During the budget speech, the Chancellor announced that “we will introduce legislation limited to relaxing the Sunday Trading laws for eight Sundays only, starting on 22nd July.” It appears, however, that the previous day his aides had got a little carried away during a media briefing and informed the press that this measure would, in effect, be a pre-cursor to relaxing Sunday trading permanently across the UK. This was quickly suppressed, and the wording of the subsequent statement was very clear indeed: for eight Sundays only.
However, there isn’t a single person in Westminster who believes that for one moment. If the eight Sundays show an increase in profit for the stores concerned (and why wouldn’t they with the number of visitors expected in London during the Olympics?), those figures will be used to support a simple extension of what will then be existing legislation, to roll out full trading hours across the UK for seven days per week.
Given that one of the main proponents of relaxing the Sunday trading laws is Lord Simon Wolfson, CEO of Next and close family friend of George Osborne, it’s not too difficult to see where and how this is being driven. Lord Wolfson believes full Sunday Trading hours will boost the bottom-line of Next by up to £8 million, and presumably help to further justify the almost £2million package he received from Next last year. The British public do not want extended Sunday trading hours. As we are elected by the public to be their representatives in Parliament, shouldn’t we be making laws in their name, according to their wishes, not on the basis of what Lord Wolfson demands?
A GfK/NOP 2012 poll commissioned by ACS revealed that 89% of the public were opposed to liberalisation of the law. There have been a number of cross-party groups looking at the issue, all concluding that an extension of Sunday trading hours would not be a pro-growth measure, and in fact could be damaging to smaller businesses. Sunday trading has been examined twice as part of a Retail Growth Review and on both occasions the conclusion was that the existing Sunday trading regulations are proportionate and did not harm growth and job creation. Federations of smaller retailers have come together to renounce the plans and urge the Chancellor to re-think his stance.
However, George Osborne has now concluded that to extend Sunday trading will promote growth. As we live in a society which has increasingly demanded that all policy is based on evidence, we are forced to ask: where exactly is the evidence for this position? It is reported that on Wednesday evening, Mr Osborne reverted to his public-school persona, branded MPs opposed to the move as the "Christian right", and was joined by the Prime Minister, who also mocked concerned MPs – MPs who are in Parliament because they have values and principles.
If in the eyes of the Chancellor, being opposed as an MP means being on the Christian right, where does this leave 89% of the public? Not everyone wants to worship Mammon at their Trafford Centre Temple every Sunday and even one of the larger supermarkets, Morrison’s, has rejected the call and other large retailers, such as John Lewis, are at best neutral. There has been absolutely no public consultation with the public or retailers. Maybe this lack of consultation is based on the fact that the Chancellor knows the responses will be wholly negative.
Some of us are very sceptical about the need to bring in legislation at all for the eight-week Olympic period for anywhere else other than within the Olympic village. What about those who have tickets to take their children to an event who will suddenly find they are required to be at work on that Sunday? The statement from the Chancellor that “we don’t want to hang a sign stating that London is closed for business” on a Sunday was misleading. It isn’t. The shops are open for six hours. We could always replace the sign with "open for leisure", as there is certainly no shortage of things to do within London on a Sunday.
The reason the British public are so opposed to Sunday trading is that Sunday is a special day for families. Visit any swimming pool in the country on any Sunday afternoon and you will find it full of Mums, Dads, and kids, enjoying one of the activities children love best: splashing around in the water and learning to swim. In the spectators' poolside seats will sit grandparents guarding the oversized bags of spare swimming goggles and towels, clapping and smiling as grandchildren show off their latest dare-devil underwater achievement. The pool cafes are full of after-swim families enjoying a hot treat, made even more enjoyable by the pervading smell of chlorine and wet hair dripping down necks.
In my constituency, the Sunday morning air is rent by the sound of church bells and the slow hum of car engines heading from London and the surrounding area towards Woburn Abbey, the Safari Park and Wrest Park for a fun family day out. The park playgrounds are full of Dads pushing swings or playing football with their boys, and Sunday is one of the busiest days of the week for cinemas and restaurants everywhere. It is the day when families relax, create memories, and bond. The one day of the week an employee has the contractual right to opt-out of working. For those parents who don’t live together, it’s when a non-school day and a non-working day meet and parents often get to have precious time with the child they don’t see on other days.
For those without children, Sundays are a wind down day. One to chill, reflect, prepare, enjoy, and heal. A day when Dads often entertain the kids whilst a working Mum completes the tasks which escape her during the week. And many families do use the day to go shopping together, taking advantage of the six hours the shops are open.
For some, it’s a day to worship, a holy day. Sundays are very special. They are a golden thread which runs through the tapestry of society and one the British people don’t want the Chancellor to unpick. The justification that the move is pro-growth is false. People don’t have more money to spend; the spending will simply be spread out and, in fact, could end up costing the larger retailers more. If the spending in big stores does increase, it will be to the peril of the smaller retailers who operate within very tight profit margins. Let’s leave Sundays as they are. A day for families – a day for everyone – to enjoy.