In a move welcomed by the Prime Minister, most ministers and most large retailers, but bitterly opposed by many religious groups, the Commons voted 333 to 258 in favour of substantial but partial deregulation of Sunday shopping.
The vote, which will end legal confusion over Sunday shopping, in effect reverses the government defeat of seven years ago when the Commons voted decisively to retain the status quo. Nineteen Cabinet ministers and the Labour leader, John Smith, supported the change, which had been strongly backed by the Shopping Hours Reform council.
Total deregulation - the option that the Prime Minister and some of his most senior Cabinet colleagues would have preferred - was defeated by 404 to 174. The 'Keep Sunday Special' option - which would have prevented most shops from opening except on the four weekends up to Christmas - was defeated by 304 to 286. That had been supported strongly by churches and Marks & Spencer.
Disappointed 'Keep Sunday Special' supporters said that their campaign would continue. Hugh Dykes, Tory MP for Harrow East, said the decision would close small businesses and damage Tory support. Denis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, shook his finger angrily at the Labour front bench and shouted: 'You voted for a seven-day week you should have voted for a four-day week.'
The change, which will be incorporated in the Bill, means that all shops of less than 280 square metres will be allowed to open at any time on a Sunday. Shops over that size could open in a continuous six- hour period between 10am and 6pm.
Mr Major's success where Baroness Thatcher failed in 1986 will be seen by Tory loyalists as vindicating his strategy of reintroducing a reform measure but allowing a free vote on different options. Despite relief by senior ministers at the defeat of the 'Keep Sunday Special' option, some believe the Government will return to Parliament to extend deregulation. 'Kenneth Clarke will be disappointed,' said a source close to the Chancellor. 'He wanted full deregulation but this will throw up anomalies and in two or three years the Government will have to come back with more deregulation.'
There was drama when the vote on the 'Keep Sunday Special' option was taken twice on the orders of Michael Morris, the deputy speaker. Mr Morris upheld a complaint after the first vote that the No lobby had been kept unlocked for longer than it should have been - giving an unfair advantage over late arrivals Alison Vokes, spokeswoman for Keep Sunday Special, said: 'We are greatly saddened that MPs have bowed to commercial pressure. But because it was such a close vote on our option, we will take the fight to the House of Lords. The great majority of grassroots opinion wants to keep Sunday special and it's sad that MPs have not taken their views into account. It's going to be a legal nightmare. Why should stores who have so far flouted the law, suddenly start obeying now?'
Ms Vokes expressed fears for the double pay that Sunday workers have enjoyed. The campaign's views were echoed by the Rt Rev John Taylor, Bishop of St Albans, who said on BBC's Newsnight that life would become 'intolerable' for people living near stores. 'It's a sad day for this country. It's not a compromise, it's virtually deregulation.'
But David Quarmby, joint managing director of J Sainsbury, said on the same programme that he did not believe the pattern of trading would change significantly and that opponents' worst fears of 'massive opening' were 'unfounded'.
Marks & Spencer, which had observed the existing law, said it would consider Sunday opening for edge-of-town stores. 'We've got a market position and we have to protect it.'
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