Inside Parliament: Mask of anarchy seen over Tesco checkout: Passions rise as Commons discusses Sunday trading options - Tory backbencher denies amendment meant to confuse issue

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Indy Politics
The passion which has characterised the argument over Sunday shopping manifested itself almost as soon as the Commons debate to settle the issue got under way. Sainsbury's and Tesco's were accused of treading a path to anarchy by flouting the 1950 Shops Act and there was a shout of 'Pontius Pilate]' when Home Office minister Peter Lloyd said that without total deregulation it would still be the job of local authorities - not his - to enforce the trading law.

His predecessor with the shops brief, Dame Angela Rumbold, was charged with doing nothing during her years at the Home Office to solve the problem or to stop stores law-breaking. But now one of the foremost deregulators, Dame Angela, MP for Mitcham and Morden, said she did not believe it was her job as a legislator to tell people when they could shop or work.

John Marshall, Conservative MP for Hendon South, enthused about a trip to a supermarket last Sunday with his children, agreeing with an assertion by his party colleague Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth) that 'one of the greatest joys of children is sitting on a trolley in a supermarket'.

But there was a stern warning from the Rev Martin Smyth, Ulster Unionist MP for Belfast South, against the 'materialist spirit' that was abroad. 'Now is an opportunity for the Government that is calling us back to basics to get back to the basics of the Fourth Commandment and give us a day of rest,' he said. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep in holy, it exhorts.

Opening the debate, Sir Peter Emery, Conservative MP for Honiton, put forward a compromise option under which only a very limited number of shops, such as newsagents, would be able to open until 1pm on a Sunday. After then it would be a free-for-all. He maintained - quite rightly as it turned out - that there was no majority for total deregulation or Sunday closing. The Shopping Hours Reform Council plan, accepted by 333 votes to 258, enables small shops to open all day with big stores limited to six hours.

Sir Peter, who eventually withdrew his option, fiercely rejected a suggestion by Ray Powell, Labour MP for Ogmore and the leading KSS campaigner, that he had been asked by the Government to table it 'to confuse the issue'. 'I object very strongly to the implication,' the Tory grandee retorted.

The KSSC option - eased since a link-up with Retailers for Shops Act Reform to allow opening on four Sundays before Christmas - drew vigorous support from both sides of the House.

Toby Jessel, Conservative MP for Twickenham, said: 'If shops are allowed to open on Sunday, including food shops, this would inevitably increase the cost of living because the extra opening hours on Sunday with added wage costs . . . would be far in excess of the extra trade generated.' Prices would increase to the detriment of the standard of living of ordinary families.

Peter Pike, Labour MP for Burnley, said if anyone believed Sainsbury's and Tesco's had poured vast amounts of money into the SHRC for the benefit of their customers they were kidding themselves.

'I say to the management of Sainsbury's and other people who believe it was right to break the law to change it . . . Once you go along that dangerous path you are on the road to anarchy.'

The debate produced strange bedfellows. Alongside Mr Pike, in strong support of the KSSC-RSAR option, was Dame Elaine Kellett- Bowman, Tory MP for Lancaster, denouncing the 'top brass' of Sainsbury's and W H Smith over warnings to staff that promotion would definitely be linked to a willingness to work on Sundays.

Mr Powell said that limiting Sunday shopping hours would guarantee a common day for family and community activities, including worship; ensure rhythm in people's lives, balancing work and recreation; and protect retail workers. 'If total or partial deregulation comes about, corner shops will disappear and vandalism will present its ugly face with an increase in crime . . . Our family life will suffer, supermarkets will increase their domination of the food trade, workers will have even more fragmented leisure time and, for those in retailing, Sunday off will be a thing that's only remembered.'

Dame Angela, a minister of state at the Home Office from 1990 to 1992, was repeatedly interrupted as she argued for total dereguation. 'I do not like shopping at all, and very little would persuade me to go shopping on a Sunday.

'But having said that, and knowing how I can make my own Sunday a different day from the rest of the week, I do not feel it is my job as a legislator, nor as an individual person, to say that nobody else can go shopping on a Sunday.'

Nor did she believe it was her job to stop people working on Sunday. Some 140,000 currently did so, about one-third of them only worked Sundays and most were women, she said.

Intervening, Michael Lord, Conservative MP for Suffolk Central, said a report published in April by London Economics showed that total deregulation would result in the loss of 20,000 jobs. But Dame Angela suspected that any of the other options would lead to far more job losses.

She said she would accept the House's will if it chose restriction and would want to see the law vigorously enforced. But she said this would have to be done through local authorities. There would be 'armies of people rushing round the stores' to ensure the law was being carried out and it would cost a fortune.

Janet Anderson, Labour MP for Rossendale and Darwen, said the majority of people wanted to shop on Sunday. Women, and particularly working women, valued the extra choice.

Total deregulator Sir George Gardiner, Tory MP for Reigate, said: 'If millions of our citizens wish to shop on Sundays and so many shop workers are eager to serve on Sundays, what moral right have we to stop them?'

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