HL Deb 13 June 2003 vol 649 cc474-80

11.10 a.m.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Today is something of an occasion and I am the first Back-Bencher to address the House. I take this opportunity to congratulate the new Lord Chancellor on his appointment and I wish him well in the great office of state to which he has been called. I want to say also how much I enjoyed the tenure of office of the former Lord Chancellor, who has chosen to sit beside me today and listen to the quite excellent speech which I am about to make on the Sunday Working (Scotland) Bill.

This Bill seeks to rectify the anomaly in the employment rights of shop workers and betting workers in Scotland. It will put an end to the risk of discrimination against them in relation to Sunday working so that Scotland will be in harmony with England and Wales.

The Bill has been described as a classic Private Member's Bill; short, concise and designed to address the effects of a lacuna in the law which did not extend legal protection to workers in Scotland. Although a small Bill, it has none the less the potential to benefit a substantial number of workers across Scotland.

I should point out that the Bill does not seek to restrict employers in these sectors when determining how best to deploy their workforce to suit their business needs. The Bill will afford shop workers and betting workers in Scotland the same protections as those in the rest of the country.

The Bill will make a difference to many thousands of women in Scotland's labour market. Sixty per cent of all employees currently working in the shop and betting sectors are women. Caring and domestic responsibilities still remain largely the responsibility of women, thereby placing them at a disadvantage when either entering or moving within the labour market. The Bill will give them for the first time a greater degree of flexibility in work patterns if they need this for personal or domestic considerations.

The Bill sits well with the Government's policies on flexible working and encouraging more family-friendly working practices. It removes the need for taking a case to an employment tribunal. It provides the opportunity for people to spend more time with families or attend worship on a Sunday.

The Bill originated in another place and is the initiative of my honourable friend Mr David Cairns, the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde. It enjoyed all-party support in another place and I believe that it will do so in your Lordships' House. I commend the Bill to the House.

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

11.13 a.m.

Lord MacKenzie of Culkein

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld, for taking charge of the Bill in this House. I support the measure which is designed to deal with the lacuna that leaves shop and betting shop workers in Scotland open to detriment not legally possible south of the Border. The Bill is short and straightforward. It will prevent the manipulation of the present voluntary agreement or convention which is that companies should give the rights enshrined in employment legislation for shop workers in England and Wales to employees in Scotland.

The genesis of the Bill might be laid at the door of one particular multiple retailer, but if not that company, it would, sooner rather than later, have been some other. Before leaving that point, I pay tribute to the way in which my right honourable friend Helen Liddell, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, dealt with this matter when the company concerned sought to compel many of its workers to work on the sabbath day.

There is anecdotal evidence that the voluntary agreement is under strain and sometimes that appears to be on initiatives of local managers; in other cases, it is said that there is collusion further up the corporate ladder. I am personally aware of a situation where a department store, which does not normally open on Sundays, nevertheless requires workers to work on a Sunday during stocktaking. I am told that that can sometimes fall on a bank holiday weekend. It is not that the workers in that store do not want to work an occasional Sunday; the issue is that there is a contractual obligation which the same organisation, south of the Border, could not enforce. I shall not name the company; there are too many ways in which detriment might be visited on staffs who, for the most part, are women and sole breadwinners.

In the real world, in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK, there is generally no shortage of staff who will willingly work on Sundays and there is unlikely to be any negative competitive impact from the Bill, if enacted as set out in the regulatory impact assessment. This is clearly a matter for which there should be a level playing field in all aspects of employment legislation throughout the UK. Staff employed in shops in Scotland should enjoy the same right not to work on Sunday as is the case elsewhere. This Bill will rectify the lacuna on Sunday working and I strongly support it.

11.16 a.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I hope that your Lordships and the noble Lord, Lord Hogg, will allow me 30 seconds in which to congratulate him on bringing forward the Bill. He and the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, have explained beautifully that the Bill brings the situation in Scotland on to a level playing field. Perhaps in ignorance, I had thought that the same situation operated throughout the United Kingdom.

Perhaps in the fullness of time the noble Lord, Lord Hogg, will advise me about betting shops. I am not an habitué of the betting shops in Kirriemuir, let alone on a Sunday. But I am fascinated to think that betting shops are open on a Sunday, particularly as last weekend I was unable to buy alcohol before midday, which showed my ignorance of the law. In due course, will the noble Lord advise me how many betting shops there are and whether they will all open? I would not dream of moving an amendment or causing unnecessary delay to the Bill.

I add my congratulations to those who have already spoken in this marvellous Scottish festival. Apart from the Leader of the House, we all come from north of the Border. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hogg, and I am very grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie said about the former Secretary of State, Mrs Liddell.

11.18 a.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I welcome the new Lord Chancellor to the Woolsack. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld, for his concise introduction to the Bill, which we on these Benches wish to see on the statute book. Sundays are important for many reasons. It is reasonable to identify a day that is different for recreation and re-creation. How citizens use that opportunity is up to them. The declaratory effect of the Bill is to reinforce in Scotland the longstanding practice that it is important for households to do something different, collectively, on one day of the week, to everyone's benefit, one hopes.

This is a rare legislative animal: a United Kingdom Bill that affects only Scotland. With constitutional change happening all around us, it is interesting to spot the rare breeds. Despite my bias towards home rule, I have no complaint about this measure being a matter for Westminster. It is sensible for the single British market to be legislated for by Westminster.

When I arrived here in 1994, the House was consumed with the Sunday trading issue in England and Wales. From the Scottish perspective, all the predictions of England sliding under the waves of degradation and moral decay seemed absurd, but that is par for the course in a union state.

I must now be complimentary—that takes some doing for me—about the resulting English and Welsh legislation. That is what is needed now in Scotland. The Argos case may have done us all a favour except those citizens who were the victims. The Bill will bring statutory clarity to the issue of Sunday working for shop and betting shop staff. They will be able to negotiate with their employers about Sundays from a position of strength. At least, they will be able to do that on the face of it. It is impossible to guarantee that no employer will use underhand, unofficial tactics to coerce Sunday working.

Upholding the law will probably rely on trade union activity. Ultimately, workers must make their own judgments—the embodiment of enlightened self-interest. For decent businesses, there will be a small amount of transitional friction, as a few of the staff give notice of their withdrawal from Sunday work, which they currently perform under some duress or at least with some reluctance.

I expect that decent firms will adopt new practices to accommodate both the spirit and the letter of the Bill when enacted. I would praise those firms, such as B&Q, whose practice is to have a separate Sunday staff; and let us also praise B&Q for its positive attitude towards the employment of older workers. I had better disclaim any significant relationship with B&Q or the Kingfisher Group, and also reflect that while I may still be one of the "young ones" here, I would not be so in the wider employment market.

The Bill seems eminently reasonable. I am pleased to see that the Committee stage is already scheduled for 1st July. That suggests support from the Treasury Bench for the Bill. I wish it well.

11.21 a.m.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld, has brought this Bill to our House and has given us the chance to discuss the matter. I am grateful this morning to have the opportunity to respond in a personal capacity to a Private Member's Bill and not to speak on behalf of my party, as in that capacity I do not know exactly where I stand. The Minister is perhaps quite safe in his position as the fact that he is asked to speak on regional matters along with Scotland and Wales means that he will be able to transfer quite seamlessly into the new ministry that the Prime Minister invented yesterday. Perhaps we are just one day too early to be able to offer him congratulations on achieving that transfer.

However, having seen the position of Secretary of State for Scotland so summarily abolished yesterday, I have anxiously waited to see whether Scotland and Wales will rate an Opposition spokesman in your Lordships' House. I had the good fortune to sit next to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, who made a few reassuring noises to me before he left the Chamber.

Ever since the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland's relationship with Westminster has been a constantly changing one. Therefore., one cannot complain about losing a traditional constitutional role such as that if we are being threatened with losing the Lord Chancellor. Noble Lords may be aware that the last time such a grand role as Secretary of State for Scotland was abolished was in 1746, only to be restored in 1926.

It is good to see a Private Member's Bill receive such a charmed passage through Parliament. Although it is obviously a very worthy cause, at the same time one must express regret that it has become necessary. No doubt when it was argued that Scotland should have an opt-out from previous Acts in this field, it was understood that the Scots could be trusted voluntarily to work out these arrangements. Such is the world of takeovers and mergers that it now appears that that is no longer the case. Perhaps it will not be long before we have a chain of French hypermarkets testing out our legislation on shop workers.

During all those hours we spent debating the Scotland Act, most of the argument was about where legislation should be kept in line between different parts of the UK and where it should be allowed to be unique. The honourable Member for Greenock. and Inverclyde in promoting the Bill in another place said that the underlying principle of the Bill is the harmonisation of the law in Scotland with that in England and Wales. It also has to do with workers and their jobs. Therefore, it has the advantage of being seen as satisfactory both from a union and a unionist point of view.

The noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie of Culkein, has spoken with good knowledge of the shop world. The other great theme that runs through the Bill—a matter pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld—is that this is as another piece of legislation promoting a "family-friendly" approach. It may be harmonising legislation; large shopping chains might even see it as reducing red tape; but I do wonder whether it is all that family-friendly, especially for small rural businesses.

The Minister in another place was keen to point out that 97 per cent of businesses affected were small to medium but employed only 12 per cent of shop workers. At Third Reading my honourable friend Peter Duncan pointed out that in his constituency 95 per cent of businesses had two or fewer employees. It is not hard to imagine the village shop, which is usually a fairly marginal kind of business, manned by the owner and one or two employees who decide that they no longer wish to work on a Sunday. If the business decides to open on Sunday at all, one can see that probably the only way that the gap can be filled will be to draft in the wife or partner, so both will spend Sunday working. So much for "family friendly", perhaps more a question of, "Whose family?" The Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland highlighted that issue in its response to the consultation.

I think—and I ask whether the noble Lord, Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld, has considered this issue—it might be worth giving consideration as to whether this legislation should be limited to businesses with a minimum number of employees. I believe that the regulatory impact assessment looked at the effect on businesses of five or fewer employees. That is not necessarily the minimum that could be envisaged in law, but that matter might be addressed.

That brings me to another point: how will matters be dealt with when such a business looks for a new employee? Would it be guilty of infringing this law if the job specification stated that the applicant should be willing to work on a Sunday if required, though of course I understand that would require him to sign an opt-in agreement? If the employer did not state a Sunday working requirement and it later turned out that he had taken on a less qualified worker who had agreed to Sunday working, could he be challenged by the unsuccessful applicant for discriminatory practices? I know it is not necessarily the Minister's role to answer these questions, but it might be of interest to your Lordships if he could throw some light on these matters. It is very useful for us to look at these points of law as they affect Scotland and to try to bring things into line in a sensible manner.

11.27 a.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I add my voice to those of your Lordships who have paid compliments to the Bill promoted by my noble friend Lord Hogg.

We have had a constructive exchange of ideas and information about Sunday working in Scotland, including the likely benefits and impact of the measure. It is timely this morning that we look forward to the next steps we have to take to make sure that we end the clear risk of discrimination which currently exists in Scotland for employees working Sundays in the retail and betting sectors.

However, first, I pay a particular tribute to David Cairns MP and to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland for their tenacity in their support of this Bill. Although short and concise—only four clauses—the Bill has the potential for far-reaching improvements in the employment rights of hundreds of thousands of workers in Scotland.

The proposals for change highlighted in the Scotland Office's consultation document have been subject to extensive consultation and scrutiny. Responses received indicated overwhelming support for the proposal to harmonise the law in Scotland with that of England and Wales. The Bill itself has also been subjected to extensive scrutiny in another place in an attempt to ensure that workers in the retail and betting sectors in Scotland are adequately protected and that the legislation contained therein will stand the test of time. Indeed, on 7th February, the Government signalled their support for it in another place and have also confirmed that the Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

My noble friend Lord Hogg summed-up succinctly what we are trying to achieve with the Bill. For that reason, I shall not cover his arguments; rather I would encourage your Lordships to take every opportunity to promote the benefits of the Bill for many in Scotland and to wish it a fair wind in this House.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, put yesterday's events in the context of the Bill. It might encourage and reassure him to know that I know as much as he does about the future of the Scotland Office. No doubt we shall both learn a great deal more on Monday.

We are seeking to harmonise the law in Scotland with that in England and Wales. In answer to the question of the noble Duke, restrictions on the size of the businesses do not exist in England and Wales. The legislation has worked well for seven years in England and Wales, so we anticipate that it will work well in Scotland when passed.

11.30 am
Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. It has been useful. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord MacKenzie, who brings to the House considerable knowledge of trade union practice and how the matter will be worked out in the workplace. I am also grateful to the noble Earl, who always supports measures that I bring before the House, so I always refer to him as my noble friend. I do so now and am grateful for what he said.

The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, asked how many betting shops there were in Scotland. As a Scottish Presbyterian I can answer that question: too many. I do not know what is the actual number, but I shall certainly try to find out. It is Ministers' usual practice to say when they cannot answer a question at the Despatch Box, "I shall write to the noble Lord"; but I am new Labour, so I shall send him an e-mail.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, raised some interesting questions about family-friendly policies in relation to small business. They were valid and I shall endeavour to find out the answers in time for the remaining stages of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House and invite your Lordships to give it a Second Reading.

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