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House of Lords

Thursday, 2nd December 1999.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Christmas Day

The Lord Bishop of Oxford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to ensure that Christmas Day remains a day of value in the life of the nation, both as the celebration of the birth of Christ and as a shared day of rest.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, it is clear that Christmas Day continues to be of great importance to the people of this country, for both religious and family reasons. In a diverse multicultural society it can, of course, be celebrated in many different ways. I believe that the present legal framework, which has effectively remained unchanged for many years, is more than adequate to enable the special nature of Christmas to be preserved.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he share my concern that a major national food retailer is intending, in the course of time, to open 1,000 or more small convenient shops, employing more than 10,000 people and that the shops will open on Christmas Day with, as I understand it, no opt-out clause? That will undermine the general principle of a shared day of rest and enjoyment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I recognise the right reverend Prelate's concerns and those of others about the decision by a supermarket last year to open one or two of its stores on Christmas Day. I am grateful to him for the information he has drawn to our attention this afternoon. However, to date the Home Office has received very few complaints about this or other matters relating to shop opening on Christmas Day. As noble Lords are aware, that is entirely within the law unless it falls on a Sunday.

Lord Elton: My Lords, will the Minister accept that that is one complaint? Does he agree that experience of legislation on Sunday trading has shown, without doubt, that changes in commercial practice entirely alter the character of the day and the ability of families of all denominations to get together on that day? Will not this change begin the process with Christmas Day that has been evident for years on Sunday? Should it not be checked by legislation?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord makes some interesting comments, as a contribution

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to what could be a new area of debate. I am not convinced that our Sundays have changed so dramatically, as the noble Lord suggests. I quote figures from a survey by Healey & Baker, who are well respected in the field. They suggest that, while one in three people shop on a Sunday at least once a month, 45 per cent never shop on a Sunday and 20 per cent are strongly morally opposed to Sunday shopping. So there is clearly a divergence and diversity of views. Some people hold, and will continue to hold, Sunday as a special day. I do and I am sure the noble Lord does. All those with strong family commitments value the day for that and for its Christian purpose.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I should like to register one more complaint.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the complaint, I shall register it, take it away and investigate it.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, is it not time that we stopped talking all this nonsense about a multicultural society? It is no more multicultural than it ever was. People come here; I am an immigrant from Ireland. We immigrants are a minority. We ought to stop talking about it. Only a handful of people belong to a different culture.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I defer to the noble Earl with his infinite wisdom on such matters, but the facts of the situation speak for themselves. We live in a multicultural, multifaith society and communities. That is the reality. We should live and work with it, celebrate it and enjoy it. It is a strength of our society and a strength of the diverse communities in which we live.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, under the Bank Holidays Act 1871, no employer can compel anyone to work on Christmas Day or any other bank holiday?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I confess that I am not intimately conversant with that piece of legislation. Perhaps I should be and no doubt the noble Lord is. Working on Sundays is very much a matter of contract. The contract is the document on which employees should rely powerfully. If there are breaches of contract by employers, then employees are quite entitled to take those issues to industrial tribunals to have them properly resolved in their interest.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the 1980s I represented shop workers when the question of Sunday trading was debated in both Houses? It was the party opposite who wanted to abandon the 1952 shops legislation. It brought in deregulation by default because this House was opposed to the system. However, does my noble friend agree that, although there may not be too many complaints from workers in the industry about

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working on Christmas Day, it might be the result of fear over their security of employment and possible promotion?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point about the relationship between employee and employer, and it is one of which we should take careful note. But the legislation on Sunday trading has worked well and appears to enjoy broad support. We have not received many complaints about it. We must always ensure that those who are in a weak and vulnerable position are properly protected by the law.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that we have celebrated Christmas very successfully for the past two millennia--taking the long-term view--and that it would be appropriate to continue so doing for the next millennium?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness.

Baroness Young: My Lords, does the Minister agree that perhaps the reason that there have not been many complaints about Sunday trading is that very few shops were open last Christmas and none of us realised how many might be open in future which would affect the day? Will the noble Lord take into consideration the effect that this would have on people who would be required to work on Christmas Day? Does he accept that many of us who are unhappy about Sunday trading believe that the character of at least some towns has changed as a result of this activity on Sunday?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I believe that the situation is one with which most people in society are generally happy. I accept that not everyone is happy with the legislation. That much was clear when the 1994 legislation came into being and there was a wide and divergent debate about it. I believe that most people accept that Sunday is a special day and Christmas Day particularly so. I do not seek to become Minister for Christmas Day, but I shall play my part to ensure that it is protected in a way that fits with the traditions of our country.

United States: Ballistic Missile Defence

3.15 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What recent exchanges they have held with the United States Administration on proposals to develop ballistic missile defence.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the Government have a continuous dialogue with the United States

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Administration on ballistic missile defence issues in general. The US Administration has also briefed us nationally and in NATO on its current thinking on the possible establishment of a national missile defence system designed to defend the US against limited attack by ballistic missiles.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer, but can she confirm that it is part of the American assumption that US missile warning systems in this country are a necessary part of its defence and that Fylingdales would have to be upgraded for the proposed national ballistic defence system? Does that give Her Majesty's Government a certain additional standing and leverage in this American debate?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, although the US has briefed us on its current thinking on the kind of national missile defence system that it may seek to establish, should it decide to deploy such a system, it has not come to a decision that that is what it wants to do. It has also made clear that no such decision will be taken before next June. Questions about any possible UK involvement are, therefore, premature at this stage.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, as both the US and British Governments are committed, theoretically, to abolishing nuclear weapons, it would be a good idea if some of these discussions covered that subject instead of considering how the system can be improved? Is it not high time that the United States and the British Government got together and began to discuss nuclear disarmament?

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