Shops (Amendment)

– in the House of Commons am 12:00 am ar 18 Ebrill 1978.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

4.10 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Neubert Mr Michael Neubert , Romford

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to allow the organisation on weekdays of promotional evenings on retail premises. The Shops Act 1950, passed into law nearly 30 years ago, was itself a consolidating Act. The statutes which it superseded dated back to the period 1912 to 1938. Although the passage of time and changing circumstances would indicate the need for review and reform, there has been no amending legislation other than the Shops (Early Closing Days) Act 1965 which gave shopkeepers a right to fix their own closing day.

As the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department acknowledged in an Adjournment debate on 28th April last year, successive Governments have treated amendment of the Shops Act as best left to Private Members' legislation because of its controversial nature. In that spirit, my Bill would amend the Act in a small particular. I hope that it will be both uncontroversial and unexceptionable since it seeks to regularise a well-established practice.

In recent years the practice has grown up of after-hours presentations of new products by retailers dealing in the more expensive kind of equipment, whose customers need time and considerable technical advice in order to make the right decision. The most familiar examples of this are motor cars and stereophonic sound systems.

Working men and women, particularly husbands and wives together, welcome the opportunity of an extended demonstration of new models after normal trading hours and in greater comfort and relaxation than shopping facilities usually allow. No purchases take place at the time and nor are orders placed, but it is understood by all that the purpose of these functions is to promote the eventual sale of the product. To this end representatives of the manufacturers are also often in attendance.

Under the Act, the organisation of such promotional evenings is permitted provided they do not take place on the actual shop premises. This is not very practicable, especially with regard to cars. Dealers would naturally prefer to demonstrate new models in their own showrooms. To do otherwise would be to add to the costs which would eventually be passed on to the consumer in higher prices, as well as being much less convenient for all concerned.

Unfortunately, although many local authorities regard it as within their discretion to approve the holding of promotions on retail premises after hours, others observe the strict letter of the law and the Lord Chief Justice has upheld the view that, even though no transactions take place, such events must be interpreted as "the serving of customers" under the terms of the Act. As a result, a serious and inhibiting anomaly has developed.

For example, a random survey taken in October 1976 showed after-hours promotions on business premises to have been held at about that time in places as far apart as Aberdeen and Warrington, Carlisle and Winchester, Preston and Luton, Chislehurst and Hendon—the last two in London. Yet the London Borough of Havering—the starting point of my own interest in this matter—strictly refuses approval for these functions. In 1973 it successfully took a case to the High Court in defence of its interpretation. In the circumstances this may appear to be an excess of rectitude on the council's part. It reasonably maintains that if it did not carry out the duty conferred on it by Section 71(1)— to enforce within their district the provisions of this Act,"— it would be open to an order of mandamus in the High Court.

These differing interpretations of the scope of their discretion by different local authorities lead to inequity and inequality of opportunity. As an illustration, one company in my constituency—which is a major Vauxhall dealer in East London—is able to hold after-hours promotions in its showrooms in other parts of the area but not in Romford. Naturally, it finds this difficult to understand and resents the effective discrimination.

My Bill would, therefore, regularise the position by allowing local authorities the discretion to approve the holding of a limited number of specific promotional functions on individual retail premises, after hours, on weekday evenings only. This small amendment to confirm existing practice would not conflict with the principal purposes of the Act in respect of closing hours which were to safeguard employees from exploitation and to protect traders from unfair competition, since such events would be infrequent, subject to approval by the local authority and the opportunity open to all traders on application. I hope, therefore, that the House will give me leave to bring in this Bill.

4.17 p.m.

Photo of Mr Sydney Tierney Mr Sydney Tierney , Birmingham, Yardley

I wish to oppose this Bill. At the outset I must say that the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) has introduced what appears to be a simple piece of amending legislation aimed at dealing with what he calls an "anomaly" arising out of the 1950 Act. The Bill may sound simple in its presentation, but it is full of danger and is highly complicated in its practicability with regard to its application.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has not included Sunday trading where much of this kind of presentation and demonstration work takes place. At present, the Sunday trading situation is probably the worst aspect.

We have all seen on television, and in other media, advertisements about discount buying, promotional drives and so on, on Sundays. We have seen advertisements stating, "Bring the family for a day out" and that kind of thing. Some of us have often thought that some of these advertisements must come perilously close to advertising illegal activities.

The hon. Gentleman said that some local authorities turn a blind eye to the kind of promotion which he wishes to introduce—where one walks around, completes an order form and finalises the deal on a Monday, or, say, pays a few hundred pounds for a bag of carrots or whatever system is devised in this promotional situation. He also said that other local authorities observe the strict letter of the law.

The answer which the hon. Gentleman really seeks to his so-called "anomaly" is that all local authorities should turn a blind eye to this kind of promotion. But the real answer is that all local authorities should observe the strict letter of the law and the Act as it now stands. I think that is the answer to the dilemma which the hon. Gentleman has come across.

As we all know, the basic principle of shops legislation has been based on the uniformity of its application. This equality under the law is of paramount importance, as is every other aspect of the law. Obviously, we hear a great deal of talk in the world of trade about fair competition, whatever that means. Yet many in competition in the commercial world seek advantages over their competitors—some fair and some unfair. It is wrong that an advantage should be given in the legislation of this House to some traders over others. In my opinion that is what this Bill seeks to do.

It would be wrong to legislate for the demonstration of certain goods outside permitted shopping hours but not to do the same for other goods in other circumstances. Who decides which goods come into the justifiable category? How does one limit and control by legislation the situation or the number of applications, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech? What about the cost of checking and enforcement by local authorities? It is not possible to bring in legislation of this kind. If introduced, it would give rise to pressure from the remaining traders for similar privileged exemptions from the present law.

The hon. Member said that men and women welcomed the opportunity for extended demonstrations of goods after normal trading hours. But where does the list end? In carpet and drapery shops there would be a call for demonstrations of new textiles and new designs. In do-it-yourself shops there would be a call for demonstrations of new tools and devices. Building merchants would want to demonstrate new materials and new brick-laying techniques. There would be a demand for demonstrations of furniture design and house planning in furniture shops. Hardware shops would want to demonstrate new mowing machines and compartmentalised greenhouses. Chemists' shops would want to demonstrate new cameras and film equipment. Food shops would want to demonstarte the cooking of new dishes or foods to eat and grow slim or how to get the best out of a piece of mutton. It goes on now in grocery and food shops.

There is not much left when one considers the list that could come out if this kind of amendment to the law were made. What is more, supermarkets and hypermarkets would not want promotional functions affecting three-quarters of their stores and not the remainder. I am sure that chaos would result.

Are these promotional demonstrations to go on until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.? I think that that is a valid question, bearing in mind that some shops now close at 9 p.m. on the so-called late night. If so, they will say "What nonsense. We can promote. We can demonstrate. We can take an order on these occasions. But we cannot take the money and complete the sale." Of course it will be nonsense and, before long, they will take the money. The result will be that shopping hours in the retail trades will go back to what they were 50 years ago.

Some people may ask "Why not?" We hear a great deal of talk in this House and elsewhere about prices. People have a limited amount of money to spend. If shops are allowed to stay open for eight, 10 or 12 hours a day, the amount of money available for spending is not increased. But if the shopping hours are increased, operational costs are increased, and those costs are recouped by increases in prices. The shopping public pay for those increased operational costs, and the Chopping public would have to pay for these demonstrations if they were allowed.

All over the country we suffer already from artificially high prices because of competitive advertising, over-elaborate packaging and presentation—sometimes the packaging costs more than the com

modity which is contained in it—and so-called discount buying on manufacturers' recommended or suggested retail prices leaves a lot to be desired However, I shall not dwell on that.

My final argument is one which I make with a measure of self-interest, which I declare. In the main, the hours worked by shop workers are tied to shop opening hours. Employers in the retail trades do not agree with piecemeal legislation of this kind. But USDAW, in which I have an interest, and the employers have always tried to strike a balance between the real needs of the general public and the rights of shop workers to reasonable working schedules USDAW members put up with antisocial hours to serve the public in an industry which is efficient and prosperous but which carries a low pay label. Workers in the industry have never had fair recognition of their contribution to the British economy, nor the standing and rewards which their services deserve What is more, 70 per cent. of the labour force is female, with other domestic responsibilities. If this Bill were passed it would make the working conditions of all shop workers more intolerable. For this and the many other reasons which I have given, I ask right hon. and hon. Members to oppose the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committee at Commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 128, Noes 148.

Question accordingly negatived.