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Ms Coffey: The Minister is producing evidence which, he says, shows that there is little inclination among large shops to open on Christmas day. Should that trend increase and more shops open on Christmas day, what would be his view?

Mr. O'Brien: To some extent, the stores would have to determine whether they wanted to open. In a moment, I shall come to the area about which I have concerns, which were reflected in a number of contributions to the debate. Forcing workers to work on Sunday is a significant concern, which was reflected in the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Hall Green and for Nottingham, East and other hon. Members.

I want to inform the House of the approach of some stores and the evidence about whether the trend is truly significant. At the moment, although there is a little movement, I do not believe that the trend is significant. We need not fear the spectre raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport. According to the evidence, the sort of move that she fears is not taking place. The spectre is imaginary, so the question is whether we should follow the route suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich. Should we block the risk before it increases or should we wait and see?

I have been asked what I would advise hon. Members to do. The Government are neutral. We are happy for the Bill to go into Committee, where we can debate the issues. Hon. Members will have to decide whether to pass legislation to prevent something that may or may not happen. It is a matter for hon. Members to decide.

One company that has decided to open on Christmas day is Woolworths, which for the first time opened three stores. It is significant that those were in Southall, Balham and Slough. All were over 3,000 sq ft. The list that I have given is not exhaustive, but it is clear that only a tiny proportion of the shops that were open last year were large shops. The others were overwhelmingly smaller convenience stores. It remains to be seen whether retailers will find Christmas day opening of large stores financially viable, given the attachment of most people to their traditional Christmas.

Some retailers, like Woolworths, have targeted the opening of shops in specific areas where they believe that that is welcome, given the local religious and ethnic mix,

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particularly in non-Christian communities. Britain is still a predominantly Christian country and it is right that, to some extent, the law reflects Christian traditions. However, we must also recognise that an increasing number of our citizens have different faiths and that they wish to express those faiths in different ways. We need to be conscious that we live in a multicultural society.

Recent estimates suggest that there may be up to 3 million members of non-Christian communities in the United Kingdom. There is also a sizeable number of people who say that they are of no faith at all. The Government have made it clear that we wish to promote respect for and understanding of religious belief, including, obviously, Christian religious belief. We are working with faith communities on ways to tackle and overcome all kinds of religious discrimination. The Home Office recently published two reports dealing with these issues. We are also planning to introduce a new law to combat religious discrimination in employment and training.

It is for Members of Parliament to decide whether we should pass new legislation that would require observance of religious festivals in which not everyone can share. The unintended consequence of the Bill would be to close those large stores which last year could serve minority communities. Those communities may well want to participate in celebrating Christmas day in this country, and of course that would be a matter for them, but they may take a different view. The question is whether that should also be a matter for them, or a matter for the law.

Small corner shops would be unaffected by the changes proposed, and most of the stores that are open on Christmas day are convenience stores. The House must consider the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich and decide whether there is a need for her limited proposal in respect of large stores, or whether we should say that the case is not yet proven and await developments before proceeding.

Mrs. Dunwoody: That is the greatest load of muddled nonsense that I have heard in my life. Unless my hon. Friend can produce to the House specific statistics showing that only large numbers of members of non-Christian communities were using the stores that opened on Christmas day, his argument is dodgy. I should have thought that he would have had enough common sense to strike out that part of his speech. We need a clear answer from him. The Bill protects women workers, predominantly, from being forced to work on Christmas day. Does he accept that principle? A simple yes or no will suffice. I understand that perfectly.

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend has already been commended for the charm with which she handles interventions, so I do not need to commend it again.

The protection of women workers is extremely important. As a result of Sunday trading--this argument would not necessarily apply to Christmas--some women can work at weekends, which for various reasons is much more convenient for them than working during the week. We are also aware that students and younger people might benefit from working on Sunday. My hon. Friend asked

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me whether it is right that we should protect women. The deregulation of Sunday trading has brought added benefits to some women workers.

Mrs. Dunwoody: What about this Bill?

Mr. O'Brien: As has been pointed out, the rosy spectacle that she presents of a Christmas for women at home is not always as pleasant as she might want it to be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green said, people sometimes find that they have to work very hard to prepare the Christmas meal. I am not necessarily speaking about women; as he told us, men also find that they have to work hard. I have done the same job, so I sympathise with him and with women who work very hard throughout Christmas, even if they do not choose to work in a shop or elsewhere.

The issue is one of choice. Should we prevent women from choosing, for whatever reason, to work on Christmas day? My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said that there was an argument for doing so in particular circumstances, but she presents the matter in a limited way. The restriction would apply only to shops that are more than 3,000 sq ft in size. I think that there is an argument for such proposals, which is why I advance my arguments in an entirely neutral way, as I hope that she will appreciate.

Introducing legislation to regulate the times when shops can open is never a simple matter. The debate on opening hours raises issues relating to individual freedom, the role of religion, protection of employees and respect for family life. Those are legitimate interests, but they sometimes conflict. Numerous attempts were made over the years to change the Shops Act 1950, but they all came to nothing. Everyone agreed that something should be done, but they did not agree on what. The provisions in the 1950 Act that prescribed how long shops could stay open during the week and dealt with half-day closing were finally repealed in 1994.

Only Sunday shopping, which was always the most controversial aspect of that Act, has remained subject to restrictions, which are now contained in the Sunday Trading Act 1994. Many hon. Members will remember the discussions about that Act, which was fiercely debated, as there were strongly held views on all sides of the argument. The Sunday trading provisions of the 1950 Act had become badly outdated. Anomalous rules on the legality or otherwise of selling tea as opposed to beer, fresh rather than dried milk, or tripe instead of steak, had brought the law into disrepute. The restrictions were increasingly ignored.

In reforming the law, Parliament chose to adopt the approach of partial deregulation. It sought to allow people greater freedom to shop while ensuring that Sunday remained different from other days. The 1994 Act contains no restrictions on shops whose size is 280 sq m or less. Shops of more than 280 sq m in size may open for six continuous hours between 10 am and 6 pm, and are required to close completely on Easter Sunday and on Christmas day when it falls on a Sunday. That requirement was the result of an amendment tabled by Lord Alton. During the passage of that Bill, it was pointed out that Easter is the most important date in the Christian calender. Hon. Members felt it appropriate to acknowledge that in legislation. When the restriction was

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extended to Christmas day, it was understood that it would not be affected when it did not fall on a Sunday. That is more restrictive than any provision in the Shops Act 1950, which did not subject Easter Sunday and Christmas day to specific controls.

Some anxiety was expressed that the 1994 Act might prove unworkable. Broadly speaking, that has not been the case. Shops have generally abided by the Act, and there have been relatively few complaints.

A survey by Healey and Baker in 1999 showed that 56 per cent. of people shopped at some time on a Sunday. The average increase in sales was only 3.4 per cent. and profitability increased by 0.6 per cent. That suggests that, for most people, Sunday shopping remains primarily a matter of convenience. Hon. Members must consider whether they believe that shops should open on Christmas day because that fulfils a need or whether the Bill should receive a Second Reading.

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