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Sunday Trading

Volume 174: debated on Thursday 14 June 1990

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4.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received following the decision of Croydon magistrates to dismiss Sunday trading summonses; and if he will make a statement.

One representation has been received. The Government recognise that the interpretation of the judgment of the European Court is causing some difficulty, but this is a matter for the courts in the first instance. Since the defeat of the Shops Bill, the Government have made it clear that, while maintaining our previous views on the matter, we are prepared to consider reform short of total deregulation if a solution can be found which is widely accepted, enforceable, practicable and likely to command a parliamentary majority. No such solution has yet emerged.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the law on Sunday trading is absolute nonsense? Is he aware that 13 national opinion polls on Sunday trading have been carried out over the past two years and that 63 per cent. of the people want Sunday trading? When will we listen to the people? When will we get rid of this ridiculous and rotten law?

One or two of us, including my right hon. and learned Friend and I, sought to do that very thing back in 1985. I cannot help feeling that we would have avoided quite a lot of the difficulties that have since emerged had that Bill been permitted to become law. However, it was not and we are therefore in a situation not of our choosing. I have always said from the Dispatch Box that the criminal law has no place in the enforcement of who can buy what on a Sunday. We must accept that that is the law and live with the consequences. I hope that one of the consequences of the muddle that has emerged is that hon. Members will recognise that Parliament has repeatedly abdicated its responsibility to put the law into a sensible shape and I hope that an opportunity will be found to do that without too much further delay.

Does the Minister accept that there is no muddle over this matter in south Wales? In my constituency this week the magistrate in Cwmbran successfully prosecuted B and Q for illegal Sunday trading. Does he accept now that there is no excuse whatsoever for do-it-yourself stores like B and Q openly to flout the law of the land? Will he urge the Attorney-General to take up this case on behalf of Torfaen borough council, as I understand that B and Q is going to appeal?

Happily, I am not the interpreter of the law of the land. But the hon. Gentleman's self-righteousness might extend to asking himself this question: why does he suppose that so many of his constituents thought it perfectly proper to shop on a Sunday? Does he really think that, whatever the law and its enforcement may be, which is not a matter for me, it is a sustainable basis on which to take British law into the last decade of the 20th century that we should have criminal penalties for people who simply want to sell legitimate household items to other members of the public?

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the determination to keep Sunday special is deeply rooted among the majority of people and that the Government's failure to appreciate that fact led to their difficulties with the Shops Bill? Will he now advise those who are seeking to subvert the law to wait until the Torfaen case, which was referred to the European Court of Justice and then referred back, reaches the stage of being subject to a judgment by a court of record?

The sadness of the present position is that, in all the debates on this issue during my time in the House —I have attended all of them—not one hon. Member has ever said that he or she accepts the Shops Acts as they presently are. Everyone has said that they want a change, but no one has been able to agree what that change should be. I inform my hon. Friend, who is an experienced lawyer, that of course the law of the land is the law of the land, but he knows that court judgments simply reveal the inconsistency in the law. That means that, sooner or later, Parliament will need to address the issue.

Notwithstanding that very flimsy answer, is the Minister aware that there is deep concern in the country about the Government's failure since 1986 to introduce modern Sunday trading legislation? Is the Minister further aware that the Government are now perceived by informed and responsible opinion, through their procrastination, to be encouraging an organised campaign of law-breaking? When will the Government face up to their responsibilities and urgently introduce new legislation? The country wants to know now.

We brought forward a solution that was not acceptable to the House—[Interruption.] Will the hon. Gentleman listen to my answer as I listened to his question? He knows that we made it clear that we would be prepared to consider solutions that fall short of total deregulation if those solutions were coherent and workable. Before the hon. Gentleman again speaks in the terms that he did, he might send to me, on however many sides of a piece of paper he chooses, what he thinks the answer is. The Labour party, which is in the pocket of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers Union, has always known what it is against, but it has never known what it is in favour of.

My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that Conservative Members—[Interruption.]

Order. We often have to listen to things with which we are unhappy. We must listen to each other.

My hon. and learned Friend will need no reassurance from me that Conservative Members will not defend people who break the law. Given the comments of the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) about the events in his constituency, does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the current law is not only totally outdated but is losing the respect of many retailers who wish to open on Sunday and millions of people who shop on Sundays and expect to have the right to do so in a free and civilised country? Will my hon. and learned Friend assure the House——

The sad fact is that the schedule to the Act contains a list of prohibited items that do not reflect the stock held by any shop. Therefore, it is almost impossible to think of any shop that is open on a Sunday and is trading lawfully. That is why I repeat that it is difficult not to sympathise with those who are trying to struggle with the question whether to enforce the law and what the law is when the law has not been modernised for 50 years.

Order. If the hon. Gentleman will look at the Order Paper, he will realise that there is another question on this matter. He must not seek to be selfish and try to get in every time.