Kate Andrews is Head of Communications and Research Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.
The rules around Sunday trading hours look archaic compared to Britain’s relatively progressive attitude towards the private and social lives of its citizens. The tight restrictions on large businesses hold workers back from having more flexible and well-compensated hours, and they keep families on strict shopping schedules, putting pressure on their daily plans and their bank accounts.
But let’s start with the facts of the regulations and work our way up to consequences of their implementation.
The laws pertaining to which shops can be open for x amount of hours are completely arbitrary, regardless of how you paint it. ‘Big’ shops are only allowed to open for six hours on a Sunday (‘big’, as defined by the government, is 280 square meters or more). What made shops smaller than 280 square meters non-exploitative and those bigger than 280 square meters responsible for the decay of social society is beyond my reasoning, but according to law that is the breaking point.
Of course, in reality, we have many, many people working on Sundays in spaces larger than 280 square meters; just not in retail stores. Doctors, nurses, journalists, airport security, police, and bartenders are just a few of the many professions that work on Sundays, yet nobody finds this inhumane or demands that they head home early to dinner. In fact, the trading hour laws for retailers have some revealing exemptions, including a pass for “exhibition stands selling goods” and “farms selling mainly their own produce”; those who have the luxury of fully owning their own place of business can continue to operate their sales, but business owners dependent on landlords have to shut down.
Conservative Home’s Paul Goodman has argued that these exceptions to the rules are healthy compromises that allow modern society to remain safe and functional while still retaining the sentiment of Sundays that focus on family values and rest.
Paul and I agree on a lot, but from where I’m standing, these exceptions are not compromises. They are omissions. They reveal that we no longer want to live in a world that revolves around the ‘traditional Sunday’, and that there are major benefits to be gained by embracing modern, flexible hours – even when it comes to shopping.
What is particularly unfair about Sunday trading hours in their current form is that they hold employees and customers back from working and shopping the hours they would prefer, simply so others can hold onto the warm, fuzzy feelings that accompany tradition. The argument for family values is easy to make, but what about the student who is desperate for a few extra hours of work that don’t overlap with her classes? What about the working parents who would prefer to have one parent working weekends, so someone is always home with the kids?
Relaxing Sunday trading hour restrictions will let workers make more money throughout the week and will provide more flexibility for all employees, providing them with more opportunity to trade hours that don’t with their unique schedule.
And it is not just workers who will benefit from more shopping hours. Customers who have busy work schedules and save their errands till the weekend get slammed by higher prices at smaller shops because the larger stores have been forced to close early. Spending a few extra pence on an apple at a Tesco Express because the larger grocery stores were closed doesn’t immediately break the bank, but if you’re doing your weekly shopping for a family of five, those escalated prices add up fast.
Let’s not forget about the commercial benefits of expanding trading hours either. As my colleague Sam Bowman has pointed out, sales increased by 2.8 per cent inside of London and 6.2 per cent outside of London when Sunday trading laws were suspended during the Olympics. Having more people visiting the high street on Sundays is good for big and small businesses alike.
So far, this Conservative government has been chock full of surprises. When voters gave David Cameron a few more years of free-rent accommodation in 10 Downing Street, they were expecting a leader who would remain strong on the economy and sensible on spending issues. No one was expecting his Chancellor to implement controversial policies like the National Living Wage – which has put 60,000 low-skilled jobs at risk – or to launch an outright assault on tax credits – which provide an incentive to work for people at the bottom of the ladder.
Indeed, this Government has given its MPs plenty of reasons to host a rebellion. But rather than address some of the damaging policies coming into play, Greg Clark MP and his friends have instead decided to push back against a proposal that will directly improve the lives of workers, customers, families and people like me, who don’t conform perfectly to traditional Sunday rituals.