HC Deb 27 November 1991 vol 199 cc919-27 3.53 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the reform of the law on Sunday trading in England and Wales.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that the correct time to put points of order is at the end of Question Time. It is directly relevant——

Mr. Speaker

It may be, but will the hon. Gentleman please sit down?

Sir Peter Tapsell

This is a statement on a different subject.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has been here a long time and knows that points of order are taken after statements.

Mrs. Rumbold

As the House knows, I have held an intensive programme of discussions with a wide range of major and conflicting interest groups on possible ways of reforming the law on Sunday trading. Those discussions are continuing, although I must report that at this stage the common ground is limited.

In 1985, Parliament endorsed in principle the conclusion of the Auld committee that total deregulation was the only sensible reform. Although our subsequent measure was approved in another place, it was not passed in this House. Since then, we have made it clear that we will be prepared to consider measures which fall short of total deregulation of the Sunday trading laws, if they would be workable and enforceable, would command popular support and would be accepted by the House. Despite our continued efforts and encouragement, the form of such measures remains widely disputed.

The current uncertainty in relation to Community law to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has referred is also a factor. It would not be sensible to settle policy on the merits of proposals for continuing to restrict trading in types or classes of goods until the compatibility of such measures with Community law has been determined. It is our intention, therefore, to bring forward proposals for reform once the legal position is clear.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

First of all, I thank the Minister. Is she aware that the country will be disappointed in her statement, which says absolutely nothing of significance, except that we shall have to wait for the European Court to rule on shopping hours? When does the Minister expect the European Court to make its ruling on how the Shops Act 1950 interrelates with the European legislation? What does she expect traders who have decided to embark on a campaign of law breaking to do? Does she expect them to continue law breaking after Christmas and indefinitely? What about those companies that are doubtful about what action to take but feel that they should adhere to the law? Does not the right hon. Lady feel that her statement today will drive companies to break the law for commercial reasons? Are not the Government being grossly irresponsible in allowing that?

Is not the right hon. Lady aware that, particularly after her statement, the Government will be seen not to be in control of Sunday trading, and that their policy will be viewed as dictated by certain large businesses? Is she also aware that there is concern in the country that some of those companies—which are determining Government policy when the Government should be doing so—are substantial donors to the Conservative party?

Is the right hon. Lady aware that many people, both in the House and throughout the country, will be exceedingly disappointed that the consultations with various interest groups about changing the 1950 Act, to which she referred, should be taking so long? Why has she been consulting for nearly a year with no results? Why does she not have a joint conference on the matter along the lines proposed by the Labour party? Now that we—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. These are serious matters which are of grave concern to a great many people outside the House.

Mr. Randall

Now that we know that the Attorney-General has decided not to intervene to enforce the law, does it not mean that the Prime Minister's statement at the Tory party conference, in which he said that he wanted the law adhered to, adds up to nothing short of hypocrisy? How does the hon. Lady distinguish between those who break the law because they do not like the poll tax and those who break the law because they do not like the Shops Act?

Her statement is nothing short of a disaster. The Government are not acting to enforce the law. That has serious implications for our democracy and represents a major failure by the Government in the administration of this country.

Mrs. Rumbold

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General made plain to the House the legal position on Sunday trading and the implications of the European Court of Justice ruling on the matter. I was asked whether it would be possible to legislate quickly. The realistic timetable for legislation is not at risk, since clarification of the question is expected in the coming months. I think that that is the response that the hon. Gentleman wanted.

I make it plain that I do not condone the plans of some major retailers to open their shops on Sundays before Christmas. I make it equally plain that I commend those retailers who remain committed to complying with the clear intentions of the law. The hon. Gentleman asked me about my consultations with many interested parties. It has been exceedingly difficult to find any common ground that is acceptable from one extreme to the other.

I would be happy for the hon. Gentleman to come and listen to the many different deliberations, queries and points that have been put to me. It is exceedingly important for the hon. Gentleman to understand, as many of his hon. Friends understand, that the Labour party has no answer to this question. I would be glad to see him come to the Dispatch Box and tell me about Labour's plans.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Mrs. Audrey Wise.

Hon. Members

Wrong side.

Mr. Speaker

Well, I know, but there is so much noise that it is difficult to concentrate.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

Perhaps I may be permitted to say that the position of the Labour party at this time is that the law should be obeyed. Does the Minister realise that it will not have escaped attention that she picked her words very carefully? She said that she does not "condone". Does she unreservedly condemn this law breaking? Is she aware that employers will be using their power as employers to persuade their workers to break the law?

Will the Minister comment on that? If she says that they will use only volunteers, will she accept that it is a very novel defence of law breaking to say that only volunteers will be used? Will——

Mr. Speaker

No. That is a very long question.

Mrs. Rumbold

I have made perfectly plain my views on opening on Sundays by the major retailers. I do not condone it, and I commend those retailers who have said that they will not open on Sundays. The hon. Lady's question—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I say to the Opposition that this is a very important matter. We should conduct ourselves in a responsible manner.

Mrs. Rumbold

The hon. Lady asked about shop workers and voluntary workers. This is essentially a matter of the contractual relationship between employee and employer. I understand that the retailers who have said that they will open on Sundays in the run-up to Christmas have given public assurances that none of their employees will be required to work on those days if they do not want to, and that they will pay additional rates to those who work. That is a matter for them.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a sensible statement. Is it not obvious that no hon. Member can do anything but condemn flagrant breaches of the law? It does not lie in the hands of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to bring actions in this matter: it is at the door of the local authorities to bring actions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the Shops Bill had reached the statute book in 1986, this stupid situation would not have arisen? A number of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members will have to account for that. Does my right hon. Friend further agree that the overwhelming majority of people in this country want us to change the law on Sunday opening, and as soon as possible?

Mr. Speaker:

Order. We cannot have a debate on this matter.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) must sit down. We cannot have a debate. I ask hon. Members to put questions, and single questions. [Interruption.] Mrs. Edwina Currie.

Mrs. Rumbold

If I may answer my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), I agree with the points that he has made, in particular about the attempts that the Government have made to introduce legislation and the responsibility that all hon. Members have for the decisions that they made there. That responsibility, for their view on the Bill, reflects the difficulties of bringing before the House any proposal for legislation that will make any sense, as it is clear that hon. Members accurately reflect the divisions in the outside world.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Which parts of British law——

Hon. Members

Wrong side.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but even I am getting confused. I called two hon. Members from the Opposition side, and I am now balancing that by calling two from the Government side.

Mrs. Currie

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. Which part of the British law are the Government thinking of changing? Is it Scottish law, which permits people to go shopping on Sunday, or English law, which prevents them from going shopping on Sunday? Is it not wrong that some of my constituents have rights on Sundays to observe as they wish and think proper and most of my constituents have no right to do what they want to do, which is to go shopping?

Mrs. Rumbold

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She puts in a clear way the predicament that faces the House. Whereas one part of the United Kingdom is able to operate its will in the way that she outlines, in England it is not possible yet to do so. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General said, we have to wait until the law is clarified.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Is the Minister aware that, in Scotland, many workers are being compelled to work on Sundays, that many are now being compelled to accept new contracts, and that wages have been reduced to a single basic wage? Is she aware that Tesco has written to the Government claiming that it has been forced into breaching the law by the Government's inactivity in bringing to book many of the companies that are operating illegally in Britain? Why will the Government not ensure that all companies keep to the law?

Mrs. Rumbold

The hon. Gentleman knows that the law in Scotland differs from the law in this country——

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Which country?

Mrs. Rumbold

—and the retailers there are operating within the law in Scotland. [Interruption.] I say to the hon. Gentleman that I would be interested to hear of the proposals that the Labour party intends to bring forward on changes in employment laws to prevent people from working on Sunday.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

May I cool matters down? As a simple fellow who does not know much about the law, may I come to the assistance of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and my right hon. Friend the Minister? If they look at the Shops Act 1956, they will see that part II of it never applied to Scotland. Therefore, the law is not different for England and for Scotland. It is a United Kingdom Act and the solution is simple—exclude England, Wales and Northern Ireland from part II. That is very easy, and it does not disenchant us at all in the most Calvinistic part of the country.

Mrs. Rumbold

If only it were as simple as that.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

Has the dithering disease which affects some Ministers spread even to the Attorney-General, who advises the House on this essential issue? Some of us who were active in the Keep Sunday Special campaign in 1986 well recall that the Shops Bill 1986 was defeated by a majority of 14. Since the Government had a majority at that time of 170, it was Conservative Members rather than Opposition Members who defeated that Bill. The Shops Act 1950 applies to any trader in Britain, and that is the law. I am concerned not with whether the ex-Prime Minister's daughter is to be prosecuted for non-payment of the poll tax but with whether some of my constituents, who might forget to pay for a packet of biscuits in a shop that is open illegally, will be prosecuted under the law.

Mrs. Rumbold

The hon. Gentleman is right. When the proposal to deregulate was brought before the House, hon. Members on both sides of the House voted according to their consciences. There is nothing to refute that; the hon. Gentleman is right to make that observation.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that she is presiding over a total and utter fiasco? First, when the Shops Bill was introduced, it was not acceptable to the House, and we still live in a democracy. Secondly, what has been said today shows that we bow our heads to Europe and that we are not a sovereign Parliament. Thirdly, people in the country expect action; they do not wish to see the law being put aside as the big supermarkets are about to do. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that she has the appropriate gentlemen in and tells them precisely what to do over Christmas.

Mrs. Rumbold

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I reiterate that the law, and the availability of the European Court of Justice to the British law, was laid down under article 177 of the 1972 treaty some 20 years ago and has been accepted practice in Britain for a long time. As to whether large retailers would accept a request not to break the law as it stands, I have made it plain at the Dispatch Box this afternoon that I commend those retailers who have taken that decision.

Sir Patrick Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Is the Minister aware that the strength of opposition to the 1986 Bill was also, as she has been reminded and as she herself acknowledged, testimony to the wish in the House to keep Sunday special? Whatever minority view there may be on the matter, there can be no question in the mind of anyone who has a clear recollection of what happened in 1986 but that Parliament still wishes to keep Sunday special.

Therefore, will the Minister bear in mind that the Keep Sunday Special campaign believes that its rest proposals—it is ready to change—are a viable consensus solution and will she reconsider them? Some sections of the retail sector want action on those lines. Above all, will she stop dithering in the face of the anarchic self-interest of the big traders?

Mrs. Rumbold

I wish that the hon. Gentleman could convince the House that, were I to bring that set of proposals to the House, they would be accepted by the majority and would provide a workable and enforceable basis for legislation. That is not my perception of either the people outside the House or their representatives within it.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

My right hon. Friend's statement referred to the future, but does she agree that she has important duties at present? Does she further agree that it would be thoroughly unsatisfactory, indeed unacceptable, for the Government to contemplate complete acquiescence in an open and deliberate intention to breach the provisons of the Shops Act 1950 by Tesco or any other group? Should not the writ of Britain's statute law run at least until it is definitively shown to be overridden by a conclusive Europen Court judgment? If that is not the case, will not all our laws be in suspended animation as and when any application is made to the European Court?

As my right hon. Friend is only semi-detached from the Attorney-General in ministerial terms, will she invite him to co-operate with her in securing injunctions, and, if necessary, indemnities, for local authorities that proceed under the law?

Mrs. Rumbold

As my right hon. Friend will know, it is not for the Government to secure injunctions. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has made it plain to the House that it is still the responsibility of local authorities to obtain injunctions if they wish to establish the law as it currently stands.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Many hon. Members understand that trying to find common ground between the warring parties is about as easy as securing agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Does the Minister accept, however, that any lasting compromise must depend on securing effective protection for shop workers, and ensuring that they are neither victimised nor exploited as a result of Sunday working?

Mrs. Rumbold

That will remain a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that it has been one of the common threads in the discussions in which I have participated: most parties are agreed in that regard. I should undertake to ensure that the matter was thoroughly investigated before any legislation was presented.

Sir Michael Neubert (Romford)

The campaign to promote non-payment of the community charge—backed in principle and practice by Opposition Members—has already damaged both parliamentary democracy and local authority finances. Does my right hon. Friend agree that any attempt at large-scale law breaking would have serious implications for this Parliament and this Government? It is imperative that the law be enforced.

As the action of the three supermarket chains that propose to open on Sundays would, in effect, constitute an unfair trading practice, should it not be referred to the Director General of Fair Trading?

Mrs. Rumbold

I agree that a poor example is being set, not merely by the traders who are threatening to open on Sundays but by the 400 or so who are already keeping their food stores open. The position is not very satisfactory, and I urge those people to think carefully about the implications. Local authorities might well take action against them.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

Does the Minister accept that the Government's responsibility to uphold the law is more important than ever when their own indolence has prevented the House from dealing with the problem of Sunday trading? Why does the Minister not condemn the large companies that have said, openly and blatantly, that they intend to break the law? Will she not reassure the retailers who wish to obey the law, and whose market share is threatened by those who intend to break it, and promise them some protection? Does she not have a responsibility to the law-abiding retailers of this country?

Mrs. Rumbold

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has made the legal position clear to the House. It is not indolence on the Government's part to try to arrange a way of producing legislation that would be acceptable to the House as soon as possible, but we have not been able to do so. Today's debate, and what is being said by hon. Members on both sides of the House, demonstrate absolutely the difficulty of presenting any sensible legislation to reform Sunday trading laws.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Has it occurred to my right hon. Friend that the unedifying parliamentary spectacle that we are now witnessing is but a preview of the House of Commons at work in the 21st century? We are impotent and confused; we are forced to wait until we receive instruction from Brussels. My right hon. Friend should not take lectures about dithering from either Labour or the Liberals. Their "Brussels at any price" policy is entirely designed to allow all these rules to be introduced automatically.

Mrs. Rumbold

Let me confine myself to saying, first, that I will not take lectures from anyone about the possibility or otherwise of getting some kind of scent about the idea of legislation. I agree that the spectacle that we are witnessing today will be replicated if by any chance we introduce legislation that bends towards one or other of the interest groups.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Does the Minister not agree that, whatever the law might be in the future and whatever Parliament might agree in the future, the law today—unless a judgment overturns it—is that, if supermarkets open on Sundays, they are acting illegally? Is it not therefore hypocrisy on the part of the Government neither to condemn them nor to take action? Is that because the Tory party has been bought by B & Q, Argyll and the rest? The party of law and order—the Government, the Home Secretary, the Minister and the Attorney-General—are behaving as though they have been bought by the big supermarkets. There is no other explanation for it.

Mrs. Rumbold

Such an unworthy comment could have been made in this House only by a Liberal. Section 2 of the Shops Act 1950 makes it clear that that is the responsibility of local authorities. They are perfectly capable of issuing injunctions, if they so wish, at this very time.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have to be fair to those hon. Members who wish to participate in the next two debates. I shall take two more questions from each side; then we shall move on.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I agree with my right hon. Friend that nobody should wantonly disobey the law, but the problem is that, since the power-mad brokers of the Commission have got their sticky fingers involved, nobody knows what the law is. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be totally inappropriate for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to agree to concede more powers to that Commission until we have resolved this issue? When we have done so, does she not agree that, if somebody wants to sell their services on a Sunday and somebody else wants to buy them on a Sunday, it would be inappropriate for this House to get in the way and stop them from doing so?

Mrs. Rumbold

I have been extremely careful not to express a view one way or the other about the rights and wrongs of the issue as it affects the various interested parties. That would be totally inappropriate. In 1972, under the treaty of Rome, we gave the European Court of Justice the power to act over British law in this way. That is what we have asked it to do.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Does the Minister realise that we have witnessed this afternoon a sad and humiliating spectacle, with one Minister saying that she does not know whether leading companies will obey the law as it stands, even if the Government ask them to do so, and another Minister saying that it is up to the local authorities to enforce the law? Do the Government realise that they look rather like first world war generals who, facing a mass attack, tell the troops in the front line to stand and die to the last man while they flee the field of battle?

Mrs. Rumbold

What I do realise is that the question that is before the House—the possibility of reforming the shops legislation—is not something that just I think difficult but something that the House clearly finds exceedingly hard to come to terms with. The House of Commons will have to come to terms with the fact that there are a number of—if not 650—different views on what is or is not right for shopping on Sundays. We are doing our very best to come to some compromise about those views. That is difficult, because, as the House has demonstrated throughout every minute of these exchanges, so many views and so many desires are expressed by each hon. Member.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that constituents in Leeds would be absolutely amazed at the general tone of these exchanges? They do not regard it as a great European issue. If they did, they would probably be cheering, in the belief that we should be more passionately committed to Europe, because of their desire, expressed over many years, by voting with their feet, to shop in all the great superstores in Leeds. Despite the fact that the Labour party has consistently pandered to the trade unions for support, the city council in Leeds has had to agree to put an end to its vindictive, selective and punitive policy.

Will my right hon. Friend say clearly to everybody that, as soon as she is able to do so, she will bring forward reforms so that there is at least some compromise that allows some free shopping to take place on Sundays?

Mrs. Rumbold

I, like every other hon. Member, from time to time read the newspapers and look at polls. I am aware that recent polls on this issue have shown that perhaps as many as 70 to 75 per cent. of people out there are in favour of some form of Sunday trading. I shall give my hon. Friend the undertaking that he seeks—that, as soon as I can possibly do so, I shall introduce legislation that is, I hope, workable and enforceable. That legislation will need a great deal of work if hon. Members on both sides of the House are to be able to vote for it.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Is it not passing strange for a Minister to give an explanation to the House in which she refers to different laws in different parts of the nation when the Government have continued to rule a part of the nation in an undemocratic fashion? Will she look forward to presiding over a nation of shopkeepers or a nation of law breakers? I assure the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) that we are accountable, and that one cannot serve God and Mammon.

Mrs. Rumbold

I can assure the hon. Member that I know of his interests as a Northern Ireland Member; it is to that end that I hope to work towards some compromise legislation in order to satisfy all hon. Members.