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House of Commons

Friday 16 March 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops)

Mr. Secretary Prescott, supported by Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Nick Brown, Ms Hilary Armstrong, Mr. Michael Meacher and Ms Beverley Hughes, presented a Bill to make provision about non-domestic rating in respect of hereditaments including land or buildings which were formerly agricultural and in respect of food stores in rural settlements: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday next, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 68].

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Orders of the Day

Christmas Day (Trading) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is important to realise that the changes that have occurred within our lifetime have not always automatically improved the quality of our day-to-day existence. It is thought that assumptions such as the one that we have become a nation of people who want to shop until we drop are more important than considerations of either the quality of life that we create for ourselves and our families or the general standards that we set. Although my Bill is simple, it reflects the fact that, through the law of unintended consequences, we have unthinkingly changed something that was quite precious and the end result is to the advantage of no one.

The Bill is necessary to correct an anomaly in the Sunday Trading Act 1994. That Act does not allow trading on Christmas day when it falls on a Sunday, but does allow trading when Christmas day falls on any other day of the week. Until the 1994 Act was passed, it had not been thought necessary to impose a restriction on Christmas day trading, because it was not considered likely that anyone would want to do it. Even in 1994, no one thought Christmas day trading would become commonplace. However, considerable changes have occurred in the past few years.

First, to an increasing extent, small convenience stores began to open on Christmas day. Those were, in the main, corner shops staffed by their owners which offered a range of small facilities to a local neighbourhood. Then, a chain of stores began to open on Christmas day--Spar shops, selling mostly groceries, which believed that a number of their customers would benefit from the service. Unfortunately, that sort of example began to be followed by the larger chains. In 1999, for the first time, J. Sainsbury and Co-op shops opened on Christmas day, although in the case of Co-op, the shops that opened were the smaller ones, which were regarded as local stores. Last Christmas, more large chains opened on Christmas day: to J. Sainsbury and Co-op shops were added some Woolworths and Budgens stores. Various members of the shopworkers union USDAW--the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers--felt that they were being forced to work on Christmas day.

Woolworths opening its stores should be examined quite carefully. It is not a food retailer, and certainly not a retailer of essential foods, so the argument that it was opening simply to provide the odd packet of turkey stuffing to those who had forgotten it did not really wash. I know that some Members of Parliament object to the Bill because they will not be able to rush out on Christmas day and buy batteries for the various toys that they have bought for their children, but in my view anyone who is sufficiently incompetent as to spend a large sum on a toy without realising that it needs batteries to work probably should not be a father and certainly should not be a Member of Parliament--although that might be a cruel and unnecessary judgment on my part.

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Once some of the chains begin to open, it becomes more difficult for all the chains not to open. We sometimes fail to realise that many large grocery stores compete for as little as 3 per cent. of the market. These days, so many superstores and hyperstores provide all the services that people need that their profit margins can be quite slender, so they argue not about the bulk of the goods that they sell, but about the tiny percentage that makes them different from the opposition. If that is to be the basis on which we decide when our entire trading system should operate, we have lost our sense of what is important.

I do not think that large numbers of shopworkers will rush to their local churches on Christmas day, although I think that they would probably enjoy the experience and benefit from it. However, they should have the right to make that decision for themselves.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The hon. Lady mentioned trade unions in passing a short time ago, and she has now mentioned churches. Will she tell us a little more about the provenance of the Bill? Does it have a trade union input or fingerprint, or is it much more about church attendance, or something else? It would be helpful if we knew that.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I shall give the right hon. Gentleman a simple example. Of course the Bill has trade union fingerprints on it because I am a trade unionist, and have been since I was 16. However, I am not a member of the trade union to which he thinks he is referring.

We must understand that trade unions represent people, and not only men but women. Many women are still among some of the lowest paid groups in the country. I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that many of us still think that it is important that Christmas day should be observed as a Christian festival, and that people should have the right to go to churches, chapels or whatever form of religious observance they think important to celebrate one of the holiest and most important days of the Christian year.

If the right hon. Gentleman regards the Bill as a deep plot on behalf of the trade union movement that is designed to influence the way in which large grocery chains operate, he is wide of the mark. Of course, those who represent shopworkers are concerned to ensure that they should not be forced to do things that they do not particularly want to do. Everyone who agrees to longer opening hours for shops must understand that that impinges upon the working conditions of those concerned. They want to know what Parliament has decided and the reasons that it has given for its decisions.

I have been a shopper for as long as I can remember, and I am a bad shopper. I am busy and I have no brand loyalty. I rush into whatever shop--

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): Moorcroft.

Mrs. Dunwoody: My hon. Friend tempts me, because I have strong brand loyalties to certain porcelain and pottery works in her constituency, but their products are not my average buy of the weekend.

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It is important to realise that, over my lifetime, the trading pattern has changed. There was a time when we were forced to get into a shop before 5 or 5.30 pm. It is now possible to leave this building at an ungodly hour and find a shop somewhere in an urban area where we can buy whatever we like. However, that does not improve the profits of the chain concerned or the facilities that are available. I spend exactly the same amount. I may spend it at a different time of the day or night, but I do not spend more because shops are open for longer.

Mr. Forth: Setting aside that the hon. Lady has admitted, with her usual charm and modesty, to a degree of shopping incompetence, for which she was criticising others, does she think that the judgment as to whether it is profitable for a shop to stay open is a matter for the shopkeeper or shop owner, and not for us?

Mrs. Dunwoody: If the shopkeeper intends to open on his own, he has my blessing; I have no problem with that. Why does the right hon. Gentleman think that the Bill excludes shops with a floor space of less than 3,000 sq ft? If the shopkeeper wishes to open to greet joyously all his neighbours as they come in to spend their money on Christmas day, I see nothing wrong with that. I think that it is rather nice. One of my daughter's neighbours once said to her, "Support your Paki shop." When she pointed out that he was a Sikh, he said, "Support your Sikh-Paki shop." I have nothing against smaller shops opening if they so desire.

The reality is that large chain stores dictate the conditions under which their workers operate. One large chain announced on Christmas eve that it wanted to open on Christmas day, and asked for volunteers. Many of these volunteers often feel that they are more pressed men and women than they are volunteers. It is no use saying that it is a matter for them.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): I assure my hon. Friend of my support for the Bill. Is it not the reality that if Members had realised, when the Sunday Trading Bill was passing through the House in 1994, that they were creating an anomaly, they would almost certainly have filled the gap and we would not be discussing these matters now?

Mrs. Dunwoody: That is right. I do not believe that the House intended that there should be protection for shopworkers when Christmas day fell on a Sunday, but not when it fell on any other day of the week. There is no logic in that. I believe that the House would not want shopworkers to work on Christmas day, and that is the essential point that lies behind the Bill.

As someone who has always been involved with families who provided emergency cover over the Christmas period, I know that it takes a toll on family life. It is no use pretending that it does not. In many general practices, the trick is always to offer to work on Christmas day because people try not to disturb doctors on that day--but they cheerfully telephone their GP on Boxing day.

It would be wrong if shopworkers felt they were under pressure, whether or not they wanted to be with their families, to turn in for work on Christmas day. However, that is happening more and more. To a large extent, Spar

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shops open on Christmas day. The midlands Co-op opened 14 stores in 1999, and 4,000 customers passed through the doors. It opened 15 stores last year. The Co-operative Wholesale Society opened 36 of its stores, Sainsbury opened three of its smaller stores, and Woolworths opened three of its stores for the first time in what it called areas of high ethnicity. I suspect that it then considered opening more stores the following year. The list includes Budgens, Tescos, McColl--that is the newsagents--and some Tate's stores. Their branches opened, and more and more firms are joining the list every year.

I do not believe that major retailers are fighting to have Christmas day as one of their trading days. Most of them would prefer to remain closed, but once competition is introduced, all the retailers feel that they must play the same game. If their competitors are opening in their areas, automatically they will do the same.

What provisions in the Bill might concern some people? The House will be aware that 280 sq m is slightly larger than the area of a tennis court, and equivalent to 3,000 sq ft. That means that anyone who is running a small corner shop will not be caught by the Bill. Why do I think it is necessary to make the differentiation? I think that volunteers for Christmas day working feel that they cannot resist attempts to encourage them to work. Therefore, they frequently lose the advantages of being with their families on Christmas day.

The House frequently gets its ideas in a muddle. There are some who suggest that the Bill should not go forward because there are non-Christian areas in the United Kingdom. It does not matter how many groups of people live in particular areas, we are still a Christian country. We must think seriously about Christmas being the one Christian festival of the year that the majority of the British people want to support.

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