HL Deb 24 February 1976 vol 368 cc685-92

5.47 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It will be unnecessary for me to take up much of your Lordships' time in explaining the purpose behind this short Bill. Nevertheless, it is a valuable Bill which amends in a very important particular the provision contained, in Section 51 of the Shops Act 1950. Perhaps I should remind your Lordships that in 1936 the noble Earl, Lord Munster, introduced and piloted through his Shops (Sunday Trading Restrictions) Bill, the terms of which are now reenacted in the Shops Act 1950. This was a consolidating measure, bringing within the compass of one Statute the eight Acts previously representing the code applying to retail trading hours and the conditions of employment of shop workers. In passing, I think it is worth mentioning that of the 1950 Act Mr. Justice Humphreys once said in the Appeal Court: Thesis one of those Acts in which the opening words indicate a perfectly plain statement of what is to be done, and the rest of the Act is taken up with exceptions to the general statement of the law". A great deal has happened since 1936 and, indeed, since 1950. There have been many changes in attitudes. Peoples' views on Sunday trading have not escaped these changes, but your Lordships will see that the improvement in law contained in this Bill has nothing to do with the problems—and, indeed, there are problems—relating to what may or may not be sold on Sunday, or which types of shop may or may not be open on Sundays. I warn the House that I may well be returning to some of these problems on another occasion.

My Lords, there is at present the special problem in connection with shopping hours at holiday resorts. These were provided for, in relation to trading on Sundays, by the provisions now contained in Section 51 of the Shops Act 1950. They are that the goods referred to in Schedule 7 to the Act may, subject to an order made by the appropriate local authority, be sold on Sundays, during the hours stated and under such conditions as the local authority may set out. The duration of the order is restricted to a maximum of 18 Sundays in the year. In 1936, this probably was ample provision because holidays were then taken in July, August and September. But over a long period of years there has been a continuing attempt to persuade people to take off-peak holidays. At long last there is a greater spread of the year during which holidays are taken, and indeed it is very good to recall that many more people now enjoy holidays, and longer holidays at that.

I think it is relevant to refer to the Crathorne Report, the Departmental Committee Report on the Law on Sunday Observance, to which your Lordships have referred on many occasions. It took a long, hard look at trading, as well as entertainment, sport and pastimes on Sundays. Examining the position at holiday resorts and the power to make orders, the Committee recommended that: The local authority should have complete discretion as to the number of Sundays to be specified in the order". It so happens that this is one of the many recommendations of that Committee which has never in fact become law.

Your Lordships may well ask why I have not gone all out for this proposition. I believe that such freedom would entail an examination in depth of the arrangements for staffing shops, and it would also take out of context one particular item in a Report of importance and length. The figure of 26 Sundays which I seek to have substituted for 18 will enable local authorities to exercise their order-making powers in such a way that all or most of the holiday weeks are covered, thereby giving traders the opportunity to serve the public in the holiday resorts from spring to the end of the summer. I should add that the figure of 26 Sundays will be a maximum. There will not be any need for the local authority to use any more Sundays than is necessary. What is also important is that the Sundays need not be consecutive.

My Lords, there is a wide measure of agreement that this small change will be of real value. It is also my understanding that those representing shop workers accept the need for this slight alteration. I hope I have said enough to show your Lordships that this modest Bill is designed to bring about the opportunity for local authorities to exercise their discretion to meet the reasonable needs of the public at places where they go to enjoy themselves. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Phillips.)

5.52 p.m.


My Lords, the Bill of which the noble Baroness has moved the Second Reading seems to those of us who sit on this side of the House to be wholly admirable. I was particularly glad to hear her say that the unions concerned are also in agreement that it would be a change that they would accept. I would approach it from the point of view that evidently made the Crathorne Committee report in the kind of terms that they did. This would seem to me to be eminently a question which a local authority is able to deal with on behalf of those who live in the area and those who take their holidays in the area, and also on behalf of the shopkeepers. After all, there is no point in having reorganised local government and being prepared in general to trust them to take many important decisions if what is essentially local matter is not to be within their power. I would therefore welcome the extension of their discretion on this particular count. They need not, of course, use all the 26 Sundays. They need not use any of them.

The noble Baroness did not even tell the House about all the trappings of the order-making procedure which would attend their exercise of this power if they wanted to use it. After all, they do not even do it entirely on their own resolution. They have to make an order; they have to publish it; they have to accept and consider any objections. Even after all that, if they consider it to he expedient, they can make the order only if occupiers of not less than two-thirds of the shops or classes of shops to he affected approve it. So there are many safeguards. I cannot believe that this is not something we should happily leave to the local authority.

My Lords, it has nothing to do with it, but the noble Baroness mentioned the Shops Act which started off fairly simply, but made things more and more difficult as it went along. One of the later sections of that Act refers to "seagoing ships". Seagoing ships are expressly not dealt with under Section 51, with which we are concerned here. I observe this note, which seems to me to carry with it the connotation that sometimes the law really is an ass. It says with regard to seagoing ships: The expression is not defined, but it has been held that a seagoing ship is a ship which goes to sea". And we have the reference in a case heard in the Queen's Bench Division in 1893. There has evidently been a good deal of litigation and muddle on this. I congratulate the noble Baroness on one point which I think everybody would agree would be an improvement in the law.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, I could not let this Bill be read a second time without my support. Some of your Lordships will know that for many years I have been interested in Sunday trading. Your Lordships have tried on at least two occasions to improve the Sunday trading provisions of the Shops Act but successive Governments have proceeded to block it in the other place. Your Lordships will also know my opinion of Part IV of the Shops Act, which deals with Sunday trading. I suppose it is the worst drafted legislation that any of us have ever seen. Most of it is incomprehensible. If your Lordships do not believe me, you only need to read what successive High Court judges have said about it to know that I am speaking the truth. The section with which this Bill is dealing is one of the few sections of Part IV which happens to be comprehensible, and very sensible with it.

As the noble Baroness said, since 1950 circumstances have altered. The resorts—I do not like the phrasing "holiday resorts": I prefer to call them "tourist resorts" which is not quite the same thing—have tried desperately hard to extend their season, particularly the Northern resorts, and they have to a large extent succeeded. Now, of course, resorts have a different season as well as the holiday season, with the conferences and so on. These bring in many more visitors, the wives and children of the delegates and so on. So it is necessary to extend the number of Sundays for which the orders can be made. The noble Baroness pointed out why we cannot at the moment give an absolutely free hand to the local authorities to make the orders for any number of Sundays. That will come one day. But at the moment it is important to get this Bill through now without argument with the unions, the Lord's Day Observance Society or anyone else. So, my Lords, I hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a very rapid passage through this House, and I hope to hear an undertaking from the Minister that the Government have firmly made up their mind to give it a fair wind when it gets to the other place.

5.58 p.m.


My Lords, I shall take up very little of your Lordships' time. I am sure we are all very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, for what she has done this afternoon, because really it is high time that something was done about this. We have heard mention already of the Easter Act, which was passed 50 years ago. This has been going for 25 years, so it is almost the Silver Jubilee. If we go back further to the Sunday Fairs Act, that came under Henry VI in 1448, 528 years ago, and was, of course, on religious grounds. I am sure that most of your Lordships agree that Sunday is not a day that should be entirely devoted to God; part of the time, yes, but other times, no. We should examine, as the noble Baroness said, the other Sunday activities of sport, recreation and theatre and so on.

It is understandable that the shop-workers' union does not want exploitation of, for want of a better word, shop assistants, due to unsocial hours. I believe that one of their arguments has been that if shops opened on Sunday, every shop would have to open in order to survive. I do not believe this. Anyway, there are many shops on the Continent which open on Sunday and shut on Monday.

The other point I would make is that I think this is a great opportunity for the small corner shop in the town; it is probably a family business, and it would very much help them to survive against the giant supermarkets and monopolistic chain stores we have nowadays. May I for one moment point out to your Lordships some of the strange anomalies of the Sunday Trading Act. You cannot sell fish and chips, but you can sell fried chicken and take-away meals. You can- not sell partly cooked meat, but you can sell fresh meat. You cannot sell tinned clotted cream, but you can sell untinned clotted cream. If you go to a garden centre, you may buy their own produce, but you may not buy a potted plant they have bought somewhere else. I think in 1976 we should adopt a whole new attitude. The only reservation I would have on the Bill of the noble Baroness is that it does not go far enough; it should be nationwide.

6.1 p.m.


My Lords, it is seldom that your Lordships have so many speeches in such a short period of time. It is an indication that the Bill itself is regarded by your Lordships as a good one. May I say, on behalf of the Government, that the Government have traditionally been neutral to Bills seeking to amend the Shops Act, and this is precisely the position of the Government in respect of this Bill. As my noble friend pointed out, her purpose is to provide facilities in the Bill for shops in holiday resorts to be open for a maximum period of 26 Sundays each year as against the 18 at the present moment. I remember only too well, I think in 1967 and again in 1971, when the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, tried to do something about implementing the recommendations of the Crathorne Committee. It may be that my noble friend has decided to approach this by making less radical changes and. by so doing, has commended the Bill to the House.

The only point I need to make is that the drafting of the Bill, so far as our advisers are concerned, is very acceptable as it stands, and one cannot often say that with regard to a Bill that comes before your Lordships' House. It may be a matter of interest to your Lordships to know that it would have no financial, manpower, or EEC implications.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he give me the undertaking about the other place for which I asked?


My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to convey that to my right honourable friend, and I shall certainly do so.

6.3 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank your Lordships for accepting the Bill in such a generous spirit, and particularly the Government. I recall on the last Bill that I brought before your Lordships that the Minister said it was badly drafted, irrelevant, and unnecessary—apart from that, I think it was all right. It was not this Minister. It was a delight to find the Minister not only commenting on the content of the Bill but on the drafting.

To the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, I would say that I cannot personally recall what happened in the time of Henry VIII—indeed, one of my colleagues murmured that it was even before his time—but I agree about the total nonsense of what you can and cannot sell. Most of us in towns, at any rate, see the rather charming way in which certain people open shops, and since they obviously do not read the law they sell almost everything. There is no doubt that there is a great need for many changes. The Minister hit the nail on the head when he said that I had learned one lesson—I hope I have learned others —that in this House particularly you are quite likely to get a Bill accepted if you have one simple idea, but if you have a great radical reform different people will be opposed to it for different reasons. Therefore, I am now adopting a policy of "Softly, softly". Perhaps I should not have told the Minister that.

Of course, I pay great tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Derwent. I recall his eloquent speeches on his Bill. Indeed, he persuaded me to follow in his steps as president of the Administration of Shops Inspectors, which I am enjoying very much. I think I can assure him that the local authorities take a broad view of the expression, "holiday resort", and I believe they are rather keen to have that phrase, which they interpret in their own way. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, highlighted the safeguards which will prevent any local authority going mad. The various processes which have to be gone through are a safeguard to any earnest local authority. I was delighted with his quotation—which I shall undoubtedly use—of the ship that goes to sea. There is little doubt that one does not need to read any prepared jokes one has only to read legal definitions of what the law is. I am grateful to your Lordships for your acceptance of this Bill, and I beg to move.

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