Inside Parliament: Bishops attack 'retreat from Christianity': Carey leads opposition to Sunday Trading Bill - Hailsham backs deregulation - Lords vote to allow restricted opening by stores

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Not just John Major's European policy was under searing examination yesterday. As the Prime Minister struggled in the Commons to defend the Cabinet's acceptance of the Ioannina compromise on EU voting rights, the contradictions between the moral and family values he espouses and Sunday shopping were being tested in the House of Lords.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, said the Sunday Trading Bill signalled 'a further retreat from the Christian character of our nation'. Substantial deregulation would create a momentum, the logical outcome of which was 'a homogeneous day like all the rest'.

But despite Dr Carey's plea during the Committee stage debate, peers followed the Commons' lead and voted by 206 to 151 to reject the restrictive Keep Sunday Special proposal and allow small shops to open all day on Sunday and big stores to open up to six hours. Total deregulation, favoured by Mr Major and Cabinet free-marketeers, but not by the majority of MPs, was rejected by 303 votes to 46.

Dr Carey said he had never been a 'legalistic sabbatarian' and did not want to turn the clock back to the days when nothing but religion was on offer. It was a time of relative peace and calm, a family day. 'For millions, it is still a special day for worship and meditation; and for millions more, it is a day when dimensions of life can be nurtured which otherwise would be crowded out.'

The leaders of all the Christian denominations and successive Chief Rabbis believed 'further damage to the character of our Sunday would be contrary to our Maker's instructions', Dr Carey said. 'It would be a move away from a pattern of life in which we believe we are most likely to fulfil our nature and God's purpose for us.'

The Bishop of Norwich, Peter Nott, said Mr Major and ministers had shown 'little awareness' of the extent of social change involved in deregulation. 'The present Government has adopted a high moral tone, and that's all right. But moralising is not a matter of words and slogans.' Ministers had made 'scant use' of the bishops' expertise in this area. 'No wonder when we feel that the Government has got its moral thinking askew some of us step in and say so.'

Relishing the quarrel, Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone, the former Lord Chancellor, declared he would continue to keep Sunday special and remain just as Christian whatever the outcome of the debate.

He said Scotland was the most sabbatarian country in Europe despite its lack of Sunday trading law. 'Keeping Sunday special is more a matter of conscience and popular culture than it is to do with the secular law of this land.'

Lord Howe of Aberavon, the former Foreign Secretary, said he favoured total deregulation but did not believe it was a realistic proposition. 'I therefore believe we have to go for a sensible, practical half- way step towards it.'

After the vested spiritual interest of the bishops, came the very different interest of Lord Sainsbury, president and former chairman of the supermarket chain, with a businesslike defence of the Commons' choice. 'There is not the slightest doubt at all that there is a huge demand for Sunday trading,' he said. 'That is the only reason why a company like mine and our competitors, guilty or not, wrongly or not, decided to do what our customers wanted.'

He cited a Mori poll finding that 11 million people shopped every Sunday. 'Who are we to ignore that number?' So popular was Sunday working that Sainsbury's had a waiting list of those who wished to work.

Lord Sainsbury said the company would lose customers if it did not open on Sundays. But he need not have worried. Even in the presence of at least 17 bishops a comfortable majority of peers filed through the check-outs to ensure that does not happen.