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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I would be much less in favour of the Bill had such a provision been included. I am nervous about references to multi-faith societies and certainly would not want requests for Diwali to be recognised with a holiday. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that there is a secular acceptance of Christmas, whereby families come together for a public holiday irrespective of any religious belief that they might hold?
Mr. Forth: That is the case, but whether we should use the law to back that up or impose it is the point at issue. I will not irritate my hon. Friend any more by pressing the point about local discretion. However, if one accepts the argument about multiculturalism, using a blanket, uniform approach becomes more dangerous and less relevant. Like him, I do not necessarily go a bundle on multiculturalism, but I am trying to tackle the argument of Labour Members. If they are serious about multiculturalism and all that it means, they must try to reflect it accurately in the measures that they propose to the House. I fear that the Bill fails that test.
I am a great believer in choice, which is one of the things that underpins the essential freedoms of our society. Every time I see a Bill that seeks to limit choice based on what hon. Members think, it makes me nervous and suspicious. I was honoured when my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) referred to me as a libertarian. I try to be a good libertarian. I rarely succeed, but the fact that he has recognised my attempts is encouraging. I would rather take the risks involved in choice than have this House legislate for the imposition of what some of its Members think to be the appropriate behaviour.
Mrs. Dunwoody: This is the greatest load of hogwash I have ever heard in my life, even from the right hon. Gentleman. He is suggesting that this is a great imposition from the House of Commons when in fact we are simply underlining what the House intended in the first place, as was clear from the original debate. It is nonsense to suggest that this is an enormous decision to impose Christian beliefs on vast numbers of people. Even he cannot pretend to believe that, although he pretends to believe all sorts of things.
Mr. Forth: I sense that the hon. Lady is trying to charm me into supporting her Bill. She will have to try better because she has not quite succeeded yet. Of course I am not going to pretend or claim that this is a huge and heavy-handed measure. However, it seeks yet again
Ms Coffey: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if one section of the population exercises its choice, it might have the consequence of taking choice away from another section? We all have a responsibility to balance that.
Mr. Forth: That was exactly the point I was coming to next. I recognise that consumer choice has implications for other people. The hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) said that schedule 4 to the 1994 Act was designed to provide protection for those who worked on Sundays. If that is not working adequately, I would be prepared to look at it again. If the much-vaunted trade unions--of which Labour Members still seem so fond--are not doing their job properly, that is a matter for them and their members. If allegedly low-paid--in spite of the minimum wage--and exploited women choose not to join a trade union, or if that union cannot give them adequate protection, that is a matter for them, also. It is not, I suggest, a matter for this or any other Bill. We may well have a role to play in reviewing existing legislation, but that in itself is not a reason for legislating in this way.
There are a number of exemptions in the 1994 Act, which the Bill would not affect: farm shops, off-licences, shops selling vehicle or cycle supplies, pharmacies, shops situated in airports, railway stations and motorway service areas, petrol filling stations, exhibition stands and shops occupied by those who observe the Jewish religion. That is a substantial list and I am happy to see it. However, it puts in context the argument that we should have only a relatively limited number of shopping opportunities on Sundays and Christmas day. We have acknowledged in that comprehensive list not only that there is an important social function to be performed, but that a lot of people choose or wish to exercise their consumer choice by using such outlets. The argument that the purity of Sunday or of Christmas day is still important is undermined by the existence of that list in the 1994 Act.
In passing, I wonder whether the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is confident that the fine proposed by clause 1(3) is sufficient. It is entirely possible that some shops affected by the Bill--large ones, by definition--might well choose to open on Christmas day because they do so well from the many people who have forgotten their batteries or cranberry sauce and flock to them to spend money. It might be worth paying a fine of only £50,000 to allow shopping on Christmas day. I may be arguing against myself here, but the point is relevant.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) argued that shopping on Christmas day was not necessary. That is their judgment. They are entitled to make some moral judgment about whether it is necessary to shop on Christmas Day. Why cannot people buy batteries for toys beforehand? If they know that they are going to have turkey, why cannot they obtain cranberry sauce beforehand? That may be all true, but why is it that hon. Members feel that they can impose such a judgment on people at large? The fact that it may not be necessary to shop on Christmas Day is a highly judgmental matter. Many people, whether they forget, are careless, stupid, immoral, lax or whatever, may still want to shop on Christmas day.
Mr. Win Griffiths: I apologise for not being here at the start of the right hon. Gentleman's speech and thank him for giving way. Is not the thrust of his argument that there should be total deregulation? He has already accepted that, in certain elements of the 1994 Act, it was acceptable to have some regulation. Surely the issue is that the public at large and shopworkers in particular would be very happy to have Christmas day as a day exempt from shopping, along the lines of the Bill.
Mr. Forth: The direct answer to the hon. Gentleman, who has known me for longer than he would probably like to have, is that I am, by nature, as he would acknowledge, a deregulator. My ideal world would have no regulations. It would probably have no governance and it would certainly have no politicians. I constantly strive to work towards that, being only a reluctant participant, as he knows. I start from the point of view that, in an ideal world, the fewer regulations there are, the better.
I would like responsible citizens to take responsibility, to make decisions for themselves and to get on with their lives, unencumbered by people such as us. That would be my starting point. Therefore, for me, the burden of proof is on those who wish to regulate. I do not start from the assumption that regulations are good and we should deregulate; I start from the other end of the argument.
The other thing that the hon. Gentleman is assuming is that no one wants to work on Christmas day. I do not know that that is true; I suspect that it probably is not. Some people might for various reasons want to work on Christmas day: they may find it mind-blowingly boring; they may find the celebration of Christmas has become trite, trivial and over-indulgent; or they may want to earn some extra money. There could be a variety of reasons why people might not want Christmas day to be denied to them as a working day, so, again, it is properly a matter of choice. The hon. Gentleman makes his judgment. He may not know lots of people who want to work on Christmas day.
I wonder--it is a rather dangerous question for me to ask, but I will pose it nevertheless--how many individual constituents, unprompted by trade unions, have written to the hon. Gentleman in the past five or 10 years begging him to legislate in the way that the Bill does. None have written to me. I suspect that most right hon. and hon. Members here have had very few or no unprompted letters
Mr. Gardiner: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that individual trade unionists who feel aggrieved about a particular practice in their workplace make representations through their trade union? Far from being a bad way for it to be brought to the attention of the House, it is an extremely effective way.