HL Deb 26 June 1991 vol 530 cc571-3

2.55 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to reform the laws on Sunday trading; and if so, when.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Government are committed to reform of the law on Sunday trading in England and Wales. The terms and timing of fresh legislation remain to be determined. But our aim is that such legislation should be workable, enforceable and enjoy sufficient support in the country and in Parliament. We have initiated a fresh programme of discussions with the major groups interested in this reform to try to identify what particular provisions might satisfy those criteria.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, how much longer will the Government dither over this matter? After 12 years in power the Government have allowed the position to deteriorate into utter chaos. The worst feature of the present position is that the law is being openly flouted. Does not the Minister agree that the most important feature of any legislation on this matter must be the legal protection of the shop worker? A voluntary code of practice would be utterly useless.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, as I have already said, we are undertaking consultations, and discussions are likely to continue into the early autumn. My right honourable friend will consider making a statement on the conclusion of the discussions nearer the time.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, does my noble friend appreciate that a situation in which the law is disregarded and treated with derision by considerable sections of the population is damaging to our whole concept of law and order, and therefore there is some urgency in getting the matter right?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend is entirely correct. There are some major anomalies in the law. The Government support, in principle, the idea of deregulation.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, does the noble Viscount appreciate that the leaders of the churches in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are united in wishing to see a sensible reform of the Sunday trading laws but that they are also united in believing that in the meantime the present law should be observed? Does he further appreciate that it is considered that such a reform should mean that as few people as possible will work on a Sunday, that family life will be protected and that the traditional character of Sunday will be observed? Does the noble Viscount further appreciate that in Scotland the churches are deeply disturbed at the increasing number of shops opening on Sunday, thus destroying the traditional character of the Scottish Sunday?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate mentioned Scotland. In Scotland shops can open on Sunday and there is an absence of restrictions on Sunday trading. However, only a minority of shops open on Sunday there. I believe that Sunday is still special in Scotland.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, how wide are the consultations that are being undertaken? Are the Government talking to representatives of shop employees, for example? Will the noble Viscount give us a few representative names from the list of consultees?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my right honourable friend is undertaking consultations with about 20 interested parties at the moment. The list is quite long and I am sure other organisations will be added to it as time goes on.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that, despite the anomalies that surround Sunday and despite the fact that a handful of people are tremendously worried about removing the anomalies, a large section of the people in this country still cherish Sunday? Over the greater part of the country Sunday is still a very different day from any other day of the week. Will the Government move slowly before they do anything that will damage yet again the symbol of the faith that we in this land traditionally hold?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I agree with the noble Viscount that Sunday is an important day for family life among other considerations. But there are some odd anomalies surrounding Sunday that I am sure noble Lords are aware of. One can, for example, sell a Bible on Sunday at a designated railway or bus station or at an airport but one cannot sell a Bible on Sunday in a cathedral bookshop.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, in view of the reference made by the noble Viscount on the Cross-Benches to this country, will my noble friend reiterate that there is a part of this country called Scotland and that Sunday is more rigorously observed there than in any other part of this island? Will he also confirm that there are no restrictions in Scotland as regards Sunday trading apart from a restriction on hairdressing?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is entirely correct.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is not the Government who have dithered but those in another place who have not voted for the legislation? Does he also agree that the majority of consumers and retailers would like the opportunity to choose whether shops open on Sundays and that the worst remedy would be to give local authorities discretion to decide whether or not to allow that?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that one of the problems was the Shops Bill of 1985. I said in my original Answer that it is important that if we go forward with reform it must enjoy sufficient support in the country and in Parliament.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that we have Questions on this subject frequently and that the topic comes up almost every month? Is he further aware that it is time the Government started to govern and resolved the problem? Is he also aware that the mother of George III said to him, "George, be King". I am not inviting the noble Viscount to be king, I am inviting the Government to govern and to solve this problem as soon as possible.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, that is exactly what we are doing. As I said, we are consulting a great range of people. I must point out to the noble Lord that if in this intemperate weather we are experiencing he manages on Sunday to pick the strawberries in his garden that is only the beginning of his problems because on a Sunday one can sell tinned or untinned clotted cream and untinned unclotted cream but not tinned unclotted cream.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us do not regard the Government as the ditherers in this matters but the vast majority of Members of this House and of the other place? Does he agree that it is about time that we stopped all this rubbish and cant about so-called family life and all the rest?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am very grateful for the noble Lord's support for the Government.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, in the light of the way in which the questions have developed does my noble friend think that it is reasonable to expect that all major parties will include Sunday trading reform in their manifestos?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am rather unclear as to what the view of noble Lords opposite is on this matter.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that children under the age of 16 will not be enrolled by inspectors to go round making sure that the law is not being broken?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, that is a question of detail which will have to be looked at if we ever have any legislation to reform Sunday trading law.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, if the Minister takes note of what my old friend the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, said the Government will stall, because they could hardly proceed any more slowly. The thrust of my question was, when is anything going to be done about it? However, I am in favour of consultation. Is the Minister aware that some of us who do not have religious views feel that there is something special about Sunday?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I said that we are consulting on this matter and we very much hope to do something about it.