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Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He knows as well as I do that on a Friday such as this, fortunately for all of us, it does not matter a toss what the Government think about a Bill. What matters is whether there is a sufficient number of Members of Parliament who care sufficiently about the issue to be in the House of Commons on the day to support the Bill. Is the hon. Gentleman reassured by that?
Mr. Cox: I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman says, and he is right. I spoke in a debate about three weeks ago on the Road Transport Bill introduced by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I supported the Bill but, sadly, it was not carried because there were insufficient Members present when a vote was called.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, but it is also true that if a Bill, regardless of the party of the hon. Member introducing it, has clear Government support, that will greatly help the Bill if it reaches Committee. Moreover, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the number of hon. Members who may be in the House at any one time is not determined by the number of hon. Members in the Chamber. Members may be in their offices. If a vote is called today, I shall certainly be in the Chamber to support my hon. Friend's Bill.
Our Prime Minister has a clear commitment to family life, for which I applaud him. That suggests that the Government should support what my hon. Friend is trying to achieve through her Bill. I am proud to belong to the Labour party, because we now have a Government who are committed to working to introduce legislation for the benefit of the family. We saw that recently in the excellent Budget presented by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, which will be of enormous benefit to families throughout the country.
My hon. Friend's Bill will provide similar benefit. I support it and I am sure that it will have widespread support in the House. If Second Reading is agreed to and it passes on to Committee, we will once again see Parliament at its best, as it will be introducing legislation for the benefit of all people who have to go to work. They will now have the right to spend Christmas day, a special day that occurs once a year, with their families and loved ones. I hope that the Bill is successful and that all hon. Members support it.
I remember volunteering to work over Christmas when I was a student radiographer at Cardiff royal infirmary. People who volunteered for such work were usually on call from noon on Saturday until 9 o'clock on Monday morning, including all Sunday and Sunday night. They would have already worked every night from 5 pm until 9 am, from Monday to Friday. Only two students covered all the accident and emergency work for the hospital and the city during those hours--and people think that they work long hours in hospitals these days! We certainly did so then, but we recognised that the work had to be covered.
The superintendent radiographer kindly agreed to stand in for me for a few hours on Christmas day while I went home to see my family. I remember to this day my feeling of absolute despair when I arrived at Cardiff station to realise that the only train of the day had gone, that I had missed it and that on Christmas day I was stuck in Cardiff with not a soul around. My large family had already gone to church and had started to celebrate Christmas without me. There was a happy ending, however, as my father drove down to Cardiff, picked me up and took me home, but I can still remember my feeling of emptiness and isolation as I stood outside Cardiff station thinking that I would have to spend Christmas without being with my family for any part of the day.
I recognise that some people have to work on Christmas day, but they should not do so if their work is not necessary or if they have been forced into volunteering for work. In these days of fridges and freezers, it cannot be beyond the wit even of the most disorganised people, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, to manage for one day without having to shop.
I remember when the Sunday Trading Bill came before Parliament. It was decided by a free vote. The organisers of the proposal to free Sunday trading refused to concede anything, as is usual with people who are obsessed with their aims. Those of us who were opposed to wholesale deregulation therefore tabled a series of amendments and forced all of them to Divisions. As so often happens with free votes, hon. Members went into the Lobby without reading every amendment.
Mrs. Golding: Those Members merely voted against those tabling the amendments, as the right hon. Gentleman will recognise. That is how we ended up with Christmas day trading. Hon. Members who would never have dreamed of making people work on Christmas day voted for a measure that allowed that to happen, having seen opponents of Sunday trading standing in the Lobby.
As we were so fed up with the lack of discussion on any form of compromise, we tabled an amendment to restrict garden centre trading on bank holidays. We did not want the amendment to be agreed, but hon. Members blindly entered the wrong Lobby when they saw us opposing our own amendment and so the proposal was included in the Bill. When hon. Members cannot buy things in garden centres on certain days of the year, they will know why.
I support my hon. Friend's Bill, as I think that it is important for people to spend time with their families on this very special day of the year. They should be able to go to church if they wish to do so. They should especially be with the children, as it is their special day. When mothers or fathers are forced to work, it is the children who feel it most desperately. We need to be present to see the joy on children's faces and to be kind to all family members, whether we like them or not. Christmas day is a very special day for us all, so I hope that my hon. Friend's Bill is agreed to.
Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): I, too, would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on introducing her private Member's Bill, which deserves the support of the whole House. I am conscious of time, so I wish to make only a short contribution.
I am a member of USDAW. I should like to congratulate the union on its efforts on behalf of its members to keep Christmas day special. I believe that its campaign has wide public support, as most people want to ensure safeguards for family life. Every hon. Member knows the difficulty of balancing work and home, and our families sometimes have to be very understanding. I think, however, that I would have reached the limits of tolerance if I went home and announced that, unfortunately, I was cancelling Christmas because I was working. If the House does not introduce regulation now, shopworkers may face those exact circumstances in future. Other employees would also be affected if economic life took over every aspect and every day of our lives. I do not think that people want that to happen, so I believe that we must draw the line now.
The larger stores' Christmas day opening pilots and experiments of last year, which they are reporting as a success, are worrying, because retail is a highly competitive market in which huge efforts are made to retain customer loyalty. Once one large retailing chain opens, competitors will also feel pressure to open. People might ask why that is bad. Retailers will argue that it is a matter of individual choice and that nobody is forced to open on Christmas day. They will also point out that some people may be happy to work on Christmas day and that some people already do. That is bad; I agree with the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) that it represents a slow eating away of the concept of national holidays as days of special celebration when there is a national break from economic activity.
Ensuring shopworkers' rights is the basis of keeping a special national day that the rest of us enjoy, but the issue goes beyond that protection. There is a larger question: where it is right to draw a line under the economic life of the nation. We signify that line by having public holidays on special days when the nation takes a break.
I have revisited the debate on the Sunday Trading Bill. It was clear where the House wished to draw the line. I do not think that it occurred to any of us that we needed to protect Christmas day when it did not fall on a Sunday. It certainly did not occur to me. I voted for Sunday trading and for keeping Christmas day and Easter day special. We did not anticipate that the larger shops would open on Christmas day. Indeed, the House never intended to deregulate Christmas day. We assumed that the tradition would be kept and that it would be a special day that people could celebrate. Perhaps that reflected a naivety among some of us and an assumption that was clearly not shared by retailers who opened their shops on Christmas day last year.
I share USDAW's concern about the consequences that will arise if Christmas day opening becomes more prevalent, and about the pressure that may be exerted on its members to work on a day that they want to spend with their families. It should be a concern for all of us who want to preserve special days as national holidays. I believe that we should draw a very firm line. If the big retailers cannot be trusted to keep special days special, we should regulate. Clearly, voluntary regulation is not working. I believe that the majority of people want to keep Christmas day special. The big stores' actions are important because what the shopworkers do today, the rest of us do tomorrow.