HC Deb 26 March 2004 vol 419 cc1155-91

Order for Second Reading read.

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

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

I am pleased to be able to propose the Bill and I thank its sponsors, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth)—who cannot be here this morning—my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), and finally the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton).

The Bill has cross-party support in the House and has a lot of support in the country among trade unions and people working in the retail trade, but it also has resonance in the faith communities and the Churches, from whom I have received many letters of support. The Bill resonates with ordinary people who want to protect Christmas day as that one day in the year on which they can come together with their families to cherish a special day.

Christmas is about giving gifts, but many of us think it is more than just another shopping day. Certainly many in this House and the country do not think that giving gifts and the commercialism of Christmas should be at the expense of those who work in the retail industry. USDAW, the shop workers union, represents 2.6 million workers—not just in the retail trade, but in the distribution industry—and it supports the Bill, as do the main established Churches. Others, including campaigns such as Keep Sunday Special, support the Bill.

That is why the Bill is important. It would allow shop workers and those in the retail trade in England and Wales to spend Christmas day with their families, something that many, including MPs, take for granted. The Bill would prevent large shops from opening on Christmas day and would simply correct an anomaly in the Sunday Trading Act 1994 that allows shops to open on Christmas day unless it falls on a Sunday. As people would expect, the Bill is based on the provisions of the 1994 Act. The Bill will adopt the same exemptions from prohibition as contained in the Act; those will include farm shops, motorcycle supply shops, stands and exhibitions, pharmacies for the sale of medicines, shops at airports and railway stations, shops servicing oceangoing liners, and shops at petrol stations and motorway service stations. If the prohibition from opening on Christmas day is broken, the occupiers shall be liable to conviction by fine not exceeding £50,000.

Larger shops are defined in exactly the same way in the Bill as in the 1994 Act. Therefore the definition of a large shop will be one with a relevant floor space over 280 sq m, or—for the traditionalists or Eurosceptics in the House—3,000 sq ft. In the same way, the definitions of retail customer and of shop are identical to those in the 1994 Act.

Clause 2 of the Bill sets out the enforcement provisions, which will be the responsibility of local authorities, who will appoint enforcement officers. As is outlined in the explanatory notes, the enforcement will lead to a potential increase in expenditure for local authorities, but the cost will be relatively negligible.

I am sure that hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that the inspectors who would enforce this Act would have the same powers as those under the 1994 Act. Those powers would allow inspectors to enter premises in a local authority area at all reasonable hours, to view them and to take copies of records relating to any business conducted there. It would be an offence for anyone to obstruct an inspector in carrying out his or her duties.

The Bill applies only to England and Wales. In Scotland, Christmas day trading is a matter for the Scottish Executive, and I understand that a similar Bill is currently being considered there.

The principles underlying the Bill have the support of the vast majority of the country's people. Christmas day should be a unique day—the one day in the year when people can come together with their families. The Bill seeks to preserve the special nature of that day. It would also, very importantly, protect the interests of those working in the retail trade. It has been suggested that the Bill is simply a trade union Bill, promoted by USDAW. As a Labour MP and a former trade union official I would have no problem with that, but I must stress that the Bill in fact has wider support, including from the Churches and ordinary members of the public. People would be making a great mistake if they thought that the Bill was just about shop workers.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)

The hon. Gentleman knows that I want to support him later, in the Lobbies if necessary, but just before he leaves that point, and in order not to delay the House further, will he accept that a significant number of Members on both sides, who were present in 1994 and who are practising Christians, want to protect both Easter and Christmas day? That protection should be continued. All the Bill does, in effect, is to enforce what was the will of the House at that time—without which the original Sunday Trading Bill would probably not have been passed.

Mr. Jones

As I was not in the House at that time, I cannot comment on the individual occasion; but I think that the hon. Gentleman is right. Most people assumed that the 1994 Act covered Christmas day, and that was certainly the sentiment of the House and of those Members who supported that Bill.

In December, I tabled early-day motion 327, which emphasised the need to protect and preserve the special nature of Christmas day and called on the Government to introduce legislation to do that. That early-day motion is supported by 199 right hon. and hon. Members of all political persuasions.

Another question that has been asked is why we should introduce the Bill now. There is evidence, from the shop workers union USDAW and other sources, that certain shops are starting to test the market and open on Christmas day. There is a danger that we could get a domino effect: once one or two shops start to open, others might start to do so as well. The market pressures on retailers could become so intense that people had to open, and before long, Christmas day would be the same as any other trading day.

This is the third time there has been an attempt to correct this anomaly in the 1994 Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich introduced a similar private Member's Bill in 2001, which again had cross-party support but unfortunately ran out of time because of the general election that year. The Bill was subsequently introduced in the other place by Lord Davies of Coity, and promoted in this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes). I put on record my tribute to those hon. Friends for their work to date to promote their Bill, although it was, unfortunately, unsuccessful.

Following that failure, the Government went out to public consultation on the provisions, to find out what people thought about ending the anomaly in the 1994 Act. The consultation showed that the vast majority of supermarkets that would be affected by the provisions did not oppose them. Some 97 per cent. of respondents, of whom 15 per cent. were major retailers, said that they favoured the introduction of restrictions on Christmas day trading. Support for legislation also came from across the retail sector. Although the Association of Convenience Stores called on the Government to take the interests of small stores into account, its chief executive, David Rae, stated that the ACS supported the proposals to prevent larger shops from opening on Christmas day.

The Department of Trade and Industry has carried out a regulatory impact assessment on the effects of introducing restrictions on Christmas day trading, and its report clearly states that the effects would be negligible. However, as I have said, we should not ignore the possibility that once certain large retailers begin to open, others might follow suit. That domino effect has already begun. In 2000, large stores such as Sainsbury's and Woolworth's broke with tradition and carried out Christmas day opening trials in London, and there is evidence that other stores will try such experiments.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

We could reach the absurd situation, if that is the thin end of the wedge—

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

Let us see the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Skinner

I am trying to address my hon. Friend, and trying to get in an appropriate position for the microphone.

We could finish up in the absurd situation not only of having shops open on Christmas day, but there being the likelihood of a reality TV programme showing the Member for Kensington and Chelsea working in Asda on Christmas day.

Mr. Jones

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is referring to the present right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) or the future one.

I draw the House's attention to the fact that certain non-food retailers such as Woolworth's are experimenting with Christmas day trading—so this is not just a matter of catering for people who find on Christmas day that they have run out of the odd jar of cranberry sauce or packet of stuffing. The main products of a store such as Woolworth's are non-food. Of course, we all agree that essential services must operate all year round, but I argue strongly that the opening of large supermarkets on Christmas day does not constitute an essential service. I do not know of any recorded instance of anyone starving to death because Sainsbury's was not open on Christmas day. If I, or any other hon. Member, had forgotten the Brussels sprouts or brandy butter, that would be a minor inconvenience, and we would have the option of eating something else. I do not see why families of shop workers should have to sacrifice Christmas day to avoid the inconvenience that I and others might suffer. I do not think that it is worth destroying the unique nature of Christmas day to cater for someone's slight inconvenience or absentmindedness.

Today, 12 per cent. of employers give employees time off for Christmas shopping, so there is not a strong argument for giving people an extra day of the year—Christmas day—to complete their Christmas shopping.

The House and the nation need to ask whether the public price of ruining a unique, special day is worth paying to allow larger shops to open. Christmas day would then become just like any other day of the year. If it did become an ordinary shopping day like any other, there would also be a ripple effect in terms of costs to the taxpayer, because there would be an increase in traffic.

There would obviously be extra transport needs, and the ripple effect would go beyond retail into distribution and the manufacturers who supply the retail trade. Thousands of people could have their Christmas day ruined.

Obviously, in a free society, we need consumer choice, and the Bill retains that by allowing local convenience stores and stores under 3,000 sq ft to open, but it will protect what is a special day of the year. Some argue that retail workers should have the choice to work voluntarily, but my experience and the evidence of shop workers suggest that voluntarism is a mythological concept. In practice, pressure is put on people, and if they do not volunteer to work on Christmas day they are victimised or made to feel that they are less committed to the company than fellow workers.

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

What does the hon. Gentleman have to say about the role of the trade unions, and USDAW in particular, in protecting their members? I refer to the provisions of schedule 4 to the 1994 Act, which refer to Sundays, but which I believe are also relevant here. If there is victimisation, what is the union doing about it?

Mr. Jones

The union does sterling work in protecting its members in the retail trade, and I congratulate Sir Bill Connor on his campaign to protect workers in the retail trade from the attacks that they suffer every day. It is fine to say that people should be free to work on Christmas day, but many of the large stores are not unionised and employ very low-paid women workers, and it is not acceptable for them to be forced to work or face victimisation. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is a libertarian, and we could discuss the hellish view of society that he favours, but I want to ensure that people have a genuine choice about whether to work on Christmas day.

Christmas day is a Christian holiday, but it also has a resonance for other faiths. It is a traditional time for families to come together and enjoy a special quiet day. It is right, in a predominantly Christian society, to recognise the Christian holidays. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich made that point eloquently last time this was debated in the House. There have been calls for other faith days to be celebrated, but I think that that would be impractical, and as a Christian nation we should recognise the Christian holidays first, allowing people of all faiths to enjoy them.

Phil Sawford (Kettering) (Lab)

My eldest son worked in non-food retail for about eight years. On Christmas eve, he would arrive home shattered—exhausted. On Christmas day, all he wanted to do was rest and get some sleep before the mayhem of the sales that would start on Boxing day. That had an impact on the whole family. It is not just about trade unions, the Church or religion. Does my hon. Friend agree that the family is at the heart of this legislation?

Mr. Jones

I totally agree, and it is also about the individual. My hon. Friend is right to point out that people in the retail trade work very hard in December. They work long hours, seven days a week, and to add the further burden of Christmas day would be intolerable not only for their family life but for their health.

Britain was once described as a nation of shopkeepers, and some may argue that we have become a nation of shoppers, but I do not accept that this should extend to Christmas day. Christmas day trading would mean the end of the peace and quiet of people living in towns and near out-of-town retail centres. Surely people should be allowed at least one day of the year to enjoy their peace and quiet, even in modern Britain? I urge hon. Members to support the Bill and ensure that we not only protect those working in the retail trade but preserve the unique nature of Christmas day—something that we have all taken for granted for a very long time.

9.56 am
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

I am delighted to support the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) in his promotion of a very sensible and moderate measure. I am one of those anti-libertarian, old-fashioned Tories who rejoiced when Mrs. Thatcher's attempt to impose Sunday trading was defeated, and who deplored the fact that the—in so many ways—admirable John Major brought that Bill back. I voted against it again.

During the period before Sunday trading was imposed on us, we had a series of big stores flouting the rules, just as the hon. Gentleman described Woolworth and Sainsbury's doing on Christmas day. We all knew that it was the thin end of the wedge. We knew what would happen, and it did. I opposed Sunday trading as vigorously as I did because the one thing I did not want in this country was a high street Sunday. I said that if we passed the legislation, we would have one—and we have one.

Anyone who drives into London on a Sunday, as I frequently have to do now that we have these absurd new hours of the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that I have some support among Government Members. I find that London, which used to be quite pleasant on a Sunday, is now congested and crowded with people shopping.

That has all happened, and 1 am not so starry eyed as to believe that we can reverse it, much as I would like to do so. It is all part of the increasing secularisation of our society, with so many people living up to the old Oscar Wilde dictum of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. I deplore that. We do, however, have Christmas day. Occasionally, it falls on a Sunday—but only occasionally. The Bill is designed simply to carve out that one day.

It was the intention of most of my colleagues who supported Sunday trading that Christmas should not be invaded. The Sunday Trading Bill was, like so many Bills, not as well drawn as it should have been, so Christmas day, if it does not fall on a Sunday, is vulnerable. The Bill will redress that. It does so not only in the interests of the Christian Church, although I make no apology for saying that that is a good thing. We are, as the hon. Member for North Durham said, a Christian society, and we have an established Church. I am pleased that we do, and I hope that we will have one for many long years to come.

I might add that that is a view shared by many Muslims, Jews and people of other faiths. They respect the fact that we have an established Church. It is appalling that a country with an established Church should say that on one of its two greatest festivals, pressure—however direct or indirect—will be put on certain people to go to work, thereby driving a nail into family life.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman mentions the pressaure on family life as a result of shops opening on Sundays, but is it not true that most shop workers are women, and that they already experience phenomenal pressure on Christmas day as a result of getting the meal ready and ensuring that their families have a nice day—let alone having to work on it?

Sir Patrick Cormack

Of course they do, but it is the sort of pressure in which most families rejoice. It is the big meal of the year, and they enjoy preparing it and having their families around them. They want to be free to celebrate a traditional Christmas, and I want them to be free so to do, if that is their desire.

The Bill simply provides a safeguard for some of the least well paid in the community. Of course, it can be argued that there are those who always work on Christmas day. For example, a son of mine managed a hotel for some years and he was incredibly busy, but that was a matter of choice. I might say that there was always the opportunity for the guests—and indeed the staff—to go to church, but that is another point. But many shop workers are among the lowest paid, and although my libertarian right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) might say in his interjection, "What are the unions doing to protect their workers?"—

Mr. Forth

I did.

Sir Patrick Cormack

There are two answers to that question. I believe that they genuinely try to protect them, but there are insidious pressures, as we all know. The other answer, of course, was given to my right hon. Friend by the Bill's promoter: a lot of shop workers are not members of a union.

Mr. Forth

Why not?

Sir Patrick Cormack

As a libertarian, my right hon. Friend should jolly well welcome the fact that they are not. He tries to have it both ways all the time. He is the arch-maverick wrecker of Parliament.

Mr. Forth


Sir Patrick Cormack

Had he not been so indiscriminate in his wrecking tactics when first we had a Labour Government with a large majority, keeping the House up night after night for spurious reasons, we would not now be suffering the current sitting hours. Frankly, he should realise that he, more than any other individual, has destroyed the parliamentary pattern, and he has destroyed enough. Now I shall give way.

Mr. Forth

I am glad of this opportunity to allow my hon. Friend to calm down a bit. He says that I am having it both ways. That is what I try to do all the time here, and I succeed at some times but not others. I am rather intrigued by his saying that the unions are doing their best to protect vulnerable workers, but that vulnerable workers who are being exploited choose not to join a union. There is a circularity in that argument that I find difficult to follow. If workers believe that unions can help them, they are free to join them, and if the unions are any good, they should be able to help them.

Sir Patrick Cormack

My right hon. Friend knows full well that that is not the reality of life. Many who work in such places do not necessarily wish to be members of unions, and others are subject to the insidious pressures to which I referred. We all know how that can be exerted; if someone will not do a certain thing, they will not get overtime. Or if the question of who is going to be laid off first arises, the answer is, "The person who is least flexible. We'll put them to one side."

This very modest Bill merely seeks to protect the people in my constituency, and in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who are most vulnerable. But it is not about the trade unions; it is about the fact that Christmas day is one of very few days of the year that are truly special for the vast majority of our people. It tries, very modestly, to ring-fence that speciality.

The hon. Member for Kettering (Phil Sawford) spoke about his son in the retail trade, and in doing so he illustrated just how commercial our society has become. Only a few years ago, not only Christmas day but Boxing day was special, and the earliest date for the sales was 27 or 28 December; now, throughout the country it is 26 December. [Interruption.] As we all know, the 24th has traditionally been a day of great commercial activity, and nobody objects to that, but when the tills closed at 6 o'clock on Christmas eve, they did so for a good two clear days. Now, they do not.

All that we are seeking to do is to put our constituents first. I ask my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst to do the same, and to say that they deserve this one day. Whether one lives in Bromley and Chislehurst, South Staffordshire, Bootle or Bognor, one is entitled to have Christmas day as a special day, and Parliament has a duty to ring-fence it. The Bill is modest and moderate and I hope that it will pass on to the statue book with great alacrity, and be enforced long before Christmas 2004. I hope that the Minister will, with commendable brevity, give his unreserved support to it. When my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) speaks, I hope that he will endorse—with perhaps even greater brevity—what the Minister says, and when the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Opik) speaks, I hope that he will do the same. This is not a party issue but a national issue. It is a very small national cause. but an extremely worthy one, and I warmly commend the Bill.

10.6 am

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab)

I very much welcome the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on his choice. I agree with all the points that he eloquently made in support of it. When we passed the Sunday Trading Act 1994, which enabled large shops to open on Sundays for six hours, the House debated carefully the question of shops opening on Easter Sunday, and it took the firm decision to protect that as a special day. I do not recollect our discussing Christmas day, but perhaps that was because the legislation focused on Sundays, and because it was inconceivable to Members that large shops would open on Christmas day and that it would become just another shopping day. That was an oversight on our part. The Bill does away with that possibility by protecting Christmas day, which is the wish of the majority of people. In supporting the Bill we have the support of the British people, and I shall vote for it in the Lobby.

10.8 am

Lembit öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

This is a free vote issue for Liberal Democrats because it is a question of moral judgment, but I side with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). He simply seeks to emulate existing legislation by extending it to Christmas day, so the question is merely whether one agrees with the underlying principle. In my contribution, I shall focus on why I do.

Members may be relieved to know that I, too, am a libertarian—in fact, I have been defined as such by the University of Hull. It determined that I have the most libertarian voting record of any member of my party, which in itself should be fairly liberal-minded, given its name.

In essence, libertarianism is defined as the freedom to live life and to harm oneself—as long as one can show that one is conscious of the harm that is thereby being done—but not to harm others. The harm principle is the core of this discussion, because it applies to those who are compelled by others to work on Christmas day. It is not intellectually rigorous to pretend that there is no harm involved in making people work on Christmas day. I should tell those who oppose the legislation that it is not about unions.

We certainly could have a debate about what the unions have done and want to do, but that would be a sideshow and distraction from the Bill. Furthermore, the debate is not really about deciding whether other creeds or religions should have the same representation—not least because we are discussing a clearly defined issue here. We can always debate those issues—they are not mutually exclusive—in different circumstances. Given that Britain already has fewer public holidays than just about any other European country, there is heavy pressure on us to support the Bill on the two main bases of the harm principle and equalisation of free time between countries.

Finally, I would like to reinforce the point that it is not possible to have it both ways. It is all very well for the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to announce with satisfaction that he tries to have it both ways—sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing—but that is somewhat disrespectful to the general public, who do not regard these questions as a game. It is not reasonable to assume that postponing or preventing the Bill's passage is anything other than a personal—and, I have to say, somewhat—egotistical victory. It is an important Bill and should be treated as such.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst knows that I often agree with him on matters associated with freedom, not to amention on the new hours of the House. He should therefore reflect seriously on the fact that someone who is predisposed to share the same libertarian values as him has a totally different view on this Bill. I counsel him to think with some humility about his motives in trying to postpone the Bill. I hope that he will think again.

10.11 am
Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire) (Lab)

I declare an interest from the outset, as I am a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. My details are in the register, and I am also the chairman of the USDAW branch in Parliament. I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on persisting with this fairly long-running debate, which has been knocked back—perhaps by nothing more than coincidence—in previous years. I also congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) on his excellent contribution to the debate.

I shall be brief because my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham has already covered the main points. We must remember that we are talking about many thousands of shop workers who are already under a great deal of pressure. They are not well paid and they are often regarded by the public—including themselves, I suppose, when they are shopping—as part of the furniture in stores. USDAW has had an extremely successful campaign over the last 12 months in drawing attention to the large amount of aggression and abuse that is directed at shop workers. The union has uncovered a hidden problem, and it is trying to highlight in the public mind the fact that shop workers are people with human rights.

The Bill is about one single day in the year. It is designed to nip in the bud the practice of large retail outlets opening on Christmas day. For all the reasons that have been mentioned, we need to stop that now. It is not only workers in the large stores who are affected; the people who have to supply the large stores, who have to carry out waste disposal, who have to manage the traffic and so forth are all affected by the opening of large stores on Christmas day.

Competition is also relevant. The irony is that virtually all the stores that USDAW consulted said that they did not want to open, but if one of them opens, the competition and margins are so tight that all the competitors will want to open up, too. As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire explained, the problem will escalate. The stores are saying to us, "We do not want to open, so will you please legislate to stop us doing so?" That is ironic, but that is the position.

It is no use saying that the matter can be left to volunteering—that the workers in the stores can say yes or no. We all know what volunteering means in this place when there is a one-line Whip: we are free to attend or not, but as every Member who has ever run into a Whip knows, it is not as easy as that. Large stores cannot be staffed with many hundreds of volunteer employees: it is an impossibility As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire described perfectly, the reality of volunteering is heavy pressure on each shift in the light of how much business has been generated at the end of the month or year.

People outside the House would be truly astonished if this modest and moderate measure were objected to. The Bill is simple, just and proper, and I believe that about 99 per cent. of the population would be astonished to find any opposition to it.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Pickthall

I am about to finish. I urge support for the Bill, whose passage will be met with acclaim by everyone outside Parliament.

10.16 am
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East) (Con)

I greatly support the Bill, conscious of the fact that, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), I gave full support to the Conservative Government's Shops Bill 1986, which was intended to allow shops and other businesses to open on a Sunday. The House will recall that that Bill did not succeed. It was the largest revolt by Government Back Benchers ever, until the Higher Education Bill this year—and, perhaps, until next week! Opposition to the Shops Bill was encouraged by an unholy alliance between the Churches and the trade unions, which both wanted the law to restrict what people could do on Sundays. I supported the Shops Bill because it included protection for those who did not want to work on a Sunday.

The Bill before us today confirms the protection that this country has always given to the special place of Christmas day in our society. Such protection is much the same as that which every Christian country gives to Christmas day. Many more Christians go to church for mass or a service on Christmas day than attend church regularly on Sundays. As the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said, Christmas is the one day of the year when most families come together and when good people go out of their way to find and provide for those with no families. There is therefore no case for our high streets to be busy on Christmas day. That is the purpose of the Bill, and I believe that few people in this country would wish other than for it to be passed.

I felt one hesitation when the hon. Member for North Durham announced his Bill, following his good fortune in the ballot. It arose from my own experience in my first job, which was working in a family business in the motor trade. It had two petrol filling stations and was a small business with an enviable reputation for fair dealing and service to customers. To provide such service, we opened to supply petrol every Christmas day. I well recall opening Chalkwell motor company in London road, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex at 9 o'clock on Christmas day for several years, closing at 1 o'clock to speed home for Christmas lunch. We provided a service that was appreciated by our regular customers and by many others who found that most filling stations were closed on Christmas day. I am encouraged by the fact that the Bill excludes petrol stations, as well as small convenience stores.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham on introducing the Bill, and I congratulate USDAW on its campaign in support of the Bill. Half the union's members appear to be in the House today. I hope that the Bill succeeds.

10.19 am
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)

I shall be brief, because I want to see the Bill go through as quickly as possible. However, I wish to give a little support to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). He is old enough, and certainly ugly enough, to look after himself, but to attack him for seeking to wreck the parliamentary process is undeserved. He is probably one of the greatest proponents and defenders of parliamentary democracy on either side of the House, and always has been. He and I disagree honourably on occasions, as on this, but I defend his right to use such parliamentary measures as he sees fit to promote what he believes in, as I now propose to promote what I believe in.

In that context, I hope that my right hon. Friend will retain his seat for the rest of the morning and not see fit to intervene on this occasion. I am one of those who proudly and—I hope—honourably voted against the Shops Bill in 1986. It was not so bad. My toenails grew again, after the Whips' attentions. I was equally proud to have my name on the list in the handbag for several years afterwards.

When the Sunday Trading Act 1994 went through, it was on the clear understanding that as there was an established Church in this country, we had two specific, very holy days in the calendar. One was Easter Sunday, which is protected because it always falls on a Sunday, and the other was Christmas day. It was wrongly and—it transpires—naively assumed that Christmas day would also be protected. Setting aside all the other arguments that have been made this morning, all the Bill seeks to do is to correct an error in that Act.

My right hon. Friend is acutely aware of the fact that those hon. Friends of ours who helped the 1994 Act go through—I must say that I voted against it—did so on the clear understanding that Easter Sunday and Christmas day would be protected. This morning's debate is about the restoration of that tiny piece of democracy, to put right what is now perceived to have been a wrong and to reinforce the will of the House at that time. I hope that my right hon. Friend will understand that and give the Bill the fair wind that it deserves.

10.22 am
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con)

I do not wish to get involved in arguments that our party may have had in the past—which are still obviously very much alive—so perhaps I could find a third way: I wish to take issue with the definition of a large shop. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on coming so high in the ballot and bringing this Bill before the House. It is a great opportunity.

However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider the case of Stan's Shop in my constituency. It was started by a gentleman called Stan Faulks, with his demob money, shortly after the war. At the time, it was a little shop. It has been a tradition that the shop opens for a couple of hours on Christmas morning, originally to provide batteries for disappointed children whose parents had forgotten to buy them when they bought electronic toys as presents. It was a community service and there was no pressure on staff. I endorse everything that has been said about preserving the nature of Christmas and would not want to see any compulsion on people to work.

The problem is that Stan's Shop is no longer a little shop: it is a large shop. It now covers an area of 22,500 sq ft, having been developed by Stan's son and grandson. The family work in it and it is—in terms of the Bill—a large shop, but it has all the attributes of a little shop. It provides a wonderful local service and it is very popular. It also maintains the tradition of opening for two hours, from 10 to 12, on Christmas morning. Does that really impinge on the nature of Christmas in my area? It is a strong farming community, where the cows have to be milked on Christmas morning and evening. Stan's Shop is a family enterprise. Half a dozen girls and boys come in to help in the shop and, although I have not been there on Christmas day, I understand that there is a festive atmosphere. As I said, it also provides a useful service. For instance, last Christmas, a lady in Shrewsbury found when she defrosted her turkey that it had gone off. Her Christmas would have been spoilt, but she drove up from Shrewsbury and Stan's Shop provided—as always—what she needed.

I entirely endorse the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack); I do not want to see Christmas being spoiled. I also agree with him about the nature of Sunday having changed in London. However, I hope that we can look at the Bill a little more carefully with regard to splendid institutions such as Stan's. It is a small family organisation that provides a valuable local service, but it would be swept up in the Bill as if it were a monster multiple. I hope that the hon. Member for North Durham will reflect on that point and be willing to tighten up the definition of a large shop.

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

I oppose the Bill and I shall explain why. I hope that those Members who do not often grace us with their presence on a Friday will understand that taking a position on a Bill is part of the parliamentary process and that Members are always free to turn up on Fridays and express their views one way or another on private Members' Bills. I am slightly surprised—although not shocked—that my attendance every Friday the House sits to express my views on private Members' Bills should attract such opprobrium. I thought that that was what we were here for, but perhaps I am a little old-fashioned and things have moved on.

I wish to discuss the Bill under several headings. I shall not speak at excessive length, because that would be of little relevance on this occasion, given the time of day, although it has extreme relevance on other occasions. I have a good feel for the way in which such days work. I will, if I can persuade any of my colleagues to assist me, seek to divide the House at the end of the debate, because I wish to discover how many Members of Parliament, of the 659 of us, have taken the trouble to be here today to support the Bill. It is always important to demonstrate that and I am sure that Labour Members will also wish to do so. Those who have taken the trouble to be here would surely like that to be a matter of record, and I am sure that the public would wish to know just how much support there is for the Bill. It has been claimed repeatedly in this short debate that there is enormous support for the Bill, but I am in favour of quantifying that support, and the only way to do so is to divide the House.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

Before my right hon. Friend takes too much criticism for the time that he takes to discuss these matters, will he reflect on the fact that one of the longest speeches we have had in recent times on a private Member's Bill was made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), when he attempted to stop a Bill making progress? My right hon. Friend does not hold the record: it is held by a Labour Back Bencher, who may have been acting on orders.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because I am a fan of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). He is my role model and I sometimes wish that I could do half as well as he does. [Interruption.] Here he is, to enjoy my praise. It is no good Members turning up once in a blue moon to support a Bill that they happen to favour and to criticise regular attenders, like the hon. Gentleman and myself. It will not do. For that reason, all the personal criticisms that are aimed at me from time to time bounce right off. Being here every Friday inures one to such comments.

I shall press on with my attempt to analyse the Bill and its background. I have a few introductory remarks, then I shall address the Bill itself, and I shall then indicate appropriate amendments for subsequent stages of the Bill, which I hope will be helpful to colleagues. I shall start head on with the proposition about choice and freedom. Of course, it is important, that we consider how to balance individual personal freedoms in a mature society—even, dare I say it, in a mature consumer society. I use that term—I hope that it will appeal to Labour Members—because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made little secret of the fact that it is the consumers in our society who have provided the economic growth that has contributed to the fall in unemployment of which the Government are so proud. Let us not decry the role of the consumer in our society.

There is a danger in debates such as this that people start to talk about consumers as though they were pariahs, but in our modern society—where, sadly, manufacturing sector employment has shrunk to less than 20 per cent.—employment has been generated in the retail and service sectors. Any attempt that we make to restrict the activity of those sectors, on this day or that, or for this reason or that, must be weighed very carefully indeed. That consideration has been missing so far in the debate. Let us bear in mind that we live in a consumer society and that the consumption of goods and services and the retail and hospitality sectors are extremely important components of our economy; we interfere with them at our risk.

That is a general background for the preference I always maintain and for which I have already been criticised this morning, although I make no complaint about such criticisms: I always try to come down on the side of choice, freedom and individual action, as against the arbitrary use of the law to interfere in that freedom—the Bill is an example. That is my starting position and it tends to inform my attitude to legislation such as this.

Let us look for a moment at multiculturalism, something that rather fascinates me. I am not by instinct a multiculturalist; I do not think that any of my friends will ever have heard me refer to the concept—except, perhaps, in critical terms. I believe in monoculturalism, and I wish that those who choose to join our society would freely accept its mores and traditions, because that is the way a sound society is built. The melting-pot concept, which built that great country the United States, was based on that very principle and premise. I welcome that. None the less, there is a problem in relation to the Bill. Members and other people outside this place who praise the concept of multiculturalism and constantly urge on us the fact that we must respect other religions, views and beliefs, are in difficulty when it comes to provisions of the kind that we are talking about.

I should have thought that we wanted to respect those elements in our society that are not Christian. I took the trouble to look up the 2001 census to try to put some numbers on that. 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., and I shall run through them in order. Because we are talking about Christmas day, it is relevant for us to understand how many people in our society are not Christians and for whom that day might not be of the same relevance as it us to others. The number of Muslims was 2.6 per cent; Hindus, 1 per cent; Sikhs, 0.6 per cent; Jews, 0.4 per cent; other, 0.3 per cent; and Buddhists, 0.2 per cent.

I mention those figures because we must not make the glib assumption that our law has to be directed in such a way as simply to satisfy the Christian element in our society. If we are serious about multiculturalism, and about acknowledging the beliefs and the freedom to act of those who follow other religions, we must take that into account.

Incidentally, in case anyone is curious, the census figures for the religion of the wholesale and retail element in the working population are broadly the same as those I gave earlier. Christians are 72 per cent; no religion, or no stated religion, 23.5 per cent.; while the other religions that I listed comprise 6.5 per cent. If we are to follow our words with action, we must be careful not to legislate so that we prohibit the activities or behaviour of those who are not of the Christian religion. We have to meet that challenge head-on when contemplating legislation of this kind.

Furthermore, we must not forget that many members of other religions own or operate retail outlets. At present, they are free, and should be free, to close their stores on the days that they regard as important and holy, and to open them on other days. That is important. In the Sunday Trading Act 1994, to which the Bill refers, the Jewish religion is, properly, singled out for recognition, and—as a passing thought—if we update the law on these matters we should revisit those provisions and consider whether we should identify other significant religions in our society in the same way as, at that stage, we singled out the Jewish religion. I leave that thought in the air, because that is an anomaly.

We have heard talk of anomalies. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) pointed out that the Bill deals with an oversight in the previous legislation, although, given the parliamentary focus on Sunday trading legislation in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, I find it slightly difficult to understand how such an oversight was possible. Amendments could and should have been made to deal with it. It is interesting that we are revisiting the matter in 2004 when so much time has passed, but we must deal with the Bill as it is and not as it might have been—although I shall come on to the might have beens as I develop my argument.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) noted an interesting aspect: the anomalies that are inevitably created as soon as one makes distinctions in legislation between this or that category of item—between larger or smaller stores, in this case. I am surprised, and almost disappointed, that the anomaly created by the 1994 Act is being repeated in the Bill, because apparently the Bill wants to provide a degree of protection to those who are privileged enough to work in large stores while ignoring those who work in smaller stores. That is in itself discriminatory, which I find disappointing.

A trade union point is relevant in this context. Employees of large stores are more likely to be trade union members and to enjoy trade union protection than those in small stores but, ironically, the Bill seeks, in effect, to give greater protection to people who are probably already protected by their union, and by the law, whereas those who have the misfortune—in these circumstances—to work for small stores appear to be completely unprotected. That is an anomaly and, in a sense, discrimination, and I am surprised that the House and the Bill's supporters apparently want it to be continued. When will we have a level playing field?

I should have been much more sympathetic to the Bill if it had included a provision that offered the schedule 4 protection for Christmas day provided in the 1994 Act. That is a weakness that I do not understand, so perhaps when the sponsor of the Bill replies to the debate he will explain why he has not included schedule 4 protection.

On the subject of anomalies, there is another point that has not yet been mentioned. We should not assume that Christmas day is an oasis of peace for every member of our society. Health workers, the police, the people who provide our transport and utilities and large parts of the hospitality sector are all expected to work on our behalf, providing us with support and services, on Christmas day—to say nothing of the list of exemptions to be carried forward from the 1994 Act, about which I shall speak in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) told us an emotional story about the provision that he and his family were prepared to offer the public at large on Christmas day. I welcome that and congratulate him. That story shows that there is a demand for services on Christmas day. We do not all necessarily sit in our homes, go nowhere and use no services of any kind. When we pick up the telephone on Christmas day, we expect it to work. Indeed, a large proportion of all long-distance calls are made on Christmas day. That is yet another example involving people who would not be protected by the Bill, because we simply assume that they will be working.

We are singling out a specific section of the work force for protection under the Bill, while—apparently—glibly assuming that all those other people will be available to provide the services that we expect on Christmas day.

Mr. Paterson

May I reiterate a point that I made earlier? There is a case for carefully considering the definition of such premises in rural areas. As I pointed out in an example from my constituency, a small enterprise can become a big one, and large areas of countryside with nothing else often surround such premises. They provide a valuable service, without impinging on the nature of Christmas. In a rural area, a small enterprise can become a big one and still provide the same valuable family services as before.

Mr. Forth

That may well provide the opportunity for my hon. Friend to seek to amend the Bill, either in Committee or, as I would expect, on Report. His intervention rather neatly leads me into mentioning the exemptions in schedule I to the 1994 Act that are carried forward into the Bill, apparently uncritically and on the basis of acceptance. I wonder whether he has looked at that list of exemptions because it has a bearing on his intervention. The lists starts with any shop which is at a farm and where the trade or business carried on consists wholly or mainly of the sale of produce from that farm That is a nod in the direction of the rural dimension that he mentions. It presumably does not cover the case that he mentions, which is why an amendment may be relevant. Let us remember that such stores can open on Sundays and that that provision would be carried forward into the Bill, as I understand it.

Then, intriguingly, the list of exemptions continues: any shop where the trade or business carried on consists wholly or mainly of the sale of intoxicating liquor". That is an interesting exemption if ever I saw one. We are starting into that list of activities—either on the part of the shopper or the provider of the service—that we think are acceptable on Christmas day, as opposed to the other activities.

The schedule then goes on to list motor supplies…cycle supplies…pharmacy…medicinal products…surgical appliances…railway station…petrol filling station"— to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East referred—and any shop at a service area related to a filling station and food stores for vessels or aircraft. So we have a large list of exemptions. Let us not therefore imagine that the protection originally provided by the 1994 Act—I am told that the Bill seeks to close a loophole in it—was all-encompassing. In fact, a large number of exemptions exist, covering both the size of stores and, in that explicit list in schedule 1, the type of stores.

Let us put aside all the tear-jerking and emotional appeals that we have heard in this morning's brief debate. What we are really saying is that we want to single out a group of people in the retail sector who we believe deserve special treatment—those working for large stores—but there is a probably an even larger group who will not receive that protection. Why? On the one hand, they happen to work in a small store, while on the other, they happen to sell booze. That strikes me as an interesting, perhaps even a rather odd, approach. Why so many people want to argue that such protection is so effective is somewhat beyond me. I do not think that it is effective.

USDAW, which is the union that has driven the whole thing, has targeted a modest campaign at me in my constituency. I have no complaint about that. We are all used to bizarre little interest groups targeting us from time to time, and another one has popped up. It is pity that the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) is not still in the Chamber. He proudly claimed to be the chairman of USDAW in the House, so I thought that I would tell him the figures to show how effective his union is in targeting me in my constituency.

I checked my post this morning and my telephone. I shall give the figures for the amount of interest in the Bill among USDAW members in Bromley and Chislehurst: phone calls, five, one of which was extremely abusive, but I do not mind that as I am used to it even in the House; pre-printed rather glossy postcards, 17; and proforma letters, 16. So of the 70,000 voters in Bromley and Chislehurst, most of whom are proud shoppers and consumers—I am happy to say that we have one of the best shopping malls in the country at Bromley, and I am even happier that it is open on Sundays—and of the massed ranks of USDAW, pumped up by their union and invited to contact me for my wicked activities in the House today, the grand total so far is 37 people. I hope that that message will be passed on to the hon. Member for West Lancashire. He wants to gee up his people a bit if he wants to try that sort of thing.

We now come to inspectors. This is another interesting one because we will create a small category of people who must work on Christmas day, as a result of the Bill. Inspectors have not been mentioned much so far. They are an honourable group of people. Until now, probably except for one Christmas day in seven, which happens to fall on a Sunday, they have Christmas day off, but not any more. Funnily enough, I have not received any representation from local authority trading standards inspectors so far. They are obviously a pretty compliant bunch—or perhaps they want the overtime, who knows? I have no idea, but they will have to be out there, pounding the streets, ensuring that no store of over 3,000 sq ft opens on Christmas day, as a result of the Bill. By the way, that must inevitably involve an extra cost. It will not be very substantial, but it will be incurred.

I always try to be fair to the explanatory notes. I always like to put in this point in passing at some point during such debates. The explanatory notes state that they have been prepared by the Department of Trade and Industry with the consent of the promoter of the Bill. I am always a bit suspicious about such things. It is interesting how some private Members' Bills receive no help from Departments, yet others do. Perhaps the Minister will explain why the Government were neutral when such a Bill was last considered in the House and failed because only 37 Members bothered to vote for it. That is something obviously burned on the conscience of Labour Members as they have been dragooned in today to ensure that that does not happen again. I hope that we get the numbers if we have a Division. I would be fascinated to know the provenance of the explanatory notes.

The explanatory notes state: In view of the current practice and plans of large retailers"— an interesting comment, given what follows— the effect of the Bill on local government staff numbers (in relation to enforcement) is expected to be negligible. So the explanatory notes predict that there will be very little activity on that front, but they confess that there will be an effect on local government staff numbers—the poor inspectors—and a cost because they must be paid either overtime or, if they are salaried, for an element of additional expenses.

While I am on the subject, the very next paragraph says: the vast majority of large retailers do not currently open Christmas Day and have no immediate plans to do so. What about all the scare stories that we have just heard from Labour Members? The explanatory notes themselves—the Department, the Minister—tell us that the vast majority of large retailers do not currently open Christmas Day and have no immediate plans to do so. That is somewhat at odds with the scare stories that Labour Members have tried to peddle, so we need a bit of clarification about that when the Minister catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That small but significant category of people would be disadvantaged if the Bill were to reach the statute book. They would have to work on Christmas day, as opposed to the other people who would not have to do so.

Lembit öpik

I do not want to detain the right hon. Gentleman. He said at the start that he was informed by libertarian principles. He has made no comparison of the harm principle in respect of the relative benefits to those who would not be made to work versus the small number, as he says in the quotation that he cites, who would be. Will he spend a moment or two explaining his view of the Bill's libertarian consequences and why he is against it for libertarian reasons?

Sir Patrick Cormack

No, we have had enough.

Mr. Forth

If the hon. Gentleman wants me to expand—

Sir Patrick Cormack


Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman is getting my hon. Friend over-excited already, and that is just by an intervention. I am now caught between two colleagues. The hon. Gentleman, who urges me to expand on some of my remarks, and my hon. Friend, who will become over-excited if I am tempted to do so. Subject to guidance from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—which I do not seek, I hasten to add—I find myself in a bit of a quandary.

In friendship to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit öpik), I point out that I said briefly at the beginning of my remarks that there is always a tension between the entirely liberal approach that his party, sadly, rarely follows these days and the costs. My preference is always to leave the maximum freedom to, in this case, the shop owner, the shop proprietor, the shop worker and, most important of all, the consumer. They are by far the largest majority in society. That is my view on the balance of things.

The hon. Gentleman has led me easily into the next part of my brief analysis?the applicability or not to this Bill of schedule 4 of the 1994 Act. I remain puzzled because of what was said by one of the USDAW members, who telephoned me at the instigation of her union and with whom I discussed the matter. When I asked her, "What about your union? What are they doing for you?", she replied, "Oh, they're useless?absolutely nothing." I asked, "What about your shop steward in your store?", and she said, "He's just left and gone off to another job." That is in an interesting comment. In this era of full employment, people have many more options as to where they choose to work than they might have in other circumstances.

I believe that the role of the trade union is worthy of exploration. It seems to me that it wants to use the law to do what it should be doing already. The hon. Member for West Lancashire is back in his place, but he did not feel that he had time to give way to me earlier. If he is going to tell me that the provisions of schedule 4 of the 1994 Act are inadequate or inoperable or that his union cannot make them work effectively, that should be the target for the amendment to legislation. We should not have this heavy-handed Bill that is trying to stop people doing what they might reasonably want to do on Christmas day. We should ask what protection is provided by a combination of the existing law—the 1994 Act—and the trade union. If the trade union is falling down on the job as badly as its member, who was instigated to call me, said—I am glad that she did—the union should look seriously at itself, what it does, how it does it and why it does not protect its members adequately.

The provisions of schedule 4 of the 1994 Act are lengthy, detailed and comprehensive, but I will not attempt go through them in detail. That is for another day and a subsequent stage of the Bill when we will want to get into the nitty-gritty, but the question is hovering unseen in the background to the debate. What has the union been up to? Has it been serving its members effectively? Why is it spending a lot of time sending out glossy postcards to its members asking them to send them to their Members of Parliament instead of doing the job that it should be doing, which is to make itself available to its members, perhaps to recruit more members and to make sure that the proper protections that were provided in schedule 4 of the 1994 Act are made available to shop workers and to retail workers? That question has to be answered.

Having trotted through the preliminaries, I shall take a brief look through the Bill. I do that to provide an introduction to its subsequent stages. It will be considered in Committee and come back, very importantly, for Report and Third Reading. Much useful work will be done then.

Clause 1(1) states: A large shop this returns us to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire— must not be open on Christmas Day for the serving of retail customers.

My wife and I are avid shoppers at a store called Costco, which I thoroughly recommend to the House. The nearest one to us is in the Lakeside complex in Essex, just across the Thames from us in Kent. It is a large wholesale store and the public cannot just wander in; one has to be a member to have the privilege of shopping there. It is a wonderful store with very keen prices and a wonderful range of goods. It is packed on Sundays. Presumably it would not be covered by the provisions in clause 1(1), which talks about the serving of retail customers. Therefore, if I can persuade Costco to open on Christmas day, I would be able to go and shop there. I might well be tempted to do so. Mrs. Forth and I are avid retail and, in this case, wholesale shoppers and we would find that a very attractive possibility.

That is another anomaly that has opened up to add to all the other anomalies that are beginning to become apparent in the Bill. They include discrimination against employees in small stores, discrimination against people of religions other than Christianity, and all the others that I have mentioned. Here is another one right at the start of the Bill. One does not need to go any further.

Perhaps the Bill's promoter or the Minister—he has had such an input to the process—can explain why there has been no need to revisit the exemptions in schedule 1 of the 1994 Act that are carried forward into this Bill. I would be fascinated if either of them could tell me that they are completely satisfied with that list of exemptions in every respect or that there might be scope—there may well be—for adding, reviewing or reducing the list. I think that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will agree that it is a rare piece of legislation that arises from a 1994 Act that we, as this great body gathered together, can see no reason to update or amend. I refer to the provisions for liquor stores, petrol stations, pharmacies and all the other exemptions mentioned in the list. Is this list so good and was our perspicacity so great in 1994 that, 10 years on, we see no need to revisit the matter? That is an interesting question.

Funnily enough, the adequacy of the level of the fine in the Bill was mentioned in our previous canter round this course three or four years ago when the previous attempt at a Bill failed miserably through lack of support by Members of Parliament. There is a real question as to whether the fine would be an effective deterrent to a large store that decided to open in defiance of the provisions and take the hit, if I can put it that way, of the fine. I have no way of measuring the effect of the fine, but its appropriateness is a relevant consideration.

While we are talking about the fine, one always has to ask whether it is wise to include a precise amount in the Bill. As we learn at our grandmother's knee when we arrive in this place, whatever we put in a Bill that will become an Act—I hope that it will not in this case?is difficult to change. However, the Bill's promoter has decided to include a figure in the Bill. He had better hope that inflation remains as low as it has been. If we get a burst of inflation, the real value of the fine specified in the Bill will be whittled down pretty quickly. Then there would be some regret. Should a figure for the fine be specified in the Bill?

I mentioned, in passing, the duty to enforce and the duties of the inspectors. This unfortunate group of people will now have to work on Christmas day, as opposed to all the others for whom the aim is that they should not have to work. We should give the inspectors a passing thought and, in doing so, ask whether the enforcement provisions, which are largely carried forward from the 1994 Act and which include the powers of entry?a matter that always makes me uneasy—are exactly what we want them to be. Should those provisions be revisited? Schedule 2 to the 1994 Act refers both to general enforcement provisions in part 1—the inspectors, powers of entry and so on—and to shops occupied by persons observing the Jewish Sabbath and shops occupied by persons of the Jewish religion in part 2. It is at least worth considering whether we should extend that provision given the changing nature of our society. I gave the figures and analysis of the different religious groups not only in our society as a whole, but in the wholesale and retail sector as well. It strikes me that it is worth giving some thought as to whether faiths other than the Christian faith could be mentioned either explicitly or in a more general, all-embracing provision. I accept that there would be definitional problems with that and it would have to be considered in more detail. I simply flag it up as something that needs proper consideration because it picks out a particular group.

I think I am right in saying that, interestingly, the members of the Jewish faith in particular who work in the retail sector are actually, according to the census this may surprise some hon. Members?smaller in number than the members of all the other faiths, other than Christianity, that are listed. That raises the question of why it is that members of the Jewish faith are picked out when greater numbers of other faiths may not wish to acknowledge the sanctity of Christmas day in the way that most Christians would. The relevance of the Bill to them has to be considered.

All in all, I have cantered briefly around the course and have no reason to detain the House unduly. [Interruption.] I see that I am disappointing the hon. Member for Hendon. He knows that there are horses for courses, and times for this and times for that something that he explained to me recently about a Bill of his own, to which we shall return on another Friday. I recognise the dynamics of each Friday, and of this one in particular, so I am happy to have set out my severe reservations, for all sorts of philosophical and practical reasons.

I will send this little speech of mine to all the USDAW members who were kind enough to contact me by their pre-printed postcards and pro-forma letters. Indeed, if any USDAW officials who were kind enough to waste their union's money on that exercise would like a copy of my speech, I shall be only too happy to send it to them, such is my generosity.

I hope that I have given some flavour of my reservations. I look forward very much to' returning to them in the Bill's subsequent stages, which I think will, if anything, be even more interesting.

11.3 am

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab)

It gives me great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who, like me, regularly attends Friday morning debates. We have some of the most interesting, colourful and best debates on such occasions because they are traditionally unwhipped. He is a master of Friday mornings and knows the procedures of the House better than most, if not any. It was interesting to note the way in which he decided to terminate his remarks. Many hon. Members will be grateful that he does not want to filibuster and to talk the Bill out. He realises that that would be otiose and not in keeping with the will and mood of the Chamber. I, too, do not wish to detain the House for long. I wish the Bill the speediest of passages, both today and in future. However, many comments by hon. Members on both sides of the House related to the specifically Christian nature of the celebration of the high holy day of Christmas. I speak not simply as a practising Christian, but as a representative of the most ethnically diverse and multicultural borough in Britain and, indeed, Europe. Brent has more than 120 different first languages spoken in its schools. We have every faith that it is possible to conceive of in our borough. Yet not one person has opposed the Bill on the ground of respect for different cultures and faiths.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that many other faiths support the Bill because they also want Christmas day preserved as a family holiday? In addition, they do not want the taxpayer to incur the extra cost that would arise from large stores opening on Christmas day, which would require normal council services, such as waste disposal and street cleaning, to be in place.

Mr. Gardiner

My hon. Friend makes an important point. She encapsulates the one thing that I wanted to talk about: respect for the family, which underpins all the different religious traditions and communities that are represented in my borough. It is because of that respect for the family—because people realise that there should be, in any culture, one day on which the family is paramount—that people of different faiths have chosen to support the Bill, and I am delighted that they have done so.

It is clear from the nature of large work forces that the idea that shop workers can simply decide whether they want to work on Christmas day—that they can volunteer—is ridiculous. We all know the pressures that exist in any workplace. People who do not volunteer are marked down for the future and their managers look at them less favourably when it comes to promotions. It may well be that my own lack of volunteering is responsible for me languishing on the Back Benches week after week.

I hope that hon. Members who want to divide the House and who will go into the Lobby against the Bill will consider, when they think of the freedoms that they believe themselves to be fighting for, the way in which those shop workers are being denied their freedoms.

Mr. Forth

Will the hon. Gentleman comment on what I said about the effectiveness of the protections that are given in schedule 4 to the 1994 Act, and the role of the trade union? Is he completely happy that the trade union that is behind the Bill has done everything in its power to make the provisions effective? If not, what is the solution?

Mr. Gardiner

I have a different view of the role of trade unions in this country from that of the right hon. Gentleman. He always sees trade unions as an oppressive force in society.

Mr. Forth

indicated assent.

Mr. Gardiner

The right hon. Gentleman acknowledges that he does so, but I see trade unions as the organisations that have fought for workers' rights for more than a century and achieved many progressive measures to emancipate the work force. It is essential to understand that trade unions, and particularly USDAW, seek to protect the situation of their members. They do not want workers in large stores and shops coerced, albeit by managers who say, "Of course you have a choice," in the full and certain knowledge that if they exercise that choice in one direction they will ultimately be penalised and have it marked on their cards against them. If the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to accept that, I am sorry but we must disagree.

Many Labour Members have experience, to which the right hon. Gentleman has alluded, as members of USDAW or other unions or from a retailing background. They have seen such pressures being applied. They know that that is the way that things operate. Earlier in our debate, one of my hon. Friends commented on how this House operates—we all know the pressures that a one or two-line Whip can impose to make sure that Members are here. Even if a three-line Whip does not apply, there are always pressures on people to vote, and that happens with retail management too.

To return to my central point, all communities recognise the importance of family and of having one day on which people take care of each other, come together, and are not subject to the commercial pressures that we see throughout society during the rest of the year: one day on which family is sacred. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) spoke of his experience of opening a petrol station for just a couple of hours on Christmas morning. The service that he provided enabled families to come together. On Christmas day, families need to travel to see distant relatives or to come to the main family house for Christmas lunch, so that the whole family can be united on that day. That is why I agree wholeheartedly with him that that is an honourable and welcome exception to the Bill, which should not restrict petrol stations that provide that service. It goes to the heart of what the Bill is about: the nature of family and bringing families together on one day a year without commercial pressures.

It is wrong that people should be discouraged, that there should be alternative attractions to go out and engage in commercial activity on Christmas day and that large stores should be open, vying for custom. That is not why I support the Bill, however. I recognise what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst says: if people want to go out and engage in commercial activity when it is available, that is a decision for them. But the point is that the work force are being coerced on those days when they find it difficult if not impossible to refuse. It is their families whom I seek to protect, and whom my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) seeks to protect through his Bill.

Many stores have said that they have no desire to open and compete on Christmas day, but if one of them does, the others will feel obliged to do so to protect their position because commercial margins are so tight. They want us to legislate, to step in and say, "No. We will protect this time, which is for family." My hon. Friend has done the House a great service by promoting this Bill. The Ministers on the Front Bench are raring to wind up this debate, and I have no intention or desire to prolong it. The House should have the opportunity to vote on this important matter, and I am confident that my hon. Friend's Bill will be passed.

11.15 am
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

I want to speak briefly on this Bill. I will not speak for as long as the hon. Gentleman who spoke previously.

I welcome the Bill. Should there be a Division, I will support it. But I would also like one change to be made in Committee. A great number of people work on Christmas day in the catering trade, and in the forces, where cover must be provided. For the catering trade, I would like an amendment to protect those who work on Christmas day. At the moment, there is a national minimum wage, but it does not reflect statutory holidays or working on statutory holidays. I believe that Christmas day is particularly important, and there is a case for reflecting that in the Bill for people who work in the catering trade on that day. The matter should be discussed in Committee. I will not delay the Bill further, having made those small points.

11.16 am
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab)

I, too, shall be brief in my words of support for the Bill.

This is in essence a simple measure that deals with the anomaly of the Sunday Trading Act 1994 that prevents stores from opening on Christmas day unless it falls on a Sunday. I cannot understand how anybody can vote against a measure that puts right that anomaly, and neither will the millions of shop workers, who are largely women workers who already have a great deal of pressure on them at Christmas because they are responsible for organising Christmas day and bringing the family together. I therefore support the Bill totally.

Christmas is already the busiest time of year for shop workers, and most of them are not allowed to take annual leave in the final weeks of December because the stores are so busy. They must have Christmas day protected for that reason, too. I was imagining earlier what would happen if stores opened on Christmas day. I envisaged a scenario in which families would open their gifts in the morning, have their lunch and all be down the shops in the afternoon returning the Christmas presents they did not want. That would destroy the whole essence of Christmas day and family life, so I hope that this Bill speedily passes into law.

11.18 am
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). As a fellow promoter of a private Member's Bill, let me say that he and I know how much skill it takes to succeed in the ballot.

This is a good Bill, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on it. I make it clear from the outset, that since the events of 18 years ago, this has been a conscience issue in my party, so I speak purely in a personal capacity. We have had a good debate and interesting contributions from both sides. I did not agree with the bulk of the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), but he brought to the House the erudition, knowledge and experience that he brings to all his speeches. This House is the better for having a strong defender of Parliament speaking out as he does five days a week, unlike the vast majority of us, who are only here on four days or even fewer.

My right hon. Friend was right about one point, which was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). This is a good time for us to remember those people who necessarily have to work on Sundays. As the son of a soldier, and with many relatives in the medical profession, I am very conscious of that as we discuss this matter.

I warmly welcome the Bill. It is intended to protect not only retail workers, but, more importantly, their families and those who live around major retail outlets. I supported the restrictions on Sunday trading and thought that the Sunday Trading Act 1994 was good because the old arrangements were being so widely breached. At least we now have some proper regulation to ensure that shops do not open early on a Sunday morning, which in practice many large shops were doing under the old arrangements. I should have liked greater regulation in that respect.

I make no bones about being pleased that the Bill publicly recognises the fact that we are still a predominantly Christian country, and I feel in no way embarrassed about that. Christmas is a very special day for families across the country—a day on which as many people as possible should have the opportunity to spend time with husbands, wives and children. We already have fewer public holidays than most other EU countries—eight, as opposed to 12 in Portugal and Austria, 14 in France and Belgium, and 15 in Germany.

The Department of Trade and Industry's work-life balance campaign recently found that nearly two fifths of adults in the crucial age group of 35 to 55—the majority of parents—feel that they spend too much time at work. Those people include the majority of parents. The DTI's second work-life balance study found that almost 38 per cent. of all employees work in occupations that from time to time involve working on Sundays. In the retail sector, the figure is well over that. It is staggering to think that, according to a survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a higher proportion of people in this country than in any other feel that they have to work for longer than they wish for economic reasons. That has much to do with issues that go way beyond the scope of this Bill, such as overcrowding and the cost of housing. I do not think that it is a coincidence that our divorce rate is one of the highest in Europe—more than 50 per cent. higher than the average. The Bill seeks, in a modest way, to ease one strain on family life.

As the 24-hour society comes inexorably closer, partly encouraged by the instant nature of the internet, on which one can do or purchase almost anything 24 hours a day, it is inevitable that even Christmas day will come to be regarded by some as no different from any other day. I do not believe that, which is why I am glad to support the Bill. Shopping has become almost the new religion, and in the process we forget the retail worker. Almost any occupation that one cares to name will, rightly, have its stout public defenders: nurses, doctors, teachers, farmers, alternative medicine practitioners, fisherman, police officers; the list goes on and on. There are always strong voices for those people in this House, but retail workers do not have a particularly loud voice, despite the large number of USDAW members. Yet roughly 10 per cent. of the work force works in the retail trade, the majority of whom are women. Many of those who already work on Sundays are single parents. A survey entitled, "The Changing Nature of Sunday 1994–1999" calculated that as many as 500,000 children could be deprived of their parent's or parents' attention on that common day off.

Of course, increased opening hours affect not only workers, but anyone living in close proximity to a large shop who has to deal with delivery lorries, customer traffic, increased pedestrian activity and so on. The fact that stores are not allowed to open until 10 am on a Sunday gives people some relief, and it is right that they should enjoy full relief on Christmas day.

I hope that the hon. Member for North Durham will find it useful if I draw his attention to three small defects in his Bill. First, it refers only to shops opening, which applies to retail workers but not to other activities. We do not want simply to transfer the burden so that Sunday becomes the big day for restocking, for example. That would affect storemen and drivers and, in areas such as mine, could result in increased, not reduced, nuisance to people who live nearby.

Secondly, I wonder whether a fine of the size specified in the Bill would act as a deterrent to a large store. I am genuinely puzzled as to why it is included.

Thirdly, I hope that what my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) said about rural exemptions will be picked up. It is anomalous that the only shop in a rural area could be affected if it wanted to provide a small Christmas service.

Shona McIsaac

But it is a large store.

Mr. Brazier

Perhaps the hon. Lady was not in her seat when my hon. Friend spoke. The point is that a shop that has just passed over the threshold might be the only one a rural area.

Mr. Paterson

It exceeds the threshold of 3,000 sq ft massively. Because it is such a successful family operation, it is now 22,500 sq ft. The definition is much too blunt. As my hon. Friend suggests, the shop provides a very valuable service in a thinly populated rural area. Another one further down in Shropshire called Harry Tuffins would also qualify. There must be several such outlets that began as little family businesses, and have all those characteristics, but are physically quite large.

Mr. Brazier

With respect to my hon. Friend, the history of the business is not the relevant point. If the shop is genuinely the only one serving a very large area and has, for example, a pharmaceutical side or sells other essential things that people might need at short notice, there is scope for an exemption. There may be several such shops around the country. The Bill must not be seen as an attack on large stores. In supporting it, the House should commend the fact that just over 90 per cent. of them choose to close on Christmas day anyway. However, it is right to create a level playing field.

I want to close by making one more personal remark. Earlier, we discussed libertarianism—I, for one, am not a libertarian—I am an old-fashioned Conservative.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab)

As are we all.

Mr. Brazier

I am delighted to stand shoulder to shoulder with the hon. Gentleman on an awful lot of issues, although not, following his correspondence with one of my constituents, on people defending their homes.

My attitude to regulation is that it should be principled. I am proud of the fact that I am part of the party that, in the middle of the last century, introduced the Clean Air Act 1956, which was the first such Act and the cornerstone of subsequent environmental legislation. I am proud of the fact that in the middle of the previous century it was a Conservative Government who introduced the Factory Acts that got children out of the most dangerous places of employment. But principled legislation must be separated from the absolute detritus of paperwork that is besieging our small businesses, hospitals, schools and police stations. The Bill is an example of principled legislation: it represents a thoroughly good principle.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brazier

Happily, although I was about to sit down.

Mr. Sutcliffe

I want to pursue the issue of regulation, because it is constantly raised by Conservative Members. Which employment regulations would the hon. Gentleman like to be withdrawn?

Mr. Brazier

Every time I visit a small business, a police station, a hospital, a school, or almost any other place where people are employed, they show me the huge quantities of paperwork that they are engaged in. It would go well beyond my brief in this debate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is spot on. He has allowed himself to be tempted into territory that is not covered by the Bill.

Mr. Brazier

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your wise guidance. I shall avoid the hon. Gentleman's blandishments.

The Bill is an example of principled regulation. It is a good Bill that will have one narrow effect that I believe will be for the good of this country. I urge the House to support it.

11.30 am
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on introducing the Bill and on putting up with all the vagaries of a Friday sitting. Some of us who are in the Chamber on Fridays more often than others are aware of the tactical to-ing and fro-ing and know how frustrating and frightening that can be. However, I am pretty sure that my hon. Friend will achieve his objective today.

I wish particularly to support the Bill because at Brent Cross in my constituency there is one of the largest shopping centres in the country. Retailing is the major employment sector in my constituency. There are more people employed in retailing than in any other form of work. The Bill is of great importance to those who work in the sector.

Those who work in retailing in my constituency come from many different faiths. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), in his peroration, set out all the different faith groups that we have in the UK. When I first read the Bill, I shared some of his concerns about whether we were doing enough to protect those of other faiths from being required to work on days that they regard as holy. However, that does not detract from the main thrust of the Bill, which is to preserve the special nature of Christmas day for families generally, not only for Christians, for people of no faith or for those with other faiths.

I think of the enormous stress and work that we place on those in the retail sector in the run-up to Christmas. People are working day in and day out, seven days a week, with no holidays. They work long hours and a great deal of overtime. It is only fair that we recognise the huge contribution that those people make, not only in making other people's Christmas happy and enjoyable but in contributing to the strength of our economy. We should recognise that by giving them at least one day off, which is absolutely clear, a year. I say to the Scrooge from Bromley—the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—that his approach is not the way forward.

It is important to recognise that we are talking not only about shop workers but about all the other workers whose lives would also be affected if trading were allowed to continue on Christmas day. At present, transport workers will almost certainly not have to work on Christmas day. If trading were to continue on Christmas day, they would have to work. Other examples are street cleaners, parking attendants, traffic wardens and bank call centres.

Many people are affected indirectly by trading on Christmas day. They deserve the help that the Bill will give to them as well as to shop workers. The issue goes well beyond an USDAW pressure group. It affects a great many people throughout the country in all walks of life. I very much support the Bill.

11.33 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on his success in the ballot and on introducing the Bill. It is an important measure. As did my hon. Friend, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who have raised the issue previously. They were unsuccessful in achieving what they wanted for reasons that we have heard this morning.

I respect the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who attends the House on Fridays when private Members' Bills are being discussed and advances his point of view. However, I suspect that some people will think of him as the grinch who stole Christmas, or as Ebenezer Bromley

I pay tribute to the work of USDAW on this issue. I think that the right hon. Gentleman was unkind in his criticism of the union for the way it has tried to support its members and the industry by making Christmas a special day, as hon. Members have said it should be.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab)

Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity to set the record straight by confirming that USDAW has been the fastest growing trade union and the best recruiter of any trade union over the past five years, and exposing the myth that has come from Opposition Members--that it has a problem in recruiting shop workers?

Mr. Sutcliffe

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. USDAW figures prominently in my ministerial responsibilities for employment affairs, consumer affairs and competition. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the growth of USDAW's membership.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst should reflect on his party's opposition, in terms of employment relations legislation, to the union modernisation fund. Other unions could learn from the work that USDAW has done in respect of recruitment. There is an involvement in social issues that applies throughout my portfolio. I pay tribute to USDAW and to all the other organisations that have campaigned to keep Christmas day a special day.

I agreed with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) when he referred to the Wilde quote about the price of everything and the value of nothing. That counts in this debate and the hon. Gentleman was right to make that point. He had an interesting exchange with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about the historical consequences of some of the things that were done when the Conservatives were in government. It was interesting also to hear the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) talking about his name being on the list that was in a former Prime Minister's handbag.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) put her finger on the pulse when she talked about the creeping commercialisation that has taken place and which has damaged—

Mr. McLoughlin

Will the Bill give the same legal ruling on Christmas day as that which applies on Easter Sunday? There are certain restrictions on Easter Sunday. Will the same restrictions be applied on Christmas day—in other words, the same rules and the same regulations?

Mr. Sutcliffe

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham said in introducing the Bill, that is the intention. I am sure that he will return to that matter when he replies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport made the interesting and valid point about creeping commercialisation. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was right to support what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said about the role of the consumer and the role of the economy generally. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that point, if on nothing else.

There have been many interesting contributions to the debate. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Opik) supported my hon. Friend. The Bill contains only five clauses. There is a limit to what I can say that would go beyond what my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham has said about the measure. I do not want to go over all the ground again but I shall make a few brief remarks. I am aware that there is a great deal of anticipation about what may be happening next.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that people in the UK already work some of the longest hours in Europe, and that that should not extend to forcing people to work on Christmas day? Furthermore, does he agree that far more women are employed in supermarkets than men, and that even in this day and age they carry the main day-to-day burden of bringing up families? They, most of all, deserve time off on Christmas day. Their families deserve to celebrate the day with them. They deserve the Bill and it deserves to pass through the House.

Mr. Sutcliffe

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am glad that he made the point about women workers. He will be proud of the Government's record on employment relations legislation and the introduction of the social chapter, which have developed and helped the lives of people at work.

As I have said, the Bill has only five clauses. There are 274 shopping days before Christmas, and some people may think that talking about Christmas now is premature. However, we must be aware in the context of legislation that time is an important commodity.

The purpose behind the Bill is simple. It would prohibit large shops—those measuring more than 280 sq m or 3,000 sq ft—from opening on Christmas day. The definition of large shops is the same as that which appears in the Sunday Trading Act 1994. As is the case with that Act, the Bill sets out a number of exemptions from the proposed prohibition. These are farm shops, shops whose trade consists wholly or mainly in the sale of alcohol, pharmacies, shops at airports and railway stations and shops servicing ocean-going ships, motor and cycle supply shops, stands at exhibitions and shops at petrol filling stations and motorway service stations. The 1994 Act could be said to be one of the precursors of the Bill in so far as it prohibits the opening of large shops on Christmas day when it falls on a Sunday. However, the same prohibition does not apply when Christmas day falls on any other day of the week. I am sure that many hon. Members would agree that Christmas day stands apart from the ordinary days of the week and even other holidays; indeed an indication of this is the fact that many people:—myself included—lose track of the days over the Christmas period.

In the debates that preceded Royal Assent to the 1994 Act, it was clear that there was a desire among Members that the prohibition should apply to this special occasion falling on any day of the week. Unfortunately, the very nature of the Act meant that its scope was limited to the regulation of trading hours on Sunday alone. Its provisions could not be applied to the regulation of shops opening on other days of the week and it was therefore not technically possible to extend the legislation to cover Christmas day on any day other than Sunday. I believe that applying a prohibition when Christmas day falls on a Sunday but not when it falls on any other day is an inconsistency that it is right to address; and that, while the House accepted the position in 1994, it is no longer tenable.

Enforcement of a prohibition on Christmas day trading by large shops would fall to local trading standards officers. Again, like the 1994 Act, the Bill applies only to England and Wales. With regard to Scotland, a Bill similar to this was introduced in the Scottish Parliament last year. The Bill has been put out for public consultation, after which the Scottish Executive will consider the way forward.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham has already mentioned, the Government carried out a public consultation in the summer of 2003 on the proposals to keep large shops closed on Christmas day. The vast majority of responses received were supportive of such a law; specifically, 97 per cent. expressed their support for the measures.

It is not difficult to see why these measures would be popular among the general public, and I have been pleased to hear the support from so many hon. Members today. Christmas day, for many in our rapidly changing times, represents a traditional time for celebration and provides a focal point in a busy and often chaotic period. Christmas is a time for the family; particularly, as we all know, for the younger family members. Speaking personally as a father and grandfather [HON. MEMBERS: "Never!"] It may come as a shock to some. We must not forget the importance of Christmas for parents to spend quality time with their children.

On the latter point, I understand that the majority of those who work in the retail sector—particularly in large supermarkets—are women, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) said. Many of them are also mothers. We want to ensure that the special nature of Christmas day is preserved and enable thousands of parents to continue to share quality time with their families and friends. In the absence of other legislation covering Christmas day trading, I believe that the Bill is the best way to achieve this.

In the summer of 2002, major retailers were consulted individually on their plans for opening on Christmas day of that year and in future years, to inform consideration of whether legislation was necessary. To some extent the responses to this consultation from the retail sector itself were encouraging. It was found that the majority of large shops did not open and did not intend to open on Christmas day 2002. Nor did they have plans to open on Christmas day in the near future. However, this seemingly reassuring fact does not preclude the possibility of change were one competitor to decide to break with the pack and open. A significant number of retailers confirmed that their existing plans would be reviewed if competitors were to open. So inevitably, if one major retailer decided to open on Christmas day, the result could be a domino effect.

There have been instances since 2000 of large chain stores gauging consumer demand through market testing; that is, either through opening for a specific limited period on Christmas day or by conducting research on consumer habits and preferences in relation to Christmas day. That further validates the need for the Bill, as it seems inevitable that in the not-too-distant future large shops will begin to test the market, leading in turn to knock-on effects across the retail sector.

With this in mind, I believe that this is an opportune time to legislate. This is not only to preserve the traditional character of Christmas day but also, significantly, to avoid legislation representing a new burden for the retail sector. In other words, while it is currently the norm for large shops not to open on Christmas day, they will have little, if anything, to lose by this Bill becoming law. It will simply mean a continuation of current practice and maintenance of the status quo.

I acknowledge that there is an issue of consumer choice here—something about which certain Opposition Members are particularly concerned. This concept is important to our economy, and to some extent it is a reflection of a prosperous society, but it is also important not to be too dogmatic about it when there are other issues to consider. We have to strike the right balance between the rights of consumers and the rights of parents to spend time with their families. In this context, I believe that the right balance is in favour of the latter, as it is far more important to the fabric of our society than the desire to go shopping on Christmas day.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend think that it would assist the rights of consumers if we legislated to require that all toys and items of personal grooming should come supplied with batteries?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I suggest that the Minister should not be tempted down that line.

Mr. Sutcliffe

I accept what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On regulation, however, we never hear from the Opposition which regulations they want to be passed.

There is a question as to why the Bill is concerned only with large shops. My answer is that of course we do not believe that every shop should be closed on Christmas day. We believe that the right balance is struck by the exemptions.

The Bill is important and I hope it gets the support of the House today. The vast majority of people—97 per cent.—want Christmas day to be kept special and we should support the Bill. In the past, Governments were neutral on the issue but this Government fully support my hon. Friend's Bill. That is why we have been working with him to make sure that the Bill is put together successfully. There is more work to be done in Committee, but I wish the Bill well.

11.46 am
Mr. Kevan Jones

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish to reply to some comments made in the debate today. It has been a good debate, showing the cross-party support for the Bill. The debate has also shown that support for the Bill is inspired not only by the trade unions. Many people support the Bill because of their religious convictions, while others want the traditional nature of Christmas day to be retained.

The hon. Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) and for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) spoke about the special nature of Christmas from a Christian perspective, which is very important to many people from all Churches. We should not forget that we are a broadly Christian nation, something we should all cherish.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) holds deep religious beliefs, which came out in his speech today. The hon. Gentleman is a loss to the trade union movement, as he was eloquent about recruiting retail workers; USDAW will soon be knocking on his door for assistance.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) referred to Stan's Shop, I think on two separate occasions. He will be very popular the next time he goes into Stan's Shop for the free publicity that he has given that retail outlet today. He made a point about rural areas, and I accept that in some rural areas there are not the large retail outlets that exist in many urban areas. We could perhaps look at some of those issues in Committee, but we need to be careful. I know that there is a tradition in many rural areas—and also in many urban areas—of shops closing on a Wednesday afternoon to allow their workers to have time off because they work on Saturday mornings. That tradition still exists in some areas, and long may it be cherished, because it allows people who work in the retail trade to be compensated for having to work on a Saturday, a day that many other people—not Members of Parliament, I should add—can cherish. We already have a tradition in this country, which I think is more prevalent in rural areas, that shops do still close sometimes.

The reason why large shops are specified is quite clear. A small neighbourhood shop that is run by a family is mainly staffed by its owners and their family, whereas Stan's Shop and others of such a large size will have to bring in employees who are not family members. This Bill wants to protect those people from being forced to work on Christmas day.

Mr. Paterson

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on that point—most of the people who come in on Christmas day in the business to which I have referred are members of the original family. My point is that that is a small family business that has been immensely successful and is now a big one. It occupies a Dig area, but it has all the attributes of a small family business that the hon. Gentleman seems to admire.

Mr. Jones

The hon. Gentleman has now got his third plug for Stan's Shop in this debate; his discount is going to be very good when he next goes there. The important pointis that that is clearly not a small shop if it is the size that he has claimed. I am quite prepared, however, to consider issues of rurality.

Lembit öpik

The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) mentioned Harry Tuffins, which is a fantastic shop, but it originated in the constituency of Montgomeryshire.

Mr. Jones

At this rate, I am sure that some Opposition Members will get good discounts when they go in all these stores. However, I am glad that I have had the opportunity to allow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit öpik) to make that point, so that he gets it recorded inHansard.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and for Stockport (Ms Coffey) for their contributions. They have a long, proud tradition of association with USDAW, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire has been very active not just in helping to protect Christmas day but in other campaigns such as the "Freedom from Fear" campaign to stop violence against shop workers, which USDAW has rightly been pressing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) referred to the multicultural nature of his constituency and the fact that people cherish Christmas day, irrespective of their religious faith. That is an important point. In the consultation, the Department of Trade and Industry received no representations from any groups objecting to the Christmas day provisions in the Bill.

Welcome points have been made about trade unions, and we had some good speeches in support of trade unions from Conservative Members.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I cannot let this opportunity pass without putting on record the gratitude that the House ought to feel to the late Sir Raymond Powell, who campaigned for so long against Sunday trading on behalf of USDAW.

Mr. Jones

I was only just elected at the time, so I did not have the honour of knowing Sir Raymond, but the work that he did to try to protect shop workers who worked on Sundays is on the record.

I welcome the important fact that some Conservative Members are now arguing for regulation. The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) suggested that the legislation could extend to catering workers. I do not necessarily disagree with that, in that I want to protect people's employment rights, and I should be interested to see any regulations that Conservative Members wanted to introduce to prevent the exploitation of people who work in such trades. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire gave the Bill the support of the Liberal Democrats, which I welcome. That reinforces the fact that the Bill has cross-party support.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), for whom I have much respect. I even have a sneaking admiration for the front that he puts on and his passionate beliefs. We saw today the divisions in the Conservative party—they exist in every party—between the traditional Conservatives represented by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and the libertarian wing represented by the right hon. Gentleman. I do not agree that we want a society that allows people to do anything they want—that is the logical conclusion to libertarianism. That would mean youngsters still being put up chimneys and the excellent Factories Acts and other measures mentioned by the hon. Member for Canterbury not being on the statute book. That is not a society in which I would like to live.

Paul Farrelly

Does my hon. Friend agree that the so-called libertarian tendency really believes in freedom for the very few and a lack of it for the very many, and especially those on low pay?

Mr. Jones

Yes, that is reflected in the premise that we are all individuals and there is no such thing as society—something with which I do not agree. I think it was Hobbes who said that man's existence in such a situation was poor, nasty, brutish and short. I do not believe that many hon. Members would wish to live in such a society.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, but to put the record straight, even we libertarians occasionally see where our duty lies. I, for example, voted against the lowering of the age of consent, because I thought it proper for the law to protect young people, sometimes from themselves.

Mr. Jones

I am grateful for that clarification—clearly libertarianism has its bounds.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Costco. That is covered, because if people shopped there on Christmas day and purchased retail goods, the provisions in the Bill would apply. The only thing that would be excluded would be if they were buying goods for retail sale afterwards.

The hon. Member for Canterbury spoke well. He is a true believer in the Bill. He is possibly part of a dying breed, as a traditional one-nation Conservative with a compassionate side. That tendency was in the wilderness in the 1980s and the 1990s. I agree with him about the distribution industry. Pressure is not only on shops but on distribution networks to get the goods to those shops on Sundays. That is exacerbated by the procedure of delivering goods just in time rather than storing them at the point of sale. We cannot include the distribution network in the Bill, but I would be pleased to support any regulations suggested by the Conservative party or the hon. Gentleman personally to deal with the working hours of people employed in distribution. The hon. Gentleman spoke about rurality. I accept, as someone with a rural constituency, albeit with urban problems, that there is a different dimension to life in rural areas. Perhaps we can examine that in Committee.

I again commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

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