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The Sunday Debate Returns

Last year the Government announced its intention to legislate and enable Local Authorities to extend Sunday trading in their localities if they wished. This week they tabled amendments to the Enterprise Bill which would enact this. The Bill, which had already been given a Second Reading (330 for and 62 against) is now in Committee for detailed scrutiny.

Currently shops are allowed to open for six hours, usually between 10.00 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. The amendments would empower Local Authorities to extend those hours and give retailers the freedom to flexibly adjust hours to match local opportunities such as a seasonal tourist trade. Supporters of this measure argue that they are a response to changing social attitudes and behaviour that make Sunday just like any other day. Only 6% still regularly attend churches and even some of them shop afterwards.

USDAW, the shop workers union, has been one of the strongest opponents of Sunday trading because its members want one day a week to be with their families. The amendments recognise this by protecting their right to opt out of Sunday work for religious or family reasons. Employers will have a duty to notify their employees of this right and the latter will have to give only one month’s notice of their intention not to work on Sundays. Previously they had to give three months’ notice.

One argument against extended Sunday opening is that it will draw trade away from small High Street shops with less than 3000 square feet of floor space, that are currently exempt from the restrictions, to the big out of town supermarkets that are  limited by the six hour provision. The amendments would allow Councils to zone any relaxation they adopt to prioritise the High Street shops but not the out of town supermarkets. The Government claims that it has the support of local councils that see this as another expression of devolution and 76% of leading retailers and business leaders. The Business Minister Anna Soubry claims the changes will help shops to compete more effectively with online retailers who legally trade 24/7 and last year took 13.8% of all retail spending.

Sunday trading has long been a difficult issue for policy makers. Opponents united in 1986 to defeat the Thatcher Government’s Shops Bill at Second Reading.  The present compromise was established by the 1994 Sunday Trading Act. Proposals for further relaxation were considered in 2006 but rejected by the Business Secretary, Alistair Darling. Aware of this history his successor has taken past objections very seriously and sought to avoid them. A consultation found that 76% of the 7000 respondents backed the proposed changes. Nevertheless, opposition from the faith communities and the shop workers’ union remains strong and there is no certainty that the Government will have a majority for the amendments when the Bill is reported back to the Whole House. Rumours suggest that at least 20 Conservative MPs will join the Labour Party and the SNP to vote against the Sunday trading amendments.

Even if the changes are approved all is not necessarily lost for their opponents. They can try to persuade their fellow citizens and Councillors of the case for keeping Sunday as a much needed day for rest and family time.

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