Why Sunday trading laws must return after the Olympics

We must not surrender every vision we have of a good society to the market.

What was your first time like? Did you enjoy it? No doubt you were nervous but then so was everyone else there, so that presumably made it a bit more exciting. Yes, it was an exquisite moment, for which we all waited so many years: the annoying tannoy wasn’t heard, the doors weren’t locked, and everyone was free to stroll the aisles of Tesco long into the balmy Sunday evening.

When George Osborne announced the "temporary" suspension of Sunday trading laws during the Olympics, there were many, myself included, who thought that temporary was the odd word out in that sentence. Obviously, we shouldn’t prejudge the situation and obviously we have to wait till the figures come out but only the most witless of chancellors would fail to seize every opportunity to drag the nation from the precipice of a triple-dip recession.

No surprise, then, to see City AM editor Allister Heath argue that now is the moment to throw open the doors once and for all or, more substantially, Alex Deane on ConservativeHome making the same case for reasons of economic growth, fairness, personal choice, and employment.

There is much to question in both these arguments. Circumventing Heath’s argument from exaggeration and trivialisation ("contrary to what many killjoys have been predicting over the years, at the time of writing this article, society appeared to have survived") there is Deane’s contention that we need to liberalise the laws because "the British high street is struggling". This does not persuade: deregulating opening hours for out-of-town mega-stores is unlikely to help the high street. Similarly, his claim that "the current rules are unfair… [as] some retailers can remain open while others are forced to close" invites us to imagine that a playing field populated by handful of Gullivers and a myriad of Lilliputians is already, somehow, fair.

Comparably fantastic is Deane’s explanation that Sunday trading rules actually inhibit "family and community activity": "if consumers no longer had to build their weekend schedule around restrictive shopping hours, they would have greater flexibility to engage in a wide range of activities." Build their weekend schedule? Around the fact that they can’t visit Asda at 7pm on a Sunday evening?

The more serious argument is apparently the economic one, of which Heath says, "I have never actually seen a cost-benefit analysis that showed that there would be a negative impact from liberalising retail." Apparently, that is, because it is hard to imagine that either writer would revise their position if the figures showed that liberalisation had but a marginal economic impact. On the contrary, both are clear that there is, for want of a better word, a moral argument at play. "The government should not limit the options of how individuals and families spend their Sundays", writes Deane. "Why not permanently allow consenting adults to shop freely on Sundays?" asks Heath.

Beneath the relatively trivial question of whether a small number of large shops should be able to open for a few extra hours one evening a week, lurks one of the biggest ethical fault lines of our age. For those on one side of this divide, the phrase "consenting adults" acts like a universal acid on any ethical discourse: are they adult? Are they informed? Do they consent? Well, what’s your problem them?

For others, their problem is that "I want" is not a sufficient argument, even when hitched to the tattered, over-used and hopelessly vague harm principle. Most of us are unwilling to embrace the moral relativism that this kind of approach demands. Notions of the good invariably come into play, as even the hardiest of economic libertarians will recognise – witness Professor Michael Sandel asking John Redwood whether he was up for a free market in kidneys.

OK, so perhaps that isn’t the most objective description of this ethical fault line, but that is partly my point. In all serious questions of the just and the good, there is no neutral place to stand. Sunday trading laws come and, I fear, go. But the question beneath them will remain: are we really prepared to surrender every vision we have of a good society to the freedom and alleged fairness of the market?

Sunday trading laws have been suspended for eight weeks during the Olympics and Paralympics. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

Dan Kitwood/Getty
Show Hide image

How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.