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10.19 am

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on promoting the Bill, but for reasons different from those expressed by other hon. Members. I do not believe that the measure is as brilliant as others suggest, and I support it not on principle but because of what happens in practice.

Others claim that the measure is a good idea for several reasons; I do not agree with most of them. I agree with only one reason that has been advanced. I am sure that my hon. Friend will not mind my describing her as a traditionalist in the Labour party and more generally. She would probably wear that badge with pride. However, there is a danger of viewing tradition through rose-coloured glasses.

Hon. Members have given three main reasons for supporting the Bill: family, religion and protection of employees. I find the family reason difficult to accept. I often had to work on Christmas day, Sundays and bank holidays. I did not mind too much because there were only eight hours in my working day, and I could always squeeze some time into the children's holiday. It was disruptive but possible. I also had the benefit of enhanced rates for working on those days. There was no shortage of people in the railway industry who were willing to work on Sundays or bank holidays if they knew that they would get double time and a day off in lieu.

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Many of the predictions that we made about Sunday trading have not been realised. Rates have certainly not been enhanced to encourage people to work on Sundays and bank holidays. People work Sundays for normal rates. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 introduced provisions to protect workers, but the brutal truth is that they are not working.

I do not want to shop on Christmas day, but I do not want to stop others doing it. What is a family Christmas? My family Christmas is different from someone else's. Many families enjoy going shopping on Christmas day. I think it is mad to spend the day in do-it-yourself stores or wandering around shopping centres, but people should have the right to do that if they wish. The family argument is therefore a little bogus.

I am not a practising Christian; I do not go to church regularly. However, I do not want to prevent people from going to church on Sunday or on Christmas day. If the regulations were enforced to ensure that people had a choice, I would not worry about the matter. However, I am worried about giving preferential treatment to the established Church. We take pride in being a multicultural, multi-faith society. Why should Christmas or Easter be singled out instead of Eid or Diwali? The Government should make some bank holidays statutory holidays. People should have a right to those holidays; currently, they do not. Perhaps another measure would effect that.

I support the Bill because of its provisions to protect workers. I have figures for those who have brought cases of unfair dismissal for refusing to work on Sundays. They are divided into categories of "main jurisdiction" and "secondary jurisdiction". I am not sure what that means, but in 1999-2000, there were six cases in the main jurisdiction category and five in the secondary jurisdiction category. At least half were resolved fairly easily by the current processes. However, I do not believe that only 11 people in this country have been intimidated into working on Sundays or dismissed for refusing to.

The Government have increased the compensation for unfair dismissal to £50,000. However, in some cases, a tribunal instructs employers to take employees back. Some do not do that, while others take them back but make their lives such a misery that they pack in the job after a few months. The figures do not reflect those cases.

Mr. Forth: If such cases were much more prevalent, would not a trade union have got hold of some lurid figures and primed the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to produce them? Is the trade union failing to fulfil its responsibilities? If not, perhaps the figures reflect reality.

Mr. Heppell: The figures show the number of people who have gone to a tribunal, but many people do not believe that they will get protection if they do that. When I worked weekends, I knew that if I did not do the Sunday shift, a colleague would have to do it. People had a loyalty to those who worked with them, and did their share. However, there was some pressure to work Sundays. As I said earlier, people wanted to work because of the enhanced rate, but some pressure was exerted.

I do not understand why people prefer to work Sundays without enhanced rates, unless they are put under some pressure. There are exceptions that prove the rule: for

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example, the Donald Dewars who say that Christmas is humbug. I am sure that Donald Dewar did not really believe that, but the last thing some people want is to spend Christmas day with their families. However, they are a minority.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Some people in essential services will always have to work on Christmas day. I have never had a Christmas without some members of my family working, because they all work in the national health service. However, there is a difference between providing an essential and an optional service. People do not have to shop on Sundays or Christmas day. That is a fundamental difference.

Mr. Heppell: That is true, but I worry about the idea that I should decide when people do their shopping. I do not want to do that, and I honestly disagree with my hon. Friend on the matter. If people want to shop on Sundays, fine. I have no problem with small or even large shops opening, as long as there is adequate protection for workers. I do not believe that people are protected in practice, however.

To answer the point of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the unions, they are not doing enough to educate the work force about what it should ask for. That is not always the union's fault. My union is the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers; it used to be the National Union of Railwaymen. It once had a policy of stopping all overtime. I supported that, because it meant that when we negotiated wage increases, they were based on a basic rate rather than average earnings. We could then show how low our wages were. It meant that, because overtime was not being worked, extra work would be available, creating extra jobs for people who were unemployed. The union pushed that policy hard, but it fell to bits on the first weekend it was supposed to have been implemented because none of the workers would agree to give up their Saturday or Sunday morning's work, since it meant extra money to them.

In some respects, the same applies in these circumstances. USDAW needs to say loudly to its members, "Do not work Sundays unless you are getting decent, enhanced rates." Failing that, the market and the law of supply and demand will rule, and if people are willing to work, the shops will be willing to employ them.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): Many shop workers are not unionised. They are women working for low pay, who are totally dependent on what little they receive to keep their families going. They do not have equal economic bargaining power with their employers. We are concerned here with the exploitation of a work force who are not part of a strong, manual craft union, but consists largely of low-paid women workers.

Mr. Heppell: I agree completely with my hon. Friend. In some respects, that is my point. We have a work force who can be exploited, are exploited and will continue to be exploited, unless we take some action. Perhaps there could have been a more suitable legislative vehicle to deal with the problem, but I do not have that option available to me at the moment. I shall therefore support the option proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich.

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10.31 am

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I had not intended to take part in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but as there is not a great array of colleagues on this side of the House anxious to catch your eye, I shall say a few words.

The House owes a great deal to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). She is an exemplary parliamentarian, who has done much in the struggle to preserve the reputation of Parliament when it has been under assault from many quarters. Of all the services that she has performed, I do not think that any would rank above this one. She is fighting to preserve something very precious to many people, and I give her my wholehearted support.

Before I came into the Chamber, I was chatting to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). He and I agree on many things, and we disagree on one or two as well. He said to me that if this Bill does not pass, we shall soon have full-scale Sunday trading and total deregulation.

Mr. Forth: Good.

Sir Patrick Cormack: My right hon. and libertarian Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), with whom I could not disagree more, says "Good." However, I believe that it would be bad. It would be bad for Britain and bad for the people who work in shops, service industries and elsewhere.

I was one of those who resolutely opposed Sunday trading but I did not do so for religious reasons. I happen to go to church on Sundays, but that was not the reason for my opposing Sunday trading. I opposed it because I believed it was right that there should be one day in seven that was special for most people, and one that people could keep special without being under great pressure.

When we had those debates, I and many others said that if Sunday trading came about, Sundays would replicate Saturdays, and we should soon have the high street Sunday. Anyone who drives into London on a Sunday knows that that prophecy has come true. In many of our big towns and cities, there is no difference between the middle of the day on a Saturday and a Sunday. Indeed, I am told that, in some places, Sundays are even busier.

I do not believe that Sunday trading has advanced the welfare of the people of this country, nor do I think that it has added anything to the cherished values of this country. Like the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, I am an unashamed traditionalist, and I believe that one of the traditions worth fighting to keep was the special Sunday. That has gone, but we should, at the very least, attempt to keep certain days special.

Easter day is always on a Sunday, and it is right that it should be special. Although the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) rather denigrated the Christian ingredient, this is still basically a Christian country. We do not need to make any apology for that. Christmas day, however, can fall on any day of the week, and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is saying that we should keep that day--which is still, for most people, the family day above all others--special, too, and enshrine that speciality in legislation.

Of course, some people, such as those in the emergency services, will have to work on Sundays. We all accept that. I have a son who was, for several years, the manager

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of a hotel. Of course, he worked on Christmas day. He knew that that was part of the job. It was the part that he most regretted, but, nevertheless, it was part of it. However, the vast majority of people do not have to work on Christmas day, but if the shops are open, the pressure is there for people to work.

I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, East that the cases that have come to court are the tip of the iceberg, and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) was right to say that many people who are among the least protected and the poorest paid in our community need the money and feel under pressure to work. We ought to relieve them of that pressure on Christmas day, at least.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich has performed a signal service in introducing the Bill. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government support the measure, and I hope that no one will be so curmudgeonly as to oppose it.

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