OSBORNE octopus

The present Sunday trading settlement strikes a balance between work and rest.  On the one hand, trains and buses run, policemen stroll their beats – or, should I say, do their paperwork? – shops open for a certain number of hours…and ConservativeHome editors pen ToryDiaries.  On the other, those shop opening hours are restricted, most offices are all but empty and many factories all but closed. Doctors are at work in state hospitals but not teachers in state schools.

This compromise recognises that though jobs are vital they aren’t everything, that families need time together, and that this time is best guaranteed by laws that help one day in seven not to be like the other six.  On paper, this arrangement isn’t necessary, and employers will always meet workers’ wishes halfway.  In practice, tell that to the marines, or rather the shopworkers.  If the present restrictions on Sunday trading are relaxed, many who don’t want to work on Sundays will end up doing so.

More shops open for longer on Sundays will inevitably mean, over time, more factories open on the same day too, and this seventh day of the week will become more like the other six.  Better quality of life will be traded off for a higher standard of living.  This site’s position is that the game isn’t worth the candle.  We could get faster growth by enrolling children in the labour force, concreting villages by cental diktat, pouring toxins into rivers or abandoning immigration controls.  But we don’t – and rightly.

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, currently passing through the Commons, proposes to change this compromise by permitting local authorities to lengthen Sunday trading hours in their areas.  The Sunday Telegraph reports that some 20 Conservative MPs are up in arms and that Greg Clark is to hose them down (or try to).  But while the voice may be the voice of the Communities Secretary, the tentacles are those of the Octopus Chancellor.

George Osborne is tasked with getting higher growth and has little feel for family policy in any event – as his flawed childcare policy, which helps two-earner but not one-earner couples, vividly demonstrates.  It must be conceded that his scheme has its attractions.  Localism is an important principle, and the proposals in the Bill which Clark and his team are charged with advancing would probably paint a patchwork Sunday trading map.

The pressure for more Sunday working would be felt most acutely in urban areas where more people already work on that day.  But local authorities in those parts of the country are mostly Labour.  Would they yield to the trend in their areas or bow to campaigning from USDAW?  Would councils in the more rural parts of England, which tend to be Conservative-controlled, take the liberal option or stick with the status quo?

We may never find out.  The plan has its localist attractions but was not in the Conservative Manifesto – and has been sneaked late into the Bill so as to by-pass the Lords and the Bishops (a real Osborne “cunning plan”, this). There is no mandate for it. The Government is already under pressure over the EU renegotiation and tax credits, and has a majority of only 12.  The Chancellor’s manifesto-absent plan is inflaming backbenchers and risks losing a vote.  Best to drop it.

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