HC Deb 20 October 1972 vol 843 cc701-3

Lords Amendment: No. 18, in page 22, line 25, at end insert new Clause E— E. In sections 59(1), 64 and 67(5) of the Shops Act 1950 (which impose penalties for certain offences of trading or carrying on business on Sunday) for the words "five pounds" and "two pounds" (wherever occurring) there shall be substituted the words "£50"; and for the words "twenty pounds" (wherever occurring) there shall be substituted the words "£200".

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Lane)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

The effect of this Amendment, by introducing a new Clause, is to increase the maximum penalties for contravening restrictions in the Shops Act, 1950, in three respects—first, Sunday trading; secondly the sale of butcher's meat on Sunday; and thirdly, the business of a barber or a hairdresser in Scotland on Sunday.

I do not think that this is the moment to go into the intricacies of Sunday trading laws but I ought to assure the House that we have taken the view that the penalty increases proposed are justifiable in isolation as an interim measure to assist enforcement of the existing law, whatever may be the future course of the amendment of the Sunday trading laws generally.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

We want to probe the Government a little on this. The Minister will be aware that the Sunday trading laws are in a state of considerable chaos, with one local authority interpreting them severely, another less so, and with Sunday markets being moved from place to place according to the attitude of the local authority. We now have the absurd situation in which about the only thing that can legitimately be done on Sunday is to lie in bed with the newspapers, drinking intoxicating liquor and occasionally ordering some fresh flowers or fruit—and that can be done only until two o'clock, after which it is only the intoxicating liquor. It is not possible to sit and drink coffee or tea bought on a Sunday; it is impossible to eat other than Kosher meat bought on a Sunday. It is impossible to drink tinned fruit juice as an alternative to intoxicating liquor.

Anyone glancing at the Shops Act from 1950 onwards will find it surprising, in a society that has so much changed, that we should still rely on what has become a rag-bag of laws and regulations. Far more women now go out to work regularly, so that the problem of matching their hours with ordinary shopping hours has become more acute. While everyone on this side of the House would strongly support the argument that shop assistants must be protected over their hours of work, it becomes extremely doubtful whether this is any longer appropriate as a means of doing it as distinct from legislating in other ways to give adequate leisure time.

When are we likely to get some substantial consolidation and reform of the Sunday Trading Acts? I would also like to ask whether it seems sensible to prop up these laws as they become more highly anomalous by imposing yet stronger fines. Inevitably one finds—I speak as a non-lawyer—that the worst thing to do is to support a law which no longer commands broad public consent by the imposititon of more penal sentences and fines.

Mr. Lane

By leave of the House, I will reply. We shall keep very much in mind, in considering this difficult branch of the law, what the hon. Lady said. We are conscious of the unsatisfactory nature of this and the dubious public support for the present situation. The hon. Lady realises how controversial the subject is. I understand that the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers is strongly opposed to any relaxation of the general stringency of the law. Various retail organisations, particularly those representing small shopkeepers in certain trades, do not favour any change. I do not say that these are compelling reasons for never changing but I am pointing out the difficulties we face. I cannot hold out hope in the near future.

We do not think the chances of real agreement are great and we do not therefore think that this is a matter of high legislative priority. We shall continue to study the problem in the light of changing public opinion.

On the hon. Lady's second point, there is a difficulty and on the whole we believe it right to go ahead with the increased penalties which the other place decided upon, even in the unsatisfactory state of the present law.

Question put and agreed to.

5 "G.—(1) A magistrates' court on summary conviction or the Crown Court on committal for sentence or on conviction on indictment shall not sentence to imprisonment, to Borstal training or to detention in a detention centre a person who is not legally represented in that court and has not been previously sentenced to that punishment, unless either—
(a) he applied for legal aid and the application was refused on the ground that it did not appear his means were such that he required assistance; or