HC Deb 05 May 2004 vol 420 cc1407-17

Queen's recommendation having been signified

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected the amendment on the Order Paper.

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

I beg to move, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Christmas Day (Trading) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums which under any other Act are payable out of money so provided.

As drafted, the Christmas Day (Trading) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) may have some small expenditure implications for the Treasury purse. A money resolution is required because inspectors will enforce the prohibition on the opening of large shops on Christmas day. The costs are expected to be negligible because only a handful of shops have opened in the past. The overwhelming majority of large shops do not currently open and do not plan to open in the future. The new regulation will simply maintain the status quo.

Enforcement will be informed by local publicity or complaints by members of the public. I do not envisage trading standards officers, whose responsibility it will be to enforce the regulation—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

I am immediately intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's use of the word "negligible". Does he interpret "negligible", in this context, to be a sum smaller or larger than the £50,000 limit proposed in the admirable amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)?

Mr. Sutcliffe

The amendment was not admirable, because it was not chosen. The figure will be negligible in the context of the enforcement that may be required. The new regulation will simply maintain the status quo.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

The Minister should give us a little more information than that. Will he estimate the cost, and say by how much it will exceed the rather generous figure of —50,000 mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)?

Mr. Sutcliffe

I do not want to waste the time of the House; we will have the opportunity to look at such matters in detail when the Bill goes into Committee, which I understand will be next week. Clearly, there are issues that need to be discussed but, as I have already explained, we see "negligible" as referring to the impact that there will be on the Treasury purse.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)

The Minister has said that the impact will be negligible on the Treasury purse, but is not the problem that the money resolution, if passed, will in effect sanction council tax increases across the United Kingdom?

Mr. Sutcliffe

No, it is not. That is a spurious attempt to railroad the discussion and move us away from the purpose of the excellent debate that we had on Second Reading, when hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), attended the House on a Friday morning. I respect his abilities on Friday mornings, as I mentioned during that debate. Members on both sides supported the intentions of the private Member's Bill, and we are today just discussing the money resolution, which is the norm for such Bills. As I have said, there will be time in Committee to go through in more detail some of the points that hon. Members want to raise.

I do not envisage that trading standards officers will have to visit large shops to check compliance on Christmas day. The legislation is likely to cause a minimal addition to existing enforcement responsibilities, so the implications for the public purse are expected to be negligible. I commend the motion to the House.

4.29 pm
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

First, I convey the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) who would normally deal with this business but is occupied on parliamentary business elsewhere in the House. I was not present for the Second Reading debate on a Friday—I was in my constituency—but I have read the report of the debate, and I see that it was in general a good-natured occasion, apart from the unexpected and savage attacks on my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who was present in his capacity as the guardian of the taxpayer and a fierce fighter for deregulation.

I note that at the time of an enormously skilful and successful Government Whips Office in 1994, a very difficult and contentious measure was enacted, enabling the House to resolve a matter that had presented many difficulties in previous years.

Mr. Greg Knight

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his complimentary remarks about the Whips Office in 1994. as I was Deputy Chief Whip at the time. If my memory serves me correctly, he, too, was a member of the very same office.

Mr. Mitchell

These matters were too long ago for—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This is all very interesting, but I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman returned to the matter before the House.

Mr. Mitchell

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will recall that on that occasion a number of hon. Members, of whom I was one, supported an amendment that we believed would exclude Christmas day and Easter day from the provisions on Sunday shopping. Unfortunately, the fact that Christmas day could fall on a day other than Sunday eluded a number of hon. Members, including me, hence the need for this Bill, which I support.

I urge my colleagues to support the money resolution, as the Bill should stand or fall on its merits and should not be stillborn because of the failure to pass this resolution.

Mr. Redwood

Does my hon. Friend think it right that the Government should produce a money resolution without giving us any hint about how much money might be involved?

Mr. Mitchell

My right hon. Friend pre-empts precisely the point that I was about to make.

Does the Minister agree that the cost of not passing the money resolution might be far higher? Although a severe problem is yet to emerge, there is a danger of a domino effect, whereby when one or two shops start opening others might follow. The market pressures could become so intense that retailers had to open, and before long Christmas day would be the same as any other trading day. If we then tried to introduce legislation, the costs of enforcement and publicity would indeed be far greater.

Does the Minister accept the comments made by my right hon. Friends about the lack of detail about the costs involved? It would be helpful if he said a word or two about the extent of the costs. What would they be for, and how much does he estimate that they might be? We have a duty of care to the taxpayer—something that the Government, sadly, take all too lightly. I hope that he can supply those details.

Although the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was not selected, specific amounts have in the past been added to money resolutions. The last such occasion was about 50 years ago when a money resolution on the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Bill was debated, limiting payments to £1.5 million in the first year and £250,000 in subsequent years. One of your predecessors, Colonel Sir Charles McAndrew MP, was in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My predecessor as MP for Sutton Coldfield, Sir John Mellor, made a supportive speech, and my predecessor as MP for Gedling, Sir Kenneth Pickthorn, made a speech in which he complained that he had been sitting in the House for some five hours and had not been fed or watered in that time. He received considerable sympathy from Members and then made an impassioned speech. The House did not divide on that occasion, but the Minister present explained the amount of money involved, what it was being spent on and how the figures had been reached.

I shall support the money resolution, and I advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider doing likewise for the reason that I gave: the Bill should stand or fall on its own merits; it should not fall because the money resolution does not go through. However, I commend the practice whereby the Minister dealing with the motion explained the sums involved in a money resolution. I hope that the Minister present will give us more details on that later.

4.36 Pm

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

We have a problem—the blank cheque syndrome. Every time a money resolution is presented to us in this way, Ministers come over all coy and cannot—or will not—give us the amount involved. That is absurd. We—the tribunes of the people and the defenders of the taxpayer—are given no information whatsoever by Ministers as to the sums that they propose to extract from the taxpayer to support a Bill. That problem remains and, sad to say, the Minister present has followed the pattern with which we are all too familiar. [Interruption.] He is looking particularly pleased with himself, although I cannot imagine why. When a horrified electorate discover the outrage being perpetrated on them today, they will, I hope, wipe the smile off his face.

Mr. Sutcliffe

The right hon. Gentleman is a distinguished Member of the House and a former Minister. Is this not an enabling motion of the sort that accompanies most Bills, and which will permit the necessary spending once the Bill has completed its legislative passage? Did he not move money resolutions when he was a Minister?

Mr. Forth

I cannot remember, but I hope that I would not touch a motion such as this with a bargepole, under any circumstances.

The Minister has generously helped me by reminding me of another problem. The Bill has not even reached consideration in Committee or on Report, when it may well be substantially altered in who knows what manner, yet he wants us to vote unknown sums for a Bill that has yet to take its final form. That is another absurdity and a generic problem that we face with these motions, although I realise that the Minister is not responsible, as he does not control the procedure of the House.

I had hoped to move an amendment to the money resolution that would make the Bill's originator—a trade union—pick up the cost of implementing it. It is surely absolutely proper that the trade union in question, which is trying for the second or third time to get the Bill through the parliamentary process, should pay the cost of implementing it, rather than the taxpayer.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

The right hon. Gentleman's line of argument is very interesting, but I should point out that the Bill is also supported by the Catholic Church and the Church of England. Is he suggesting that they, too, should be levied for the cost of implementing it?

Mr. Forth

Perhaps. The problem is that often anonymous or unknown interest groups introduce Bills and put undue pressure on innocent Members of Parliament, who are expected to bring them before the House. The groups then slink away into the darkness, leaving the taxpayer holding the no doubt substantial bill. To my mind, that is a difficulty.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

The right hon. Gentleman is advancing a very interesting proposition. Does he want to surcharge the new Leader of the loyal Opposition in respect of what happened with the poll tax? It was the poor old taxpayer who had to pick up the cost of that.

Mr. Forth

If I recall correctly, the excellent poll tax—I still believe that it was a wonderful idea, but it went a little wrong in implementation—was not introduced through a private Member's Bill. It might have done better if it had been. It might have received excellent scrutiny and emerged in a better form. I am talking in the context of a money resolution for a private Member's Bill and I am focusing like a laser on that aspect of our procedure.

My first thought was that we should try to find a way to ensure that those who inflict regulatory measures on us pay the cost of them. I was advised that that might be complicated, and then our excellent Clerks gave me further advice. My modest amendment was tabled partly as a probing amendment, but I also thought that it might provide the cost of one additional official in the Department to oversee the process. My right hon. and hon. Friends have already extracted from the Minister the fact that, if this regulatory measure is implemented, it will impose additional costs on local authorities. If the Government are not going to divvy up, the taxpayer will inevitably have to pay up. We are left with a most unsatisfactory degree of uncertainty about the measure.

I am sure that we all look forward to seeing the Bill in Committee, but more important to me is the fact that we will have ample opportunity on Report to explore in greater detail the substantial areas for amendment, which I hinted at on Second Reading. I believe that there are many possible ways of strengthening and improving the Bill.

Mr. Greg Knight

Has my right hon. Friend had any private briefing from the Minister on this matter? I am still at a loss to understand how the Minister can say that the cost of the money resolution will be negligible, because we are dealing with a Bill that is not yet an Act of Parliament. If the Bill, in its final form, imposes a number of onerous duties on local authorities, they might seek to employ an army of staff to implement them. How can the Minister tell the House that the costs are negligible?

Mr. Forth

I cannot tell my right hon. Friend when I last had a private briefing from a Minister. It must be some time—perhaps not since I was a Minister. I certainly cannot think of any occasion since. My right hon. Friend reinforces an important point. The Minister claimed that the costs were negligible, which suggests that he has some idea of the scale of the costs, yet he will not tell the House with the honesty and transparency that the Government frequently claim for themselves—we have heard all the guff about freedom of information and open government—what the scale will be. In fact, when it comes to it, we get no transparency or honesty from Ministers at all. How does the Minister know that the costs will be negligible, when he refuses to tell us how negligible? He will not even give a hint as to the likely figure, even though, as my right hon. Friend reminded us, the Bill may be subject to amendment in Committee or on Report.

The costs could be reduced and, if they were, the taxpayer would be grateful. However, if hon. Members want to strengthen or improve the Bill or bring in additional protection for workers in smaller shops, the costs could increase. There are any number of ways of exploring the Bill and its possibilities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) pointed out, it is some time since we looked into this issue and the Bill provides us with an opportunity to revisit it—writ large rather than in a narrow way. The House should embrace the opportunity to debate the likely effects of the measure and the degree of choice likely to be available to shop owners and proprietors, shoppers and consumers and those who work in shops, large or small. There are many issues that deserve exploration, all of which add some doubt as to the likely scope of the Bill and the consequent burden to the taxpayer of the associated money resolution. All in all, we face a very unsatisfactory set of circumstances.

Frankly, I am disappointed in my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield. He is prepared to offer our party's support—the party that poses as the party of the taxpayer and of deregulation—and sign up to a money resolution at this stage, without even knowing what the Bill in its final form will say. I hope that he will go away and do his homework a little better next time, because that really will not do. When he next talks about deregulation, I shall be sitting behind him, prodding him and reminding him of where we are going.

This has been another sad little episode in the saga of money resolutions. The Minister brought no glory on himself or on the Government. I look forward to giving the Bill a through going-over in the parliamentary stages that lie ahead, in the hope that we might tease out some more information.

4.45 pm
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

On Second Reading, the Bill received widespread support from all parties in the House. It has widespread support in the country as well. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) tried to suggest that only the trade unions support it, but Church groups and—as my postbag shows—ordinary citizens also think that the Bill is proper in its aims.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) said that when the Sunday Trading Act 1994 went through the House many Members thought that Christmas day was exempt. Many Members who were present on Second Reading also referred to that, and this Bill is designed to close that loophole. I found some of the arguments presented by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst to be amusing. He suggested that he wanted to improve the Bill: if so, I look forward to his contribution to the debate, but my clear impression is that he wants to wreck the Bill. His speech this afternoon contained a veiled threat that he would do just that when it comes back on Report. That would be sad.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

He has never been accused of subtlety before.

Mr. Jones

People do not accuse me of that either, but the fact is that the Bill enjoys widespread support. I am very grateful for the support expressed by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman this afternoon.

The Bill will not lead to a substantial increase in costs. The idea that local authorities will have to employ armies of new inspectors to look for people selling products forbidden under the Bill on Christmas day is ludicrous. The officers needed to police the Sunday Trading Act 1994 already exist. There is no need to visit a store, as evidence can be adduced from till rolls and other sources to show whether it was open on Christmas day. Therefore, the arguments that have been advanced do not hold water.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned regulation. We had a long discussion about his view of society, but I believe that a certain amount of regulation is welcome. On Second Reading, the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman made it clear that many of the great regulatory Bills in the early part of the previous century were brought in by a one-nation, caring Conservative Government. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman does not belong to that sector of the Conservative party.

Many of the issues raised this afternoon can be addressed in Committee. I welcome positive suggestions to improve the Bill, but I do not want a repeat of what happened on Second Reading, or even this afternoon. No attempt to stop or wreck the Bill can be considered productive, given the widespread support that the measure enjoys. The use of parliamentary tactics to thwart the progress of a Bill that enjoys the support of the majority of hon. Members reflects no credit on the people involved, or on the House.

4.49 pm
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

When Ministers support a motion such as this, they should be able to tell the House the Government's estimate of the cost involved. What is the point of a debate on a money resolution if the amount cannot be debated? The Minister seemed to think that Opposition Members were asking some sort of trick question when they wanted to know how much money was involved, but it is the central question in the dispute.

Mr. Sutcliffe

The Bill's enforcement and publicity costs could be met from existing trading standards budgets, but amendments to it might make further spending necessary. The money resolution covers that eventuality.

Mr. Redwood

If that is to be done properly, the Government must give the House some guidance on what costs might be involved. The fact that they think that a money resolution may be necessary implies that the Bill will incur costs over and above the moneys already voted by the House under the relevant budget heads.

The fact that the Minister has said that he thinks that the sums involved will be negligible to the Treasury implies that he has in mind the rough magnitude of the costs. The Minister tries to defend his position by saying that the Bill might be amended, but I want to know the price tag of the Bill, as drafted, for the consolidated fund and for local authorities, which are partly financed by the council tax. Those are important issues because, as the Minister knows, we are about to have some local government elections, in which the extremely high levels of council taxes—especially from Labour and Lib Dem councils—will be the leading issue. Now we have a Minister who seems to want to place more burdens on local authorities, without telling us how much, how the costs will be funded and who will pay.

The Minister said that the amount would be negligible to the Treasury. I would have been more relaxed if he had just said that it would be negligible, because that would mean a few pounds. However, "negligible" to the Treasury could be a very large sum. We have a Treasury that thinks that it needs to take more than £400 billion a year from British taxpayers. Well, 1 per cent. of that is £4 billion, which clearly is not negligible, even to the Treasury, and 0.1 per cent. is £400 million, which is probably not negligible to the Treasury. However, 0.01 per cent. could be said to be negligible to the Treasury, but it is £40 million—a huge sum. Is that the sort of sum that the Minister has in mind?

I come to my main worry about this short but interesting debate. I understand the motivation of those who strongly support the Bill. They do not want shop employees to be put under any pressure to work on Christmas day against their will. Those supporters think that that is a bigger problem than the possibility that some people might wish to work on Christmas day for higher sums, which is what concerns my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I understand that shop workers do not want to be put under any pressure to work on Christmas day, but will pressure be put on enforcers—people who police trading standards and shop practices—to work on that day instead? Why do shop workers have to be protected but not the enforcers?

We need to know the Minister's thinking on the sums involved in the money resolution in more detail. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) says that he does not think that enforcers would need to work on Christmas day. He thinks that they would be able to collect evidence after the event in the normal course of their duty. However, I suspect that courts of law might want to have direct evidence from an enforcer who had seen for himself or herself that a shop was trading on Christmas day. That means that large sums would have to be offered to existing trading standards enforcers to induce them to go to work on Christmas day—and an element of compulsion would probably be necessary—or a separate army of enforcers would have to be hired specifically for that day. Perhaps redundant Santa Clauses could be hired for the purpose, if they did not have anything better to do on Christmas day. If they were very lonely, they might like to earn the money that the Minister has in mind under the resolution by enforcing the ban on Christmas day trading.

The Minister owes us an explanation before the debate is over. Why did he say that the sum would be negligible to the Treasury? How big a sum might that be, because it could be quite large? After all, we know how careful Ministers are with the language that they are allowed to use with official advice in such circumstances. We also need to know whose freedoms and liberties not to work on Christmas day might be damaged in return for greater scope for shop workers to avoid doing so.

Mr. Greg Knight

I am with my right hon. Friend all the way on the points that he has made. Does he agree that the Minister has a duty to give the House some guidance on the level of cost that could be involved? For example, what would it cost if every trading standards department across the UK had only two people on duty on Christmas day? We should be given some idea of the figures. So far, the Minister has failed to give the House the information that it should properly be given.

Mr. Redwood

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, as I was about to make exactly that point. There are shopping centres in all our towns and cities and in many of the larger villages, so if the measure is to be enforced properly it will require invigilators to be available at the end of a phone line when evidence comes in, or at shopping centres in person.

As proponents of the Bill have said, if things get out of hand and shops start to open on Christmas day it will be difficult to control the process. One assumes that a tough enforcement operation would be mounted in the first year of implementation of the proposal, to fulfil the aims of the Bill, so two people per trading standards area might be insufficient. In my district, which has a unitary council, we might get away with only two or three invigilators, as we do not have many shopping centres, but in a county, which is the more normal area covered by a trading standards department, two would be an underestimate, given the large number of shopping centres in such an area.

Before the debate closes, the Minister owes it to the House to explain why he said "negligible to the Treasury" and what range of forecast that implies, on the evidence of the Bill as drafted—of course, we do not expect him to be a clairvoyant and to know what amendments might be accepted. He should also let us know how many trading standards officers, or their equivalent, will be needed. Will they all be needed on Christmas day or will the courts accept subsequent evidence? I think that is doubtful. If the Minister can answer those points, we might be able to do a decent job of scrutinising the proposal.

4.56 pm
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con)

My contribution will be brief.

We held an interesting debate on Second Reading, which the Minister attended, and it seems strange that he has given blanket approval of a money order when the measure is not yet in its final form. The Bill's promoter, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), rightly said that it had wide support in the country. However, it could be improved and I wrote to him on 7 April, following our debate, to describe an anomaly in my constituency, where there is a splendid organisation for which the measure might have cost implications.

Mr. Faulks used his demob money to start Stan's Shop in St. Martin's, which was then a very small enterprise. It has been built up into a substantial and successful shop, which, by tradition, opens for two hours on Christmas day. The practice began because children opened their stockings and found toys without batteries, so as a kind gesture to local people Mr Faulks opened his shop for two hours. However, the business has grown—it is now known as Stan's Superstore—and the problem, which is directly related to the motion, is that it is above the 23,000 ft threshold cited in the Bill as the qualification for a large store.

As I wrote to the hon. Member for North Durham on 7 April, I wondered whether he might take the opportunity afforded by this debate to let me know whether he intends to reply. We might be minded to table amendments either in Committee or on Report so that my constituents could continue to benefit from the service provided by Stan's Shop, which is—as I said—a local tradition and of great benefit to local people.

As someone who would like to see the benighted British taxpayer pay considerably less tax, especially in a county such as Shropshire, where we suffer from a ghastly Liberal-Labour regime that imposes hideous council tax increases, I am nervous about the weasel words used by the Minister. I think they mean that he might put the costs of the Bill on to council tax payers. The measure may not affect the Treasury, but it could hit council tax payers, so I should be loth to table amendments that would place further costs on my constituents, who already struggle to pay the tax that is currently being imposed on them.

Perhaps the hon. Member for North Durham could intervene to let me know whether he intends take up the ideas about which I wrote in my letter of 7 April. I should also very much like the Minister to explain whether "negligibly" means a soft touch for the Treasury because the costs of administering the Bill are to be dumped on the poor old council tax payer.

4.59 pm
Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe

With the leave of the House, I wish to respond quickly to some of the points that have been made. Let us not lose sight of what the Bill is about or of the fact that it enjoys the support of many hon. Members of all parties.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) put his finger firmly on the nub of the issue when he referred to the domino effect. In the consultation process, major retailers clearly said that, if one of their competitors opened on Christmas day, the rest would do so, and that they would rather have a rule in place to stop that happening.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) supports competition, and those involved in enforcement would consider what happens on Christmas day. That is how the enforcement would take place.

This is an enabling money resolution, as always. It is intended to ensure that, if there are extra costs, the money can be forthcoming from the Treasury. As I have said, there may be no extra costs because trading standards officers are already involved in enforcement and the publicity surrounding the changes would suffice.

Mr. Greg Knight

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Sutcliffe

I will not give way.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) has said—

Mr. Knight

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Sutcliffe

I have already said that I will not give way.

As my hon. Friend has already said, this important Bill enjoys a great deal of support throughout our communities and it is about keeping Christmas day special. I hope that he is wrong; I hope that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is not about to try to wreck the Bill. People want this important Bill to be passed, and I hope that the House will support this enabling money resolution.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Christmas Day (Trading) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums which under any other Act are payable out of money so provided.

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