HL Deb 23 February 2004 vol 658 cc101-6

8.36 p.m.

Lord Triesman rose to move, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 22 January be approved [6th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee.]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. This regulatory reform order is brought forward under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 jointly by the Department of Trade and Industry and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. It brings together two deregulatory measures, both of which impact on Sunday trading.

The first element of the order deals with amendments to the notification procedures currently required under the Sunday Trading Act 1994. These are matters which fall to the Department of Trade and Industry. By way of background, shop opening hours were regulated by the Shops Act 1950, which consolidated all previous legislation on Sunday trading. However, the law was considered contradictory and was widely ignored.

Following extensive consultation and input from a wide range of interested parties, those problems were addressed in the enactment of the Sunday Trading Act 1994. The result was that, under the provisions of that Act, the opening hours of large shops, defined as those with internal floor areas of more than 280 square metres—example, larger supermarkets and superstores—are limited to a maximum of six hours' continuous trading on a Sunday within the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Large shops are also required to give advance notice to the relevant local authority of their planned Sunday opening hours, or any change in those hours, and local authorities are required to maintain a register of those notifications and make it available for inspection by members of the public.

It is worth mentioning that the impetus for this regulatory reform order came from the retail sector and was supported by local authorities. The retail sector suggested that the notification procedures were an unnecessary burden and should be removed by means of a regulatory reform order. Preliminary consultation with local authorities indicated that, in their view, maintaining registers of notification was an unnecessary burden and that they would prefer to focus their resources on other important issues, such as enforcement of the Act.

Subject to approval by Parliament, this order will therefore amend the Sunday Trading Act 1994 in order to remove the burden on large shops to give advance notice—that is, 14 days' notice—of their Sunday opening hours or any change in their opening hours. It will also remove the burden on local authorities to maintain a public register of notifications. The order applies to England and Wales.

I want to emphasise that the order will not alter the permitted range of hours nor the current maximum of six continuous hours within which a large shop is permitted to open. In addition, large shops will still be required to display their Sunday opening hours conspicuously both within and outside the relevant premises thereby allowing the local authorities to continue to enforce compliance with the Act itself.

The second element of this RRO aims to remove the archaic and unnecessary restriction on the sale of methylated spirits on a Sunday. Noble Lords will wish to note that this matter falls within the responsibility of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. In short, anyone who sells methylated spirits on a Sunday is currently breaking the law and could be prosecuted for doing so.

For background, Section 26 of the Revenue Act 1889 formed part of the control system that applied to licensed retailers of methylated spirits. It was introduced to address a problem of people purchasing and drinking methylated spirits on a day when dutiable alcoholic liquors were not readily available. These days dutiable alcoholic liquor is widely available to purchase on a Sunday.

Subject to the approval of Parliament, this RRO will repeal Section 26 of the Revenue Act 1889 that prohibits the sale of methylated spirits on a Sunday. Section 26 applies throughout the United Kingdom. The order will repeal it for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland the repeal is a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

There has been extensive consultation on both proposals. On the opening hours proposal a large majority of respondents were in favour of the removal of notification procedures and removal of maintaining a register of notifications.

On the proposal to remove the restriction on the sale of methylated spirits, all respondents who gave a view were in favour of the repeal of Section 26 of the Revenue Act 1889. These proposals have been closely scrutinised by respective parliamentary scrutiny committees and their responses noted.

In your Lordships' House the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform concluded that the proposals remove burdens, within the meaning of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, and do not create any new burdens. The department also demonstrated to the satisfaction of the committee that the proposals will neither confound any reasonable expectations nor reduce any necessary protection.

I thank members of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform for the time that they spent scrutinising the proposals and for recommending the proposals to the House.

The committee in the other place also concluded that the proposals removed a legal burden and would not remove any necessary protections or any rights or freedoms, which a person might reasonably expect to continue to exercise. The committee unanimously recommended that the order be approved. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 22 January be approved [6th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee].—(Lord Triesman.)

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of these new regulations and for the brief but clear statement by his department. This clarity is essential in view of the sensitivity of the issue of Sunday trading, and the many opponents to it.

Noble Lords will recall the objections that were raised when the Sunday trading laws were drastically revised by the former government, and the dire predictions about the break-up of family life if people were tempted to go shopping rather than to church or to stay at home, mowing the lawn, or washing the car, or even watching the omnibus edition of "EastEnders" on the television. The trade union USDAW threatened grave industrial unrest on the part of oppressed shop workers who would be coerced into working on Sundays.

As we now know, Sunday trading has been welcomed, as the noble Lord said, by the vast numbers of the public who vote with their feet by going shopping, often en famille, on Sundays. It is also a help to those who, because of work or other personal commitments, have limited time in which to shop. Shop staff, in turn, are pleased, without coercion, to accept the overtime or time off in lieu that they get for working on Sunday. The fact is that those who object to going shopping on Sunday are not obliged to do so.

It is therefore only right, 10 years on from the passing of the original Act, for the Government to have reviewed how it has been working.

The reform contained in the first proposal of the order is to remove the requirement for the owners of larger shops, who are restricted to six hours of opening on Sundays, to make an announcement to the local authority of what their opening hours will be. In turn, the local authority is currently required solemnly to record those hours.

At present, if a store wants to change its opening hours from, say, 11 am to 5 pm to 10 am to 4 pm, it has to give 14 days' notice. The proposed alteration is to remove that registration requirement on the basis that, after 10 years, it has been found that the shops can be trusted not to cheat. The Government are removing an unnecessary—perhaps "obsolete" or "redundant" would be better words—piece of bureaucracy and the attendant costs on local councils.

The issue of Sunday or Christmas Day trading is, so far as the Conservative Party is concerned, a matter for the conscience and religious beliefs of individual Members of Parliament or Members of your Lordships' House. We shall therefore leave it to our colleagues on these Benches—I am not sure where they are tonight—to respond to this part of the draft order.

The second proposal is to remove the restriction on the sale of methylated spirits on a Sunday. As the noble Lord indicated—he did not use quite these words—this is a relic of the Victorian era when methylated spirits were a symbol of the demon drink. Meths was the crack cocaine of its day. It was cheaper than gin, which in all conscience was cheap enough then, but gin, rum or other spirits were not available on Sundays. Meths was deliberately coloured purple, as distinct from its natural clear colour, supposedly to make it less appetising. But the so-called meths drinkers who used to abound in seedier parts of towns now unfortunately can find the stimulant or oblivion that they seek by other means and elsewhere than in hardware or chemist shops.

According to Customs & Excise, which was responsible for collecting the licence fee for selling methylated spirits, which has long since been abolished, and for enforcing the 1899 Act which rendered illegal its sale on Sundays, no one can recall when there was last a prosecution. The rule is frequently flouted by smaller shops, whose owners were possibly unaware—I confess I was until I saw the present draft order—that there was any such prohibition. Its continued existence cannot be justified on the grounds that it removed temptation from those who might want to drink it on Sundays. All it does is inconvenience those who want to polish their windows, light barbecues or, in my case, remove those infuriating sticky labels from glass or chinaware. It is one small step on the road to removing unnecessary, redundant and obsolete regulation. But again, as it relates to an aspect of Sunday trading, it is a matter for my noble friends to decide for themselves as individuals whether or not to support it.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for the way in which she approached this discussion. She is 100 per cent correct in everything she said about the freedoms that people have to shop or, indeed, to work in a shop on a Sunday. All shopworkers in England and Wales except those who are specifically employed to work on Sundays have the right to refuse to work on Sundays and to be protected against dismissal or detriment. It J s correct that those rights are contained in the Employment Rights Act 1996.

I very much enjoyed the description by the noble Baroness of the great changes that have taken place over the years and the ways in which some things which were thought to be a very great risk have turned out not to be. As someone who does not watch the omnibus edition of "EastEnders" or even, indeed, listen to the omnibus edition of "The Archers" but certainly on occasions goes shopping on Sundays, I know the benefits.

I share with the noble Baroness some interest in the revelation about methylated spirits and call to mind novels in which people seek out not only methylated spirits but even boot polish and other things which contain alcohol that could be extracted. I note only that progress now means that many drinks tinted purple are regarded as a fashion accoutrement. Methylated spirits plainly now only really panders to the needs of those with Primus stoves.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for that. I am grateful for her contribution to this brief debate.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at ten minutes before nine o'clock.