It is extremely disappointing that the government has yet again returned to the question of Sunday trading, particularly after the Prime Minister’s letter, just before the election, saying that they would not deregulate.
The government may argue that this proposal isn’t deregulation, but devolving powers to vary opening times down to local authorities and elected mayors will amount to the same thing. It is a recipe for chaos in the retail sector which will result in numerous trading hours regulations across different areas, where we could see stores on opposite sides of a road operating in different regulatory regimes. That is hardly cutting ‘red tape’, a stated aim of the government.
A few retailers will put local authorities and elected mayors under severe pressure to allow longer opening, leading to a ‘domino effect’ as other retailers are forced to follow suit to compete. This in turn will put pressure on neighbouring authorities in a race to the bottom. Eventually, everywhere will be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Deregulation by the back door.
We will wait to see the government’s detailed proposals and we expect them to honour the promise of a full consultation and parliamentary process for any proposed changes to the Sunday Trading Act.
This Act is a Great British compromise, which has worked well for over 20 years and gives everyone a little bit of what they want. Retailers can trade, customers can shop, staff can work; whilst Sunday remains a special day, different to other days, and shopworkers can spend some time with their family. So it is difficult to see how any changes to the Act would maintain the fair and balanced settlement agreed by all sides.
Since 2010 the government twice consulted on extending Sunday trading and twice decided not to proceed because of the overwhelmingly negative response from retailers, customers and shopworkers. Even the government’s ‘retail sector champion’ Kevin Hawkins, former director general of the British Retail Consortium, said that supermarkets: “have all lived with [restricted Sunday opening] very well. What we have got is a workable compromise. Most people seem to be satisfied with it most of the time.”
The government also hastily brought in a trial of extended Sunday trading hours during the London Olympics, which proved to be an almighty flop. Usdaw’s survey of our retail reps, directly following the 8 weeks of longer Sunday trading, showed that 95% of stores had no increase in customer numbers, with two-thirds being quieter or almost empty during the extended hours. More than half of staff came under pressure to work longer to cover the additional opening, with only one-quarter of stores relying solely on volunteers.
Longer Sunday opening will have a dramatic effect on shopworkers, who frequently come under pressure to work additional hours, despite the existing legal protections. Sunday is often the only day that most families can be together. In every survey of retail staff we have conducted, they overwhelmingly oppose longer trading hours, largely because of the effects that would have on their home life. More than three-quarters tell us that permanent deregulation would lead to more pressure to work extra hours.
Any proposal to extend Sunday trading hours misunderstands the retail sector. The last thing that retailers need is a race to open 24 hours a day 7 days week, resulting in a big increase in overheads and no increase in revenue through the tills.
We will vigorously campaign against such a proposal and we would be looking for the government to learn from their two consultations and failed trial period by leaving alone the existing Sunday trading arrangements agreed by the main stakeholders in the retail industry.
John Hannett is general secretary of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.