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5 Nov 2002 : Column 143continued
The intention was to ensure that shops had the flexibility to be able to trade on a Sunday, that consumers had the flexibility to be able to shop on a Sunday, but that shop workers with religious or other objections to working on a Sunday, or practical or personal reasons for not wishing to work on a Sunday, should not be forced to do so.
Accordingly, retail workers who had contracts that did not oblige them to work on Sundays were entitled to refuse to do so without fear of dismissal, redundancy or any other kind of detriment. Shop workers whose contracts did include the possibility of Sunday working could give a three-month opt-out, which meant that after that period they could refuse again to work on a Sunday and would not be subject to any detriment.
The 1996 Act, like Acts for the previous 60 years dealing with this matter, going back to the time of Stanley Baldwin, applied only to England and Wales. Separate legislation dealt with Northern Ireland, but Scotland was not included. As the Leader of the House has said, that did not make a great difference, because, at the time, companies decided as a matter of principle that they should apply precisely the same rules on a voluntary basis to their Scottish employees.
The retail company Argos was one of those that did this from the mid-1990s; and it gave its employees an opt-out clause in exactly the same terms as the legislation. Sadly, this year, in an appalling breach of trust with its staff, it decided to exploit the lack of legal protection in Scotland and it presented loyal staff who had been working Mondays to Fridays or Mondays to Saturdays with an ultimatum of compulsory Sunday working or the sack.
That is an appalling denial of religious freedom to those who object to working at all on Sundays or to those who might not object to working occasionally on a Sunday but do object to doing so at the diktat of the company, where the company chooses which Sundays they work, for how many hours and with what frequency. Irrespective of beliefs, this is a denial to couples, as Sunday is often the only day in the week that they can spend together. It can also strike families in particular, as Sunday is the day on which children are most frequently out of school. In so far as women bear the caring and family role to a disproportionate extent in our society, they are also particularly discriminated against. On sexual discrimination, the vast majority of those who have been adversely affected are women. Of course, the practice also discriminates against people simply because they live in Scotland.
I believe that, in all those respects, compulsory Sunday working is offensive to principles that would be shared across the political spectrum in this House. Early-day motion 1498, which has achieved the support of more than 200 hon. Members, is a clear indication of the strength of support that exists. Members of Parliament including Ministers, leading members of the Churches and other Church representatives, and various other people have written to Argos. It was obviously far more desirable that the matter be settled by agreement than by legislation. Sadly, however, Argos ruthlessly continued to pursue its policy and has either driven people into accepting compulsory Sunday working or driven them out of work all together.
I should like to comment on some of the responses given by Argos to our representations. The company claimed that it had fully consulted, when it had in fact breached its own union agreement by not having any prior discussion with the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. It claimed that 97 per cent. of its workers had voluntarily accepted the new Sunday working arrangements, but that figure is as credible as a general election result in Iraq. As for the word Xvoluntarily", it is used in a rather special sense, meaning, XDo this or you are sacked."
Normal family affection was treated as a sin against corporate greed. The firm instructed that, where managers found that truly exceptional circumstances made it impossible for somebody to work on a Sunday, they should demand that that person come back for interrogation every month to find out whether the circumstances had changed. Reading about some of the individual cases, I thought that what was happening was Dickensian, but I decided that that was unfair, because even Scrooge at his worst gave Bob Cratchit time off and did not demand intrusive personal questioning or a monthly update on Tiny Tim's state of health.
Despite all appealsmy right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will see the chief executive of the company tomorrow at Dover housethe company has gone ahead with sacking and driving out loyal long-serving staff and has coerced others into Sunday working. I would have preferred it if the matter had been dealt with on a consensual basis. That is why I speak in sorrow and anger. The company has been intransigent and the legislation is needed.
Today, I hope that we can set down a marker for legislation in the next Session that would, I hope with the support of the whole House, extend to shopworkers in Scotland the protection that is currently enjoyed by those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Malcolm Savidge, Miss Anne Begg, Mr. Roy Beggs, Mr. John Bercow, Mr. Russell Brown, Malcolm Bruce, Mr. Frank Doran, Mr. Calum McDonald, Sandra Osborne, Mr. David Stewart, Mr. Michael Weir and Sir Nicholas Winterton.
Mr. Savidge accordingly presented a Bill to extend to Scotland the provisions of Part IV of the Employment Rights Act 1996: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Thursday 7 November, and to be printed [Bill 205].
Mr. Speaker: Before we begin proceedings on the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, I wish to make a short announcement about the later business on the House's agenda for today. Hon. Members who are concerned with the proceedings on the Enterprise Bill should be aware that a paper is now available in the Vote Office, setting out the Government's proposals for a response to the Lords message on the Bill. The paper contains the motion, which will be the basis of debate when we come to item 4 on the Order Paper.
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on Consideration of Lords Amendments shall be completed at today's sitting and shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion six hours after their commencement or, if later, at ten o'clock.
2. Those proceedings shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the Table below and shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) in accordance with the second column of that Table.
|Amendments||Time for conclusion|
|1 to 15 and 23||7½ hour after commencement|
|17 to 44||2½ hours after commencement|
|104 to 109||3¼ hours after commencement|
|84, 86 and 99||3¾ hours after commencement|
|127 to 191 and 215||5¼ hours after commencement|
|16, 45 to 83, 85, 87 to 98, 100 to 103, 110 to 126, 192 to 214, 216 to 236 and 238 to 31||16 hours after commencement or, if later, ten o'clock|
3. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question put.
4. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate that hon. Members want to get on with the substantive debate, since we have a guillotine, to which we agreed because we have limited time. We are not comfortable with it but we accept it in the circumstances. I want to register an anxiety on which you may be able to reflect.
I understand the pressures on the Home Secretary and I do not make a personal criticism of him, but is it desirable for Government amendments to Lords amendments to be tabled in the last few minutes of the previous day's proceedings? The few hours since the Vote Office opened this morning constituted our only opportunity to take advice on them. We all understand end-of-term pressures, but perhaps you could suggest that it would be at least helpful, if not the norm, to have earlier notice, especially of Government amendments to a Government Bill.