Inside Parliament: Lords cherish spiritual roots: Peers debate Sunday trading - Jakobovits says sabbath 'proclaims equality of all men' - Commons considers Bosnia troop numbers

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Indy Politics
Powerful speeches from the Bishops of Liverpool and London and the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, yesterday on the importance of the Sabbath for family life and spiritual renewal were a reminder that the struggle over Sunday trading is far from over.

On a free vote, the Commons decided that small shops should be able to open all day on Sundays and big stores for up to six hours. But as the Sunday Trading Bill was given a Second Reading in the Lords last night it became clear that peers could unstitch this uneasy compromise in committee on 29 March.

Opening the debate, Home Office minister Earl Ferrers assured peers of a free vote on the three options considered by MPs. His personal preference was to support the Commons decision. He did not want to ask MPs 'to go through all that terrible ritual dance again. . .We would risk inviting continual and unprecedented chaos.'

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev David Sheppard, hoped those who used rhetoric about the importance of family life and the spiritual health of the nation would vote to keep Sunday special - through tight controls on opening.

From the opposite camp, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, a former Tory minister, said the Commons ought to be given an opportunity to think again and go for complete deregulation, 'treating shops like any other economic activity'.

Bishop Sheppard said those who voted for the opening of big stores were voting for a weakening of the family and a 'creeping secularisation' of Sunday. 'Our critics like to tell us that we in the Church have a grave responsibility for strengthening moral values. We believe that beneath moral values there need to be spiritual roots.

'These spiritual roots need cherishing. And the task of the churches will be made more difficult if there is a further shift in the pattern of Sundays.' The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev David Hope, said all the great world faiths included a regular time of respite for the community. 'This is a principle for individuals and society as whole, for our good and well-being, body, mind and spirit, for our cohesion, indeed for our very sanity and survival.'

Lord Jakobovits said it might be argued he had enough unfinished business in trying to get Jews to observe the Jewish sabbath on Saturdays without adding the Christian sabbath to his commitments. But born to the people who gave the world the Ten Commandments, he had a proprietory interest in the continued existence of a weekly day of rest.

'The loss of the Sabbath will deprive Britain of the last visible vestige of national spirituality and sanctification,' he said. For most citizens regular worship every week had been given up long ago and the sanctification of the family through marital faithfulness endured in ever fewer homes.

'But at least on Sundays, even the streets proclaim that man doesn't live by bread alone; that the material quest for profit can be interrupted and that there is more to human happiness than the pursuit of wealth and of power over others.

'By closing our shops and work places we proclaim the equality of all men. The rich do not earn more than the poor. For once we do not measure all values in life by their material price.'

The attentive atmosphere was broken by shouts from the public gallery - 'But it takes a Jew to tell you'. A man was escorted out and peers shuffled uncomfortably as Lord Jakobovits resumed his plea for observing the Sabbath.

The prospect of more British troops being sent to Bosnia was a central concern in the Commons. Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, told MPs at Question Time that the First Battalion of the Coldstream Guards would be relieved in April and May by the Second Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment.

As to the plea from UN commander Lt-Gen Sir Michael Rose, Mr Rifkind said the UK had already made clear it believed there was a case for sending additional troops. Referring MPs to the UN meeting called by Britain on Monday to discuss reinforcements, he said: 'We look forward to other countries joining with us in order to carry out that initiative.'

But Tory Cyril Townsend warned Mr Rifkind to 'bear in mind the wisdom of the ages that it is all too easy to commit troops to battle and all too hard again to get them out afterwards'.

John Major told MPs at Question Time that an important objective had been met with the reopening of Tuzla airport and promised a British aircraft to carry aid there. For once his exchange on the subject with Paddy Ashdown was quite cordial. Usually the Liberal Democrat leader's more hawkish stand is excoriated by Mr Major.

But after weeks of criticising the Government, Mr Ashdown welcomed its response to General Rose's request. 'It is vital that other nations follow Britain's lead. Would it not be helpful if the United States were to do so too?'

Mr Major told him: 'We are leading diplomatic efforts to help the UN secure reinforcements. We are prepared to provide more forces proportionately as part of a wider international effort.' The leaders of the two parties will doubtless resume their hostilities if this formula reply runs much longer.