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Christmas Day Working

Volume 401: debated on Thursday 20 March 2003

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What steps she is taking to improve protection for employees against retail employers who force their staff to work on Christmas day. [103888]

The Government wish to maintain the special nature of Christmas day. I expect to launch a consultation on possible new regulation of opening by large stores a little later this year.

I thank the Minister for his reply and I welcome his announcement about a consultation. However, does he agree that it cannot be right that there are no trading restrictions on Christmas day when it falls on any day other than a Sunday? It cannot be right that shop workers have to rely on the goodwill of their employers. Surely the only real protection for shop workers is legislation.

It is an anomaly that the terms of the Sunday Trading Act 1994 protect shop workers and others working in the retail sector when Christmas day falls on a Sunday. The basis of that Act was that Sunday is a special day, and everyone agrees that Christmas day is also a special day. We are minded to introduce legislation. Our view is that we need to consult fully beforehand, but we feel that the time to legislate is when there is not a problem. All the retailers say, "We have no wish to open on a Sunday, but if any of our competitors do, we will." It is important to act before we get on to that slippery slope.

Notwithstanding the fact that many people, myself included, agree with the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) that it seems both unfair and mean-spirited to coerce people into working on Christmas day when they would otherwise not choose to do so, does the Minister accept that when contemplating legislation, it is essential to be sure that legislation and regulation are necessary, and that the form that they take is proportionate to the size of the problem and the level of the protest about it?

I fully accept that. My right hon Friend the Secretary of State wrote to retailers last year to see whether there was an alternative to regulation. If there was an agreement between the major retailers, none of whom was interested in opening on Christmas day, that would probably breach fair trading rules, so that option has been ruled out. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. If there were any sensible alternatives to regulation, we would pursue them. My view at present—that is the reason for the consultation document—is that there is no alternative, and it will be beneficial regulation, not least because many retailers have said to us, "Look, we agree with you, but either put up or shut up. We will open if our competitors open, and the best way you can deal with this", many retailers tell us, "is through regulation."