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Helen Jones: As north-west women Members of Parliament are renowned for their charm, I want to ask my hon. Friend a question. If he believes that it is acceptable to restrict trading when Christmas day falls on a Sunday, why is not it acceptable to do that when Christmas day falls on another day of the week?

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend will appreciate that I have simply set out the argument that was deployed when we considered the Bill that became the 1994 Act. When hon. Members considered that measure, they took the view that they did not wish to restrict shopping on Christmas days that fell on week days. My hon. Friend may wish to ascertain why hon. Members took that view then. I cannot recollect all the details of the arguments that were deployed, but the 1994 Act specifically provides for Christmas days that fall on a Sunday. Hon. Members believed that trading should be restricted in those circumstances, but not when Christmas days fell on week days.

Ms Coffey: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I give way to my hon. Friend, who was active in the debate.

Ms Coffey: I did not participate in that debate, although I voted for restricted Sunday trading. However, I remember the debate, and I do not believe that my hon. Friend gave a proper summary of the view of the House. Hon. Members did not consider restricting trading on Christmas days that fell on a week day because that was not in the Bill's remit. If Christmas had been debated, it would not have been logical for the House to ban the larger shops from trading on a Christmas day that fell on a Sunday and not consider doing that for week-day Christmases. However, the subject was not considered in the context of the Sunday Trading Bill.

Mr. O'Brien: Doubtless hon. Members would be happy to read the debates in Hansard and ascertain the reasons for the House's view at that time. It took a clear view, and there are restrictions on trading on Christmas days that fall on a Sunday, but not on those that fall on week days. Perhaps there were procedural reasons for that, concerning the long title of the Bill.

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Let us consider an important issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East and other hon. Members mentioned. My hon. Friend made the most telling speech of the debate. He expressed strongly his anxiety about the Sunday trading laws, which sought to protect people from being forced to work on a Sunday but are not always effective. I share many of his anxieties about workers being forced to work on Christmas day or Sundays.

I also share my hon. Friend's scepticism about some of the other arguments that were deployed about the Bill. In a multicultural society, in which freedom and free trade should not be unnecessarily restrained, some of the arguments were unconvincing. He made strong arguments about employment rights, and we should consider them with great care.

USDAW and other trade unions have been worried about protection. The 1994 Act included protections for employees. Shopworkers have the right to refuse to work on Sundays, or to opt out even if contracted to do so. They are protected from detriment and from dismissal. It has been claimed that, in spite of this, many shopworkers now feel pressurised into working on Sundays. I think that there is some truth to that, and that is a matter of concern. The rights afforded by the legislation are meant to be comprehensive. However, the number of complaints made to industrial tribunals has been relatively small: 15 during the year 1999-2000.

Christmas day working, and working on any bank holiday, is a matter for negotiation between employers and employees. Employees who do not wish to work on Sundays may be able to take action against their employers if their contracts are varied without their consent. That might apply, for example, if an employee was required to work on Christmas day and that had not previously been the case. The terms of a contract might have been explicitly agreed or incorporated by custom and practice. An employee who was dismissed for refusing a contractual variation to work on Christmas day might well be entitled to complain of unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal.

The point has been raised by my hon. Friends that if a right is not accessible, it is tantamount to not having that right at all. There is a great deal of truth in that. It is important that we ensure that we protect our workers from being obliged to do anything that is against their conscience in certain circumstances. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that schedule 4 of the Sunday Trading Act 1994 was meant to protect workers and that if it failed to do so, there could be grounds for revisiting that part of the legislation, rather than banning trade altogether. I think that he made a strong point.

That point was reinforced to some extent by my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green who said that an alternative to a complete ban on opening might be a stronger ban on forcing workers to work on Christmas day. That might be a more family friendly approach than a complete ban, because some people might want to volunteer to work on Christmas day. The House will want to consider those issues in its own time, and, no doubt, in Committee.

Mr. Gardiner: What is my hon. Friend's view of those retail companies that, subsequent to the 1994 Act,

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changed their employment contracts so that the question of choice does not arise when someone is doing a job, but predates the commencement of employment? In such circumstances, a person would have the choice between signing a contract that committed them to working on a Sunday, or not signing a contract at all. That would mean either taking the job and agreeing to work on Sundays, or not taking the job. That would mean having absolutely no choice once one had started working. The Minister should consider that issue.

Mr. O'Brien: I hear what my hon. Friend says. I have had a constituent complain to me about precisely that point; it was a matter of concern to me and I took up my constituent's case. However, the Government do not have any plans to introduce legislation at this time that would prevent employers and employees from entering into employment agreements, which they are entitled to do under the free process of entering into jobs.

The Government want to ensure a proper balance. We need to ensure a level of employment protection that gives workers reasonable rights, but we also recognise that over-regulation is damaging to business and to the economy, and that is not something that we want to introduce. Getting the balance right is an important part of our strategy, and we intend to ensure that we do not over-regulate the business community, while ensuring that we give basic protection to workers. The legislation that the Government have introduced since the 1997 election shows that we are achieving that balance between the proper deregulation of business and the proper protection of workers' rights, including the protection of the rights of women workers.

The Bill would enshrine in law the right of one sector of the work force not to have to work on a particular public holiday. I ask whether that would be an entirely satisfactory arrangement. Members will have to decide for themselves whether there is a case for treating Christmas day differently. Other days, such as Good Friday, may be thought to have equal or better claims, in Christian terms, than Christmas day. However, I do not want to deter people from supporting the Bill. The Government are neutral on this issue and we want the Bill to proceed into Committee.

Mr. Win Griffiths: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I have been on my feet for quite a long time and I have taken many interventions, but I have not yet given way to my hon. Friend, so I shall do so now.

Mr. Griffiths: The Minister mentioned the relative merits of Good Friday and Christmas day, but theologically they are indivisible.

Mr. O'Brien: I defer to my hon. Friend's greater theological knowledge, and I take his point.

I understand the concern that staff may feel obliged to work on Christmas day. If that became a reality, it would clearly not be to the benefit of individuals or their family life. Given the public's attitude towards Christmas day, the likely pattern of shop opening and general employment law, it seems unlikely that major stores would readily adopt such a policy. As trading on Christmas day is unlikely to happen on a large scale, do we want to legislate to prevent it now? That is the fundamental issue before us.

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The Government have sympathy with the concerns that have prompted the Bill, but as I have made clear, we also have some reservations. There is so far only limited evidence that the Bill is necessary.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: No. I am sorry, but I will not give way as I am concluding my remarks.

The widespread opening of large shops seems unlikely, but Members will have to decide whether they want to prevent it in anticipation of some future change in practice. The Bill would create new regulation where none previously existed. That is not wholly consistent with the Government's policy of reducing regulatory burdens. It would also have the effect of prohibiting something that is currently permitted.

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