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Mr. Gardiner: I would apply the principle universally, because we must consider any argument on its merits and be sceptical about the motives of anyone who advances it. That is the only way of arriving at a clear view.
By its nature, a Christmas day trading experiment is an isolated instance. Hon. Members have shown that there have been very few such instances--enough to prompt concern in the House, but none the less very few. That they should have been claimed as a success is therefore hardly surprising. The law of supply and demand applies, and if only one or two major retailers are open on a particular day, everyone who wants to shop on that day will end up shopping in those stores. However, that is not to say that if all the stores were open on Christmas day they would achieve the same success. Therefore, it is a false argument to use such experiments as an illustration of why Christmas trading should be allowed.
I welcome the fact that the present Government have introduced a great deal of legislation affecting the retail trade. It includes that on the national minimum wage, the working time directive, holidays and maternity and paternity leave. I acknowledge that it has necessitated a degree of administrative work for many retailers. Retailers have complained that it has caused their attention to be distracted from the real business of serving their customers, so I am delighted that the proposed Bill, which would limit trading on Christmas day, would not create more administrative work for the retail trade.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst expressed his willingness to work on Christmas day, if the House were open. That is commendable, but I wonder whether the managers, the directors, and in particular the finance directors of the major trading companies and retailers, would be as willing to use Christmas day as a day of normal trading were they also required to be in their offices.
I believe that it is the Government's duty to serve all the people and to balance the choices that are available within society because some of those choices conflict. If employers begrudge employees the better rights that they have achieved under this Government, I am pleased to say
It is certainly true that Christmas has changed for a large number of the British public and although many would subscribe to the traditional Christmas day, the universally shared experience that I remember as a child no longer applies. I remember Christmas from a very particular perspective because, like the right hon. Gentleman, I was fortunate enough to grow up in Scotland. When I was a child, my mother, who was a doctor, never spent a single Christmas day with us. She was not a general practitioner, but a doctor in public health in Paisley. I remember, year after year, my mother never being present on Christmas day. We moved to England when my mother changed jobs and worked in public health in Hertfordshire. I remember the change in our household when, for the first time, my mother was able to join us on Christmas day and we celebrated a family Christmas. We did not have that option in Scotland, where the law allowed Sunday working. Indeed, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, the only public holiday was new year's day. That is one import from Scotland into England that I am very pleased about and I am sure that the English are extremely grateful. It used to be the case that in Scotland, new year's day was a public holiday, but Christmas day was not; in England, the opposite was the case.
I am delighted that the Bill will give other families the opportunity to have a shared Christmas experience. Although something of the nature of Christmas day has changed and its importance for the vast majority of people may no longer be one of religious significance, that does not mean that they do not want to preserve something special about Christmas day. I have only one thing to say to the right hon. Gentleman or anyone else who does not--bah humbug!
Mr. Swayne: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am a supporter of the Bill, but we should not get carried away by our own rhetoric with respect to the shared collective experience of a Christmas day of yore. Pendulums always swing. He will recall that Scrooge would have been unable to have the prize goose delivered to Tiny Tim and his family had the butcher not been open on that day.
Mr. Gardiner: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes his point in his usual elaborate and flamboyant fashion. It has already been said this morning that essential services continue on Christmas day. The Bill seeks to give workers providing non-essential services the right to the protection that the House took for granted in previous legislation.
Rather than making the case for Christmas day opening, the arguments that we have heard about pilot schemes and so on have underlined the need for legislation to prevent Christmas day trading. We are well aware of the highly competitive nature of the retail trade, especially the supermarket trade, which is the focus of the Bill. Whenever one store decides to try a pilot scheme, its competitors will always reciprocate and the practice will mushroom. Christmas day trading will certainly slip in through the back door and I believe that it needs to be
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): I have one or two points to raise in the context of the speech by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). First, I got the impression that while he is in favour of deregulation, he accepts that in practical terms there needs to be some regulation. Indeed, he supported the Sunday Trading Act 1994, which allowed for a certain amount of regulation. He appeared to be praising that in his speech earlier this morning. Given that he appreciates the need for some regulation, I should have thought that he would have wanted the Bill to be examined in more detail, unless of course he is in principle against giving anyone the choice of staying closed on Christmas day. The pressures of the market will push towards Christmas day opening.
The right hon. Gentleman implied that, just because one or more trade unions support the Bill, it must be wrong and bad. I cannot believe that he is so unintelligent as to believe that no trade union can ever say anything responsible or helpful. If he did believe that, he would hold the sort of view that leads to the polarisation of states and their becoming fascist or communist. If we are to discover the reasonable points on which agreement can be reached, we must be able to hold debate with those with whom we would normally disagree.
Mr. Forth: I know the hon. Gentleman to be a kindly and tolerant man, but is he suggesting that if I express doubts about the views or the role of trade unions, I must be something called a fascist? What happened to a free, open society in which people like me can express our views about trade unions without being abused by the hon. Gentleman?
Mr. Griffiths: I did not mean that at all. The right hon. Gentleman has obviously misunderstood me. I said that to be against trade unions per se, and to believe that a trade union could never say anything reasonable--which seemed to be the implication of his speech--would be to take the road towards a polarisation of society. I do not believe that he is totally convinced that a trade unionist can never say anything reasonable. He has many trade unionists in his constituency, and I am sure that he does not mean to condemn them all to perdition.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about public demand and how those who work in shops might feel about the Bill. We have not had an overwhelming response to the Bill, though he himself said that we should not let the size of our mailbags persuade us to vote one way or another on any issue. The point is that the Bill will deal with a situation that could become difficult in future. I happen to do the weekly shop for my family, and I always do it at the Co-operative superstore in Pyle, which used to be known as Leo's and is still popularly known by that name. I shall make it my business tomorrow afternoon to conduct a little poll of the workers there to find out whether they would prefer to have the opportunity to work on Christmas day or a statutory right to a holiday.
Given the right hon. Gentleman's apparent keenness to know how people feel about the Bill, it would be useful to have an opportunity to debate it in Committee. The wider public could then give their views and, though it stretches my tolerance a bit, I should be happy to join him in drawing up a questionnaire for shopworkers and the public on what they feel about Christmas day shopping.