Matt Kilcoyne is Head Of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.
An unholy alliance of small shops, supermarkets with convenience stores, unions and the church has formed again to oppose ending Sunday trading restrictions. The whole argument against letting the big shops open after 6.00pm appears quite confected. After all, no other industry has this weird restriction in place. Our NHS doctors and nurses can work Sunday night.
Few small business owners will refuse to help a customer if they come a-knocking after hours with a genuine need. You can even order online and have it delivered on a Sunday.
Meanwhile, if you’re a reporter with a sharp nose for a story it doesn’t matter if it breaks after your shift. Notably, an article announcing opposition to ending Sunday trading restrictions was published in Monday’s Daily Telegraph, indicating at least some of the editing was undertaken after 5.00pm the previous day.
Indeed, I’ve done something rather naughty while writing this. For you see, most of this piece was itself written on the Sabbath, by my own free choice. And unlike shift workers, I don’t even get paid to do so.
Yet for some reason, we arbitrarily do not allow shops larger than 3,000 square feet to open for more than six hours between 10.00am and 6.00pm on a Sunday. Deuteronomy is famous for its niche laws governing every aspect of the observant’s life, but I must have missed the verse that says shops with 3,001 square feet are too big, and that opening for more than six hours is forbidden.
The Old Testament calls for a day of rest. We have those written into law, just at times of our own choosing rather than convention. Universality is lovely in morals, but can be poor in practice.
Our restrictions hurt consumers, workers and businesses. They hold workers back from flexible and well-compensated hours; they reduce consumer choice; and they put pressure on time-poor and cash-poor parents in tight spots.
These current laws unfairly punish larger shops, when in fact these larger shops are precisely the ones that allow for much greater social distancing in the context of Covid-19. It is, to be frank, bizarre to encourage people to go to smaller shops, with the higher risk of interaction and contagion.
The same arguments Conservatives made against Sadiq Khan shutting down the tube at the beginning of this pandemic apply to those that want to control hours of opening for Sunday shoppers.
A great deal of our economy has gone off the cliff but, like Wiley Coyote, we seem to have not yet realised. Instead of debates over the shopping habits of the past, we need as many ways as possible to increase transactions, consumption, and employment as we can muster.
We also need to find ways to keep us safe against the undimmed viral threat by allowing greater social distancing in stores, which is certainly helped by spreading out shoppers and staff over the week.
We consumer capitalists at the Adam Smith Institute have noted before that shoppers actually like the extra bit of choice: when Sunday trading laws were suspended during the Olympics, sales increased 2.8 per cent inside of London and 6.2 per cent outside of London.
The current restrictions are not even that traditionally British. Scotland has no restrictions on Sunday trading — workers have a right not to work on a Sunday should they so wish. Northern Ireland has even stricter laws than England and Wales, meaning you can only go to the supermarket between 1pm and 6pm.
Keep Sunday Special is made up of: the Association of Convenience Stores and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents; the Federation of Wholesale Distributors; the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, the Church of England, and post offices.
Beside the Church of England, which understandably wants us all in the pews rather than pounding the high street, you may have spotted the giant vested interests in this campaign. All the shops are themselves quite happily open on Sunday (and that includes some supermarkets with smaller inner city stores too), those that supply these small stores, a union that wants to limit labour competition, and the post offices that are reliant on corner shops.
This has nothing to do with keeping Sunday special. It has everything to do with shutting out the competition.
The idea that we’re a downtrodden people beholden to capitalists that want us to work every single second of every single day like Scrooge himself is both wrong and wrongheaded. The opposition and the quick backtrack from Number 10 also shows something much more worrying: a weakness for sticking to a choice when it’s made at the heart of a government.
Instead of the surety that should come with an 80-seat majority and the public’s support, we’ve had another U-turn in record time. In the face of obvious vested interests and a small but vociferous campaign that says it can muster 50 MPs to its cause, but only managed seven names on an open letter. And there’s something really off and quite worrying about the Chief Whip’s personal opinion ending up on the front page of theTelegraph.
For a Government that is supposedly obsessed with public opinion, this decision shows a deaf ear. A recent YouGov poll found 48 per cent in favour of abolishing Sunday trading rules with just 31 per cent against. Conservative voters were most in favour – with 53 per cent of self-identified Tories saying they would support relaxed trading hours rules.
Nobody is going to suddenly turn up at your house at 6.00pm on the Lord’s day, and drag you out of the house to a supermarket and stand over you while you weep in the veg aisle. But your opposition to Sunday trading should not prevent me from having that choice.
Boris Johnson should take back control of the agenda from a vocal minority on Sunday trading. The existing rules are inconsistent and hypocritical. They do not reflect a 24/7 economy, where people can purchase online and receive deliveries any time. They are backed by vested interests masquerading under a campaign of faux outrage. In their place, with a decisive move to liberalise, could come more opportunities to work, hours that meet our needs and reduced risk — and a reflection of the values of the voters that put the Conservatives back into power in December.