So after months of prevarication, on Tuesday the Government confirmed its plan to further relax Sunday Trading laws. It was an odd announcement because the Government has not published its response to the summer consultation. The Business Secretary has said the Enterprise Bill will be the vehicle to introduce the law change, but despite the Bill going through the Lords and now Second Reading in the Commons the actual amendment has not been made public. It seems to smack of a Government more interested in finding a way to get the measure through Parliament than engaging with the issue and making the case in and outside Parliament. In the Commons the Business Secretary made a partial and inadequate case and here are my seven challenges:
1. Sunday trading devolution will place burdens on businesses and not provide consumers with real choice. Local authorities have indicated they will be influenced by neighbouring authorities policies resulting in a ‘domino effect’ across the country with all Sunday trading laws eventually removed. No large retailers have supported the plans because it will burden them with extra regulation and employment costs. In fact last week Tesco announced they would be reducing store hours.
2. Opening shops for longer on a Sunday won’t increase overall sales – we saw that it did not when restrictions on Sunday trading were temporarily lifted for the 2012 Olympics. It’s common sense and the common consensus among retailers that it’s household finances that determine spending, not opening hours. The 2012 experience showed sales shifting from small shops to large shops. Oxford Economics have calculated that because small shops employ more people for the same amount of spending, moving sales away from them could lead to net job losses of 3,270 across the country.
3. Just over a year ago, the Prime Minister set out a family test that should be applied to all new policies. Despite BIS’s protestations to the contrary, the independent Social Market Foundation has concluded that this policy disregards the family test. This is partly due to the issues it presents for shopworkers and their families, but actually it relates to all of us who want to have one day of the week that is different in character to the other six. This is the heart of the popular compromise we currently have on Sunday trading.
4. Shopworkers are overwhelmingly opposed to extended Sunday opening hours. 91 per cent of those surveyed by the union USDAW didn’t want more Sunday opening hours because of the impact it would have on their family life. Despite legal protections against shopworkers being forced to work on a Sunday, USDAW report tacit pressure being applied. There is a real fear that if Sunday working becomes commonplace, staff will come under more pressure to work Sunday shifts. There is also no guarantee of higher pay as we have seen just this week large retailers reducing their premium Sunday pay rates.
5. An argument has been constructed about longer Sunday opening hours helping the high street. This makes little sense, because the small, independent family-owned shops that grace our high streets are usually below 3,000 square feet – the threshold below which stores can open for as long as they want – so this policy gives them no new opportunity to trade. It is large out of town stores that stand to benefit most from longer Sunday opening hours, pulling trade away from high streets and further damaging the social and commercial fabric of our communities. The government argues that councils will prioritise high streets over out of town parks when deciding which areas can open longer, but sadly the majority of local authority chief executives say the out of town parks would be one of their priority areas to grant extended opening hours. If the Government is right, why am I hearing so much from small high street retailers about the damage this policy will cause them?
6. The Government is also telling us that more Sunday opening hours will help the high street compete with internet retailers. Again, this is not backed up by the evidence. In a survey of over 2,000 consumers conducted this January, of the two-thirds of people who had shopped on line in the run up to Christmas, not one mentioned Sunday trading restrictions as a reason for doing so. Of all the companies reporting on Christmas sales over recent weeks, not one has mentioned Sunday trading laws as a factor affecting sales. If the government has identified problems for the high street competing with on line retailers, they appear to be looking in the wrong place for solutions.
7. Finally, probably the most important reason of all for MPs to consider. The current compromise of allowing six hours Sunday trading for large stores and unlimited opening for small stores is popular and it works. 67 per cent of the public back the current laws, and the campaign in favour of these changes has been conspicuous by its quietness. Who really is calling for this change apart from a group of West End big businesses? Certainly not the small businesses whom the Government aim in the Enterprise Bill to help “innovate, grow and compete”.
Last year I worked with a group of twenty like-minded Conservative MPs to block these changes from being introduced in the Cities and Devolution Bill. Our commitment is undimmed as the Government tries again via the Enterprise Bill, and our numbers are growing. Please add your support by writing to your MP, and backing Keep Sunday Special, an alliance of shopworkers, churches and small shops.
This is now the time to stand up and be counted and stop this unwanted, unnecessary plan to relax Sunday Trading laws.
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