HC Deb 14 October 1991 vol 196 cc125-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John M. Taylor.]

10.13 pm
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

A year ago, on the first day back after the summer recess, I had the honour to secure an Adjournment debate. I do not know whether it is historic to secure a debate on the same day two years running, but next year I shall try to secure my hat trick.

During the current Session I have introduced two Bills on Sunday trading. The reasons I speak again are fourfold. First, I wish to remind my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that the issue will not just go away. There ha. s been a temporary reprieve while the matter has been referred to the European Court. Prosecutions have ceased because local authorities are frightened to bring injunctions, and there is therefore not the public uproar that there would be if the law were to be widely enforced. There is, however, the risk of mayhem in the weeks approaching Christmas. We will have a law which is unenforceable and which will suffer from widespread flouting, and that can only bring the rule of law itself into disrepute.

My third reason for speaking is that the Robert George case, which was financed by the "Keep Sunday Special" campaign, has actually strengthened the case for reform. It has certainly not undermined it, because Robert George was given by the courts the right not to work on Sunday. If he should be given that right by the courts, it is equally right that those who seek to work on a Sunday should be free to do so. My fourth reason is to give my right hon. Friend the Minister an opportunity to report on her discussions with various vested interests.

The Shops Act 1950 was designed for a quite different society. In the 1950s, we lived with rationing and shortages, whereas today we live in an era of plenty. In 1950, the vast majority of mothers did not go out to work, but today three out of four married women work. I should like to pay tribute to the contribution that they make to our country. Without their contribution, our commerce, social services and hospitals would collapse almost overnight.

In the 1950s, no one had heard of video shops, DIY centres or garden centres. Of course, since 1950 there has been a major change in the way in which people regard Sunday observance. In 1950, there was no such thing as Sunday sport. Today, the British climate is such that Wimbledon finals nearly always occur on a Sunday rather than a Saturday. In 1950, it was impossible to see Compton or Edrich score a century on a Sunday, but today, other than Test matches, the Sunday league games are the best-attended cricket matches that one will see at Lord's or the Oval. In 1950, it was impossible to go to Highbury or White Hart Lane to see a Football Association or Football League game on Sundays. Today such matches are well attended. Of course, in 1950 one could not go to a theatre on a Sunday because that activity was banned as well.

There have been dramatic changes in society's attitude, and indeed in the level of religious observance. Only the other day we saw figures showing the dramatic decline in the number of people who went to church in the 1980s.

That was not due to the fact that a number of shops were open legally or illegally on a Sunday. It reflected more on the leadership of Lord Runcie.

The law is still littered with anomalies. It is possible to get a gin and tonic on a Sunday, but it is impossible to buy tea bags. It is possible to buy a fresh chicken on a Sunday, but it is impossible to buy a fresh egg. That must be the first occasion in the history of this country when the chicken comes before the egg. It is possible to buy a cigarette lighter, but not a fire lighter, which gives a new definition of the words "holy smoke". It is possible to have a fish lunch at Wheeler's, but it is impossible to go to a fish and chip shop to buy that most delectable British dish. It is perfectly possible to go to the cinema, but it is illegal to rent a video. It is possible to attend great sporting occasions at places such as Wimbledon, Highbury, Wembley and Lord's, but it is impossible for a shopkeeper to sell a video of past sporting successes of this country. It is impossible for a shop to sell a tie commemorating when Wales won at rugby instead of losing to Western Samoa.

The law is so riddled with anomalies that it is regularly broken. Even, I am afraid to say, the Church breaks the law. For example, the souvenir shop at Coventry cathedral is open on a Sunday, selling souvenirs and indulging in trade. A Church of England school in my constituency regularly lets out its premises commercially on a Sunday. My constituents ask me why, if it is right for a Church of England school to let out its premises commercially, it is wrong for non-Christians to trade commercially on a Sunday.

The recent court case, as a result of which our law is again being considered in Europe, will result in mayhem over Christmas. In the past at Christmas, local authorities have used injunctions to enforce the law. As they will be reluctant to do that this year, I believe that many stores will open at Christmas for the first time this year.

This issue is basically a question of individual freedom. It relates to the right of individuals to shop or not to shop on a Sunday; to the right of tradesmen to indulge or not to indulge in trade on a Sunday; and to the right of individuals to work or not to work on a Sunday. I accept that the corollary to providing the right to work on a Sunday must be also to provide the right not to work on a Sunday. That is why in the Bill that I introduced earlier this Session I provided the right to conscientious objection to Sunday working. That right was confirmed in the Robert George case.

If any Opposition Member had been present for this debate, I should have liked to ask whether the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), who has said that he is not a root-and-branch opponent of Sunday trading, would find the right of conscientious objection sufficient to remove the objections that he and several other Labour Members have expressed about Sunday trading. All of those who have a view on this issue will find it strange that no Opposition Members are present to hear my right hon. Friend's reply. I do not believe that providing a right of conscientious objection to working on a Sunday would kill Sunday trading. As I understand it from Do It All, Sunday working is so popular that the right to work on a Sunday has to be rostered. There is a queue of people who want to work on a Sunday, but they are prevented from doing so.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will refer to the European draft directive on hours of work. I believe that the restrictions in the draft directive are wrong. The reason behind it is simple. The German Government do not like the impact of the restrictions which they themselves have imposed and which discourage firms from locating in the Federal Republic. Those firms are more willing to locate in the United Kingdom. But why should restrictions be imposed elsewhere in the Community to please the protectionists in the Federal Republic of Germany? Did Britain join the European Community to have such restrictions placed on British enterprise? Would it not be an abuse of the majority voting procedures of the Single European Act for this issue to be determined by majority voting? The Single European Act was designed to facilitate trade, not to place a brake on enterprise. The draft directive can only destroy jobs in this country and throughout the Community. I hope that the Government will continue to wage war on that proposal.

Every public opinion poll on this matter has shown a vast majority in favour of changing the law on Sunday trading. In every poll since 1988, more than 60 per cent. of those questioned have favoured changing the law. In the poll of polls— phrase to which we shall become accustomed in the next few months—64 per cent. of people favoured change, while 32 per cent. supported the status quo. That means that a ratio of 2:1 is in favour of change.

My right hon. Friend is holding consultations with a number of organisations. I remind her that some are not representative of public opinion, but only of their own prejudices. I would welcome a statement this evening about the progress of those consultations, and especially about the time scale for completing them. It is high time that a target date for their conclusion was set.

There are, of course those who scaremonger. They suggest that if the law were changed, suddenly all shops would open on a Sunday. But Scottish experience is a good guide to what would happen. The Shops Act 1950 does not apply to Scotland. What has happened? The vast majority of shops do not open on a Sunday. Most shops never open on a Sunday. Some, such as toy shops, open on a Sunday in the week before Christmas. Others, such as convenience stores, DIY centres, video shops and supermarkets, open every Sunday, but only because there is a demand. If there was not a demand, they would not open. They respond to that demand.

However, church attendance in Scotland is higher than in England. So one cannot look to the Shops Act to provide protection for the Church. I believe that the churches have nothing to fear from Sunday trading. One of the most interesting sights that I saw during the recess was in Poland where the churches were full on a Sunday. There was standing room only. Where were the local markets? They were outside the churches because people knew that that was the best place to be when the service ended. So there is no reason why we cannot have full churches and people shopping on a Sunday.

There are those who look to the law to keep Sunday special, but there is much greater virtue in not yielding to temptation than in going to church simply because there is nothing better to do. Indeed, one of the ironies in my constituency is that the synagogues are full on Saturday despite the fact that there are a lot of shops to which the congregation could go. Yet I am afraid that to describe the church which I attended yesterday as half full would be slightly euphemistic.

There are those who say that we cannot change the law because of the impact that it would have on the family. But is it not part of family life to watch a video at home rather than go to a cinema? The advocates of no change say that it is better for the family to go out to a smoky cinema than to stay in the comfort of their own home. Is it not part of family life to buy plants for the garden and paint and paper to decorate the home? Is it not part of family life in the run-up to Christmas to go to the local toy shop to buy presents for the children? These latter-day Calvinists deny such pleasures to young children and deny the families of this country things which are properly part of family life. They forget that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

A law that is frequently broken, rarely enforced, riddled with anomalies and out of touch with public opinion does only one thing: it brings the rule of law into disrepute. It needs to be changed. Over a century ago Lord Randolph Churchill advised the Conservative party to trust the people. If we repeal the Shops Act and trust the people we will be very wise indeed.

10.27 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I begin by offering my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) my congratulations. When I realised that I was to have the pleasure of responding to the debate this evening, I did not realise that he was making a practice of returning from the long recess in the summer to obtain the first of the Adjournment debates. I believe that this is the second time of asking. I trust that the banns will be called properly next year when he gets the third time of asking.

My hon. Friend spoke with some eloquence on the position under the Shops Act 1950 and on Sunday trading in general. It would be foolish of me not to agree that at present there is no doubt that the position on Sunday trading is, to say the least of it, in some disarray. It is a matter of no disagreement that the present law is confusing, anomalous and inconsistent. As my hon. Friend said, it was drawn up 30 or 40 years ago, so it is not surprising that things have changed considerably, as he so eloquently described.

However, at one point in his dissertation my hon. Friend asked about the enforcement of the law. It is an important point which should be made clear at this stage. My hon. Friend foreshadowed what I suspect is quite likely to happen. Several shops will be tempted to open in the run-up to the Christmas period. The position has been set out clearly on several occasions by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. He takes the view that Parliament has given local authorities the primary responsibility for enforcing the provisions on Sunday trading in the Shops Act 1950 and that they still have adequate powers to enforce the Act, whether by way of prosecution or civil action in which an injunction is sought.

The decisions of the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords earlier this year have given rise to considerable controversy and, as my hon. Friend knows, it has been suggested that the Act can no longer be enforced as a result of those decisions. My right hon. and learned Friend disagrees. He believes that, when the cases are properly analysed, it can be seen that the decisions of the courts do not affect either the responsibility of local authorities for enforcing the Act or their powers. Therefore, the law remains clear. However, that does not necessarily mean that local authorities will act in accordance with the law in all cases.

My hon. Friend will know that some time ago the Auld committee undertook a thorough review of the issues before presenting its report in 1984. When it considered all the options it came to the same conclusion as my hon. Friend: that there was no satisfactory solution short of total deregulation of shop opening hours. My hon. Friend will be aware that in 1986, in accordance with the findings of the Auld committee, the Government introduced proposals to deregulate Sunday trading. That did not meet with the agreement of the House and since then the House has taken the view that it would not be wise to introduce further proposals unless there was certainty that they were workable and enforceable and were supported by the vast majority of Members of this House.

As my hon. Friend said, it is interesting that from most recent polls, studies and media-gathered information a considerable majority appears to be in favour of deregulation. I ponder on that from time to time. However, only recently I was shown a poll of Members of this House which came out more closely to 50:50, with 50 per cent. in favour of total deregulation and the other 50 per cent. not in favour of that at all but more closely aligned to those who would like the law more strictly enforced than it is today.

I know of the case of Mr. George which my hon. Friend mentioned. Contrary to press reports, Sunday working was not the central issue in his case. The crux of the matter was the overall length and organisation of working hours during a peak season and the impact on the employee with regard to his particular family circumstances. The tribunal accepted that it was undesirable for employees to be prevented from taking time off with their family, although other issues were involved. In this case, Sunday was the only day when that was possible and, obviously. that would not necessarily apply in all cases. There may be differences.

It is important also to dwell for a moment on the central issue of how employees may or may not view opportunities for employment on Sunday. I agree with my hon. Friend that many people work on Sunday—those who man essential services, those who work consistently, thank goodness, in our hospitals, our fire services, our police forces and our prison services. That is just the beginning of the list. There are others who work, not necessarily in essential services, and who, over the years, have grown to be part of the web of British life on a Sunday. They provide help to those who are unable always to go shopping on weekdays and Saturdays. They are small corner shops. We all acknowledge that they provide an important service, especially for the elderly and those less able to get to the larger stores during the week. However, that does not suggest that I condone anything that is contrary to current law. I simply point out that the position has changed over the years, and my hon. Friend was right to point that out.

I have held discussions with a large number of different groups on the matter of Sunday trading. One of the common threads throughout those discussions has been the necessity to consider the protection of employees. They would have to be protected from being obliged by their employers to work on Sundays against their wishes, and from incurring any penalty for not doing so. There is also great concern that there should be proper reward for working on a Sunday.

The Government generally take the view that matters of pay and hours of work are better left to negotiation between employers and employees or their representatives, and that they should certainly not be prescribed in legislation or in codes of practice provided for in statute. Employees aggrieved by the actions of their employers may, of course, seek redress through the courts or at an industrial tribunal.

The Government have recognised the importance of personal conscience, and included a measure of protection for existing shop workers against being made to work on Sundays in the defeated Shops Bill. The points that my hon. Friend made in his speech were also highlighted by the groups, and I readily acknowledge the strength of feeling about this aspect of the issue.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the European Commission's draft directive on working time, which is currently going through a process of consultation and negotiation in the European Community. The latest text of the draft directive contains a provison that the weekly rest period that it seeks to establish should in principle include Sunday, subject to a derogation power. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that those questions are a matter not for me but for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. However, it is my understanding—and I have been kept in close contact with all that has been happening on this issue—that the United Kingdom has resisted the inclusion in the directive of any reference to Sunday as the preferred rest day, even in principle. We have argued, and we continue to believe, that there is no justification on health and safety grounds—the basis on which the directive was conceived—for choosing one rest day rather than another.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of Sunday trading. I know that he is anxious that I give him some idea of when my consultations will reach a conclusion. I am about two thirds of the way through them. A remarkable number of people have asked for an opportunity to express a view, and in due courtesy to them I must continue with my consultations. I hope that by the end of the autumn I will have seen as many as possible of those who wish to discuss their points with me. I shall try to resist a number who wish to come a second time. Following that, I shall draw some ends and threads together in an attempt to reach a conclusion. A few points have had a common connection in the various representations, but there are still a number of issues about which there are considerable differences. I hope that as time passes we can narrow the gap. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.