HC Deb 05 November 2002 vol 392 cc143-5 3.31 pm
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend to Scotland the provisions of Part IV of the Employment Rights Act 1996. I do so in a spirit of disappointment, in sorrow and in anger. The relevant sections of the Employment Rights Act, together with the Sunday Trading Act 1994, were brought in by the Conservative Government with the support of Opposition parties, to try to create a balance of rights within our pluralistic society.

The intention was to ensure that shops had the flexibility to be able to trade on a Sunday, that consumers had the flexibility to be able to shop on a Sunday, but that shop workers with religious or other objections to working on a Sunday, or practical or personal reasons for not wishing to work on a Sunday, should not be forced to do so.

Accordingly, retail workers who had contracts that did not oblige them to work on Sundays were entitled to refuse to do so without fear of dismissal, redundancy or any other kind of detriment. Shop workers whose contracts did include the possibility of Sunday working could give a three-month opt-out, which meant that after that period they could refuse again to work on a Sunday and would not be subject to any detriment.

The 1996 Act, like Acts for the previous 60 years dealing with this matter, going back to the time of Stanley Baldwin, applied only to England and Wales. Separate legislation dealt with Northern Ireland, but Scotland was not included. As the Leader of the House has said, that did not make a great difference, because, at the time, companies decided as a matter of principle that they should apply precisely the same rules on a voluntary basis to their Scottish employees.

The retail company Argos was one of those that did this from the mid-1990s; and it gave its employees an opt-out clause in exactly the same terms as the legislation. Sadly, this year, in an appalling breach of trust with its staff, it decided to exploit the lack of legal protection in Scotland and it presented loyal staff who had been working Mondays to Fridays or Mondays to Saturdays with an ultimatum of compulsory Sunday working or the sack.

That is an appalling denial of religious freedom to those who object to working at all on Sundays or to those who might not object to working occasionally on a Sunday but do object to doing so at the diktat of the company, where the company chooses which Sundays they work, for how many hours and with what frequency. Irrespective of beliefs, this is a denial to couples, as Sunday is often the only day in the week that they can spend together. It can also strike families in particular, as Sunday is the day on which children are most frequently out of school. In so far as women bear the caring and family role to a disproportionate extent in our society, they are also particularly discriminated against. On sexual discrimination, the vast majority of those who have been adversely affected are women. Of course, the practice also discriminates against people simply because they live in Scotland.

I believe that, in all those respects, compulsory Sunday working is offensive to principles that would be shared across the political spectrum in this House. Early-day motion 1498, which has achieved the support of more than 200 hon. Members, is a clear indication of the strength of support that exists. Members of Parliament including Ministers, leading members of the Churches and other Church representatives, and various other people have written to Argos. It was obviously far more desirable that the matter be settled by agreement than by legislation. Sadly, however, Argos ruthlessly continued to pursue its policy and has either driven people into accepting compulsory Sunday working or driven them out of work all together.

I should like to comment on some of the responses given by Argos to our representations. The company claimed that it had fully consulted, when it had in fact breached its own union agreement by not having any prior discussion with the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. It claimed that 97 per cent. of its workers had voluntarily accepted the new Sunday working arrangements, but that figure is as credible as a general election result in Iraq. As for the word "voluntarily", it is used in a rather special sense, meaning, "Do this or you are sacked."

Mr. Terry Duddy, the chief executive of Argos, wrote to me piously: We pride ourselves, on dealing with staff with fairness and respect, and believe our actions have shown this. That contrasts with what Mr. Steve Farndale, the Scottish area manager, said in an intranet message sent to store managers asking them to discuss the compulsory Sunday working change: Bring your … problems in a big bag … and I'll bring a big bin. We can also refer to internal company documents, which showed callous calculation; to the treatment of individual staff, which was ruthless; or to the case of a mother who said that she wanted to spend time with her daughter, but was told to find somebody else to watch over her. A daughter giving respite care to a critically ill parent was told, "You can do that any time."

Normal family affection was treated as a sin against corporate greed. The firm instructed that, where managers found that truly exceptional circumstances made it impossible for somebody to work on a Sunday, they should demand that that person come back for interrogation every month to find out whether the circumstances had changed. Reading about some of the individual cases, I thought that what was happening was Dickensian, but I decided that that was unfair, because even Scrooge at his worst gave Bob Cratchit time off and did not demand intrusive personal questioning or a monthly update on Tiny Tim's state of health.

Despite all appeals—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will see the chief executive of the company tomorrow at Dover house—the company has gone ahead with sacking and driving out loyal long-serving staff and has coerced others into Sunday working. I would have preferred it if the matter had been dealt with on a consensual basis. That is why I speak in sorrow and anger. The company has been intransigent and the legislation is needed.

Today, I hope that we can set down a marker for legislation in the next Session that would, I hope with the support of the whole House, extend to shopworkers in Scotland the protection that is currently enjoyed by those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Question put and agreed to. Bill ordered to be brought ii by Mr. Malcolm Savidge, Miss Anne Begg, Mr. Roy Beggs, Mr. John Bercow, Mr. Russell Brown, Malcolm Bruce, Mr. Frank Doran, Mr. Calum McDonald, Sandra Osborne, Mr. David Stewart, Mr. Michael Weir and Sir Nicholas Winterton.

  2. c145
    1. c145
    2. Consideration of Lords Amendments 175 words
    3. c145
    4. Subsequent stages 47 words