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Mr. Forth: I am not sure that I agree, but, even if that were true, fortunately in this country, trade union membership is still very much a minority thing among working people because many sensible people choose not to be members of trade unions. I would be much more impressed if ordinary, responsible, or even low-paid and exploited people chose to approach their Members of Parliament individually to express their views. All I am saying is that I suspect that very few people have chosen to do so.

Mrs. Dunwoody: How many unsolicited letters did the right hon. Gentleman receive before the last general election demanding the fragmentation, sale and privatisation of British Rail?

Mr. Forth: I recall getting very few indeed. At the time, I was a member of Her Majesty's then Government. It may be that constituents take a somewhat different view, depending on whether one is in government. The Minister might have interesting observations to make on that, if you allowed him to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I do not want to be unduly diverted. I am making a simple point. Although I concede that we should be careful about judging things on the basis of our postbag, I am putting it the other way around--I am challenging whether there is a groundswell of opinion in favour of, or a demand for, the Bill.

We have had one or two references already to what happened this most recent Christmas past. It is relevant to the argument that was advanced by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, which has been echoed by others. She suggested that if one store opens, others feel obliged to do the same because of competitive pressure. I do not think that that has ever been the case. I lived and was brought up in Scotland, where Sunday trading has always been possible. By choice, relatively few shops opened on Sunday in Scotland. It was one of the things that I had in mind when I voted enthusiastically for the liberalisation of Sunday trading in England.

On the same basis, as my brief tells me, on Christmas day just gone, Sainsburys and Woolworths had three stores open, and Co-op and Budgens opened several stores nationwide. Woolworths commercial marketing director said:

which goes back to the point that I made earlier. He continues:

That wraps up a number of different points, including those relating to stores seeking to serve the community in which they are located and the fact that employees are

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volunteers. If anyone is going to challenge that and say that those working on Christmas day in those stores were being strongarmed, exploited or worse--

Helen Jones: It is very easy to say that all people are volunteers while ignoring the pressures on them to volunteer. If the House were to sit on Christmas day, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would probably like because he does not appear to have a home to go to, would he believe that all of us here had volunteered for the task?

Mr. Forth: Since very few people volunteer for the task now, I can imagine that even fewer will do so on Christmas day. I invite the hon. Lady to look around the Chamber and see how many volunteers there are on a non-Christmas day, so my optimism about hon. Members being here on Christmas day is limited, although I would be prepared to contemplate the possibility. If the House were sitting on Christmas day, I would want the people of Bromley and Chislehurst to be properly represented. I would want to do my best on their behalf.

A spokeswoman for Sainsburys said that it was opening only three small outlets on petrol forecourts as "an experiment". Referring to a prior Christmas opening experiment, she said:

Those are not my words, I hasten to add, but Sainsburys' words. It reflects another of the aspects of the matter that we ignore at our peril. It is not for us to judge individual family circumstances, what people want or do not want to do, or how they view Christmas day. We may have our view, but I resist the attempt to put in statute the attitude that people should take to something, albeit something as important to many people as Christmas day.

By contrast, a spokesperson for Asda--so we have had a spokesman, a spokeswoman and a spokesperson; it is all very inclusive--emphasised that the company had no plans to open stores on Christmas day:

so there is an encouraging spectrum of opinion from responsible, large retail store managements.

I have tried to explain why I find the Bill unsatisfactory. I do not agree with the analysis that underpins it. With all respect to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, it is flawed and inadequate. I do not agree with its principal thrust, because I am opposed to further regulation. If existing provisions are not adequate to protect employees, we should focus on that. The role of the trade unions is, quite properly, to protect and promote the well-being of their members and those whom they seek to attract as members, but my suspicion that the Bill is the creature of one or more trade unions does not recommend it to me.

For all those reasons, I hope that the Bill will not make any further progress.

11.10 am

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): They say that Christmas comes earlier each year, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich

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(Mrs. Dunwoody) must hold the record, for introducing it to the public consciousness on 16 March. I congratulate her on her success in the ballot and on introducing the Bill, which I support.

Ten years ago, I was invited to give a lecture to a group of civil servants in Moscow. I was talking about product liability insurance and used the example of a problem that had recently been reported in the Moscow press: exploding televisions and the fires that they caused in apartment blocks throughout the city. I said that product liability and product liability insurance would be extremely effective in controlling such problems. An angry civil servant rose to inform me that all Russian citizens had a right under their legal code to have televisions that worked perfectly, so there was no need for product liability insurance. I said that to have a right without having any means of enforcing it is to have no right at all.

That is precisely what undergirds the Bill: there are workers in large retail companies who may have a right, but we all know how difficult it can be to exercise it on certain occasions. We all know of the trade-off between workers and management and how hard it can be to refuse a manager who has been co-operative and helpful on other occasions and is having problems filling the roster for a particular day.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), for whom I have great respect, talked about how choice underpins our fundamental freedoms, which is true, but we should always ask whose choice. The choice of shopworkers is sacrificed to give the wider public the choice to which he referred.

Christmas day trading can be seen as part of an on-going process, going back many years, starting with Sunday opening and going on to bank holiday opening, 24-hour opening and Sunday browsing time. The Bill would prevent the continuation of that process. That is not to say that all those measures have been detrimental. I agree with Lord Bassam of Brighton when he says that, on the whole, the nature of Sundays has not changed greatly since Sunday opening was introduced in 1994, but I believe that the nature of Christmas day would be changed fundamentally by trading on 25 December. The burdens on those who would inevitably be forced to work would not be outweighed by the benefits to the wider public.

Christmas day is special because it is about gift, not about consumer consumption. That is precious, and we should preserve it. In the run-up to Christmas, the stores market toys and consumer goods with vigour--it is their most profitable time of the year--on the basis that Christmas day is special. They try to maximise sales by persuading us that our families' Christmas will be special and memorable because we have bought their product, but they undermine the logic of their own position by then saying that Christmas day should be just a normal trading day like any other. We are reflecting that internal inconsistency in our support for the Bill.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that we do not need any more regulation. Indeed, he is a keen deregulator and would like all regulation to be abolished. I always respect what he says, and his position is consistent and rigorous, but the same rigour and consistency were shown by the Jesuits in the Spanish inquisition, often leading to a false conclusion.

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It is true that the retail industry can regulate itself and that one can point to pilot schemes for Christmas day trading that have shown higher-than-expected sales, but I do not share the view that such trading is something for the future. The research, too, shows an internal inconsistency. As any good researcher knows, the first question to ask is not what conclusions are reached but who is doing the research. When the stores say that they have had great success trading on Christmas day and how wonderful it would be if they could do it every year, one has to exercise a little scepticism.

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