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The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Alan Johnson): We are currently reviewing the whole question of Sunday shop opening hours and whether there should be deregulation in that area. An independent economic cost-benefit analysis, commissioned by my Department, will be published on Friday. No decisions have been made: if the Government decide to alter the current arrangements, there will be full public consultation beforehand.
Tony Baldry: All hon. Members who were here when Parliament legislated in the mid-1980s to deregulate shop opening hours will recall that a compromise was agreed on Sunday trading. Without that compromise, the Bill would not have passed into law. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that nothing has happened in the intervening years to suggest that that consensus, which after all is based on the irrefutable premise that Sunday is a special day, should be undermined?
I accept that the regulations were agreed in 1994, but I do not agree that nothing has changed since then. This matter is worth considering, although the hon. Gentleman may be right that the public perceive the balance to be about right. However, things have changed since 1994: more people are at work and are working flexibly, and we have a more multicultural society now. Moreover, there is now a real feeling that we should regulate only where necessary, and that we should deregulate where we can. The Government do not take a position on the matter. Our approach is very neutral: we want to examine the cost-benefit analysis, but any decision to go further would involve a full consultation process. I do not think that anyone could reasonably argue with that.
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Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Given that the Government have confirmed that any changes to Sunday trading legislation would require primary legislation and given that nearly 250 Members have signed a Commons motion supporting the great British compromise as enshrined in the 1994 Act, does my right hon. Friend think that if he brings forward proposals, there will be a strong case for a free vote on Government Benches, as in 1994, particularly as there was no mention of this in our election manifesto?
Alan Johnson: I am a long way from considering free votes and even from considering legislation. Primary legislation would be required. At the moment we are simply taking a look at the issue 10 years on to see what the situation is now and whether there should or can be deregulation, and to listen to people's opinions. When we reach the stage of legislation, I shall bear my hon. Friend's suggestion in mind.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I think that I identified a little political correctness in the reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) saying that we have to consider all multicultural aspects. This is Britain. Sunday has always been special. In the 24/7 commercial world in which we now live it is important that there is a gap, a pause, to allow families and communities to focus on other things than shopping and so forth. I for one would very much like to see Sunday remaining special. May I hope that the Secretary of State will support that and, more importantly, allow us all to have some indication of the timetable for when a decision will be made?
Alan Johnson: I have never been accused of being politically correct before. I was simply pointing out what has changed since the last time Parliament discussed the subject. I am well aware of the strong feelings on this issue, not least because of the pleasant vicar from Walsall who has chained himself to a bed outside my last four constituency surgeries. The bed, curiously, is meant to signify that Sunday is a day of rest. One of my splendid constituents berated him and said, "It is all right for you to go and work on Sunday. Why are you stopping me?" A good line to a vicar, I think. I completely understand that there are strong views on this. Remember it was this Government who, because of the private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), legislated to resolve the anomaly on Christmas day, for which there was only regulation when it fell on a Sunday. We acted to deal with that because of the special nature of Christmas day. We understand the special nature of Easter Sunday and Sunday itself. That does not mean to say that we should not look at this again, just as we looked at it in the 1990s. We were tied to the Shops Act 1950 for about 40 years when society had changed completely. This is a chance to look at the matter. There is no timetable at the moment because we are still at the cost-benefit analysis stage. There will be the fullest consultation, including a timetable.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)
(Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating USDAW, the shop workers' union, on its campaign to protect its members who work on a Sunday, many of whom are
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low-paid and women workers? Can he assure me that his Department will take the proactive approach to protecting Sunday workers that it took when I piloted my excellent Christmas Day (Trading) Bill through the last Parliament?
Alan Johnson: I am glad that my hon. Friend is present to hear the congratulations in person. We are looking at the 1994 legislation. Protection for shop workers is contained in the Employment Protection (Continuity of Employment) Regulations 1996. We do not intend to alter those in any way. The protection that currently exists for workers on Sunday is not a part of this review.
The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): A properly functioning EU market is essential if we are to receive reliable and competitively priced supplies of gas. While some progress towards market opening has been made, we are working with the Commission and other member states to accelerate progress on liberalisation.
Ann Winterton: Bearing in mind that large industrial users in the United Kingdom face the highest gas prices in Europe, despite our having a fully liberalised gas market and remaining the largest producer, does the Minister agree that the lack of liberalisation of continental gas markets is causing distortion which could cost UK gas consumers as much as £10 billion this year? Why did the Government not push hard for the liberalisation of the European gas energy market when they held the presidency of the European Union?
Malcolm Wicks: The one bit with which I agree is that the situation produces distortion and extra costs; it certainly did in 2005. I agree with those data. For 10 years or so, British industry and the British domestic customer paid far lower prices than the average in continental Europe, but there are now serious difficulties. We are pressing very hard on the matter, which was a key priority for us when we held the presidency. If the hon. Lady had been at the Energy Council, she would have found that that was the case. Two commissioners have produced strong reports on the need for liberalisation; we are pressing hard and the Commission has indicated that it will take legal action against those blocking the path.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister will remember that during the passage of the Energy Act 2004, there was much discussion about the security of energy supply. As he knows, Gazprom, which is state-controlled, not state-owned, is buying up gas supplies in continental Europe and has now set its sights on Centrica. What would it do to the security of energy supply in this country if such a company had control of so much of the gas market?
It is absolutely crucial that we have energy diversity, so that not all of our energy eggs are in one basketwhether the gas basket or anotherhence the discussion about renewables, the importance of coal
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in our considerations and the controversial nuclear issue. We need diversity, although the shape that will take remains to be seen, and we need to promote competition and liberalisation. Any developments or takeover ideas will be a matter for the competition authorities to make sure that our objectives are not threatened.
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): On the hottest day of the year so far, it may seem churlish to talk about next winter, but the Minister will not have forgotten that earlier this year the national grid issued an unprecedented gas shortage warning. He will also be aware that an energy crisis was only narrowly avoided and that experts already predict that the situation next winter will be as tight, or even tighter. We have heard some generalities from the Minister, but what specific steps are the Government taking now, during the spring and summer, to increase the amount of gas storage supply in the United Kingdom and to improve the availability of imported gas to ensure that next winter we shall not again be on the brink of an energy crisis?
Malcolm Wicks: The gas announcement was unprecedented because we had only just brought in the procedures for such announcements. As it was the first time, I would have been unhappy had it not been unprecedented. The commercial market is setting up more storage capacity. We got through this winter even though the main storage facility at Rough was out of action due to a fire, so there will be more storage in the future. More gas will be coming into Britain; liquefied natural gas from Qatar and more gas from the Langeled pipeline and Norway. Storage and diversity of supply are central to the energy review.
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