Sunday Trading: A Humiliating Defeat for the Tory Government

10/03/2016 07:43 | Updated 10 March 2016

The Government's defeat in attempting to relax Sunday trading laws reflects not just the unpopularity of their proposals, but a desperate effort to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny.

The measures were first proposed in last year's Local Government and Devolution Bill, but were removed after strong opposition from Labour and some deep unease on the Tory backbenches.

Then, at the last moment and with no prior warning, the Tories slipped the Sunday trading measures into the Enterprise Bill, sneaking a poison pill into what was otherwise a bland Bill and transforming it into a noxious brew.

By doing so, the Government prevented the proposals from receiving proper scrutiny in the House of Lords.

They limited the opportunity of the Commons to discuss the measures and examine their potential impact. Indeed, when they were first mentioned in the debate at the Second Reading, we found ourselves in the absurd situation of debating measures that we had not actually seen.

And yesterday at the eleventh hour, the Government attempted to introduce a manuscript amendment in an attempt to kill off David Burrowes' amendment to scrap the proposals. This was a desperate last-ditch effort, a grubby abuse of power and it was a deeply unbecoming way to treat parliament. Thankfully the Speaker saw sense and refused to select this amendment which was submitted late.

It's clear why the Government acted with such secrecy, and with such little regard for parliamentary procedure: there is overwhelming opposition to relaxing Sunday trading laws, and the evidence base is weak and unconvincing. Sales actually decreased when Sunday trading rules were relaxed during the Olympics, and the government proposals were opposed by many retailers, including Sainsbury's and the Association of Convenience Stores.

Furthermore the measures were not in the Conservative manifesto, and indeed the Prime Minister said he had no plans to change the Sunday trading rules ahead of last year's election. The Tories have no mandate for this change.

There is clear opposition from shopworkers. Nine in ten USDAW members in large stores - those who would be affected by the changes - oppose them. There is also little demand from consumers for a change, with a recent poll showing that two in three people are happy with the current rules, with under one in four wanting reform.

I'd like to say that this sorry affair is an isolated incident. Unfortunately, it is part of a wider and concerning trend from a Government that are desperate to avoid scrutiny. They have attempted to sneak through cuts to tax credits and the abolition of student maintenance grants through statutory instruments, effectively the legislative backdoor. They have tried to silence opposing voices by gagging charities, and by attacking funding for the opposition through cuts to short money and the vicious, vindictive Trade Union Bill.

Strong scrutiny is essential to good legislation. This Government have demonstrated a track record of ducking, diving and dodging scrutiny. If the Government truly believe in the programme they are implementing, they should not be afraid of proper debate, and should be able to demonstrate greater respect for parliament and for democracy.

Angela Eagle is Shadow First Secretary of State and Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

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