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Mr. Kevan Jones: Variability is down to the local authority. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that paragraphs 7(a) and (b) of schedule 3 of the Sunday Trading Act 1994 contain powers that enable the local authority to revoke consent, first, if the applicant has committed an offence in breach of its conditions, and, secondly and more importantly, if the local authority is satisfied that consent given to loading and unloading has caused undue nuisance to local residents?
That is welcome, though precisely what its practical impact would be is rather uncertain, to put it mildly. I was keen to underline that it should be possibleI believe that it isto take a mixed view on the merits of the amendments. I was a little concerned by the general drift of the argument of the hon. Member for North Durham, ably supported by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), which was that we ought simply to accept the Bill, and any attempted amendment would risk the Bill being lost, with all the sad consequences that would flow from that.
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I do not think that we ought to legislate in haste on this matter; it is more important to get the Bill right. Although, as I have indicated, one of the amendments I do not think desirable, and it may be desirable to amend it or substitute another for it. Amendment (a), which would shift from 9 am back to 10 am the permitted time at which loading or unloading could take place, seems thoroughly sensible. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for North Durham, in his legitimate and thirsty quest for legislative satisfaction, will not conclude that anyone who offers a differential view on the various amendments before us is somehow threatening the advance of his Bill. I would like nothing more than to be able, metaphorically or actually, to pat the hon. Gentleman on the back and congratulate him on the successful passage and translation into law of his Bill, but we must get it right and he must not be too impatient.
Mr. Jones: I concur with the hon. Gentleman: we must get the Bill right. Certainly, on Second Reading and on Report, I, as the promoter, have been conscious of the need to take on board the points made in debate. That is why we are considering a Lords amendment. The spirit in which I have tried to ensure the Bill's passage has been one of trying to compromise where possible.
Mr. Greg Knight: My hon. Friend is making a speech of the highest order, but will he address my concerns about his remarks on amendment (b)? Surely the local authority in any area is the body best placed to make a decision about what will be acceptable to people who reside in the area. Amendment (b) is loosely drafted precisely to give local authorities that freedom. It may be that because of some event in the locality a local authority wants all loading carried out in the morning, rather than dragging on into the afternoon.
Mr. Bercow: I accept with due humility the possibility that my right hon. Friend is right and I am not. My only concern on this point derives from my belief that there is a great difference between the quality of local government to be found in the county of Buckinghamshire and that which is regularly on display, to its considerable discredit, in other parts of the country. I know that I will have enthusiastic agreement on this matter from my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).
I do not want to make the point too forcefullyI am not a member of the council, so I am not in any sense congratulating myselfbut Aylesbury Vale district council, under which my constituency falls, is an authority of the highest order, and its good burghers would not dream of behaving in an antisocial way. The same might also be said of Buckinghamshire county council. Some local authorities, however, seem inclined to make decisions of such bewildering stupidity and antisocial character that there is something to be said for Parliament adopting a belt-and-braces approach to deny them the opportunity to do so.
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My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire might not like my answer or think it satisfactory, but it is an answer, and a clear and honest one at that. I do not wish to tax your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, or that of other right hon. and hon. Members, and I am sure that they will all be pleased to know that my speech is now at an end.
Mr. Grieve: It can, I am sure, be said that scrutiny of this Bill has not been lacking in thoroughness. As the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) knows, his Bill enjoys the blessing and support of the official Opposition, because we believe that it was a mistake to fail to deal properly with Christmas day opening when Sunday trading was debated and the Bill goes a long way towards rectifying that mistake.
Today, we have carefully examined the Lords amendments to the Bill. It seems to me that they are in spirit extremely well intentioned. However, I share some of the concern that my right hon. and hon. Friends have voiced about whether Lords amendment No. 1 covers well enough the mischief that needs to be addressed. The argument is that the drafting leaves loopholes whereby a large number of deliveries could take place at a store because the goods in question are not part of
"the trade or business carried on in the shop".
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) touched on the point that sometimes it will be necessary urgently to carry out works or bring supplies to a store on Christmas day because some problem has arisen. I recollect that at least one of the really notable snowstorms that took place during the 19th century occurred on Christmas eve. Although such events might be a thing of the past owing to global warming, they could reoccur and result in damage being caused to premises that require repair. To prevent a person from bringing to a store a load of tiles to replace those that had been ripped off the roof by a high wind would clearly be undesirable. Although the new clause makes provision for getting the local authority's consent to operating at an earlier hour than the one set down, it is stretching credulity to imagine that in the early hours of Christmas morning it will be easy to get the local authority to take a rapid decision in one's favour on altering the regulations.
"trade or business carried on in the shop"
It may indeed be too late, because the House must reach a decision on whether it wishes to prolong the debate and thereby lose the Bill. However, I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Inserting the words "on that day" would mean that there should be no activities relating to the Bill taking place on that day,
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because the Bill prohibits Christmas day trading except for certain exempted premises. We would thereby create a loophole. In addition, I am not sure that the words he suggests would add much to the Bill. If I have misunderstood my hon. Friend's point, I am sure that he will intervene to clarify it.
The amendment proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) to change from 9 to 10 o'clock the hour at which such activities may commence seems to me to have a considerable degree of force. However, it must be seen in the context of whether such a late amendment, carrying with it the near certainty that the Bill would be lost, is justified. I must tell my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire that any resulting improvement would be wholly negated by losing an extremely important measure, and I hope that he considers that carefully before pressing his amendment to a vote.
"vary the time at which loading or unloading goods under subsection (1) may commence."
However, it does not add very much to the Lords amendment. His concern that the fine for loading is only set at level 3 on the standard scale has much more force. I agree wholeheartedly that a fine of £1,000 is derisory, given the commercial activities that take place in large retail premises. Indeed, even a level 4 fine of £2,500, as was suggested, may be inadequate. I am afraid that I must part company with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who takes an elevated view of the morality that prevails among people who run large commercial organisations. My own professional experience of undertaking a considerable amount of enforcement work for local authorities in the planning and regulatory sphere persuades me that that morality is, generally speaking, non-existent if people can make a neat calculation that the fine is far less than their profit from continuing with the activity in flagrant violation of the law. I witnessed such behaviour on many occasions, and I hope that I do not digress if I say that it is a problem that the House will have to tackle in future. While there is indeed provision to secure injunctions against repeat offenders, the procedure is ponderous and difficult. It is only used as a last resort and is extremely costly, so many local authorities hesitate to invoke it. We need to look again at simplifying the system, so that if someone commits two or three offences an automatic injunction can be granted somewhere other than the High Court, violation of which would lead to imprisonment. If the Government introduced such proposals, many hon. Members and I would welcome them, because I am afraid that the law is repeatedly violated in a number of regulatory areas.
The House therefore faces a choice. Commendably, the Lords amendment has gone some way towards meeting the criticisms on Report that loading is not included in the Bill. We have performed the valuable exercise of highlighting other ways of approaching the problem, and the Minister's advisers and people who
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work in back offices considering matters suitable for future legislation may find it useful. However, I very much hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire will not find it necessary to put his amendment to the vote. I hope that he and the House accept the Lords amendment, enabling the Bill to complete its passage and become law.
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