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Mr. Bercow: In considering the Lords amendments, we are thrice blessed. We are blessed by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), to whose assiduity and careful preparation I enthusiastically pay tribute. We are blessed, secondly, by the presence and participation of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who has given careful thought to the questions of loading and unloading. I discussed these issues with him at some reasonable length earlier this morning—it was some time before 9 o'clock. It is particularly welcome that my right hon. Friend has been prepared to take an interest, to become involved and to be present in the Chamber today.

I am not sure that we are very good at paying tribute to our right hon. and hon. Friends. I want to do so because my right hon. Friend's celebrity in this place should not be understated. He is a former Deputy Chief Whip. The fact that someone who has been a senior member of the Government machine can, nevertheless, trouble himself to come to the House on a Friday and take part in a narrow but important debate, in terms of the impact on human life and the local environment, is much to his credit.

I said thrice blessed because I was concerned that proper recognition would not be paid to the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). It is extremely welcome that the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—a prominent Brown ally and a man of noted significance in the House—should take part in a debate on loading and unloading.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman might now limit his remarks to the amendment and not extend them to personalities in the Chamber.

Mr. Bercow: Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was referring to personality only, as you will readily concede, I am sure, as a prelude to the observation that the right hon. Gentleman has a substantial retail and industrial set of facilities within his constituency. Therefore, he speaks today not only out of parliamentary consideration for others but on the basis of some background knowledge and concern.

Let us be clear. In thinking about the issues that are raised by the amendments, we on the Opposition Benches face a peculiar dilemma. That dilemma has been animadverted to periodically by several of my right hon. and hon. Friends. On the one hand, we are the party of free enterprise, individual initiative, entrepreneurship and capitalism. On the other hand, we are the party that has a particular regard for national tradition, the significance of Christmas and the legitimate demands of quietude. In that sense, it is quite difficult to know on which side of the argument we should fall.
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On this occasion, I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). I usually do so but not on moral matters, on which my hon. Friend is almost invariably wrong. I think that he has jumped to the wrong conclusion. He is concerned that the effect of the regulation on loading itself, and at least as importantly, if not more so, the effect of the amendment that would allow for the exercise of discretion and variability as to time—discretion to be exercised by local authorities, to which my hon. Friend is extremely hostile—means that we are getting into the business of over-regulation.

The basis for my hon. Friend's concerns about the loading and unloading amendments is derived from the legendary and generally wise observations of our noble Friend Lord Lawson of Blaby. Although I have not discussed loading and unloading with him, he probably more pithily than any other colleague, living or dead, encapsulated the Conservative attitude to government and business. He famously said that, as far as Conservatives are concerned, the business of government is not the government of business. As eloquently described by the American observer, Walter Lippman, in a different way—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I think we understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Again I ask him to comment on the amendments.

Mr. Bercow: I certainly will, Madam Deputy Speaker; I am itching to do so.

In a free society, the state does not administer the affairs of men and women, but it does administer justice among men and women who conduct their own affairs. That is the basis for the belief that, now and again, the state can legislate properly to protect the local or national interest.

There is a good argument for having a restriction on loading. It strikes me as very unsatisfactory that we should leave open the possibility that such conduct should take place on Christmas day. If, in fact, there is a real risk that such behaviour will be widespread, we are entirely justified—in a sense, as an anticipatory and preventive measure—in legislating against it. We know that we are anticipating legislating against, and helping to prevent or deter, what would otherwise be a widespread and socially unacceptable practice.

If, on the other hand—as I think is the sense of the point expressed by my hon. Friend—it is not very likely that the activity will take place on a significant scale, my conclusion would be: what conceivable objection can businesses have to our including a modest amendment with no significant costs in a Bill that we otherwise agree is very good? The regulatory impact assessment is of the essence here. If we consider the issue in the way that the Government and Opposition traditionally do in terms of the regulatory impact-assessment—what the
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consequences for business will be and what the costs imposed will entail—it is pretty clear that the impact will be extremely modest.

Mr. Gale rose—

Mr. Bercow: I believe that my hon. Friend is twitching.

Mr. Gale: When I spoke, my hon. Friend appeared to share my concern about the powers of the local authority under the Lords amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) painted a lovely vision of queues of German lorries trailing back down the side roads of Uxbridge waiting for the gates of Randall's to open. I had an even lovelier vision of slumbering German lorry drivers being awoken at 4 o'clock in the morning by young Oliver Bercow banging his first Christmas drum. However, to put that to one side, has my hon. Friend any concept of how long the unloading process will take? I see a situation in which a local authority varies to an earlier hour and there is a cacophony of sound from unloading from the early hours of the morning until possibly midday on Christmas day.

Mr. Bercow: As is usually the case, my hon. Friend, whose perspicacity in the House is legendary, has effectively expanded the parameters of the debate. I am grateful to him for doing so. On the basis of the evidence that I have thus far adduced, it is more likely that little Oliver will be making a speech on Christmas day than banging a drum. There is an element of heredity in these matters, and he is more likely to copy me in that respect. I have no drum-playing skills of note.

My hon. Friend has highlighted the important point that there may not be enormous abuse around the country, but it is perfectly possible that there will be concentrations of activity in particular areas. That is perfectly sufficient to irritate and disrupt the lives of many people on Christmas day. Many right hon. and hon. Members might be inclined to wear their halos and say, "What are Conservative Members bothered about? No large retailer in my constituency would dream of behaving in this way for fear of provoking local consternation and damaging business, causing undue and adverse publicity." We know as legislators that it takes only a relatively small number of recalcitrants to cause untold misery.

12 pm

As far as the Uxbridge area is concerned, from my fairly regular experience of the A40, travelling to and from my Buckingham constituency, I can well imagine that there could be a substantial gathering of vehicles moving towards the intended destination to load or unload, and that the noise would be considerable. I do not think for one moment that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) would be a willing sponsor of such antisocial behaviour, but I can perfectly concede that others might be. We must have—I say this as a passionate believer in free enterprise capitalism—a protective cloak of legal regulation that guards against
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the danger that those who have no regard for the interests of others will abuse a loophole in the law to advance their own interests.

Mr. Greg Knight: In passing, if Oliver does want a drum lesson, I am happy to give him a free one.

Will my hon. Friend put our hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) right when he says that the problem is primarily one of unloading? The scope of the problem includes loading and many large shops have waste to remove, such as food that is out of date. It is not just a case of big vehicles unloading.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful for the offer of the free lesson, but I will not dwell on it because I would probably incur your disfavour, Madam Deputy Speaker. The thought of your usually shining countenance being transformed into an expression of disapproval is something that I find too unattractive to contemplate.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend has drawn attention to the possibility of loading. The omission by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) was entirely inadvertent. My right hon. Friend is right that loading can take place. I had not thought of the other unattractive accompanying consequence of a considerable and possibly potent smell. That is the ugly spectre that he conjures up, and I do not like the sound or the smell of it. It certainly could happen and we should legislate to avert that eventuality.

On amendment (b), which deals with discretionary hours, I hope that my right hon. Friend will not think that I am abandoning him. I said, although I do not feel bound by it, that I was minded to support the amendments, but I was under a misapprehension. I thought that the variability amendment on hours was variability allowing for later loading or unloading. The thought had not occurred to me that it might be possible, under the aegis of this otherwise well intentioned discretion-based amendment, for loading to take place substantially earlier. That is simply not acceptable to me and I think he will find that it is not acceptable to a good many other Members either.

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