HL Deb 20 May 1981 vol 420 cc955-79

2.57 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington rose to call attention to the need to amend the Shops Act 1950 to permit more flexible trading hours; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, my good fortune in having the opportunity to initiate this short debate to call attention to the need to amend the Shops Act 1950 to permit more flexible trading hours, is only tempered by my dismay that it should have coincided with the Prime Minister's speech to the annual Conservative women's conference. This unfortunate matter of timing has no doubt deprived me of several doughty female supporters from this side of the House. However, one good friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, is speaking and I am indeed grateful. From my point of view, I am deeply sorry that I cannot listen to my leader; and I would dare to venture that I am equally sorry that she cannot listen to me!

The subject which we are debating this afternoon is well known to many of your Lordships. Indeed, it has been argued time and time again in both Houses, not least of all when the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, introduced a Shops (Sunday Trading) Bill in March 1979. The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, introduced a similar Bill in 1976, and it seems to me appropriate that a woman should raise the matter yet again because, on the one hand, women would provide the greater part of any workforce involved in longer shopping hours and, on the other hand, the working woman and people with children would have most to gain from any amelioration of the present laws.

As things stand, shop opening hours are controlled by the Shops Acts 1950–1965. By and large, these are based on rules dating back to the beginning of the century, before refrigeration. The general principles of the law are quite clear: shops must close by eight o'clock on a weekday and nine o'clock on a Saturday, or some other day specified as the late night by the local council. A shop is not allowed to open on a Sunday except (amazingly) in Scotland and it has to close on one afternoon a week by one o'clock, which is the early closing day.

However, in practice things are complicated by a host of exceptions. I will run through the main exceptions to the general closing hour of eight o'clock on a weekday. Places can stay open as late as they like to sell meals or refreshments eaten on the premises; newly cooked provisions and cooked or partly-cooked tripe for eating off the premises; things like tobacco, sweets and ice cream, but only from theatres, cinemas, music halls and so on, and only to members of the audience; medicines, so long as the shop is open only long enough to serve each customer. This assumes that you can ring the chemist's door bell if the shop is closed. Newspapers, magazines and books from approved main stations; petrol and other supplies for cars, aircraft and cycles, so long as the shop is open only long enough to serve each customer; postage stamps; other Post Office business is also allowed. There is a special rule which allows shops to sell sweets and tobaccos up to half past nine, and other rules allowing shops to be open later at holiday resorts in the season, and at other places for exhibitions or special occasions. And, of course, there is a special rule for the sale of alcoholic drinks.

There are no rules about the times shops can open up, so it would be quite legal to close at eight, or even nine on the late night, and open up again at midnight. I suppose that if, on a dark and foggy night, you happened inadvertently to land your own plane on the M4 you could dash out, rush to the chemist, ring the bell for the door to be opened, so that you could buy a sedative to calm your nerves, buy a stamp in order to post a letter telling your wife that you would be late, buy a can of petrol for your aeroplane, provided the shop was only open long enough to serve you. I suppose you could even chew at some half-cooked tripe as you taxied off and resumed your search for Heathrow, where you could buy a newspaper. What a ridiculous state of affairs!

We all know the realities of life. Only last week, when my husband was ill with flu, our doctor arrived at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night; he gave me a prescription, told me where I could take it and suggested I do so immediately. I arrived at a large chemist's shop, quite full of customers. During the time it took to make up the prescription, I bought an eyebrow pencil, a box of kleenex and toilet water—all illegal! Quite often, when this House sits late, I am totally grateful to the shop in my neighbourhood which stays open until all hours and from which I can buy the wherewithal for a late snack. We all have our own particular examples of small shops in ever-growing numbers the proprietors of which understand the needs of the public for late night purchases and remain open. It may well be that we are paying slightly over the odds for the service that they provide. Why not? I cannot believe that they would risk prosecution and certainly inconvenience to themselves unless they were sure of customers.

My Lords, in these difficult times of high unemployment, we have said, on both sides of this House, how anxious we are to encourage small businesses. Only last week the noble Lord, Lord Spens, introduced a short debate on that very subject. It seems to me that greater flexibility in trading hours would be a very real help to the small businessman. At the same time an alteration in trading hours might enable the small businessman, or indeed larger businesses, to take on extra staff and work shifts, thus producing extra jobs for the unemployed. Competition is the name of the game, and what is wrong with that? From little acorns grow mighty oaks, I would remind some opponents of change.

I am in no way advocating sweat shops. Sweat shops can and do exist at present. Those who operate them are a legitimate target for the relevant unions. The same controls could apply and action should be taken were the law to be changed. The law governing bank holidays states that banks shall be shut. It does not apply to shops. More and more shops are opening on bank holidays because the demand for shopping by the public on those days exists. I deplore the fact that banks remain closed on Saturdays. It is a blow to the public and it is certainly not appreciated by the tourist, from whose spending this country gains so much.

My inquiries lead me to believe that those who work in a shop on a bank holiday do so on a purely voluntary basis. Why could not the same principle be applied to the shop which wishes to stay open late at night? The laws of the Shops Acts are outmoded and on the whole unenforceable, and in practice not enforced, and any law that is not enforced makes the law a donkey—a mule, if not an ass. The maximum fine for a firm offence for opening illegally on a Sunday has recently gone up to £50. But it is still only £5 for staying open late in the evening; hardly a deterrent for a shop doing good business then.

It is now three months to the day since Sir Anthony Meyer's restrained and excellent Bill in another place did not, alas, succeed. Frankly, I cannot understand why the wishes of a minority should govern those of the majority. I have received much help from consumer-orientated organisations, like Which?, the British Tourist Authority and the National Consumer Council. These bodies exist only for the benefit of thousands and thousands of members of the public. With one voice and on behalf of their members they ask for a change in the law. They are not asking for shops to be forced to stay open, merely that if someone wishes to open at a late hour he may do so.

My Lords, I am interested in the individual. I am not interested in any vested interest of corporations, be they trade unions or national commercial groups. I am not interested in blinkered religious ideas when we are now a pluralistic society. I am interested in convenience, if not convenience foods. I am interested in efficiency and enterprise, not in restrictive practices which make no sense whatever. It is about time we recognised how people want to work and live in the 1980s. There is no obligation for any shop to open, but I have no doubt whatever that if a referendum took place both the shopkeeper and the customer would wish to serve and be served.

The Minister in another place, during the debate on 20th February on Sir Anthony Meyer's Bill, said that during the past year officials of his department have been carrying out some examination of the operation of the restrictions which the 1950 Act imposes upon trading hours. This work, he said, was nearly complete, and he continued that the Government hoped before long to announce their conclusions. It is for that reason that I await with anticipation the speech of the noble Lord the Minister here today. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.8 p.m.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, I am deeply grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, on two counts; first, for giving us this opportunity to discuss a matter which has been in many of our minds for a very long time. Secondly, I am very deeply grateful to her for having dealt so thoroughly with the present state of the law, the absurd anomalies which arise from it and the very clear and urgent need for change. The noble Baroness's speech has enabled me to do two things, which perhaps may appear to be contradictory. First, to be brief, and, secondly, to broaden this debate into one or two areas which some noble Lords may perhaps think do not concern this particular matter. I assure them that, if they listen to me, they will find at the end of the day that they do.

I agree with every word the noble Baroness has said about the absurdity of the present law and the need for reform. There is no need whatever for me to repeat the things that she has said. What I should like to say is this. I believe that we are in this country on the eve of major changes in the way in which society is structured. So far as unemployment is concerned, I believe that we have to look forward to a situation in which certain jobs will never return. I believe it is right to say that certain forms of work have become obsolete. I do not object to that. I think that if one can lift the burden of boring, monotonous, dull, and sometimes frankly dangerous, work from people's shoulders, so be it, provided that one takes some of the consequential steps.

There are two consequential steps which we must take. First, we must realise that it is not very sensible to have something like 3 million people unemployed and of the rest who are employed very many working Sundays, overtime, moonlighting and all the hours that God sends, and so I think that presently we shall have to move to a situation in which we divide work a little more fairly. That means earlier retirement, a shorter working week, more hours of leisure, more public holidays and more leisure for our community as a whole.

Some noble Lords will know that I spent three very happy and interesting years as chairman of the Countryside Commission. We conducted a survey in which we discovered that two-thirds of our population of all ages and from all social groups now opt, as of choice, to spend at least one day a month doing some form of open air, informal, recreational activity in the countryside. I welcome that. It works out at one day a month, but if they all spend that one day on the same day, on a Sunday, there are immediately difficulties. Some time ago I had the pleasure of discussing problems with the director of Yellowstone National Park—an enormous national park in the United States. He told me the number of people that they have to cope with in a year. I was able to tell him that the figure which he had quoted was almost exactly the number of people who at present pour into the Peak District National Park on a Sunday in August—and he thinks he has problems!

The English Tourist Board has recently conducted a survey which shows that the New Forest, which is a highly sensitive area of countryside in Britain, is within day trip distance of 20 million people. Indeed, they obtained that information from the people interviewed, the people who were actually there for a day trip. If all those 20 million people go on the same day, and they tend to do so—they tend to go on Sundays—then we can see the kind of difficulties which arise.

Countryside recreation is something to be encouraged, but the countryside is a resource which in Britain is in ever diminishing supply and in ever increasing demand. I believe that we must take energetic steps in order to spread leisure and to get away from the fossilised structure of a weekday and a weekend. We must move to a situation where the weekend is a moveable feast and we must not hold to the view that all kinds of activities are focused on to Sunday, quite apart from the very important argument which the noble Baroness has advanced about the need for certain people to do some shopping on Sunday. For example, a couple may wish to choose their furniture and it may be that the only time that they are able to be together is on a Sunday and they have a right to take the decision as to which furniture to buy on a Sunday which is the only day on which they are together. However, furniture is one of the items that they are not allowed, under any circumstances, to buy on a Sunday.

Therefore, I wholly accept the arguments which the noble Baroness has advanced with regard to this matter in general, but I would ask noble Lords to look a little further. I think that it is time that we started on a course of action which will change the whole pattern of social life in Britain and which will begin to move us away from the rigidity of work days and days which are holidays. We are on the eve of an explosion in leisure and if we are to cope effectively with that explosion in leisure we must make sure that our people spend their leisure time so far as possible spread throughout the week and, perhaps, spread throughout the year. I have the greatest possible pleasure in telling the noble Baroness that my noble friends and I fully support her in her efforts as regards this extremely important matter.

3.13 p.m.

Lord Jacques

My Lords, first may I thank the noble Baroness for giving us this opportunity to discuss an area of law in which there are undoubtedly anomalies and, indeed, some uncertainty as to its application and enforcement. I should also like to congratulate her on the way in which she introduced the debate. So far as the shopkeeper is concerned, no one can say that there is a consensus. However, one can say that a vast number—perhaps the majority—do not want a free-for-all. They believe that extended shop hours would increase their costs, particularly those for heating and lighting, and there would be premium payments for staff working unsocial hours. They are not convinced that longer hours would mean that more trade would be available. Indeed, if the costs of the extended hours were passed on to the consumer the real volume of trade might in fact decline. However, there is a consensus among shopkeepers on one matter, and that is that they believe that it would be wrong to have piecemeal change. They want to see a thorough review, proper consultation and a wide ranging law dealing with the whole issue.

So far as the shopworker is concerned, I would remind your Lordships that most shopworkers have to work on Saturday when most of their friends and relatives are enjoying leisure on that day. Indeed, as a past shopworker I can tell your Lordships that they have no desire to work Sundays, not even for premium payments. I would also remind your Lordships that 70 per cent. of shopworkers are women and a large number of these women are married and wish to spend some time with their families, especially in the evening, but more especially on Sundays.

Extended shop hours hit very hard the store manager. He is left with a choice of evils. He either has to work excessive hours or has to absent himself from the shop while it is open for trade. It is a very difficult choice to make and it is really a choice of evils. I would therefore ask your Lordships to have some sympathy for the store manager.

I turn to the consumer. I believe that a substantial number—in fact, I would go as far as to say a majority—of consumers, as distinct from the organisations which purport to represent them, do not want a free-for-all. The majority of consumers do not see any special reason why shops should be open very late at night. The majority of consumers do not want Sunday to be the same as every other day of the week. What the consumers object to more than anything else is the anomalies which exist in the present law. They object to going to a shop on a Sunday morning and buying a newspaper and finding that they can buy this, but they cannot buy that. They think that it is a load of nonsense. So the consumer is very keen on getting the anomalies and also the uncertainties cleared away.

I believe that the time is fast approaching when the public will regard the anomalies and inconsistencies as unacceptable. In a move to get rid of them we could well be landed with a free-for-all which neither the shopkeeper nor the shopworker wants. I therefore say to both the shopkeepers and the shopworkers that now is the time to get around the table with the consumer interests and with the Government in order to thresh out a fair and reasonable compromise and to make the law so that it is free of anomalies and inconsistencies which are a blot on the present law. (I read those last remarks because I wanted to make sure that what I said was absolutely right.)

In the time left to me I should like to deal with two matters. First, I should like to outline the things that I hope we would not do in re-making our shop hours law; and, secondly, I should like to conclude by outlining very briefly the things that I hope we would do. First, I hope that we would avoid having lists of goods which one can buy and lists of goods which one cannot buy. That inevitably leads to anomalies—we know that from past experience. Secondly, if we have limitations there are bound to be some exceptions. I hope that we would keep the exceptions to a minimum because the more exceptions we have the more anomalies we are likely to have.

Thirdly, I hope that we shall avoid giving regulatory authority to local authorities. It cannot be right that where you have adjacent urban areas, one shop can remain open and another shop cannot be open because there happens to be a local government boundary line between them. Nor can it be right that a local authority can say, "Shops in one part of our area will close and shops in another part will remain open". These are matters with which we should deal as a nation and not by way of local authorities.

Fourthly, I hope that we shall avoid a free-for-all, particularly as regards trading on a Sunday afternoon. My elder son is an American citizen and has been a citizen of California for many years. I have had exceptional opportunity to study shopping in California. In California the department store opens after lunch on a Sunday. Many of the department stores commence their sales on a Sunday. They all advertise special offers for Sunday afternoon and give them the widest publicity. In some of the shopping centres there is more noise and bustle on a Sunday afternoon than on a Saturday afternoon. That is the American way of life; I hope that it will never become the British way of life.

A noble Lord


Lord Jacques

My Lords, why?—because I like a little quietness on a Sunday and I believe that my fellow citizens also like a little quietness on a Sunday.

I also hope that in making new shop hours law we shall avoid paying too much attention to the problem of the tourist. It is part of the spice of tourism that the tourist experiences a different climate, a different diet, a different custom and a different practice. Let us make the law for those who live here all the time. I do not believe that it would seriously affect the number of tourists or the amount that they spend. It might affect the continental weekender who comes across for shopping only when the value of the pound is low and when he can buy our goods at bargain prices. So we can forget him. In remaking the law there may be a temptation to discriminate between small shops and large shops. I hope that we shall avoid that, for inevitably that would lead to anomaly. Whether you try to discriminate in terms of number of staff or size of floor space, you are bound to get into difficulties.

I turn now to the positive side. My shop hours law would be simple. Shops could remain open until 8 p.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays. I would have no lists of what one could buy and what one could not buy. My exceptions would be as few as possible; for example, food and drink consumed on the premises, supplies required to keep transport going, including cars and aircraft, and the dispensing of medical prescriptions. That is about all that I would have as exceptions; certainly I would have very few more, because the more you have, the more anomalies are created.

That simple kind of law—8 p.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays—would do away with the one late night we have of 9 p.m. on one night a week. Not a great deal of trade is done between 8 o'clock and 9 o'clock and very few shops are open. The practice of our people has not changed in just one way since we framed our Shops Act, but has changed in other ways. For example, far greater numbers of people now watch the television; they do not listen to the radio. In these days of so many people watching the television, there is not the demand for shops to be open late at night, as they used to be, and 8 o'clock is late enough for anyone. If we had this simple law of 8 p.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays, it would also mean that the half-day closing would become optional and would be quite voluntary. I see no reason why it should not be.

I believe that the trade union in the distributive trade is well capable of looking after its members. All the shopworkers are, in fact, covered by wages council orders. At present the wages council orders provide for a 40-hour week with double time on Sundays. I should like them to go one step further and provide for a five-day week, unless there was agreement between the individual workers and his employer that it should be four days and two half days.

Finally, I would expect this simple legislation to deal with some of the less known anomalies. For example, there are travelling salesmen who take rooms in hotels and elsewhere, and who sell when other people are unable to sell. I hope that new legislation would bring them within the framework of the law. I make these what I call practical suggestions as a result of a life-time's experience in distribution, and I hope that they will be helpful.

3.26 p.m.

Lord Harris of High Cross

My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, for bringing this Motion before us and to congratulate her on the forceful but cheerful way in which she presented her arguments. I was duly impressed by the unusual agreement from the Liberal Benches, from the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Jacques. I always listen to his speeches with special care because he develops his argument with transparent sincerity and with a great deal of experience. I listened hard in the hope of finding something with which I could agree, and I can only say that I must go on listening and hoping.

I want to present a different view, particularly on the matter of Sunday trading. I should say at the outset that I feel under no great compulsion to dash out to shop after 8 o'clock or 9 o'clock in the evening. I can fully savour the nostalgic attraction of Victorian weekends when the family trooped off to church in their Sunday best and came home, devoting themselves to discussing the sermon, without such modern distractions—of which the noble Lord seems to disapprove—as television and do-it-yourself, or outings in the family motorcar. But, alas! times change.

I want to argue that one of the lessons we might learn from Britain's long relative decline is that we must be more ready to come to terms with change, even in aspects of economic and social development that we might find unwelcome. Above all, we should avoid the trap of accepting those changes that appeal to us, that suit our tastes, that fit in with our particular, if you like, religious proclivities, while resisting changes that appeal to others, although they may be a minority and there may be no consensus for the particular change.

It seems to me that much of the opposition to change in shopping arrangements smacks of this self-indulgent nostalgia or personal prejudice. I find it characteristic of much of the obstruction to new developments which has held back our industry over many years from serving new markets and exploiting new opportunities. I believe that our readiness to reform, if not to repeal, the Shops Act might be taken as a test of whether we are serious in all the speeches that we make about the need to improve social welfare, because that ultimately depends on our readiness to accept changes as the price of economic and social progress.

Even the defenders of the Shops Act are now on the defensive; they acknowledge that it is out-of-date. Its antique schedules, which list those things which cannot be bought on a Sunday—the forbidden fruit in the schedules—are a tribute to a vanished approach of the 1950s rather than the 1980s and 1990s. I shall not develop the examples, except that the best known one not so far mentioned is that on a Sunday it is legitimate to buy not only partly-cooked tripe, but gin or milk, but it is not legal to buy baby food or tinned cream.

What objections are there to Sunday opening? For a start, what of the Lord's Day Observance Society? I am going to urge that before coming to a judgment some of us should have regard for our constituents. The advantage of being a life Peer with a territorial title or appendage is that one can select a constituency without the fatigue of actually being elected. My chosen base is High Cross, which is a part of Tottenham named after a market cross adjacent to the grammar school which I had the good fortune to attend some years ago. Upon investigating some early records I was delighted to discover that a monk or friar came to preach at the market place on every market day. From that I deduce that there is not necessarily any conflict between sermons and selling; between, if you like, God and Mammon.

As an economist I will go further and argue the point that a free market is always in the best interests of the consumer and is the best basis for trading. Dealings between willing buyers and willing sellers must benefit both parties in the transaction, or why otherwise would they trade together on a Sunday or at any other time? I wish to emphasise that the one interest that all of us in your Lordships' House share with our fellows in the other place, and with all their constituents, is that everyone of us is a consumer; a member of the 56 million-strong, fully paid-up consumer party.

This thought brings me to what I believe to be a more malignant source of objection to change in this matter—namely, USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. It seems to me that like to many trade union restrictions, the fear of freedom to shop is based on a superficial and shortsighted view of the best interests of the union members themselves. Surely it is becoming clearer every day that workers in any productive employment will best prosper in the long run by serving the changing demands of their customers. That is no less true for Co-operative Society shop assistants than it is for employees of British Leyland or of the shop that I saw advertised today in The Times by the name of Dickie Dirts. The last word on the subject was written some time ago by Adam Smith in his great work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. I quote: Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interests of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is so perfectly self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it". My Lords, instead of proving it, I would simply ask USDAW if they believe that shops exist for the convience of shopkeepers and shop assistants rather than their consumers? Can they not understand that longer or different hours of opening would not necessarily lengthen the working week? Indeed, under the Shops Act, as the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, told us, an establishment can already open for more than 100 hours a week. Many shops—including Sainsbury's—open for more than 50 hours a week, and yet the average week's work by full-time shop assistants is something short of 40 hours. The explanation is, of course, perfectly plain; shift working and part-time working.

What of the objections from such assorted interest groups as the Retail Consortium, the Butchers' Federation or the dear old Co-op? They remind me of the fearful but fortunately unsuccessful campaign against the abolition of resale price maintenance in 1963. In retrospect I believe we can see more clearly that it was the freeing of competitive pricing after 1963 that prepared the way for the revolution in retailing, including self-service, which brought undoubted advantages to the consumer in terms of choice, cheapness and convenience. This has been done without threatening the extinction of the corner shop wherever it can offer a personal service for which people are prepared to pay.

As the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said, further changes inevitably lie ahead. There is a secular trend towards longer weekends, more holidays, freer motoring, and increased foreign tourism. It seems to me that all of these will call for adjustments in shopping, catering and a host of related activities. They all bring the prospect—a point the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, has missed—of increased employment in a flourishing and expanding service sector of our economy. But what is the use of longer holidays and all the rest if we as a nation acquiesce in the example of museums and art galleries, which have come to close down to suit their employees at the very time when more people wish to visit them? I suggest that a better example has been set by such ancient and modern noble Lords as the Marquess of Salisbury and the Duke of Bedford, whose country homes at Hatfield and Woburn Abbey ply their most profitable trade by catering for family outings when it best suits their customers.

I conclude that we should leave it to dukes and to other enterprising tradesmen to decide what services they will offer in the light of what people are prepared to pay for. Of course we need some regulation in the interests of the consumer, and indeed there is a long line of necessary laws concerned with weights and measures, safety and cleanliness, labelling and trade descriptions. For the rest I take my stand with the Consumers' Association, that we should leave shops and shoppers to trade together freely, as they do in Scotland at the present time, without the impertinent intervention of inspectors and their informers who in some areas, I am glad to see, have been driven to give up any pretence of enforcing this restrictive and redundant legislation.

3.37 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Bone

My Lords, I am also deeply grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumping-ton, for initiating this debate this afternoon. Like the noble Baroness I am also very sorry to have missed the Prime Minister, but since the noble Baroness asked me to take part in this debate I have foregone that particular pleasure. I am also glad to follow such a brilliant economist as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross. I cannot emulate him for the noble Lord has a brilliant brain, but I shall try to be practical.

The more I read about the 1950 Act the more I feel that it needs to be amended because of its lack of flexibility. As my noble friend has told us, the Act's anomalies are plainly ridiculous and are seen to be ridiculous not only by consumers in England and Wales but also by tourists who try to spend their money here and who encounter different by-laws imposed by different local authorities in adjoining streets. The law is mainly unenforceable, which is in itself an unsatisfactory state of affairs. All is very different north of the border because the 1950 Act does not include Scotland and it may therefore be helpful to your Lordships if I give a very brief thumbnail sketch of what happens in the enlightened part of the United Kingdom.

Several Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Macleod of Borve

Provided retailers in Scotland do not exceed a six-day week, they are free to open and close as and when they like. They can sell alcohol, and they can open banks if they have them in their stores. The small shopkeeper, who runs his own business, often staffed by members of his family, can trade when he thinks fit and when it is most profitable for him to do so. The result of this flexibility seems to be that in Edinburgh and Glasgow city centre there are two vast Sunday markets. It is estimated that one of these attracts 30,000 to 50,000 customers every Sunday during the height of the season

Indeed, day coachloads from south of the border swell their numbers. Few shops are open, however, in the suburbs except the normal newsagents, tobacconists, et cetera, but on the edge of the towns there are large discount warehouses and cash-and-carry shops which do a brisk trade as they have their own car parks. Indeed, I understand that they are so popular that it is rumoured that the Celtic Football Club plan to turn their car park into a market on Sundays.

So far as the staff are concerned, no pressure is put on by any shop for them to stay at work on Sundays, but the generous agreement reached through USDAW and the wages council seems to offer financial incentives to them to work on Sunday. I gather that if they work for more than four and a half hours they get paid for 16 hours, and if they work for less than four hours they receive a salary for eight hours. This despite the fact that I understand that the prices do not vary between Sunday and the rest of the week. The reports from consumers, retailers, and staff alike seem to be that they are happy with the present system. The retailers can choose when to give a service and where, because they are lucky enough not to have this restricting law. Dare I say it?—perhaps what Scotland does today, England may follow.

3.42 p.m.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness who introduced the debate in her splendid, lucid and very amusing style. We are deeply grateful to her. This is of course what is known in most circles as a hot potato. You are never going to satisfy all points of view. I suffer, as indeed do possibly some of your Lordships, from being president of one group which wants changes and vice-president of another one which does not want changes, so I am undoubtedly going to upset one or the other with anything I say this afternoon.

I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, that I should love to know this shop where I could get forbidden fruit, though I do remember what happened to Eve when she did so. I would say to my noble friend Lord Jacques that I feel that he is a little unreal when he seems to assume that no one works on a Sunday. How does he get his gas? His electricity? His telephone? His transport? His milk? There are already thousands of workers who have to work on a Sunday. I speak as the daughter of a man who served in the old Post Office, where they certainly used to have to work on a Sunday. While I would not suggest that we want to revert, I would only say to my noble friend that it is unreal to imagine that there is not already a host of people working on a Sunday.

The Shops Act, as we have already heard, is one of the most curious Acts on the statute book, and that is saying something considering some of the mass of legislation we have to deal with. The first clause, said a certain judge, tells what can be done, and the rest of the Act tells the reasons and the exemptions why it shall not be done. That seems to be a very fair description.

Why do we need more flexible shopping hours? Why indeed do we need change in the law? In the first place, the law, as we have already heard, is constantly brought into disrepute. The Shops Inspectorate want changes because they have not got the enforcement officers to carry it out. They can only make sorties every now and again, and therefore they feel that the law has fallen into disrepute.

The second reason is that, certainly in London and I believe spreading throughout the country, the ethnic groups already open on Sunday. I have said in this House before and I will say again that if any of your Lordships wanted to buy anything from an elephant to a flea I could take you somewhere in London where you would find a shop open to sell it to you. I am bound to say that after I have been to mass, as a good Catholic, I frequently call in at the ethnic shops and do some shopping, and I pointed out one day, "As a good Christian I am very happy that you don't share my particular religious beliefs".

But it makes it nonsense to suggest that we are talking about a law which is in force: the law is not in force. Therefore, that is one very good reason why we must look at it. The other reason is that there is a different social pattern of living. I felt that my noble friend Lord Jacques was almost living on another planet from his description of his Sunday. It is certainly not the Sunday that I know. All my neighbours are out in their gardens or washing their cars, and when they go off in them somebody has to man the petrol stations to sell them petrol. In other words, Sunday is different. Whether it is better or worse is beside the point, but it is different.

More women are working, and therefore they have not got the opportunity to shop even during the late hours. There is a tourist trade and we do want the tourists. The noble Lord said that tourists needed something different. Well you may need something different in another country, but I would suggest that what you do not want is frustration. If there is a vacuum there is always rapidly someone to fill it. Since one cannot cash money, we have had spring up all over the place these bureaux de change where they will do this. They do it at a higher rate, but any service that is wanted and needed someone will leap in to supply.

It has been suggested that the customers do not want it. That is not my experience, and I have conducted a number of surveys among women's organisations. As I think the noble Baroness said, certainly people would probably be willing to pay a little extra. If you want a service, you are probably willing to pay for it. There have been various attempts to put the anomalies right. There was the attempt to change the definition of resorts. As you know, shops can be open on Sundays if they are in holiday resorts, but these have a narrow definition. It seems that they are only resorts at the seaside. Resorts now can be in places like the Lake District and Stratford-on-Avon. There are all kinds of places that are resorts, so that could be changed. You could increase the number of resorts, if you liked. You could change the number of things that could be sold, and the number of times in the year that they could be open on a Sunday. Change the law on early closing.

It is a curious definition that in fact under the Act you have to get permission from the local authority if you want to have six-day trading. You see how far out of date we are. I certainly do not subscribe to the point of view that if shops opened more you would not sell any more. Any woman knows this to be untrue. I recall once when my husband asked me, "Why do you have to work?" I said, "Well, after all, let's face it, if I didn't work I would spend more in the shops". He said. "Well, you do pretty well when you have only got the opportunity on Saturdays!" There is no doubt that if a shop is open you do spend more. It is one of the laws of life.

We could also amend the law—I am only making these suggestions in case we do not want to do the whole thing—on what can be sold. As the noble Baroness pointed out, it is totally ridiculous to go into a newsagents and not be able to buy a birthday card. It is totally ridiculous to go into a grocer's shop and find that you can buy one kind of food but not another, and so on. We have now had the views of traders over a long time. They have been expressed over and over again. We have the views of the professionals; the Institute of Health and Safety at Work, who operate this as the enforcement officers. We have the views of the multiples, who want certain changes. We have the views of USDAW, who seem to be opposed to any change.

But I noticed just this week in one of the house journals that at a Spar conference—Spar is one of the chains of small grocers—a certain retailer said, "The British retailers might argue that if they opened for longer hours someone else would have to do the same and the advantage would be lost. "But," he said, "this is already happening. The Asians are doing it under your very noses. Come into the 20th century." The Retail Consortium, I am happy to say, have slightly modified their views and now say there is a wider range of views on the question of amending the shops legislation. But they also make the sensible suggestion that there must be no piecemeal change. That I endorse, but I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, that the time to make some changes in this outdated legislation is now.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Mancroft

My Lords, I too join in congratulating my noble friend Lady Trumpington for the able way in which she introduced the debate, and in warning her, if she does not know it already, that she is on the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire. That bonfire consists of all the Bills, Acts, White Papers, Green Papers and pamphlets that have been produced in vain in the many years that have passed since the 1950 Act. I must plead guilty myself; I stood at the Despatch Box when I represented the Home Office trying to persuade your Lordships to pass the 1956–57 Shops Bill. It never became an Act, and that may have been my fault because I remember spending nearly 20 minutes trying to persuade your Lordships to understand why it took 38 lines of the draftsman's deathless prose to establish the principle that only a Mohammedan or practising Jew could operate as a barber in Scotland on a Sunday.

Another anomaly among the many that have been adduced today is that of the noble Baroness who complains that she cannot cash a cheque on a Saturday. Here I must declare a personal interest, in that I am a director of the British subsidiary of an international bank, and we opened our bank on Sundays and it is still open on Sundays. A large number of people, many of them our customers and many of them not, come and make use of our facilities. I thought when we started that we should have the heavens collapse on our heads. In fact, we had only four complaints. I will, if I may, give the noble Baroness the address of the bank after the debate.

As we have all said in the debate, the confusion is really quite insufferable. Down in the outskirts of the Empire where I live—behind the Chelsea Town Hall—we have many shops which are manned by Asians, including many Ugandan Asians. I should like to hear the noble Lord, Lord Harris, with all his economic distinction, trying to explain to a polite Asian shopkeeper why it is legal on a Sunday to sell a bottle of gin to a lady but illegal to sell a bottle of tinned milk for her baby, and in doing that I wish him the best of Ugandan luck. The Government, I understand from a debate in another place, are considering the whole of this matter and I am delighted to hear that, and there are a few points which I hope they will bear in mind apart from those which have been mentioned in this debate, which I will not waste time repeating.

This is still a sabbatarian country, but we now have three sabbaths. I respect that sabbatarian feeling strongly, but it has changed. When I was at school we were not allowed to play cards, not even Happy Families, on a Sunday. However, times have changed, changes are continuing but we still have a conflict of view. Those who take the extreme view—the Lord's Day Observance Society and the temperance movement (I shall not say a word to offend them), who are the extreme on one side—are militant minorities who have tended to trample too heavily on the views on the other side. We have leaned over too far to meet their prejudices.

Conscience and customs have changed. The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, mentioned the workforce, and many noble Lords have referred to the danger of the sweat shop, about which we have been told by H. G. Wells and Dickens and which we appreciate full well. But there have been changes in public conscience and in union attitudes. The unions were very strong on this issue in days gone by, but a recent publication by USDAW shows that they have moved with the times to a marked degree. Self-service, with which the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, is particularly familiar, has changed the attitude of the shop worker a great deal. It has also, incidentally, damaged the corner shop very badly.

We should realise that this issue of shops is not a problem on its own. It is linked to other social problems of a similar nature; the opening hours of public houses are obviously linked to those of shops. Noble Lords will remember the trouble we used to have when Wales demanded opening on a Sunday; Welshmen used to go pouring across the border into Shropshire in the morning and back again in the afternoon. Those of your Lordships who are of my age will remember how day after day we used to listen in this House to Sunday cinema orders being made. We seldom hear of them now—largely because there are not many cinemas left—but that subject, too, is linked with the opening of shops. So is the opening of casinos and gambling.

Some rude remarks have been made about the tourist trade, which is also linked to the opening of shops. I was for 10 years president of the London Tourist Board and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, followed me as chairman. He will, I think, bear me out when I say that one of the most frequent complaints we got from tourists was that our principal London shopping area, Mayfair, was shut on a Saturday afternoon whereas Fifth Avenue was open and doing a roaring trade. Let us not imagine that we are the only country that can be absurd, however. Your Lordships probably do not know—I discovered it myself only 20 minutes ago—that it is perfectly legal to buy an aeroplane in England on a Sunday but it is a criminal offence to do so in West Germany.

The attitude which we must now take must comprise reasonable consideration for the strong views, which I respect and admire, of the sabbatarians and the temperance movement, and for the views of others who wish to change with the times and want the present appalling confusion, which is so ridiculous and absurd, to be resolved. I warn my noble friend Lord Sandys of two hot potatoes he has coming his way, one small and immediate. There was a decision in Helmcourt in the High Court a few days ago by Mr. Justice Webster which shows that a decision given by my noble friend's department, the Home Office, is ultra vires on the subject of Sunday trading. There is going to be quite a row over that little potato.

The bigger potato is this: for four years I was chairman of the Tote Board, and I am at present chairman of the British Greyhound Racing Board. I have seen in both those organisations a growing demand for Sunday horse racing and greyhound racing. Sunday racing means the Sunday opening of shops, of betting shops, and that is going to cause real trouble and the Home Office had better get prepared for it very soon. I express no personal opinion—because I am an independent chairman and must reserve judgment—but I warn that it will come. People will say, "What is the biggest and most successful race in Europe?" It is the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and it is run on a Sunday in Paris. Actually, I need not tell the House that, because half your Lordships are there when it takes place. Indeed, between the second and third races we would have a quorum large enough to take a couple of Unstarred Questions. That demand will arise and there will be considerable uproar about it. It is no good talking about staff being overworked; many jockeys and trainers are in Paris, anyway.

I remember on one occasion, when I was chairman of the Tote, a member of your Lordships' House—out of decency I had better not name him—coming to me on a Monday morning and saying, "What on earth is your Tote playing at? I tried to place a bet on the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday and nobody answered the phone. "I replied, "ft is illegal to open the Tote or take a bet on a Sunday. You should have put the bet through on Saturday; there is a Tote also at Longchamps and the figures would not have differed very much". I made a mental note to tell him about it the next year. On the Saturday before the Arc I therefore telephoned him, reminded him of what had happened the previous year and told him to place his bet. He followed my advice, made a sensible bet and took 150 quid off us, and I wish I had never opened my mouth!

I hope I have said enough to warn my noble friend that she is on the primrose way. I congratulate her on her courage and if she wants company on the way, I shall be happy to go with her, if only because she herself will provide such excellent company.

4 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I, too, should like to be associated with the congratulations extended to the noble Baroness. I intervene because my first task as a Home Office Minister was to take over the Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, had been handling in your Lordships' House. He just managed to keep it afloat. I am glad to say that in my hands it foundered immediately. It was a thoroughly restrictive measure; but even though it foundered, as has been pointed out today so frequently and so cogently, the 1950 Act remains an anachronism, an anomaly, and an affront to common sense and to any economic good sense.

In general, on an issue such as this there are countervailing considerations which are conflicting and which have to be the subject of compromise. It seems to me that this issue is almost unique in that the only two valid considerations are perfectly reconcilable. The first is this. The customers—and, as my noble friend Lord Harris of High Cross pointed out, we are all customers—should be able to buy goods at any time convenient to themselves and at which the shopkeeper is willing to sell them. If there is not a sufficient demand—I venture to say this in answer to one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Jacques—the shopkeeper will not keep his shop open at that time.

The second valid principle is that shop assistants should not be required to work excessive hours and under onerous conditions. Past experience has shown—it is true that it was at a time when the trade union was less powerful—that that matter could not be safely left to the forces of the market, but required statutory regulation. However, following from that, if, in the interests of its employees with their statutory hours, shop A finds it expedient to close at a certain time, there is no conceivable reason why shop B, having no employees, or having employees working only the statutory hours supplemented by the work of the shopkeeper and his family, should also be required to close. Of course, in the past—and I think that things are changing now—the representatives of the shop hands as organised also had an interest in preventing the kind of competition that has led to universal hours, however anomalous.

So the conclusions are two-fold, are they not? There should be no restrictions at all on opening hours; they should be left to the forces of the market, to the commercial good sense of the shopkeeper. On the other hand, the welfare, and the hours and conditions of work of the shop hands should be rigorously safeguarded. That is what happens in industry and commerce generally. What conceivable reason is there, in this particular class of commerce, for there to be any different type of regulation?

The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, referred four times to a free-for-all, and in each case it was in an opprobrious sense. Surely when we examine the matter we all really hold that the only limitation on freedom should be where it infringes the freedom of some other person. A free-for-all should not be regarded as an opprobrious expression; it should refer to an aim that we should embrace readily, freely and eagerly.

It seems to me that if the proposals of the noble Baroness were adopted there would be a number of advantages. The first would be that the family shops on the street corners would be free to provide for their customers' needs when the high street shops are closed. Secondly, the large shops would be free to work a shift system, as do many other branches of commerce and industry, for the benefit of their customers, for the more economic use of their plant, and for the spreading of their overheads.

There are two other advantages that I venture to mention. One was touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, and it concerns the ethnic minorities. Many of them have had a long tradition in small retailing. If we give them the opportunity to compete in retailing, in providing for the needs of their customers, that would be of advantage to the communities generally in giving them an opening and an avenue in which to rise, as well as in promoting within them a stabilising middle class.

There is another advantage which I do not think has yet been mentioned today, though it has been mentioned in other debates. One of the dangers to the countryside lies in the closing of the village shop. By being freed from the shackles of the Shops Act the village shop will be able to compete far more vigorously and successfully with the shops in the nearest town, and that, too, it seems to me, would be an advantage. So I trust that when the noble Lord replies on behalf of the Home Office he will show the new spirit in the Home Office, not the ancient, restrictive, obscurantist one, and that he will positively and encouragingly welcome what has been said.

4.8 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shubrede

First, I wish to join with other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, on being lucky in the draw for short debates, on putting down this Motion, and on the very able way in which she introduced it. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Boston of Faversham, in whose area of responsibility this matter lies, is unable to be present this afternoon to respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition; and so the task has fallen to me.

This is the first opportunity that we have had to discuss Sunday trading since I introduced into this House just over two years ago a Bill, which was killed by the general election in 1979. On that occasion my noble friend Lord Boston, speaking on behalf of the then Government, said: Accordingly, the attitude of the Government towards the Bill before your Lordships tonight is one of neutrality".—[Official Report, 13/3/79: cols. 602–3.] He was very much echoing the words of my other noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell in response to the Bill introduced in 1976 by my noble friend Lady Phillips, when he said during the debate on her Bill: 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".—(Official Report, 24/2/76, cols. 690] This attitude has now existed for almost 25 years. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, reminded us very forcibly of this in his very witty speech to your Lordships this afternoon; and, of course, this was reinforced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, when he spoke subsequently.

Of course, the reason for this has been that in 1957 the Government found the issue of shops legislation such a controversial one that since that date Governments of all political complexions have remained neutral. Indeed, I think one of the most interesting aspects of the debate we are having this afternoon will be the Government's response to it. Will they continue to sit on the fence, or will they show some ability to move from a completely neutral position on this matter?

I am sure that my noble friend Lord Jacques is right in saying that the only way we can proceed is by concensus, and also that we should try to deal with this problem on a national basis. As your Lordships have been forcibly reminded this afternoon by various noble Lords, there are many powerful vested interests concerned in any alteration of the present law on Sunday trading, and a number of these interests have been referred to by various noble Lords in the debate today, particularly by Lord Harris of High Cross. I am sorry that on this occasion no Member of the Bishops' Bench has put his name down to speak; and, indeed, that no leading trade unionist has wished to speak in this particular debate.

I think that from this and from the history we can gather that the passage of 25 years has shown, and still shows, that there is no consensus for change. At the same time, everybody is agreed that the law needs to be changed, A law which is not enforced is a bad law, and this has been pointed out particularly by my noble friend Lady Phillips, who has pointed to the problems of the shops inspectors. These inspectors are employed to do a particular job and wish to do that particular job efficiently, but they are constrained from doing so because of the state of the present law. That is a matter with which I am sure your Lordships would sympathise.

I think that two noble Lords felt that the way ahead was an absolute free-for-all, with there being no legislation about Sunday trading at all. I do not think that at our present stage of development we are ready to move to such a situation; and no Government, I think, would be able to enact that sort of legislation. There has been reference to the question of the tourist trade by a number of noble Lords, not least by my predecessor at the London Tourist Board, Lord Mancroft, when he referred, and rightly referred, to our reliance as a nation on the tourist trade. I think this is a consideration that we must take very much into account, and from time to time I am reminded of the difficulties which tourists face because they cannot do certain things which they would wish to do on a Sunday.

I hope that the Government will see that the 25 years of history really shows that the only way forward, if we are to achieve some change in the legislation, is for them to take an initiative. I know they have received warnings about this from the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, but I hope that despite those warnings the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, who is to reply to this debate, will feel that this is an area in which the Government might feel it right and proper to open consultations to see whether in fact they could find some way forward which would command support from all quarters. I feel that unless this course of action is taken we could be in the position, in another 25 years' time, of coming back and still finding that nothing had been done.

4.17 p.m.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, I am sure I speak for all your Lordships when I congratulate the noble Baroness on her choice of subject and on the way in which she has presented it to your Lordships this afternoon. For reasons which will become apparent in what I have to say, I believe it is most timely for your Lordships to have the opportunity to discuss this subject, and in particular to concentrate on the aspect emphasised by the noble Baroness in her speech; namely, the question of trading hours. The Government are conscious that my noble friend's action in raising this matter reflects a concern which she has had for some time that there should be greater flexibility in shop opening hours than the law at present provides, and that the time has now come to give greater attention to consumer opinion. I am sure that view has been reflected in almost every speech we have heard this afternoon.

I should like to begin by describing to those noble Lords who have contributed to the debate some of the background to the difficulties facing this Government and indeed many previous Governments by drawing attention to the anomalies contained in the present shops legislation. Indeed, I have been goaded into doing so because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, has identified them in language which spurs me on to proceed on this line. The existing controls, and the discussion of them, tend to be dominated by the Sunday trading provisions and the anomalies to which they give rise. The Government are well aware, however, that it is not only the provisions relating to Sunday trading in the current legislation as embodied in the Shops Act 1950, to which much reference has been made and which many people believe do not reflect the proper balance between, on the one hand, the necessary safeguards for those engaged in the retail trade, to which the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, referred, and the needs of the consuming public, referred to by so many speakers.

These have changed substantially in recent decades. This has been attributable partly to changed attitudes and practices affecting the employment of women. Further, our membership of the European Community and the enormous growth in foreign travel, to which much reference has been made, have highlighted the distinctions, many of which can no longer be valid, between the practices and legislation in this country and those of our closer neighbours. The growth of supermarket and hypermarket shopping is also a factor which ought now to be taken into account.

The context of the legislation has also changed. When these provisions were first introduced it was appropriate to use legislation to afford proper protection for staff. This is no longer self-evidently the case. Our industrial relations have now become much more sophisticated and a wide range of procedures exist to supplement, and replace, legislation as the only form of control. This is a field which is now much more effectively covered by the established machinery for negotiation on conditions of employment. The Government are also aware of the substantial administrative commitment which the present legislation places on local authorities. There is no lack of appreciation on the part of the Government of the many grounds on which it may be argued that the present law is in need of amendment. We have had so many examples this afternoon that it is hardly necessary to reiterate it. The experience of the present Government, however, like so many of their predecessors, has so far been that there is insufficient agreement to facilitate further attempts at legislation. I am sure that will fall on the ears of many noble Lords with some dismay, but I must proceed with the argument because it is a much more complex story than is perhaps generally appreciated.

I think it may be helpful if I briefly recapitulate the main provisions relating to shopping hours contained in the 1950 Act. That Act requires that, unless a local authority makes an order specifying an earlier closing hour (not earlier than 7 p.m.) shops must close not later than 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. on one "late" day each week. Shops must close not later than 1 p.m. on one weekday in each week, which may be whichever afternoon the shopkeeper chooses. There are provisions by which certain transactions are exempt from the general closing hours and local authorities may exempt classes of shops from the early closing day requirements where a majority of traders so wish, and allow a degree of later closing in the case of holiday resorts. The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, referred to this and the difficulty of the 1950 Act in identifying what those resorts were and whether they have changed since 1950. Most authorities have in fact already made orders introducing full six-day trading.

The Act also provides for specified break periods and half-day holidays for shop assistants with special provisions for persons under 18. In addition, the provisions in the Act relating to Sunday trading require shops to be closed on Sunday, apart from transactions of the kind specially exempted by the Act and subject also to certain exceptions where local authorities make appropriate orders in the case of seaside resorts. These particular anomalies have given rise to many strictures in speeches by noble Lords, and I am certain the Government will pay very close attention to the experience of so many in this field.

Legislation on Sunday trading dates as far back as the 15th century, but provisions relating to employment in shops followed those for factories and the origin of legislation governing shops is to be found in an Act of 1886 limiting the hours of work of young persons to 74 per week. An Act of 1912 consolidated the legislation relating to hours and early closing days and provided for one half-day holiday each week. By 1928, shop hours had been restricted to require closing by 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., establishing a situation very similar to that provided by current legislation.

The Shops (Sunday Trading Restrictions) Act 1936 set limits to the considerable increase in Sunday trading. The intervention of the war years then suspended discussion of the subject until the decision in 1946 to appoint a committee of inquiry under the chairmanship of Sir Ernest Gowers to inquire into the working of the Shops Act relating to closing hours, the regulation of hours, and health, welfare and safety of employed persons. The Gowers Committee recognised that, while statutory hours and the half-day closing had been of great benefit in protecting shop assistants from exploitation, the point was approaching when the needs of the public called for renewed attention. It also observed that there were too many exemptions in the law which created problems for mixed shops and that the existing law should be consolidated. Thus, the Shops Act 1950, the main provisions of which I have already described duly consolidated eight prewar shops Acts. I think it important to emphasise that it was solely a consolidation measure. The Act has since remained substantially unchanged apart from the relaxation in 1965 allowing a shopkeeper to decide on which days to close early and special provisions for shops at airports and at specified exhibitions.

A memorandum published in 1953 jointly by the Home Office and the Scottish Home Department led to the introduction in this House of a 76-clause Bill, referred to by my noble friend Lord Mancroft, who himself introduced it here. The provisions of that Bill concerned with trading hours proposed a tightening of restrictions by making the general closing hour 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m., and removing some of the anomalies arising from the description of articles which may be sold after closing time. The Bill excited much controversy in its passage. It was decided in another place that it was impracticable for it to proceed during that Session—and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, himself had personal experience in this field. An interdepartmental working party was then established to look further into the Gowers proposals. As a result, recommendations relating to health, welfare and safety were implemented by legislation, but the way was not seen to be clear to proceed with the recommendations relating to shopping hours which had caused such concern and given rise to this debate.

The next stage was that, shortly before the publication in 1964 of the report of a committee under the chairmanship of the late Lord Crathorne, devoted to the law relating to Sunday entertainment and trading, the Home Office wrote to a wide range of interested bodies as to the need, if any, for further legislation on shop closing hours and, in the light of the response, firm proposals for comprehensive legislation were contained in a discussion paper entitled Retail Trading Hours published in 1965 jointly by the Home Office and the Scottish Home Department. The main proposals at that stage were that, except as specially permitted, no retail trade should be carried out, whether in a shop or from a stall, barrow or the like between the hours of 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday or on any one weekday between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. The shopkeeper was to choose his early closing day and one late evening closing day. These proposals were circulated widely and over 100 organisations sent in detailed comments, but the Government were unable to conclude that there was a sufficient consensus of opinion to prepare legislation on the basis of that discussion document.

My Lords, I pause here because this is precisely the problem which is before us now. I am sure that many of your Lordships have read the very interesting debate on this very subject which took place on 20th February, exactly three months ago, to which the noble Baroness referred, on a Bill introduced into the other place by the honourable Member for Flint West, Sir Anthony Meyer. The absence of consensus—although perhaps not so apparent today—in speeches made on the Second Reading of the debate in another place very apparent. I am sure many of your Lordships have, as I have, read portions of that debate two or three times in order to appreciate how very divergent are opinions on the subject.

Since 1970 a number of Private Members' Bills dealing both with Sunday trading and shop hours generally have failed to make progress. My noble friend and other noble Lords have referred to the debate in another place on 20th February last on a measure to relax restrictions imposed by the 1950 Act on weekday and Sunday trading and to provide further protection for shop assistants in relation to their hours of work. Those present at that debate on 20th February recognised that the law as it stands at present is anomalous—on that both this House and another place are in agreement—and indeed in many areas the legislation is unenforceable and there is need for change. But the opposition to the Bill from those representing the views of the shopworkers' unions and the retail trade showed that we are some way short of reaching agreement as to what needs to be done to replace the present statutory provisions.

I hope that this summary has not been too wearisome. It is necessary to place on record how the legislation stands at the moment and how the statute book has reached its present situation. The particularly contentious nature of this subject will convince noble Lords of the anxiety of successive Governments to secure a firm basis for revision of the law in a field which has so rightly been subject to much public criticism. This relates in particular to the anomalies in the present law, and the changes in social habits—referred to by many of your Lordships—and customs established since the last changes were made in legislation as well as the existence of other forms of control now effective in protecting the proper interests of shop staffs. It should be recognised that there are strongly-held and fundamental differences of view. These relate particularly to the question of Sunday trading. Quite apart from other considerations, the proposition that Sunday should be set apart as a special day is one which continues to command a very wide range of public support on grounds which are not purely sabbatarian. Your Lordships heard from the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, in a very notable and brief speech, his views on this particular field.

There is no doubt that it is this factor which has made the problem of modernising and rationalising the shops legislation such a contentious one. It is also the factor which has made it so specially difficult for Government as such to handle. It raises issues of individual conscience of Members, both of your Lordships' House and of another place, of a kind which have led successive Governments to take the view that proposals for amendment of this branch of the law ought properly to be left to the initiative of private Members and not made subject to party discipline. The Government have, however, been ready to provide assistance—in the form, for example, of drafting—for initiatives of this kind which have been launched on occasion.

Noble Lords will appreciate from what I have said that the Sunday trading issue has very substantially overshadowed the question of closing hours generally. It has been apparent in the course of the repeated rounds of public consultation that have taken place that the question of closing hours raises much less feeling than the Sunday trading issue. Even so, no consensus on the question of closing hours has yet emerged. It is apparent that there are still some, both in the union representing shopworkers and in the retail trade itself, who support the retention of the existing controls. It is not clear how strongly they hold this view. I, too, have seen documents emanating from USDAW which lead me to believe that there are grounds for thinking that their views are possibly about to change.

Most retailers do not in fact take advantage of the full hours at present available and, if there were a substantial relaxation, it seems unlikely that it would be taken advantage of by more than a fairly small minority who wish to provide a special service in appropriate districts. It seems unlikely that there would be any noticeable effects on competition or prices such as have been argued would result from changes in the Sunday trading provisions.

It is for that reason that the Government welcome today's debate. I hope that noble Lords will not be disappointed if I warn them not to expect too much from the current examination being made of this legislation. The object of that exercise is essentially to take stock of the latest position with a view to establishing what degree of consensus there might be for change. This is really the heart of today's debate. The debate in another place to which I have already referred has emphasised that, certainly in relation to Sunday trading, the lack of consensus is just as great as ever.

It might be suitable to quote Voltaire at this juncture and to say, as Voltaire said, "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien" or, to put in other words, we must be very careful we are not creating more problems than we are attempting to solve. Your Lordships contributions to the debate this afternoon, however, and the comments that may be provoked in the media and on the part of various organisations with interest in this field will help us to establish what degree of consensus there may be in relation to the question of closing hours. The Government will study your Lordships' speeches and other comments with attention. I think I hardly need to say, however, that the pressures on the Government's legislative programme do not permit me to offer any prospect that there could be Government legislation on this subject in the near future.

4.37 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I should like first to express my very real gratitude to those who have spoken this afternoon. The tone of this debate has shown a remarkable degree of like-thinking. The clock prevents me from taking up various points which have arisen from your Lordships' speeches. However, I was particularly interested in many of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, who at one moment was, I thought, offering us freedom and then took it all away again. I do not agree that longer shopping hours will not increase trade. It is my belief that a greater opportunity for the family to shop together, with impulse buying, et cetera, will increase shopping. My noble friend Lady Macleod proved the success of the Scottish way of life, which has certainly not resulted in any harmful effects as envisaged by the noble Lord, Lord Jacques.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, may be interested to see the pink paper to which the noble Lord the Minister referred which was prepared by USDAW for consideration, as I said, at their recent annual conference. It was passed by the conference and it advocates a more flexible approach to retail hours and the working week. USDAW's conference, which took place after the February debate in another place, gives me grounds for some optimism that the views of the consumer are prevailing.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, mentioned the village shops. A note passed to me just after he had spoken reads: We are now no longer able to get Sunday papers from our own local shop as, if they open one hour on a Sunday for this purpose, a girl has to be paid for not less than 8 hours at overtime rates, I believe". Of course, if the shop could open legally to sell their usual wares, the owner could afford to pay the girl.

I must admit that I am disappointed, not to say depressed, by the negative tone of the Minister's speech. To quote, like my noble friend: "Plus ca change, plus c'est la même chose." This matter is not going to go away. I find it hard to accept that the Home Office is so loath to take the positive action which so many of us desire. But until the next time this subject reappears on the Order Paper in either House there is nothing I can do except to trip merrily down that primrose path with the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, hand in hand, and with as many other noble Lords as possible! I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.