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Mrs. Dunwoody: The point that is being made firmly by those sitting in this corner is that the bird in question was, of course, a goose.

Mr. Atkinson: I am not sure that the hon. Lady is right about that, but I shall go and look it up and apologise if I am wrong.

The problem identified by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) is that Christmas has changed. For many people these days, it is a holiday: they go abroad or go ski-ing, and instead of sitting around the log fire at home, they go out for their Christmas meal in a hotel or restaurant. Things are changing and we have to accept that change.

Last Christmas day, shop openings were on a minor scale: only Sainsburys, Woolworths and one or two others opened their stores. I am sure that the supermarket companies are sufficiently aware of public opinion to realise that widespread Christmas opening would be both inappropriate and deeply unpopular. However, there may be merit in shops opening in areas in which there is clearly demand. In our inner cities and city centres in places such as London, there are many people who live on their own and do not have families to go to; they might welcome the opportunity to go out and do something on Christmas day.

I do not think that we should tell people what they should do. If there were a growing problem and legislation were to become necessary, I think that it should take the form of giving local authorities the power to make the decision and should not involve central Government. That is my personal view; the official Opposition's view is that the matter is one that should be decided by a free vote.

11.52 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on her success in the private Members' ballot. It is clear that her Bill has touched a nerve.

Christmas day is important to most of us, and there are real fears that it might be eroded by commercial pressures. Last year, USDAW mounted a vigorous campaign to protect Christmas day, and I have discussed the issues with the union. In addition, the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) and some of his constituents have met me to spell out their concerns. It is right that Parliament should now have the opportunity to debate the issues.

The Government are neutral on the Bill. We believe that it is a matter for Parliament to decide and we are content for the Bill to go into Standing Committee if that

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is what the House decides. However, my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) have raised some important issues that require detailed debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich has acknowledged that the purpose of the Bill is not to remedy any serious current problem that has arisen from the Christmas day opening of shops. It is intended more as a pre-emptive strike against any widespread opening of large shops in future. The protection of shopworkers and the preservation of the significance of Christmas day are laudable aims.

Christmas day has a special role in the life of this country: it is important for both religious and family reasons, and it is often valued by people of other religions or even by those of no faith. The Government want Christmas day's unique place in our lives to be preserved, but the House should think carefully about whether legislating to prevent some shops from opening is the right way to achieve that aim.

Oliver Cromwell did his best to put a stop to Christmas day. Not only did he ban mince pies, but he declared that Christmas day must be a working day. Thankfully, Christmas day survived Oliver Cromwell.

Mrs. Dunwoody: My hon. Friend might like also to observe that Oliver Cromwell was not too keen on Parliament, a view that has been held from time to time by others, but not one that we normally support.

Mr. O'Brien: At one point Cromwell was in favour of Parliament, and at another point he was against it. That is almost like Conservative tax guarantees these days. There is a policy one day, which is given up the next.

It seems that Christmas day has long been accepted as a holiday. Even Scrooge, who has featured in the debate, relented on this point. Obviously not everyone has been able to take advantage of a Christmas day holiday. Boxing day is believed to have developed in the middle ages to allow people who had to work on Christmas day to take the next day off. Today some people inevitably have to work--most obviously medical staff and those in essential services.

If we look back a few decades, other groups also worked on Christmas day. For example, people were needed to run some public transport services. If we go back a bit further, the country was even blessed with postal deliveries on Christmas day. Interestingly, in those days church attendance and religious observance were much greater than now. The suggestion that the religious significance of Christmas day is undermined by work is therefore one that cannot be taken at face value.

I recognise that there are concerns about shops and stores being open for business on Christmas day. The retail sector is one of the most important sectors in the UK, comprising more than 300,000 outlets. It employs about 2.5 million, about 10 per cent. of the work force. Like it or not, nowhere is the importance of the retail sector more apparent than in the run-up to Christmas. Last year, £26 billion was spent in the shops during December. That was 13 per cent. of the total spend for the year.

The spectre of the mass opening of large shops on 25 December does not, in this context, seem realistic. Whether or not people engage in religious celebration,

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Christmas day remains the focus for all the pre-Christmas shopping activity. People overwhelmingly want to enjoy the day in the traditional way with their families. Most will not have the energy, time, money or inclination for yet another major round of shopping. It seems that there is little serious evidence of large-scale demand for Christmas day shopping in large stores.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) suggested that the Bill is to some extent the residue of the Sunday Trading Act 1994, and that the issue of Christmas day shopping should have been dealt with in that measure. Indeed, that view has been expressed by several Members.

The absence of any law governing the opening of shops on Christmas day is not a recent development. It is not something that arose out of the 1994 Act or other legislation. It has simply not featured previously in a serious way in shops legislation.

It has always been recognised that some shops need to open on Christmas day. Most of us have had to make that last-minute dash for something that we desperately need. We might need batteries for toys that were bought sometimes not by the parents but by relatives or friends who may have forgotten to buy batteries, perhaps assuming that the family had them.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich was unkind to those Members who might have recollections of having to buy batteries for their children on Christmas day, irrespective of whether or not they bought the battery-operated toy. We should not put undue restrictions on children enjoying their Christmas by my hon. Friend seeking to restrict their access to batteries. Shortage of milk and disasters with the turkey can drive us reluctantly to the shops.

Customer demand and the wishes of staff, who are usually volunteers, dictate how long shops may stay open. With the growth in the number of convenience stores, especially those run by non-Christians, the number of small shops open on Christmas day has undoubtedly increased in recent years.

However, at the moment there is little evidence that the larger supermarkets are picking up the baton. In fact, the information suggests that there has not been a great deal of movement. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) talked of a trend to open on Christmas day, but the evidence for that is unconvincing. Asda says that it opened none of its stores last year. Sainsburys opened none of its large stores--those over 3,000 sq ft--but it opened three smaller stores, which is fewer than in 1999.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I have a slight problem, as I am not sure whether the Minister is for or against the Bill. Is he seriously suggesting that stores excluded from it should be treated differently? I am sad that the Government are not protecting low-paid women workers, but that is a matter for them. They should be more enthusiastic. However, is he genuinely saying that because only half a dozen large stores opened last time, we should assume that no more will open this time?

Mr. O'Brien: The Government take a neutral position on the Bill. My hon. Friend, although normally persuasive, has left me unconvinced about the Bill at the moment. She will have to exercise her persuasive powers to a much greater extent if she is to convince me that

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there is a problem that requires the sort of legislation that she is seeking to introduce. I did not vote for maintaining the restrictions on Sunday opening. I believe that, by and large, shops should be able to decide when they wish to open. Sunday trading has largely benefited our economy and families. I therefore believe that I took the right approach in voting to allow Sunday trading. Most families who shop on Sunday--about 56 per cent.--find it a benefit and they would not like it to be taken away.

There is little evidence that large stores are seeking to open as my hon. Friend fears. Safeways, which has 480 retail outlets, says that it opened no large stores. Only 50 small shops attached to petrol stations were open. Budgens opened 91 of its 207 stores, but all were under 3,000 sq ft. The Co-op opened 85 of its 4,653 stores, three of which were over 3,000 sq ft. No doubt, my hon. Friend will wish to take up with the Co-op any concerns that she may have.

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