§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Walter Harrison.]
§ 1.24 a.m.
§ Mr. Fergis Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)
I apologise to the Under-Secretary of State for keeping her out of her bed tonight. I do not know whether it is any consolation to her to know that we are not the only ones who are still working. The poor political candidates at Ashfield and Grimsby are still at work.
1690 I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the subject of the working of the Shops Act 1950 and the Shops (Early Closing Days) Act 1965. No one would disagree that laws, if we must have them, should be good and easy to enforce. The Shops Act 1950 does not fit into that category. It is coming under more and more attack. That is because more and more people regard it as a stupid law full of anomalies and difficult to enforce.
The purpose of the debate is to draw attention to some of the anomalies, particularly as they apply to Sunday trading, on a Sunday one can buy a razor blade to cut one's corns in a chemist's shop, but one cannot buy one at a corner shop to shave. One can buy fish and chips at a Chinese take-away shop but not at a bona fide fish and chip shop. One can buy a copy of Playboy but not a hard-back copy of the Bible. One can buy fresh milk for tea and coffee but not the dried or tinned variety for a baby's feed. One can buy partly cooked tripe but not fresh meat.
Permitted products such as newspapers, milk, flowers and fruit mix in many shops with other goods that cannot be sold on a Sunday. That leads to the baffling business of putting areas of a shop out of bounds.
Various legal loopholes are being exploited hard and imaginatively. Among the more elaborate schemes that have been tried with varying success are trading clubs, Sunday demonstrations and the device of selling goods that are allowed—for example, selling apples for £100 and giving away with them a large double bed.
On 10th November the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) tried to bring in a Ten Minutes Rule Bill to amend the law on Sunday trading. He drew attention to a case that had received a great deal of publicity. It concerned a furniture shop which opened on a Sunday and was prosecuted. The shop received a change-of-use certificate and became a furniture and vegetable shop. Apparently a carrot was sold for £200 with a three-piece suite as a promotional gift. Instances such as that bring the law into contempt.
1691 The shopworkers' union is still implacably opposed to more Sunday opening. It believes that shop assistants need a rest day. I agree. However, I cannot agree with the other argument that making Sunday trading optional is meaningless, because if some shops are allowed to open, all shops will have to open for self-preservation.
One has only to look at the way in which the licensing laws work in certain parts of the country, where licensees are allowed flexibility. In Covent Garden, for instance, the pubs are open at peculiar hours because the demand for alcoholic refreshment comes at peculiar hours. The licensing laws are flexible in that area so that publicans can open at a time that is convenient and when they will do the best business. The same system applies in certain steel areas.
I am sure that the Under-Secretary has seen the report commissioned by the Home Office—"Shopping Habits and Attitudes to Shop Hours in Great Britain". The results of that report must have come as a shock to the Home Office. It showed that two households out of three want more freedom to buy on a Sunday. Most of those interviewed said that the present restrictive laws are stupid and out-dated.
The law is difficult to enforce because local government has an ambivalent attitude to the merits of the Shop Act 1950, I believe that the procedure is that if someone lays a complaint to the local authority, the complaint is investigated. As a result, an inspector is sent to the premises. The inspector buys something which is not shown in Schedule 5 of the Act, and the result is that the shopkeeper is then warned, and if the warning is not heeded the shopkeeper is prosecuted.
However, many local authorities dislike enforcing a law that runs against the tide of public feeling. Staff is short, and one of the staff apparently admitted in an interview, "Even we are not that keen on Sunday narking".
There has also been a survey carried out by the Environmental Health Officers Association. Of the 230 councils in England and Wales that replied, 64 suggested that the 1950 Act should be repealed and all but one of the others were in favour of major review or amendment. Therefore, it would seem that today 1692 councils are having to enforce more firmly a law in which they themselves do not believe.
My reason for raising this issue tonight is that Sunday trading has caused quite a storm in my constituency. In my constituency I have quite a number of "do-it-yourself" shops. Some of these have been opening on Sunday mornings. I think that what has happened is that a complaint has been registered, an inspector visited the shops and, with one exception, they have now stopped opening on Sundays. The shop that has refused to close is now being prosecuted.
Since the publicity about these "do-it-yourself" shops in my constituency, I have been inundated with letters from constituents who are protesting about the fact that these shops are not allowed to open on Sundays. It is a fact of life that because of high labour costs more and more people are doing their own decorating at home and doing their own odd jobs. Perhaps the most popular time to do decorating or odd jobs in one's home is over the weekend. I suppose that if people were doing some work in their home on a Sunday morning and suddenly ran short of nails, putty or plywood, they found it very convenient if they could easily go around to the shop nearby and buy the necessary materials. If the law of the country permits us to buy partly cooked tripe on a Sunday, I cannot see why we should not be allowed to buy putty or nails.
I think it is also true to say that the small businesses of this country have had a very difficult time over the last few years. I would hate to see the disappearance of the corner shop. Perhaps I have a vested interest, because my father had a corner shop and I know how hard he had to work. I do not want to see the disappearance of corner shops, because they fulfil a need, and I should hate to see nothing but supermarkets and multiples for the shoppers of this country.
Most corner shops are family concerns, and it is in these shops that members of the family take part and serve in the shop. Therefore, there would not be any question of shop assistants having to work on Sundays against their will.
All that I think is needed is a little more flexibility. The National Food and Drink Federation, which condemns the 1693 Shops Act as an absolute quagmire, believes that the best solution is a legal maximum number of hours for shops to open but with the shops having the absolute freedom to decide when to open. That is a view that I believe is also shared by the Consumers Association. Indeed, the Consumers Association has campaigned for reform. Recently we had a Court of Appeal ruling—I think it was in December 1976—to ban a Sunday market that was due to be held in Staffordshire. The Consumers Association welcomes that ruling because it believed that the ruling would highlight the absurdity of the law.
I quote from the Evening Standard of 4th November 1976, which states that the shop of Mrs. Olga Bloom, owner of Bagette, a handbag and jewellery boutique in Queensway, had had two visits from Westminster City Council inspectors last summer, the first of which resulted in prosecution and a fine of £5 plus an order to pay £5 costs.
The article continues:Mrs. Bloom's shop is at the top end of Queensway where even now on Sunday the tourists swirl round like travellers cheques in the wind. Like many other traders, Mrs. Bloom opens then because she can do good business.'Queensway is a little Montmartre. Opening on Sunday, we're encouraging the tourists. I pay high rent and high rates. What crime is it to open for a few hours when the tourists are here?'I lived up north in Blackpool for many years and had four shops there. We opened seven days a week during the illuminations, closed at midnight and never had a fine. I'm not exploiting any staff by keeping open. This is a family business.'It's crazy: if you want to work they won't let you. The more money I make the more tax I pay and that goes to the Government. There are so many unemployed. Why are they stopping people working?'".I think that what was said in that article is true for most of the small shopkeepers, who are anxious to be able to open not only at a time when they will be able to provide a public service but at a time that will be beneficial to their business.
I realise that in an Adjournment debate I am not allowed to ask for legislation. Therefore, the whole purpose of my debate has been to show that on Sunday trading the law is an ass. I hope that the Minister will agree to hold an inquiry into 1694 the working of the Shops Acts 1950 and 1965.
§ 1.36 a.m.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summer-skill)
The working of the Shops Acts is a subject of interest to hon. Members, to judge by the number of Questions which I answer on it from time to time, but there has been no recent occasion for a Minister to speak about it at somewhat greater length. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) for giving me this opportunity to do so.
The Shops Act 1950 was a consolidating Act, and the statutes which it superseded dated back to the period between 1912 and 1936. Its main provisions relate to the closing of shops on weekdays and Sundays, shop assistants' conditions of employment, and the hours of employment of young persons in shops. The Shops (Early Closing Days) Act 1965 is a comparatively short piece of amending legislation, of which the main effect was to give shopkeepers the right to fix their own early closing day.
The administration and enforcement of these Acts is a responsibility not of the Government but of local government. The local authorities which carry this responsibility are the district councils and, in Greater London, the Common Council of the City and the London borough councils. Each of these authorities has a duty to appoint inspectors to enforce the Shops Acts. These inspectors keep closely in touch with each other through their own professional body, the Institute of Shops Acts Administration, which does much valuable work in keeping its members informed of developments in this complex and technical branch of the law. The institute's monthly journal is a mine of information about the ways in which people have tried to infringe or evade the law, and the way in which their attempts have been countered.
It is sometimes suggested that local authorities are at best lukewarm or halfhearted in their efforts to meet the provisions of the Shops Acts. It is easy to make such suggestions but less easy to verify them, particularly since the administration of the Acts is not subject to Home Office inspection or control.
However, after local government re-organisation took place in 1972 the Home 1695 Office issued a circular to the recently formed district councils reminding them of their responsibilities under the Act. We know that many local authorities are making determined efforts to enforce the law. The extent of their activitiy, in this as in other fields, is, of course, limited by the extent of the resources available to them, both in money and in manpower. The House is well aware of the constraints under which local authorities are working. It is also true that enforcement of the Shops Acts is not necessarily the most popular of a local authority's functions, and it may well be that in discharging it some authorities are less diligent than others.
Parliament has, however, imposed on district councils and the other authorities I have mentioned a clear duty—in the words of section 71(1) of the Shops Act 1950—to enforce within their district the provisions of this Act".If an authority is plainly making no attempt to discharge that duty, the remedy lies not with the Government—because we have been given no power to intervene—but in the courts. If a local authority is in breach of its statutory duty, it is open to local residents or law-abiding shopkeepers in the area to seek an order of mandamus in the High Court requiring the authority to enforce the Acts.
The hon. Member has referred particularly to Sunday trading, with which I should like to deal. The transactions for which a shop may remain open on Sunday are listed in the fifth schedule. In addition, local authorities may make partial exemption orders permitting the sale until 10 a.m. of articles listed in the sixth schedule. In holiday resorts provisions permit opening in certain circumstances on not more than 18 Sundays in a year, generally where the local authority has made the necessary order.
In general, the goods which may be sold come within the categories of fresh produce and items likely to be required in an emergency. But I admit that the list of exemptions gives rise to anomalies. For example, there is confusion over what constitutes refreshment, and the courts have held that it includes pies, buns and sausages and even raw kippers, but not tea and flour. The law also appears to 1696 permit the sale of frozen but not tinned vegetables. These anomalies are frequently used as illustrations of the absurdities of the law by those who wish to see the law changed.
Enforcement of the provisions of the Shops Acts relating to Sunday trading is a difficult matter, and a good deal of ingenuity is being exercised in attempts to evade the law. The ease with which the law can be evaded has, however, been greatly exaggerated, and we have reason to believe that local authorities which enforce the law with determination are generally successful.
There was, for example, the case in 1972 where a firm of house furnishers, relying on the fact that vegetables may lawfully be sold on Sundays, opened its shop for the "sale of carrots with free furniture". The price charged for a carrot depended on the value of the item of furniture chosen to accompany it: one carrot was sold for £520 and another for £20. The magistrates' court dismissed the case, taking the view that the shop was open only for the sale of carrots, but the Divisional Court held that this was merely a sham and that in reality people were buying furniture, not carrots. In the end the firm was convicted, therefore.
Another device that has often been tried is the enrolment of customers into a "club". This was thought for some time by those who tried it to be a successful method of evasion, but last year in the case of Stafford Borough Council v. Elkenford Ltd. the Court of Appeal refused to accept its legality. This was a case in which the council had obtained a conviction before the magistrates' court, but the defendants were appealing to the Divisional Court. Meanwhile, they were proposing to continue the Sunday market, and the council applied to the High Court for an injunction prohibiting them from doing so. An injunction was granted, and on appeal to the Court of Appeal this decision was upheld. Lord Denning saidIt should be known throughout the country that Sunday market retail trading carried on at various sites in rural areas on a large scale is contrary to the Shops Act 1950, and where it is obvious that the operators of such markets are making large profits and intend to continue breaking the law, nothing short of an injunction will be effective to stop them.This case marked an important advance towards more effective enforcement of the Sunday trading law. It means that a 1697 local authority, faced with the prospect of a Sunday market being set up in its area, need not wait to prosecute after the event. Instead, it can apply in advance to the High Court for an injunction against the organisers prohibiting them from holding the market. I am not satisfied that local authorities lack adequate powers to enforce the provisions of the Shops Act in this respect, and many local authorities bring successful prosecutions under the Act. In many cases markets, particularly Sunday markets, are extremely popular with the general public, and some authorities are reluctant to take action against them.
It is sometimes suggested that a trader can legally open his shop on Sunday by taking advantage of the special provision made for shopkeepers of the Jewish faith, but that is less easy than some articles in the Press have made it appear. For one thing, the trader must accept the corresponding disadvantage of not opening on Saturday—a day which is likely to bring him more profit. In addition, there are safeguards against abuse of the provisions, and a person claiming to have a conscientious objection to opening his shop on Saturday may have it tested by a tribunal representative of the Jewish community or whatever the appropriate religious body may be.
In this debate we can refer to the possibility of amending legislation only incidentally, so far as it may be relevant to the problems of administering the present law. For this purpose it seems sufficient to recall that proposals for amendment of the law relating to closing hours were made in 1947 by the Gowers Committee, and in 1956–57 the Conservative Government of the day introduced a Shops Bill giving effect to these proposals. But the Bill proved more controversial than had been expected, and had to be abandoned for lack of parliamentary time. Since then successive Governments have treated 1698 amendment of the Shops Act as best left to Private Members' legislation because of its controversial nature, and the history of subsequent attempts at such legislation suggests that the subject has become no less controversial over the years.
In 1964 the report of the Crathorne Committee on Sunday Observance included recommendations for amendment of the Sunday trading provisions of the 1950 Act. In 1968 and in 1970 Lord Derwent introduced Bills based on these recommendations, but they failed to secure a passage through the House. More recently, on 10th November last year the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) sought leave to introduce a Bill that would, he said, scrap all existing restrictions on what may be sold on Sundays. His motion was defeated by 197 votes to 93.
Even more recently, however, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir Langford-Holt) was successful in obtaining an unopposed Second Reading for a Bill which would exempt from the early closing day requirement any shop which is entirely and exclusively operated by its owner. I am waiting with interest, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is, to see whether the success of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury is indicative of a new consensus in the House on how the existing law could be improved.
For the present, I am afraid that there continues to be no early prospect of Government legislation to amend the Shops Acts. That being so, I again express my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for affording me this opportunity to explain that the administration of those Acts, though not without its difficulties, does not present such intractable problems as some accounts of it would suggest.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Two o'clock.