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Sunday Trading

Volume 202: debated on Thursday 23 January 1992

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4.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a further statement on the operation of the Sunday trading laws.

It remains uncertain whether the Sunday trading provisions of the Shops Act 1950 continue to form part of our law. But as my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General explained in answer to a private notice question from my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) on 27 November 1991, those provisions are not therefore suspended. Parliament has placed the primary responsibility for their enforcement on local authorities and it is for them to decide their own course of action.

For our part, we intend to bring forward proposals for reform of the Sunday trading law once the legal position is clear.

Does the Minister recall telling the House that the four criteria for the reform of Sunday trading were that it should be practicable, enforceable, and acceptable to the country and that it should command the support of the House? Yesterday the ten-minute Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) was overwhelmingly given its First Reading with a majority of 200, with all-party support. Does not the Minister think that it is time to ensure that that Bill is put on the statute book to safeguard what Churchill once described as the greatest of British institutions?

I understand the anxiety of the House about the state of Sunday trading. I read the ten-minute Bill yesterday. I apologise for not being on the Front Bench for the debate. The result was interesting and certainly one which I shall study carefully. However, it would be foolish to introduce legislation before we know the outcome of the European Court of Justice declaration.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Government's position puts all the responsibility as to whether to prosecute on local authorities? Many authorities find that enormously expensive. Are the Government prepared to put up money to assist local authorities if they decide to prosecute in the interests of what they believe ought to be the law, and in fact is the law?

It has never been the case that central Government would indemnify local authorities for expenditure when they are already given money through the revenue support grant to enable them to undertake their responsibilities, and that is not a way forward. Nevertheless, local authorities may enforce the law as it stands.

Is not the Minister passing the buck? There is widespread concern and strong opinion throughout the country that the Government are handling this issue most inappropriately. When will the Government take decisive action and end the hell of a mess in that section of industry?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration, but it is not so easy as Opposition Members keep asserting. If legislation were introduced at this point it is possible that it would fall foul of the decision by the European Court of Justice and thus be impracticable and a waste of public funds.

While accepting that the tremendous European complication about this cannot just be wished away, will my right hon. Friend take note of yesterday's vote and appreciate that a significant number of Conservative Members voted for that Bill. A factor for some of us in so doing was the fact that we have been saddened and sickened at the supermarkets' attitudes in exploiting the European difficulty. When studying possible reforms and changes in the law, will she consider that the decision to open on Sunday is taken not by local supermarket managers but nationally by their boards, and that if there is any change in the law they should be the ones to be prosecuted?

The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), was on the Front Bench yesterday and has reported to me the content of the ten-minute Bill and the vote. I fully understand the considerable cross-party support for what was said in the ten-minute Bill, but it is important that we wait a few months to see where the European Court comes down. It will not take long and the Government will then be able to take all those factors into account. One would hope that major retailers will be clear in their minds about their activities and the consequences that may accrue.

How many of the major companies that broke the law at Christmas and were not prosecuted are contributors to Conservative party funds?

The last time I debated Sunday trading with the hon. Gentleman, he made the perfectly ludicrous suggestion that his party would have a conference on the matter—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer!"] It does not seem to me that there is any need for me to answer his silly question on the subject.