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Sunday Trading: An Olympian Error

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It's finally here. Stratford has changed beyond all recognition. Athletes are honed. Volunteers primed, and the team GB super-streamlined lycra kit is unveiled. I've no doubt that will look particularly fetching forced over the rotund populace of nation GB.

I live in an Olympic borough and I'm looking forward to the Games. The 30th Olympiad promises to be exciting. I do wonder, though, what is being done in the name of the Olympics. Laws have passed through parliament aiding development of venues and organisation of the Games, most of which make perfect sense. But next week sees the return of the Sunday Trading (Olympics) Bill to the Commons, and I'm thoroughly unconvinced.

There are three problems I have with this bill:

  • The effect it will have on workers and their families and communities.
  • Why change the Sunday trading law nationally to support businesses near Olympic venues, a tiny proportion of the country?
  • Despite promises that this legislation is only for the period of the Olympics, is this the 'thin end of the wedge' on future changes to Sunday trading laws?

We live in a 24/7 world. Supermarkets are open around the clock most days. If I want to get my groceries at three in the morning, I can. So why shouldn't I be able to do the same on a Sunday? Big retailers say it is people's right to have the freedom to shop when they like. What they don't mention when they talk about your freedom is what that does to the person staffing the tills and stocking the shelves. And not just them, but the extra police officers, bus drivers, health and catering staff who have to work when retail parks are trading.

Your freedom to go shopping for an hour means those workers are away from family and friends for six hours. Fine, they'll get another day off instead, but will it be a day when their kids are off school or friends off work?

Relationships are central to a good quality of life, whether relationships with other adults, or time for children to spend with parents. That's why it's important that we all get shared time off. Truth is, none of us really need to go shopping on a Sunday. You might have to pop out for milk, but there aren't restrictions on the small trader running a corner shop under the current laws. Big companies don't want to increase opening hours for our freedom. Our happiness isn't their concern. Making more money is.

Their hope isn't to increase customer spend, but to increase market share by taking business from small traders who can't compete. The last ten years has seen 30,000 small shops close, changing the look of our streets. That's eight shops closing every day. Shops that kept money in their local economies and helped raise social capital in their communities, building relationships with the elderly, the disabled, and the otherwise ignored.

In nature, all living things have periods of rest. Zoos ensure even the lowliest animal gets one day a week off. Shouldn't humans expect the same? Instead, retail workers have to opt out of work on a Sunday, but very few do for fear of harming job security. Usdaw found that 62% of their members have already come under pressure to work on Sundays when they didn't want to. They also found that 66% of MPs didn't believe the law as it stands offers enough protection to those who choose to opt out. And that's before the current changes.

Workers need a regular and shared day off. Just one day out of the week when we can enjoy a rest, spending time with friends and families. If we want to guarantee people that shared day off we must say no to a further extension of Sunday trading.

Osborne has known about these games for the same seven years as us, but he chose to wait until the 2012 budget to announce the fast-track suspension of Sunday trading laws. There was no full public consultation on this. In fact, the only consultation was with big business, whose motives I doubt; while it may be appropriate to consult business, it's also important to look at the effects on wider society.

If this relaxation in the law is just because of the Olympics, why is it being changed across the entire country? I can see that visitors are going to be in Stratford. But, if this is just about the games, I can't see what benefit it will have in Stroud or Stranraer. Most of the population won't have the Olympics in their towns, but you can bet your bottom dollar that they'll have Tesco open. And a year from now, Osborne will come back to parliament arguing "we did it last year and the world didn't end." This could very easily be the thin end of that wedge.

This government continues to put the economy before people, assuming that serving the economy will automatically serve the common good. Time and again, that's been disproved. And time and again, voters have shouted about putting people first. Politicians ignore those shouts at their peril.

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