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I take up the point about the United Kingdom being a Christian country and workers being allowed to have Christmas day as a day off, whatever the composition of any community might be. In the 1960s, I worked for two years in Tanzania, which had a substantial Christian population and a substantial Muslim population. We took off both the Christian and the Muslim holidays, not that there were many during the year. It was a matter of having respect for the religion of many people in the country in which I happened to work. We need to follow that practice here.
Mrs. Dunwoody: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I know that people in some parts of the Commonwealth cheerfully support all the holidays connected with different religions. In areas such as Singapore, one can happily go from a Christian holiday to Muslim and other holidays throughout the trading year. That does not seem to cause undue pressure among the various groups.
Christmas day is important, particularly for mothers. It is no use saying that they can combine work commitments with providing the same facilities for their families and children that they usually provide. Of course they can; they can delay Christmas lunch until 4 pm if necessary, rush in at the last minute and join in. Frankly, that is not a civilised way of proceeding.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) feels that it is wrong to consider the needs of low-paid women working in a large industry. That is not my attitude. It is an anomaly which I believe the House of Commons did not intend in the first place. We should put it right because that is in the interests of those in the retail industry and also of the United Kingdom. If we consistently allow small but important cultural differences to be shaved away, we change the way that society lives, which would be a great loss.
I hope that the House will allow the Bill to proceed. It is a little restitution of justice, which we ought to support. It is not a deep, dangerous or worrying piece of legislation. I believe that it will be in the interests of the many, not the few.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on introducing a Bill which, as she said, sets out to correct an anomaly in the Sunday Trading Act 1994. Before we came into the Chamber, I told her that I was delighted to support her cause, and I repeat that now. Many of us opposed the 1994 Act and we are likely to reiterate some of our arguments this morning, which remain the same.
If I take issue with any of the hon. Lady's opening remarks, it is with her statement that we are in danger of losing something quite precious. My only quarrel with her is that is not quite precious--it is very precious indeed. Some people may feel that the Bill does not go far enough. It does not bother me in the slightest that the Bill is marked by the fingerprints of USDAW or anybody else. For me, it is a matter of deeply held principle, for which I was prepared to vote in the 1990s and for which I shall go on voting for as long as I have the opportunity to do so. I was proud to be a Conservative Member whose name was on a list in the handbag of the then Prime Minister. If that lists still exists, I hope that it is framed and given a place of honour somewhere in the House.
Members on both sides of the House who opposed the 1994 Act did so not simply because we were trade unionists and observers of the Lord's day, but because we believed that one day of the week should be set apart from the rest. It was argued then that the change would not make any difference--nobody would be forced to work, those who wanted to work could do so, and those who did not want to, would not have to. Shops that wanted to open could do so, and shops that did not want to open would not have to. Nobody would make anybody go shopping, but on a Sunday; people should have the right to buy batteries for toys, armchairs, carpets and all the other things that it is quite impossible to buy on the other six days of the week.
All that is quite apart from the fact that, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich rightly said, every household budget is finite and there is only a certain amount of money to spend. If one cannot spend it between Monday and Saturday, I do not see why it should suddenly be possible to spend it--or an even greater sum--on Sunday. All those arguments were trundled out in the 1990s, and I suspect that some Members will tell us this morning that those dire predictions did not come true. However, we said that there would not be a big bang or a sudden collapse of society. I still believe that such things do not happen overnight; they are corrosive.
Lord knows, the House has spent far too much time trying to mend things that are not broken under the guise of modernisation, although many of us do not believe it is modernisation at all. Much of what has been done is in a peculiar way--in some cases it has been very peculiar--very retrograde indeed. Some of us still feel strongly that if this place is about anything, it should be about democracy. We resent our traditions, customs and practices going out of the window. We do not regard that as modernisation; we regard it as vandalism. I apply the same train of thought to the way in which we live our lives in this country.
The hon. Lady said that Britain is fundamentally a Christian country, and long may it remain so. Christmas day is the most precious day of the year for those of us who are proud to be Christians. Many other days are also precious, such as Easter day. Easter Sunday is especially important. However, there is an anomaly. Christmas day can fall on any day of the week, whereas Easter Sunday falls on a Sunday.
Trade unionism has been mentioned, so I had better put my pedigree on the record. I am proud to be a paid-up member of three trade unions. I am a member of British Equity, the National Union of Journalists and the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union, which I still regard as the Association of Cinematograph and Television Technicians. Some members of those trade unions have to work on Christmas day because the nature of their trade and craft means that their services are required. Of course, those arguments were deployed in the 1990s, and I accept that many people, such as doctors, nurses, the police, train drivers, bus drivers and those who keep gas, telephones and so on working, have to work on Christmas day. However, I do not accept the gratuitous spread of something that is unnecessary and which is not, has not and does not need to be part of our lives.
I had better conclude because there is little more for me to say. I very much hope that the House gives the hon. Lady's Bill a Second Reading this morning. We all know that this Parliament is running of time. I cannot tell any more than the hon. Lady whether an ungrateful electorate will allow her to sit on the Opposition Benches after the General election; neither do I know whether I shall be in the House. If, having given the Bill a Second Reading, the House cannot find time for its remaining stages in this Parliament, I hope that those of us who are still here will be able to pursue it in the next Parliament and make sure that that anomaly is corrected and an important part of our lives protected.
I close by echoing a remark by the hon. Lady. She said that we have lost the sense of something that is very important. She is right. We have an opportunity this morning to regain a fraction of that sense. I hope that we take it.
I am in no doubt that the principle underlying the Bill would be supported by the vast majority of people They would warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich on the presentation of her Bill, as I do. Like her, I recall the discussions that we had on Sunday trading. I certainly did not support the changes. Whatever our religious beliefs, many of us consider, as I do, that Sunday is a special day and a day of worship.
There are certain days of the year that are special to the people of this country, and especially to families. Christmas day is undoubtedly one of the most special. Through her Bill, my hon. Friend seeks to ensure that on whatever day of the week Christmas day may fall, working people will have the legal right not to work. I, like her, belong to a trade union. Whether we are trade unionists or not, as Members of Parliament we have a right to seek to introduce legislation to protect working people on special occasions, such as Christmas day.
As my hon. Friend rightly said, we live in a world that has changed greatly. I remember when Good Friday was a very special day. To many people it still is, but to others it has ceased to be special. Shops and businesses now open on Good Friday--once, we might have thought that that would never happen, but it now does. That would be the case, as my hon. Friend said, on Christmas day if the decision was left to companies, many of which now trade on Sundays. As I said, I am still opposed to shops being open on Sundays.
The Bill would protect shopworkers who may have no wish to work on Christmas day. How many hon. Members would wish to work on Christmas day? Why should we not ensure that others in our communities are not put under pressure to work on Christmas day? We have a duty to ensure that workers are protected, which the Bill would do. I find it hard to believe that many companies would exert pressure on their work force to work on Christmas day, but there are such companies.
My hon. Friend outlined the number of companies that have started to open on Christmas day. Major supermarkets open 24 hours a day, six days a week. No doubt some of them would like to trade seven days a week, and if they were allowed, to I am sure that some of them would open on Christmas day. That would put an intolerable pressure on workers and their families. If a worker said, "I am sorry, I am not willing to work and I will not volunteer," that could present problems as he or she continued to work in that job or profession.
On Christmas day, there are two special aspects that people like to celebrate. There are the religious aspects, but equally important is being able to spend time with our families, our children, our loved ones and our friends. If people were forced to work on Christmas day, that would put increasing pressure on them.
As I said, shops now open 24 hours a day. Many of us in the Chamber would have doubted that that would come about, but we see the trend growing month by month. With shops open so many hours a day, do customers
My hon. Friend and I, as well as many other hon. Members, have been in the House a long time. I was a Government Whip during the premiership of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. I have seen some excellent private Members' Bills introduced in the House, irrespective of the party to which the hon. Member introducing the Bill belonged. I have seen such Bills killed off by the Government of the day. I have seen them killed off by other hon. Members who objected to those Bills. I hope that that will not happen to my hon. Friend's Bill.
What is the Government's attitude to the Bill? I have no idea, and my hon. Friend made no mention of it. I shall be disappointed if we do not hear from the Minister full endorsement of and support for the Bill.