HC Deb 16 March 2001 vol 364 cc1294-334

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is important to realise that the changes that have occurred within our lifetime have not always automatically improved the quality of our day-to-day existence. It is thought that assumptions such as the one that we have become a nation of people who want to shop until we drop are more important than considerations of either the quality of life that we create for ourselves and our families or the general standards that we set. Although my Bill is simple, it reflects the fact that, through the law of unintended consequences, we have unthinkingly changed something that was quite precious and the end result is to the advantage of no one.

The Bill is necessary to correct an anomaly in the Sunday Trading Act 1994. That Act does not allow trading on Christmas day when it falls on a Sunday, but does allow trading when Christmas day falls on any other day of the week. Until the 1994 Act was passed, it had not been thought necessary to impose a restriction on Christmas day trading, because it was not considered likely that anyone would want to do it. Even in 1994, no one thought Christmas day trading would become commonplace. However, considerable changes have occurred in the past few years.

First, to an increasing extent, small convenience stores began to open on Christmas day. Those were, in the main, corner shops staffed by their owners which offered a range of small facilities to a local neighbourhood. Then, a chain of stores began to open on Christmas day—Spar shops, selling mostly groceries, which believed that a number of their customers would benefit from the service. Unfortunately, that sort of example began to be followed by the larger chains. In 1999, for the first time, J. Sainsbury and Co-op shops opened on Christmas day, although in the case of Co-op, the shops that opened were the smaller ones, which were regarded as local stores. Last Christmas, more large chains opened on Christmas day: to J. Sainsbury and Co-op shops were added some Woolworths and Budgens stores. Various members of the shopworkers union USDAW—the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—felt that they were being forced to work on Christmas day.

Woolworths opening its stores should be examined quite carefully. It is not a food retailer, and certainly not a retailer of essential foods, so the argument that it was opening simply to provide the odd packet of turkey stuffing to those who had forgotten it did not really wash. I know that some Members of Parliament object to the Bill because they will not be able to rush out on Christmas day and buy batteries for the various toys that they have bought for their children, but in my view anyone who is sufficiently incompetent as to spend a large sum on a toy without realising that it needs batteries to work probably should not be a father and certainly should not be a Member of Parliament—although that might be a cruel and unnecessary judgment on my part.

Once some of the chains begin to open, it becomes more difficult for all the chains not to open. We sometimes fail to realise that many large grocery stores compete for as little as 3 per cent. of the market. These days, so many superstores and hyperstores provide all the services that people need that their profit margins can be quite slender, so they argue not about the bulk of the goods that they sell, but about the tiny percentage that makes them different from the opposition. If that is to be the basis on which we decide when our entire trading system should operate, we have lost our sense of what is important.

I do not think that large numbers of shopworkers will rush to their local churches on Christmas day, although I think that they would probably enjoy the experience and benefit from it. However, they should have the right to make that decision for themselves.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The hon. Lady mentioned trade unions in passing a short time ago, and she has now mentioned churches. Will she tell us a little more about the provenance of the Bill? Does it have a trade union input or fingerprint, or is it much more about church attendance, or something else? It would be helpful if we knew that.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I shall give the right hon. Gentleman a simple example. Of course the Bill has trade union fingerprints on it because I am a trade unionist, and have been since I was 16. However, I am not a member of the trade union to which he thinks he is referring.

We must understand that trade unions represent people, and not only men but women. Many women are still among some of the lowest paid groups in the country. I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that many of us still think that it is important that Christmas day should be observed as a Christian festival, and that people should have the right to go to churches, chapels or whatever form of religious observance they think important to celebrate one of the holiest and most important days of the Christian year.

If the right hon. Gentleman regards the Bill as a deep plot on behalf of the trade union movement that is designed to influence the way in which large grocery chains operate, he is wide of the mark. Of course, those who represent shopworkers are concerned to ensure that they should not be forced to do things that they do not particularly want to do. Everyone who agrees to longer opening hours for shops must understand that that impinges upon the working conditions of those concerned. They want to know what Parliament has decided and the reasons that it has given for its decisions.

I have been a shopper for as long as I can remember, and I am a bad shopper. I am busy and I have no brand loyalty. I rush into whatever shop—

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)


Mrs. Dunwoody

My hon. Friend tempts me, because I have strong brand loyalties to certain porcelain and pottery works in her constituency, but their products are not my average buy of the weekend.

It is important to realise that, over my lifetime, the trading pattern has changed. There was a time when we were forced to get into a shop before 5 or 5.30 pm. It is now possible to leave this building at an ungodly hour and find a shop somewhere in an urban area where we can buy whatever we like. However, that does not improve the profits of the chain concerned or the facilities that are available. I spend exactly the same amount. I may spend it at a different time of the day or night, but I do not spend more because shops are open for longer.

Mr. Forth

Setting aside that the hon. Lady has admitted, with her usual charm and modesty, to a degree of shopping incompetence, for which she was criticising others, does she think that the judgment as to whether it is profitable for a shop to stay open is a matter for the shopkeeper or shop owner, and not for us?

Mrs. Dunwoody

If the shopkeeper intends to open on his own, he has my blessing; I have no problem with that. Why does the right hon. Gentleman think that the Bill excludes shops with a floor space of less than 3,000 sq ft? If the shopkeeper wishes to open to greet joyously all his neighbours as they come in to spend their money on Christmas day, I see nothing wrong with that. I think that it is rather nice. One of my daughter's neighbours once said to her, "Support your Paki shop." When she pointed out that he was a Sikh, he said, "Support your Sikh-Paki shop." I have nothing against smaller shops opening if they so desire.

The reality is that large chain stores dictate the conditions under which their workers operate. One large chain announced on Christmas eve that it wanted to open on Christmas day, and asked for volunteers. Many of these volunteers often feel that they are more pressed men and women than they are volunteers. It is no use saying that it is a matter for them.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

I assure my hon. Friend of my support for the Bill. Is it not the reality that if Members had realised, when the Sunday Trading Bill was passing through the House in 1994, that they were creating an anomaly, they would almost certainly have filled the gap and we would not be discussing these matters now?

Mrs. Dunwoody

That is right. I do not believe that the House intended that there should be protection for shopworkers when Christmas day fell on a Sunday, but not when it fell on any other day of the week. There is no logic in that. I believe that the House would not want shopworkers to work on Christmas day, and that is the essential point that lies behind the Bill.

As someone who has always been involved with families who provided emergency cover over the Christmas period, I know that it takes a toll on family life. It is no use pretending that it does not. In many general practices, the trick is always to offer to work on Christmas day because people try not to disturb doctors on that day—but they cheerfully telephone their GP on Boxing day.

It would be wrong if shopworkers felt they were under pressure, whether or not they wanted to be with their families, to turn in for work on Christmas day. However, that is happening more and more. To a large extent, Spar shops open on Christmas day. The midlands Co-op opened 14 stores in 1999, and 4,000 customers passed through the doors. It opened 15 stores last year. The Co-operative Wholesale Society opened 36 of its stores, Sainsbury opened three of its smaller stores, and Woolworths opened three of its stores for the first time in what it called areas of high ethnicity. I suspect that it then considered opening more stores the following year. The list includes Budgens, Tescos, McColl—that is the newsagents—and some Tate's stores. Their branches opened, and more and more firms are joining the list every year.

I do not believe that major retailers are fighting to have Christmas day as one of their trading days. Most of them would prefer to remain closed, but nice competition is introduced, all the retailers feel that they must play the same game. If their competitors are opening in their areas, automatically they will do the same.

What provisions in the Bill might concern some people? The House will be aware that 280 sq m is slightly larger than the area of a tennis court, and equivalent to 3,000 sq ft. That means that anyone who is running a small corner shop will not be caught by the Bill. Why do I think it is necessary to make the differentiation? I think that volunteers for Christmas day working feel that they cannot resist attempts to encourage them to work. Therefore, they frequently lose the advantages of being with their families on Christmas day.

The House frequently gets its ideas in a muddle. There are some who suggest that the Bill should not go forward because there are non-Christian areas in the United Kingdom. It does not matter how many groups of people live in particular areas, we are still a Christian country. We must think seriously about Christmas being the one Christian festival of the year that the majority of the British people want to support.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I am keen that the Bill should receive its Second Reading and be considered in Committee, although I think that that consideration will be brief.

I take up the point about the United Kingdom being a Christian country and workers being allowed to have Christmas day as a day off, whatever the composition of any community might be. In the 1960s, I worked for two years in Tanzania, which had a substantial Christian population and a substantial Muslim population. We took off both the Christian and the Muslim holidays, not that there were many during the year. It was as a matter of having respect for the religion of many people in the country in which I happened to work. We need to follow that practice here.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I know that people in some parts of the Commonwealth cheerfully support all the holidays connected with different religions. In areas such as Singapore, one can happily go from a Christian holiday to Muslim and other holidays throughout the trading year. That does not seem to cause undue pressure among the various groups.

Christmas day is important, particularly for mothers. It is no use saying that they can combine work commitments with providing the same facilities for their families and children that they usually provide. Of course they can; they can delay Christmas lunch until 4 pm if necessary, rush in at the last minute and join in. Frankly, that is not a civilised way of proceeding.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) feels that it is wrong to consider the needs of low-paid women working in a large industry. That is not my attitude. It is an anomaly which I believe the House of Commons did not intend in the first place. We should put it right because that is in the interests of those in the retail industry and also of the United Kingdom. If we consistently allow small but important cultural differences to be shaved away, we change the way that society lives, which would be a great loss.

I hope that the House will allow the Bill to proceed. It is a little restitution of justice, which we ought to support. It is not a deep, dangerous or worrying piece of legislation. I believe that it will be in the interests of the many, not the few.

9.52 am
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on introducing a Bill which, as she said, sets out to correct an anomaly in the Sunday Trading Act 1994. Before we came into the Chamber, I told her that I was delighted to support her cause, and I repeat that now. Many of us opposed the 1994 Act and we are likely to reiterate some of our arguments this morning, which remain the same.

If I take issue with any of the hon. Lady's opening remarks, it is with her statement that we are in danger of losing something quite precious. My only quarrel with her is that is not quite precious—it is very precious indeed. Some people may feel that the Bill does not go far enough. It does not bother me in the slightest that the Bill is marked by the fingerprints of USDAW or anybody else. For me, it is a matter of deeply held principle, for which I was prepared to vote in the 1990s and for which I shall go on voting for as long as I have the opportunity to do so. I was proud to be a Conservative Member whose name was on a list in the handbag of the then Prime Minister. If that lists still exists, I hope that it is framed and given a place of honour somewhere in the House.

Members on both sides of the House who opposed the 1994 Act did so not simply because we were trade unionists and observers of the Lord's day, but because we believed that one day of the week should be set apart from the rest. It was argued then that the change would not make any difference—nobody would be forced to work, those who wanted to work could do so, and those who did not want to, would not have to. Shops that wanted to open could do so, and shops that did not want to open would not have to. Nobody would make anybody go shopping, but on a Sunday; people should have the right to buy batteries for toys, armchairs, carpets and all the other things that it is quite impossible to buy on the other six days of the week.

All that is quite apart from the fact that, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich rightly said, every household budget is finite and there is only a certain amount of money to spend. If one cannot spend it between Monday and Saturday, I do not see why it should suddenly be possible to spend it—or an even greater sum—on Sunday. All those arguments were trundled out in the 1990s, and I suspect that some Members will tell us this morning that those dire predictions did not come true. However, we said that there would not be a big bang or a sudden collapse of society. I still believe that such things do not happen overnight; they are corrosive. Twenty or 30 years down the line, we will suddenly realise that we have lost something very precious. However, we cannot get it back because it is gone.

Lord knows, the House has spent far too much time trying to mend things that are not broken under the guise of modernisation, although many of us do not believe it is modernisation at all. Much of what has been done is in a peculiar way—in some cases it has been very peculiar—very retrograde indeed. Some of us still feel strongly that if this place is about anything, it should be about democracy. We resent our traditions, customs and practices going out of the window. We do not regard that as modernisation; we regard it as vandalism. I apply the same train of thought to the way in which we live our lives in this country.

The hon. Lady said that Britain is fundamentally a Christian country, and long may it remain so. Christmas day is the most precious day of the year for those of us who are proud to be Christians. Many other days are also precious, such as Easter day. Easter Sunday is especially important. However, there is an anomaly. Christmas day can fall on any day of the week, whereas Easter Sunday falls on a Sunday.

Trade unionism has been mentioned, so I had better put my pedigree on the record. I am proud to be a paid-up member of three trade unions. I am a member of British Equity, the National Union of Journalists and the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union, which I still regard as the Association of Cinematograph and Television Technicians. Some members of those trade unions have to work on Christmas day because the nature of their trade and craft means that their services are required. Of course, those arguments were deployed in the 1990s, and I accept that many people, such as doctors, nurses, the police, train drivers, bus drivers and those who keep gas, telephones and so on working, have to work on Christmas day. However, I do not accept the gratuitous spread of something that is unnecessary and which is not, has not and does not need to be part of our lives.

I had better conclude because there is little more for me to say. I very much hope that the House gives the hon. Lady's Bill a Second Reading this morning. We all know that this Parliament is running of time. I cannot tell any more than the hon. Lady whether an ungrateful electorate will allow her to sit on the Opposition Benches after the General election; neither do I know whether I shall be in the House. If, having given the Bill a Second Reading, the House cannot find time for its remaining stages in this Parliament, I hope that those of us who are still here will be able to pursue it in the next Parliament and make sure that that anomaly is corrected and an important part of our lives protected.

I close by echoing a remark by the hon. Lady. She said that we have lost the sense of something that is very important. She is right. We have an opportunity this morning to regain a fraction of that sense. I hope that we take it.

9.58 am
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on her success in the ballot and on the subject she has chosen. Those of us who know her well and admire her would also congratulate her on her presentation of an extremely important issue. I also warmly congratulate the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) on his clear commitment. Those of us who know and work with him on many issues have a high regard for the principles that he holds and freely expresses in the House.

I am in no doubt that the principle underlying the Bill would be supported by the vast majority of people They would warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich on the presentation of her Bill, as I do. Like her, I recall the discussions that we had on Sunday trading. I certainly did not support the changes. Whatever our religious beliefs, many of us consider, as I do, that Sunday is a special day and a day of worship.

There are certain days of the year that are special to the people of this country, and especially to families. Christmas day is undoubtedly one of the most special. Through her Bill, my hon. Friend seeks to ensure that on whatever day of the week Christmas day may fall, working people will have the legal right not to work. I, like her, belong to a trade union. Whether we are trade unionists or not, as Members of Parliament we have a right to seek to introduce legislation to protect working people on special occasions, such as Christmas day.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, we live in a world that has changed greatly. I remember when Good Friday was a very special day. To many people it still is, but to others it has ceased to be special. Shops and businesses now open on Good Friday—once, we might have thought that that would never happen, but it now does. That would be the case, as my hon. Friend said, on Christmas day if the decision was left to companies, many of which now trade on Sundays. As I said, I am still opposed to shops being open on Sundays.

The Bill would protect shopworkers who may have no wish to work on Christmas day. How many hon. Members would wish to work on Christmas day? Why should we not ensure that others in our communities are not put under pressure to work on Christmas day? We have a duty to ensure that workers are protected, which the Bill would do. I find it hard to believe that many companies would exert pressure on their work force to work on Christmas day, but there are such companies.

My hon. Friend outlined the number of companies that have started to open on Christmas day. Major supermarkets open 24 hours a day, six days a week. No doubt some of them would like to trade seven days a week, and if they were allowed, to I am sure that some of them would open on Christmas day. That would put an intolerable pressure on workers and their families. If a worker said, "I am sorry, I am not willing to work and I will not volunteer," that could present problems as he or she continued to work in that job or profession.

On Christmas day, there are two special aspects that people like to celebrate. There are the religious aspects, but equally important is being able to spend time with our families, our children, our loved ones and our friends. If people were forced to work on Christmas day, that would put increasing pressure on them.

As I said, shops now open 24 hours a day. Many of us in the Chamber would have doubted that that would come about, but we see the trend growing month by month. With shops open so many hours a day, do customers really expect them to be open on Christmas day, so that they can slip out and get something that they had forgotten? I find it hard to believe that that is what the general public want.

My hon. Friend and I, as well as many other hon. Members, have been in the House a long time. I was a Government Whip during the premiership of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. I have seen some excellent private Members' Bills introduced in the House, irrespective of the party to which the hon. Member introducing the Bill belonged. I have seen such Bills killed off by the Government of the day. I have seen them killed off by other hon. Members who objected to those Bills. I hope that that will not happen to my hon. Friend's Bill.

What is the Government's attitude to the Bill? I have no idea, and my hon. Friend made no mention of it. I shall be disappointed if we do not hear from the Minister full endorsement of and support for the Bill.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He knows as well as I do that on a Friday such as this, fortunately for all of us, it does not matter a toss what the Government think about a Bill. What matters is whether there is a sufficient number of Members of Parliament who care sufficiently about the issue to be in the House of Commons on the day to support the Bill. Is the hon. Gentleman reassured by that?

Mr. Cox

I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman says, and he is right. I spoke in a debate about three weeks ago on the Road Transport Bill introduced by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I supported the Bill but, sadly, it was not carried because there were insufficient Members present when a vote was called.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, but it is also true that if a Bill, regardless of the party of the hon. Member introducing it, has clear Government support, that will greatly help the Bill if it reaches Committee. Moreover, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the number of hon. Members who may be in the House at any one time is not determined by the number of hon. Members in the Chamber. Members may be in their offices. If a vote is called today. I shall certainly be in the Chamber to support my hon. Friend's Bill.

Our Prime Minister has a clear commitment to family life, for which I applaud him. That suggests that the Government should support what my hon. Friend is trying to achieve through her Bill. I am proud to belong to the Labour party, because we now have a Government who are committed to working to introduce legislation for the benefit of the family. We saw that recently in the excellent Budget presented by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, which will be of enormous benefit to families throughout the country.

My hon. Friend's Bill will provide similar benefit. I support it and I am sure that it will have widespread support in the House. If Second Reading is agreed to and it passes on to Committee, we will once again see Parliament at its best, as it will be introducing legislation for the benefit of all people who have to go to work. They will now have the right to spend Christmas day, a special day that occurs once a year, with their families and loved ones. I hope that the Bill is successful and that all hon. Members support it.

10.10 am
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I, too, support the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

I remember volunteering to work over Christmas when I was a student radiographer at Cardiff royal infirmary. People who volunteered for such work were usually on call from noon on Saturday until 9 o'clock on Monday morning, including all Sunday and Sunday night. They would have already worked every night from 5 pm until 9 am, from Monday to Friday. Only two students covered all the accident and emergency work for the hospital and the city during those hours—and people think that they work long hours in hospitals these days! We certainly did so then, but we recognised that the work had to be covered.

The superintendent radiographer kindly agreed to stand in for me for a few hours on Christmas day while I went home to see my family. I remember to this day my feeling of absolute despair when I arrived at Cardiff station to realise that the only train of the day had gone, that I had missed it and that on Christmas day I was stuck in Cardiff with not a soul around. My large family had already gone to church and had started to celebrate Christmas without me. There was a happy ending, however, as my father drove down to Cardiff, picked me up and took me home, but I can still remember my feeling of emptiness and isolation as I stood outside Cardiff station thinking that I would have to spend Christmas without being with my family for any part of the day.

I recognise that some people have to work on Christmas day, but they should not do so if their work is not necessary or if they have been forced into volunteering for work. In these days of fridges and freezers, it cannot be beyond the wit even of the most disorganised people, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, to manage for one day without having to shop.

I remember when the Sunday Trading Bill came before Parliament. It was decided by a free vote. The organisers of the proposal to free Sunday trading refused to concede anything, as is usual with people who are obsessed with their aims. Those of us who were opposed to wholesale deregulation therefore tabled a series of amendments and forced all of them to Divisions. As so often happens with free votes, hon. Members went into the Lobby without reading every amendment.

Mr. Forth


Mrs. Golding

Those Members merely voted against those tabling the amendments, as the right hon. Gentleman will recognise. That is how we ended up with Christmas day trading. Hon. Members who would never have dreamed of making people work on Christmas day voted for a measure that allowed that to happen, having seen opponents of Sunday trading standing in the Lobby.

As we were so fed up with the lack of discussion on any form of compromise, we tabled an amendment to restrict garden centre trading on bank holidays. We did not want the amendment to be agreed, but hon. Members blindly entered the wrong Lobby when they saw us opposing our own amendment and so the proposal was included in the Bill. When hon. Members cannot buy things in garden centres on certain days of the year, they will know why.

I support my hon. Friend's Bill, as I think that it is important for people to spend time with their families on this very special day of the year. They should be able to go to church if they wish to do so. They should especially be with the children, as it is their special day. When mothers or fathers are forced to work, it is the children who feel it most desperately. We need to be present to see the joy on children's faces and to be kind to all family members, whether we like them or not. Christmas day is a very special day for us all, so I hope that my hon. Friend's Bill is agreed to.

10.15 am
Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

I, too, would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on introducing her private Member's Bill, which deserves the support of the whole House. I am conscious of time, so I wish to make only a short contribution.

Mr. Forth

Why? We have all day.

Ms Coffey

My speech will be briefer than some of those made by the right hon. Gentleman.

I am a member of USDAW. I should like to congratulate the union on its efforts on behalf of its members to keep Christmas day special. I believe that its campaign has wide public support, as most people want to ensure safeguards for family life. Every hon. Member knows the difficulty of balancing work and home, and our families sometimes have to be very understanding. I think, however, that I would have reached the limits of tolerance if I went home and announced that, unfortunately, I was cancelling Christmas because I was working. If the House does not introduce regulation now, shopworkers may face those exact circumstances in future. Other employees would also be affected if economic life took over every aspect and every day of our lives. I do not think that people want that to happen, so I believe that we must draw the line now.

The larger stores' Christmas day opening pilots and experiments of last year, which they are reporting as a success, are worrying, because retail is a highly competitive market in which huge efforts are made to retain customer loyalty. Once one large retailing chain opens, competitors will also feel pressure to open. People might ask why that is bad. Retailers will argue that it is a matter of individual choice and that nobody is forced to open on Christmas day. They will also point out that some people may be happy to work on Christmas day and that some people already do. That is bad; I agree with the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) that it represents a slow eating away of the concept of national holidays as days of special celebration when there is a national break from economic activity.

Ensuring shopworkers' rights is the basis of keeping a special national day that the rest of us enjoy, but the issue goes beyond that protection. There is a larger question: where it is right to draw a line under the economic life of the nation. We signify that line by having public holidays on special days when the nation takes a break.

The debate in 1994 on Sunday trading focused on that exact question. It concentrated on how to preserve Sunday as a day of rest and a traditionally special day. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 reflected hon. Members' view that a balance would he achieved by restricting Sunday trading so as to recognise Sunday's specialness in terms of family activities. We also decided to preserve Easter day and Christmas day by not allowing trading on Sundays in respect of those days.

I have revisited the debate on the Sunday Trading Bill. It was clear where the House wished to draw the line. I do not think that it occurred to any of us that we needed to protect Christmas day when it did not fall on a Sunday. It certainly did not occur to me. I voted for Sunday trading and for keeping Christmas day and Easter day special. We did not anticipate that the larger shops would open on Christmas day. Indeed, the House never intended to deregulate Christmas day. We assumed that the tradition would be kept and that it would be a special day that people could celebrate. Perhaps that reflected a naivety among some of us and an assumption that was clearly not shared by retailers who opened their shops on Christmas day last year.

I share USDAW's concern about the consequences that will arise if Christmas day opening becomes more prevalent, and about the pressure that may be exerted on its members to work on a day that they want to spend with their families. It should be a concern for all of us who want to preserve special days as national holidays. I believe that we should draw a very firm line. If the big retailers cannot be trusted to keep special days special, we should regulate Clearly, voluntary regulation is not working. I believe that the majority of people want to keep Christmas day special. The big stores' actions are important because what the shopworkers do today, the rest of us do tomorrow.

10.19 am
Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on promoting the Bill, but for reasons different from those expressed by other hon. Members. I do not believe that the measure is as brilliant as others suggest, and I support it not on principle but because of what happens in practice.

Others claim that the measure is a good idea for several reasons; I do not agree with most of them. I agree with only one reason that has been advanced. I am sure that my hon. Friend will not mind my describing her as a traditionalist in the Labour party and more generally. She would probably wear that badge with pride. However, there is a danger of viewing tradition through rose-coloured glasses.

Hon. Members have given three main reasons for supporting the Bill family, religion and protection of employees. I find the family reason difficult to accept. I often had to work on Christmas day, Sundays and bank holidays. I did not mind too much because there were only eight hours in my working day, and I could always squeeze some time into the children's holiday. It was disruptive but possible. I also had the benefit of enhanced rates for working on those days. There was no shortage of people in the railway industry who were willing to work on Sundays or bank holidays if they knew that they would get double time and a day off in lieu.

Many of the predictions that we made about Sunday trading have not been realised. Rates have certainly not been enhanced to encourage people to work on Sundays and bank holidays. People work Sundays for normal rates. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 introduced provisions to protect workers, but the brutal truth is that they are not working.

I do not want to shop on Christmas day, but I do not want to stop others doing it. What is a family Christmas? My family Christmas is different from someone else's. Many families enjoy going shopping on Christmas day. I think it is mad to spend the day in do-it-yourself stores or wandering around shopping centres but people should have the right to do that if they wish. The family argument is therefore a little bogus.

I am not a practising Christian; I do not go to church regularly. However, I do not want to prevent people from going to church on Sunday or on Christmas day. If the regulations were enforced to ensure that people had a choice, I would not worry about the matter. However, I am worried about giving preferential treatment to the established Church. We take pride in being a multicultural, multi-faith society. Why should Christmas or Easter be singled out instead of Eid or Diwali? The Government should make some bank holidays statutory holidays. People should have a right to those holidays; currently, they do not. Perhaps another measure would effect that.

I support the Bill because of its provisions to protect workers. I have figures for those who have brought cases of unfair dismissal for refusing to work on Sundays. They are divided into categories of "main jurisdiction" and "secondary jurisdiction". I am not sure what that means, but in 1999-2000, there were six cases in the main jurisdiction category and five in the secondary jurisdiction category. At least half were resolved fairly easily by the current processes. However, I do not believe that only 11 people in this country have been intimidated into working on Sundays or dismissed for refusing to.

The Government have increased the compensation for unfair dismissal to £50,000. However, in some cases, a tribunal instructs employers to take employees back. Some do not do that, while others take them back but make their lives such a misery that they pack in the job after a few months. The figures do not reflect those cases.

Mr. Forth

If such cases were much more prevalent, would not a trade union have got hold of some lurid figures and primed the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to produce them? Is the trade union failing to fulfil its responsibilities? If not, perhaps the figures reflect reality.

Mr. Heppell

The figures show the number of people who have gone to a tribunal, but many people do not believe that they will get protection it they do that. When I worked weekends, I knew that if I did not do the Sunday shift, a colleague would have to do it. People had a loyalty to those who worked with them, and did their share. However, there was some pressure to work Sundays. As I said earlier, people wanted to work because of the enhanced rate, but some pressure was exerted.

I do not understand why people prefer to work Sundays without enhanced rates, unless they are put under some pressure. There are exceptions that prove the rule: for example, the Donald Dewars who say that Christmas is humbug. I am sure that Donald Dewar did not really believe that, but the last thing some people want is to spend Christmas day with their families. However, they are a minority.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Some people in essential services will always have to work on Christmas day. I have never had a Christmas without some members of my family working, because they all work in the national health service. However, there is a difference between providing an essential and an optional service. People do not have to shop on Sundays or Christmas day. That is a fundamental difference.

Mr. Heppell

That is true, but I worry about the idea that I should decide when people do their shopping. I do not want to do that, and I honestly disagree with my hon. Friend on the matter. If people want to shop on Sundays, fine. I have no problem with small or even large shops opening, as long as there is adequate protection for workers. I do not believe that people are protected in practice, however.

To answer the point of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the unions, they are not doing enough to educate the work force about what it should ask for. That is not always the union's fault. My union is the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers; it used to be the National Union of Railwaymen. It once had a policy of stopping all overtime. I supported that, because it meant that when we negotiated wage increases, they were based on a basic rate rather than average earnings. We could then show how low our wages were. It meant that, because overtime was not being worked, extra work would be available, creating extra jobs for people who were unemployed. The union pushed that policy hard, but it fell to bits on the first weekend it was supposed to have been implemented because none of the workers would agree to give up their Saturday or Sunday morning's work, since it meant extra money to them.

In some respects, the same applies in these circumstances. USDAW needs to say loudly to its members, "Do not work Sundays unless you are getting decent, enhanced rates." Failing that, the market and the law of supply and demand will rule, and if people are willing to work, the shops will be willing to employ them.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Many shop workers, are not unionised. They are women working for low pay, who are totally dependent on what little they receive to keep their families going. They do not have equal economic bargaining power with their employers. We are concerned here with the exploitation of a work force who are not part of a strong, manual craft union, but consists largely of low-paid women workers.

Mr. Heppell

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. In some respects, that is my point. We have a work force who can be exploited, are exploited and will continue to be exploited, unless we take some action. Perhaps there could have been a more suitable legislative vehicle to deal with the problem, but I do not have that option available to me at the moment. I shall therefore support the option proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich.

10.31 am
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I had not intended to take part in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but as there is not a great array of colleagues on this side of the House anxious to catch your eye, I shall say a few words.

The House owes a great deal to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). She is an exemplary parliamentarian, who has done much in the struggle to preserve the reputation of Parliament when it has been under assault from many quarters. Of all the services that she has performed. I do not think that any would rank above this one. She is fighting to preserve something very precious to many people, and I give her my wholehearted support.

Before I came into the Chamber, I was chatting to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). He and I agree on many things, and we disagree on one or two as well. He said to me that if this Bill does not pass, we shall soon have full-scale Sunday trading and total deregulation.

Mr. Forth


Sir Patrick Cormack

My right hon. and libertarian Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), with whom I could not disagree more, says "Good." However, I believe that it would be bad. It would be bad for Britain and bad for the people who work in shops, service industries and elsewhere.

I was one of those who resolutely opposed Sunday trading but I did not do so for religious reasons. I happen to go to church on Sundays, but that was not the reason for my opposing Sunday trading. I opposed it because I believed it was right that there should be one day in seven that was special for most people, and one that people could keep special without being under great pressure.

When we had those debates, I and many others said that if Sunday trading came about, Sundays would replicate Saturdays, and we should soon have the high street Sunday. Anyone who drives into London on a Sunday knows that that prophecy has come true. In many of our big towns and cities, there is no difference between the middle of the day on a Saturday and a Sunday. Indeed, I am told that, in some places, Sundays are even busier.

I do not believe that Sunday trading has advanced the welfare of the people of this country, nor do I think that it has added anything to the cherished values of this country. Like the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, I am an unashamed traditionalist, and I believe that one of the traditions worth fighting to keep was the special Sunday. That has gone, but we should, at the very least, attempt to keep certain days special.

Easter day is always on a Sunday, and it is right that it should be special. Although the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) rather denigrated the Christian ingredient, this is still basically a Christian country. We do not need to make any apology for that. Christmas day, however, can fall on any day of the week, and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is saying that we should keep that day—which is still, for most people, the family day above all others—special, too, and enshrine that speciality in legislation.

Of course, some people, such as those in the emergency services, will have to work on Sundays. We all accept that. I have a son who was, for several years, the manager of a hotel. Of course, he worked on Christmas day. He knew that that was part of the job. It was the part that he most regretted, but, nevertheless, it was part of it. However, the vast majority of people do not have to work on Christmas day, but if the shops are open, the pressure is there for people to work.

I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, East that the cases that have come to court are the tip of the iceberg, and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) was right to say that many people who are among the least protected and the poorest paid in our community need the money and feel under pressure to work. We ought to relieve them of that pressure on Christmas day, at least.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich has performed a signal service in introducing the Bill. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government support the measure, and I hope that no one will be so curmudgeonly as to oppose it.

10.36 am
Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

I, too, support the Bill and congratulate to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on introducing it. It has the support of many shopworkers in my constituency, and also that of many people who are not shopworkers but who recognise the need to preserve Christmas day as a lay of family celebration, and to keep its traditional character.

The Bill is necessary to stop the trend whereby large stores open on Christmas day and to prevent that from becoming a major problem and getting out of hand. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I was surprised to discover that legislation was necessary. It had for so long been the convention that large stores did not open on Christmas day that, when the Sunday Trading Act 1994 was passed, no one thought it necessary to deal with the question of Christmas day because they did not envisage that convention ever being broken. However, it has been broken, and it is now necessary to stop Christmas day opening creeping in because there is no protection for shopworkers unless Christmas day falls on a Sunday.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, there is now an increasing tendency for larger stores to try Christmas day opening. Sainsburys did it last year, and, according to her, Woolworths did it in what it called areas of high ethnicity—an argument that would carry more weight if it did not fail to recognise that there are large numbers of black Christians in this country. Furthermore, such stores also originally planned to open in places such as Kendal and Llandudno, which shoots holes in all their arguments.

The Bill is modest in that it simply seeks to extend the restrictions that apply to large stores when Christmas day falls on a Sunday so that they apply when Christmas day falls on any other day of the week. It also retains the exemption in the Sunday Trading Act 1994, so it will not apply to small corner shops, for example, or to shops operated by those who profess the Jewish faith.

It is necessary to preserve Christmas day as a family holiday, and to end the gradual erosion of that day as a special day in our calendar. The attitude of most large retailers is clear. They do not particularly want to open on Christmas day, but, if their rivals do so, it is such a cut-throat business that the others feel obliged to open to preserve their brand loyalty, and the whole thing will spiral upwards, as happened with Sunday trading.

Over the years, there has been a significant erosion of the concept of public holidays. When I was a councillor in Chester, we had a long debate about whether we should allow the market to open on Good Friday. We did not do so at that time, but now Good Friday has become almost a normal trading day.

When Sunday trading was introduced, we were told that no one would have to work on Sunday unless they wanted to and that those who did so would receive premium payments, yet within a year those payments started to go and few shopworkers still receive them. Shopworkers in my constituency feel under great pressure to work on a Sunday, otherwise they may not get a job or hold on to the job that they have. They are vulnerable, low-paid workers. We do not want the same to happen with Christmas day.

I am not just making a religious point; we are a multi-faith, multi-ethnic society. Although many of our public holidays occur on Christian festivals, there is a strong argument for people to have days away from commercial pressures and days when families can be together without the pressure of one or other parent having to work.

It is true that people in essential services and continuous processing plants work ever Christmas, and we are all extremely grateful to those who keep our emergency and other essential services going during that time. However, it has always been recognised, even within that sector, that if possible, people with families should be allowed to go home on Christmas day. My father worked in a steelworks that always ran during Christmas, but the agreement among, the men was that those without young children worked on Christmas day to allow fathers to go home to their families, and at new year it was the other way around. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) many not have minded working on Christmas day, but I suspect that he had a wife at home to do most of the organising for him. It is slightly different for women who have to work on Christmas day.

The argument about essential services does not apply to large supermarkets. There has been no recorded instance of anyone starving to death because Sainsburys was not open for one day of the year. If I forget to buy the stuffing or the cranberry sauce, it is a minor inconvenience—people can eat something else. I do not see why the families of shopworkers should have to sacrifice their Christmas to avoid a minor inconvenience to someone like me. That is what the argument is about.

As a society, do we want to pay the public price of Christmas day opening? As more and more shops open, more pressure will be put on public transport workers to work, we will require street cleaning because there will be more traffic on the roads, and we will need more emergency services because there are likely to be more accidents. We will all, as taxpayers, pay the cost of Christmas day opening.

Moreover, Christmas day trading would mean an end to a day of peace and quiet for people who live in town centres or near major out-of-town retail stores. My constituents in Callands in Warrington already suffer greatly on a Sunday because of the traffic going to large stores in their area. Surely they should be allowed at least one day of peace and quiet on Christmas day.

The trend towards a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year society is fundamentally bad. We should not define ourselves by the way we shop. If we do, there is something wrong with our sense of values. There needs to be time away from the pressures of commerce, and time for families to be together. The Bill is a modest step towards preserving a special day. I hope that the House will allow it to go into Committee, and that the Government will support it.

10.45 am
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I oppose the Bill because it is yet another example of hon. Members taking it upon themselves to dictate the life style and behaviour of, and facilities available to, our citizenry. The arguments take a variety of forms, which is how it should be, but I disagree with almost all the arguments that have been advanced.

The main argument is rather confusing, and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) reflected that. Labour Members especially—I do not think that this applies so much to my colleagues—cannot decide whether this is, or they want it to be, a Christian society or a so-called multicultural society. That is not my problem—it is theirs—but in approaching such an issue, Labour Members should get their thoughts more in line.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Would the right hon. Gentleman allow that it is possible to favour a multicultural society that respects each of the multifarious traditions within it, and that respect for Christmas day would be one way of respecting part of a multicultural society?

Mr. Forth

Yes to the first bit and no to the second is my answer to the hon. Gentleman. I think there is confusion about the role of the established Church and whether we claim this to be a Christian society, and about the extent to which the fact that our people voluntarily attend church can be used as a rough measure of whether it is a Christian society. Most of the figures that I have seen suggest that fewer than 10 per cent. of our population are regular Sunday church attenders. That is not a bad measure of people's adherence to their Christianity or their chosen religion.

We must pick our way through the confusion surrounding the role of the established Church and its relevance to Christmas day, and the extent to which people express their adherence to the Christian religion by their regular church attendance, and then factor in multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism, which Labour Members always want to speak about. That complicates the matter, because the question then is whether we think we have an obligation to legislate regarding Christmas day, which, whether we regret it or applaud it, may become less important to more and more members of our society.

I am not sure that I can accept even the basic premise of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), which is based on the assumption that Christmas day is so special that it requires the law to single it out and impose that distinction on all members of society, whether they are occasional Christians, never go to church or are of a completely different faith so that Christmas day has no relevance. I am not sure that we have got that argument as clear as it should be.

We must consider the regional and local variations that come into play, and be careful about the excessively loose use of terms. Bandying about words such as "ethnicity" or "culture" is all very well, but we have to be careful. In this country, we now have communities consisting largely of different ethnic, cultural and religious groups that, one could argue, could be dealt with differently within a local authority context. I might have been more attracted by such a measure—I doubt it, but I might have been—if it had said that local authorities should have certain powers to delineate certain days of the year to reflect the nature of the communities that they serve.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I would be much less in favour of the Bill had such a provision been included. I am nervous about references to multi-faith societies and certainly would not want requests for Diwali to be recognised with a holiday. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that there is a secular acceptance of Christmas, whereby families come together for a public holiday irrespective of any religious belief that they might hold?

Mr. Forth

That is the case, but whether we should use the law to back that up or impose it is the point at issue. I will not irritate my hon. Friend any more by pressing the point about local discretion. However, if one accepts the argument about multiculturalism, using a blanket, uniform approach becomes more dangerous and less relevant. Like him, I do not necessarily go a bundle on multiculturalism, but I am trying to tackle the argument of Labour Members. If they are serious about multiculturalism and all that it means, they must try to reflect it accurately in the measures that they propose to the House. I fear that the Bill fails that test.

I am a great believer in choice, which is one of the things that underpins the essential freedoms of our society. Every time I see a Bill that seeks to limit choice based on what hon. Members think, it makes me nervous and suspicious. I was honoured when my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) referred to me as a libertarian. I try to be a good libertarian. I rarely succeed, but the fact that he has recognised my attempts is encouraging. I would rather take the risks involved in choice than have this House legislate for the imposition of what some of its Members think to be the appropriate behaviour.

Mrs. Dunwoody

This is the greatest load of hogwash I have ever heard in my life, even from the right hon. Gentleman. He is suggesting that this is a great imposition from the House of Commons when in fact we are simply underlining what the House intended in the first place, as was clear from the original debate. It is nonsense to suggest that this is an enormous decision to impose Christian beliefs on vast numbers of people. Even he cannot pretend to believe that, although he pretends to believe all sorts of things.

Mr. Forth

I sense that the hon. Lady is trying to charm me into supporting her Bill. She will have to try better because she has not quite succeeded yet. Of course I am not going to pretend or claim that this is a huge and heavy-handed measure. However, it seeks yet again to restrict choice and determine behaviour in a way that is not necessary and would cumulatively, with other measures, have the damaging effect that I fear. I see it as part of a pattern, although, in itself, it is perhaps not the ultimate threat to societal freedom.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I just wanted to clarify that I did mean it when I called my right hon. Friend a libertarian, but I certainly did not mean it as a compliment.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend obviously went to the same charm school as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich. I feel swamped by seduction and persuasion.

Ms Coffey


Mr. Forth

Perhaps the hon. Lady will add to it.

Ms Coffey

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if one section of the population exercises its choice, it might have the consequence of taking choice away from another section? We all have a responsibility to balance that.

Mr. Forth

That was exactly the point I was coming to next. I recognise that consumer choice has implications for other people. The hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) said that schedule 4 to the 1994 Act was designed to provide protection for those who worked on Sundays. If that is not working adequately, I would be prepared to look at it again. If the much-vaunted trade unions—of which Labour Members still seem so fond—are not doing their job properly, that is a matter for them and their members. If allegedly low-paid—in spite of the minimum wage—and exploited women choose not to join a trade union, or if that union cannot give them adequate protection, that is a matter for them, also. It is not, I suggest, a matter for this or any other Bill. We may well have a role to play in reviewing existing legislation, but that in itself is not a reason for legislating in this way.

There are a number of exemptions in the 1994 Act, which the Bill would not affect: farm shops, off-licences, shops selling vehicle or cycle supplies, pharmacies, shops situated in airports, railway stations and motorway service areas, petrol filling stations, exhibition stands and shops occupied by those who observe the Jewish religion. That is a substantial list and I am happy to see it. However, it puts in context the argument that we should have only a relatively limited number of shopping opportunities on Sundays and Christmas day. We have acknowledged in that comprehensive list not only that there is an important social function to be performed, but that a lot of people choose or wish to exercise their consumer choice by using such outlets. The argument that the purity of Sunday or of Christmas day is still important is undermined by the existence of that list in the 1994 Act.

In passing, I wonder whether the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is confident that the fine proposed by clause 1(3) is sufficient. It is entirely possible that some shops affected by the Bill—large ones, by definition—might well choose to open on Christmas day because they do so well from the many people who have forgotten their batteries or cranberry sauce and flock to them to spend money. It might be worth paying a fine of only £50,000 to allow shopping on Christmas day. I may be arguing against myself here, but the point is relevant.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and the hon. Member for Newcastle—under—Lyme (Mrs. Golding) argued that shopping on Christmas day was not necessary. That is their judgment. They are entitled to make some moral judgment about whether it is necessary to shop on Christmas Day. Why cannot people buy batteries for toys beforehand? If they know that they are going to have turkey, why cannot they obtain cranberry sauce beforehand? That may be all true, but why is it that hon. Members feel that they can impose such a judgment on people at large? The fact that it may not be necessary to shop on Christmas Day is a highly judgmental matter. Many people, whether they forget, are careless, stupid, immoral, lax or whatever, may still want to shop on Christmas day.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I apologise for not being here at the start of the right hon. Gentleman's speech and thank him for giving way. Is not the thrust of his argument that there should be total deregulation? He has already accepted that, in certain elements of the 1994 Act, it was acceptable to have some regulation. Surely the issue is that the public at large and shopworkers in particular would be very happy to have Christmas day as a day exempt from shopping, along the lines of the Bill.

Mr. Forth

The direct answer to the hon. Gentleman, who has known me for longer than he would probably like to have, is that I am, by nature, as he would acknowledge, a deregulator. My ideal world would have no regulations. It would probably have no governance and it would certainly have no politicians. I constantly strive to work towards that, being only a reluctant participant, as he knows. I start from the point of view that, in an ideal world, the fewer regulations there are, the better.

I would like responsible citizens to take responsibility, to make decisions for themselves and to get on with their lives, unencumbered by people such as us. That would be my starting point. Therefore, for me, the burden of proof is on those who wish to regulate. I do not start from the assumption that regulations are good and we should deregulate; I start from the other end of the argument.

The other thing that the hon. Gentleman is assuming is that no one wants to work on Christmas day. I do not know that that is true; I suspect that it probably is not. Some people might for various reasons want to work on Christmas day: they may find it mind-blowingly boring; they may find the celebration of Christmas has become trite, trivial and over-indulgent; or they may want to earn some extra money. There could be a variety of reasons why people might not want Christmas day to be denied to them as a working day, so, again, it is properly a matter of choice. The hon. Gentleman makes his judgment. He may not know lots of people who want to work on Christmas day.

I wonder—it is a rather dangerous question for me to ask, but I will pose it nevertheless—how many individual constituents, unprompted by trade unions, have written to the hon. Gentleman in the past five or 10 years begging him to legislate in the way that the Bill does. None have written to me. I suspect that most right hon. and hon. Members here have had very few or no unprompted letters from constituents saying, "Please release me from the bondage of working on Christmas day." I suspect that genuine unprompted impetus for the Bill is limited.

Mr. Gardiner

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that individual trade unionists who feel aggrieved about a particular practice in their workplace make representations through their trade union? Far from being a bad way for it to be brought to the attention of the House, it is an extremely effective way.

Mr. Forth

I am not sure that I agree, but, even if that were true, fortunately in this country, trade union membership is still very much a minority thing among working people because many sensible people choose not to be members of trade unions. I would be much more impressed if ordinary, responsible, or even low-paid and exploited people chose to approach their Members of Parliament individually to express their views. All I am saying is that I suspect that very few people have chosen to do so.

Mrs. Dunwoody

How many unsolicited letters did the right hon. Gentleman receive before the last general election demanding the fragmentation, sale and privatisation of British Rail?

Mr. Forth

I recall getting very few indeed. At the time, I was a member of Her Majesty's then Government. It may be that constituents take a somewhat different view, depending on whether one is in government. The Minister might have interesting observations to make on that, if you allowed him to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I do not want to be unduly diverted. I am making a simple point. Although I concede that we should be careful about judging things on the basis of our postbag, I am putting it the other way around—I am challenging whether there is a groundswell of opinion in favour of, or a demand for, the Bill.

We have had one or two references already to what happened this most recent Christmas past. It is relevant to the argument that was advanced by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, which has been echoed by others. She suggested that if one store opens, others feel obliged to do the same because of competitive pressure. I do not think that that has ever been the case. I lived and was brought up in Scotland, where Sunday trading has always been possible. By choice, relatively few shops opened on Sunday in Scotland. It was one of the things that I had in mind when I voted enthusiastically for the liberalisation of Sunday trading in England.

On the same basis, as my brief tells me, on Christmas day just gone, Sainsburys and Woolworths had three stores open, and Co-op and Budgens opened several stores nationwide. Woolworths commercial marketing director said: Our decision to open three stores in is recognition that we live in an increasingly multi-cultural society", which goes back to the point that I made earlier. He continues: The stores that are opening serve a diverse local community—all colleagues who are working in these stores are volunteers. That wraps up a number of different points, including those relating to stores seeking to serve the community in which they are located and the fact that employees are volunteers. If anyone is going to challenge that and say that those working on Christmas day in those stores were being strongarmed, exploited or worse—

Helen Jones

It is very easy to say that all people are volunteers while ignoring the pressures on them to volunteer. If the House were to sit on Christmas day, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would probably like because he does not appear to have a home to go to, would he believe that all of us here had volunteered for the task?

Mr. Forth

Since very few people volunteer for the task now, I can imagine that even fewer will do so on Christmas day. I invite the hon. Lady to look around the Chamber and see how many volunteers there are on a non-Christmas day, so my optimism about hon. Members being here on Christmas day is limited, although I would be prepared to contemplate the possibility. If the House were sitting on Christmas day, I would want the people of Bromley and Chislehurst to be properly represented. I would want to do my best on their behalf.

A spokeswoman for Sainsburys said that it was opening only three small outlets on petrol forecourts as "an experiment". Referring to a prior Christmas opening experiment, she said: There are many people who do not celebrate Christmas or recognise Sunday and the staff we had on Christmas Day said they were happy to get away from the chaos at home. Those are not my words, I hasten to add, but Sainsburys' words. It reflects another of the aspects of the matter that we ignore at our peril. It is not for us to judge individual family circumstances, what people want or do not want to do, or how they view Christmas day. We may have our view, but I resist the attempt to put in statute the attitude that people should take to something, albeit something as important to many people as Christmas day.

By contrast, a spokesperson for Asda—so we have had a spokesman, a spokeswoman and a spokesperson; it is all very inclusive—emphasised that the company had no plans to open stores on Christmas day: It is a very important time for families and for friends—our staff work tremendously hard and we give them at least two days off', so there is an encouraging spectrum of opinion from responsible, large retail store managements.

I have tried to explain why I find the Bill unsatisfactory. I do not agree with the analysis that underpins it. With all respect to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, it is flawed and inadequate. I do not agree with its principal thrust, because I am opposed to further regulation. If existing provisions are not adequate to protect employees, we should focus on that. The role of the trade unions is, quite properly, to protect and promote the well-being of their members and those whom they seek to attract as members, but my suspicion that the Bill is the creature of one or more trade unions does not recommend it to me.

For all those reasons, I hope that the Bill will not make any further progress.

11.10 am
Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

They say that Christmas comes earlier each year, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) must hold the record, for introducing it to the public consciousness on 16 March. I congratulate her on her success in the ballot and on introducing the Bill, which I support.

Ten years ago, I was invited to give a lecture to a group of civil servants in Moscow. I was talking about product liability insurance and used the example of a problem that had recently been reported in the Moscow press: exploding televisions and the fires that they caused in apartment blocks throughout the city. I said that product liability and product liability insurance would be extremely effective in controlling such problems. An angry civil servant rose to inform me that all Russian citizens had a right under their legal code to have televisions that worked perfectly, so there was no need for product liability insurance. I said that to have a right without having any means of enforcing it is to have no right at all.

That is precisely what undergirds the Bill: there are workers in large retail companies who may have a right, but we all know how difficult it can be to exercise it on certain occasions. We all know of the trade-off between workers and management and how hard it can be to refuse a manager who has been co-operative and helpful on other occasions and is having problems filling the roster for a particular day.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), for whom I have great respect, talked about how choice underpins our fundamental freedoms, which is true, but we should always ask whose choice. The choice of shopworkers is sacrificed to give the wider public the choice to which he referred.

Christmas day trading can be seen as part of an on-going process, going back many years, starting with Sunday opening and going on to bank holiday opening, 24-hour opening and Sunday browsing time. The Bill would prevent the continuation of that process. That is not to say that all those measures have been detrimental. I agree with Lord Bassam of Brighton when he says that, on the whole, the nature of Sundays has not changed greatly since Sunday opening was introduced in 1994, but I believe that the nature of Christmas day would be changed fundamentally by trading on 25 December. The burdens on those who would inevitably be forced to work would not be outweighed by the benefits to the wider public.

Christmas day is special because it is about gift, not about consumer consumption. That is precious, and we should preserve it. In the run-up to Christmas, the stores market toys and consumer goods with vigour—it is their most profitable time of the year—on the basis that Christmas day is special. They try to maximise sales by persuading us that our families' Christmas will be special and memorable because we have bought their product, but they undermine the logic of their own position by then saying that Christmas day should be just a normal trading day like any other. We are reflecting that internal inconsistency in our support for the Bill.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that we do not reed any more regulation. Indeed, he is a keen deregulator and would like all regulation to be abolished. I always respect what he says, and his position is consistent and rigorous, but the same rigour and consistency were shown by the Jesuits in the Spanish inquisition, often leading to a false conclusion.

It is true that the retail industry can regulate itself and that one can point to pilot schemes for Christmas day trading that have shown higher-than-expected sales, but I do not share the view that such trading is something for the future. The research, too, shows an internal inconsistency. As any good researcher knows, the first question to ask is not what conclusions are reached but who is doing the research. When the stores say that they have had great success trading on Christmas day and how wonderful it would be if they could do it every year, one has to exercise a little scepticism.

Mr. Forth

Presumably, the hon. Gentleman would apply the same principle to the Bill, in so far as it is the creature of a trade union.

Mr. Gardiner

I would apply the principle universally, because we must consider any argument on its merits and be sceptical about the motives of anyone who advances it. That is the only way of arriving at a clear view.

By its nature, a Christmas day trading experiment is an isolated instance. Hon. Members have shown that there have been very few such instances—enough to prompt concern in the House, but none the less very few. That they should have been claimed as a success is therefore hardly surprising. The law of supply and demand applies, and if only one or two major retailers are open on a particular day, everyone who wants to shop on that day will end up shopping in those stores. However, that is not to say that if all the stores were open on Christmas day they would achieve the same success. Therefore, it is a false argument to use such experiments as an illustration of why Christmas trading should be allowed.

I welcome the fact that the present Government have introduced a great deal of legislation affecting the retail trade. It includes that on the national minimum wage, the working time directive, holidays and maternity and paternity leave. I acknowledge that it has necessitated a degree of administrative work for many retailers. Retailers have complained that it has caused their attention to be distracted from the real business of serving their customers, so I am delighted that the proposed Bill, which would limit trading on Christmas day, would not create more administrative work for the retail trade.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst expressed his willingness to work on Christmas day, if the House were open. That is commendable, but I wonder whether the managers, the directors, and in particular the finance directors of the major trading companies and retailers, would be as willing to use Christmas day as a day of normal trading were they also required to be in their offices.

Mr. Forth

I shall write and ask them.

Mr. Gardiner

That is a valuable intervention. I would be interested to see the responses that the right hon. Gentleman gets.

I believe that it is the Government's duty to serve all the people and to balance the choices that are available within society because some of those choices conflict. If employers begrudge employees the better rights that they have achieved under this Government, I am pleased to say that they will have to grin and bear it. I am pleased that employees are happy about what we have done. The basis of the legislation was to formalise working practices in this country and to eradicate the bad working practices that existed in some industries. The Bill is an honourable contribution to that process.

It is certainly true that Christmas has changed for a large number of the British public and although many would subscribe to the traditional Christmas day, the universally shared experience that I remember as a child no longer applies. I remember Christmas from a very particular perspective because, like the right hon. Gentleman, I was fortunate enough to grow up in Scotland. When I was a child, my mother, who was a doctor, never spent a single Christmas day with us. She was not a general practitioner, but a doctor in public health in Paisley. I remember, year after year, my mother never being present on Christmas day. We moved to England when my mother changed jobs and worked in public health in Hertfordshire. I remember the change in our household when, for the first time, my mother was able to join us on Christmas day and we celebrated a family Christmas. We did not have that option in Scotland, where the law allowed Sunday working. Indeed, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, the only public holiday was new year's day. That is one import from Scotland into England that I am very pleased about and I am sure that the English are extremely grateful. It used to be the case that in Scotland, new year's day was a public holiday, but Christmas day was not; in England, the opposite was the case.

I am delighted that the Bill will give other families the opportunity to have a shared Christmas experience. Although something of the nature of Christmas day has changed and its importance for the vast majority of people may no longer be one of religious significance, that does not mean that they do not want to preserve something special about Christmas day. I have only one thing to say to the right hon. Gentleman or anyone else who does not—bah humbug!

Mr. Swayne

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am a supporter of the Bill, but we should not get carried away by our own rhetoric with respect to the shared collective experience of a Christmas day of yore. Pendulums always swing. He will recall that Scrooge would have been unable to have the prize goose delivered to Tiny Tim and his family had the butcher not been open on that day.

Mr. Gardiner

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes his point in his usual elaborate and flamboyant fashion. It has already been said this morning that essential services continue on Christmas day. The Bill seeks to give workers providing non-essential services the right to the protection that the House took for granted in previous legislation.

Rather than making the case for Christmas day opening, the arguments that we have heard about pilot schemes and so on have underlined the need for legislation to prevent Christmas day trading. We are well aware of the highly competitive nature of the retail trade, especially the supermarket trade, which is the focus of the Bill. Whenever one store decides to try a pilot scheme, its competitors will always reciprocate and the practice will mushroom. Christmas day trading will certainly slip in through the back door and I believe that it needs to be checked. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich has introduced an eminently worthy Bill and I am delighted to support it.

11.28 am
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I have one or two points to raise in the context of the speech by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). First, I got the impression that while he is in favour of deregulation, he accepts that in practical terms there needs to be some regulation. Indeed, he supported the Sunday Trading Act 1994, which allowed for a certain amount of regulation. He appeared to be praising that in his speech earlier this morning. Given that he appreciates the need for some regulation, I should have thought that he would have wanted the Bill to be examined in more detail, unless of course he is in principle against giving anyone the choice of staying closed on Christmas day. The pressures of the market will push towards Christmas day opening.

The right hon. Gentleman implied that, just because one or more trade unions support the Bill, it must be wrong and bad. I cannot believe that he is so unintelligent as to believe that no trade union can ever say anything responsible or helpful. If he did believe that, he would hold the sort of view that leads to the polarisation of states and their becoming fascist or communist. If we are to discover the reasonable points on which agreement can be reached, we must be able to hold debate with those with whom we would normally disagree.

Mr. Forth

I know the hon. Gentleman to be a kindly and tolerant man, but is he suggesting that if I express doubts about the views or the role of trade unions, I must be something called a fascist? What happened to a free, open society in which people like me can express our views about trade unions without being abused by the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Griffiths

I did not mean that at all. The right hon. Gentleman has obviously misunderstood me. I said that to be against trade unions per se, and to believe that a trade union could never say anything reasonable—which seemed to be the implication of his speech—would be to take the road towards a polarisation of society. I do not believe that he is totally convinced that a trade unionist can never say anything reasonable. He has many trade unionists in his constituency, and I am sure that he does not mean to condemn them all to perdition.

Mrs. Dunwoody

There are even some Conservative trade unionists.

Mr. Griffiths

Indeed, there is even an organisation of Conservative trade unionists, so even the Conservative party cannot be all bad.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

Come off it.

Mr. Griffiths

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that I was a tolerant man, but I may be being too generous on that point.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about public demand and how those who work in shops might feel about the Bill. We have not had an overwhelming response to the Bill, though he himself said that we should not let the size of our mailbags persuade us to vote one way or another on any issue. The point is that the Bill will deal with a situation that could become difficult in future. I happen to do the weekly shop for my family, and I always do it at the Co-operative superstore in Pyle, which used to be known as Leo's and is still popularly known by that name. I shall make it my business tomorrow afternoon to conduct a little poll of the workers there to find out whether they would prefer to have the opportunity to work on Christmas day or a statutory right to a holiday.

Given the right hon. Gentleman's apparent keenness to know how people feel about the Bill, it would be useful to have an opportunity to debate it in Committee. The wider public could then give their views and, though it stretches my tolerance a bit, I should be happy to join him in drawing up a questionnaire for shopworkers and the public on what they feel about Christmas day shopping.

Mr. Forth

The first test of opinion occurs in the House of Commons on Second Reading, a simple procedure that we all know well. If, as has been claimed, the Bill is supported by Members of Parliament, we shall soon know it. I assume that many Members will have been approached by their constituents, who will know that the Bill was on the Order Paper today. We can judge the amount of support for the Bill by the number of Members who are here to support it on Second Reading. If it achieves support, we can consider it in detail in Committee.

Mr. Griffiths

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will think about how the process should work. The Bill should be given an opportunity to test his feelings about Sunday trading.

I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) for bringing before us a Bill to correct an important anomaly in the 1994 Act. I look forward to its progress in Committee.

11.35 am
Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

I support the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on introducing it. The main reason for supporting it is that it addresses an oversight. Had Parliament realised that when it drew up provisions for exemptions in the Sunday Trading Act 1994, it would have dealt with the oversight. It is unfortunate that it has taken another seven years for us to do so, but better late than never.

That said, the more I have thought and read about the Bill, the more I have realised that it throws up as many difficulties as it resolves. I do not know whether I may be talking myself into a place on the Committee by saying that, but there are a few difficulties.

First, I have concerns about the original definitions of large and small stores. It strikes me that more and more stores may simply reconfigure their space or open smaller branches to get around the law. Research has told us about several stores that already open—Budgens is cited—as small convenience stores. Big supermarkets, such as Sainsbury, now distinguish between large out-of-town shopping centres and strategically placed convenience stores on high streets. Stores might try to get around the Bill by opening more outlets of that type. The Bill would do nothing to prevent that, so perhaps we should turn our attention to that point.

Secondly, I fear that the Bill may contain a restrictive, anti-competitive element. I cannot see why a small store should have privileges that a larger store must be denied. I am not sure that that is fair.

Thirdly, as far as I understand it, the 280 sq m specified in legislation relates to floor space where products are on sale. Could a larger supermarket simply section off areas to get around the intention of the Bill?

Mrs. Dunwoody

In drawing up the Bill, I have followed the original Act. That is why 3,000 sq ft—I still use that measure—is the cut-off point in my Bill. Anything smaller would be a family shop and anything larger a chain or bigger store. The figure used is nothing new; it simply follows the 1994 legislation.

Mr. McCabe

I appreciate that, but my point is that although there has as yet been no challenge of this sort, it seems possible that a big store could simply section off some areas.

Mrs. Dunwoody

That is not the main issue.

Mr. McCabe

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but it could be tested. Supermarkets are different from how they used to be. At one time, they used floor space in a predictable way, but great advances in technology mean that they know exactly what sort of thing people might want to buy on Christmas day. It is possible to reconfigure a store with greater ease. I simply make that point because I wonder whether people will try to get around the provision. I hope that they will not.

We should congratulate ourselves on what we are trying to do here. I have to say in passing that my hon. Friends may have missed a trick. If I was them, I would have written to the 4,000 shopworkers in Bromley and Chislehurst and made sure that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was clear about the strength of his argument. Perhaps it is not too late for them to organise that. Perhaps he would then give greater support to the Bill.

Mr. Gardiner

Is my hon. Friend aware that USDAW has 310,000 members? On the most recent figures to have been produced by the Conservative party, that is 10,000 more than it has.

Mr. McCabe

I am sure that that would not be difficult. I take the point.

What USDAW is trying to do is right, but we should be careful about what we are saying. I do not know why we find it so easy to make a case for protecting shopworkers while we forget about the other people whom we oblige to work on Christmas day. The notion of our family Christmas forces people to work. We seem to think that no one can have a family Christmas now without access to all those wonderful television programmes that require umpteen people to work when they do not really need to. Those programmes are hardly essential. Many extra people have to work to provide all the electricity that we use on the day, which is not essential.

Perhaps we should look at the matter more broadly and ask why we are confining ourselves to shopworkers. Perhaps we should make it easier for people not to work on Christmas day, and then concentrate on what the exemptions should be. That would make me a lot happier.

There is a danger that we are creating an exception for Christmas because we have a nostalgic and rosy view of it. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich described it as a chance to escape completely from the daily grind. I am not sure that too many women would regard Christmas day that way. Most of my female relatives tell me that it is a day that they approach with trepidation and that by the end of it, they feel that they have been completely through the daily grind. I am not sure that Christmas is quite the relaxed, wonderful time that we are inclined to make out.

I am intrigued about the things that we regard as essential exceptions. Why is it that shops that sell intoxicating liquor are exempted? There is nothing vital or essential about them. I am not sure either why anyone desperately needs cycling supplies or accessories on Christmas day. I also have difficulty with the idea that service station shops, which seem to be able to sell almost anything these days, should be exempted. I find it difficult to see exactly what we are achieving in that. One of the weird consequences of the Bill is that we will require local authority inspectors to work on Christmas day. In protecting one group of workers, we put additional pressure on another.

As I said to my hon. Friend, I intend to support the Bill because it corrects an oversight, but we should look more carefully at what we are trying to say about Christmas day. It would be much better if we designated it a public holiday and gave people a statutory right not to work. That would affect the vast majority of workers and we could then deal only with the exemptions—emergency and essential services, and other people who need to work. That would be a fairer approach and more consistent with the idea of Christmas day as a special family day. It would be a more logical way to proceed.

Much as I am prepared to support the Bill because it corrects an oversight, to single out shop workers and say that there is something special about their rights as opposed to other workers does not make a great deal of sense. If I find myself on the Committee, I shall argue that we should try to strengthen the provisions to include other workers. That is my fundamental doubt about the Bill. It corrects the oversight in the 1994 legislation, but recognises only the interests of shop workers on a day that we argue is a special event and a tradition that should be protected. If we are right about that, we should think about all the other people who find themselves forced to work on Christmas day. Otherwise, Christmas day will end up not being a holiday for the vast majority, but by some weird quirk of Parliament we shall have singled out a section of the work force and protected their rights without concerning ourselves with everyone else.

That problem highlights an obvious inconsistency in our thinking. I would prefer to see that inconsistency dealt with, but as we are not there yet, I am happy to accept the limited provisions that the Bill offers because it corrects an oversight in the 1994 legislation.

11.46 am
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on winning a high place in the ballot and introducing the Bill. Whether it will be successful, time will tell, but it has produced an interesting and timely debate, and good points have been made by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House and of the argument.

When Sainsburys and the other shops opened on Christmas day, it came as a shock to me and many other people who thought that it was illegal for them to do so. I voted for liberalisation in 1994, and I thought at the time that we were protecting Easter Sunday and Christmas day. It is manifest that we did not, and that has raised considerable concerns.

At the heart of the issue is an argument about whether we should be free to go out and buy things on Christmas day and whether shop owners should be free to meet that demand, or whether by allowing that freedom we destroy something that the majority of people value—a peaceful family Christmas and a day that is special.

The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who is no longer in his place, mentioned Good Friday and how it had changed over the years. Like him, I am old enough to remember what Good Friday used to be like. I was working in London at the time and I had to work some of the Easter holiday so I could not go away for Easter. Good Friday was a nightmare because nothing happened. Even the pubs did not open. They used to open at lunchtime on Christmas day, but they did not open on Good Friday. For most of us, the liberalisation of Good Friday came as a welcome relief. We liked to be able to go and do things on Good Friday and attend football matches or other events. It could be argued that with the changes came the danger of Good Friday becoming a normal working day—indeed, some offices open on Good Friday, preferring to give their staff an extra day at the other end of the Easter holiday. Perhaps the changes have gone too far.

The Opposition understand the concerns about widespread Christmas day opening, especially the concerns of those who want to keep Christmas day special and fear that the expansion of Christmas day trading would spoil it. However, official Opposition Members have a free vote, as the subject gives rise to many difficult ethical and religious issues. We shall not oppose Second Reading—indeed, I hope that the Bill goes into Committee. As one who, with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, has been a member of the Chairmen's Panel for some time, I look forward to her being in Committee on the other side of the dais. She is a firm and robust Committee Chairman, so I hope that when she is a member of the Committee, the Chair will have an equally firm and robust occupant.

That is the view of the official Opposition. I now ask the House's indulgence as I make my personal views known. In part, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), in that I do not think that it is for Parliament to tell people how to live their lives. My lines have been stolen by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), for I, too, am reminded of Charles Dickens's Scrooge going out on Christmas morning to buy a large turkey to give to Tiny Tim and his family—[HON. MEMBERS: "Goose."] Obviously, Charles Dickens never cooked a turkey, but I have. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) mentioned the problems that women face on Christmas day, but I always cook the turkey so I know that had I purchased a large turkey at 10 o'clock on Christmas morning, Tiny Tim would have been long in bed by the time it was cooked.

Mrs. Dunwoody

The point that is being made firmly by those sitting in this corner is that the bird in question was, of course, a goose.

Mr. Atkinson

I am not sure that the hon. Lady is right about that, but I shall go and look it up and apologise if I am wrong.

The problem identified by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) is that Christmas has changed. For many people these days, it is a holiday: they go abroad or go ski-ing, and instead of sitting around the log fire at home, they go out for their Christmas meal in a hotel or restaurant. Things are changing and we have to accept that change.

Last Christmas day, shop openings were on a minor scale: only Sainsburys, Woolworths and one or two others opened their stores. I am sure that the supermarket companies are sufficiently aware of public opinion to realise that widespread Christmas opening would be both inappropriate and deeply unpopular. However, there may be merit in shops opening in areas in which there is clearly demand. In our inner cities and city centres in places such as London, there are many people who live on their own and do not have families to go to; they might welcome the opportunity to go out and do something on Christmas day.

I do not think that we should tell people what they should do. If there were a growing problem and legislation were to become necessary, I think that it should take the form of giving local authorities the power to make the decision and should tot involve central Government. That is my personal view: the official Opposition's view is that the matter is one that should be decided by a free vote.

11.52 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on her success in the private Members' ballot. It is clear that her Bill has touched a nerve.

Christmas day is important to most of us, and there are real fears that it might be eroded by commercial pressures. Last year, USDAW mounted a vigorous campaign to protect Christmas day, and I have discussed the issues with the union. In addition, the hon. Member for Mid—Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) and some of his constituents have met me to spell out their concerns. It is right that Parliament should now have the opportunity to debate the issues.

The Government are neutral on the Bill. We believe that it is a matter for Parliament to decide and we are content for the Bill to go into Standing Committee if that is what the House decides. However, my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) have raised some important issues that require detailed debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich has acknowledged that the purpose of the Bill is not to remedy any serious current problem that has arisen from the Christmas day opening of shops. It is intended more as a pre-emptive strike against any widespread opening of large shops in future. The protection of shopworkers and the preservation of the significance of Christmas day are laudable aims.

Christmas day has a special role in the life of this country: it is important for both religious and family reasons, and it is often valued by people of other religions or even by those of no faith. The Government want Christmas day's unique place in our lives to be preserved, but the House should think carefully about whether legislating to prevent some shops from opening is the right way to achieve that aim.

Oliver Cromwell did his best to put a stop to Christmas day. Not only did he ban mince pies, but he declared that Christmas day must be a working day. Thankfully, Christmas day survived Oliver Cromwell.

Mrs. Dunwoody:

My hon. Friend might like also to observe that Oliver Cromwell was not too keen on Parliament, a view that has been held from time to time by others, but not one that we normally support.

Mr. O'Brien

At one point Cromwell was in favour of Parliament, and at another point he was against it. That is almost like Conservative tax guarantees these days. There is a policy one day, which is given up the next.

It seems that Christmas day has long been accepted as a holiday. Even Scrooge, who has featured in the debate, relented on this point. Obviously no everyone has been able to take advantage of a Christmas day holiday. Boxing day is believed to have developed in the middle ages to allow people who had to work on Christmas day to take the next day off. Today some people inevitably have to work—most obviously medical staff and those in essential services.

If we look back a few decades other groups also worked on Christmas day. For example, people were needed to run some public transport services. If we go back a bit further, the country was even blessed with postal deliveries on Christmas day. Interestingly, in those days church attendance and religious observance were much greater than now. The suggestion that the religious significance of Christmas day is undermined by work is therefore one that cannot be taken at face value.

I recognise that there are concerns about shops and stores being open for business on Christmas day. The retail sector is one of the most important sectors in the UK, comprising more than 300,000 outlets. It employs about 2.5 million, about 10 per cert. of the work force. Like it or not, nowhere is the importance of the retail sector more apparent than in the run-up to Christmas. Last year, £26 billion was spent in the shops during December. That was 13 per cent. of the total spend for the year.

The spectre of the mass opening of large shops on 25 December does not, in this context, seem realistic. Whether or not people engage in religious celebration, Christmas day remains the focus for all the pre-Christmas shopping activity. People overwhelmingly want to enjoy the day in the traditional way with their families. Most will not have the energy, time, money or inclination for yet another major round of shopping. It seems that there is little serious evidence of large-scale demand for Christmas day shopping in large stores.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) suggested that the Bill is to some extent the residue of the Sunday Trading Act 1994, and that the issue of Christmas day shopping should have been dealt with in that measure. Indeed, that view has been expressed by several Members.

The absence of any law governing the opening of shops on Christmas day is not a recent development. It is not something that arose out of the 1994 Act or other legislation. It has simply not featured previously in a serious way in shops legislation.

It has always been recognised that some shops need to open on Christmas day. Most of us have had to make that last-minute dash for something that we desperately need. We might need batteries for toys that were bought sometimes not by the parents but by relatives or friends who may have forgotten to buy batteries, perhaps assuming that the family had them.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich was unkind to those Members who might have recollections of having to buy batteries for their children on Christmas day, irrespective of whether or not they bought the battery-operated toy. We should not put undue restrictions on children enjoying their Christmas by my hon. Friend seeking to restrict their access to batteries. Shortage of milk and disasters with the turkey can drive us reluctantly to the shops.

Customer demand and the wishes of staff, who are usually volunteers, dictate how long shops may stay open. With the growth in the number of convenience stores, especially those run by non-Christians, the number of small shops open on Christmas day has undoubtedly increased in recent years.

However, at the moment there is little evidence that the larger supermarkets are picking up the baton. In fact, the information suggests that there has not been a great deal of movement. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) talked of a trend to open on Christmas day, but the evidence for that is unconvincing. Asda says that it opened none of its stores last year. Sainsburys opened none of its large stores—those over 3,000 sq ft—but it opened three smaller stores, which is fewer than in 1999.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I have a slight problem, as I am not sure whether the Minister is for or against the Bill. Is he seriously suggesting that stores excluded from it should be treated differently? I am sad that the Government are not protecting low-paid women workers, but that is a matter for them. They should be more enthusiastic. However, is he genuinely saying that because only half a dozen large stores opened last time, we should assume that no more will open this time?

Mr. O'Brien

The Government take a neutral position on the Bill. My hon. Friend, although normally persuasive, has left me unconvinced about the Bill at the moment. She will have to exercise her persuasive powers to a much greater extent if she is to convince me that there is a problem that requires the sort of legislation that she is seeking to introduce. I did not vote for maintaining the restrictions on Sunday opening. I believe that, by and large, shops should be able to decide when they wish to open. Sunday trading has largely benefited our economy and families. I therefore believe that I took the right approach in voting to allow Sunday trading. Most families who shop on Sunday—about 56 per cent.—find it a benefit and they would not like it to be taken away.

There is little evidence that large stores are seeking to open as my hon. Friend fears. Safeways, which has 480 retail outlets, says that it opened no large stores. Only 50 small shops attached to petrol stations were open. Budgens opened 91 of its 207 stores, but all were under 3,000 sq ft. The Co-op opened 85 of its 4,653 stores, three of which were over 3,000 sq ft. No doubt, my hon. Friend will wish to take up with the Co-op any concerns that she may have.

Ms Coffey

The Minister is producing evidence which, he says, shows that there is little inclination among large shops to open on Christmas day. Should that trend increase and more shops open on Christmas day, what would be his view?

Mr. O'Brien

To some extent, the stores would have to determine whether they wanted to open. In a moment, I shall come to the area about which I have concerns, which were reflected in a number of contributions to the debate. Forcing workers to work on Sunday is a significant concern, which was reflected in the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Hall Green and for Nottingham, East and other hon. Members.

I want to inform the House of the approach of some stores and the evidence about whether the trend is truly significant. At the moment, although there is a little movement, I do not believe that the trend is significant. We need not fear the spectre raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport. According to the evidence, the sort of move that she fears is not taking place. The spectre is imaginary, so the question is whether we should follow the route suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich. Should we block the risk before it increases or should we wait and see?

I have been asked what I would advise hon. Members to do. The Government are neutral. We are happy for the Bill to go into Committee, where we can debate the issues. Hon. Members will have to decide whether to pass legislation to prevent something that may or may not happen. It is a matter for hon. Members to decide.

One company that has decided to open on Christmas day is Woolworths, which for the first time opened three stores. It is significant that those were in Southall, Balham and Slough. All were over 3,000 sq ft. The list that I have given is not exhaustive, but it is clear that only a tiny proportion of the shops that were open last year were large shops. The others were overwhelmingly smaller convenience stores. It remains to be seen whether retailers will find Christmas day opening of large stores financially viable, given the attachment of most people to their traditional Christmas.

Some retailers, like Woolworths, have targeted the opening of shops in specific areas where they believe that that is welcome, given the local religious and ethnic mix, particularly in non-Christian communities. Britain is still a predominantly Christian country and it is right that, to some extent, the law reflects Christian traditions. However, we must also recognise that an increasing number of our citizens have different faiths and that they wish to express those faiths in different ways. We need to be conscious that we live in a multicultural society.

Recent estimates suggest that there may be up to 3 million members of non-Christian communities in the United Kingdom. There is also a sizeable number of people who say that they are of no faith at all. The Government have made it clear that we wish to promote respect for and understanding of religious belief, including, obviously, Christian religious belief. We are working with faith communities on ways to tackle and overcome all kinds of religious discrimination. The Home Office recently published two reports dealing with these issues. We are also planning to introduce a new law to combat religious discrimination in employment and training.

It is for Members of Parliament to decide whether we should pass new legislation that would require observance of religious festivals in which not everyone can share. The unintended consequence of the Bill would be to close those large stores which last year could serve minority communities. Those communities may well want to participate in celebrating Christmas day in this country, and of course that would be a matter for them, but they may take a different view. The question is whether that should also be a matter for them, or a matter for the law.

Small corner shops would be unaffected by the changes proposed, and most of the stores that are open on Christmas day are convenience stores. The House must consider the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich and decide whether there is a need for her limited proposal in respect of large stores, or whether we should say that the case is not yet proven and await developments before proceeding.

Mrs. Dunwoody

That is the greatest load of muddled nonsense that I have heard in my life. Unless my hon. Friend can produce to the House specific statistics showing that only large numbers of members of non-Christian communities were using the stores that opened on Christmas day, his argument is dodgy. I should have thought that he would have had enough common sense to strike out that part of his speech. We need a clear answer from him. The Bill protects women workers, predominantly, from being forced to work on Christmas day. Does he accept that principle? A simple yes or no will suffice. I understand that perfectly.

Mr. O'Brien

My hon. Friend has already been commended for the charm with which she handles interventions, so I do not need to commend it again.

The protection of women workers is extremely important. As a result of Sunday trading—this argument would not necessarily apply to Christmas—some women can work at weekends, which for various reasons is much more convenient for them than working during the week. We are also aware that students and younger people might benefit from working on Sunday. My hon. Friend asked me whether it is right that we should protect women. The deregulation of Sunday trading has brought added benefits to some women workers.

Mrs. Dunwoody

What about this Bill?

Mr. O'Brien

As has been pointed out, the rosy spectacle that she presents of a Christmas for women at home is not always as pleasant as she might want it to be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green said, people sometimes find that they have to work very hard to prepare the Christmas meal. I am not necessarily speaking about women; as he told us, men also find that they have to work hard. I have done the same job, so I sympathise with him and with women who work very hard throughout Christmas, even if they do not choose to work in a shop or elsewhere.

The issue is one of choice. Should we prevent women from choosing, for whatever reason, to work on Christmas day? My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said that there was an argument for doing so in particular circumstances, but she presents the matter in a limited way. The restriction would apply only to shops that are more than 3,000 sq ft in size. I think that there is an argument for such proposals, which is why I advance my arguments in an entirely neutral way, as I hope that she will appreciate.

Introducing legislation to regulate the times when shops can open is never a simple matter. The debate on opening hours raises issues relating to individual freedom, the role of religion, protection of employees an I respect for family life. Those are legitimate interests, but they sometimes conflict. Numerous attempts were made over the years to change the Shops Act 1950, but they all came to nothing. Everyone agreed that something should be done, but they did not agree on what. The provisions in the 1950 Act that prescribed how long shops could stay open during the week and dealt with half-day closing were finally repealed in 1994.

Only Sunday shopping, which was always the most controversial aspect of that Act, has remained subject to restrictions, which are now contained in the Sunday Trading Act 1994. Many hon. Members will remember the discussions about that Act, which was fiercely debated, as there were strongly held views on all sides of the argument. The Sunday trading provisions of the 1950 Act had become badly outdated. Anomalous rules on the legality or otherwise of selling tea as opposed to beer, fresh rather than dried milk, or tripe instead of steak, had brought the law into disrepute. The restrictions were increasingly ignored.

In reforming the law, Parliament chose to adopt the approach of partial deregulation. It sought to allow people greater freedom to shop while ensuring that Sunday remained different from other days. The 1994 Act contains no restrictions on shops whose size is 280 sq m or less. Shops of more than 280 sq m in size may open for six continuous hours between 10 am and 6 pm, and are required to close completely on Easter Sunday and on Christmas day when it falls on a Sunday. That requirement was the result of an amendment tabled by Lord Alton. During the passage of that Bill, it was pointed out that Easter is the most important date in the Christian calender. Hon. Members felt it appropriate to acknowledge that in legislation. When the restriction was extended to Christmas day, it was understood that it would not be affected when it did not fall on a Sunday. That is more restrictive than any provision in the Shops Act 1950, which did not subject Easter Sunday and Christmas day to specific controls.

Some anxiety was expressed that the 1994 Act might prove unworkable. Broadly speaking, that has not been the case. Shops have generally abided by the Act, and there have been relatively few complaints.

A survey by Healey and Baker in 1999 showed that 56 per cent. of people shopped at some time on a Sunday. The average increase in sales was only 3.4 per cent. and profitability increased by 0.6 per cent. That suggests that, for most people, Sunday shopping remains primarily a matter of convenience. Hon. Members must consider whether they believe that shops should open on Christmas day because that fulfils a need or whether the Bill should receive a Second Reading.

Helen Jones

As north-west women Members of Parliament are renowned for their charm, I want to ask my hon. Friend a question. If he believes that it is acceptable to restrict trading when Christmas day falls on a Sunday, why is not it acceptable to do that when Christmas day falls on another day of the week?

Mr. O'Brien

My hon. Friend will appreciate that I have simply set out the argument that was deployed when we considered the Bill that became the 1994 Act. When hon. Members considered that measure, they took the view that they did not wish to restrict shopping on Christmas days that fell on week days. My hon. Friend may wish to ascertain why hon. Members took that view then. I cannot recollect all the details of the arguments that were deployed, but the 1994 Act specifically provides for Christmas days that fall on a Sunday. Hon. Members believed that trading should be restricted in those circumstances, but not when Christmas days fell on week days.

Ms Coffey

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I give way to my hon. Friend, who was active in the debate.

Ms Coffey

I did not participate in that debate, although I voted for restricted Sunday trading. However, I remember the debate, and I do not believe that my hon. Friend gave a proper summary of the view of the House. Hon. Members did not consider restricting trading on Christmas days that fell on a week day because that was not in the Bill's remit. If Christmas had been debated, it would not have been logical for the House to ban the larger shops from trading on a Christmas day that fell on a Sunday and not consider doing that for week-day Christmases. However, the subject was not considered in the context of the Sunday Trading Bill.

Mr. O'Brien

Doubtless hon. Members would be happy to read the debates in Hansard and ascertain the reasons for the House's view at that time. It took a clear view, and there are restrictions on trading on Christmas days that fall on a Sunday, but not on those that fall on week days. Perhaps there were procedural reasons for that, concerning the long title of the Bill.

Let us consider an important issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East and other hon. Members mentioned. My hon. Friend made the most telling speech of the debate. He expressed strongly his anxiety about the Sunday trading laws, which sought to protect people from being forced to work on a Sunday but are not always effective. I share many of his anxieties about workers being forced to work on Christmas day or Sundays.

I also share my hon. Friend's scepticism about some of the other arguments that were deployed about the Bill. In a multicultural society, in which freedom and free trade should not be unnecessarily restrained, some of the arguments were unconvincing. He made strong arguments about employment rights, and we should consider them with great care.

USDAW and other trade unions have been worried about protection. The 1994 Act included protections for employees. Shopworkers have the right to refuse to work on Sundays, or to opt out even if contracted to do so. They are protected from detriment and from dismissal. It has been claimed that, in spite of this, many shopworkers now feel pressurised into working on Sundays. I think that there is some truth to that, and that is a matter of concern. The rights afforded by the legislation are meant to be comprehensive. However, the number of complaints made to industrial tribunals has been relatively small: 15 during the year 1999–2000.

Christmas day working, and working on any bank holiday, is a matter for negotiation between employers and employees. Employees who do not wish to work on Sundays may be able to take action against their employers if their contracts are varied without their consent. That might apply, for example, if an employee was required to work on Christmas day and that had not previously been the case. The terms of a contract might have been explicitly agreed or incorporated by custom and practice. An employee who was dismissed for refusing a contractual variation to work on Christmas day might well be entitled to complain of unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal.

The point has been raised by my hon. Friends that if a right is not accessible, it is tantamount to not having that right at all. There is a great deal of truth in that. It is important that we ensure that we protect our workers from being obliged to do anything that is against their conscience in certain circumstances. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that schedule 4 of the Sunday Trading Act 1994 was meant to protect workers and that if it failed to do so, there could be grounds for revisiting that part of the legislation, rather than banning trade altogether. I think that he made a strong point.

That point was reinforced to some extent by my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green who said that an alternative to a complete ban on opening might be a stronger ban on forcing workers to work on Christmas day. That might be a more family friendly approach than a complete ban, because some people might want to volunteer to work on Christmas day. The House will want to consider those issues in its own time, and, no doubt, in Committee.

Mr. Gardiner

What is my hon. Friend's view of those retail companies that, subsequent to the 1994 Act, changed their employment contracts so that the question of choice does not arise when someone is doing a job, but predates the commencement of employment? In such circumstances, a person would have the choice between signing a contract that committed them to working on a Sunday, or not signing a contract at all. That would mean either taking the job and agreeing to work on Sundays, or not taking the job. That would mean having absolutely no choice once one had started working. The Minister should consider that issue.

Mr. O'Brien

I hear what my hon. Friend says. I have had a constituent complain to me about precisely that point; it was a matter of concern to me and I took up my constituent's case. However, the Government do not have any plans to introduce legislation at this time that would prevent employers and employees from entering into employment agreements, which they are entitled to do under the free process of entering into jobs.

The Government want to ensure a proper balance. We need to ensure a level of employment protection that gives workers reasonable rights, but we also recognise that over-regulation is damaging to business and to the economy, and that is not something that we want to introduce. Getting the balance right is an important part of our strategy, and we intend to ensure that we do not over-regulate the business community, while ensuring that we give basic protection to workers. The legislation that the Government have introduced since the 1997 election shows that we an achieving that balance between the proper deregulation of business and the proper protection of workers' rights, including the protection of the rights of women workers.

The Bill would enshrine in law the right of one sector of the work force not to have to work on a particular public holiday. I ask whether that would be an entirely satisfactory arrangement. Members will have to decide for themselves whether there is a case for treating Christmas day differently. Other days, such as Good Friday, may be thought to have equal or better claims, in Christian terms, than Christmas day. However, I do not want to deter people from supporting the Bill. The Government are neutral on this issue and we want the Bill to proceed into Committee.

Mr. Win Griffiths

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I have been on my feet for quite a long time and I have taken many interventions, but I have not yet given way to my hon. Friend, so I shall do so now.

Mr. Griffiths

The Minister mentioned the relative merits of Good Friday and Christmas day, but theologically they are indivisible.

Mr. O'Brien

I defer to my hon. Friend's greater theological knowledge, and I take his point.

I understand the concern that staff may feel obliged to work on Christmas day. If that became a reality, it would clearly not be to the benefit of individuals or their family life. Given the public's attitude towards Christmas day, the likely pattern of shop opening and general employment law, it seems unlikely that major stores would readily adopt such a policy. As trading on Christmas day is unlikely to happen on a large scale, do we want to legislate to prevent it now? That is the fundamental issue before us.

The Government have sympathy with the concerns that have prompted the Bill, but as I have made clear, we also have some reservations. There is so far only limited evidence that the Bill is necessary.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien

No. I am sorry, but I will not give way as I am concluding my remarks.

The widespread opening of large shops seems unlikely, but Members will have to decide whether they want to prevent it in anticipation of some future change in practice. The Bill would create new regulation where none previously existed. That is not wholly consistent with the Government's policy of reducing regulatory burdens. It would also have the effect of prohibiting something that is currently permitted.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Like hunting.

Mr. O'Brien

If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not get involved in the hunting debate.

The Bill would inhibit the freedom of business to some extent, and Members will have to consider whether that is necessary. The Government have sympathy with the Churches and others who are alarmed at the possible incursion of commercialism into Christmas day. Family life is important, and undermining Christmas day is undesirable. The Government hope that the House will give careful thought to these issues when considering the Bill. I hope that the House will allow it to go into Committee so that we can debate in detail not only the strong arguments for the Bill, but the strong reservations about some parts of it.

12.29 pm
Mrs. Dunwoody

I am speechless For once in my life, I am deprived of the power of speech. I have never heard such an extraordinary speech. That may be a slight exaggeration, as I have heard some very extraordinary speeches from Front-Bench Members.

The Bill would correct an anomaly that the House of Commons, in the original debate, did not realise would arise. I would be delighted if the Bill were proposing some marvellous charter to protect the rights of poorly paid women across the United Kingdom, but that is not so. It would merely rectify something that is wrong. It is not a complicated argument about a multi-faith society versus a Christian society. It is not about people who want to buy themselves three-piece suites versus people who want to buy batteries. It is straightforward and uncomplicated.

Frankly, I am disappointed—I am being tolerant—at the attitude of Ministers, who seem to think that it is all right to protect the rights of rich women, but not those of poor women. To say at the end of the speech, as my hon. Friend the Minister did, that the Government hoped that the Bill went forward was, frankly, sailing pretty close to a charge of disingenuousness.

The Bill ought to have been thought of and was not. The House got it wrong; the House can put it right.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 37, Noes 0.

Tellers for the Noes:
Mr. Eric Forth and
Mr. Edward Leigh.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).