§ Order for Second Reading read.1.57 pm
§ Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The problem with the position in which I find myself is that one prepares for a speech of not more than three and a half hours and not less than four minutes and, invariably, the latter transpires. Because of this morning's efforts—no doubt well meant—we have about 35 minutes to talk about this important subject. I shall endeavour to truncate my observations and allow other hon. Members to participate. I hope that those hon. Members who follow me will, in the same spirit, allow as many colleagues as possible to speak.
I am sure that I need not remind the House that the present Sunday trading law is essentially that regulated by the Shops Act 1950 and a number of subsequent small amendments. The Shops Act is riddled with anomalies and does not reflect in any sense modern social patterns. Schedules 5 and 6 show that that is nonsense. Schedule 5 provides:Transactions for the purposes of which a shop may be open in England and Wales for the serving of customers on Sunday".That includesmeals or refreshments whether or not for consumption at the shop at which they are sold, but not including the sale of fried fish and chips at a fried fish and chip shop".One can have one's fish and chips, but not from a fish and chip shop, as anyone born north of the Trent knows, is the only place at which one should ever eat fish and chips. As was the spirit in those days, one can buy "intoxicating liquours" and "tobacco and smokers' requisites". One can buy "flowers, fruit and vegetables". In particular, according to schedule 5, one may include mushrooms in that purchase. That is an important addition, which has vexed many a council for many a day. One may buymilk and cream, not including tinned or dried milk or cream, but including clotted cream whether sold in tins or otherwise;I shall pass over what clotted cream in tins is like, but, if it can be found, one may buy it.
In the spirit of schedule 5, and in order to allay the fears of those ecologically-minded hon. Members who care about such matters, if they want to travel here by horse on a Sunday they may buyfodder for horses, mules, ponies and donkeys"—if they happen to come by donkey—at any farm, stables, hotel or inn.If people want to buy fodder for a donkey, they should do so not from a roadside trader because that would be illegal, but from an inn, which would be legal.
If I had time to make a three-and-a-half-hour speech, it would be mildly amusing to go through the list in greater detail. However, I shall summarise it by saying that the present law allows one to buy fresh but not dried milk, newspapers but not toilet paper, car batteries but not torch batteries, and fan belts but not ladies' tights. Everyone knows that if a fan belt breaks, by far the best way of restarting the car is to buy a pair of ladies' tights and use them as a fan belt.
My hon. Friend the Member for——
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
§ Mr. Norris
I am glad to see that my hon. Friend has been there long enough to remember the name of her constituency. She has probably used the odd pair of tights in that way and should know that she can buy a fan belt on a Sunday but not a pair of tights.
I am sure that this will not affect my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), but she can buy gin but not a baby's bottle, Easter eggs but not fresh eggs. She can buy car oil but not cooking oil. The present legislation is a complete and absolute nonsense. I need go no further with schedules 5 and 6 or the Shops Act 1950. It is an extraordinarily patronising piece of legislation which Conservative Members should be prepared to see the back of once and for all.
In addition, patterns of life have changed considerably over the past 40 years. I shall pass over the question of the standards of religious observance. Clearly, there are higher living standards, which have created a higher demand for leisure activities, particularly gardening, and repairing and improving homes. The DIY boom is important in connection with the Bill. Much DIY activity involves going to stores to purchase the goods, which involves breaking the law.
There has also been a change in women's approach to work. In 1951, only 26 per cent. of married women were in employment. Now the figure is 61 per cent.
§ Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)
§ Mr. Norris
In order to give as many hon. Members as possible the opportunity to speak, I shall not take interventions.
The enforcement of the present law is not merely nonsense. The list on its own can be funny, and seen as one of those amusing hilarities such as the existence of the death penalty for witchcraft. However, enforcement of such law is outrageous. There are about 420 enforcing authorities in England and Wales, and it is estimated that about 20 per cent. of them bother to enforce the law on Sundays. It is not only extraordinarily unreasonable that whether one is fined or injuncted and restrained from selling on Sundays depends in which local authority area one happens to live, but grossly unfair.
I know from my experience as the hon. Member for Oxford, East that a shop on one side of the road under a a local authority that was keen to enforce the Act had to compete with a shop on the other side of the road in the area of another local authority that said, "We do not give much of a damn and have neither the resources nor the inclination to enforce the Act." About 26 per cent. of turnover can accrue to a business on a Sunday in these selected trades, and it is outrageously unfair that local authorities should discriminate in that way.
There is a further idiocy. Under article 30 of the treaty of Rome there has been a reference by the courts to the European Court of decisions on the granting of injunctions. That means that existing legislation may be overtaken by decision of the European Court. If the European Court rules, as it is invited to do, that the Shops Act 1950 conflicts with article 30 of the treaty of Rome, which deals with restraint of trade, then whatever the attitude of some hon. Members towards Europe, I for one shall say thank goodness that Europe can introduce a little sanity into our proceedings.
1217 On the matter of sanity, I should like to quote Councillor John Denison, the chairman of the Association of District Councils' general services committee. On hearing about the European reference, he said:This is the last straw. The present law is totally discredited and every effort by districts to enforce the law is thwarted even by the courts. These cases show that it is imperative for Government to take urgent action to reform the law.The law is an abject mess.
§ Mrs. Gorman
The law is an ass.
§ Mr. Norris
My hon. Friend is right. What should we do about it? The Conservative manifesto was clear. We committed ourselves in that manifesto to bring sense and consistency to the law. I intend to remind all Ministers of that and not just my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office who has given up some important engagements to be here for the debate. I remind my hon. Friends of that commitment and hope that the Government will see it through.
The last Bill in 1986 was hijacked by a minority who impressed their opinions on some of my hon. Friends who, like me, were in extraordinarily unsafe seats. They each received perhaps 100 letters in favour of the system from some of the vast majority of people who already used it, perhaps without knowing that they were abusing it, and could not be exercised to do anything about it at that time. I suspect that things might be different if we had another opportunity to debate such a Bill.
Complete deregulation is the only logical answer. In a speech in his constituency on 10 February the Minister of State, Home Office said that the Government had not changed their views on the issue. He said:We still believe that the wholly logical solution is that of total deregulation. But we have to recognise that this was not acceptable to Parliament.If, for whatever reason—and we can all speculate—Parliament has said that total deregulation is not its wish, we must not insult Parliament by reintroducing the 1986 Bill. We must consider the real and serious objections of some hon. Members to that Bill.
If we do not want to go down the path of total deregulation, we have three options. One is to go down the path of a new list, but a new list would be absurd because it would instantly be arbitrary, immediately anomalous and increasingly ridiculous. There would be great difficulties in enforcing a new list system. Huge resources would be needed to visit every shop that was entitled to be open, because it sold some items that were on the exempt list, to make sure that it was not selling items that were not on the list. That is also nonsense in manpower terms. We will need an army of inspectors and an army of fraught policemen running around deciding whether someone has had the temerity to buy tights or is buying fodder for his horse from an unrecognised inn or farm. How awful that would be.
We could, of course, allow any shop to choose its own restricted hours—perhaps to open for six or seven hours on a Sunday—but I believe that that suffers from the same problems of enforceability and is an avenue down which we should not go.
My Bill would allow any shop to open from noon to 6 pm. It would allow an extension for small shops, because I believe that, on either side of the argument it is generally recognised that there needs to be some protection for small shops. I was advised, that, because of my inadequate 1218 drafting, the worker protection clauses in my original draft of the Bill were inconsistent with the wording of the long title. Therefore, I give the House my commitment that, if it approves my Bill on Second Reading, I shall introduce similar worker protection clauses to those contained in the 1986 Bill. I believe that that is the solution that gets nearest to common sense. It was supported by a majority of those participating in the polls. It also has least opposition of any of the proposed schemes. Its advantages are that it is enforceable, that there are no lists, that it is fair and that it retains the special character of Sunday, in that it clearly requires the closure of shops at certain times and a different pattern to be be established from that that applies on the other six days of the week.
I will not proceed further other than to summarise the words of an editorial in the Evening Standard some time ago, which said:Nowadays you can join a union, run your school, buy your council house or own shares if you so desire. But if you want to buy your baked beans or your wallpaper on the way to church on Sunday, you can't. The outdated and bizarre law preventing Sunday trading remains on the statute books … Ministers should have the courage to reintroduce their Bill at the earliest opportunity. Sunday trading is not a wrong but a right.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton)
It would be as well if I intervened at this stage—with apologies to hon. Members on both sides of the House—because if I do not intervene now, in the short space of time available, it may be impossible for me to do so at all.
§ Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not challenge who you call, because that is not for us to challenge. I realise that it is a Private Member's Bill, but it is custom and practice to call an hon. Member from one side of the House and then an hon. Member from the other side of the House. I am rather disturbed that you did not seek to catch the eye of Opposition Members, because we had declared in previous debates this morning our interest in getting rid of the previous debate so that we could get on to this one. I am somewhat appalled at the fact that you have called two hon. Members from the Conservative side when Opposition Members would also wish to contribute to this emotive debate. Those of us who are sponsored by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers are worried that we might not be afforded the opportunity to speak on the issue because of the time factor.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It would he unusual to call a Minister immediately after a Back Bench Member has just moved his own Private Member's Bill. This is a Private Member's day. The Government have no business to intervene so soon.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Members who have raised these points are very experienced. They will know that it is customary to call Ministers when they rise. The Minister has risen and I have called him.
§ Mr. Renton
I offered my apologies to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I shall be extremely brief in the hope that both the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) will be able to make their contributions during the next 17 minutes. However, I must say that the 1219 comments of the hon. Member for Ogmore smelt somewhat of hypocrisy, as the Labour Opposition's record in promoting any attempt to reform Sunday trading so far has not only been one of total neglect, but every Labour Member who was present in the House voted against our Bill in 1986. As the record of the Labour party on this has been one of total ignorance and unawareness of the needs and wishes of the consumer, I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's objections.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) for giving us the chance to examine an issue which continues to command a great deal of parliamentary and public attention. It is particularly helpful that my hon. Friend, in a concise and well-phrased speech, has presented a Bill which is simple, straightforward and avoids extremes. That ought to encourage rational and sensible discussion.
I fully agree with my hon. Friend's analysis of the difficulties that face proposals for legislation. There is virtually universal agreement that the present law is badly in need of reform and contains indefensible anomalies which limit public choice and no longer reflect modern needs. Equally, there are wide divisions about the steps that should be taken to achieve reform—and the practical difficulties of achieving it without creating equally indefensible anomalies, often of a very complex nature, are legion. I have found that to be so in my 20 months at the Home Office, in meetings with a great many people representing both sides of the issue, and in my attempts to find a halfway house acceptable not just in the House but to the vast majority of our countrymen. At every turn one is reminded of the sheer difficulty of arriving at a workable compromise.
One reason is that, at heart, none of us wants all seven days of the week to be exactly the same. That would imply a grey monotony and a drab uniformity of which Orwell's thought police would certainly approve. We all want the rhythm of our lives to change on at least one day of the week—be it Friday for the Moslem, Saturday for the Jew, Or Sunday for the Christian. For at least one day of the week, those who live in towns want the high street to be quiet and the pedestrian centre to be peaceful. They would like an absence of heavy duty lorries parked on the double yellow lines and blocking narrow streets as they unload their goods, with coaches and cars queueing behind and honking their horns in irritation. At the same time, as my hon. Friend points out, consumers want on that same idyllic day regularly to buy a newspaper and petrol, to take the family out for a meal, enjoy a game of sport, buy the extra food needed because two of one's children are unexpectedly arriving for supper, visit the DIY store to buy paint and brushes, or the garden centre to purchase plants, fertiliser, a spare trowel, and so on.
It is because of the normal demands of average consumers—certainly not wicked sybarites—that about 5 million people already work on Sunday. That is so often forgotten. It is because of those same demands that Scotland—a more Sabbatarian country than England—imposes no controls whatever on Sunday shopping. If one walks down Princes street or Sauchiehall street on a Sunday, one certainly does not get the impression that Jezebel has taken over. The churches are fuller while some shops are open and some are not without any bother at all.
1220 That is why I find the attitude taken by Scottish right hon. and hon. Members—not one of whom is present in the Chamber this afternoon—so extraordinary. In my experience, the Scots do not usually hesitate to extol the superior virtues of arrangements north of the border where they differ from ours. On this issue, however, they show a strange reluctance to do so. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), for example, who is a Shadow spokesman on home affairs, and who is not in his place this afternoon, can stroll through his constituency on a Sunday and buy anything that he chooses—yet he and his Scottish right hon. and hon. Friends vote against giving consumers in England and Wales the same right. What is the reason for the hon. Gentleman's reticence? One can only assume that he and all Scottish Labour Members are creatures of the Labour Whips Office first, Scotsmen second, and friends of the consumer a very poor third. They will not speak up for a system that operates successfully in their own country. Their opposition to reform in England is a hypocritical sham, and their arguments are just so much humbug.
I return to the notable omission from my hon. Friend's proposals, on which he touched in his remarks. In my judgment, the eventual Bill must provide safeguards for shop workers working on Sundays. I note that if my hon. Friend's Bill goes into Committee he will make certain that clauses to provide safeguards for workers would be included.
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)
§ Mr. Renton
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has only just come into the Chamber, as there is very little time available.
Whatever happens to this Bill—it is clear that Labour Members are not at present inclined to help it on its way—I should make it clear that we are committed to finding a way of making sense of the present unsatisfactory position. I have every sympathy for retailers who find the present law confusing, anomalous and inconsistent, and who cannot meet the known needs and wishes of their customers without running the risk of breaking the law.
§ Mr. Ray Powell
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has just said that Labour Members were not trying to help the Bill on its way. As you are aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, arrangements were made before this debate so that it could start. If those arrangements had not been made through the usual channels, the debate would not have been allowed to begin. The Minister should withdraw his remark, as he was fully conversant with those negotiations.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. That is a point of argument, not a point of order for the Chair.
§ Mr. Renton
It is possible, for example, that the Bill points to the next stage in the process of bringing sense and order to this obscure and complicated corner of the law. However, we need to be clear about its objectives for Sunday mornings. I am slightly fearful that the limit of 3,000 sq ft may be a little too wide and might have too great an impact on the number of shops that stayed open in the High street, but that is another point that we could consider in Committee. I know that the Shopping Hours Reform Council, under the leadership of Sir Basil Feldman, is anxious to take that further, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I will be pleased to give the 1221 council all the help that we can. I take this opportunity pay tribute to the work of the council and Sir Basil for the dedicated and conscientious way in which they have attempted to build a consensus in favour of change. Their achievement in the areas of agreement that now exist has been considerable, and they continue to play an important role in finding an acceptable basis for legislation. I encourage all concerned to respond to their efforts.
The law places the responsibility for enforcement fairly and squarely on local authorities. It is a matter for their discretion and judgment, and, although current references to the European Court are relevant to the future status of the law, there is clearly no reason why they should get in the way of the ordinary process of enforcing the 1950 Act in the courts when local authorities think it appropriate.
§ Mrs. Gorman
§ Mr. Renton
With respect to my hon. Friend, I am about to conclude my remarks. I hope that she may yet have a chance to catch your eye before 2.30, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The question of the reform of Sunday trading is unfinished business for the Government but, as I have said before, we are in no hurry to finish it until we have a consensus which commands maximum support in the House and throughout the country on a subject that is certainly dear to all Conservative hearts, even if it is widely ignored by the Labour party. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest for the proposals that he has briefly put today, and I wish him well in his efforts.
§ Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)
I note with interest that because of the time that the Minister has taken up—and taken away from Back Benchers—he is part and parcel of the probable talking out of the Bill, which contradicts the argument that he has put.
The Bill's explanatory memorandum states that part of its purpose is to abolish the restrictions on premiseswhere a retail trade or business is carried on to serve customers from the hours of twelve noon to 6.00 pmHon. Members of all parties are aware that we have recently had a debate on a Bill about Sunday sport and that those provisions would have enabled some retail trading to take place on that day. As the explanatory memorandum points out, if the Bill were allowed to proceed today, it would cause yet another anomaly within the racing industry. That is an important point because it would mean that betting shops in the high streets of Britain would be able to open on Sundays. Conservative Members might say that that is irrelevant because there would not be any horse racing because hon. Members, and especially Opposition Members, managed to prevent a Bill that would have allowed that.
However, because of the new technology and the investment that has been made by those in the bookmaking industry outside the United Kingdom, because of SIS—Satellite Information Services—and news satellite services, racing could be beamed live to British betting shops. If the betting shops in our high streets were open, clearly the workers in those shops would have to work on Sundays. That would change the Bill and the 1222 purpose of these arguments in the House, which has clearly rejected the arguments for Sunday sport. Anyone who has any doubt about that need only consider the investments that have been made by the big four betting chains in Southern Ireland. In the past 18 months the four big betting houses of Ladbroke and Co, Coral's, Mecca Bookmakers Ltd and Hill's have purchased more than 250 betting shops in Southern Ireland. Because SIS is now available, it is possible to beam overseas races live to this country. The betting industry has also made major investments in other countries. Negotiations are currently taking place to purchase betting and gambling rights in Belgium and France. Betting rights have already been agreed in California and Ohio in the United States. British betting chains are already working towards the possibility of beaming races live, at all hours of the day and night, which would allow betting in the high streets in Britain. That is a serious matter.
Another serious concern relates to workers' rights in the retail trade. We must question whether those who have prepared the Bill have considered its effect on people who work in shops. I do not think that that has been thought through. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), who promoted the Bill, has rightly pointed out——
§ Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the hasty and ill-thought-out nature of the Bill has been shown up by the fact that its promoter had to admit that there were problems about protecting the rights of workers?
§ Mr. Meale
I entirely and absolutely agree. The argument that at some later stage the hon. Member for Epping Forest would try to ensure that protection clauses were inserted into the Bill is unacceptable to hon. Members of all parties. Members of Parliament are not shop workers and do not have to face the possibility of working a seven-day week. Many hon. Members will argue that they work a seven-day week and 24 hours of the day, but as a fellow Member of Parliament I deny that that happens. I think that Members of Parliament have good terms and conditions. They do not have to put up with regularised work over a seven-day period, which people on low pay and with bad conditions have to face in other industries.
§ Mr. Ray Powell
Does my hon. Friend recall the Minister's words about the Government's attitude to the Bill and to shops legislation? My hon. Friend has participated on numerous occasions in debates on shops legislation. Does he recall that on many occasions the House has rejected any suggestion that legislation should be enacted to allow Sunday trading?
§ Mr. Meale
That is right. Hon. Members have to ask themselves why the Government are seeking to introduce Sunday trading legislation by means of a private Member's Bill. It is important to remember that fact because, although it is the normal practice, the Minister did not allow individual Back-Bench Members——
§ It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.