HL Deb 07 May 1991 vol 528 cc1065-80

8 p.m.

Lord Newall

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

It is a modest little Bill which seeks to legalise the rental of video cassettes on a Sunday. In order to achieve that, it is necessary to amend the Shops Act 1950. The fifth schedule to that Act identifies transactions for the purposes of which a shop may be open in England and Wales for the serving to customers on Sunday. By inserting the words "the supply of a video recording" to the end of the list of transactions which are already legal, we would remove video rental outlets from the threat of prosecution.

Last week there was an encouraging development in the saga of enforcement of our antediluvian Sunday trading laws. The Court of Appeal lifted injunctions against a well-known DIY chain and a building supplies firm and said that they should not have been granted. That was good news for retailers; but if anything it underlines the case for reforming the legislation.

There are currently over 110 prosecutions progressing against video rental shops for trading on Sundays and another 100 local authorities have threatened action but have not progressed it. Authorities from Ashford to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, New Forest to Kingston-upon-Hull, and Windsor and Maidenhead to South Tyneside are taking legal action. Perhaps the latest ruling will deter them from risking taxpayers' money on prosecutions—but who can tell? It is an idiotic way to rule a country. Reform must come, and come soon. However, it is not that larger debate upon which I wish to embark today.

I do not attempt to amend the famous list of goods which may be sold on a Sunday because video rental does not constitute a sale. In the Bill we focus on a service for consumers and not the sale of goods. Many other services are available on a Sunday. It is possible to fill up one's car with petrol at a garage. One can hire a car. One can take a guided tour of a stately home. One can take a coach tour for the day. One can go to a museum, a zoo or an exhibition. The variety of activities available on a Sunday is endless. They do not require the sale of a particular item but are rather a service to the general public. The Bill aims to legalise a further entertainment service on a Sunday, the very day when it is much in demand.

I have listed some of the activities that take place in our leisure time which are available to the general public on a Sunday. Among those, and very relevant to my argument, are cinemas, theatres and television. Video rental is alone among the audio-visual and visual arts activities in being restricted on a Sunday.

In 1972 the Sunday Theatre Act and the Sunday Cinema Act were passed enabling those places of entertainment to open on a Sunday. West End theatres, on the whole, chose not to do so but many provincial theatres open. In 1972 there was very little television broadcast on Sundays and of course the video had not even been invented. There seems no conceivable reason why one should not be able to rent a video on a Sunday if one is allowed to go to the cinema and the theatre and, at the flick of a switch at home, have a wide variety of television available on a Sunday. All the competitors of video, virtually all of which are regulated and controlled by the Home Office, are allowed to trade on a Sunday.

On Sundays in 1950 the BBC transmitted only four and a half hours of programming, but no other channel existed. Today BBC 1 transmits 18 hours of television, BBC 2 18 hours, ITV 24 hours and Channel 4 20 hours. On BSkyB the movie channel offers a 24-hour service. Cable TV—for which one has to pay —is also available. In moral, social, regulatory or any other terms, there can be little difference between taking out a film from one's local video rental store and taking it home to watch with one's family and switching on possibly the same film on the Sky movie channel. The product is the same; the medium is the same.

Perhaps we are all agreed that Sunday for many of us is a day of leisure. Video rental is a leisure activity. Nationally 28 per cent. of video rental activity takes place on Sunday. The general public, especially children, have more time to rent and watch a video on a Sunday. It is therefore a day of immense value to the industry. Sunday is economically vital to the video rental industry. It is on average the second busiest day. Not to trade on that day means that the trade is lost and the earnings on cassettes become uneconomic. It is rather similar to airlines not being able to use their planes on one day of the week. Saturdays can also be affected because many customers wish to return their titles on a Sunday. The majority of stores are not prevented from trading on Sundays. However, where they are, revenue falls by as much as 43 per cent., rendering the store uneconomic. If the law is not altered, it means that there will be one law for the rich —such as the B&Qs of this world which can afford …1,000 fines—and another law for the poor, the small individual video rental shops which cannot and therefore may well go out of business.

Over 25,000 people are employed in the video software industry, making video the largest visual entertainment medium employer. ITV employs about 15,000 people in total; and BSkyB under 1,000. Some of those jobs in the video industry are increasingly at risk when local authorities decide to enforce the Sunday trading legislation.

The British Videogram Association informs me that it is unaware of any members of USDAW among the employees of its rental outlets; and the very large majority of its members and staff is in favour of Sunday opening. In most countries in Europe except Germany, similar restrictions do not apply.

The video rental industry has been a great success story in this country over the past 10 years. There has been a significant improvement in the average high street retail outlet and a new breed of superstores has been developed. Strict standards have been imposed via a system of classifications for video works in the Video Recordings Act 1984 but with much tougher criteria having regard to the fact that titles will be seen in the home. A key requirement of that Act is that all video cassettes must be classified—that is to say, censored—having particular regard to the suitability for viewing in the home. That is why the standards are so much stricter than those that apply voluntarily in the cinema.

The Video Standards Council, established in 1989, administers a registration scheme under which all sectors of the UK video industry agree to abide by a code of practice. That code of practice was drawn up with the blessing of the Home Office. I believe that the industry is more strictly and vigorously regulated than any other medium in the UK, despite some of the stories that we read in the tabloids.

There does not appear to be any reason why, if I can go into a newsagent and buy my Sunday papers at the weekend—and as we all know they vary enormously in taste and decency—my children and grandchildren should not be allowed similarly to take out the entertainment of their choice on the one day when they have some time to enjoy it, whether or not it is before attending church.

I do not wish to enter into the debate about the purpose of Sunday and what activities do or do not contribute to a day of rest and enjoyment for family life, or to go down the road of debating which shops should be allowed to open and for how long. Those are all larger questions. We know that Her Majesty's Government are currently talking to interested parties and trying to find a compromise between all the conflicting arguments that are put forward. I believe that it is now high time some consensus was arrived at and that the Home Office should be giving us an indication of the legislation that the Government intend to bring forward. However, as I have said, that is a wider subject and not one which the Bill is designed to address. I believe simply that the Sabbath was made for man and that man, woman and child would derive pleasure from this modest alteration to the law. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Newall.)

8.9 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I speak in this debate i n my capacity as chairman of the Keep Sunday Special Campaign, a position that I have the privilege to hold. I entirely share with my noble friend Lord Newall the feeling that the law needs to be reformed. I have a great deal of sympathy with him on the proposal. However, I have a number of doubts about it.

Since the defeat of the Shops Bill on 14th April 1986 our campaign has been engaged on building a consensus for reform through our REST proposals. Video products were not available in 1950 and therefore some shops have fallen foul of local authority enforcement action. I appreciate that the recession which we are now experiencing affects the video sector and is bad for the structure of the industry.

The Bill seeks to add the supply of a video recording to the list of exempt goods under Schedule 5 of the Shops Act 1950 in order to make such trading on Sunday lawful. The word "supply" has the meaning accorded to it as appears in the Video Recordings Act 1984. That includes the sale, letting on hire, exchange or loan of a video. I understood my noble friend to say that the gist of his Bill was to permit the letting rather than the selling of videos on Sunday. There is a great deal of difference between the two as I shall explain.

The Keep Sunday Special Campaign has consulted widely on the issue of video hire and video sales since the Bill was drafted. I wish to place on record my thanks to the Video Trades Association, the Alliance of Video Retailers, the British Videogram Association, the OPEN Group and the trade press for responding to our inquiries. I am also indebted to USDAW, to other constituent parts of our coalition and, in particular, to the National Chamber of Trade, the British Shops and Stores Association and to the Churches for detailed and practical expressions of views on the subject. Therefore, I do not speak entirely from my own views but from those of many other interested parties.

This is the 28th attempt to reform or abolish the Shops Act. Feelings continue to run high in the retailing profession and in the country as a whole. The Government have a 1987 manifesto pledge to redeem the Act and have now committed themselves to a programme of discussions with interested parties. Our campaign has accepted the Government's invitation for discussion and will play its full part in trying to reach a consensus. However, if the talks are to succeed the Government will need to take a thorough look at the needs and requirements of retailers, shop staff, local residents, local authorities and the Churches.

The Keep Sunday Special Campaign has produced its own ideas for detailed reform called the REST proposals. They have been on the political agenda for more than two years. Already 145 high street names, 42 trade associations and 44 per cent. of the membership of the British Retailers Association covered by the Shops Act have listed their support for our suggestions. A Harris poll has shown that 88 per cent. of consumers believe that these proposals would meet their reasonable shopping needs on a Sunday.

REST encompasses four headings; namely, recreation, emergencies, social gatherings and travel. The proposals have been drafted so as to avoid the problems of the Bill that we are now considering and which I shall detail in a moment. Under the REST proposals a system of the registration of shops will make the task of the enforcement officers a routine matter. By allowing certain types of shop to open rather than certain kinds of product to be sold the proposals circumvent the difficulties of enforcement connected with the updating of Schedule 5. Types of shop traditionally associated with Sunday trading such as small food shops, newsagents and garages, most of which rent videos, would be able to trade in their full product range without the worry of breaking the law. This approach mirrors that adopted by several EC countries including Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. It represents the most realistic and politically acceptable way to reform the law.

I agree that videos appear to fit into the type of shops concerned with recreation and social gatherings. After all, some 21 per cent. of convenience stores and nearly all garage forecourt shops offer video rental, so why not all shops as proposed in the Bill? There are difficulties which I must make clear to your Lordships. First, the Bill uses a universally discredited method for tackling reform. In paragraph 196 the Auld Report attacked an update of Schedule 5 as: tinkering with an unsatisfactory law. We are convinced that this is not the recipe for change because of the impossibility of determining satisfactory criteria for a list of exempted transactions; of the inevitability of substituting one set of anomalies for another; and of the difficulty of enforcement, particularly where shops sell a wide range of goods". Secondly, we have seen that the Bill will permit the sale as well as the hire of video cassettes. According to figures produced by the Video Trade Association, there are 4,500 specialist dealers, 3,000 multiples and 12,000 confectioner, tobacconist, newsagent shops (CTNs) dealing in videos. Perhaps I might divide them into percentages and explain the market share. In particular I shall pinpoint the difference between the various groups of shops as regards hiring and sales. The market share in hiring out videos is 65 per cent. to specialist dealers, 5 per cent. to the multiples and 30 per cent. to the CTNs. I acknowledge that specialist dealers acquire some 25 per cent. of their turnover on Sundays, local authority action permitting. However, the market share in selling videos is totally different. The multiples jump from 5 per cent. to 75 per cent. The specialist dealers fall from 65 per cent. to 25 per cent. while the CTNs have virtually nil. The trade in the sale of video cassettes is a rapidly growing phenomenon with lucrative returns for those involved. If it were allowed on Sundays it would legitimate the opening of several high street multiples especially WH Smith, Boots and Woolworths which, together with record and cassette multiples, have significant video sales.

If the multiples were to open there would be created a great deal of extra activity in the high street on Sundays thereby generating more noise and disruption for local residents. There would also be a need for many extra local authority services, for shop staff to work on Sunday and for several retailers to open up the whole of their shops to customers.

Thirdly, such a development would add to enforcement problems. Local authorities would have to decide whether to prosecute shops for trading illegally in other goods' while other retailers would have to decide whether their interests were being threatened by the new trade. That might mean even more shops opening and compounding the problem still further.

Fourthly, it would create more problems in respect of anomalies about which we have heard a great deal since the debates on the Shops Bill. If video cassettes are permitted why should not the sale of goods such as records, music cassettes, compact discs and computer games be permitted? I dare say that some of my noble friends' children and grandchildren would appreciate opportunities for acquiring and playing with them on Sundays. Those obvious inconsistencies should not willingly be created by your Lordships. It highlights the need for a detailed look at the whole law and argues against a piecemeal reform of the kind that we are discussing tonight.

Fifthly, noble Lords are aware of the Government's programme of discussions aimed at securing a consensus solution which, in the Minister's words, will be: practicable, enforceable, acceptable to the country at large and would obtain a majority in Parliament". For all of these reasons, I am not persuaded that it would be right at this time to go ahead with piecemeal change and particularly the sale of video cassettes on Sundays. Under the terms of the Shops Act 1950 exemptions in Schedule 5 cater generally for emergencies and perishable items. The sale of video cassettes does not square with that approach. I believe it is entirely reasonable to expect consumers to buy video cassettes either before or after Sunday.

The hire or rental of video cassettes is a more complicated matter. This fits well into the categories of recreation and social gatherings. However, in practice it is not asking much foresight for consumers to hire videos on Saturday for viewing on Sunday and return on Monday. Sometimes that is a practical problem, but I have frequently inserted a video cassette into a box in a wall on my way to catch a train on Monday morning. I know that several video shops which close on Sunday make special offers to consumers on a Saturday to hire two videos for less than the price of two. Noble Lords might also like to consider the nuisance value of many video shops in residential areas which often generate traffic and parking as well as acting as rather undesirable gathering points for groups of young people.

On balance, the Keep Sunday Special Campaign, on the basis of the information available to us at the moment, believes that the answer is to allow the hire or renting of videos within the framework spelled out by the REST proposals. This would mean that any video shop where more than 80 per cent. of its revenue was from the renting or hire of videos, would be permitted to carry out its business on a Sunday. This would cover the majority of the specialist dealers who in turn have 65 per cent. of the market, as I mentioned earlier. We believe that the majority of the CTNs, who altogether cover a further 30 per cent. of the market, would be able to hire or rent videos under the REST proposals because this item would fall within the 20 per cent. of additional items that they could sell over and above items specified within the REST proposals. Overall this would cover probably 90 per cent. of the market or thereabouts. However, we should only like to see that take place within an integrated and rational framework rather than by piecemeal reform of the law.

Finally, I must draw the House's attention to the fact that the Bill as drafted merely adds to the incidence of Sunday trading without doing anything to improve the working conditions of employees. With the reductions in powers of the wages councils in 1986, which regulated premium payments for Sunday work, and the removal of certain restrictions on the employment of young people in the Employment Act 1989, there is a danger for employees if this Bill becomes law. It is essential that this question is addressed by any reforming measure. The Government have acknowledged this on several occasions.

In the light of all these considerations I would ask the noble Lord to consider most carefully whether withdrawing his Bill at the conclusion of our debate may not advance his cause best. As my noble friend rightly said, we need an urgent reform of the law. I am doing my best to encourage the Minister to keep moving with her discussions so that we can reach a conclusion as soon as possible.

This debate has been a most timely reminder of the complexities of this vital commercial, family and quality of life issue. Should the noble Lord still wish to carry on with his Bill, then I hope very much he will be able to show flexibility in the many areas I have outlined and on which I and other noble Lords intend to table amendments if the Bill is considered in Committee.

I hope, too, that both my noble friend Lord Newall and the House as a whole may increasingly join me in the conviction that the REST proposals have the substance, integrity and flexibility to enable both government and Parliament to achieve a lasting consensus solution to the whole Sunday trading issue.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, I must apologise for rising unannounced, but I do so briefly in order to support the noble Lord, Lord Newall, in what seems to me to be a simple and entirely well-intentioned Bill. It seems a terrible, shame that on the day on which people have most leisure to watch a video, they should not legally be able to obtain it.

I speak as a film director and producer in the past. I have made films which are now available on video. It would give me satisfaction to think that on Sundays some of my master works would be seen in the homes of the land.

I hesitate to declare an interest because the chances of my obtaining any income from the proposal are negligible. In his opening remarks the noble Lord, Lord Newall, referred to the classification process. I am vice-president of the British Board of Film Classification. The noble Lord is right that we take great care in classifying videos. That is a statutory matter under the Act, whereas the classification of films is voluntary. We make a distinction between the two. Various factors apply to home viewing which do not apply to viewing a film in a cinema. I shall not go into them now. However, I hope that all video retailers will increase exposure of the simple explanation of what those classifications mean. Sometimes it is rather galling for us at the BBFC. We spend a great deal of effort and time on complex debate when awarding certificates only to find that half the members of the public have no idea what the classifications mean.

In the cinema there is one further classification, a "12" certificate: children under the age of 12 are not allowed to see a film which has that classification. It does not yet exist as regards videos, but I hope that it will soon be introduced. It has always seemed to me a shame to go straight from a "U" classification (anybody can hire it) and "PG" (the same, except one is advising that parental guidance should be given) to a "15" certificate, which means that no person under 15 may see it. There must be films which may not be suitable for a tiny tot but which are suitable for 12 year olds. They should not have to wait until they are aged 15. The video industry is nervous about that. I hope that it will overcome its nerves soon and that a "12" certificate will soon be available.

I realise that the Bill will not induce people to be more careful about classifications because they are no different on a Sunday than on a Saturday. I realise too that the Government have no powers of enforcement or even encouragement as regards those matters. It is a matter for the video industry in general and the shops in particular. However, I believe that this is a sensible Bill.

I am not sure that I understand the many complexities about Sunday trading and the reforms which may or may not be needed. I know that we would like to sort it out. However, in the meantime it seems to me that this is such a simple and efficacious Bill that it can do no harm to give it a Second Reading. I hope that your Lordships will look kindly upon it.

8.29 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, this is a simple Bill which I support. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Newall, on explaining the thinking behind the Bill and on being such a good advocate for the video industry.

As has already been said, the background to this is that the video industry has been very successful over the past 10 or 11 years. It has now reached the plateau at which all businesses arrive at some time where they find that profits are not moving. That is not helped by the recession, satellite television and so on. The industry cannot be blamed for believing that the constraint placed upon it as regards selling on a Sunday needs attention. The arguments put forward by the noble Lord and agreed with to some extent by the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, show that we have a very good argument for allowing people at least to hire a video recording.

As has been said, Sunday is the most obvious day that people have the greatest amount of time to pursue a leisure activity. I do not want to become involved in the arguments on Sunday trading. The noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, found himself in a difficult position, but with his usual lucid and thorough form of exposition he demonstrated the thinking of the Keep Sunday Special campaign and showed what a tricky area it is from his point of view if the problem is tackled by chipping away at one piece rather than dealing with the whole issue. I sympathise with him in that view.

With the recent court decisions we see that we are a long way from making sense of the Sunday trading laws in this country. Meanwhile, an organisation like the British Videogram Association must be extremely worried and would naturally like to see a change in the law. I would support that.

The noble Lord, Lord Birkett, quite rightly from his angle —that of a British film producer, which is not an enviable position these days, but we praise and encourage his persistence—said that he hoped the Bill would be successful because his films might appear on video. He did not explain fully, and most noble Lords may not be aware, that particularly with British films—though it is the same with all films—much of the money invested may not be recouped unless the film is sold not only into the cinema but with video and television rights.

Another anxiety exists which was pinpointed by the noble Lord—that is, film classification. I attended a meeting of the parliamentary film group and had the mysteries of film classification explained to me, complete with all modern technology. I was a little mystified by some of the reasons for the different classifications for video film rather than film in the cinema. One may hire a video film on a Saturday and see the film in the cinema on the Sunday, but the two versions may be very different. As I understood it, the reasons for that are that young people may find something in the film of a violent or sexual nature which is regarded as unhealthy for them to dwell upon, and using the technology of the video machine they could stop, reverse and replay the section over and over again.

While I support the Bill, I would prefer people to go to the cinema. Films would be seen in a much purer fashion and would not have to undergo that kind of censorship, though I understand why it exists. But I am not sure in my own mind that there is a great deal of sense in it.

To see a film in a cinema is a vastly superior experience than to see it on video. However, many people have no other way of seeing a film. They may be old or ill or they may be young people who are not allowed out for whatever reason, or some people may live in areas where the cinema is an unpleasant venue, perhaps due to rowdiness or dirt, or both. That is a situation which is generally improving, but nevertheless a demand for videos on Sundays exists. There is also a demand on a Saturday. Watching a video on a Sunday seems to me to be a fairly harmless activity provided it does not lead to unsatisfactory behaviour and the video is covered by classification.

In supporting the Bill I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments. I should have thought that the best approach would be for the Government to amend the Sunday trading laws in very short order. They are clearly a mess and the country is getting fed up with them. It is clear that if the legislation were amended the video industry would benefit. In the meantime, the Bill seems to go a long way towards that end.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, the Opposition Front Bench is neutral on the Bill because on the issue of Sunday trading we allow a free vote. Therefore I speak only for myself.

Noble Lords may think of the village of Tideswell in the High Peak District of Derbyshire as, in the words of Neville Chamberlain, "a far away place of which we know little". But last Sunday morning it demonstrated graphically the very anomalies and absurdities which your Lordships are now invited to contemplate at length.

At the centre of the village stands the great and beautiful medieval church known as the Cathedral of the Peak, at which it is still possible to hear the services of the Book of Common Prayer. Inside it last Sunday morning was a worshipping congregation well into double figures; outside it, at its very gates, stood a dozen or so market stalls selling glassware, ceramics, household goods and what looked to me suspiciously like videos.

The stalls were doing a brisk trade in the bright sunshine and the participants outside the church outnumbered those inside by a very wide margin. Up the road, blocked by parked cars—none of which belonged to the vicar—was a car boot sale also doing a thriving business for the sordid motive of private profit, and for all I know selling or hiring videos to eager buyers.

When I passed through the village, the local constabulary was not greatly in evidence. Had it been so, its chief priority would surely have been to prevent crime like theft, disorderly conduct, taking and driving away other people's cars or to regulate the flow of traffic which by now was causing hazard and blockage to the native residents. It would hardly have afforded high priority to ascertaining whether or not videos were being sold or hired from stalls or from car boots or, for that matter, from shops which were legitimately open for the sale of, newly-cooked provisions and cooked or partly cooked tripe —under the authority of paragraph 1(c) of the Fifth Schedule to the Shops Act 1950.

The market stallholders and shopkeepers traded happily all day. The Derbyshire shopkeeper is not a garrulous man. Had I asked him whether he was aware of the provisions of paragraph 1 of the Fifth Schedule to the Shops Act 1950, I have no doubt that I would have found him to be a man of few words. He would probably have given me the benefit of two of them. And so far as I know the vicar refrained from calling down fire and brimstone upon those who bought and sold at the very doors of the House of God.

What was true in Tideswell last Sunday is true every Sunday in thousands of villages, towns and cities throughout the country. The laws on Sunday trading are flouted, disregarded and unenforced.

With that background your Lordships may feel that since such is the case the time is not ripe for a modest little Bill such as this; we should rather gather ourselves for a wide-ranging radical and wholesale reform of the law in this area. I respectfully submit that we should rather consider that we might support this present Bill since it seems to have ascertained that the rig its of employees are in no way jeopardised and it does not attempt radically to amend that contentious list of items in the Fifth Schedule to the 1950 A ct by which, as your Lordships may recall, we may freely and with a good conscience buy any kind of mushroom so long as it be not in a tin.

The Government have not fully considered the issues surrounding Sunday trading. The last Bill was completely inadequate. The Government need to set out some clear principles on employment practice and so fort before any radical and far-reaching changes are made to the Sunday trading laws. What matters at the moment is the will of the people. The people of this country have decided that they wish to buy and sell things on Sundays. So long as the rights of those who conscientiously wish not to work on Sundays are fully respected and fully secured, we may surely observe the current state of anarchy with comparative equanimity. This modest little measure may do a little to keep the mess and muddle firmly under the Government's nose. On balance, I support it.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Reay

My Lords, the House might find it helpful if I were to indicate the Government's view of the Bill which my noble friend Lord Newall has introduced and clearly explained to your Lordships this evening.

Before commenting on the substance of my noble friend's Bill, I think I should say a few words about the broader context within which it must be seen. We all know very well the difficulties which face anyone who seeks to introduce legislation to amend the law on the highly emotive issue of Sunday trading. There is widespread agreement that the law as it stands at present is badly in need of reform. It is riddled with indefensible quirks and anomalies, to which the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, drew attention, which limit public choice and are seen by many—perhaps by a growing number—to be out of step with the needs of society today.

I readily acknowledge that there are those who sincerely oppose any reform of the present law and who would like to see it more vigorously enforced. Among those in favour of reform, there are very many shades of opinion about exactly what form any reform of the law should take. There are also the practical problems of ensuring that, if reform is to be achieved, it is done without creating different, but equally indefensible, anomalies from those which exist today; or establishing a needlessly complicated and costly addition al layer of local bureaucracy to police a new law.

I should like to say something now about the background to my noble friend's Bill. Your Lordships will recall that widespread dissatisfaction with the present state of the law led the Government to appoint a Committee of Inquiry, under the chairmanship of Mr. Robin Auld QC, to look into the whole question of the regulation of the late night and Sunday opening of shops under the Shops Acts. The Auld Committee reported in November 1984 after undertaking a very detailed and thorough examination of the many issues which arise in this context. It considered all the options for change. It came to the conclusion that there was no satisfactory solution to the problems associated with the Sunday trading law short of total deregulation, and drew particular attention to the difficulties which would arise from any half-way house solution.

Your Lordships will no doubt go on to recall that the Government sought to implement the principal recommendation of the Auld Committee when they introduced the Shops Bill in 1985. Although the Bill was defeated on Second Reading in another place, the Government have since remained committed to the aim of bringing some sense and consistency to the law on Sunday trading. Since they were returned in the 1987 general election, the Government have made it clear that, while they still believe that the principle of total deregulation espoused in the Shops Bill was the correct approach, they would, nevertheless, be prepared to consider a compromise short of total deregulation if one could be found which, amongst other things, commanded sufficient broad agreement from all the interested parties.

In pursuit of that, my right honourable friend, Mr. Timothy Renton, when Minister of State at the Home Office, invited all the various interests to see if they could agree on a compromise solution among themselves and come back to him with proposals for change. The Government have actively assisted in that process and held meetings with a whole range of parties to the debate. They have floated various ideas and encouraged other people to develop them. They have sought to help people identify the dangers as well as the difficulties of certain options. But after all this we remain, for the present, short of any widespread agreement or consensus.

In a fresh attempt to assist the parties concerned to reach agreement on a possible way forward the Government have now embarked on another series of separate meetings with the major interest groups concerned with this issue. It seems to us that there is some common ground between the parties on certain issues on which it may be possible to build. For example, there seems fairly general support for the removal of restrictions which serve to prevent the Sunday opening of small convenience stores and garden centres. But even there some problems of degree and definition still persist on which further work will be required.

We have not ruled out the possibility of holding, at a later stage, some form of round table discussions embracing some or all of the major interest groups in a further attempt to resolve the differences or difficulties which may remain after our talks with them individually. We have been pleased to learn that the Keep Sunday Special Campaign would now be prepared to discuss matters with the Shopping Hours Reform Council under the chairmanship of a Government Minister. In our view, the criterion for fresh legislation should be that proposals are practicable, enforceable and enjoy widespread acceptance, both in Parliament and in the country at large.

That is the present position so far as the prospects for a comprehensive reform of the law on Sunday trading are concerned. As my noble friend acknowledges, the Bill we are discussing today does not seek to offer any such general reform of the law. Its sole aim is simply to permit the supply of video recordings on Sundays, thereby making lawful the opening of shops which sell or rent out videos to the public on that day.

The Government are by no means unsympathetic to the evident desire on the part of many members of the general public to be able to purchase or borrow a video recording on a Sunday. We recognise that a considerable amount of trade of this sort is now carried out on Sundays and that the law is now probably well out of step with people's wishes in this respect. However, we remain unconvinced that it would be right, at this stage, to amend the law solely in the interests of one particular sector of the retail trade—video rental shops—as my noble friend's Bill proposes. To signify our support for this Bill would, in our view, inevitably lead to the introduction of a whole spate of similar Bills aimed at amending the 1950 Shops Act in the interests of those particular sectors of the retail trade which are dissatisfied with the present law. Given our continuing efforts to arrive at a much wider general reform of the Sunday trading law, we could not support such a piecemeal, ad hoc approach to its amendment.

Moreover, we doubt whether it would be a practical possibility to single out the supply of video recordings in the way proposed in the Bill. A Bill of this sort seems to us almost bound to stimulate questions, and then possibly amendments, about the types of recordings, in addition to videos, that shops ought to be able to sell on Sundays. From this it is but a short step to raising the wider questions of whether to permit the sale or supply of video recording machines, or even radios or televisions on Sundays, or indeed compact discs or computer games.

Nor do we accept the argument that what the Bill seeks to permit should be looked upon in the same light as going to the cinema or a concert on a Sunday—an argument which my noble friend developed. In our view, the kind of transaction which takes place when a video recording is supplied for private personal entertainment is essentially the same as a sale.

Your Lordships will surmise from what I have said that I cannot promise, on behalf of the Government, anything other than neutrality in this House towards my noble friend's Bill, about which we have considerable reservations, as I have indicated. This in no way detracts from the importance of this evening's debate, which gives your Lordships a valuable opportunity to take note of the present position so far as reform of the law on Sunday trading is concerned, and to express your own opinions as to the way ahead.

In coming to a close, I should like once again to emphasise that, whatever may be the outcome of today's debate on my noble friend's Bill, the Government remain fully committed to finding some way of making sense of the present unsatisfactory situation concerning the law on Sunday trading. We have every sympathy with retailers who find the present law confusing, anomalous and inconsistent, and who cannot meet the widely recognised needs and wishes of their customers without running the risk of breaking the law. I have reminded your Lordships of the fresh attempt in which we are currently engaged to assist in the resolution of the current impasse. I regret that I am not yet in a position to say when the further round of discussions is likely to be completed, nor if or when it might be possible for the Government to bring forward new legislation of their own.

I am sure that we are all grateful to my noble friend for affording us this opportunity to discuss the law on Sunday trading again today. We have some reservations about the way the Bill is drafted in certain respects, but it is for your Lordships to decide whether it should make progress. On the wider issue of reform of the Sunday trading law as a whole, I repeat that our policy continues to be to try to achieve agreement on proposals which are practicable, enforceable and capable of commanding widespread support both in Parliament and in the country at large.

8.50 p.m.

Lord Newall

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who took part in this debate. In view of the lateness of the hour I shall be brief, as is my normal custom. I should like to mention one or two points that were said by various noble Lords, and in particular by my noble friend Lord Brentford, who gave his muted support in some respects at least. I believe that some of his apprehensions are a rather pessimistic approach to the improvements in the leisure industry. His interest in Keep Sunday Special is widely known.

I should like to take him up on one tiny issue. He said that the Bill would legalise the sale of video cassettes. In my view, the Bill only amends the schedule of the Shops Act 1950 that exempts transactions, and not the sale of goods, by the inclusion of the words "the supply of a video recording". It has been my advice that this increases the services and transactions which may take place on a Sunday and not the list of goods that may be sold. If the word "supply" as used in the Video Recordings Act 1984 needs to be further defined to distinguish between hire and sell, then I would be happy to look at this in Committee and table the necessary amendments.

Regarding the Auld Report—which was mentioned by more than one speaker—it may well have suggested, and it did, that the Shops Act should not be amended; but what is our alternative in the absence of any Government initiative so far? The noble Lord, Lord Birkett, gave some happy support, and I am grateful to him, even if part of it was personal. That was probably rather light hearted, and I am grateful to him and to the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for their support. I enjoyed the poetic description of life in that area of Derbyshire from the noble Lord, Lord

Morris of Castle Morris, and I am sure that, as he says, those sorts of things go on in very much the same way.

My noble friend on the Front Bench raised one or two issues, which I expected. I have seen letters from the various departments involved, and the Home Office in particular. My noble friend did a remarkably good job considering the way that they have normally answered some of the issues that we have had to deal with. The issue of buying recording machines or televisions is a different matter, but I am glad that they are looking at ways to find some solution, although I think that they must change gear.

I do not think that this is a piecemeal approach; it is a necessary change of something which, as I have already mentioned, is only to do with rental and hire rather than sale. The Government had a Bill in 1986. It is now five years since then; and this delay on any problem that needs to be solved is an example of the treacle of bureaucracy ensuring a sticky chapter in the normally common-sense and widely popular changes in the law. However, I understand the Government's difficulties.

There are independent sectors all over the country becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of action. There is also an increasing number of calls for sensible changes. This was even discussed in another place this afternoon. To remain on the fence brings no credit to the Government—a Government that I support on the whole—and yet they may be pushed by public opinion into a much more undignified position.

I have no alternative but to continue with this Bill. As is the normal custom in this House, I hope that your Lordships will be able to give it a Second Reading.

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