Church of England

Church condemns Sunday trading measures smuggled in under Enterprise Act


Last November the Government halted all attempts to relax Sunday trading restrictions in the face of an “unholy alliance” of Conservative backbenchers, Labour and the SNP, all ranged against the ascent of the market above family and community.

Communities and Local Government Secretary Greg Clark explained: “The government believe that there is a strong case for local areas to be able to decide if and where extending Sunday trading should be permitted. It could help some High Streets compete with online shopping, for which Sunday is regularly the most popular day.” David Burrowes MP responded that not only is there is no particular demand for the deregulation which was not in the Conservative Party’s 2015 Manifesto, but it “goes against our concerns for workers for small businesses and families”. Indeed, the Prime Minister had written to the Keep Sunday Special campaign only a few months before that there were no plans to relax the Sunday trading laws. In the face of certain defeat in Parliament, the Government backed down.

What do you do when you want to change a law but Parliament won’t allow it? Simple: you smuggle it back as a late amendment to another Bill which has already been debated by the House of Commons and scrutinised by the House of Lords. That way, there’s no prospect of a vote and so no embarrassing defeat. And while we’re all distracted by EU referendum fever, Trumpmania and millions of migrants, there’s not much space for dissection by the media (with scant coverage by the Telegraph and BBC).

The Government is resolute that there’s a growing appetite for more Sunday shopping – that is, beyond the total freedom already granted to small shops to open all day, should they wish, and the six hours currently enjoyed by the larger stores. George Osborne is adamant that DIY enthusiasts want to buy screws and shelves at 9.00am: the extra hour of waiting is a gross infringement of their auto-economic liberty. And Asda is equally adamant that its customers should be able to pop in for a tin of peas all day; not be restricted to 10.00am-4.00pm or midday-6.00pm or whichever six consecutive hours are decreed. No, we must have peas round the clock: the prohibition contravenes the civil rights of homo economicus.

But the sabbath was made for man, not for the amelioration of GDP.

The Rt Rev’d Dr Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans, has responded to the Government’s proposals:

In its submission to the Government’s consultation on extending Sunday opening hours, the Church of England voiced concern that changing the law would have a negative effect on community and family life, whilst delivering few, if any, additional benefits for the economy.

Our current Sunday trading laws are built on a compromise, which a majority of the public still back. We have not seen any evidence that further liberalisation of Sunday trading will bring any tangible economic benefit, with the most likely outcome being the same money spent over a greater period of time. The experience of the 2012 Olympic Games is not persuasive, when the growth in business in large shops took place at the expense of smaller ones. It is estimated that 8,800 jobs will be lost from the convenience sector, which will not be fully offset by new jobs in other stores. We know that over half of shop workers in large stores already feel pressure to work on Sundays, and an increase in opening hours will only lead to more people being pressured into spending Sunday apart from their children and families. This can only be damaging to community and family life and erode opportunities for shared time and activity, which is central to human flourishing and the common good.

It is also disappointing that these measures will be introduced to Parliament in a Bill that has already been through the House of Lords. That means that the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny and revision of these proposals will be severely restricted.

Disappointing? That’s measured mannerly condemnation; indeed, it is scarcely condemnation at all. How about ‘outrageous’, ‘reprehensible’ or ‘invidious’? Or even ‘contemptible’, for to smuggle in a new law which could attract no majority in the House of Commons (or Lords) is surely contempt of Parliament. Why was the proposal to deregulate Sunday trading not included in the original Bill so that it could be properly probed? Why announce it spontaneously during a second-reading debate?

Angela Eagle, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, responded:

Labour has been consistent in echoing the voices of small businesses, shopworkers and their families in support of the current arrangements. It works well and means that retailers can trade, customers can shop, and shopworkers can spend time with their families.

This is at risk under the Tories who are set to make major changes to Sunday trading laws, a policy that wasn’t in their manifesto. They tried it before but wisely abandoned their plans at the last minute in the face of widespread opposition, not least from their own backbenches.

Choosing to include such sweeping changes at this stage in the Enterprise Bill’s passage through Parliament, and at such short notice, shows that Ministers intend to bounce these measures through with minimum scrutiny.

Labour’s Kevin Brennan MP was more forthright in Parliament, accusing Sajid Javid of “a gross abuse of power”. But the BIS Secretary is persuaded that those who object “are obsessed by process”. He proclaimed: “They do not want to focus on the substance at all. They have no respect for the substance.”

No, Mr Javid. Democracy demands due process, which is designed to permit interrogation and proper scrutiny of policy, and ultimately to determine whether our elected representatives believe that proposed legislation has sufficient merit and may contribute to the common good. Those who oppose the further deregulation of Sunday trading are indeed concerned with substance. It is simply the substance of society, family and community; the spiritual well-being of the individual to be able to set aside just one day a week to do something other than work, produce and consume. Man shall not live by grabbing a good deal alone.