Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget on Wednesday included a proposal to allow local control over liberalising Sunday trading.
The campaign in the 1990s for more Sunday trading was presented as a matter of freedom: “We should be able to shop on Sunday if we want,” but it was not about creating a more just society – it was about trying to find business advantage. A determined lobby successfully argued against total deregulation to preserve some of the value of a shared day off and some protection for retail workers and associated employees.
The legislation, which was passed in 1994, was a compromise which tried to balance rights and opportunities for all sections of society. That must still be the objective today.
Retail and associated workers are hardly well off, and it is they who will pay the price of longer opening hours on Sundays. While most of their bosses will still enjoy weekends off, many retail workers already find they have no choice over Sunday working. They have lost, for a large part, the premium payments they enjoyed at first. In addition, they will face more childcare costs, which will probably be more expensive on a Sunday, or lose precious family time.
The same claims in favour of Sunday trading are being made now as 21 years ago – that the economy will grow and that people will not have to work if they don’t want to. This time there is even more compelling evidence about how wrong this is.
The 2012 Olympic Games experience, when shops were opened for longer hours, is not persuasive. The growth in business in large shops took place at the expense of small shops, which lost business. There is only so much money in the economy, and loading businesses with the greater costs involved in longer opening hours cannot lead to growth.
Some distinguished business leaders voiced these arguments, before and after the Olympics, for example Stuart Rose, former executive chairman of Marks & Spencer, and Justin King, when he was CEO of Sainsbury’s. The Association of Convenience Stores, another part of vital social fabric, has surveyed this and leading accountants Deloitte also take this line.
More Sunday shopping is at odds with the Big Society, the vision outlined by David Cameron in 2010. Greater human flourishing is unlikely to come from even more consumerism. Our laws need to encourage citizens to be good neighbours, volunteers, carers and parents, which requires a balance of work and rest.
Research from the National Centre for Social Research shows how important this shared day of rest is for families and for relationships to flourish. If the time available on Sundays for family interactions is diminished (through the need to work) it is not made up during the week.
Our heritage is six days’ work, one day’s rest. We are zealous about preserving built heritage, and pay the considerable price for that because we recognise the social benefit to be gained. Yet this piece of cultural heritage is just as valuable and worth retaining, because it has real value to shaping what kind of society we want to be. That should be at the heart of our politics.
Bishop Alan Smith of St Albans sits in the House of Lords and has a special interest in economic matters