ConservativeHome, much like the Conservative Party, is a broad church – just as we feature guest writers with a wide variety of opinions, our own team are a mix of different perspectives and traditions of centre right thought. It’s that variety which leads me to this piece – while Paul yesterday put the case for retaining the Sunday Trading restrictions, here are my six reasons for abolishing them:
- Allowing shopping on Sundays won’t destroy the concept of the day off work. There are plenty of industries which work seven days a week, indeed often 24 hours a day – TV stations, power plants, petrol stations, factories and a host of other employers have done so for many years. Their workers do not lose their day(s) of rest and end up as wage slaves with no time off – they just have different days off to that deemed typical. This is what a well-functioning, free and flexible society looks like – we might not wish to do something ourselves, but allow others the option to do so.
- A lack of work harms families, too. We regularly hear that Sunday trading would destroy family life – though rather than being a hard and fast rule, that rather depends on your family and your life. But it is certainly the case that worklessness destroys families. During the jobs revolution of the last five years a growing number of Conservatives have rightly pointed out that the benefits of more jobs are far greater than the purely economic. Happiness, mental health and social cohesion are all improved when people have the opportunity to work and earn. In that sense, restricting the work available and people’s opportunities to access hours that others might not want to work is not just economically damaging, it can be harmful to people and their families, too. We are happy when someone escapes unemployment and gets a job in a shop – why decide that the same person escaping unemployment by getting such a job on Sunday is a cause for sorrow?
- Why should this restriction specifically apply to retail, and larger retailers at that? Despite its characterisation, this is not a debate about work on Sundays. Nor is it a debate about business or trade on Sundays. It is specifically a debate about physical retailers in shops over a certain size being able to open on Sundays. There are no calls for newspapers not to be written on Sundays, for cameramen to be forbidden from filming ethical and religious discussions on the BBC’s The Big Question each Sunday, nor for people to be banned from selling hot dogs or manning the turnstiles at football matches on Sundays (or indeed for ConservativeHome’s editors to be stopped from running this site on Sundays) – indeed, we accept those as perfectly normal activities which are no devastating social ill. And if you do believe they are something to disapprove of, you are free to boycott them, as people have boycotted things throughout history. So why should these shops be picked out to face legal restrictions?
- The internet is open for shopping on a Sunday – why shouldn’t actual shops be allowed to compete? It’s hard enough for retailers to battle against online competitors, who don’t have to pay high street business rates or fund the overheads of a physical shop, without shackling them further. If it’s alright for me to buy a microwave from a person in a warehouse hundreds of miles away on a Sunday, why isn’t it alright to buy one from a checkout in a shop on the same day?
- At the moment we have an unsatisfactory fudge. Let’s not pretend that the law currently keeps Sunday sacrosanct – at the moment, larger shops are allowed to trade for six hours. Many of them also open their doors half an hour or more before they open the tills, for so-called “browsing time”. Shops are open, staff are working, customers are filling baskets, but no-one is allowed to buy anything – a farce played out across the land all because of a distortionary law. For the people working in such shops, the law is also costly – they have the same commute to work, and the same travel costs, only for a shorter shift than normal. Nor does the law any longer hand an advantage solely to independent shops – one reason the miniature versions of supermarket chains have flourished is that they are small enough to be allowed to open, and customers who like their products flock in, voting with their feet. As smaller shops have higher overheads, people often end up paying higher prices, again as a result of the Sunday Trading laws. All these contortions and unintended consequences are a sign of a bad law.
- The predicted disaster has not come about in Scotland. Amid all the warnings of doom were we to lift the restrictions on Sunday trading, everyone seems to have forgotten that there are zero such restrictions in Scotland. Has society broken down? No, not really. Hypothetical arguments about the specialness of a certain day are one thing, but the actual experience of a very similar population and economy suggests there isn’t much to fear. Indeed, we also heard all these warnings when the rules were first relaxed in England and Wales in 1994, and it’s turned out to just be another part of normal life.