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10.36 am

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I, too, support the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on introducing it. It has the support of many shopworkers in my constituency, and also that of many people who are not shopworkers but who recognise the need to preserve Christmas day as a day of family celebration, and to keep its traditional character.

The Bill is necessary to stop the trend whereby large stores open on Christmas day and to prevent that from becoming a major problem and getting out of hand. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I was surprised to discover that legislation was necessary. It had for so long been the convention that large stores did not open on Christmas day that, when the Sunday Trading Act 1994 was passed, no one thought it necessary to deal with the question of Christmas day because they did not envisage that convention ever being broken. However, it has been broken, and it is now necessary to stop Christmas day opening creeping in because there is no protection for shopworkers unless Christmas day falls on a Sunday.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, there is now an increasing tendency for larger stores to try Christmas day opening. Sainsburys did it last year, and, according to her, Woolworths did it in what it called areas of high ethnicity--an argument that would carry more weight if it did not fail to recognise that there are large numbers of black Christians in this country. Furthermore, such stores also originally planned to open in places such as Kendal and Llandudno, which shoots holes in all their arguments.

The Bill is modest in that it simply seeks to extend the restrictions that apply to large stores when Christmas day falls on a Sunday so that they apply when Christmas day falls on any other day of the week. It also retains the exemption in the Sunday Trading Act 1994, so it will not apply to small corner shops, for example, or to shops operated by those who profess the Jewish faith.

It is necessary to preserve Christmas day as a family holiday, and to end the gradual erosion of that day as a special day in our calendar. The attitude of most large retailers is clear. They do not particularly want to open on Christmas day, but, if their rivals do so, it is such a cut-throat business that the others feel obliged to open to preserve their brand loyalty, and the whole thing will spiral upwards, as happened with Sunday trading.

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Over the years, there has been a significant erosion of the concept of public holidays. When I was a councillor in Chester, we had a long debate about whether we should allow the market to open on Good Friday. We did not do so at that time, but now Good Friday has become almost a normal trading day.

When Sunday trading was introduced, we were told that no one would have to work on Sunday unless they wanted to and that those who did so would receive premium payments, yet within a year those payments started to go and few shopworkers still receive them. Shopworkers in my constituency feel under great pressure to work on a Sunday, otherwise they may not get a job or hold on to the job that they have. They are vulnerable, low-paid workers. We do not want the same to happen with Christmas day.

I am not just making a religious point; we are a multi-faith, multi-ethnic society. Although many of our public holidays occur on Christian festivals, there is a strong argument for people to have days away from commercial pressures and days when families can be together without the pressure of one or other parent having to work.

It is true that people in essential services and continuous processing plants work over Christmas, and we are all extremely grateful to those who keep our emergency and other essential services going during that time. However, it has always been recognised, even within that sector, that if possible, people with families should be allowed to go home on Christmas day. My father worked in a steelworks that always ran during Christmas, but the agreement among the men was that those without young children worked on Christmas day to allow fathers to go home to their families, and at new year it was the other way around. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) may not have minded working on Christmas day, but I suspect that he had a wife at home to do most of the organising for him. It is slightly different for women who have to work on Christmas day.

The argument about essential services does not apply to large supermarkets. There has been no recorded instance of anyone starving to death because Sainsburys was not open for one day of the year. If I forget to buy the stuffing or the cranberry sauce, it is a minor inconvenience--people can eat something else. I do not see why the families of shopworkers should have to sacrifice their Christmas to avoid a minor inconvenience to someone like me. That is what the argument is about.

As a society, do we want to pay the public price of Christmas day opening? As more and more shops open, more pressure will be put on public transport workers to work, we will require street cleaning because there will be more traffic on the roads, and we will need more emergency services because there are likely to be more accidents. We will all, as taxpayers, pay the cost of Christmas day opening.

Moreover, Christmas day trading would mean an end to a day of peace and quiet for people who live in town centres or near major out-of-town retail stores. My constituents in Callands in Warrington already suffer greatly on a Sunday because of the traffic going to large stores in their area. Surely they should be allowed at least one day of peace and quiet on Christmas day.

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The trend towards a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year society is fundamentally bad. We should not define ourselves by the way we shop. If we do, there is something wrong with our sense of values. There needs to be time away from the pressures of commerce, and time for families to be together. The Bill is a modest step towards preserving a special day. I hope that the House will allow it to go into Committee, and that the Government will support it.

10.45 am

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I oppose the Bill because it is yet another example of hon. Members taking it upon themselves to dictate the life style and behaviour of, and facilities available to, our citizenry. The arguments take a variety of forms, which is how it should be, but I disagree with almost all the arguments that have been advanced.

The main argument is rather confusing, and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) reflected that. Labour Members especially--I do not think that this applies so much to my colleagues--cannot decide whether this is, or they want it to be, a Christian society or a so-called multicultural society. That is not my problem--it is theirs--but in approaching such an issue, Labour Members should get their thoughts more in line.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): Would the right hon. Gentleman allow that it is possible to favour a multicultural society that respects each of the multifarious traditions within it, and that respect for Christmas day would be one way of respecting part of a multicultural society?

Mr. Forth: Yes to the first bit and no to the second is my answer to the hon. Gentleman. I think there is confusion about the role of the established Church and whether we claim this to be a Christian society, and about the extent to which the fact that our people voluntarily attend church can be used as a rough measure of whether it is a Christian society. Most of the figures that I have seen suggest that fewer than 10 per cent. of our population are regular Sunday church attenders. That is not a bad measure of people's adherence to their Christianity or their chosen religion.

We must pick our way through the confusion surrounding the role of the established Church and its relevance to Christmas day, and the extent to which people express their adherence to the Christian religion by their regular church attendance, and then factor in multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism, which Labour Members always want to speak about. That complicates the matter, because the question then is whether we think we have an obligation to legislate regarding Christmas day, which, whether we regret it or applaud it, may become less important to more and more members of our society.

I am not sure that I can accept even the basic premise of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), which is based on the assumption that Christmas day is so special that it requires the law to single it out and impose that distinction on all members of society, whether they are occasional Christians, never go to church or are of a completely different faith so that Christmas day has no relevance. I am not sure that we have got that argument as clear as it should be.

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We must consider the regional and local variations that come into play, and be careful about the excessively loose use of terms. Bandying about words such as "ethnicity" or "culture" is all very well, but we have to be careful. In this country, we now have communities consisting largely of different ethnic, cultural and religious groups that, one could argue, could be dealt with differently within a local authority context. I might have been more attracted by such a measure--I doubt it, but I might have been--if it had said that local authorities should have certain powers to delineate certain days of the year to reflect the nature of the communities that they serve.

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