David Burrowes is MP for Enfield and an Executive Member of the 1922 Committee.
Anyone would think we were back in the 1980s! A Conservative majority Government, a Labour Party which has lurched to the left – and now the Government facing cross-party opposition over deregulating the Sunday trading laws.
But before we dust down our old New Wave albums and Sunday trading arguments, it’s worth grasping the contest this time around is different. Britain already has one of the most deregulated Sunday trading regimes in Europe. The issue is not so much about the right to a day of rest versus the freedom to choose to shop but rather the need for large shops to open for more than six hours. We have a good British compromise – if you want to shop you can shop, but the difference of Sunday is respected.
I have received different reactions since I have raised the rebels’ flag in opposition to the plan to devolve and deregulate Sunday trading. Some have accused me of imposing my view of Sundays on others. However, my own choices for Sundays are not the issue. I am not defending my and others’ choice to say go to church and have a more restful day. I can of course do that however trading is regulated. I am, though, defending the choice of most shopworkers, who see this proposal as an additional pressure on them and their families, obliging them to work on Sundays.
For example, Martin, a retail store manager, has told me that “Any notion that Sunday working is voluntary disappeared long ago. I am now contracted to work one in four Sundays. My wife is a dispenser for a leading retail pharmacy and is currently in consultation to work Sundays. Who looks after our children if we both have to work Sundays?”
My constituent, Andrew, e-mailed me to say: “I have been in retail for most of my life and I have witnessed how retailers will always end up putting pressure on their employees to work on Sundays.”
I am also defending my local high streets, which welcome the different trading hours on Sundays for large shops and see extending hours as a threat. In my ten years as an MP, I have only had one local retailer asking for a change to Sunday trading. Significantly, it is one of the major supermarket retailers which does not have a convenience store presence on the high street. All the independent shops that I have spoken to oppose the plan. Many along Green Lanes, which runs through my constituency, are owned by local Asians, Greeks, Turks, Cypriots and Eastern Europeans. I doubt whether many of them have been engaged in the Government’s recent consultation.
I am challenging the mandate of the Government to make these changes.The Sunday trading devolution and deregulation plan was not in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. In contrast to the devolution proposals in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which have emerged from a long campaign, consideration and manifesto commitment, the Sunday Trading plan, which may now be tacked on to the Bill, appears initially to have come out of lobbying by a group of London West End businesses and found its way into the Chancellor’s Budget speech. It does not have the flavour of a One Nation plan.
There is a growing cross-party opposition from a coalition of groups ranging from small businesses, convenience stores, unions, family campaigners and churches. Even before an amendment has been tabled, 20 Conservative MPs have indicated their opposition which raises the distinct prospect, alongside Labour and DUP opposition, of a defeat for the Government.
So let me make the case for this opposition. Winston Churchill once said that “Sunday, as a day of rest, is the birth-right of every British citizen.” Why is this? Because a national day of rest, or at least a day which is different from the rest of the week, gives people chance to rest from their work, for families to spend time together and for communities to flourish. It’s an opportunity to counter the prevailing trend towards fractured families. The Sunday break has never been needed more.
As ever, Churchill’s wise words ring true today. A rhythm of regular rest holds us together as a healthy society: it’s better for our families, our communities, our villages, towns and even our cities; and it’s better for the physical as well as for the social environment. A shared day of rest has long been central to our life together as a nation, and is valued by our many diverse communities.
The Government has yet to publish its response to the recent consultation which will include a family test. The Social Market Foundation has given its version of the test and, significantly, concluded that even if these proposals help a small number of big businesses, they would be bad news for Britain’s families.
So why could the Government take the political and social risk and press ahead? Two arguments are being made by those who are promoting the idea. First is a supposed economic case. But the claims made here are based on an inconclusive report dating to 2006, while the think tank Oxford Economics has very recently produced a report on Sunday trading which found that further deregulation would lead to job losses as small stores are forced to cut staff and investment, or even close down as their trade is displaced to big supermarkets.
This report shows that total trade will not rise if shops are open longer: it will merely be spread to different parts of the week, and so will not add to GDP. We saw this in 2012, when Sunday trading restrictions were suspended for the Olympics – retail sales actually fell, and this at a time when the country was awash with visitors. Clearly, there is no conclusive economic basis for the proposals.
The other argument is centred around individual freedom and letting people decide. What can be easily overlooked here is that the existing compromise is almost a classic case of balancing rights: one person’s freedom can impact on another person’s right to work (or not). It’s a question of fairness for all the people who together make up our country. We should be mindful of the impact of extra hours on people needed to work in the shops, in the transport industry and in the many public services that will need to open up on Sundays.
There is little evidence that the changes, or devolved powers to change, are wanted, with Populus showing that 67 per cent of the British public support existing Sunday trading hours while only 23 per cent oppose the current rules. The status quo is also favoured by shop workers. A survey of over 10,000 retail staff at large stores carried out by USDAW has shown that 91 per cent would be against the Government plans to relax the current laws. Fifty eight per cent of shop workers in large stores are already under pressure to work more hours on Sundays. Only six per cent want more Sunday work, compared to 35 per cent who want less.
The public seem to be on the side of the current compromise of limiting some Sunday opening for larger stores, which gives everyone plenty of time to shop while providing our families and communities a chance to rest. It works well for our small shops and it’s healthy for our society. I hope the Prime Minister will agree and stick to his pre-election assurance of having no plans to alter the historic compromise on Sunday trading. Until then I, and an increasing number of colleagues, will keep up the fight to keep Sunday special.