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Mr. Forth: The first test of opinion occurs in the House of Commons on Second Reading, a simple procedure that we all know well. If, as has been claimed, the Bill is supported by Members of Parliament, we shall soon know it. I assume that many Members will have been approached by their constituents, who will know that the Bill was on the Order Paper today. We can judge the amount of support for the Bill by the number of Members who are here to support it on Second Reading. If it achieves support, we can consider it in detail in Committee.
Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I support the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on introducing it. The main reason for supporting it is that it addresses an oversight. Had Parliament realised that when it drew up provisions for exemptions in the Sunday Trading Act 1994, it would have dealt with the oversight. It is unfortunate that it has taken another seven years for us to do so, but better late than never.
That said, the more I have thought and read about the Bill, the more I have realised that it throws up as many difficulties as it resolves. I do not know whether I may be talking myself into a place on the Committee by saying that, but there are a few difficulties.
First, I have concerns about the original definitions of large and small stores. It strikes me that more and more stores may simply reconfigure their space or open smaller branches to get around the law. Research has told us about several stores that already open--Budgens is cited--as small convenience stores. Big supermarkets, such as Sainsbury, now distinguish between large out-of-town
Secondly, I fear that the Bill may contain a restrictive, anti-competitive element. I cannot see why a small store should have privileges that a larger store must be denied. I am not sure that that is fair.
Thirdly, as far as I understand it, the 280 sq m specified in legislation relates to floor space where products are on sale. Could a larger supermarket simply section off areas to get around the intention of the Bill?
Mrs. Dunwoody: In drawing up the Bill, I have followed the original Act. That is why 3,000 sq ft--I still use that measure--is the cut-off point in my Bill. Anything smaller would be a family shop and anything larger a chain or bigger store. The figure used is nothing new; it simply follows the 1994 legislation.
Mr. McCabe: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but it could be tested. Supermarkets are different from how they used to be. At one time, they used floor space in a predictable way, but great advances in technology mean that they know exactly what sort of thing people might want to buy on Christmas day. It is possible to reconfigure a store with greater ease. I simply make that point because I wonder whether people will try to get around the provision. I hope that they will not.
We should congratulate ourselves on what we are trying to do here. I have to say in passing that my hon. Friends may have missed a trick. If I was them, I would have written to the 4,000 shopworkers in Bromley and Chislehurst and made sure that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was clear about the strength of his argument. Perhaps it is not too late for them to organise that. Perhaps he would then give greater support to the Bill.
What USDAW is trying to do is right, but we should be careful about what we are saying. I do not know why we find it so easy to make a case for protecting shopworkers while we forget about the other people whom we oblige to work on Christmas day. The notion of our family Christmas forces people to work. We seem to think that no one can have a family Christmas now without access to all those wonderful television
Perhaps we should look at the matter more broadly and ask why we are confining ourselves to shopworkers. Perhaps we should make it easier for people not to work on Christmas day, and then concentrate on what the exemptions should be. That would make me a lot happier.
There is a danger that we are creating an exception for Christmas because we have a nostalgic and rosy view of it. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich described it as a chance to escape completely from the daily grind. I am not sure that too many women would regard Christmas day that way. Most of my female relatives tell me that it is a day that they approach with trepidation and that by the end of it, they feel that they have been completely through the daily grind. I am not sure that Christmas is quite the relaxed, wonderful time that we are inclined to make out.
I am intrigued about the things that we regard as essential exceptions. Why is it that shops that sell intoxicating liquor are exempted? There is nothing vital or essential about them. I am not sure either why anyone desperately needs cycling supplies or accessories on Christmas day. I also have difficulty with the idea that service station shops, which seem to be able to sell almost anything these days, should be exempted. I find it difficult to see exactly what we are achieving in that. One of the weird consequences of the Bill is that we will require local authority inspectors to work on Christmas day. In protecting one group of workers, we put additional pressure on another.
As I said to my hon. Friend, I intend to support the Bill because it corrects an oversight, but we should look more carefully at what we are trying to say about Christmas day. It would be much better if we designated it a public holiday and gave people a statutory right not to work. That would affect the vast majority of workers and we could then deal only with the exemptions--emergency and essential services, and other people who need to work. That would be a fairer approach and more consistent with the idea of Christmas day as a special family day. It would be a more logical way to proceed.
Much as I am prepared to support the Bill because it corrects an oversight, to single out shop workers and say that there is something special about their rights as opposed to other workers does not make a great deal of sense. If I find myself on the Committee, I shall argue that we should try to strengthen the provisions to include other workers. That is my fundamental doubt about the Bill. It corrects the oversight in the 1994 legislation, but recognises only the interests of shop workers on a day that we argue is a special event and a tradition that should be protected. If we are right about that, we should think about all the other people who find themselves forced to work on Christmas day. Otherwise, Christmas day will end up not being a holiday for the vast majority, but by some weird quirk of Parliament we shall have singled out a section of the work force and protected their rights without concerning ourselves with everyone else.
That problem highlights an obvious inconsistency in our thinking. I would prefer to see that inconsistency dealt with, but as we are not there yet, I am happy to accept the limited provisions that the Bill offers because it corrects an oversight in the 1994 legislation.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on winning a high place in the ballot and introducing the Bill. Whether it will be successful, time will tell, but it has produced an interesting and timely debate, and good points have been made by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House and of the argument.
When Sainsburys and the other shops opened on Christmas day, it came as a shock to me and many other people who thought that it was illegal for them to do so. I voted for liberalisation in 1994, and I thought at the time that we were protecting Easter Sunday and Christmas day. It is manifest that we did not, and that has raised considerable concerns.
At the heart of the issue is an argument about whether we should be free to go out and buy things on Christmas day and whether shop owners should be free to meet that demand, or whether by allowing that freedom we destroy something that the majority of people value--a peaceful family Christmas and a day that is special.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who is no longer in his place, mentioned Good Friday and how it had changed over the years. Like him, I am old enough to remember what Good Friday used to be like. I was working in London at the time and I had to work some of the Easter holiday so I could not go away for Easter. Good Friday was a nightmare because nothing happened. Even the pubs did not open. They used to open at lunchtime on Christmas day, but they did not open on Good Friday. For most of us, the liberalisation of Good Friday came as a welcome relief. We liked to be able to go and do things on Good Friday and attend football matches or other events. It could be argued that with the changes came the danger of Good Friday becoming a normal working day--indeed, some offices open on Good Friday, preferring to give their staff an extra day at the other end of the Easter holiday. Perhaps the changes have gone too far.
The Opposition understand the concerns about widespread Christmas day opening, especially the concerns of those who want to keep Christmas day special and fear that the expansion of Christmas day trading would spoil it. However, official Opposition Members have a free vote, as the subject gives rise to many difficult ethical and religious issues. We shall not oppose Second Reading--indeed, I hope that the Bill goes into Committee. As one who, with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, has been a member of the Chairmen's Panel for some time, I look forward to her being in Committee on the other side of the dais. She is a firm and robust Committee Chairman, so I hope that when she is a member of the Committee, the Chair will have an equally firm and robust occupant.
That is the view of the official Opposition. I now ask the House's indulgence as I make my personal views known. In part, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), in that