By Matthew Barrett
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In the Commons yesterday, a debate was held on whether to suspend Sunday trading restrictions for the period of the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer. The Bill passed through the House, with only extremely minor rebellion from the Tory benches. This was surprising because there was some consternation felt by some sections of the backbenches about the proposals, with the suspicion that the period was simply softening the public up for a full scrapping of Sunday trading laws.
"Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will my hon. Friend reassure a significant number of Harlow residents who have written to me that the Bill is just a temporary Bill for the Olympics, and that there are no plans to extend Sunday trading per se?
Mr Prisk: I am happy to give that assurance. I do not want to test the patience of the Deputy Speaker. The motion is about the proceedings of the House, but I want to make it crystal clear that the Bill will come off the statute book immediately after 9 September."
The first vote, which was merely a procedural vote concerning the passage of the BIll, was agreed to with 281 ayes, and 112 noes. The only two Tory noes on that vote were Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone, who voted with the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party and many Labour MPs.
"Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He is being extremely generous very early on in his remarks. Will he give me some reassurance? What protection will be in place for, say, volunteer sports coaches or church workers with commitments on Sundays, if their volunteer commitments are threatened by having to work extra hours?
Vince Cable: Of course, they could opt out of the commitments, as is already provided for under existing legislation, which means that they will receive all the protections subject to unfair dismissal legislation."
"Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows that I have been opposed to Sunday trading since day one. I voted against it under Margaret Thatcher, and I am still opposed to it. Can he give the House an absolute assurance that under this Government—he cannot bind a future Government—the Bill will not be used to introduce a more permanent arrangement thereafter?
Vince Cable: Yes; I have already given that assurance to the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), and I can repeat it to the hon. Gentleman. That is absolutely not the intention of the Government. I do not think I need to repeat it again, but I am happy to do so"
"Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and I have a lot of sympathy with the comments that the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) made. Some moments ago, the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) gave a commitment that the legislation would not go beyond September. However, that commitment appeared to be a personal commitment, albeit well meant. Ministers come and go, and I am sure that my hon. Friend is likely to be promoted upwards from Minister of State. Indeed, even Secretaries of State come and go. I wonder whether the Secretary of State will put it on the record that it is the commitment of the Government not to go beyond 10 September, and not the personal commitment of Ministers.
Vince Cable: I can repeat what I have already said. This is not just a personal commitment by the Minister of State or me; it is a Government commitment. There is a sunset clause in the Bill, which can be debated in detail as we make progress through the rest of the day."
"Mark Field: I think many of us feel that, 25 years ago or thereabouts, we reached a sensible compromise over Sunday trading, which would benefit smaller businesses while imposing certain restrictions on the large supermarket chains. I support the Bill, especially because the west end shopping organisations desperately want its provisions to be adopted. However, I fear that the lobbying has been carried out solely by the largest supermarkets. I broadly support what those supermarkets do in general, but does the Secretary of State recognise that there is an overwhelming feeling that they not only maintain a dominant position in many of our high streets, but will use the Bill as a precedent for the future?"
"Dr Thérèse Coffey: I have visited Great Yarmouth and it is a delightful place—just as delightful as the towns in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be useful for the Minister to explain why the Bill covers two Sundays when the Olympics and Paralympics are not happening—namely, 19 and 26 August, for which perhaps these arguments cannot be used?"
"Fiona Bruce (Congleton)..: Sunday is still a day on which many people in this country can come together with family and friends to wind down, to exercise, to have a different kind of day or, most importantly, to recharge our batteries. That is an essential component of our health and well-being, individually, relationally and as a nation. We erode it further at our peril. Will further deregulation actually create any increase in productivity? I am reminded of the old adage that work expands to fill the time allotted. The same could be said of shopping, but does anyone really win?"
"I must declare an interest in the Olympics, as the sailing games, to be hosted in Weymouth and Portland, are in my constituency. We are very proud of that. With that in mind, I must speak up for my local shops and constituents—the very lifeblood of a coastal seat such as mine. They feel threatened by the temporary liberalisation of the Sunday trading laws for eight weeks this summer. Those eight weeks—games or no games—are the eight weeks on which convenience stores in holiday destinations such as South Dorset depend for most of the year’s profit. When the large retailers close for the day, the smaller ones continue to work flat out."
However, some MPs spoke in favour of increased Sunday trading. Nick de Bois made a good point – if this really was an attempt to open Sundays up to trading at all hours, the Olympics would be a very odd sample period to use as an example in favour of a permanent switch:
"Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that the problem with the idea that this is the thin end of the wedge and a trial for permanent expansion is that it would be a ludicrous trial basis, given that we will have hundreds of thousands of new visitors and customers and it would be foolish to make a judgment based on that new market?"
"Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Which countries have longer opening on Sundays than ours?
Mark Menzies: The USA is one example. An hon. Member asked whether other countries that have held the Olympic games amended Sunday trading laws, but many did not have to amend their laws. Sunday trading legislation in Scotland is very lax—people in Scotland can shop at 10 o’clock at night if they so wish—so saying that the proposed change in the law in England will be somehow draconian is wrong."
"Alongside the sporting and cultural activities, there is a great opportunity for our businesses, including in retail, to make the most of this special occasion. This Bill will help them do that, not least by creating far greater flexibility for them over the eight Sundays identified. However, we have also listened carefully to the legitimate concerns that have been raised, and the inclusion of a sunset clause, the clarification and notification procedures for affected workers, and the clear statement that the Bill will be revoked after 9 September are all responses to them. We therefore believe the Bill strikes the right balance, and we commend it to the House."
The vote was the put to the House, and MPs voted 273 to 131 for the Bill to go to second reading. Again, a small number of Tories rebelled, despite a number of Tory MPs raising concerns about the implications of relaxing Sunday trading laws. Messers Bone and Hollobone were joined by Mark Pritchard on this second vote. It is also notable that Fiona Bruce, Thérèse Coffey and Sir Roger Gale abstained, as did Nadine Dorries who wrote about her opposition to the plans on ConHome in March (however, it should be noted that Members may simply have been absent at that point, rather than actively registering dissent).
The full debate can be read here.