Sunday trading laws are to be relaxed by the Government this summer in a move that could pave the way for longer weekend opening hours all year round.
Chancellor George Osborne confirmed that he is to push through emergency legislation lifting the six-hour limit on opening hours for larger commercial property stores over eight weekends in July, August and September.
The move, which brought objections from church leaders, trades unions and the Labour party, is planned to coincide with London’s hosting of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Mr Osborne told the BBC it would be a “great shame” if Britain had a “closed for business” sign on it during the Games.
However campaign group Keep Sunday Special called the plan “profoundly worrying”.
Speaking from the General secretary of shopworkers’ union Usdaw, John Hannett, said: “Our members are vehemently opposed to any further deregulation of Sunday trading hours and the Government’s own consultation on this just last year showed that there is no widespread support from either retailers or the general public for change.”
He further added: “Any change would fly totally in the face of the Government’s commitment to be family-friendly. To imply that the legislation, which allows shops to open for 150 hours a week, means Britain is ‘closed for business’ is ridiculous.”
But ministers hope to see the proposal approved by Easter. On BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show, the Chancellor said: “We’ve got the whole world coming to London and the rest of the country for the Olympics.
“It would be a great shame-particularly when some of the big Olympic events are on Sunday-if the country has a closed for business sign on it.”
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said there should be proper discussion and careful consideration before instigating change: “George’s people have told the newspapers this is an experiment to change if for the future, breaking up centuries of tradition.”
Church leaders accepted the Olympics would be a special time, but said they were likely to oppose the move. Reverend Sally Hitchiner, of St John’s Church in Ealing, west London, told the BBC: “We’re concerned it could become a precedent, we could lose some of the specialness of Sunday.”
She further added: “Sunday should be a time for relationships, a time when we put some boundaries on consumerism, so you can go to the park and play football with the kids, and take your mum breakfast in bed.”
Under the Sunday Trading Act 1994, large commercial property shops over 280 square metres in England and Wales are limited to any six hours of continuous trading between 10am and 6pm on Sundays, even though smaller commercial property stores such as Marks & Spencer’s Simply Food commercial property outlets or independent commercial property retailers can open for as long as they like. However, under the legislation commercial property shops cannot open at all on Easter Sunday.
Some major retailers have been lobbying in Whitehall for at least five years for the constraints to be torn up. The commercial property stores argue that 7,500 jobs would be generated, making extra money for the economy and the Government through tax. Asda, Tesco, IKEA and DIY chains have thrown their weight behind the campaign in the past.
The law also includes measures to safeguard the rights of commercial property shop workers who wish not to work on Sunday.
By temporarily suspending these rules, the Government hopes tourists heading to London for the Olympics will take advantage of extended commercial property opening hours, boosting weakening retail figures.
The Treasury is expected to carefully monitor the suspension’s effects and has not ruled out a permanent change.
Tory MP Nadine Dorries predicted that Mr Osborne would “face a barrage of criticism” as a result of the move. She Tweeted: “Arrogant to impose without debate and vote of whole house.”
She further added: “Is the coalition government secretly implementing an anti-Christian agenda. And if so, who is driving it, Cameron and Osborne or the LDs?”
Last year, Conservative MP Therese Coffey warned a short-term change for the Olympic Games might become permanent. Last week she said: “I wouldn’t stand in the way of shops being open in the Olympic Park during this time.
“But I just remind people that small, independent stores are allowed to open all day and this is an opportunity to celebrate rather than having big stores open as well.”
Yet party co-worker Mark Menzies said he was “absolutely delighted” the proposal was being taken up, saying it would “send out a very powerful message that Britain is open for business”. The MP for Fylde, whose understanding is in retail, said he had “no desire at this stage” to see extended opening hours before August.
John Cridland, the Director of the Confederation of British Industry, supported the plan, saying: “I think it’s going to do a lot for the spirit of Britain and for the businesses for Britain.”
‘Undermining the principle’
Meanwhile, the Association of Convenience Stores has warned it might set an unwelcome example. James Lowman, Chief Executive said: “Any relaxation, even just for London during the Olympics, would erode our existing, popular, Sunday trading rules.”
Mr Lowman added that the short-term compromise could open the door for the big retail lobby to push for all sorts of exceptions for other events, “undermining the whole principle” of Sunday trading restrictions.
In Scotland, Sunday trading has long been relaxed with commercial property shops deciding their own hours.
In Northern Ireland, legislation introduced in 1997 allows large commercial property shops over 280 square metres to open between 1pm and 6pm on Sundays.
Meanwhile Chief Executive of Next, Lord Wolfson, said the short-term move to extend Sunday trading hours this summer will give the commercial property fashion chain a sales boost of up to £8 million, as he gave the thumbs up to that and other measures in the Chancellors Budget.
Wolfson, and Conservative Party donor and a Tory peer, said: “I think the extension will be worth an additional £5 million to £8 million of sales [for Next].
“Particularly in November, December and early January the whole industry faces capacity constraints. As far as Next is concerned, I would be happy for it to be made permanent.”