By Tim Montgomerie
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When the Government first flirted with the idea of relaxing Sunday trading laws my colleague Paul Goodman was very unimpressed. Is this the most anti-Christian government in British history?, he asked. But it's not just churchgoers who don't like the idea. By 52% to 36% most Britons oppose further deregulation of Sunday opening.
Further deregulation does enjoy the support of some leading business groups, however. On yesterday's Today programme Mark Wallace of the Institute of Directors was making the case for the relaxation of Sunday trading laws to be made permanent, following its temporary introduction for the course of the Olympic and Paralympic games. The Government has promised to consider whether the experiment served to boost the retail economy.
George Osborne and Eric Pickles are said to be sympathetic to a permanent extension of opening hours but opposition from the Liberal Democrats and from some Tory backbenchers is likely to scupper any change. Philip Johnston reminds Telegraph readers that, in 1986, Margaret Thatcher's majority of 140 was overturned by Tory MPs opposed to her plan for complete deregulation of Sunday trading. It was the most effective and biggest rebellion of her time as Prime Minister. Today's Tory leadership does not need another clash with its Coalition partners and own backbench.
Mark Pritchard MP spoke for many of today's Conservative parliamentarians yesterday when he said that small, neighbourhood shops would suffer if they no longer enjoyed one day of part protection from competition from the big supermarkets. He also said that shopworkers would come under greater pressure to work on Sundays if there was further deregulation. Remembering his own employment history he said that workers who declined to put in extra hours on Sunday, for family or religious reasons, were sometimes passed over when it came to promotion. Staff are supposedly protected from having to work on Sunday but pressures to do so are subtle but not ineffective, he said. The shopworkers' union, USDAW, is "vehemently opposed" to longer Sunday opening hours.
My own view is that a family-friendly government should be looking to maximise the opportunity for parents to spend time with their children and weekends are the best time for that to happen. According to the Relationships Foundation "1.4 million parents are working regularly through the whole weekend and 2.5 million families are affected by having at least one parent working at some point each weekend." Extended Sunday opening will only increase that number and aggravate the problem. Then there are the politics. There are few votes to be won in relaxing Sunday trading laws and probably a good number to be lost in overturning the status quo. The Conservative Party should be repairing relations with churchgoers, not opening up a new front against them.