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23 May 2006 : Column 424WH

Let us consider the pattern of consumers. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) said that only a small number of people shop on a Sunday. I shop on Sunday with my daughter; it is a family activity and we do it together. I do not know where everyone else is, but the nice shopping areas in the high street such as clothes shops and shoe shops certainly seem to trade very well given the present Sunday trading hours.

David Lepper: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again, but I ask her to note that the figures that I cited and to which she refers came from the report commissioned by the DTI and carried out by Indepen, and not from one of the interest groups to which she referred—perhaps to cast doubt on the validity of those surveys.

Lorely Burt: I take that point, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I was merely making a personal observation.

I turn to the arguments against and to those workers who are being constrained. A lot of time has been given to them. However, some like to work on Sundays because they have the opportunity to do so, despite disparaging remarks about students having to pay off their student debts or people wanting to supplement their pensions. As for the traditional family, if the primary carer goes out to work on Sunday—let us say that it is mum—then the children will be left with dad. That gives the children an opportunity to have some quality time with the parent who remains at home. [Laughter.] I give that argument for what it is worth.

Helen Jones: I am listening to the hon. Lady’s argument about choice. Is she suggesting that the same ought to apply in the House? If she thinks it is valuable for people to have the choice of working on a Sunday, will she table a motion that the House should sit on Sundays, thus giving ourselves a chance to work then?

Lorely Burt: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that suggestion. Many hon. Members already work on Sundays.

Helen Jones: Here, away from their families?

Lorely Burt: Speaking personally, I often go to my local television studios to make recordings on Sundays, and I attend community events on Sundays. It is not a great deal of fun. MPs work a phenomenal number of hours. All hon. Members in the Chamber would agree.

With some relief, I now move on to the arguments against. I shall talk first about the idea that Sunday is just another day. Whatever one’s religious beliefs, there is something to be said for Sunday being one day in the week that is slightly different. We have been talking about family time. Families can also spend time shopping. Some families choose to have their Sunday roast together, but patterns of family behaviour change over time.

My family used to have a traditional Sunday lunch, but kids today often do not want to do that. They want to do other things instead. We might watch a football match together, but those professional footballers will
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be working on a Sunday. [Interruption.] I note the sedentary remark made by the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) that those footballers may well be reasonably well rewarded for their endeavours. Their case is certainly nothing compared with that of the shop workers to whom we referred earlier.

My main concern, which has been raised, is the idea of the Tescopoly—the monopoly of the supermarkets—and the threat that large supermarkets pose to small retail shops. A recent study discovered that a third of trade for small shops occurs outside the hours of 10 and 4 on a Sunday. I note with great regret that 7,337 independent retailers closed between 2000 and 2004. It is incumbent on hon. Members, who certainly need no persuading in this room, to remember that employing local people is important, as the creation of more local jobs means that more money goes into the area, and such businesses source more products locally and can choose whether to open or close. I will not repeat the points about worker concerns over the erosion of premium payments and the pressure to get them to work, because those points have been made already.

In conclusion, several comments have been made about Tesco’s withdrawal from the Deregulate lobby group. My view, for what it is worth, is that perhaps Tesco has its hands full with the Competition Commission. I do not know. The recommendation or suggestion that we could perhaps raise hours from six hours to eight on a Sunday would seem to me to be a reasonable compromise and so, hopefully, something of that nature might meet with approval from all sides of the House.

Several hon. Members rose—

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Lady has had more than her fair share of time and was coming to the end of her remarks.

12.12 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) not only on securing the debate but on making incisive and thoughtful remarks about the entity of the debate. Hon. Members will, I suspect, be more interested in hearing what the Minister has to say, so I shall attempt to be reasonably brief.

As we have discovered in the debate, Sunday trading is an issue about which many people understandably feel strongly. It is a complex issue: it appears on the surface to be about retail trading hours, but it is also about employment rights. It would seem to be merely an economic matter, but self-evidently it is fundamentally a social issue as well. Sunday trading hours are a matter for families as consumers and as workers.

The Government, as we know, have undertaken an initial consultation. It did not start out as an initial consultation but it has suddenly become that. They have now commissioned a cost-benefit analysis, which has been discussed in this debate. Ministers have said so far that they are considering the balance of views, but we have yet to hear a clear statement of intent from
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Government. I hope that the Minister will correct that omission and put on record the direction in which the Government intend to travel and, indeed, whether they intend to ensure that their Back Benchers take that path with them in the form of a whipped vote. My view is that the Government need to be very careful in ensuring that they get a sensible balance between the needs of families, workers and retailers, so that those who shop may choose to do so but those who choose not to work are properly protected. There has to be a clear case for change.

The Sunday Trading Act 1994, and its amendment through the Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004, were the result of a classic British parliamentary compromise. The 1994 Act was designed to reflect the different concerns of those whom I have mentioned and of many Christian groups. It also reflected the nature of retailing in society in 1994. Clearly society and our lifestyles have changed since then. We live in a more mobile and multicultural world. We are, whether we like it or not, a more consumer-led society. The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) articulately expressed why that is often a bad thing in our society. Whether we like it not, for many people in this nation, shopping is an essential part of their leisure. We have seen the arrival of the internet. We now face the peculiarity of being able to shop online with Tesco at 6 o’clock on a Sunday evening, but not being able to go to its supermarkets.

There have been notable changes in habits in relation to retailing. I am told by experts in the industry that whereas 10 or 15 years ago, we used, on the whole, to go to the supermarket once a week—I say “we”; it is usually my wife, I admit—now the pattern is to go there two or three times a week. Habits have changed and the result is that the convenience sector is growing faster than the traditional supermarket. That is why large retailers entered the convenience sector a few years ago and are competing directly with the independents. In many of our communities—I am surprised that this was not debated today—the large retailers can circumvent the Sunday trading laws because they own convenience stores that are below the 3,000 sq ft threshold. It is important to remember that when considering any change in the law that the Government may be thinking about. In many of our towns, the Sunday trading laws are irrelevant to the debate between large and small retailers.

It can be argued—many people do—that in a free market it is up to retailers to decide when they trade, based on consumer demand, and there is much to be said for that argument, but it depends on the market being free, open and fair. In recent years, many small shops have closed. I think that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) said that about 2,000 such shops had closed in 2004. Many more are threatened. There is a growing chorus of concern about the pricing tactics employed by larger retailers when opening new stores.

The recent decision by the Office of Fair Trading to refer the whole of the grocery market to the Competition Commission confirmed that there are clear problems in that market. The inquiry must be comprehensive. A narrow inquiry that failed to address the allegations, whether the issue was predatory pricing
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or unfair contracts, would leave a shadow over the market. That would be bad for consumers and for retailers, large and small.

Some people have argued that with that significant inquiry under way, the Government should delay their plans to change the Sunday trading hours. What does the Minister think? Does he recognise that if he implements legislation in the next year, before the commission has concluded its work, that could adversely affect the very basis of the inquiry? I suspect that the whole House would want to hear his reply.

The starting point in this debate is the consumer. People should be free to make their own choices. It is not the role of Government or politicians generally to dictate where people should spend their leisure time; I shall come to working time in a moment. For many people—I say this with some incredulity—shopping is their favourite leisure activity. As, perhaps, a typical middle-aged man, I find that prospect truly ghastly, but who am I—who are any of us—to tell people how they should spend their time?

The converse of being free to shop on a Sunday is the right not to be forced to work on that day. Although the current law works well in some respects, I have much sympathy for what the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and many of its members have said on that issue. We have to recognise that there is informal pressure, but we also have to be clear that legislation often cannot deal with such pressure. The Government need to be careful to ensure that whatever they do, those who do not want to work on a Sunday can make that choice without it unfairly affecting their job or their prospects.

I shall now deal briefly with the question of family life. Of course, Sunday trading is a much broader question than just economics. I understand and have much sympathy with the position of groups such as Keep Sunday Special. To me, a practising Christian, Sunday is a special day, different from the rest of the week. It is also right to say that in a society in which often both parents work, the time that parents have for each other and for their children is under incredible pressure. As a society, we may be financially richer, but sadly the price is that we are time poor. Of course in a multicultural society, Sunday is not everyone’s Sabbath; but the principle of a day of rest nevertheless can and should be recognised if we are to give our relationships the time that they need to grow.

Sadly, the time for my speech to grow is not with me. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the questions that have been raised.

12.20 pm

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I, too, start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) on introducing a good, well informed debate, including—against much heckling from my side—the contribution of the Liberal Democrat spokesperson.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Who is on your side? [Laughter.]

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Malcolm Wicks: There was some quite bad behaviour from my colleagues during a plucky speech.

As the Minister for Energy, I am here today talking about Sunday trading not because all the issues in energy policy have been so resolved that I have time on my hands—there still seems to be some political interest in one or two issues—

Shona McIsaac: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Malcolm Wicks: Perhaps later in my speech. I am talking about Sunday trading because my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who also deals with investment and foreign affairs, is unable to respond to the debate. He sends his apologies, but he cannot be here, sadly owing to personal and family circumstances.

I do not accept the caricature of the Department of Trade and Industry that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) depicted. I know that it is now fashionable for the historic party of capital to attack big business, but to caricature us as a Department solely concerned with big business is unfair. We are concerned with employment relationships, work-life balance and consumer policy, as well as the needs of business. Before I came to the House I directed a body called the Family Policy Studies Centre, so I am aware of the need to take account of the impact of proposed legislation on the diversity of family life. Also, when I look at my red boxes on a Sunday and compare them with the grass uncut, the young cabbages unplanted and so on, I have some sympathy with the idea of keeping Sunday special.

The present position is that the Government are reviewing the Sunday trading laws in England and Wales. We welcome an open debate on the issue, and today’s debate has been an important contribution to that. Since the review of Sunday trading was announced last November, we have asked for and received a range of evidence in response to our informal consultation. We also commissioned the cost-benefit analysis, which is now available on the DTI website. However, in case there is any misunderstanding, we also made it clear on our website that we would welcome further relevant evidence or views—from consumers, religious groups, employees and businesses—not only on the economic case, but on all aspects of further liberalisation. A cost-benefit analysis is a contribution to the process, but it can only be partial.

Two weeks ago we held a stakeholder conference to give people the chance to debate the cost-benefit analysis and have their say on all aspects of Sunday trading. We have made it clear that if we decide to proceed with the review, there will be a further period of formal consultation on any change. We want our consumer and labour policies to be well informed, although we recognise that there will never be an overall consensus on such a controversial issue.

The current Sunday trading laws were established12 years ago. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 restricts large shops in England and Wales from opening for more than six hours between 10 and 6, and prevents them from opening at all on Easter Sunday. The fact that the legislation has been in place for 12 years does not necessarily mean that it is wrong, but it is sensible for us to look at it again.

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We know from the responses to our informal consultation that there is a wide range of opinions on all sides of the debate and that some are very strongly held. Many of those views have been expressed today. This debate forms part of the ongoing consultation, and all views expressed will be taken into account. To illustrate the extent to which the Government have been listening, I will summarise the range of perspectives that has been put forward.

Some look at the question purely from a consumer perspective and argue that it should be business that decides when shops should open, not the Government, and that shops should be free to respond to the needs of their customers. The Government often get accused of over-regulating business, and there are those who feel that it is not the Government’s place to regulate at all in this area.

Others feel strongly that there is more at stake than mere consumption and they would like to see Sunday protected as a day of rest: a quieter day when families can spend time together. We must also respect the position of those Christian groups who, because of their deeply held religious beliefs, feel that shops should not open at all on a Sunday, or should certainly not open for longer than they do under current law.

Others focus on the impact of extending Sunday opening on employees, and we have heard that argument today, not least from my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East. Some employees value the chance to work on Sundays, but others feel that Sunday opening has made their working life and family life more difficult. There are those who argue that the undertaking of work by parents on weekends can have an adverse impact on children and knock-on consequences for society.

I welcome the comments of those who reminded us that in a modern society with an ageing population, we are not just talking about the care of children, but the responsibility that many adults take on for the care of elderly relatives or grown-up children with disabilities. I had a private Member’s Bill that dealt with this subject, which became the Carers (Recognition & Services) Act 1995. Another important perspective that we have heard much about is the impact of further liberalisation on small shops.

Where are we? Those, and all the other views that have been expressed, have to be given proper consideration. My right hon. Friends, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Minister for Trade are considering carefully all the views and evidence they have received so far.

Shona McIsaac: Will the Minister give way?

Malcolm Wicks: Perhaps a little later. In addition, my right hon. Friends are also considering the cost-benefit analysis, which examines the economic impact of extending Sunday shopping hours for large shops. We welcome this report as a key contribution to the debate, alongside the views and evidence we have received from others. After hearing those views, if the
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Government feel that any change to the status quo is to be considered, there will be a formal consultation.

Several hon. Members rose—

Malcolm Wicks: I give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East.

Mr. Andrew Smith: The Minister answered his own rhetorical question, “Where are we?” I have listened carefully to what he said about the procedures the Department is going through. Will he tell us when he thinks our right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of Trade will take a decision on whether they need to proceed to a formal review, or whether—in accordance with the overwhelming view expressed here and in the country—the matter should be left?

Malcolm Wicks: I am bound to say that we have not yet reached a conclusion about what should happen to Sunday shopping hours. No decision will be taken until we have assessed all the evidence, including the views expressed today. We want to make a decision based on all the information and informed by all perspectives on this topic. We want all interested parties to have a say about whether further or partial liberalisation—or no change—is the right way forward. In particular, we need to consider carefully whether large shops should be allowed to open on Easter Sunday. We have been told that shop workers either are not aware of their legal right to opt out of Sunday working, or do not feel that they can use it, and we want to understand that issue better.

We need to consider the evidence on the wider social issues that have been identified, which are as relevant as economic issues to decisions on Sunday trading. I am afraid that I cannot give my right hon. Friend a specific date, but I am able to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), if she is still eager to intervene.

Shona McIsaac: The Minister mentioned the Ministers in his Department who will consider all the views expressed in the debate. As Minister for Energy, what impact does he think that deregulation will have on energy consumption in this country?

Malcolm Wicks: It probably depends how much energy people expend on devising ingenious questions when they are at home on a Sunday.

Let me make it clear that the special protection allowing shop workers to choose not to work on Sundays is here to stay, It is important to stress that. I cannot be more specific about time scales, but I would like to repeat that we have had a useful debate.

I am pleased to have been able to stand in for my ministerial colleague and to get into a controversial issue at long last. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East for giving me the opportunity to bring my mind to bear on the subject.

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