UK: NEVER ON A SUNDAY NO MORE. - David Quarmby calls for Parliament to accept that society has changed, allow Sunday trading, and let people spend the day as they wish.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

David Quarmby calls for Parliament to accept that society has changed, allow Sunday trading, and let people spend the day as they wish.

What did you do last Sunday? Pottered in the garden, catching up on some of those autumn jobs? Did you go along to the garden centre and buy some bulbs, perhaps a pair of gardening boots, and a few screws and a hinge to mend the shed door? Perhaps your wife went to the corner shop and bought some bacon, sausage and mushrooms for brunch. I'll bet that neither you nor she realised that the garden centre was breaking the law by selling the screws, hinge and boots - though not the bulbs - as was the corner shop by selling the bacon and the sausage - but not the mushrooms.

Everyone agrees that our antiquated and anomalous Sunday Trading laws need reform. They date from 1950 when food was still subject to rationing after the war, when few people had fridges (and none had freezers), and shopping for food for the family was a daily activity, mostly done by women who did not go out to work. DIY did not exist as a recognised leisure activity. Life has changed profoundly since then. Today some 150,000 shops of all kinds open every Sunday, most of them selling at least some goods prohibited under the 1950 Act, and ignored by virtually all local authorities (who are responsible for enforcement), who are aware that reform is imminent.

Research consistently shows that two-thirds of people want to be able to shop on Sundays, and currently over 15 million people actually do so every Sunday, but there is still a remarkable lack of consensus among MPs on the direction reform should take. In 1985 Parliament defeated a Government Bill proposing total deregulation of Sunday trading. Last July the Government published a White Paper, containing a draft Bill with four alternative options for reform - leaving it to Parliament to decide on a free vote later this autumn which version of reform it wants. The options span tight and complex restrictions - which would close most shops which are open today - right through to total deregulation.

Although the majority of people want Sunday shopping, the issue remains unexpectedly divisive: it divides political parties, groups of colleagues, even families. It divides retailers, too, which neutralises the role of the trade association, and uses up the adrenalin normally reserved for competing in the marketplace.

For many retailers - certainly for Sainsbury's - the arguments are not even particularly commercial. Sunday opening is almost profit-neutral for us: most of the 8% of the week's trade that occurs on a Sunday is transferred from other days of the week, which means we are not taking trade away from the corner shop; the small amount of extra trade just about pays for the extra costs, including of course the nearly double-time we pay all our Sunday staff (who are all volunteers).

We support Sunday shopping because it is patently what many of our customers want. If you talk to any of our Sunday customers you will find a bewildering variety of lifestyles and circumstances. Couples where both partners work, people who work shifts, single parents, people going on holiday or coming back - all find it more convenient to do that particular piece of shopping on a Sunday. It is interesting to see how many family groups shop on Sundays, too, even in the supermarket.

Those who wish to restrict Sunday shopping believe it is the only way to keep Sunday special. But Sunday is already special for different people in so many different ways. It should continue to be special in that people are free to do as they wish, whether it be going to church, gardening, home improvement, or engaging in a thousand and one activities of their own choice, including shopping.

It should also be special in that none of the shop staff should have to work Sundays. Sunday work at Sainsbury's is voluntary. Staff receive a substantial premium for it, and this will always be the case. This is not just our policy - all the retailers supporting partial deregulation have pledged themselves to these principles.

We are not exactly proposing to push back the frontiers of social change - Scotland doesn't have Sunday trading restrictions, and Eire has already been deregulated. It has not caused the destruction of the high street, the demise of the corner shop, collapse of the family or less religious observance. Generally you will find 25-30% of shops open on a Sunday - not dissimilar to what you find in England today.

We need to approach what is essentially a practical problem in a practical way. Any new law needs to go with the grain of popular feeling, to avoid the sort of complexities and anomalies which make it lack credibility (like the 1950 Act) and costly to enforce, and it should be able to stand the test of time. Above all it should be simple.

The proposition which we support is just that: unlimited opening for small shops (under 3,000 square feet), and opening for larger shops restricted to 6 hours between 10am and 6pm. We also include provision for the protection of current and future shopworkers. This is the proposal of the Shopping Hours Reform Council, supported by over 30 medium and large retail companies - and, more importantly, by 1.7 million customers who signed the mass petition one Sunday in September.

Along with the millions of Sunday shoppers and thousands of Sunday shopworkers, I share the hope, as Parliament prepares to debate and resolve this issue, that full account will be taken of how our society is today and how millions of ordinary people actually spend their lives - and want to go on doing so. Let us make Sunday a day of choice.

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