HL Deb 24 June 1965 vol 267 cc613-22

3.10 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill has come to us from the other place, where it was very ably introduced by my old colleague, the Member for the Brightside Division of Sheffield, who has wide experience of the distributive trade in this country. I can only hope that it will have an equally unadventurous journey through your Lordships' House.

This short Bill, the Shops (Early Closing Days) Bill, really represents amending legislation in respect of one or two points in the 1950 Act. That is not to say that it is unimportant. Several of the points are very much demanded by the distributive trade in this country, especially in the light of the change in circumstances since the earlier Act of 1950, and will remove some of the uncertainties of the existing Act. For example, it may well be that the application of a five-day working week in the distributive trade, in common with other industries, is being held up by too strict a legal interpretation of the 1950 Act. I should perhaps say at this early stage of our discussion that there is nothing in this small Bill which will in any way affect the shopping facilities being offered to the general public. In fact, one of its objects is to improve them.

The main purpose of the Bill—and there is only one main purpose—is to give the occupier of a shop, the trader, the freedom to choose which day he wants as his weekly early closing day. Under the Act as it stands, the power rests with a local authority to fix a weekly half-day for shops in its area, with certain exceptions, if it wishes. Not every local authority exercises this power, but those that do must be satisfied that the majority of traders approve the order which they make. The Act of 1950, of course, as your Lordships will be aware, provides that every shop shall be closed for the service of customers not later than 1 o'clock in the afternoon on one weekday in every week. This provision, of course, continues, with the exception of the exempted trades as hitherto. With the proposed repeal of Section 1(2) of the 1950 Act, the local authority will no longer issue an order fixing the early closing day. Instead, each occupier of a shop, or unexempted trader, will be required, under Clause 1(2) of this Bill, to display in a conspicuous position outside his shop, at the entrance most used by his customers, a notice specifying the early closing day of his choice.

While the Bill before us gives any trader the right to be the odd man out, experience and the general practice which has grown up since the earlier Act shows that traders working through their local chamber of commerce, or co-operating in some other way, normally select the same early closing day. Once a trader has selected his early closing day, he is not necessarily stuck with that day for all time. Clause 1(3) enables the occupier of a shop to vary the selected day, but he may not vary it more frequently than once every three months, with one minor exception. If, within one month, or before the expiration of one month, he decides to revert to the closing day which he had earlier selected he need not be delayed in his choice for the required three months.

There are only two other matters arising in the Bill. Under the 1950 Act the local authority may fix an early closing hour later than 1 p.m. but not later than 2 p.m. Experience has shown that this power has been very rarely used, and it is felt that it no longer needed. Also under the 1950 Act, a local authority can extend the requirements of early closing days to certain exempted trades provided that two-thirds of the occupiers in their area approve. This power, again, has been extremely rarely used, and it is proposed by this small Bill that it should be dropped. Under the Bill, however, it will not be possible to increase the number of trades exempted from the Shops Act, which are listed in the First Schedule to the 1950 Act.

Under this Bill a trader may, if he wishes, close his shop all day on a so-called early closing day, thus introducing a five-day week; and it may well be that in fact many traders will take the opportunity of this Bill, which clarifies the position, to do so. Under Clause 1(4) all orders made by a local authority under the 1950 Act as regards the early closing day shall cease to have effect three months after this Bill becomes law unless, of course, they are revoked previously; and, where no order has been introduced by a local authority this Bill shall be immediately effective from the date of commencement. Your Lordships will have noticed that in this Bill the term "half-holiday" has given way to the newer term "early closing day", which is defined in Clause 3 of the Bill. This is the term which has come into general usage to-day; it is the term used in local directories and in holiday brochures and guides, and it is now generally accepted.

The remainder of the Bill deals with only a few minor, consequential amendments arising from the main proposal of the Bill, which is to give the occupier freedom to choose his early closing day. Otherwise, the 1950 Shops Act continues; and I get the feeling that the public would like the 1950 Shops Act to be even more fully used, especially with regard to the late day. One has only to see the crowds in Oxford Street shopping until 9 o'clock on a Thursday evening to be certain that occasional later hours for shopping are decidedly popular. But, of course, that is already possible under the 1950 Act, and it only remains for traders to take full advantage of it. It is because this small Bill before us, the Shops (Early Closing Days) Bill, opens the way for further progress for the traders and for the workers in the very useful distributive trades in this country that I beg to commend it to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Haire of Whiteabbey.)

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, I must first, I think, declare an interest, because I happen to be President of the Institute of Shops Act Administration. May I start by thanking the noble Lord for the clarity with which he has explained this Bill? I welcome it. In its limited field, it is obviously going to serve a very useful purpose. It will help many shopkeepers; it will be of great convenience to the public; and, as the noble Lord has indicated, I believe that, in a comparatively short time, it will be of great benefit to the employees, the shop assistants. Where suitable it will lead to a five-day week; in other places it will not. Nevertheless, I think it will help them, too. When this Bill was first introduced into the other place there was rather a serious gap in it which would have made enforcement extraordinarly difficult. The Bill was amended in another place and that is now all right. Speaking, if I may, for my inspectors who, poor devils, have to see that the Shops Acts are enforced, they are very happy about the feasibility of enforcement of this Bill.

During the passage of the Bill in another place, I believe that the Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State said that the Government would be introducing legislation shortly—I am not sure that he said "shortly". I believe he said that the Government intended to introduce legislation over a much wider field than that of the Shops Act amending the existing legislation and introducing a certain amount of new legislation. He said that some announcement would be made shortly. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, is to speak in a moment and I would ask him whether he can tell us anything to-day about how soon such an announcement may be made and what form it will take: whether it will be a White Paper, a draft Bill or an actual Bill. I think it will be very helpful to people who work in this sphere to have some indication of a timetable, if possible. May I again welcome the Bill.

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene for a moment to raise a point and I must declare an interest. I refer to shops connected with or on the same premises as museums, permanent exhibitions and, particularly, houses open to the public. I am sure that noble Lords will appreciate that they are very much seasonal establishments. Many of them are covered, I believe, by the Shops Act, 1950, and are combined with ticket offices. So far as I can see, these establishments were recognised up to a point in the Fifth Schedule to the Shops Act, 1950, so far as Sunday closing is concerned, and that is of tremendous help, but it would be of enormous inconvenience and could be damaging if one had to close these souvenirs stores or shops in the grounds of such exhibitions for half a day a week.

Noble Lords will recognise that it would be an absurd situation for the general public to go in and buy a ticket at a counter and not be allowed to buy souvenir books and postcards and so forth. I raise the point with the object of receiving guidance and clarification, because although I have studied the Shops Act for a long time, I am not completely clear whether the exemptions for these shops do come under the First Schedule to the Act, but I do not think they do. I am asking the Government to look into this matter, and if they feel something can be done to clarify the position regarding shops which are connected with museums and stately homes perhaps some clarifying Amendment can be put down at a later stage.

3.24 p.m.


My Lords, as one who has been engaged in the retail trade over the larger part of my life, perhaps I may be forgiven if I occupy a moment or two in expressing my views on the matter. I want to give my support to this Bill, without going into any detail. It seems to me that it is nothing but common sense that, provided the shopkeeper allows his assistants to have the requisite time off, in the form of half-day or full-day holidays, he should be the person to decide what the closing day or half-day shall he. In the past there have been many difficulties in this respect. My noble friend Lord Haire of Whiteabbey referred to the two-thirds majority which has been necessary in the past for one particular trade to declare itself in favour of a particular half-day. In my much earlier days as honorary secretary of a retail trade organisation, I remember the difficulties that we always faced in finding that two-thirds majority. This Bill will overcome that difficulty completely, and in future it will be the retailer himself who will decide what the day shall be.

In general, I am not in favour of longer shopping hours. I agree that the late evening has been of advantage to many people who have not been able to get off work to shop; but at the same time I have never believed—obviously, having been a member of the retail trade—that the shopkeeper should be the slave of the public in that way. In these days of full employment it is difficult for shop owners to obtain staff and it is quite impossible for assistants to work reasonable hours and yet provide the public with longer shop opening hours. I feel that this Bill is the way out of the difficulty. The other thing which strikes me is that this is an opportunity for the owner of a shop to close it for a whole day, if he so wishes. I notice that some of the shops of my noble friend Lord Sainsbury close for the whole of Mondays. I think that this would be a tremendous advantage for the shop owner and a great help for the shop assistants.

I have only one small reservation about the Bill, and again it concerns the convenience of the public. I live in a town where it seems to me that the shop half-days are divided into four zones. People in that town do not seem to know where to go on a particular day to do their shopping. On balance, I am quite sure that the Bill is right and that the decision should be left to the shopkeeper himself rather than to the local authority. Surely he is the person best able to judge. Therefore I welcome my noble friend's Bill with enthusiasm, and I hope your Lordships will see that it gets a Second Reading.


My Lords, may I put in one word for the housewife? I am in favour of some shops' closing on Monday mornings; but to close for the whole Monday seems to me rather a hardship for the housewife when she has been unable to shop for most of the time during the week-end.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, the House and I are greatly indebted to my noble friend Lord Haire of Whiteabbey for the able manner in which he has introduced and explained this Bill. His ability is no surprise to those of us who had the opportunity in another place to assess his qualities. I am sure your Lordships will join with me in rejoicing on his return, with unimpaired powers, from what we regard as an overlong respite from Parliamentary labours.

The Bill, as my noble friend has said, is a modest but very useful measure which it is obvious, from what has already been said, will commend itself to your Lordships. The noble Lord, Lord Derwent, raised a point with regard to the introduction of legislation over a much wider field, and he referred to the statement made by my honourable friend, the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, in another place. It may have escaped the noble Lord's notice that on March 17 I informed your Lordships' House that the Government were hoping to publish within the next few months—and that was a slightly more exact statement as to time than the one to which he referred—outline proposals for a comprehensive review of the provisions of the Shops Act, 1950, in relation not only to Sunday hours of trading but also week-days. These proposals are almost ready. Although I cannot at the moment give a definite date for their publication, I am hopeful that it may be possible to publish them before the Summer Recess.

I should like—I welcome the opportunity to do so—to make two points about these forthcoming proposals. First, their object is to secure greater flexibility in retail trading arrangements, rather than to impose further restrictions. Secondly, they are designed solely to test the reactions and to secure the comments of employers, traders, local authorities and the general public. The proposals are not in legal form and will therefore, I trust, be intelligible to all. In the past, this field has been a largely controversial one. As your Lordships are aware, so far there is little evidence of widespread agreement on the form the change may take, apart from isolated instances such as are illustrated by the Bill, and therefore the Government, although the originators of the proposals which it is hoped shortly to produce, are not wedded to them. Nor, indeed, are they in any sense committed to their implementation.

When reactions to these proposals are ascertainable, then, and only then, will the Government be able to consider how far it is possible to give effect to them and to introduce legislation accordingly. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, in his capacity as President of the Institute of Shops Acts Administration, will be able to express a helpful, authoritative and expert opinion.


I am obliged to the noble Lord.


May I take the opportunity to confirm that the provisions of the Bill which has been introduced by my noble friend will not conflict with anything which will appear in the new proposals on the subject of the early closing day.

The noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, raised a point about shops connected with permanent museums, and mentioned the sale of souvenirs and so on. Such establishments are outside the scope of the Bill which we are now considering, but will be dealt with, and taken into account, in the wider legislation that will follow the proposals to which I have just referred. I can give the noble Lord an assurance that the views he has expressed will be borne in mind.

With regard to my noble friend's Bill, in effect, it proposes that the obstacle to the five-day working and trading week which can exist in areas where the local authority have fixed the early closing day be removed, but without in any way affecting the statutory right of a shop assistant to a weekly half-holiday. It may appear to those noble Lords who, like myself, are not gifted with a legal mind that the Bill expresses its simple purpose in a somewhat roundabout fashion. I am afraid that this is inevitable. The reason is to be found in the history of legislation on shop hours. Traditionally, this has been a sphere for Private Members' Bills and, as a result, the existing law, contained in the Shops Act, 1950, is a veritable hotch-potch of miscellaneous provisions. The 1950 Act did not alter the law, it merely consolidated into a single Statute sundry earlier Acts dating back to the Shops Act, 1912.

A relatively simple Amendment to give the shopkeeper the responsibility of selecting the day on which he will close his shop not later than 1 p.m. (a responsibility which he in fact already enjoys under Section 1(3) of the 1950 Act in the areas where the local authority has not made an order under Section 1(2) fixing the early closing day) has repercussions in several other parts of the 1950 Act. This, as my noble friend mentioned, is illustrated by Clause 4 of this Bill.

There may be some people, if I may judge from the remarks of my noble friend Lord Royle and the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, who fear, that if and when this Bill becomes law, difficulties may be created and a chaotic state of affairs may result, with every shopkeeper choosing a different week-day for his early closing day. I am convinced that these fears will prove groundless. As I have already indicated, there are many areas where for years past the shopkeeper has been able to choose his early closing day. It is a simple economic fact that traders will wish to close their shops and give their assistants their statutory half-day at a time when potential trading is at its lowest. When the majority of shops are closed, other premises of a similar kind will naturally wish to close as well, because at such times the shopping centre is likely to be largely denuded of potential customers.

What may well happen in practice with this new freedom is that hairdressers, for example, may find it is more profitable to observe a different early closing day from, say, the operators of food shops, for the very good reason that people may wish to get their hair attended to on a different day from that on which they purchase the bulk of their food. Quite apart from that, shop assistants would have the chance to get their hair done.

With regard to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, about closing all day, shopkeepers are bound, of course, to consider the convenience of the housewife. I cannot really imagine any shopkeeper wishing to close all day on Monday if there is a substantial demand for his goods. I am confident that the selection of the most suitable early closing day can be left to the sound economic sense of the traders concerned, assisted, perhaps, by discussion in their local chamber of commerce, with their own individual trading organisation, or even among a group of neighbouring shopkeepers.

I believe that my noble friend Lord Sainsbury, in the light of his great experience, at one time favoured an Amendment which would have given occupiers of shops a choice of either Saturday, as at present, or Monday as two alternative early closing days to the one day fixed by the local authority. The Bill was drafted with this object in mind, and, I think, achieves it in a more logical way. Monday as an early closing day may not suit many trades, and to give an occupier a choice of three days out of the six possible days in some areas, when in many other areas he has a choice of all six, would not, in my opinion, be entirely fair. I am most grateful to my noble friend, to other noble Lords and to the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, for their interest and the support which they have expressed for this measure. I trust that your Lordships will ensure its speedy passage through the House.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I have no wish to delay the proceedings longer, in view of the fact that we have had almost unanimous support from both sides of the House. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord. Lord Derwent, for his very capable support and most pleased to have the support of and kind personal remarks of my noble friend the Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, Lord Stonham. I was particularly glad that my old colleague, Lord Royle, gave us the benefit of his great experience in the distributive trades and welcomed the Bill. I trust that, without further delay, your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.