HC Deb 02 February 1989 vol 146 cc413-5
5. Mr. O'Brien

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations his Department has received from interested parties on ways to amend the Shops Act 1950.

13. Mr. Watts

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received in response to his request for views on the reform of Sunday shopping.

Mr. Renton

Since I last answered a question on this subject from my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) on 21 July 1988, we have received a number of specific proposals for amendment of the present law, which we are now considering, and 87 written representations broadly in favour of Sunday trading and 1,344 against.

Mr. O'Brien

Is the Minister aware that there is some statutory deregulation in the majority of EEC countries? May I assume that it is the Government's intention to reflect the views of EEC countries or will they diverge from the way that the EEC is proceeding on Sunday trading?

Mr. Renton

No. The point is that a number of district councils have been told in the courts that their requests for injunctions against Sunday trading will not be granted until the European Court has taken a decision on whether our Shops Act 1950 is against EC law in terms of restriction of trade. The issue about the Shops Act is not that it is a general restraint on trade, but that it is anomalous, out of date and full of provisions that are now generally unenforceable. I noted that the hon. Gentleman voted against our Shops Bill last time and I suggest that when he next goes shopping on Sunday, he buys an old-fashioned tin of humbugs. When will the day come when Labour Members who shop on Sundays vote with us to deregulate?

Mr. Stanbrook

Is my hon. Friend aware that most members of the British Retailers Association, which represents the retail industry in this country, do not want deregulation between 12 noon and 6 pm on Sundays and that the employees of the small number of large firms that want deregulation certainly do not want it?

Mr. Renton

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. Two recent polls taken by MORI and Gallup show that approximately two thirds of those polled on the general question whether they would like more shops to open legally on Sundays voted in favour. I appreciate my hon. Friend's strong feelings on this subject, but I suggest that since our 1986 Bill there has been a general move in favour of a compromise that will enable us to modernise the present provisions, while preserving a different rhythm of life on Sunday.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I apologise to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts), whose question was linked.

Mr. Watts

It remains my view that deregulation is the only satisfactory course for us to follow, but does my hon. Friend agree that in the light of the recent public opinion surveys to which he has referred, all of which show a substantial majority in favour of a measure of relaxation, a realistic compromise should be sought as a matter of urgency—perhaps based on limited hours of opening on Sunday afternoons?

Mr. Renton

In general terms, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Over the past two or three years there has been a general move—even among those who voted against deregulation last time—towards the view that a compromise is needed. It is difficult to find a compromise that will have general backing and achieve consensus among the different parties, but that is precisely what we have been trying to do in all the consultations that we have undertaken in recent months.

Mr. Duffy

Does the Minister recall his recent correspondence with the Sheffield chamber of trade, which endorses the REST proposals of the National Chamber of Trade—the recreation, emergency provisions, social gatherings and travel proposals? Those proposals are intended to iron out some of the anomalies, but, in the main, to preserve Sunday and keep it special. Can the Minister tell the House of a single chamber of trade that has come out broadly in favour of Sunday trading?

Mr. Renton

I know that the REST proposals suggest a very careful revision of the exempt list—dividing shops into very tight categories and allowing only those that sell 80 per cent, of their turnover in those categories to open.

I think that those proposals would be very difficult to enforce. I note the hon. Gentleman's support for them. Last time, he voted against our Shops Bill. I hope that on the next occasion he will abandon his party Whip and vote with us for a compromise on regulation.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does the Minister accept that a greater anomaly arises when the courts, which are supposed to uphold the law of the land as made by Parliament, set it aside waiting for an extraterritorial decision?

Mr. Renton

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is simply not the case. The DIY stores in particular have pleaded their case under an article of the treaty of Rome holding that our present Shops Act is a restraint of trade and against imports from the Community. We believe that that is the wrong ground on which to fight, because the argument has nothing to say about the anomalies in our Shops Act. Treasury counsel will be briefed to defend the British position in the European Court and we expect decisions to be reached this year.

Mr. Anderson

Is it not clear from the events of the past weeks that a co-ordinated campaign is being conducted by well-heeled commercial interests in collusion with the Government for fundamental change and that the Minister's favoured option of a six-hour period on a Sunday is but a tactical staging post on the way to total deregulation.

Mr. Renton

No, Sir.

Dame Jill Knight

Will my hon. Friend continue to bear in mind that, as he said in the first part of his answer, many thousands of people outside the House and, indeed, a substantial number inside it, still wish to keep the peace and quiet of Sunday? Will he bear in mind that unless a compromise is very carefully drawn up there will be some fairly solid opposition in the House to the abolition of our Sundays?

Mr. Renton

My hon. and good Friend reminds me of precisely the point that I was making earlier, against the background of a law that is increasingly seen to be shot with anomalies, about the difficulties of finding a compromise that will bring together all those who recognise the impossibility of the present law. But as I said, this compromise must respect the fact that many want to see a different rhythm of life on Sundays.

Mr. Corbett

Can the Minister clarify what he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien)? Is it now his advice that local authorities should seek to avoid prosecution for alleged breaches of the Sunday trading laws until the issue is settled by the European Court, or will he rather insist that our national laws are enforced, unless or until they are changed?

Mr. Renton

I have already dealt with that point twice. But can the hon. Gentleman clarify why the new member of the Opposition Front Bench, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), who presumably finds it in order to shop in Edinburgh on a Sunday, finds it necessary to vote in Westminster on a Monday against our doing the same?