. It reminds me, after a gap of six years out of the House, of the time when 11 years ago I made my maiden speech on retailing. At that time I prophesied that about 50,000 retail grocery stores would close. A lot of my constituents held me personally responsible for that and did not regard it as a forecast. I am not happy to say that my forecast has already virtually become fact.

Retail business is still in movement and great changes are happening. To use the jargon of today, rationalisation has occurred. As a Member of the House, I am proud to know that rationalisation of retailing has occurred without subsidy. With the political flavour of the debate and the way that rationalisation has occurred, I am jolly glad that the Conservatives won the last election, because the Socialists had proposals to subsidise the Co-op if re-elected.

The Co-op last year closed 2,500 shops, which were part of my forecast. I believe that next year it proposes to close another 2,500 retail outlets.

This is a view of the times and what is happening in retailing techniques and mass retailing.

The debate should surely be about the freedom of the ability to serve the customers. Ten years ago the debate would have sounded totally different. There would have been a great deal of opinion on both sides of the House against the Bill. But today public opinion outside the House is certainly on the side of the mover of the Bill. The public need greater freedom of shopping hours. The laws are entirely man-made. I have always been of the opinion that if man makes laws like this, sooner or later there is a day of reckoning, when they must be dismantled. The dismantling is harsh. If the market is left to correct itself, the movement is always gentle. I am convinced that many small retailers today have come round to that sort of thinking.

There are great opportunities for the small man in this Bill. Play has been made of the fact that the small man will start to regard this as his working hours. Indeed, the trouble is that so far he has regarded them so, which they are not. I can think of men in my division and home town who operate a retail business on their own, perhaps with the help of their wives, who could quite reasonably stay closed until 4 p.m. and go fishing or partake of other types of activity which they may enjoy, and then open at 4 p.m. and close at midnight, still giving excellent service. Being what it is, the public would not expect those retailers to be vigorously price competitive. The fact that they would not be price competitive would not jack up the whole of retail prices.

When one considers that and looks at the development of the retail trade, with the retailer-owned wholesaling operation of P.G.M.A./B.O.B. and the Spars and Vivos of this country going ahead and supporting the small retailer, perhaps they have had some of their thinking wrong. They have tried to compete on virtually price only, but price is only one factor in competition, and I think that service is probably the factor which most customers put first in choosing the retail store they favour. Much play has been made of the fact that prices could go up. I do not believe this is true.

There is capital involved in retailing, and the longer one takes advantage of the capital employed perhaps the less capital will be spent. It is almost incredible that so far in this debate so little has been said, particularly by members of U.S.D.A.W., about the capital invested outside shops, capital invested in roads, traffic lights, and so on. If we were to lengthen the hours of stores opening we would make more use of the capital involved and invested by the public on congested road systems and so on. One has only to go into any shopping centre to see the confusion because delivery is taking place at the same time as people are making purchases.

The capital aspect of this just does not start and end in the towns. Indeed, out-of town shopkeeping is now starting to blossom in this country. Motorways will take people in a very short space of time, from the central areas, to retailers who will provide huge free car parks with access to their premises. this factor cannot be left out of consideration. This brings us back to the small man who can compete, as I said, by service—

Mr. Tom Boardman (Leicester, South-West)

And flexibility of service.

Mr. Proudfoot

—and flexibility of service, too, for those people who desire to shop at odd hours.

I was a member of the National Grocers' Federation, but I believe that on this question it is wrong. It was somebody quite famous, I believe, who said that people who end up in trade associations were really business failures. Perhaps it is indeed time that those who do not fulfil their aspirations in business go into the political side of business. I feel there is some truth in this, and also indeed, that members of U.S.D.A.W. and other unions who become Members of this House display the fact that they are also members of the establishments in those different categories of business.

Really I do not think that U.S.D.A.W. has any case on the point of working hours for people in the stores. If one is in the retail business one knows that there are retail wages councils, and I say as a former hon. Member for Cleveland to a previous hon. Member for Cleveland that we know that the wages council inspects wages books and the hours that shop people work. U.S.D.A.W. really has no complaint on this score. Indeed, I am surprised that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley) did not take into account the rewards available to store managers, rewards which were undreamable of 10 to 15 years ago, and looking at the rewards which are available to them now, and to supermarket managers, we see that they are indeed business executives today, to a very much greater extent than before.

The decision whether to open longer or even shorter hours is really one of the economics and site of any particular store, I say "even shorter hours" because the Bill would not stop people from opening shorter hours; it is to enable people to open for what hours they desire.

One person who seems to have missed out on this debate is the customer. The customers are the most important people. I suppose that Parliament in this country was really set up as a "producers" Parliament. The producers in those days were mainly the farmers. Then, later, the producers were probably the wool merchants of Yorkshire. Today, I suppose, the producers are the industrialists. Really it is about time, in an economy like ours, that we got round to having a "customers" Parliament. I make very careful use of the word. I never want to be a "client" or a "patient" or a "passenger". I prefer being a "customer", because I believe that that gives me far greater rights.

Customers nowadays need more flexible hours in which to do their shopping. One has to be a shopkeeper really to perceive the nervous tension which there is among women shoppers. It arises because of the unrealistic, false, restrictions on opening hours. Shopping has become a hurried, anxious business. Shopping ought to be a fun thing. Spend- ing money is one of the greatest entertainments available to man. I enjoy going shopping, and I am sure that everybody else should Shopping for the family should be fun. We should look at a family not as individual units but as a composite unit, and, with longer shopping hours and modern techniques, shopping could be fun for all members of the family. That would be one of the results of the Bill becoming law.

I do not think that the change proposed will be dramatic or occur overnight. Things will change because the market will diotate whether the stores in a certain place should open at certain times. I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading.

3.41 p.m.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

I ought, first, to declare an interest. I am a sponsored Member of U.S.D.A.W., and I declare that interest to the House.

There has been criticism from successive speakers on the benches opposite about what they loosely describe as the reactionary attitude of speakers from this side of the House. A number of my hon. Friends have been associated with U.S.D.A.W., with the Co-operative Movement, and with other trade unions, and they are bound to be acutely conscious of the fact that any action taken by the Government is likely to worsen the conditions of labour of working people. I am not for one moment suggesting that hon. Gentlemen opposite are not conscious of the problem, but I am saying that by virtue of our intimate associations with various unions we are more aware of the problem than are many hon. Gentlemen opposite. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard) should take his seat by walking behind the hon. Member who has the Floor of the House. That is an even better practice than bowing.

Mr. Longhlin

My hon. Friend is a new Member, and that is why, I did not take exception to what he did.

An historical fact, which cannot be blurred, is that during the last 50 or 70 years the working hours of shop workers have been related to the legislation in force at any time. The argument for the Bill is based, apparently, on the argument of freedom for the consumer. [Interruption.] One hon. Gentleman opposite asks why not. I have not said why not. I am willing to argue that maximising the freedom of the individual is the most desirable thing that one can do in a democratic system of society, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that freedom is relative. The freedom of one person must not be won if it impinges upon the freedom of another.

The freedom of the customer to shop when and how he likes is based upon the assumption that there is a great demand by consumers for the opening of shops at different hours. I would have thought that the effect of the Bill would be to make inoperative Part I of the Shops Act, which rigidly controls closing hours. If consumers in general wanted an increase in the permitted number of shopping hours one would have assumed that that would have made itself felt in some form, and that people engaged in the distributive trade would have been examining the situation from that point of view to see whether they could maximise their opportunities for profit.

The distributive trade can be broken down generally into three parts—private trade, multiple trade and co-operative trade. Private trade concerns generally that section which consists of shops run by one man with, perhaps, the assistance of his wife and members of his family. It can be argued that in that sector of the industry the expertise of management is insufficient to enable a correct assessment to be made of the possibility of maximising profits.

The same argument cannot be applied in the case of multiple trade. I refer to organisations such as Great Universal Stores, run by Isaac Wolfson. He is one of a number of men who have made enormous fortunes not out of one but out of many economic activities. It cannot be argued by any hon. Member opposite that such businessmen are so inefficient that they do not recognise that if there is sufficient consumer demand they can make sure that their profits increase even by keeping to the existing permitted hours. But do they? It has been repeated many times in this debate and in almost every paper I have read on distribution in the last 25 years, including the Gowers Report, that the demand for shops to be opened in excess of the present hours is such that those who should know, the tradesmen with the real expertness, do not want to open even to the present hours.

I believe that this is a flier, not a Private Member's Bill at all, except technically. What has happened is what happens so often: the Department has provided an hon. Member with a Bill.

Mr. Evelyn King

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want to say anything which is not so. The initiative for the proposals came from the Consumers' Association, and was put up by his side of the House during their period of office. I have great admiration for, and am grateful to, the Association.

Mr. Loughlin

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's correction. I would not like to misrepresent the position. I am sorry that I made that statement, because I was basing my judgment not on what the hon. Member said but on what the Minister of State said. Perhaps I might pause to give the Minister the opportunity to correct the impression he created.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) was talking about the defects of the shift system and of young girls going home in the middle of the night, this seemed to give the Minister reason for giggling. Perhaps he will reconsider, because this is a very serious problem for me and probably for him as parents. If he has a daughter, he has no guarantee that she will not go into the shops. I could not determine what my youngster is going to do. The Minister might remember that many parents will be fearful about young girls going home in the middle of the night.

Before anyone, whether an hon. Member taking up a Bill initiated by an outside organisation, or the Government, can argue with any validity to allow shops to remain open all night or any time they like, they should at least prove that the trade is taking advantage of the present permitted hours. Unless they do that, they should not bring forward the Bill.

The Government have made great play, even in a statement today, about the dangers of inflation. However, I do not believe that they are really concerned with prices. After all, successive Ministers have indicated that they are not prepared to do anything about rising prices. Nevertheless, there is an essential difference between a refusal to interfere with price levels and the active encouragement of Government to increase prices by legislation. I fear that increased prices are inevitable if this Measure becomes law.

It is no good saying that competition will reduce prices in distribution, at any rate competition involving distributors in additional labour costs. After all, the costs of distribution must be related to sales, and there is only a given volume of trade. I accept that trade increases annually, but apart from that, one cannot stimulate it further, and, in any event, I imagine that the Government would not want that to be done because they are said to be righting inflation. They want saving and not spending.

No matter how many units of distribution one has, or the number of hours one's shop assistants work, none of these expedients will increase the volume of trade. That is determined by the consuming power of society. If shops are open longer, either the existing shop assistants will work longer hours or there will be the greatest difficulty in manning the nation's shops. More labour will be required.

Mr. Wellbeloved

On a point of order. I seek your guidance on a matter of considerable importance concerning the Bill, Mr. Speaker. A large number of hon. Members have not yet had an opportunity of speaking to the Bill. The views of trade unionists and employers have been adduced, but a number of other points of view have yet to be expressed. It is a constitutional question whether the sort of law which the Measure seeks to amend should be amended in a Private Member's Bill. In view of the remarks made by the Minister in his speech—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 29th January.