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Sunday Trading Laws Are Dilemma Now Facing UK Government

UK Shopping: Restricted Sunday Hours - Ian Shortman

Under the guise of Olympic Games needs, Britain is set to ‘try’ unrestricted Sunday shop opening as an experiment. It may become permanent.

Shortly after the 2010 General Election, I wrote the following article, to raise awareness of how Sunday Trading laws would become a real problem for the then new Government. The 2012 Budget is likely to lead to a dry-run of abandoning laws for the summer, to enable Britain’s trading doors to be open 24/7,

Understandably, churches and campaigners for Sunday respite from relentless commercialism are opposed. It will be a hotly contested issue during 2012. The arguments rehearsed below are still relevant to the debate.

The April 2010 Article:

Britain’s new government will have competing priorities, from fiscal restraint and taxes to Afghanistan and immigration. However, there is another issue: should the UK have unlimited Sunday shopping hours, or should there be restrictions closing large outlets for part of the traditional day of rest?

The political problem is that people have conflicting roles and feelings. Virtually everybody is a consumer/purchaser in some form or other, nobody wants to work constantly, but some want a quieter day on Sundays, some want small shops, others want bigger, others just the Internet. How can legislation be framed to keep the majority happy?

A Nation of Shopkeepers

Napoleon Bonaparte is reputed to have dismissed the English as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’, meaning buying and selling was more important than preparing for war. He may have taken that from Adam Smith’s economic treatise The Wealth of Nations (1776), which described raising up a government influenced by shopkeepers.

Nowadays, he might describe the British as a nation of shoppers. It’s a favourite pastime, and supplies jobs, drives the economy. It’s jobs in manufacturing things to sell; it’s jobs dependent on selling, marketing and advertising, building and maintaining outlets, transporting goods and customers, that makes shopping so economically important.

The British Retail Consortium estimates consumers make 60 billion annual shopping visits, one in eight households has a retail worker, and over 40% of the adult population has worked in the sector. It also argues that retailing is at the forefront of tax-and-spend policies, in-town and out-of-town planning issues, cutting waste, reducing carbon emissions and responding to public demands for food, fashion, lifestyles and essentials. The retail workforce is diverse: 62% women, 13% disabled workers, 12% ethnic minority staff, and 20% are under 21 and frequently in their first employment.

Almost Everything Is A Retail Opportunity

Today’s shopping experience has come about in response to a changing world and technology. People crave shopping opportunities in towns, railway stations, motorway services, garages, hospital foyers and fields, farms and 24-hour supermarkets. Consumers demand convenience, flexibility and choice undreamed of a generation ago. High street shopping reinvents itself to take advantage of people’s disposable time and money, advances in marketing and display, the online revolution and the rise of the 24-hour society. The same is true in the USA where 24/7 spending is easier without shopping restrictions enshrined in British Sunday Trading laws.

Globalisation of communications and trading, rapid and constant flow of data means that every aspect of retailing from commodity prices, wars and natural disasters, accidents, medical break-throughs, fashions and trends, customer satisfaction, are all available without break, beamed around the world. Computer-generated personalised shopping taken from previous purchasing history and individualised guided suggestions are becoming normal.

Keep Sunday Special

In 1985 a campaign group, Keep Sunday Special, was established in Britain to oppose plans to give unrestricted Sunday trading the green light, although Scotland has no Sunday-specific curbs. It grew out of The Lord’s Day Observance Society, set up to protect Sunday as a day of Christian worship. Latterly, religion has not been the focus, but is now rather about protecting family life and workers.

Prior to the most recent law change in 1994, only small shops could open, all large outlets had to close, and anomalies were rife. People could buy a pornographic magazine but not a Bible. After long hours debating in Parliament, a new Act was framed that allowed large shops (over 3000 square feet, or 280m2) to open for 6 hours on a Sunday, and most do so between 10am and 4pm. Smaller shops can stay open longer.

Assurances are in place between employers and trades unions that no shop worker can be forced to work on Sundays. Recently, USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, with 320,000 members, have launched their own campaign to keep Sundays different.

They and other groups delight in a new poll by the Association of Convenience Stores which found only 5% of the public favouring longer Sunday shopping hours, while 89% actually oppose changing the status quo. Some garden centres defied the law with longer Easter Sunday opening, and with Boxing Day falling on a Sunday in 2010, other outlets could be tempted to challenge the regulations.

So, MPs and ministers responsible must strike a balance between employers, jobs, taxes and investment against public opinion, campaign groups and citizens who want to have one day a week free from 24/7 retailing. The government may keep things as they are, arguing that if people want to buy, they can do so on line or in the corner shop. It’s a tough call, but so is everything in politics.

First published on Suite 101, 24 April 2010.

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