HC Deb 23 April 1991 vol 189 cc942-4 5.59 pm
Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Fifth Schedule to the Shops Act 1950 to make lawful the sale of garden supplies on Sundays. As the House may know, I am not only chairman of the Conservative parliamentary horticultural committee and the parliamentary consultant to the Horticultural Trades Association, as is shown in the Register of Members' Interests, but I have a large number of garden centres in my constituency. I am therefore delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this Bill, which has the aim of making one small improvement to the way in which Sunday trading laws operate.

It forms no part of my purpose to rehearse the arguments for and against wholesale reform of the Shops Act 1950. Those arguments have been made on several occasions over the past decade or so—most recently, last month, when my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) introduced new proposals relating to the vexed issue of Sunday trading. I am delighted to reassure right hon. and hon. Members that I have no intention of embarking on a discussion of the complex arguments involved in the wider debate on Sunday trading. That would be far too major and wide-ranging a debate for an occasion such as this.

The measure that I propose should be seen for what it is: a tiny change that is designed to reflect contemporary reality. My Bill has little bearing on the wider debate about the future of the 1950 Act, which will have to wait for some time yet. The Bill suggests that garden supplies should be added to the list of exemptions that are contained in schedule 5 to the Shops Act 1950, to make lawful the sale of garden supplies on Sunday. The Bill would set no precedents, nor would it trigger any controversy over Sunday trading laws, and it could be implemented immediately. It is not the thin end of the wedge.

Throughout the ages, part of the strength and richness of our national life has stemmed from the special status that Sunday holds. The best safeguard of that status is not to be found in legislation, but in good sense and contemporary custom. People, not laws, make Sunday special.

Part of the pleasure of Sunday is that it is a time to reflect, worship, rest, and enjoy oneself. One way that millions of British people enjoy themselves on Sunday is by gardening. It is something of a national obsession. Napoleon called us a nation of shopkeepers, but today we are a nation of gardeners. It strikes me as perverse that one of this nation's most innocuous creative hobbies, which is enjoyed by countless millions on one day more than any other in the week, should be hampered by the exclusion of garden supplies from the list of goods that shops are allowed to sell on Sunday.

In an age in which the law allows people to relax and enjoy themselves in countless other ways on Sunday—by attending any number of sports events, visiting the park or local cinema, or walking around a stately home or castle—it is peculiar in the extreme that the law hampers us from indulging in that most British of pastimes—gardening.

Every time the Sunday trading issue is raised, the House has great fun comparing and contrasting the anomalies that exist in current legislation. Under current law, selling plants, flowers and vegetables is legal, but selling trowels, spades, hoes, and pots is not. Who would have thought that it would be illegal to sell a common or garden watering can on Sunday?

Sunday is the busiest day of the week for garden centres, when as much as 40 per cent. of their weekly turnover is achieved. Around 2,000 centres open each Sunday, and many depend on Sunday sales for their very existence. Only a handful stay closed. People want to garden on Sunday, and to buy the supplies that they need on that day too. As the majority of garden centres open on Sunday anyway, my Bill would not mean more Sunday openings; it would just mean more legal Sunday openings.

I say to those who argue that legalising the Sunday trading of garden supplies would adversely affect the work force by taking away their one day of rest, that most garden centres encounter no difficulty in recruiting weekend staff, even for Sundays. Many people are happy to work that day in exchange for another day off during the week. In that way, they can earn overtime pay on Sunday, as well as have another day off in the week free to run errands or to shop themselves on a day when stores are far less crowded than they are on Saturdays.

No one goes to work in a garden centre in the expectation that it will close on Sunday. That would be like going to work in a national museum on the assumption that it will close on Sunday—the very day that most of the public actually have a chance to visit it.

People do not complain about the Sunday opening of garden centres. In fact, it is generally assumed that they are legally open that day—which is not surprising, given that public demand has led to garden centres opening on Sunday. For many, a Sunday afternoon visit to a garden centre is a family outing. There is no outcry over the lack of law enforcement in closing garden centres on Sunday. In fact, enforcement of the law in that regard is notoriously patchy and unfair. Some local councils turn a blind eye to Sunday trading; some enforce it here and there, and others actively encourage it.

Schedule 5 to the Shops Act 1950 identified goods and services that were then needed on Sundays in the ordinary course of life. I am sure that schedule was not meant to be cast in stone, never to be changed. I imagine that, had garden centres existed in 1950, the wording "fruit, flowers and vegetables" that schedule 5 currently contains would have read, "garden supplies, flowers, fruit and vegetables."

Forty years ago, it was recognised that the list of exemptions would need to change, to keep with the times. The fact that thousands of garden centres, employing thousands of people, open on Sundays is testimony to the need for change. To the best of my knowledge, no organised group opposes trading by garden centres on Sunday.

The Bill makes a modest addition to the list of goods that can be sold in shops on Sunday, and will relieve many people who run garden centres of the fear of prosecution. It will ensure that Britain's gardeners have a chance to buy the supplies that they need, when they want them. The Bill will not alter Sunday's special status. I venture to suggest that it will probably enhance it, and, crucially, will not impinge on the rights of those who work in Britain's garden centres. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will give the Bill their support.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Marion Roe, Mrs. Rosie Barnes, Mr. Roland Boyes, Mr. Patrick Cormack, Dame Peggy Fenner, Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. Allen McKay, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Cecil Parkinson and Mr. Timothy Raison.