Michael Trend is the Executive Director of the Relationships Foundation.
A government with the prospect of a long future in power and many important reforms to pursue should not squander its capital lightly. One way in which the Government seems set to do this is now on the agenda. Or, more precisely, on the order paper for tomorrow in the Commons. I refer to a New Clause to be moved at committee stage to the Enterprise Bill which would devolve the regulation of Sunday trading hours to local authorities.
Many people do not have very strong feelings on the issue either way. There are MPs who, like me, voted for partial deregulation in 1994. But people do care when high-handed governments avoid scrutiny, rush legislation and ignore the safeguards of the parliamentary process. It is all too easy for a sound-bite announcement to bite back – as the weakness of the case leaves the Government trapped between the embarrassment of backing down, alienating supporters, or trying to sneak through policy by devious means. The process is as important as the issue.
Clearly the matter of how we as a country decide to set the rhythms of national life raises important points of principle and, hitherto, governments of all persuasions have recognised this with regard to Sunday trading. Since Margaret Thatcher experienced her government’s only defeat at second reading of a bill, 30 years ago, succeeding governments have treated the question with respect.
The governments of John Major, Tony Blair and the Coalition administration have all investigated the possibility of change but always by first consulting widely in the context of a stand-alone national debate. Indeed, the last time that the issue was raised in Parliament (at the time of the London Olympics) a Conservative minister promised in the Lords that if the Government ever wanted to look at a permanent relaxation of the rules “Parliament would have the opportunity fully to debate the issue”.
Well, that’s clearly not in prospect now, especially because the Government proposes to add the New Clause to a Bill that has already been through the Lords, despite there being ample opportunity to raise it there. Is ‘devolving’ Sunday trading to be another way of wriggling out of not fulfilling pledges and assurances?
Moreover, both precedent and pledge are being swept aside by the Government not publishing the full details of the consultation exercise that took place last year. It was bad enough that the press release announcing the results depended on a 1991 evaluation of deregulation that took place in Sweden in 1972. I’m sure the ministers involved were not being deliberately misleading, so I expect that they were unaware of the facts. Either way it highlights why the Government is so desperate to avoid proper scrutiny of its threadbare case.
The delay in publishing a response to this consultation has been deplorable (it finally appeared on February 9th, well outside the time allowed by the government’s consultation principles). But worse still is the partial nature of what the government has published. No attempt was made to engage with the arguments raised. We know that there were just over 7,000 responses to the consultation, but the Government will not say how many were in favour or against. All it has said is that “the majority of large and medium sized business respondents and local government respondents were in favour of devolving powers”. We are not told how many this is, nor which ‘business respondents’ are referred to. The only specifically named retailer not in London’s West End is Lidl. Are we free to assume therefore that Lidl is the only national supermarket asking for more hours? And is that a sound basis on which to move forward? Who really wants this change? Why does the Government want to make it?
Instead, the Government is playing a game in Parliament that those who remember the desperate days for the Tories at the time at the Maastricht debate will find disturbingly familiar. Introducing legislation that enables profound change to the historic compromise that exists on Sunday trading should not be done in this way. This isn’t a process issue; it’s an issue issue. Those who wish to oppose the Government have been on alert since well before Christmas, since the business managers simply would not say when and how the proposed change would be attempted. And now that we finally know how the Government intends to proceed we find that the Bill committee where this proposal will be debated does not include any of the Conservatives who are known to oppose the measure, which seems to be a necessity, as otherwise the Government wouldn’t have a majority. The Government will be hoping that pro-Brexit Conservative MPs won’t understand the possibilities here!
But even now common sense could prevail. And the voice of common sense can be found in an official letter from the Prime Minister in the course of last year’s general election, when he wrote: “I can assure you that we have no current plans to relax the Sunday trading laws, We believe that the current system provides a reasonable balance.” His instincts were right.
Our freedoms ultimately depend on the integrity of parliamentary procedure, and powerful governments should not get into the easy habit of enforcing its will through procedural legerdemain. That way lies the further erosion of public trust and general goodwill.