Relaxing Sunday trading laws could be bad news for retailers

Councils in England and Wales will have the power to set their own rules.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 11 Feb 2016

Sunday trading has been a contentious topic since David Cameron was forced to scrap a vote on plans to relax the laws last year after a backlash. But ministers are now pressing ahead to give councils the power to extend hours.

Business secretary Sajid Javid told MPs, ‘Central government will not be dictating how to use this power. The decision will be entirely local, reflecting local preferences, shopping habits and economic conditions.’

Unsurprisingly, the return to this policy didn’t go down well with Labour and trade unions. As the idea is being introduced through an amendment to the Enterprise Bill, there will be less chance for parliamentary scrutiny. Sneaky.

The general secretary of Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union, said the plans were a ‘betrayal of shopworkers and all those who regard Sunday as a special day’. And there’s a further concern for some religious workers.

Javid said reviewed plans allowing shops to open for longer would include a religious clause. So an employer would be legally obliged to remove an employee from Sunday shifts if they gave a month’s notice. Though it's not clear how employers will be able to sift through religious workers and those who might just fancy having Sundays off...

Michael Trend from the Keep Sunday Special campaign wasn't overly impressed with this addition either, ‘The truth is if you work in a large supermarket and a lot of your mates are doing Sunday shifts it’s quite difficult for you to let down the side, it’s quite difficult for you to exercise these rights.’

But changes to Sunday trading aren't just a problem for workers - they could harm some businesses too. While the government said authorities could pick and choose certain zones to benefit from the change to provide a boost to flagging high streets, there’s no guarantee they’d be focused on.

The Association of Convenience Stores’s chief executive James Lowman said one of their surveys found extended Sunday hours would probably be applied to out of town parks, which would likely have an adverse effect on high streets. On top of that, the success of ramping up opening hours may be uncertain – there’s no guarantee retailers will get enough additional business during the extended hours to outweigh the extra cost of staying open.

The policy may not even be a unanimous winner with big supermarkets. The current set-up has large shops restricted to six hours of trading between 10am and 6pm, while small shops are unrestricted. The likes of Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco may not feel overly enamoured with relaxing the rules as it could mean fewer customers shopping at their convenience stores where prices are usually higher.

Changes to Sunday trading may be a step towards freeing up shops to operate more flexibly in a way that suits them, and would undeniably be a boon for consumers. But there's a danger they could backfire and harm both retailers and the staff they employ. 

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