Michael Neubert – 1978 Speech on Shop Opening

Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Neubert, the then Conservative MP for Romford, in the House of Commons on 18 April 1978.

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 The statutes which it superseded dated back to the period 1912 to 1938.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.