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Clause 1

Volume 405: debated on Friday 16 May 2003

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Sunday Working: Shop And Betting Workers In Scotland

9.36 am

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 14, at end insert—

'( ) at the end of subsection (1) add "; and in Scotland "shop workers" include estate agents and travel agents."'.
The amendment would clarify and slightly extend the definition of "shop worker". I have had legal advice to the effect that the legislation as it currently stands can be construed not to include travel agents and estate agents. I know from a conversation that I had yesterday with the promoter of this excellent Bill, which we all hope will be passed, that he believes that travel agents are covered, but, as I said, I have received advice stating that that is a grey area, so it would be useful to clarify it. Adding travel agents would clarify the position and ensure that any unscrupulous owners of travel agencies would not be able to force their staff to open on Sundays.

I understand that the position regarding estate agents is clear, as they are not currently included in the definition of "shop worker". Like any group of workers in shops, they need the protection that the Bill would afford them in Scotland. On visiting any high street on a Sunday, one will find that many estate agents are open. On Sunday mornings, my family and I go to church in Leighton Buzzard in my constituency. A number of estate agents are located next to the church; they are open on Sunday mornings and people go into their premises. The right of those estate agents to open would certainly continue and people would certainly have the right to go into an estate agency and pursue their business there, as well as to look at houses if they choose to do so. However, the amendment would give those who work in estate agencies a right allowing them not to be forced to work on a Sunday.

I think that such a measure would take matters forward. Essentially, the Bill amends very slightly the Employment Rights Act 1996. I think that this is an opportunity for workers in Scotland to take the situation forward and perhaps improve matters there to a position slightly better than that in England and Wales. A general point can be made about that: why should Scotland come up only to the level of protection that exists in England and Wales? All that the Bill does is amend legislation that this House passed in 1996, but the world has moved on since then. I imagine that hon. Members felt in 1996 that only people in shops were forced to work on Sundays, as general commercial and industrial activity did not take place on that day.

My worry about the Bill in general, and the reason for tabling the amendment, is that times have changed and that pressure is applied to more and more workers in all sectors of the economy to work on Sundays. We need to recognise that, and the measure gives us an opportunity to make progress on the matter in Scotland. I hope that, in due course, we could extend the additional rights for Scottish workers to those in the rest of the United Kingdom. I am therefore pleased to move the amendment.

I pay tribute to the campaigning activity of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). We have held many discussions on the subject and he believes passionately that, in our busy modern world, space must be carved out for families, for the sake of the children, and that, if necessary, statute must enable families to spend time together as the pressures of commercialisation crowd in. He knows that I have enormous sympathy with that view. He has attempted to raise the matter in almost every measure that has come supported before the House. Indeed, his attempt to do that in the Local Government Bill, which applies to England and Wales and is now in another place. His track record is well established and the amendment reflects his sincerely held belief. It was tabled with the intention of improving the Bill, widening its scope and bringing more people into its ambit. I do not cavil about the intention.

However, I have some reservations, which I shall explain so that the hon. Gentleman understands why I hope that he will not press the amendment. First, the Bill's underlying principle is harmonisation of the law in Scotland with that in England and Wales. Such a law also applies in Northern Ireland, albeit through a separate legislative route. The consultation took place and responses were made on that basis we may hear more about that when we discuss the next group of amendments. I presented the measure on Second Reading on that basis, and it was consequently not amended in Committee.

Throughout the Bill's passage, there was general agreement that we were trying to harmonise legislation. In Committee, I quoted the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who said on Second Reading that
"one of the reasons why the Bill has an excellent chance of succeeding is that it is a classic private Member's Bill—it is modest in scope, identifies a real problem and sets out in a succinct and uncontroversial way to solve that problem".—[Official Report, 7 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 572.]
The shadow Leader of the House acknowledged that the Bill, with its modest scope, succinct nature and lack of controversy was the right way in which to proceed. On that basis, it has not encountered any difficulties so far.

If we breached the principle of harmonisation, we would run into difficulties with those who have given the Bill a fair wind hitherto. Although the amendment would be a good cause in which to breach the principle, I urge the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire not to take that route.

I do not want to put words into the hon. Gentleman's mouth, but he may believe that current legislation in England and Wales is not entirely adequate and that it does not achieve what we hoped and what was intended when the Sunday Trading Act 1994 was passed. He may be right. I have spoken to employers and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and there is some disquiet about the way in which the law functions in England and Wales. Perhaps we should deal with that. The Department of Trade and Industry is conducting a review of employment rights and perhaps the hon. Gentleman could input some of his reservations. However, I do not believe that we can tackle the matter by amending the Bill. Once the measure has been passed, perhaps we could go back to the trade unions together and remind them that the Employment Rights Act 1996 is applicable and that they should ensure that all workers in the sector are aware of their rights. Perhaps that has been forgotten. I would be happy to join the him in such an endeavour.

9.45 am

Secondly, there is some dispute about the necessity for the amendment. When I spoke to the hon. Gentleman yesterday about the 1996 Act, I was clear that it covered travel agents, who are in the retail sector. I was not sure about estate agents, who appear to operate in a grey area between the retail and service sectors. Estate agents do not sell houses; people sell each other houses. Estate agents provide a service in the middle. In my constituency, places that resemble estate agents do not even provide such a service; they are simply mortgage brokers' premises. Mortgage brokers also work from shops. Would the amendment cover them if we begin to specify too much?

After my conversation with the hon. Gentleman, which he recalled earlier, I checked again with the Department of Trade and Industry. It is the Department's understanding that the 1996 Act covers estate agents and travel agents. That has never been challenged, although he may claim that that would not happen because it contains no specific safeguards for those individuals. He may be right but no attempt has been made to prove that current legislation does not apply to estate agents.

Thirdly, if the amendment were accepted, it could inadvertently create problems for England and Wales. If the law in Scotland specifically mentions estate agents arid travel agents, unscrupulous owners of estate agents and travel agencies in England and Wales could claim that the law did not cover them because we had explicitly included them in the law that applied to Scotland. Although it is generally understood that estate agents and travel agents are currently covered in England and Wales, the amendment, by explicitly mentioning them, could inadvertently create a problem. Someone could mount a legal challenge on the basis that the inclusion of estate agents and travel agents is merely implicit in the law that applies to England and Wales.

For those reasons—the general principle and the implications of the amendment—I regret that I am not in a position to accept it, although it is well intentioned. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it.

I confirm the interpretation of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) in his response to amendment No. 3. There is no obvious reason why existing definitions do not cover estate agents and travel agents. They could therefore opt out of Sunday working if they chose. The protections have been in place in England and Wales for seven years and we are aware of no challenge. In the light of that, I hope that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will take my hon. Friend's advice and withdraw the amendment.

I am especially grateful for the Under-Secretary's remarks. If there were any doubt about the law, I hope that her words from the Dispatch Box will clarify matters. Owners of estate agents and travel agencies will be clear that they are covered by legislation in England and Wales and that that will soon apply in Scotland.

I shall not press the amendment. I told the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) that I would prefer to secure some advance in protecting workers' rights to a shared day off with their families to build sustainable relationships. It is important to have some advance, although, as I said earlier, many groups of workers are not covered. The House may recall that I mentioned on Second Reading the case of a worker who lost his job in January this year, because he was unwilling to work regularly on a Sunday. That shows that the issue is real.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde for his kind words and I graciously accept his offer to examine the matter again together once we have secured the safe passage of the Bill. He will agree that the world has moved on considerably in the seven years since 1996. If the Minister can provide more information about the Government's intentions on the broader issues of Sunday trading, I would be interested to hear it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.