[Relevant documents: written evidence to the Petitions Committee, on the closure of retail stores on Boxing day, reported to the House on 6 December, and comments submitted to the Petitions Committee online forum on Boxing day shopping.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 168524 relating to the closure of retail stores on Boxing Day.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I confess that, being a bit long in the tooth, I can remember when Boxing day closure was the norm; it was a bank holiday, and nobody thought of doing anything other than closing. Certainly all big stores were closed, and people stayed at home with their family. In fact, I am old enough to remember when the new year sales actually began in the new year, after 1 January. People stayed at home, and if they wanted to go to the sales, they went later on—and here’s the thing: nobody starved to death. The world did not run out of cheap televisions. Nor did the country run out of supplies of winter coats and boots at reduced prices.
When I first realised that people were shopping on Boxing day, I would look at people going to the supermarket, and the queues, and would think, “For heaven’s sake, get a life.” However, I have moved from indifference to anger, because all the evidence shows that poorly paid retail workers are being exploited to fuel a national obsession—a debt-fuelled shopping binge that, in the end, does no one any real good. As my family will tell you, Mrs Moon, I can shop with the best of them, but if my shopping on Boxing day is done at the expense of some of the lowest paid workers in the community, something has to give way.
I should declare an interest, because I am a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, although it is quite a long time since I worked in a shop. When I did, I learned two important things. First, the job is physically exhausting, because workers are on their feet most of the day—and in my day, we worked only 9 till 5. Secondly, shop workers need inexhaustible reserves of patience and self-restraint to deal with the rude, demanding and frequently abusive customers that they have to put up with. Of course, that gets worse in the run-up to Christmas, which is why my union runs its “Keep your cool at Christmas” campaign before the Christmas rush, but for shop workers and those who work in warehouses and distribution—it is not only those on the shop floor who are affected—there is no respite.
The responses to our online consultation were interesting and overwhelming. We had nearly 6,000 responses. Many told us that they were not allowed to take holiday in December. One person working in distribution said that they could not take holiday in November or December. Indeed, in one case, people were not allowed to take holiday from October onwards. That means that people in the sector arrive at Christmas very tired. They now often work late on Christmas eve to prepare for Boxing day. In fact, we heard of one person working until midnight on Christmas eve. They arrive home to their families exhausted, long after the rest of us have begun our celebrations, and are then expected to be in work again on Boxing day.
As we know, Christmas day can be a very nice day, but it is not necessarily very relaxing. It is not relaxing for people with young children who are up as early as possible, or for people who have to cook the Christmas dinner, so many of us—including me—say that Boxing day is our day of rest. That choice is not available to many people in retail—if, indeed, they get Christmas day off. There are constant suggestions that some people are called in on Christmas day to keep preparing for the sales. The British Retail Consortium has said that large retailers are not allowed to open on Christmas day. We know that; it is a prime example of answering a question that was not asked. It also says that most preparation for Boxing day is done by Christmas eve, and that people working on Christmas day is not a problem. I am afraid that it is a problem; it keeps being reported as a problem, and I do not believe that the people who report it are lying to us.
If people get Christmas day off, they often find that they are unable to enjoy it fully, because they must be in work again on Boxing day; many people are expected to be in work by 7 o’clock. There is little public transport, so there are stories of people having to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning to get to work. The Minister shakes her head, but those testimonies were given to us online in our consultation.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful speech that rings true in the light of the many testimonies that I have seen and heard. Christmas is special because people who might not normally be able to spend time with family can do so. Is it not another issue that many people who work in retail do not have the option of travelling to see their family, because now they must travel so early on Boxing day to make it back in time for the sales?
My hon. Friend is right. We have heard from people who work from 7 am to 6 pm on Boxing day. We heard from one lady who has to stay in work until 10 o’clock. People are at work not just when the shops are open; they do the restocking afterwards as well. So that lady has to get her partner to come and get her late at night, bringing with him their two small children—there is no one else to mind them—because she cannot afford taxis. Retail wages do not stretch to taxis at the best of times, and certainly not at Boxing day premium rates.
My hon. Friend is indeed making a powerful speech. She has talked about families, and I know of families where both partners work in retail and have young children; they have extreme difficulty in getting childcare on Boxing day, because, obviously, childminders also want a break at that time.
My hon. Friend is right. We heard from a number of people whose relatives have to look after their children on Boxing day because no childcare is available.
We heard from one lady who described her “nightmare” journey to work. She works in London, but there are no trains from where she lives on Boxing day. She has to get three different buses to work. It takes her a long time. However, she told us that some of her colleagues cannot get home to see their families outside London over Christmas, because they finish too late on Christmas eve and have to get back too early on Boxing day. She described herself as one of the lucky ones. Some luck, I would say.
For all that, many people in the sector now receive no extra pay. It is true, to be fair, that a few people in an online consultation with MoneySavingExpert.com said that they rely on their extra pay on Boxing day to pay for Christmas. I understand that. My answer would be that they should be paid a proper rate of pay throughout the year. Those people are unusual; most companies no longer pay premium rates. They have disappeared, just as the premium rates for Sundays did. The House may remember that we were promised, when Sunday trading was introduced, that people would not have to work on Sundays if they did not want to, and would be paid extra for doing so, but that arrangement disappeared as new people came in, and there were new contracts requiring them to work Sundays and holidays. If they did not sign up for that, they did not get the job. That is how it is for Boxing day as well. It is clear from talking to people in the sector that they can be required to work; an employer has a right to require people to work if it is in their contract, or if it is the usual practice in the industry—and working on Boxing day is increasingly becoming the usual practice. One person said to us, “I don’t get the choice of whether I want to work or not.”
We have been told over and over that people who are sick on Boxing day face disciplinary action, and that a refusal to work means instant dismissal. The worst case we heard of was of a woman who had her drink spiked on Christmas. She was ill and unable to work on Boxing day, and was therefore dismissed. The Government might want to reflect on how difficult it is for those who have the right not to work on Boxing day to enforce that right, given that the Government have extended the time that people have to be employed for before they can claim for unfair dismissal, and have hugely increased employment tribunal fees. Low-paid workers, many of whom are not in unionised workplaces, have very little chance of enforcing their right not to work.
I am hugely enjoying the hon. Lady’s speech; she is making a powerful case. Some 181 people in Kettering signed the petition. The Library briefing for the debate says:
“Under the relevant legislation…workers do not have a statutory entitlement to time off on Bank Holidays”,
which includes Boxing day. I am not saying whether that is right or wrong, but is it the hon. Lady’s wish that employees be statutorily entitled to have Boxing day off?
I think the hon. Gentleman is right about the law as it stands; if he will forgive me, I will come to that in a moment.
Retailers say that Boxing day trading is important to them. The British Retail Consortium declined to give written evidence to my Committee before the debate, but in the past it has said that last year’s sales were up 0.7% on the year before. However, it is important to remember that those sales did not reach the December peak, which last year was on 23 December, or the November peak, which last year was on the day after that appalling American import, Black Friday.
The director of retail intelligence at Ipsos Retail Performance said:
“Boxing Day has grown in significance as a shopping day over the last 5 years, as increasingly more retailers have started their Sales immediately after Christmas.”
I say two things to that: first, sales are on now, as anybody who has looked around knows; secondly, I have not seen any evidence that Boxing day opening generates more trade, rather than moving it about between days. If retailers were closed on Boxing day, there might well be more trade on 27 December—or, more likely, the Saturday following Christmas, when most people are off work.
However, we have had evidence that some stores may not even be that busy; I accept that some are, but some are certainly not. One store manager told us that his store was less busy than on a usual Sunday. Other people working in retail have told me that they are not busy, and that they do not accept returns on Boxing day because that would make the sales figures look worse. There are differences across the sector, and it seems that many shops open simply because others do; staff and store managers in my constituency say that that is often the case. As someone said in our consultation, retailers are great followers. Many in the sector would like Boxing day to be treated like Christmas day and Easter Sunday, when large stores cannot open. In fact, 92% of respondents to an USDAW consultation did not want to work on Boxing day, but 78% felt that they were pressured to.
The opening of the stores has a price for our communities, for families and for individuals; nothing in life is for free. If more shops open on Boxing day, there needs to be more of other services, such as waste collection; emergency services must be on duty; and there is more pressure on transport to run as normal. There is a spiral effect when more and more people are made to work the bank holiday. As I said, there is a price for families. People lose the time with their children or their parents, and other members of the family are very often pressed into service looking after children, meaning that they cannot make plans for the day. The real impact is on the poorly paid retail workers and their families, and from the comments that we have received, it is clear that most people would rather have that day off.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I will put on the record another thing that, like childcare, is not generally available on Boxing day: the usual support for those whose family members require care. There is testimony from retail workers who are in the difficult position of both having to care for their family and being forced to go to work or ultimately risk not being able to bring the bread home.
My hon. Friend is right. That is an example of the pressures that those retail workers come under, many of whom are women and have caring or childcare responsibilities. I doubt that much would change if store openings began on 27 December. As one of the contributors to the consultation said about stores, “They will make their money back, but we will never get our time back.”
What is the purpose of all this? Does anyone actually gain? As another person said to us in the consultation, “I should like to think that the keen shoppers of the UK could wait one more day to grab a juicy bargain”—or, as staff call it, stock that has been gathering dust in the stockroom since 1993. Another person said, “Isn’t seven-day trading and numerous late nights enough?” I think it is.
I am even more impressed by the hon. Lady’s speech as it goes on; she is making an extremely powerful case. However supportive I might be of her argument, one of the difficulties is that if people cannot physically go to a high street or out-of-town shop, they will shop online on Christmas day or Boxing day. That will ultimately take business away from the very shop workers whose livelihoods we are seeking to protect.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. My view is that, if people are going to shop online rather than go to the shops, they are going to do that anyway. For instance, it was put to me that many people receive vouchers for Christmas, particularly children, and that they enjoy spending them. Yes, they do, and I suspect they would enjoy spending them just as much on 27 December.
We need to find a balance. If my right to shop is being exercised at the expense of some of the poorest-paid people in our community, their time with their family should take precedence. It is a question of what kind of society we want. Do we want a society in which people are able to spend time with their family—their children or parents—or maybe even invite in an elderly neighbour who is on their own, or do we want a society that is a free-for-all, and in which the weakest go to the wall?
Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the responses to the consultations have been heartbreaking? For most of us, Christmas is about the memories that we have had over the years with our family and friends. I will read a response to the USDAW consultation from a man who says he has to work the nights between 23 and 24 December, 24 and 25 December, and 26 and 27 December. He has limited time with his wife and 10-month-old son, and is majorly fatigued due to the hours he spends working. He said:
“I'm unable to enjoy our festive time together. I will never forget losing my son's first Xmas.”
My hon. Friend is right. A lot of the testimony is heartbreaking. I come at this from this direction: if I deserve time with my family over Christmas, other people do, too.
Of course, there are exceptions. A number of workers in the emergency services—nurses, paramedics and police—have responded to our consultation, and they all accept that they may have to work on Boxing day because it is a matter of life and death. Shopping is not. Politicians are often quick to jump in if they think Christmas is being downgraded. People respond to spurious stories about Christmas being renamed; they say, quite rightly, that they do not want to see a Christian festival downgraded. Here is the news: it has been already. Contrary to what we might think, Christmas does not begin the day after bonfire night, or whenever the commercial frenzy sets off. It begins on the 25th. The 26th is the second day of Christmas—St. Stephen’s day. Boxing day is originally when servants were given their presents and time off. It is coming to something when in 21st-century Britain, we cannot give people the rights that indentured servants had hundreds of years ago. The situation could be vastly improved by a simple amendment to legislation to put Boxing day on the same footing as Christmas day and Easter Sunday, when large stores cannot open. We could do that.
The Prime Minister says that she wants a country that works for everyone. I have to say that it is not working for the retail trade at the moment. She also said quite recently:
“our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 1515.]
I agree. That heritage has shaped our country and how it works. That is why I get Christmas cards from my Jewish colleagues, my Muslim colleagues and people of no faith at all. They recognise the importance of Christmas. If, as I have heard many people say, we want to preserve this country’s Christian heritage, we should preserve it and give people some time off at Christmas. Good King Wenceslas did not look out and see the queue for the next sale. As someone said in response to our consultation —forgive me for the language—“Christmas is about spending time with your family, not sodding shops!” I could not agree more.
It is about time we did something about this. In the end, a civilised society is judged by how it treats not the most powerful people in it, but those without power. Boxing day and bank holidays were introduced to ensure that workers got time off. We have moved away from that. We could at least move back a little bit by ensuring that large retail stores had to close on Boxing day.
I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend, because she is making a brilliant speech. Who has less power in this world than children? It means everything to them to spend Christmas with their family. One retail worker said in testimony:
“I’ve got a little girl and these early years are such a magical time for her. I feel that I miss out on her enthusiasm and wonder by having to work over Christmas.”
That says it all.
It does. We hear much from the Government about supporting families and the family being very important. We show how important it is by our deeds, not just by words. It is time we gave these lowest paid workers the right that we all take for granted—the right to have a day off on Boxing day.
Thank you for calling me, Mrs Moon. In truth, I had not intended to speak, but I was so moved by the powerful speech made by the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) that I felt inclined to do so on behalf of my 181 constituents who signed the petition.
I find myself in the awkward position of seeing both sides of the argument. My instinctive sympathy is for retail workers who are forced to work on Boxing day, when they feel they should not have to do so. I feel for them, as I would anyone who was forced to work on Christmas day, which of course has statutory protection. My solution to this dilemma is for the Government to enact the relevant legislation, such that it would not be compulsory for retail workers to work on Boxing day if they did not wish to do so. I do not see why that would be difficult for the Government to do. There would be retail workers who were prepared to work on Boxing day if they had, to their mind, the requisite recompense to do so.
The reason I come to that compromise is that we now live, rightly or wrongly, in the age of the internet. Whether physical shops are open or closed on whatever day of the week, internet shopping will always be available. The bald, bold truth is that many retail workers will have signed this petition who will themselves go online on Boxing day to shop for items they want. While that is a digital choice, at the end of the day that digital request goes through to a warehouse—perhaps one of the warehouses in Kettering—where an employee is given an instruction to get that item from a shelf and put it on a pallet to go into a lorry for delivery to that consumer.
We are talking today—I recognise that it is with the best of intentions—about retail workers in physical shops on the high street or in our retail parks. However, they are in competition with real human beings who are employed in warehouses to respond to digital requests for consumer goods. Those digital requests are being posted online 24/7. People are shopping on the internet at times when you and I, Mrs Moon, may not think about shopping. Those retail requests go through to employees in warehouses who physically have to get those items off shelves and put them on pallets to go into lorries. The difficulty that I have—I am sure other Members have the same difficulty, if they are really honest about it—in responding to this petition is that we have to make a choice between retail workers on our local high street and employees in our local warehouses. It is a difficult choice that we, as parliamentarians, have to be honest about.
A fair compromise would be for the Government to say that no one should be required to work on Boxing day. That would give an element of statutory protection, recognising that Boxing day is the day after Christmas and has special meaning in our country. As the hon. Lady said, it goes back to giving servants boxes to thank them for their service over the previous year. We would then recognise the contribution that retail employees make and say to them that they do not have to work on Boxing day if they do not want to. There would be no downside for them—no loss of pay, pension or holiday entitlement—if they decided they did not want to work on Boxing day, but someone who wanted to would have every right to do so.
I see where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but does he not recognise that, even with the right he suggests, many low-paid workers in this sector are and would be pressured into giving up their Boxing day? There is little to prevent that because, with low-paid workers often in non-unionised workplaces, there is not an equal balance of power here.
The hon. Lady, following on from her good-natured speech, makes a characteristically powerful point. I recognise that, but the brutal, honest, bald, bold truth is that if we said that shops were not allowed to open on Boxing day, millions of our fellow citizens would shop online. Instead of talking about human beings in high street shops, we would be talking about more of our fellow human beings in our local warehouses responding to people shopping online. That is the reality.
I am very sympathetic indeed to the hon. Lady’s cause. I voted against extending shop opening hours during the Olympics, and I voted against liberalising Sunday trading, but I recognise that I am probably on the wrong side of history in this debate because of the influence of internet shopping. I am trying to be honest with the hon. Lady and the Chamber. Ultimately, we are here to represent the citizens in our communities. Some of those citizens will work very hard in our local high street shops and some will work very hard in a local warehouse, especially in Kettering, just down road responding to digital requests. If I supported the thrust of the debate and said we should ban retail sales on Boxing day, I would be saying that that local high street employees were not allowed to work on Boxing day, but employees in the warehouse down the road could work and would be working harder, because they would be responding to online digital requests from our fellow citizens who decided to shop on Christmas day and Boxing day.
Do I think there should be 24/7 shopping? No, I do not. Do I think we should recognise what is left of our Christian heritage? Yes, I do. Do I think this request for a special exemption for Boxing day is religiously driven? No, I do not. I think that whatever Christian meaning there was in Boxing day has probably long departed us, unfortunately. Do I recognise there is still a religious and cultural significance to Christmas in our country? Absolutely, I do.
That is why I suggest what I hope is a reasonable compromise: employees should not be required to work on Boxing day and there would be no redress against them if they decided not to do so. I recognise absolutely what the hon. Lady is saying about hidden pressures, or sometimes overt pressures, on employees who do not wish to work on Boxing day, but I hope Her Majesty’s Government could establish a system that was fair enough and understood by enough people for it to be accepted in this country that if people did not want to work on Boxing day, that would be fine.
That would probably mean that employees who wanted to work on Boxing day would have to be paid more. In many ways that is not a bad thing, but it would have to be accepted by employees who chose not to work on Boxing day that they would not be entitled to that double or triple pay. They would have to make a choice. If we are honest, many employees who do not want to work on Boxing day now might want to if they were offered double or triple time. I am not saying that is a satisfactory choice. I am just saying it is probably a realistic one that would result from such a system.
With that compromise, I think we would end up with a smaller number of people who were dissatisfied and a larger number who were happy to accept the end result. I cannot see any other way of solving the problem and cracking the nut. That is difficult because we now live in an online world. If we were having this debate 20 years ago, I would have agreed absolutely with the hon. Lady that retail shopping on Boxing day should be banned, but in 2016-17 it is almost impossible to do that because of the internet. I do not like it; I am not advocating it. I am just saying that is the way it is.
My solution and my humble petition to the Chamber in response to this excellent petition signed by so many people is that Her Majesty’s Government should make a sensible compromise and tell retail workers they do not have to work on Boxing day if they do not want to, but if they do, they have every right to do so.
I apologise for not submitting my name to the list of speakers, Mrs Moon. Like the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), I felt compelled to speak because of the way the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) spoke and introduced the petition. Having listened to the hon. Gentleman, I do not believe I can sum up what he said more succinctly or eloquently, although I will try.
I agree with the overall outcome of the hon. Gentleman’s synopsis. I say that with great respect to the hon. Lady, who led on the petition. I agree with almost every word she spoke, save in two respects. I have no view either for or against Black Friday, which is not something that exercises me to any great degree. However, in politics, we want to achieve the art of the possible: the hon. Lady’s speech was strongly couched in terms of providing safeguards and protections for workers who need them most, and the solution suggested by the hon. Gentleman is, to my mind, the most pragmatically workable outcome.
I am not old enough, regrettably, to remember the new year sales when they were new year sales, but I remember that stores in Belfast such as Gilmore’s Electrical and Sam’s Yer Man on Holywood Road had people camping out on Boxing day for opening day on the 27th. They did so because the first television was half price and the second had 30% off, and so on. The person at the front of the queue got the best deal.
The thing about Boxing day opening was that folk were not preparing to purchase on Boxing day; they were leaving their homes and their Christmas meal to make sure they were at the front of the queue on Boxing day. We should forget about Christmastide and the religiosity we attach to Boxing day, or the feast of St Stephen, as people disrupted Christmas day to secure the best deal. For me, that quest for a saving was a tragedy for family and community life. Whatever motivates someone to secure that saving, whether it is because they really need it or cannot afford the normal cost, leaving what should be and remains a special day in this country—Christmas day—disrupting it and not spending time with family, friends and close loved ones simply for a retail experience is a great shame.
With that in mind, it would be useful if the Government considered how best to protect those who feel compelled to work, perhaps because they are on zero-hours contracts and feel that if they do not work on Boxing day they will be shut out of employment opportunities, and how best to send a message that if people worked on a Sunday or on what is considered and provided for legislatively as a special day, there would be an economic inducement and double or triple time would be available.
I remember the change in Northern Ireland when large stores opened from 1 to 6 on Sundays and staff who chose to work greatly appreciated the additional recompense. They factored it into their overall household income and knew they would be able to provide more for their family. That opportunity is not currently afforded to them on Boxing day. I would like choice to be injected into the retail sector, and if folk have to work there should be financial benefit for doing so.
Another restriction of the petition is that it focuses solely on retail. The hon. Member for Warrington North referred to emergency services, and I believe that there is a sub-category, not only through vocation but because of the risk of death and injury and the unbelievable work that those workers in the emergency services do.
Another key sector that we should consider is hospitality. Those in the sector will not just be thinking about going to work on Boxing day; they will be working on Christmas day, because many people set aside doing the nitty-gritty, hard work of cooking a Christmas meal themselves. They go to a hotel, their local pub or a bar and restaurant and they expect staff to be there to serve them on Christmas day. Many people in the hospitality sector work incredibly hard, but at this time of year, with Christmas parties happening right the way through December, they work even harder. As a group of staff, they will not get the chance to celebrate together until February or March; on Christmas day they will be expected to work. Whether people are generous with tips is one thing, but the issue for us is whether the Government are prepared to ensure that workers in that situation are given protection, and given choice and options. I think that that would be the greatest outcome of this petition debate. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to provide, if not comfort today, then a pathway to how we, as representatives of our people, can ensure that those workers who request, need and deserve rights and protections are afforded that.
I apologise for coming in late, Mrs Moon; my meeting overran. I did want to be here at the beginning of the debate and I appreciate your giving me the chance to speak.
Retail is in my blood. I was in it for nearly 20 years. I started off at Greggs bakery at the age of 16, worked my way up, and worked for many major and small retailers, so I was one of the low-paid workers that hon. Members have been talking about, and I have to say that I disagree with what the petition is about. I have worked Boxing days and new year’s days. I have worked over the Easter period and on Good Friday. When you go into retail, that is expected. Times have changed. I agree with what some hon. Members have said: what about the other industries? I was also a performer and singer and used to work Christmas eves and Christmas days with my pianist, singing and entertaining people in restaurants. I did that because I wanted to make ends meet. To me, it was part of the lifestyle that I had chosen and it was my choice. When I worked on those Boxing days and new year’s days—
Sorry, not at the moment; I will come back to you. So many times when I was working on those Boxing days, new year’s days and so on, colleagues who had the day off would come in and see us because they were out shopping with their families. You are talking about giving people time off, but I saw that a lot of my colleagues were out shopping anyway. Times have changed.
The retail sector has Christmas day and Easter Sunday off, but it is not just about the Christian side of things. We live in a multicultural society, so this is not about any particular religion, really. I would like to put forward the other view, which is that of retailers. Retail is in my blood, as I said. High street retailers have found things so hard over the last decade, because of the internet. I have seen so many businesses close down. I used to work for Comet. It had been around for more than 100 years. Look at what happened to Comet; look at what happened to Woolworths. I also used to work for Allsports. All of those went bust after decades.
Boxing day was the busiest day of the whole year for us in retail. I remember that in one Comet store, we took more than £100,000 in one day. Normally, on the busiest Saturday, we would be lucky if we took £15,000, so to me, we are biting the hand that feeds us. Retail is struggling. The high street is dwindling; the internet is killing the high street. More and more people are shopping online, and that is just an inevitable aspect of the internet; I am not saying anything against it. However, if Boxing day is the busiest day of the year and we stop the ability to trade on that day, what will happen to the job security of these low-paid workers?
That is because the hon. Lady did not come in for the beginning of the speech. It is rude for someone to try to intervene when they were not here for the beginning of the speech. The hon. Lady is wrong: Boxing day is not the busiest day of the year overall. It may well have been where she worked, but it simply is not—
No, sorry, I was talking to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), but thank you, Mrs Moon.
My point is that we need to provide this opportunity. I know so many students who would welcome the opportunity to work on Boxing day and new year’s day to earn extra money and, as has been said, what about hospitality workers or those who work in the NHS? Are we just going to ban anyone from working so that life completely stops on Boxing day? That is not realistic. To those who say that we should stop people working on Boxing day, I say that I do not want any more retailers to go out of business. I worked in retail for more than 20 years, and a large number of the workers whom I worked with in my 20-year career were happy to work on Boxing day. Not everyone is signing this petition, and look at how many people work in the retail industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the petitioners and the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on initiating the debate. It is a pleasure to be in the company of so many former retailers—and I was a retailer, too. I was thinking that my time in retail was such a long time ago until I started listening to the hon. Lady; all the memories came flooding back of those times and of the stresses at peak season, as we called it.
I should point out that I have been in not only physical, bricks-and-mortar retail, but internet retail. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I have a shareholding in teclan ltd.
Being in retail is incredibly tough. If my memories are as fresh as the experiences that we have heard about today, it is an extraordinarily demanding job, not just at Christmas, but all year round. I know that from people who are still experiencing the kinds of pressures that I did when I was in retail. I started off on the shop floor, part time, and worked my way up through the trainee management programme. The worst kind of job must be doing trainee management in retail, because people really have to do quite a lot as part of that.
We have heard stories about people being pressured to work all the time—not just at those times when people should be able to have time off legitimately, but throughout the working day. I am talking about people having meal breaks standing up because they do not have time to sit down to enjoy their breaks. There is also pressure in terms of pay versus hours. In many cases, the rates of pay are quite low, which is challenging. Where they are better, that is often negated by the fact that the hours that people are working for those fixed rates are longer than they would be required to work normally. Retail staff have to put up with a lot.
We are talking now about people working on Boxing day and Christmas eve. Often, when the shop is closing on Christmas eve, it is a hive of activity, getting things ready for Boxing day, and people work late into the night. From personal experience, I know that that could go on until the morning of Christmas day in some cases. I very much hope that that has changed for most people, but I know that it did happen in those days and am concerned that there are still those pressures out there today.
The hon. Member for Warrington North gave some clear examples of gross unfairness in the system and the pressures that people are put under, and particularly cases where people feel that their job is at risk because they have not complied with retailers’ requests to work. That is clearly unacceptable and should be considered unacceptable by everybody. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) was keen, and absolutely correct, to demonstrate that he has great empathy and sympathy with the people working under those conditions. He was also keen to show both sides; he brought in the issue of internet shopping and the pressures on the retailers and businesses to cope with that. He mentioned there being something of a conundrum with that issue.
Has the boat been missed? I contend that it has not, and that there is still a lot that can be done. I hope that we will hear more from the UK Government. I want to talk a bit about what is happening in Scotland, in order to challenge some perceptions about that. While I am talking about Scotland, may I pass on the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who was keen to take part in this debate but was unfortunately the victim of delayed travel arrangements? He apologises for not being here to those people who expected him to be.
The hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) perhaps missed the point about people going shopping if they are not working. It is about choice. It is about what someone chooses to do with their family on the day; it is up to them whether they decide to go shopping to spend time with their family, or to stay home. She talked about her experience with Woolworths, Comet and Allsports; I bet that many retailers are glad that she did not work for them, given that they all went bust.
Thank you, Mrs Moon, I will bear that in mind. May I say, for the record, that I did not intend to cast any aspersions? That was merely a bit of humour that I hoped to bring in. One thing that I do agree with the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood about is that Boxing day is part of the key trading season. I remember being involved in retail and know, from speaking to retailers, that it has not changed, and is still an important part of the mix. Although it may not be the most important day of the year, it is still part of the important season for them.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) brought up the spectre of Black Friday. I am so delighted that I never had to endure Black Friday. It looks like an absolute nightmare. He was right to talk about the quest for savings, because that brings us back to an earlier point: people have this desperation to go out and make a saving at that time of year, because they have been conditioned to do so by the sales process over many years. He was also correct to bring up the hospitality sector, in which a great many people have to work over the festive season, and they face quite challenging circumstances. Even though their arrangements can be changed, we should still think of them at this time of year.
I said that I want to talk about what is happening in Scotland. We should take into account that there is an opportunity here to look at different behaviours; the boat has not been missed if we can encourage retailers to act in a different way. It is not easy to ask them to change the drive for sales; I understand that, and as I said, I have been in that market. However, when organising Christmas rotas, employers should take account of the needs of employees with caring responsibilities—that should be a fundamental part of the job that they do—and of those with family far away, as well as other relevant personal circumstances, where possible, to ensure compassionate working practices.
If an entitlement to leave on Boxing day is agreed between an employer and an employee in a contract, that contract must be upheld. Employer flexibility should be part of ensuring that workers achieve the right work-life balance, which in the long run benefits the employer, the employee and the economy as a whole. Compassionate and fair employment practices, in which employers take reasonable steps to support the wellbeing of their employees, should be part of the foundation of any sustainable and inclusive economy. When employers are engaging on holiday rotas, especially over the Christmas period, all those personal requirements should be taken into account, and it should not cause someone disproportionate detriment to work on Boxing day.
The Scottish Government will shortly take forward a commission on a flexible job index for Scotland, to determine the availability of genuinely flexible jobs that meet the needs of people who want to work flexibly. The index will analyse the ratio of jobs advertised as being open to flexibility, breaking that down by city and region, by role type, by sector and by salary band. It will also seek to identify the demand for flexibility in Scotland and the proportion of people who need that flexibility. The index will be used as a key step to promoting flexi-recruitment and other working practices in the private sector. In 2017, the Scottish Government will pilot mentoring on flexi-recruitment issues for small and medium sized businesses, building on existing support services.
Employer investment in the wellbeing of the workforce will improve economic outcomes. This is proved time and again: when businesses look after the welfare of the employees who work for them, they become more productive, do better and often make more profit. We share the idea of the fair work convention that by 2025 people in Scotland will have a world-leading work life, with fair work driving success, wellbeing and prosperity for individuals, businesses, organisations and society. This vision challenges not only business but employers, unions and the third sector, and there are clear actions for Government. In Scotland, we fully endorse the convention’s framework and will work with it to embed its principles in workplaces across Scotland. We will continue to raise awareness among employers in the public, private and third sectors of the benefits of fair work, to promote the fair work framework and to champion fairer, better workplaces.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest. Things are always slightly different in Scotland—often for good reasons, but sometimes for not so good reasons. My understanding is that the Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004 prohibits large shops from opening on Christmas day. The petitioners say:
“If only everywhere could be closed boxing day!”
I think they would like to see a Boxing day trading Act prohibiting large shops from opening on Boxing day. Would the Scottish Government support that?
The petitioners are quite right to look to protect the rights of workers. We heard compelling words from the hon. Member for Warrington North about the pressures that the petitioners feel need to be addressed. I am of the opinion that holidays should be respected; for example, in Scotland, traditionally, on new year’s day, shops are closed. I am unsure how we could make that work across the business sector, for small businesses and large retailers, through legislation. I have described the moves by the Scottish Government to improve the working lives of workers across Scotland through a different approach to working with businesses and organisations. In Scotland, the proper living wage, which is higher than the living wage that the UK Government have stipulated, has been adopted by a great many businesses. Encouraging good behaviour by businesses, including retailers, can and does work when we can get the message of positive change across.
I have clearly given my own view: I see this as challenging. I do not think there has been a proposition from the Scottish Government on this issue, and I would not presume to speak for them, so I gave my own answer to the question.
The way forward needs to be innovative and to include a different approach from the Government. We should adopt a model whereby retailers in particular—but other businesses as well—are encouraged to act. I gave the example of the living wage being adopted at a much higher level in Scotland. The Scottish business pledge has been signed up to, and employers have been encouraged to provide much better working conditions for their employees. There is measurable evidence that when businesses adopt those practices—when they are more considerate towards their employees and introduce measures to improve the situation for employees—they see increased productivity, increased profit and better sustainability. Staff are more likely to be retained and to stick with those jobs, and to be able to achieve a more effective work-life balance. We are discussing Boxing day, but the core of the issue is surely not just one day in the year, no matter how important that day is, or how stressful people might find it to miss out on it. This must be about making working conditions better for people across the entire year, so that they can all benefit from a better work-life balance from the beginning of January through to the end of December.
This has been an excellent debate, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on making a comprehensive, passionate plea to support working people in the retail sector. That was supported by nearly everybody who spoke, and the contributions made by hon. Members around the Chamber were entirely consistent with what she said. The hon. Members for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) were entirely sympathetic, as were my hon. Friends the Members for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) in their interventions. The one discordant note came from the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), who frankly gave a description of retail that many workers in the retail sector would not recognise.
On Christmas day, my children will wake my wife and me early—we are still in that stage of family life. We will go and visit other family members, and we are lucky to be able to do so, but such a happy family scenario is not available to everybody in this country. As other hon. Members have mentioned, many workers in sectors beyond retail have to work over the festive period, for very good reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North said that shopping is not a matter of life and death, but for key workers in the NHS, the care sector and in our police and fire services, working is a matter of protecting life and sometimes dealing with death. Sadly, that includes on Christmas day and Boxing day. We can take this opportunity to thank everybody who works in the emergency services and the care sector for the contribution that they make every day of the year, and especially at the festive time, when most of us are able to take time to be with family and friends.
Many people have to work in the hospitality sector over Christmas, as has been mentioned, and it is right to recognise the realities for such people. There are also some in retail, in small shops, who work on Christmas day and sometimes Boxing day—typically shop owners. The Association of Convenience Stores has said that smaller shops tend not to want what it describes as “paid staff” working—staff who are not owners or family members—because of the costs. However, it recognises as part of that equation the desirability of paid staff—again, the ACS’s term, not time—being able to have time off to spend with their families.
That leaves us with the large stores. The successful USDAW campaign saw the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) become law in the Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004. At the time, the internet was not as advanced as it is now—I will come to some points made about online trading later. What happens to staff on Boxing day is increasingly a concern, and it has led to this petition, which has been signed by a very large number of people. The petition was the result of an increasing number of large retailers opening on Boxing day—and opening earlier and for longer.
As we have heard—I have heard this from constituents of mine—people are finishing later and later on Christmas eve. They still have to prepare for Boxing day, sometimes on Christmas eve, and sometimes on Christmas day itself. I heard a story about a major high street retail name that opens at 5 am on Boxing day, and staff have to be there at 3 am or 3.30 am. They have to travel—what time do they get up? Are some of them even starting on Christmas day? What kind of a Christmas is it for someone who knows they have to be at work at 3 am or 3.30 am on Boxing day? I cannot even begin to think what that must be like. However, that is where some large retailers are headed—that is the reality—and why there has been this petition. When we look at the consequences for family life, I think we can all understand and share people’s concerns—as everybody in the Chamber did, with one sad exception so far, although we have yet to hear from the Minister.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North, I am a very proud member of USDAW. Its survey said that 16% of workers say that they face working longer hours this year, 7% say the hours will be shorter and 77% say the number of hours will be much the same. The number of hours that staff are being asked to work is therefore increasing. We have heard about the impact of long hours in the run-up to Christmas and about the inability of most staff to take time off for a considerable time—time off that would enable them to recuperate—and about the impact on families, especially those with children. Parents who finish late on Christmas eve then have to come back and put the stockings together.
I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech hugely. We are all sympathetic to the plight of retail workers at Christmas time. I am not a member of USDAW, but my grandparents were small shopkeepers. To my mind—and in answer the petitioners who have gone to such efforts to draw this plight to our attention—the point is that the Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004 prohibits large shops from opening on Christmas day. Are Her Majesty’s Opposition in favour of a Boxing day trading Act, which would prohibit large shops from opening on Boxing day?
I am struggling to make progress, Mrs Moon, because I am being given all sorts of interesting suggestions.
My grandad told me that if people cannot afford to pay decent wages, they should not open a shop. That is a good piece of advice about being a responsible employer. He might have amended that, in the context of this debate, to say that if employers cannot give decent time off over Christmas, they should not be opening a shop, especially on Christmas day and Boxing day. The hon. Member for Kettering is suggesting one option. Only 1.5% of the thousands of staff surveyed by USDAW said they wanted to work on Boxing day, so something needs to be done and it needs to be addressed. One option, undoubtedly, would be to amend the Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004; another would be to have a Boxing day trading Act. I wait to see what the Minister has to say on that score. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if nothing is done through that piece of legislation, there should be action to ensure—this goes back to his earlier comments—that staff who do not want to work on Boxing day will not be under pressure to do so.
The hon. Gentleman reminded us that he voted against the Government’s attempt to include relaxation of Sunday trading in the Enterprise Bill in Committee and on Report. He will remember from that debate that points were put forward very forcefully and that extremely strong evidence was presented to us that many staff are simply unable to take time off on Sundays because of concerns and pressure, and the same applies to Boxing day, even though the legislation is different unless Boxing day is on a Sunday. We have to find some way of addressing the issue. I do not think the answer is necessarily for the Opposition to be prescriptive, but we need to get to a point where no one has to work in a large store on Boxing day unless they want to. Like the rest of us, they want to enjoy Christmas. They want to travel, see family and enjoy Christmas eve, not to feel under pressure through to Boxing day.
USDAW’s view is that the only staff who should be available to those large retailers at that time are volunteers. I suppose the point it is making is that if a store could manage purely with volunteers, there would be no objection in principle to that store opening. However, if stores are relying on only the 1.5% of staff who are prepared to work and the 5.5% of staff—I think that was the figure —who are non-committal, most stores would struggle to open without forcing staff to work.
Let me turn to the points about online trading. Things have changed since 2004. The nature and scale of online trading is very different. A number of hon. Members have made points about the impact of online trading on high street and, indeed, out-of-town stores. Perhaps the time has come to look at the needs of staff working in the warehouses such as those that the hon. Member for Kettering described in his constituency. Perhaps it is time to look at what the Government’s responsibility is towards staff who work in warehouses or for internet retailers, and the way in which they are treated. Those staff have a right to a Christmas day and at the moment they are not covered by the Christmas Day (Trading) Act, let alone by what we are talking about for Boxing day. The time has come to consider how that might be addressed and how we might get the kind of fairness that we would all expect for our own families.
Points have been made about the level of trading over Christmas. One estimate is that more than £77 billion will be spent in the Christmas period in the retail sector. Most of the people who work in retail, of course, are very low paid. As we have heard, premium pay is now a thing of the past in most businesses. In that context, is it too much to ask of the major retailers to do more to support their staff by not trading on Boxing day? Remember that those major retailers all have their own internet retail presences, so it is not as if they cannot trade online. By the way, plenty of people go online on Christmas day. It is not just Boxing day, is it?
Some online retailers do not necessarily fulfil orders. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) made the point from his own experience in the internet retail sector—he may want to intervene to set me straight on this—that there are plenty of opportunities to delay fulfilment of orders. There are plenty of retailers that do just that, so they are not open 24/7.
I am grateful for the opportunity to underline that point. There is room for retailers to be innovative by using the new technology—what would in other circumstances be the challenge of internet retailing —to help to create a much more equitable situation with in-store retail. The big benefit of having in-store staff is that they can give advice. Boxing day is a day when people are picking up units. They do not need advice; it is just about picking up the goods at a discount.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention because it really adds to everybody’s understanding of the challenges, opportunities and some of the realities. Perhaps the Minister can take some of these points away and, as well as responding to them, look at how online and offline retail operate and at what might be appropriate in supporting staff in both parts of the industry.
I want to talk a bit about some of the retailers who have so far resisted the pressure to open on Boxing day, because not every major retailer does. The initial consultation for the Christmas Day (Trading) Act, which was carried out in 2002, suggested that competitive pressure was one reason the Act was needed. Although at the time not every retailer by any means was opening on Christmas day—indeed, it was only a few—the sense was that in the end everybody would have to do so to keep up or they would lose ground.
A similar pressure now applies with Boxing day. So far, retailers including Lidl, Aldi and John Lewis have resisted the pressure, and have done so successfully, which suggests a public appetite for delaying shopping to a degree. In the last year, those retailers have seen their trading figures go up at the expense of some of their competitors, but we do not know for how long that will continue. Earlier evidence suggests a concern across the sector that businesses will ultimately all have to work and trade on Boxing day unless there is Government intervention—nobody else can make such an intervention.
The Conservatives say that this is nothing to do with them—that it is a free market and that it is up to businesses to decide what to do. The problem, if we follow that argument, is who will prevent abuse. The problems with Sunday trading, and now with Boxing day, mean that workers are unable to take time off. Who will intervene to look after workers and ensure fairness between employers on the one hand and staff members on the other?
We have seen far too many abuses recently. We have seen the behaviour of Sports Direct, and some of Amazon’s behaviour in Scotland was highlighted over the weekend. A number of us will have constituents who have been affected by the cuts in pay and conditions at Marks and Spencer. It is all our responsibility, and particularly the Government’s responsibility, to intervene on the side of working people, whether on fair pay or hours of work.
Who looks after responsible businesses? The businesses I mentioned, Lidl, Aldi and John Lewis—and there are many more like them—want to do the right thing and act responsibly. How will they be encouraged and supported unless the Government introduce the necessary conditions so that they can do that without succumbing to competitive pressures? As we discussed when we were considering a statutory instrument last week, the Prime Minister is consulting on boards having a representative with responsibility for staff. It is regrettable that the Government appear to be walking away from having elected worker representation on boards, but will such board representatives be strong enough? Will they have the interest to ensure that staff are treated fairly? The concern is that the measure just will not go far enough. This is an example of where Government intervention cannot just be left to the market. It cannot just be voluntary.
Perhaps the time has come to consider a cautionary tale. We can either go down the route of supporting responsible businesses and treating workers fairly, or we can consider what has happened historically. I have mentioned some of the more recent cases, but we saw all sorts of horrors before there was Government support. I am not suggesting that the Minister is in any way interested in repeating what happened hundreds of years ago, but my mind goes back to “A Christmas Carol”. I wonder who Ebenezer Scrooge might be in this scenario. Surely not the Prime Minister.
Where is the line if the Government say they will not intervene? We used to send children up chimneys in Victorian Britain, and I know the Minister is not suggesting that, but let us remember the ghost of Christmas past and make sure that the ghosts of Christmas present and Christmas future show fair treatment for workers and responsible businesses. That is the way forward, and the right solution will ensure that workers are looked after on Boxing day, that family life is protected, that responsible businesses are encouraged and that there is the right balance between online, high street and out-of-town shopping. I challenge the Minister to deliver on that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on introducing the debate on the closure of retail stores on Boxing day. I must be of a similar vintage, because I can recall when there was no shopping whatever on Boxing day. I have great sympathy with some of her comments on the many changes that our society has undergone since those days.
Even in those days, however, people still worked on Boxing day. People in retail might not have worked, but I remember going to my first football match, Chelsea versus Ipswich, on Boxing day. That match employed a lot of people, as do horse racing and many other sporting events that used to take place on Boxing day, and still do.
Also like the hon. Lady, I can attest to the exhausting nature of work in the retail sector. I would hardly call my time in retail a career, but I worked in a shop for about six months—obviously a great deal less than my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), who colourfully described her extensive career and experience in the retail sector. Retail is an exhausting occupation on any day of the year. I completely agree that it is particularly exhausting in the run-up to Christmas, and I have great sympathy with workers who, as the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said, work until late on Christmas eve and have to be back at work on Boxing day, sometimes as early as 3 o’clock in the morning. When he asks what sort of Christmas that is, I agree with his sentiment.
Christmas is a time for family, which is why one of my constituents, community worker Julie Lees, signed this petition. She is fed up of losing some younger adults in her family to the world of work on Boxing day. There is no doubt that there is considerable feeling about the issue, as expressed in the debate. That feeling prompted the e-petition, which has now reached more than 140,000 signatures. I understand those who feel it unnecessary for shops to be open so soon after Christmas. Many points have been made about other sectors that are busy working straight after Christmas and about online trade, which I will address in a little more depth.
For a number of reasons, the Government do not support an outright ban on shops opening on Boxing day. Boxing day is a bank holiday, and the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 specifies which days are to be bank holidays and contains provisions for appointing additional or substitute days. Additional bank holidays, including those created after 1971, are appointed by royal proclamation in early summer each year for the coming year. Bank holidays are so called because the Act makes provision for banks to close for business by deferring the placement of bills of exchange until the next appropriate day. However, there are no other statutory restrictions on trading associated with bank holidays; in fact, we have few legislative constraints on trading hours at all. There are no constraints on online retail trading, and few constraints apply to small shops.
The Minister’s remarks are of great interest. I think that the general public do not fully appreciate that point; I certainly did not. A bank holiday is not a public holiday. Lots of employees have bank holidays off not because the Government say they should but because their contract of employment says that they should. She would serve the public well if she put what she just said into plainer English, so that everyone could understand it.
I thank my hon. Friend for doing what he asked me to do by making that point simply. It would be good if more people were aware of it.
The Sunday Trading Act 1994 restricts the opening of large shops to a maximum of six consecutive hours between 10 and 6 on a Sunday. The Act also recognises the religious significance to Christians of Easter Sunday by obliging large retailers to close. By comparison, Boxing day has little if any religious significance. Neither the Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004 nor the Sunday Trading Act contain provisions for varying their terms, so any additional constraints on retailers would require new primary legislation.
Although the House has considered changes to the Sunday Trading Act numerous times since 1994, it has always considered that the Act strikes a good balance between the rights of workers and those of retailers and consumers. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) mentioned that he voted against the watering down of the Act; he will be pleased to hear that the Government have no plans to make changes to it in the coming years.
On statutory leave entitlement, although there is no statutory entitlement to time off on Boxing day, almost all retail workers, like those in other sectors, are entitled to a generous statutory paid leave entitlement of 5.6 weeks per year, which equates to 28 days a year for someone working five days a week. That is more than the 20 paid days of annual holiday a year mandated under EU law and ensures that workers in the UK get at least four weeks’ paid leave on top of bank holidays, assuming that they have leave on those bank holidays.
An employer has the right, whether or not it is explicitly reflected in the employment contract, to require a worker to work on a public holiday. It is common in industries such as retail or emergency services. We have also heard from hon. Members about other sectors such as hospitality, sport and leisure. Employers can determine when workers take their leave—for example, to cover an annual shutdown at work—and can refuse to give leave at a certain time, but they must give workers the opportunity to take their leave at some point during the leave year. The entitlement should give all workers sufficient time to see their families over the year, although I accept that Christmas and various other times of the year are absolutely associated with spending time with family.
In addition, there are special provisions for shop workers who do not wish to work on Sundays, at least. All shop and betting shop workers can opt out of Sunday working, unless Sunday is the only day they have been employed to work. A shop worker can opt out of Sunday working, even if they agreed in their contract to work on Sundays, by giving three months’ notice.
In putting the legal case before hon. Members, I am sympathetic to the fact that, in practice, many workers, fearing for their jobs, might find it more challenging to give effect to their legal rights than I find it to read them out. I regret that, but staff who opt out of Sunday working are protected from being treated unfairly. If an employer needs shop workers to work on Sundays, they must tell the employees in writing that they can opt out within two months of starting work.
In terms of the potential impact on retailers, the Government recognise the huge importance of the retail sector to both national and local economies, and the pressures under which it labours. The sector generated £91.7 billion in gross value added in 2015, and accounts for 5.6% of the UK economy and more than 3 million jobs. Boxing day sales are extremely popular; we have debated whether it is the busiest day of the year. House of Commons Library figures indicate that although it is not the busiest day, it is certainly very busy with consumers. Last year, an estimated £3.7 billion was spent with retailers, around 22% of it online. If we were to ban high street outlets from opening on Boxing day, that would result in a significant loss of business for them to online retailers, which would particularly disadvantage retailers without a strong online presence. We must bear that in mind, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and a number of other hon. Members pointed out.
The Minister is making an interesting speech. She has basically said that she is not in favour of a Boxing day trading Act to ban retail shops from opening on Boxing day, but she has also said that the Government have existing provisions to allow retail employees to opt out of working on a Sunday. There are 52 Sundays in a year. Why would the Government object to allowing retail employees to opt out of working on Boxing day, which is just one day a year?
It would be interesting to look at the picture when Boxing day falls on a Sunday. Presumably that would give people greater rights, at least on those rare occasions. Any changes to the legislation that I have mentioned would require primary legislation. I would hope that there were other ways to afford shop workers some protection without recourse to primary legislation. The law is a balance that Parliament has accepted, and the Government are reluctant to disturb that balance. To change the law would risk opening new disagreements; new primary legislation would create new demands and new risks.
The Minister is making some reasonable points, but she said that she hoped that there was some recourse for the Government other than primary legislation. I thought that she was going to tell us what it was, but she seems to have moved on to another point. If I can bring her back, what does she see as the recourse, other than primary legislation, to ensure that staff who want time off get it?
I have no suggestions at the moment to put to the hon. Gentleman, and I would not like to give the impression that the Government are exploring that. We are opposed to a ban on retail trading on Sundays. More generally, Boxing day is a day on which some people like to get out of the house. It has long been a major day for shopping and other events, and I have covered the point that an increasing number of workers in other sectors are busy at work.
Another argument against banning offline retail—that is what it is now—from opening on Boxing day is that many other workers would want to know why we were making an exception for the offline retail trade when employees in other sectors work on Boxing day. There are many aspects to the issue other than the threat posed to retailers by an outright ban, particularly, as I have mentioned, to retailers without a strong online presence.
May I respond to a few of the points made by the hon. Member for Warrington North in her interesting and well researched speech? Workers have many protections under the working time regulations, including entitlements to rest breaks, daily and weekly rest periods, and a maximum working week of 48 hours, normally averaged over 17 weeks. However, workers can choose to opt out of the 48-hour limit, and I accept that some jobs are more or less conditional on their exercising that opt-out. The qualifying period for unfair dismissal, which the hon. Lady also mentioned, is intended to strike the right balance between fairness for employees and flexibility for employers.
The Minister mentioned the working time directive, but the problem in retail is that many workers work flexible hours, so it is difficult for them to enforce that provision.
Also, the Government often miss the point about unfair dismissal and the balance between employers and employees. The law does not say that employers cannot dismiss people; it says that they cannot dismiss them unfairly. That is the key point. Because the time has been extended, those who are forced to work on bank holidays find it difficult to enforce their rights without being dismissed, so they simply cannot make a claim.
I take the hon. Lady’s point. It is true that employers can dismiss people, as long as they are not unfair about it and they go through proper consultation and so forth. The flexibility cuts both ways. People increasingly want to work flexibly, especially if they have caring responsibilities and suchlike; likewise, employers, certainly in the fast-changing world of retail, require some groups of workers to work flexibly.
I will finish by reaffirming that we do not believe that it is for the Government to tell businesses how to run their shops or how best to serve their customers. Notwithstanding the many very good arguments that I have heard this afternoon in favour of giving employees greater freedoms on bank holiday periods, particularly around the family-associated festive season, we believe that the current legislation provides the right balance between the interests of employers and workers, and at least provides workers with a generous leave entitlement. The Government therefore do not propose to ban shops from opening on Boxing day.
I shall be brief. This has been a very interesting debate, with thoughtful contributions from the hon. Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry). The last named, whose constituency is in a beautiful part of the world but has a very long name, has at least tried to propose some ways to solve this dilemma, but I must pick up on something he said. No doubt he was a compassionate manager, but we do not legislate for the good; we legislate for the worst.
As the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) both acknowledged, there is a problem with workers being forced to work on Boxing day when they do not want to. The Government really have to take on board the opinions of most Members who contributed today and look seriously at the issue, because it is the Government’s responsibility to regulate. I know many members of the Government do not like doing that, but if they did not we would still be sending children up chimneys and people would still be working long days in factories, as my hon. Friend said.
We need to find a way out of this dilemma. It is clear from the debate that the current situation is not fair to workers in retail or to their families. It is not even terribly fair to employers, because workers who are treated well are more productive. There is an issue with people working in warehouses, as the hon. Member for Kettering said, but there are ways to deal with that and with internet shopping without doing so on the backs of retail workers. Of course some people have always worked on bank holidays—hospitality workers have to do so, and so do people who work at sporting fixtures—but those in retail are in a particularly difficult position: having had an exhausting time in the run-up to Christmas, they then do not get a proper Christmas break.
I hope that the Minister will go back to the Department, think very seriously and discuss with her colleagues what can be done to resolve the situation. It is clear that at the moment it is really unfair on those in retail.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 168524 relating to the closure of retail stores on Boxing Day.