A reprieve for the day of rest
Shops will remain limited to opening a maximum of six hours on Sundays after the Government yesterday refused to bow to intense lobbying from large retailers for complete deregulation. KATHRYN CROSS looks at the conflict between freedom to shop and the need to keep Sunday special.
It's just 12 years since the Sunday Trading Act came into force, but somehow it is hard to remember a time when you could not nip out to the supermarket or hardware store on a Sunday.
While at the time many felt that it simply was not necessary, and also against Christian teaching, to give people another day at the tills rather than enforce a day of rest, the thought of taking away that opportunity could now be seen as equally abhorrent.
We are used to a society where everything is available 24 hours a day and as our lives get busier and free time diminishes, it is important to many households that they have the freedom to decide whether to trudge round the supermarket in the evening after a hard day's work or save the necessary task for a more leisurely Sunday afternoon.
But what about those who have to work on a Sunday in order to allow the shops to open? Research shows the majority would rather be at home with their families, many feeling under pressure to be “part of the team” and join the weekend rota while others on low incomes or who are poorly qualified feel duty bound to work as many hours as they can, clearly to the detriment of family life.
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From a Christian perspective the Sabbath occupied a very important place, with the Bible teaching that the day of rest was designed to help people give priority to God. Sunday was an important weekly family festival and all members of the household had to take time off together.
But with increased pressure from consumer groups and some large retailers who backed the move towards longer opening hours saying it would give shoppers more choice and estimating that deregulation would generate an extra £1.4 billion for the UK economy, the government made its first official review in more than a decade.
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It brought opposition in equal measure with those against a change fearing an even greater negative effect on shop workers, small retailers and family life.
But in announcing yesterday that there was “no substantial demand” for change, Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said Sunday shopping hours in large stores would remain capped at six continual hours between 10am and 6pm.
Large stores will also continue to close on Easter Sunday, while small shops will still be free to trade without restrictions every Sunday.
He said: “We received nearly 1,000 responses to the consultation from consumers, religious groups, employees and business, with no substantial demand for change.
“On that basis, and having considered all the evidence from the review, we have concluded there should be no change to the Sunday trading laws.”
The decision was welcomed by union leaders who said shopworkers across the country would be “delighted” by the news.
Members of retail union Usdaw had written to their MPs asking them to oppose any increase to the current six hour opening limit on Sundays for big stores.
It's survey of 4,000 retail staff showed that four out of five already had to work on Sundays and 95 per cent opposed any extension to the six hour limit because they wanted to spend time with their families on that day.
General Secretary John Hannett said: “We are delighted the Government has listened to the voice of retail staff. Usdaw members have come out in their thousands to say how precious Sunday is to them and their families.
“Britain is the most deregulated retail environment in Europe, with 150 hours shopping a week. All our members want is the right to a sensible proper work/life balance, and thanks to this wise decision they will be able to enjoy quality time with their loved ones on Sundays.”
The union said it received strong support from shoppers who were happy with the present six hour limit.
Also welcoming the DTI's decision was the Association of Convenience Stores. Its spokesman Shane Brennan said the status quo was the right decision.
“We are delighted that the government has listened to us,” he said. “We were very clear that small shops, shop workers and customers were not in favour of this change.”
But David Ramsden, chairman of Deregulate - a coalition of large retailers which ran the My Sunday, My Choice campaign, accused the Government of a U-turn on the issue.
“I am surprised. I think that a lot of retailers and consumers are going to be very cross because it appears that the Government has now done a U-turn,” he said.
“Clearly we shall carry on because this is a consumer issue and consumers will win in the end.”
It argues that Sunday shopping is already popular and gives customers more choice, but the six-hour window currently in place creates congestion in car parks, access routes and in stores themselves.
And National Consumer Council deputy chief executive Philip Cullum said the current restrictions on Sunday shopping were out of date, confusing and inconsistent.
“We would like to see the Government conduct some thorough consumer research,” he said.
But Federation of Small Businesses welcomed the status quo claiming any relaxation in the law would have put immense pressure on many small shops already open for over 60 hours a week in a bid to compete with multiple retailers.
And the Keep Sunday Special campaign group set up specifically to monitor and lobby the government on any proposed changes to the Act called it a “turning point” in the conflict between work and family.
It had submitted a 12-page report to the government outlining the impact any increase in trading hours would have on shop staff and their families.
Michael Schluter, chairman of the campaign, which represents religious groups, environmentalists and community groups, said: “We see this as a turning point in the long-term struggle for Sundays between business and retail interests - who ultimately want to go 24/7 - and what we regard as the silent majority who want one day free of stress to have time with their family and friends.”
THE PEOPLE HAVE THEIR SAY
In Norwich city centre yesterday shoppers and shop workers seemed to agree that existing Sunday trading legislation was sufficient. Those questioned by the EDP said they did not see the need for more shopping time and thought it would be unfair for those expected to work behind the tills.
t Retired Frances Ulph, of Poringland, near Norwich, said: “I don't object to Sunday shopping on any religious principle, but I don't think there's any need for it. Six days is plenty and there isn't a need for shops to be open on a Sunday at all. You have also got to think of the staff, everybody needs a rest at the weekend.”
t Jamie Goorwitch, who is from Norwich and works at Jarrolds, said: “I wouldn't want to work for any longer than I have to on a Sunday, so this is good news. Often the shops are dead, so there isn't any need for it. If I'm not working I prefer to stay out of the city on a Sunday - I think even nowadays most people still see it as a day to relax.”
t Gwyneth Cox, an NHS worker from Norwich, said: “There is perhaps an argument for some shops, such as those selling food, to stay open longer on a Sunday. But generally I think things are fine the way they are, especially when you consider a lot of shops are open into the evening and even 24 hours during the week.”
t Danny Gallagher, a fireman from Wymondham, said: “I'm fortunate because my shifts mean I can come into the city when it is quieter during the week. I prefer not to come in at weekends. I don't object to longer opening hours but I don't think I'd take advantage of them.”