HC Deb 18 June 2004 vol 422 cc974-1001

  1. '(1) Where the owner of a large shop employs entirely non-Christian employees in that shop and lodges notice of such fact with the local authority no later than 1st November in any year, the large shop shall be exempt from the provisions of this act for the Christmas Day following.
  2. (2) A notice made under subsection (1) shall be in writing and shall identify—
    1. (a) the shop premises concerned,
    2. (b) the owner of the shop, and
    3. (c) the identity of all the employees.'—[Mr. Greg Knight.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.36 am
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)

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

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 11, in page 1, line 8 [Clause 1], at end insert— '(2A) Subsection(1) does not apply to any shop where there is a local public demand for it to be open on Christmas Day. (2B) A local public demand under subsection (2A) shall be deemed to exist for the Christmas Day following where by 1st November in any year the local authority has received a petition signed by no fewer than 1,000 persons

  1. (a) who reside within the local authority area in which the large shop is situated, and
  2. (b) whose names appear on the electoral register.'.

Mr. Knight

I start from the position of thinking that the Bill is not necessary. I have arrived at that position without encouragement, coercion or inducement from any trade union. However, if others take a different view and think that we should legislate, it is right and proper that we try to accommodate all shades of opinion from all members of our society.

The new clause recognises that not every resident of England and Wales is a Christian. Indeed, many members of this country do not practise the Christian religion and, indeed, may support another religion for which Christmas day has no religious significance.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

I hope it may help my right hon. Friend, even at this early stage in his analysis, if I remind him of what I told the House on Second Reading, because it relates exactly to his point. I said—I quote myself, Madam Deputy Speaker, which is always a pleasurable thing to do: Among people of working age—the 16 to 74 age group—the Christian element is 72 per cent., but the number of people with no religion, or no stated religion, was 22 per cent. The figure for the other defined religions was 4.1 per cent.—[Official Report, 26 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 1169.] "Other defined religions" includes Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, others and Buddhists. Does that not set the context for what my right hon. Friend is going to argue? It reinforces his point that we simply must not assume that everyone of working age—this is the key point, as is made clear in the census, from which I quoted—is necessarily of the Christian religion.

Mr. Knight

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, but the argument goes wider than that. I come from a relatively small family and have one brother. We received a similar education and obviously come from the same cultural background, yet his attitude to Sundays and Christmas day is totally different from mine. For me, Christmas is the time to stay at home with friends. My brother takes the opposite view. He likes to travel the world and to go shopping. He now lives in Hong Kong, where he can go to the shops on Christmas day. He often visits America, where it is possible to shop in New York on Christmas day. So two brothers from the same cultural upbringing have a totally different view of Christmas. I would argue that many Christians—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. This is not a Second Reading debate. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will start to address his new clause.

Mr. Knight

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I was seeking to explain that it is not just non-Christians who would favour new clause 1. Many people from a Christian background do not believe that Christmas day is a day on which one should stay at home and not be able to visit a shop.

New clause 1 would exempt from the Bill large shops owned and run by non-Christians with non-Christian employees. I do not know how many right hon. and hon. Members are familiar with the city of Leicester, but I suspect that in view of the forthcoming by-election in Leicester, South many will become far more familiar with it in the coming weeks. I used to live in the city, which has changed dramatically, not always for the better as for many years it had the misfortune of having a Labour-controlled, anti-motorist city council. However, multiculturalism has made Leicester a better city, as members of the Asian community have brought a quality of life that was not present before.

If hon. Members visit Melton road or Belgrave road in Leicester they would find a number of Asian shops that provide a valuable service, not just to members of the Asian community but to everyone. They include a number of large shops—we are not just talking about small corner shops—that are owned and run by members of the Asian community and trade seven days a week. Why do some Labour Members want to force such shops to close on Christmas day, when the owners and employees are not Christian? What is the argument for forcing the non-Christian owner of a large shop to close his store on Christmas day? People who seek to change the law in that way ought to be prepared to consider reasonable exemptions where there is a good case for them.

Mr. Forth

I hope that my right hon. Friend will explain how verification would be achieved. Would people simply declare their religion or would there be an attempt at verification? Is he worried that his new clause contains the seeds of falsification or misrepresentation?

Mr. Knight

When one is framing legislation one must always be aware of the fact that some people will seek to cheat or get round legal restrictions. However, new clause 1(2) enables the local authority to carry out random checks to see whether what is purported to be the case is indeed so. I would rather leave that to the local authority, as the owner of a large shop who wants to trade on Christmas day has to submit a notice to it identifying the shop premises, the owner of the shop and the identity of all employees, which should provide it with sufficient evidence when carrying out random checks to see whether information relating to a shop run and staffed by non-Christians is genuine. My right hon. Friend's fears are therefore groundless.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unlikely that such an application would be made without the employees being aware of it? If the notice stated that they were non-Christian but they were in fact Christian, that would soon be drawn to the attention of the local authority.

Mr. Knight

My hon. Friend is quite right. The employees would appreciate the fact that the owner has to list the people in his employ. If he sought to go behind their backs, they, or any member of their family, could draw the error to the attention of the local authority.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, unfortunately, new clause 1(2) provides opportunities that unscrupulous employers of whatever faith have pursued throughout the ages? His proposal is quite unnecessary. We ought to get on and discuss the substance of the Bill, and see it safely through the House.

Mr. Knight

I do not agree. The new clause is necessary, and I do not share the hon. Gentleman's depressing view of employers. If the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), thinks that more checks and greater protection against fraud are needed, I am sure that that could be discussed after our debate and perhaps corrected in the other place, if the Bill proceeds that far. I do not accept, however, that any further amendment is necessary.

9.45 am
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that his proposal would impose great burdens on shop owners? How would they verify what someone's religion is or is not?

Mr. Knight

That is quite simple. If a shop owner decides towards the end of the summer that he would like to trade on Christmas day, he can call a staff meeting to say that he is thinking of submitting a notice seeking permission to trade, but can only do so if none of his employees is a practising Christian. It would therefore not be difficult for him to seek their views and take soundings.

Mr. Forth

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the intemperate remarks of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) ignore the fact that the great lacuna in the Bill is the complete lack of protection for employees? If protection in the Sunday Trading Act 1994 had been reproduced in the Bill, my right hon. Friend's new clause would not be necessary at all. He is trying to do something that I failed to do in an amendment that was not selected—he wants to go further than Labour Members and, indeed, the trade union sponsoring the Bill and provide greater protection for a minority of employees.

Mr. Knight

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The question of protection for employees is separate from the argument about whether a shop should be allowed to open. If Labour Members are concerned that a small number of unscrupulous employers would use the new clause to force employees to work so that they can open their shop on Christmas day, they should address that in other ways, as protection for workers is an entirely separate issue. One or two hon. Members have argued that employers would be crafty and deny promotion to someone who has said that they do not want to work on Sundays or Christmas day, but there are ways of dealing with that problem. We could make employers hold a promotion register, in which they would have to say whether, from day one of someone's employment, they are likely to be promoted. If someone is getting 10 out of 10 in the book but is not winning promotion, we could prove that there was discrimination.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he is going down a road where prying into someone's religion becomes the norm? Surely, no employer has the right to question his employees about whether they have any religious belief. If they kept the promotion register that he suggested, that would make the Bill even more intrusive, as someone's religion would be linked to their employment prospects.

Mr. Knight

If we were dealing with a matter that had nothing whatever to do with religion, the hon. Lady's point might be valid, but we are talking about Christmas day. If we were discussing a Diwali celebrations Bill seeking to impose some restrictions in that regard, religion would be an issue. The fact that we are talking about Christmas day, one of the most sacred days in the calendar for Christians, means that religion is relevant. Labour Members cannot brush religion aside when we are speaking about Christmas day. To some people Christmas day means nothing, and why should it if they are not Christian? The new clause says that a shop that is owned and staffed by people who are not Christian and to whom Christmas day does not mean anything should not be forced to close.

Most of us who have been to our inner cities where there is a large Asian community have nothing but admiration for the number of Asian businessmen who have started with nothing and built up very successful businesses. Why should the state say to someone who owns a large shop and who is an Asian, "You can't open because most people in this country are Christians and we are telling you you've got to close on Christmas day"? That is unfair. The sole purpose of new clause 1 is to prevent that.

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the notion of national holidays? I am not a Christian, but I see Christmas day as a national holiday. Does he accept that if a day is seen as a national holiday, everybody who works should have the benefit of it? As he is aware, Easter day is exempt. Does he propose to take the same view of Easter day as he does of Christmas day?

Mr. Knight

I would be brought to heel by the Chair if I exceeded the scope of the Bill. We are talking about Christmas day, not Easter. No, I do not accept that everybody should automatically have a right to a day off on a national holiday. That has never happened. Many people work on national holidays: news readers, paper shops and people in the media. There will always be exemptions. I ask Labour Members, what is wrong with that? Those who are seeking to bring about the change need to show why it should impinge on every culture in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Chope

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is apparent from the interventions that he has taken, that there is a Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers agenda to give shop workers more days off, and it is being proposed on the basis that it is justified on Christian—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already said that we are no longer on Second Reading. Perhaps Members will address their comments to the new clause and the amendment under discussion.

Mr. Knight

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is not right in his assumption. I trust that anyone who speaks in the debate and who has an interest to declare and who may be sponsored by a union will declare it.

Amendment No. 11 recognises the fact that there may be a view in a local community that runs contrary to the views expressed from the Labour Benches. If that is the case, surely that view should be reflected in a provision for a local community to opt out. The amendment states that the Bill will not apply where there is a local public demand for a large shop to open on Christmas day, and a local public demand shall be deemed to exist for the Christmas Day following where by 1st November in any year the local authority has received a petition signed by no fewer than 1,000 persons

  1. (a) who reside within the local authority area in which the large shop is situated".
In case Labour Members ask, "What about fraud?" in this case, paragraph (b) of amendment No. 11 provides that those who sign the petition must be persons whose names appear on the electoral register"

so I hope that will allay any fears that amendment No. 11 could be open to abuse. Both new clause 1 and amendment No. 11 are reasonable and fair. They are designed to exempt from the Bill those shops where the view of the owner is that the shop should be exempt, but that is limited to the grounds specified in the new clause and the amendment. It would not be a case of an owner deciding of his own volition that he wanted to trade on Christmas day. If new clause 1 were accepted by the House, he would need to show that his employees are not members of the Christian faith.

I am thinking primarily of the large Asian supermarkets, of which we have very many in the United Kingdom. Most of them, in my experience, provide an excellent service. The owners do not regard themselves as bound by our traditional holidays. They do not, by and large, support the Christian religion. so why should they be covered by the Bill?

I should be interested to know why the promoter of the Bill feels that none of the provisions that he tells us are necessary should apply to Scotland, where I understand there are no rules to prevent a shop, Asian or otherwise, from opening on Christmas day. I hope that on sober reflection hon. Members will consider it appropriate to add new clause 1 and amendment No. 11 to the Bill.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries) (Lab)

I have some information for the right hon. Gentleman. A similar Bill is going through the Scottish Parliament to cover Scotland.

Mr. Knight

I am grateful for that information. I hope people are as tolerant in Scotland as I am seeking to make the Bill.

On amendment No. 11, if a large shop were surrounded by a God-fearing devout Christian society, it would be right and proper that it did not open on Christmas day, but if the shop were providing a valuable service in an area of mainly secular agnostic people who wanted it to open, and if the owner wanted to open and could get 1,000 people from that area to sign a petition, why should he not be allowed to do so?

Mr. Forth

Would my right hon. Friend comment on what might happen if there were a counter-petition by a similar or greater number of people of a different faith? We could get into competitive petitions, and I would be intrigued to know what might happen then.

Mr. Knight

If people were alarmed that a shop had received the requisite number of signatures on a petition, I would say to them, "Don't go shopping". Shops exist to cater for those who wish to use them. If more than 1,000 in a locality want to use a shop on Christmas day or feel that it provides a useful service on Christmas day and they have signed the petition, the shop should be allowed to open. If other people, perhaps fewer or more, do not give a hoot whether the shop is open, they are free to stay at home.

Helen Jones

Does not the right hon. Gentleman's argument fall down? The figure in his amendment bears no relation to population density, so the situation could arise where 1,000 people want a shop to open, but the vast majority of people living in that local authority area do not. Are their wishes to be overridden by the 1,000 people?

Mr. Knight

Yes, and rightly so. I make no apology for that. Shops exist to serve those who wish to use them. I am one of a minority of people in this country, I think, who have no interest whatever in football. I have not watched any of the games that are being played at present, but I would staunchly defend the right of others to do so. If I see a sign outside a public house saying, "Large-screen TV—come and watch Euro-football here", I avoid it, but I would not for a moment seek to stop those premises showing that football match to those who want to watch it. Similarly, if a shop can show that 1,000 people in the locality want the right to use its services on Christmas, day, it should be allowed to open.

10 am

I wonder how many customers need to cross the threshold of a large shop to make it viable on a normal trading day—far less than 1,000, I assume. The answer is probably 100 or 150 people, assuming that they make a moderate number of purchases, so if a shop can show that 1,000 people wish it to be open and provide a service on Christmas day, it should be allowed to do so. If other people do not mind one way or the other, or would prefer the shop not to open, why should they prevent others who wish to use its services from doing so?

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North) (Lab)

I am intrigued about the administration, red tape and bureaucracy that would be needed to administer or police the proposals. I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman was against more red tape and bureaucracy. Can he imagine handing such a job to a local authority? It would need to appoint an officer; that is the starter for five. He or she would probably need a supervisor, and it would not be long before a whole department was needed. Will he share with the House his proposals to deal with that red tape and bureaucracy?

Mr. Knight

I know how Labour Members love red tape and bureaucracy, so if the hon. Gentleman thinks that that would be the effect, I would have thought that he would welcome these proposals—but I do not think that either proposal would take much policing. It is for each local authority to determine the surveillance that would need to be carried out. We have all heard of random checks, which are all that a local authority would need to do. Let us suppose that an authority received two petitions, each signed by 1,000 people. All that it would have to do is carry out random checks on the names on the petition to see whether they matched the electoral register. If they did not, the local authority could inform the shop owner that his petition was defective, and he was not exempt from the Act.

Similarly, if the local authority received an application from an Asian superstore, but on closer examination it turned out not to be an Asian superstore—perhaps the manager was an Asian person, but it was a normal local shop, not run by non-Christians—the local authority could determine that the provisions of new clause 1 were not met. A great bureaucracy would not be needed to administer the proposals. That may disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but both new clause 1 and amendment No. 11 are reasonable. They would restrict the scope of the Bill, so that it would not affect communities for whom Christmas day is not a special event. I should have thought that Labour Members would therefore welcome the new clause and the amendment.

Ms Coffey

If 1,000 names were on a petition to keep a shop open, but the shop staff consisted of devout Christians, what resolution would the right hon. Gentleman propose?

Mr. Knight

I cannot think of many shops that would have 1,000 employees. That would be a very large shop indeed. Perhaps the hon. Lady can give an example of a shop with 1,000 employees.

Ms Coffey

The right hon. Gentleman misunderstands my question. He is talking about making an exemption where a local petition has 1,000 names, and I am asking how he would resolve a situation when a 1,000-name petition is received to keep a shop open, yet most of its employees are devout Christians who want that day off. How would he balance those interests?

Mr. Knight

We are returning to the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made about worker protection if an employee does not wish to work on Christmas day. That is a totally separate argument in relation to whether the shop should be allowed to open. I would not tackle that by telling the shop owner that he cannot trade on Christmas day. That is the wrong way to deal with the situation.

Hon. Members may feel that these proposals might be unfair to members of a community who do not want a shop to open, but they should sit in the public gallery of a magistrates court dealing with licensing issues. Very often, when licensing justices are asked to renew a justices licence for a public house, petitions will be submitted to object to renewing that licence, perhaps because entertainment is put on there and noise is created. However, the very fact that someone in the community raises an objection does not automatically prevent that business from trading Of course, if there is a demand for a large shop to open, people will say that they would rather it remained closed—particularly, perhaps, those who live next door—but, in a free society, if there is a demand for a shop to open and the owner wants to open, he should be allowed to do so.

Those hon. Members who were in the House when we first decided to tackle Sunday trading will be well aware of what we were told would happen if we opened up Sundays to allow trading. We were told that Sunday would be totally different. We would never again be able to enjoy Sunday as we knew it. Many of us received petitions signed by hundreds of people from the Churches. The Churches particularly—now it is the unions—told us that we should not tamper with the Shops Act 1950 and allow trading on Sunday, as it would destroy families: people would be forced to work, and Sunday would never be the same again. That has not happened. If we were now to seek to turn back the clock and reintroduce the Shops Act 1950, I would bet Labour Members that they would receive petitions by the hundred saying "Leave our Sunday alone" and "Hands off Sunday." The amendment to the Sunday trading law has generally worked well–it has satisfied public demand–and that is all I seek to do with the new clause and the amendment.

Mr. Forth

Did my right hon. Friend think it odd then, and does he still think it odd now, that in the United States, where Sunday trading is widely practised, church attendance has always been multiples of what it is in this country? More than 40 per cent. of Americans go to church on Sundays, despite shopping before and after, whereas regular church attendance is less than 10 per cent. in this country.

Mr. Knight

I hesitate to go too far down that path, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my right hon. Friend has a point, in that these days many people do more than one thing on Sundays. It is apparent from the American experience that some people go to church and then to the shops, or to the shops and then to church. They do not regard the two as incompatible. Only the trade union involved in this case feels that we should prevent people from shopping in large shops on Christmas day. I do not know why the union takes that view. If it wants to address workers' rights, it should do so totally differently. If there is a demand for large shops to open on Christmas day they should be allowed to do so, according to my proposals.

Mr. Kevan Jones

The right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that USDAW and other trade unions support the Bill, but it has also received strong support from others. I have letters from local Church groups, and both the established Church and the Catholic Church back the Bill as well.

Mr. Knight

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, the same range of people told us that we should not get rid of the Shops Act 1950. Those of us who were in government at that time—it was before the 1987 election—went against the advice of all those people. We were told that we would lose support as a party. I have no evidence that people changed their voting patterns because we sought to address the problems of the Shops Act.

Ms Coffey

For the record, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows that USDAW supported the changes to Sunday trading.

Mr. Knight

Churches have been mentioned. The Catholic Church and others did not support the changes. I did not know that the union supported the changes and I am delighted to hear that, but the Churches opposed them.

Mr. Chope

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the Churches' attitude might have been slightly different if they had realised that the USDAW spokesman had said: This has nothing to do with religion other than our belief that workers deserve the day off"?

Mr. Knight

I shall not interfere between USDAW and the Churches. I hope that hon. Members, whatever their party and whether or not they are members of a trade union, will consider the matter fairly, calmly and on its merits. There is an overwhelming case for providing that when a shop owner and the employees are not Christian, they should be exempt from the Bill. New clause 1 tries to achieve that, and I hope that hon. Members will view that as a reasonable position. The House should approve it.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab)

I have been listening to the right hon. Gentleman with growing concern. He implies that a non-Christian shop owner—I can think of a rather large store in London that has a non-Christian owner—should ensure that all his staff are non-Christian, and could thus seek an advantage over a competitor. Is not there an incentive in the new clause for the employer to ensure that all his staff are non-Christian? Imagine the discord that that would cause in stores throughout the country. In a multicultural country, where we are trying to engage with each other, I can envisage no more divisive path than creating shops that are almost ghettoes, with non-Christians in one and Christians in another.

Mr. Knight

The idea that a shop owner will start sacking people and employing non-Christians merely to gain benefit from one trading day a year is incredible. I do not believe that that will happen, especially when some shops might not want to open on Christmas day. However, if they want to open on Christmas day, they should have the right to do that, and be exempt from the legislation.

I believe that hon. Members who feel that the measure is necessary will be prepared to accommodate the views of large shop owners who take a different view and whose staff may take a different view. I therefore hope that new clause 1 and amendment No. 11 will commend themselves to the House.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD)

I shall not detain the House long. I make it clear that, as a Scottish Member, I shall not vote on the Bill, but I have a genuinely held view on its substance. My personal position is that I support the Conservative arguments for extending Sunday trading rules to Christmas, rather than the Bill. I acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is one of the measure's sponsors. I respect his views, but we do not share the same opinion on the matter.

However, I am worried about the seriousness of the new clause. Most of the interventions have shown that it is not practical, as drafted. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) has two objectives. The first is to extend the debate and the second is to defend not the new clause but the more substantive argument that people should have the freedom to choose what they do on Christmas day rather than having it restricted. I am sure that he acknowledges privately, if not publicly, that trying to isolate a store as non-Christian, requiring a register for a licence and identification of every employee is not a serious practical legislative proposition that any of us would regard as workable. [Interruption.] I do not want to be accused of delaying the Bill's passage, but Labour Members who supported the Bill intervened often. I am surprised at that, in the context of parliamentary procedure.

I understand what prompted the Bill. First, there is a fear that Christmas day is somehow being lost as a special day. However, the same argument applied to Sunday trading, and I agree with the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire about that. Secondly, there is a worry that pressure will be exerted on individuals to give up their Christmas days. If people do not wish to work on Christmas day for specifically religious reasons, they should be given a legal right not to do that, as applies on Sundays.

10.15 am

I believe that the Bill will generate some negative reactions, because it is trying to reverse a process that is already happening. People choose to shop on Christmas day, and some shops are open. Although many people do not want to work on Christmas day—I am one of them; I want to be at home with my family—I know of people who loathe and detest Christmas day. They want to be out and about with other people, and would prefer to work. The Bill would deny them that right. The extent of the freedom of choice is at the heart of the question of whether we need the Bill.

Mr. Kevan Jones

The law as it stands restricts the activities of largest shops if Christmas day falls on a Sunday. If it falls on another day, they can open. The Bill is simply trying to close a loophole. Many hon. Members who spoke on Second Reading believed that the Bill would achieve that. There is not a free-for-all on Christmas day.

Malcolm Bruce

I bring the benefit of being a Scottish Member to the debate: the law on Sunday trading and Christmas trading is different in Scotland. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) knows that we did not have restrictive laws in Scotland, basically because people believed that the power of Calvinism would simply prevent such things from happening. As society has changed, the lack of a law has opened up opportunities. Shops are not as restricted in Scotland as they are in England. As someone who sometimes spends a Sunday in London but more often spends it in Scotland, I can say that the difference is marked. People in Scotland who like the current position would not like it if a Bill in the Scottish Parliament extended Sunday trading laws to Scotland on Christmas day.

Mr. Forth

I intervene as a non-Calvinist who was born and raised in Scotland, and who therefore appreciates the hon. Gentleman's comments. We shall all watch with interest the Liberal Democrats' actions in the Scottish Parliament when such a Bill comes before them.

However, we have to acknowledge the profound cultural difference between Scotland and England. When I was raised in Scotland, Christmas day was barely a public holiday, and that continues to inform many people's attitudes. However, the hon. Gentleman must recognise that the attitude in England is culturally different. Drawing comparisons between England and Scotland on the subject is not helpful.

Malcolm Bruce

I made it clear at the outset that, as a Scottish Member, I would not vote on the Bill unless amendment No. 12 to extend the measure to Scotland were accepted. It is up to the Scottish Parliament to decide. The Liberal Democrats regard the matter as an entirely personal issue—a matter of religion and conscience—and there will be a free vote on it. Although I am the trade and industry spokesman for my party, I am expressing my personal opinion, which is not a party view.

I accept the chastisement of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and I do not wish to impose any views or judgments on England. However, I believe that I am qualified to know the difference between England and Scotland, given that I was brought up in England, represent a Scottish constituency and married a wife from London. I therefore believe that I know both communities well.

The serious point that I am making is that the climate has changed, and is changing. At the heart of this debate is the question of whether we need a law to try to protect Christmas day from a change that a significant minority of the population have actively been bringing about. My view is that we need to be careful not to impose restrictions that will be hard to sustain, because I suspect that the number of people who want the choice to make Christmas day different from what most people choose is growing, albeit slowly.

That is all that I want to say. The new clause is an unworkable proposition, and the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire would be wise to withdraw it. He has explored and identified a problem, but I do not think that he has found the solution.

Mr. Forth

It pains me to say this, but I really was not convinced by the arguments of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight). I say that as someone who—the House has rarely heard me say this, but I shall say it on this occasion—has changed his mind on the Bill in a general sense. We shall return to that on Third Reading, when I hope to explain my position in much more depth and detail.

I make that point at this stage, however, because I began by having some sympathy for my right hon. Friend's new clause and amendment, and wanting to support them. I think that it takes us into a more general consideration of multiculturalism and monoculturalism. As I have said before and will say again, I am basically a monoculturalist. I believe that people who come to this country freely from elsewhere should be prepared to adapt to our culture and history, although not necessarily to our religion. I certainly would not want to say that, but I am uneasy when we go too far in encouraging differences in our society rather than integration. That is my starting point.

I therefore come to the new clause and amendment with some trepidation, although I can see exactly what my right hon. Friend wants to say. The libertarian in me wants to reflect what the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) just said. In an ideal world, I would want everyone to be as free as possible to do what they wanted to do of their own free will. I apply that argument to all sorts of subjects, and I suspect that we shall come to that when we debate smoking and other matters. However, that argument is overlaid by the profound cultural considerations that arise in discussion of the matter before us today. The very title of the new clause, "Cultural and non-Christian exemption", goes to the very heart of that. We must all examine our conscience and ask ourselves how far we want to go to use the law—which is what we are talking about here—either to impose uniformity on society or to acknowledge as far as possible the reasonable diversity in society. The new clause forces us to confront such issues right from the start, although I find myself torn in this case, because part of me wants the maximum freedom for people to do as they wish, even on Christmas day. I shall return to that on Third Reading, for which, unusually for me, I have done some preparation. I am not a great man for preparation, but on this occasion I have a little to hand.

When I heard the argument that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire made, the first thing that occurred to me was that, given the new clause's thrust, it is unnecessarily restrictive where it says: Where the owner of a large shop employs entirely non-Christian employees in that shop". I wonder why it does not say "largely" or "substantially" instead. As the new clause stands, the presence of one Christian employee in a fairly large shop would stymie or prevent the implementation of my right hon. Friend's argument. That is somewhat anomalous, and although I can see the rationale behind his use of "entirely", it goes a long way towards undermining the whole point of what he is trying to do.

On the entirely practical question of the verification of religion, the question has rightly been raised of how we could balance reasonable privacy on a very personal matter—religion—against the reasonable verification that the new clause asks for. We get into some difficulty there. It is all very well for my right hon. Friend to say that a notice shall be made in writing and shall identify the premises—that is fairly straightforward. The issue of the owner of the shop is also probably fairly straightforward, although it might not necessarily be in some cases. For example, I wonder how the new clause would cope with cases of corporate, as opposed to personal, ownership. Where the owner of a shop that employed entirely non-Christian employees was a corporation rather than an individual, there might be a complication.

Subsection (2)(c) refers to

the identity of all the employees".

The issue of identity might not provide a great difficulty—that should be known for all sorts of purposes, not least taxation and other matters—but the declaration of the employees' religion might bring considerable potential difficulties. How would we police and verify the religion of the employees to ensure that they were entirely non-Christian? That brings us, inevitably, to an intrusion into a private matter.

Of course, it could be argued that where we are discussing the cultural matters involved here, and their importance, we have to confront the fact that if we start asking people whether they want Christmas day to be sacrosanct, which is by definition a matter of religion, we inevitably get into declarations or verifications or religion. However, on what basis that would take place is another matter. Is it simply a question of a declaration of faith, or would one require some sort of demonstration of that? I am not a churchgoer myself, except for on one day a year, Remembrance day, and I do not want to intrude unduly into Church matters, but I am aware that some faiths, Churches and religions require a certain degree of demonstration of adherence to the faith before they will go ahead with ceremonies such as baptism or marriage.

Mr. Chope

Does my right hon. Friend not recognise that even the census requires people to state whether they are Christian, or what their religion is?

Mr. Forth

I am not sure to what extent that is a requirement, and even there I am not sure what verification procedure exists. My hon. Friend almost makes, or emphasises, my point. As I recall it, the census invites people to declare their religious affiliation, but goes no further. I am not sure, therefore, that that is a terribly good example.

I foresee all sorts of real difficulties with the new clause. Although it pains me slightly, I have to say to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire that the point that the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) made about red tape and bureaucracy was fair. Conservative Members need always to be aware—I have taken some of my hon. Friends to task about this before, usually, but not always, on Fridays—that, preaching as we do the virtues of deregulation and the evils of red tape, we need to exercise much care before we come to the House with measures that would impose additional bureaucracy. On the face of it, new clause 1 would do just that. It would require a procedure for notices to be made in writing and, presumably, lodged with the local authority; and my right hon. Friend also said, under pressure from questioning, that there would have to be a random inspection or verification process. It follows that those processes would have to be undertaken by local authority employees. That might be an excellent job creation scheme, or could even be part of the new deal for all I know, but it is not exactly the sort of scheme to which Conservative Members normally give ready support.

10.30 am
Mr. Greg Knight

My right hon. Friend is now trying to have it both ways. Does he not accept that I would prefer not to have this legislation? However, I was trying to say that if we must have it, the legislation would be better with the new clause and amendment No. 11.

Mr. Forth

I half accept what my right hon. Friend says, as we established on Second Reading, as is explicit in the Bill, that there will have to be some sort of additional proceeding for policing the basic provisions of the Bill, to say nothing of his new clause. He may therefore be able to subsume his red tape into the red tape that would exist under the basic provisions of the Bill. I will go that far, and perhaps accept his helpful intervention.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con)

On the point about red tape, there are data protection implications relating to the policing, as it were, of new clause 1, as religion is in the category of sensitive personal data as defined under the Data Protection Act 1998. It is the type of information about which those holding it must be particularly careful. Therefore, an employer who was seeking to record it for the purposes of implementing new clause 1 would need to register as a holder of sensitive personal data with the Information Commissioner. There is a cost associated with that, and the policing of it becomes more complicated. I hope that that assists my right hon. Friend in his argument.

Mr. Forth

Sad to say, it assists me in my argument but it does not assist our right hon. Friend—I am not sure whether he realised that there was this new bureaucratic horror, which has just intruded into our proceedings thanks to my hon. Friend. We can perhaps revisit in a moment the whole process that was outlined in new clause 1, as I was about to move away from it before my hon. Friend helped me. Perhaps we must now consider it again in terms of the notifications that must be made and the personal data contained in those notifications.

I am anxious to move on to amendment No. 11, which, if anything, is even more defective, if I may say so, than new clause 1. I can see what my right hon. Friend was aiming at, but I am not sure that his amendment goes anywhere near succeeding in it. Some of the questions that arose during his explanation were relevant. First, on the face of it, local public demand is an attractive phrase, to which most of us would subscribe in most circumstances, but how we identify that is a difficulty. The mechanism by which we identify it must be examined carefully.

When considering a local authority area, my right hon. Friend gave a hint that he had in mind a densely populated, relatively well-defined area such as Leicester—that is probably where his thinking started. Many local authority areas, not least in Scotland but also in England, are very large and disparate and a number of different communities will reside in them. One can therefore have a homogeneous, densely packed, highly occupied area of an urban local authority on the one hand, as opposed to a large, disparate local authority area on the other. The definition or the basis in terms of local authority areas would not therefore stand too much scrutiny.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire) (Lab)

I agree absolutely with the right hon. Gentleman. Does he also agree that in many areas such as mine, the large stores that we are talking about—out-of-town-type stores—are right on the edge of a local authority, with almost their entire custom coming from the next-door local authority? Were this nonsense proposal to get anywhere, we would have a situation in which a local authority was dealing with an issue that affected people who did not belong to that local authority.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He anticipated what I was going to say, but he puts it well. A real problem with my right hon. Friend's amendment is that in seeking to base the demand on a local authority area, we bump up against the problem, which occurs so often, of proximity to the boundary and cross-boundary activity. That is illustrated graphically by the Greenwich judgment in relation to local authorities and schools, on which I do not want to digress, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is an analogous case, however.

Mr. Greg Knight

Does any of this matter in relation to my right hon. Friend's argument? Surely, if a large shop is popular and people want it to open on Christmas day, some of the customers may come from far afield, but at least it will have a customer base within the local authority area, and if 1,000 people want the shop to open, why should it not?

Mr. Forth

I will come to the issue of 1,000 people in a moment. We have not got to that yet—we are still talking about local authorities. My right hon. Friend has made a brave attempt to define local public demand, but we have already arrived at a real problem in relation to what that local public demand is and how we measure it. I am simply saying that rather than taking a defined area, my preferred approach would have been to take a five or 10-mile radius around the shop in question. That might have made a lot more sense—perhaps not administratively but in terms of identifying local demand. I therefore query the use of the local authority area as a criterion on which to measure demand.

Mr. Chope

Does not my right hon. Friend's argument ignore the fact that the impact on the local community of a shop opening is likely to be in that very local authority area?

Mr. Forth

No, I am arguing the opposite. The impact will be within a prescribed area in relation to the store, regardless of the local authority. Some local authority areas—with which I am not very familiar as I have the pleasure of representing a suburban residential area in London, which is not large—are very large. Such areas, which many of my right hon. and hon. Friends represent, can be 50 to 60 miles from one end to the other. Therefore, the point about local authority demand and local authorities falls down immediately if we are talking about the potential impact on a community of a shop or store opening. I now wish that I had tabled an amendment to my right hon. Friend's amendment to change the definition from "local authority" to "prescribed area around the store". That opportunity, however, has gone.

The issue of 1,000 people signing a petition also raises some difficulty. Of course, one can pick any arbitrary number. I think that 1,000 is a low number on which to base such a proposal, and had I considered this matter, I would have picked a higher number. We could have the difficulty of competing petitions. Were 1,000 people, or even 5,000 people, to petition in the way that my right hon. Friend has suggested, it is likely that people of a legitimately different point of view might want to table an opposite petition. His amendment does not seem to provide for that. Would it not be embarrassing, to say the least, if 1,000 people petitioned in one direction and 5,000 people petitioned in the other? One wonders what the outcome would be. Perhaps it would have been better to provide for a more competitive or comparative process, whereby people could indicate their level of wish or demand one way or the other, rather than having a one-way mechanism. In some ways, it seems profoundly undemocratic that a small number of people can dictate to a community what will or will not happen in that area.

Mr. Knight

Why should anyone who does not want to use a shop have the right to stop it opening? The whole purpose of the amendment is to accommodate those who do want the shop to open. I thought that my right hon. Friend was a libertarian.

Mr. Forth

I try to be a libertarian whenever I can, but as I said at the outset—and this will be the thrust of my analysis on Third Reading, although I suspect that that is some way off—there is a competing pressure here, and a competing demand.

I would have much more sympathy with my right hon. Friend's amendment were it more appropriately drafted. First, I do not think that, in this instance, specifying the local authority area is a good idea. Secondly, I am not convinced that a petition from 1,000 people is a sufficient basis on which to make the move towards liberty that my right hon. Friend seeks. Thirdly, I see a lacuna in that there is no provision for the counter-view to be measured or assessed. For all those reasons, I think the amendment is defective.

That is not to say that, in an ideal world, we should not allow for more local discretion and decision making. Perhaps we have all missed a trick—I plead guilty to this myself—in not taking the opportunity presented by the Bill to revisit the philosophy behind the Sunday Trading Act 1994 and, indeed, what preceded it. We shall have a chance to do that when we deal with the next group of amendments.

My right hon. Friend may be on to something really important. Sadly I consider his amendment defective, but perhaps we should have allowed much more scope for that local discretion and decision making rather than imposing a blanket national provision. My right hon. Friend has, after all, put his finger on the fact that local communities vary enormously in their composition, in their ethnicity and, in some cases, in their religious affiliation. We can readily identify many local communities with particular characteristics and meriting different treatment, in terms of shops opening on Christmas day among other things. Perhaps we shall be able to discuss the issue some other day, or in the context of another private Member's Bill. We should never regard what has been done once as being set for ever. Indeed, we may have a chance to explore these matters later today.

All in all, I am not unsympathetic to the thrust of what my right hon. Friend is trying to do, but having looked in some detail at the way in which his new clause and amendment would operate, I am afraid I cannot support them at this stage, and I would need a lot more convincing before I could. I hope he may yet be able to persuade me, but thus far he has not been able to do so.

Mr. Chope

I am rather disappointed by the illiberal approach of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), which contrasted with the classic liberal approach adopted by the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce).

Like most Members, I consider Christmas day to be the second most important festival in the Christian calendar, and think that we should do everything possible to preserve its significance. I have to recognise, however, that an increasing number of people in the country are not Christians and do not profess to be, and that many positively adhere to other religions. In those circumstances, I think we need to preach the virtues of tolerance, understanding, freedom and choice.

That, indeed, is what the Bishop of Winchester did when he preached at evensong in Christchurch priory in my constituency on Trinity Sunday this year. He spoke of the significance in the Christian calendar of that day, which—for those less familiar with the dates in the calendar—happened this year to coincide with the 60th anniversary of D-day. He pointed out that the Winchester diocese contained two large non-Christian communities—a large Muslim community in Southampton and a significant Jewish community in Bournemouth. He might have added, although he did not, that there is also a significant community of Sikhs and Hindus in Southampton, as I know from the time when I represented Southampton, Itchen.

10.45 am

New clause 1 reflects the reality that parts of our country now contain large non-Christian settlements. If the Bill is designed to keep Christmas day special for Christians, where does it leave those who are not Christian? In Scotland, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers has an agenda to make new year's day a special day on which shop workers would not have to work, perhaps because people in Scotland regard new year's day as almost a bigger religious festival than Christmas day. What is certain, however, is that new year's day is not a Christian festival. I do not believe that the campaign by those promoting the Bill is motivated by a concern for Christianity; I think they are concerned about shop workers working on public holidays, and if that is their agenda I think they should be open and clear about it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) acknowledges that agenda in his new clause, which I was happy to support. He says we should recognise that Christmas day is a Christian festival, and that those who are not Christians and do not want to join in should not be compelled to do so. The issue is voluntarism versus compulsion. My right hon. Friend says that all employees would have to be non-Christian before his new clause could be triggered and the shop could be opened. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst feels that that is going slightly too far, but I think my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire should be praised for saying that we need to ensure that every Christian who might be forced to work in a large shop should be protected. If only one Christian were working in the shop the new clause would not apply, but if there were no Christians and the owner wanted to open the shop, why should he not be able to do so?

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

As one who was only too happy to work on Christmas day, and for that matter on Boxing day and St. Stephen's day and every Sunday as well—in fact, that was the only day of the week on which I was prepared to work—may I suggest that that is not the point at all? What the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) aims to bring about through what we all realise is a parliamentary device is one of the most illiberal, sectarian and divisive provisions that has featured on an amendment paper for many a long month.

Mr. Chope

I am amazed by what the hon. Gentleman says. I do not understand the riddles in which he speaks. I know that many preachers go into the pulpit and try to attract the congregation's attention by speaking in riddles, and the first part of his intervention came into that category. As for the second part, the new clause is the reverse of illiberal and sectarian. It recognises the reality established the last census. We learn from the census that 26 per cent. of Leicester's population are Indian—the highest percentage in any UK local authority—and 36.1 per cent. are non-white. In Newham, 60.6 per cent. of the population are non-white: in other words, the majority of the population. In Brent, 54.7 per cent. are non-white.

Mr. Forth

Those figures might be very interesting—they might even be slightly instructive—but is not my hon. Friend illustrating my point: that what happens in a local authority may not have much relevance to the community within which the store to which the new clause refers is situated? Surely there is a material difference, even in the cases that my hon. Friend quotes, between the local authority at large and the community immediately surrounding a shop that may, under these terms, open on Christmas day.

Mr. Chope

My right hon. Friend's argument is directed more towards amendment No. 11 than new clause 1. In an area such as Newham or Leicester, it is quite likely that there would be a large shop whose owner wished to open on Christmas day, and all of whose employees were non-Christian. That is the point that I am making, particularly in relation to communities in which more than half the population are non-Christian.

Mr. Kevan Jones

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if the new clause were adopted, in what is a Christian country, we would be discriminating against Christians? If a devout Christian who did not want to work on Christmas day, and who recognised the Christmas holiday, applied for a job in a store employing only non-Christians, there would be an incentive for the store owner not to employ that person because, under the new clause, if they were employed, the shop would not be allowed to open on Christmas day.

Mr. Chope

The hon. Gentleman makes that point on the supposition that a responsible store owner would seek to discriminate against a potential employee on the grounds of that person's religious beliefs. I do not think that that is the way in which responsible shop owners would behave.

Mr. Jones

Yes, but the fact of the matter is that, under new clause 1, if that person were the only Christian employed by that store, it would not be allowed to open. Is it right that, in a predominantly Christian country, we should introduce legislation that discriminates against Christians?

Mr. Chope

As of 1 November in any given year, there would be a test. If no Christians were employed at that time, the test would apply for the following Christmas day. If, in the period between then and the following November, the store recruited Christians—or, perhaps more likely, existing employees changed from another religion or from being non-believers and adopted the Christian religion—the situation would alter.

New clause 1 and amendment No. 11 are being discussed together because there are two mechanisms that would enable exemptions to be made to the rather authoritarian approach that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) proposes. It is surprising that the practising Christian Members of the House, who are trying to preach tolerance and understanding through the new clause, are being strongly opposed by those who make it clear that they do not have Christian beliefs.

Chris Bryant

The hon. Gentleman should be careful to judge not, lest he be judged. He said that 60 per cent. of people in Newham were non-white, but the fact that someone is non-white does not mean that he or she is non-Christian. Indeed, one of the most active Christian communities in the United Kingdom is the Afro-Caribbean community, and I think that its members would take significant exception to the nonsense that the hon. Gentleman is preaching this morning.

Mr. Chope

I agree with the hon. Gentleman absolutely. I am certainly not equating being non-white with being non-Christian. If we look around the world today, we see that some of the worst atrocities being committed against Christians are against black and other non-white Christians. I accept that wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, the Library brief does not give details of the non-Christian population by community; all that I have are the details of the non-white population.

I do, however, have the overall figures for population by religion, which show that only 71.6 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom said in the 2001 census that they were Christians. Only 2.7 per cent. said that they were Muslim, 1 per cent. Hindu, 0.6 per cent. Sikh, 0.5 per cent. Jewish and 0.3 per cent. Buddhist. It would be erroneous to lump the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh populations together and say that they are non-white. I am not seeking to do that at all.

The hon. Gentleman will be the first to recognise, however, as did the Bishop of Winchester, that there are communities in this country with a significant non-Christian population. The new clause would give them the right to go shopping in large shops on Christmas day, should they so wish. I should like to emphasise, in relation to the argument advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst on amendment No. 11, that this would not be compulsory. If someone presented a petition in which 1,000 people said that they would like a shop to open on Christmas day, and there were a counter-petition, the shop would not have to open. It would be for the shop owner to decide whether he wished to open his shop. If 1,000 people wanted a shop to open, but 5,000 people argued against that, the shop owner would risk annoying or losing many potential customers whose views had been expressed in the counter-petition if he opened his shop.

Some of the arguments against amendment No. 11 have been based on the false understanding that it would introduce an element of compulsion. Would that it were possible that, if a community said that it wanted to keep its post office open and 1,000 people signed a petition to that effect, the post office would, ergo, be kept open. Sadly, that is not the case, and it would not be the case in relation to amendment No. 11. If 1,000 people said that they would like a shop to open on Christmas day, that would not be decisive in itself, but it would provide a trigger that would enable the owner to open—all other things being taken into account—should he or she so wish.

Mr. Forth

That is all very well, but let us suppose that 1,000 people at one end of a large local authority area petitioned that a store at the opposite end of the area should open on Christmas day. That would not inconvenience those people. They would have operated the mechanism under amendment No. 11, but only the people in the immediate vicinity of the store—who had not petitioned for it to open—would suffer. Is that not a possibility?

Mr. Chope

Obviously, anything is possible. I cannot dispute that that is a possibility, but my right hon. Friend should accept that common sense would apply. This would be an issue of local public demand. If there is local public concern about shops opening on Christmas day, that should be dealt with through the planning process. There is nothing to prevent a provision that a shop should not open on Christmas day from being included in the terms of its planning permission. That would be a better way of reflecting local opinion on such issues than rejecting amendment No. 11.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst raised the issue of reasonable verification of religion in his objection to the new clause and the amendment. The census figures make it clear that the 23 per cent. of people who do not adhere to any religion are a mixture of people who said that they were non-believers and people who said that they were not prepared to answer the question. My right hon. Friend is right to say that there is no compulsion in the census on a person to say whether they are Christian or not. In reality, I doubt whether that would be a difficult problem to overcome, because it should be apparent to anyone who runs or owns a shop whether his employees are keen for the shop to open. It would be quite easy, in the form of a secret ballot, to find out whether people are Christian. It would not be necessary for an individual to be identified as a Christian in a shop in which most employees are non-Christian. The situation could be dealt with by other means, and as long as it was dealt with sensitively there would be no need for the identity of the person in question to become known to either the shop owner or to other employees.

11 am

The only reason we are tabling the new clause and the amendment is the fact that this is essentially a restrictive Bill that seeks to impose greater restrictions than currently exist. Inevitably, if one wants to impose restrictions and to have exemptions to them, there will be some ambiguity and need for interpretation, and for common sense to be applied. If the Bill's promoter accepts the central argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire and I that the reality is that we do not live in a monocultural society—much as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst might wish that we did—certainly so far as particular localities are concerned, that argument should be recognised and reflected in the Bill.

I hope that, on reflection, the Bill's promoter will say, "Although I do not agree with its detail, I accept the principle behind the new clause." If the Bill is granted a Third Reading, I hope an amendment will be tabled in the other place to reflect the points that have been made in this debate. Neither I nor my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire would be so arrogant as to suggest that the new clause is perfectly drafted and ideal, but the principle that we have been articulating is one that the promoter should take on board.

Mr. Kevan Jones

This has been a good debate and I do not want to impugn the motives of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), because they have raised issues that, in a multicultural society, need to be dealt with not only through this Bill but in other areas of public policy. However, there are clear problems in enforcing the provisions in new clause 1.

Several Members have discussed the issue of intrusiveness and how we clarify an individual's religious beliefs. The hon. Member for Christchurch suggested the use of a secret ballot, but that would have to be policed. Do we really want local authorities to be able to pry into people's religious beliefs, which in some cases change over time? In my view, that would not be right, although it might be welcome to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), given his libertarian views. The state ought not to be able to ask people what their religious beliefs are.

Moreover, the new clause would lead to discrimination against Christians. Ours is a Christian country and we should recognise that fact through Christmas day and other holidays. As I said earlier, it is clear that, under the new clause, if a Christian joined the staff of a shop the majority of whose employees were non-Christian, the shop could no longer open on Christmas day. That would put pressure on people to hire only non-Christians, and I am sorry, but I do not agree with that at all. Likewise, pressure should not be put on such an individual by non-Christians to change their religion or to leave the store's employment, simply because of their religious beliefs. It is a fundamental freedom of this country that the law and society tolerates religious beliefs irrespective of their nature; long may that continue.

Mr. Greg Knight

The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful response to this debate, for which we are all obliged. However, is there not a flaw in the argument that he is developing? If a store were composed largely, but not exclusively, of non-Christian employees, the store owner could rely on amendment No. 11. He need not necessarily take action through the religious exception; he could seek to test support in the local community for his store's opening on Christmas day, so the effect that the hon. Gentleman fears might not come about.

Mr. Jones

I am grateful for that intervention and I shall deal with amendment No. 11 in a moment. In fact, new clause 1 contains the following phrase: Where the owner of a large shop employs entirely non-Christian employees". It is clear that there would be pressure to employ people who are not Christian, if employing Christians would prevent shop owners from opening on Christmas day.

The issue has rightly been raised of large Asian shops situated in multicultural areas. My Bill simply seeks to bring Christmas day into line with the Sunday Trading Act 1994. As things stand, a large store of more than 3,000 sq ft cannot in any case open on Christmas day if it falls on a Sunday, so my proposal can hardly be described as draconian.

There is another problem with new clause 1. How would we police its provisions and verify people's individual religious beliefs? The new clause makes reference to a cut-off date of 1 November, but it is clear that employees will join and leave a store during the course of a given year, and in that regard the provision would put an administrative burden not only on the owner, but on the local authority in question.

When the Department of Trade and Industry put out for consultation the proposal that Christmas day be brought into line with the 1994 Act, the various religious groups made no representations whatsoever. Although I understand the spirit behind the new clause, it would be difficult to enforce in practice and administratively very expensive.

Mr. Knight

If the hon. Gentleman's Bill passes through this House today—in whatever form—and if, before it completes its entire legislative passage, members of the Asian community and non-Christian shop owners indicate that they want to discuss their concerns about the Bill with him, can he assure the House that he would be willing to agree to such a meeting?

Mr. Jones

I can, and I am sure that the Minister will want to address that issue in his reply. But in terms of public consultation—

Mr. Sutcliffe

Given that my hon. Friend has worked extensively on this Bill, he will be aware of the consultation that took place in 2003, and of the fact that no other religious groups commented on the proposals in the Bill. They did not regard them as a problem.

Mr. Jones

I certainly want to reinforce that point. I have received letters from owners of smaller shops in my constituency—very hard-working non-Christian families—expressing some concern. However, this Bill will not restrict their trade on Christmas day and other such days. So although I understand the reasoning behind the new clause, because of the way in which it is framed it would be very difficult to enforce and very expensive to implement.

Various issues have been raised in the debate, and the question arises of whether we want to open up the can of worms that is the 1994 Act. Perhaps it is time to look at some of the broader issues, although I accept that such legislation had a painful passage when it was last considered in the House.

New clause 11 tries to address an issue that the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) raised on Second Reading: Stan's Shop, and the question of local demand for stores to open in rural areas. I looked into whether that could be done. This is an attempt to do so, and I accept the spirit in which it has been proposed. Again, however, the issues raised in the debate this morning have shown that, in practice, it will prove very difficult. For example, the question of why it should be 1,000 persons has been raised. It would be a problem if 1,000 people in a town or village wanted the shops to open, but another 3,000, or 4,000 did not. Who would arbitrate on whether the store should be open?

Another problem is that many large shops are based out of town. To take one example, Sainsbury's in Pitty Me—just over the border of my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg)—serves a large catchment area. It straddles two local district council areas. Many people in my constituency might want the store to be open on Christmas day, but those in the neighbouring constituency might not. That is always a problem when stores straddle constituency or local authority borders.

Another problem with the proposals is that they could lead to aggressive campaigning between various stores. The whole point of my Bill is to ask whether consumer demand should dictate whether stores open on Christmas day. I do not believe that it should, because, for reasons that were advanced on Second Reading, I want Christmas day to be a special day.

Finally, the proposals are not practicable because of the possible horrendous costs that would be incurred by local authorities in attempting to police the measures. Amendment No. 11 refers to the electoral registers as providing proof that people are indeed who they claim to be. However, having to check every one of the 1,000 names would be onerous. Similarly, I know that when constituents are thanked for signing a petition, they often say, "When did I sign that?" It would again be difficult to police the names on the petition. I finish by acknowledging the reasons behind the proposals, particularly in rural constituencies such as my own.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

I hope that the House will forgive me for speaking briefly on this matter. I am motivated to contribute because our interesting debate has pointed to a fundamental dilemma in our society. I have one crucial point. I am not a libertarian, although I understand the libertarian point of view, whereby society should not judge anything and people should be allowed to do anything that they want, as long as they do not harm other people. That is not my view because I believe in society. I believe in the building blocks of society—family, community and nation. Christmas day is part of our culture.

I believe that there is something dangerous about the proposed amendments. New clause 1 is particularly dangerous because it identifies one part of our community and sets it apart from others. I recognize that although we are still a predominantly Christian country, many people are not Christians. We all accept that, and it does not matter. The fact remains that we are a predominantly Christian society. We recognise that there are Muslims, Hindus, Jews, non-believers, atheists, agnostics and so forth. That is fine: let them all have their beliefs, but we are a fundamentally Christian society.

What worries me about the new clause is that it identifies certain people as being different. It is, of course, completely unworkable in any event. It requires only one member of staff to be a Christian for the new clause to be inapplicable. Are there any shops in that position? I doubt it, but that is not the point. The problem is that the proposals are about creating a new society in our country, in which people are deliberately set apart because of their religion. They are placed in a sort of ghetto, which I believe is profoundly dangerous. We should never allow that.

11.15 am
Mr. Chope

But surely that has already happened and is happening. It is why questions in the census ask people about their religion. It is why forms no longer ask people for their "Christian names", but refer to "first names".

Mr. Leigh

I am happy that people's sensitivities are respected. I do not want to impose my views on anyone. If I know that it will offend someone attending my constituency surgery if I ask them for their Christian names, I will not say that, but ask for their first names. However, the new clause is effectively saying to society as a whole, "Look at that store over there; it is a Muslim store; it is the only store that will be open on Christmas day because is has only Muslims working for it". Is that the sort of society that we want to live in, or do we want a society in which people are happy with being Muslims, Jews or non-believers, but are part of society as a whole? If I lived in a Muslim, Jewish or Hindu country, I would respect the general mores of that society. If I were a store owner, I would not want to be setting my little Christian store up as open in the middle of Delhi or wherever. That is not what creating society is all about.

Mr. Greg Knight

With respect, my hon. Friend is getting carried away with his own rhetoric. The number of non-Christians in our society is 29 per cent.—almost a third—so we are not talking about a minuscule number. Furthermore, the proposed amendments—and, effectively, the Bill—relate to large shops only. My hon. Friend's scenario with the little Muslim shop on the corner being the only shop open does not apply. [Interruption.] Small shops will be allowed to open. We are trying to allow large supermarkets and stores to open where they are run by and serve non-Christians.

Mr. Leigh

I precisely did not say that. We all know that the Bill does not apply to small shops; we all know that small shops remain open on a Sunday. My point is that the new clause relates to large stores and sets apart a particular store precisely because it is manned by people who are not Christians. The implication may be that they are "not British". It is the wrong implication: just because people are not Christian, it does not mean that they are any less British.

Let us be honest about it. Christmas day is not just a Christian festival. The real Christian festival is Easter day. Christmas day is about being British: it is a festival of giving, of not working, of being with one's family. That is what it is all about. That is why, although the debate has produced an interesting argument, I am wholly opposed to the amendments.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

I shall be extremely brief. I am a strong supporter of the Bill and I am aware of the passage of the clock. I have the greatest respect for my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) and for my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), but I believe that the new clause is profoundly mistaken. It would be intrusive, bureaucratic and it would indeed attack social cohesion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) has rightly argued.

I have no difficulties or dilemmas: no one has ever mistaken me for a libertarian, or, indeed, a liberal. I believe firmly that society must look to the best of the past and seek to reform those things that need reform. Social cohesion is an overwhelming concern for Government and Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire really want a situation in which the only Christian employee in, say, an Islamic business—I choose Islamic only because of the international tensions of the moment—finds himself in the odious position of preventing the store from opening on Christmas day unless he is willing publicly to leave aside his faith?

I was astonished to hear the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce)—the Liberal Democrat spokesman has left us, at least for the moment—say that opposing the amendment would mean opposing a trend that is already happening in society. Surely one does not have to be an old-fashioned Conservative like me to see that some trends are undesirable. I shall not waste the House's time by furnishing it with some obvious examples, but I ask my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire to withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Sutcliffe

I agree with what the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has just said. I, too, will be brief, because my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) has taken us through all the issues raised, quite properly, by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), whose skill in putting his arguments I fully acknowledge. It is a sad aspect of the time scales within which we work that we did not have an opportunity to look at many of those issues during the Committee stage. Everyone in the Committee fully supported the Bill, as do most Members of the House. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reflect on that support: he said that he did not like the Bill or think it necessary, and he has quite properly put his arguments.

Mr. Forth

In the friendliest possible way, may I caution the Minister against using terms that we hear all too often on a Friday about the extent of support for a Bill? He would not, I hope, want us to test that support in a Division, so I ask him, and anyone else who comes along on a Friday to support a Bill of their choice, not to tell us what support it has; otherwise some of us might be tempted to test the proposition.

Mr. Sutcliffe

I acknowledge the experience and skill of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and the point that he makes. The debate has been a sincere one about the issues, which is how the House should operate.

The Bill is not, as the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire suggested, just about trade unions. It enjoys support outside the House from a large number of organisations, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham noted. It is an important Bill that respects the special nature of Christmas day as a holiday for all sections of society, irrespective of faith.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire should know that there was extensive consultation on the Bill in 2003 with all groups. There were no significant objections from religious groups. The burdens that new clause 1 and amendment No. 11 would impose have been mentioned, and previously debated, on the money resolution—such as the costs of the Bill, particularly focusing on what "negligible" means. The point is that significant costs would arise from the Bill if the new clause and amendment were accepted.

The Bill is about large shops. The industry has said that it favours legislation on the basis that there would be a domino effect if one shop opened because others would follow suit, and we do not want that. Given the sincerity of the debate and the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, I hope that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire will withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Greg Knight

I thank all who have taken part in an interesting debate for their suggestions and, indeed, criticisms, of the new clause and the amendment. They have done democracy a service by expressing their views and showing their support or opposition to my proposal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said that he did not want to impose his views on anybody, but the gist of his argument was in fact that he did seek to impose his views on those who are non-Christian when it comes to opening large shops on Christmas day. In framing legislation, we must take account of the 29 per cent. or so of our society who are not Christians.

I was heartened by the comments of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who said that even though there had been consultation, if, during the passage of the Bill, anyone wanted to see him to express their concerns, he would be willing to listen. That is a commendable attitude and I thank him for it. I wonder what he would say to an Asian businessman who came to his surgery and said, "Why has my large shop got to close on Christmas day when I am not a Christian, my work force is not Christian and most of my customers are not Christian?" I hope that such a person would get an answer because we have not had one yet to that question.

I am not, particularly, a practising Christian, but I do support Christian ethics—the beliefs in tolerance, in fairness and in accepting and appreciating the views of people who hold a different opinion from oneself. If I sense the mood of the House correctly, it is against what I seek to achieve, but I hope that if any section of our society feels wronged by the Bill, the promoter will be willing to listen, even at a late hour. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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