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Sunday Trading: Legislation

Volume 417: debated on Wednesday 25 February 1981

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2.44 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will introduce legislation to relax the laws regarding the selling of goods on Sundays.

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have at present no plans to introduce such legislation. Officials of my right honourable friend's department have been reviewing the operation of the restrictions which the Shops Act 1950 imposes upon Sunday trading and upon trading hours generally. This work is nearly complete, and the Government hope soon to be able to announce their conclusions on the matter. As noble Lords will be aware, however, a Bill to make changes in these laws, which was introduced by a Private Member in another place, failed to secure a Second Reading when it was debated there on 20th February.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Is he aware that no fewer than 95 per cent. of the people polled in a private poll expressed a desire for Sunday and late hours trading? Would he not agree that local authorities might be empowered by means of by-laws to allow such trading in their own areas?

My Lords, I was not aware of the poll to which my noble friend has referred, but I am aware that this is a very controversial matter. The proposal that my noble friend puts to me was one of the proposals contained in the recent Bill before the House of Commons. I think it fair to say that the criticism of that proposal is that, whereas the power to make orders to exempt shops from the restrictions on weekday trading hours and on Sunday trading might have been attractive to local authorities, it could upset the pattern of trade between neighbouring local authority areas.

My Lords, can the noble Lord explain to me why, despite the present legislation, I, and I should think a great many other noble Lords, are able to find open on a Sunday in almost every district of London very useful shops catering for our needs?

My Lords, that is due to a combination of the shopkeepers' and the noble Baroness's ingenuity.

My Lords, in any consideration of this matter, will the Government bear in mind that Sunday is about the only day of the week when shopworkers can be with their families and friends? Will the Government also bear in mind that it is extremely likely that any general opening of shops on Sundays would increase the costs of distribution which would have to be reflected in prices?

My Lords, I would not comment upon the second point that the noble Lord makes. He speaks from great experience, and I would not seek to improve on what he has said. With regard to the first point, I think it important that I draw the attention of your Lordships' House to what my honourable friend the Minister of State, Mr. Raison, said when replying to the debate on the Bill in another place last week. He said he was sure that the House would agree that, if the Bill went ahead, it would be desirable that its provision for setting a limit on shopworkers' hours should be discussed fully with the shopworkers' union and with others with an interest in this important matter. That is yet another aspect of what is a very complicated subject.

My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that for a Government who came to power on a promise to set the people free and to provide more freedom of choice for individuals now to say that they have no plans to relax the legislation, and that any change must be left to a Private Member's Bill, effectively represents something of a U-turn? Cannot the Government pluck up their courage, ignore the Luddites on the Left and the Lord's Day Observance Society on the Right, and press ahead with liberalising these laws, as the majority of the people in this country would wish?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Monson, will find that there is plenty of freedom to be able to shop as he wishes. If the noble Lord does not believe me, I suggest that he goes shopping with my noble friend Lady Trumpington.

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that any measure which expands any opportunity of employment should be welcomed by him and indeed by noble Lords opposite?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. It was because I thought that a point of that kind should be made that I took particular care to repeat what my honourable friend the Minister of State had said during the debate on the Bill in another place about the position of employees in shops.

My Lords, is it not rather absurd that due to the state of the present laws, one is allowed to go into a chemist's shop, for example, late at night or on a Sunday and buy one particular article but not another?

My Lords, it depends on what my noble friend wishes to buy in the chemist's.

My Lords, in considering this problem, will the Government bear in mind that in British life there are many things that do not appear to be logical but which work, because they are based upon reasonable compromises?

My Lords, I would agree, and that is of course absolutely the basis for the running of your Lordships' House.

My Lords, is it not true that the present laws, restricting one from buying this while allowing one to buy that in different kinds of premises, are at present quite insane? The trouble is that any other laws which one makes on the subject are likely to be just as insane. Is not what is really needed, possibly, a debate in this House on the whole subject of these laws?

My Lords, I should not like the House to feel that the Home Office is flippant or neglectful of what is a very important but a very complicated subject, and it is because we realise that Government has a position in these difficult matters to do with trading and Sunday trading that we have been conducting a review within the department. That is not yet completed, but we hope that when it is we shall be able to reach some conclusions.