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Sunday Trading Laws: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

25/02/2016 08:03 | Updated 25 February 2016

Sunday trading has always generated strong debate. That's why the current laws were debated in detail before being voted through Parliament after a free vote, back in 1994.

By contrast, the Government's latest proposals have only recently appeared as amendments to the Enterprise Bill - after it has been through the House of Lords and as it enters committee stage in the Commons where Conservative MPs will be subject to a whipped vote.

Having been fobbed off repeatedly when we asked Ministers whether this measure was going to be in the Bill, it is now clear they have a shameful contempt of proper parliamentary scrutiny and a wafer thin tolerance of examination and challenge.

The not long published consultation on the proposals is weak on evidence and silent on compliance with the family test supposedly so important to the Prime Minister. Seven thousand responses were made but the government won't tell us how many of those back or oppose the changes. Ignoring the needs of small businesses, shopworkers, faith groups and families, Ministers are railroading through the plans - albeit putting the onus on local authorities to make the final decision.

Many people like the ease of 24/7 shopping when it's online, but the thirst for traditional shops to be open all hours is drying up. Tesco recently announced it would cease such trading in a quarter of of its 24-hour stores stating: "With the growth of online grocery shopping, these stores saw very few customers during the night."

All of this flies in the face of the government's argument that high street stores would better be able to compete with online outlets by opening for longer. It also begs the question after all the fuss, how many stores actually want to open longer hours on a Sunday anyway?

Shop workers and unions spotted an obvious flaw in the plans from the start. The fallacy that increased hours on a Sunday will lead to job creation doesn't wash with those in the sector. They know it will lead to longer working weeks, less precious time with their loved ones, and - in time - the end of weekend pay enhancements. An Usdaw survey of 10,000 retail staff in large stores published last September revealed 91% to be against extended Sunday opening.

Ministers appear to have designed the entire move with big high street stores in mind. In doing so, they have largely ignored the voice of small and independent shops, who will naturally feel the squeeze and be left unable to compete. Corner shop and family run businesses will be forced to work longer hours while losing further trade. The temporary suspension of Sunday trading laws for the 2012 Olympics saw a decline, not an increase, in retail sales, with trade shifted from small high street shops to large superstores.

Whether you're religious or not, Sunday has always been an important part of British culture. Celebrating one's faith, spending time with family, watching the big game and a Sunday roast are all symbolic rituals woven into our way of life. Even with catch-up TV and podcasts, broadcasters still recognise that after a busy week, it is also the day to catch up on the week's activities. Eastenders, The Archers and Hollyoaks all continue to schedule a Sunday omnibus.

However you approach the debate on Sunday trading, the government's arguments fall flat. It is unclear how many retailers actually want to make use of extended hours, shopworkers don't want it, and consumers aren't exactly knocking marching down Whitehall to fight for more ways to part with their cash. You have to wonder why Ministers are wasting time trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist. As the old adage goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".

Lord Jon Mendelsohn is Shadow BIS Minister in the House of Lords

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