As John Major revealed his backing for total deregulation, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, published an unusual draft Bill that will offer MPs the prospect of a free vote on four possible avenues of reform.
The options are total deregulation, the partial deregulation advocated by the Shopping Hours Reform Council, the restricted opening promoted by the Keep Sunday Special Campaign, and the slightly broader Retailers for Shops Act Reform proposal.
Option one would allow any shop to open at any time on a Sunday, while option two, backed by Sainsbury, Tesco and Kingfisher, gives unlimited opening to small shops and six hoursto big stores.
Under option three, only a limited number of small convenience shops could trade. Option four, supported by Marks & Spencer, House of Fraser and Burton, would allow a few more shops to open and all to open on the four Sundays before Christmas.
A guide to the Bill, serving also as a consultation document, shows how seriously the Government takes clearing up the 1950 Shops Act, which allows gin and soft porn to be sold on Sunday, but not tea or Bibles. But ministers are aware that support for the Keep Sunday Special campaign among Tory MPs is strong enough to risk a re-run of the defeat inflicted on Margaret Thatcher in 1986.
The sole issue at the Bill's Second Reading will be whether a majority of MPs favour replacing the 1950 Act with one of the options. If the Bill clears that hurdle, a committee of the whole House would vote on up to four amendments each of which will have the effect of leaving one option in the Bill and removing the others.
By accepting or rejecting the amendments, the House of Lords would then decide whether to accept or reject the choice of the House of Commons.
The process, adopted because Parliamentary procedure only allows for 'yes-no' answers to successive amendments, means that as soon as one of the options wins a majority, any of those not voted on will fall.
Whichever model emerges, existing shopworkers will be able to choose whether to work on Sunday and will be protected from dismissal or other victimisation if they choose not to. People who have agreed to Sunday working at the time the new law is passed will also be entitled to change their mind. But the Government will resist intensive lobbying for the protections to apply to workers joining the retail industry after the change.
An NOP poll for the Keep Sunday Special campaign has found that 80 per cent of the public would either be satisfied by the campaign's proposals or do not shop on a Sunday. And a poll of 100 backbench MPs on behalf of Retailers for Shops Act Reform found 48 per cent support for its proposal, against 45 per cent for the deregulation option backed by the Shopping Hours Reform Council.
The Consumers' Association said full deregulation was the only option that 'takes account of public opinion, stands the test of time and saves consumers most money'. The Federation of Small Businesses also supports it.
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