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8 July 2015

Think the end of Sunday trading sounds good? Think again

There is a real danger that these proposals will lower the quality of life for retail workers, small shop-keepers and those who live in town centres, warns Paul Sellers.

By paul seller

Every day is like Sunday, sang Morrissey. We know the Prime Minster is a Smiths fan, so maybe that explains why he wants to make Sunday like every other day. But shop workers want a day that’s different to spend time with their families.

Improvements to work-life balance during the rest of the week are a much better approach to helping people get to the shops. Many people would be less likely to shop on Sundays if there was better practice from their employer on flexible working rights.

The biggest impact from any change would be on retail workers. Turning Sunday into another Saturday for major retailers would take precious family time away from shop workers. Many would find the pressure from their employer hard to resist. There are already huge pressures on shop workers to work unsocial hours – especially if they are on zero-hours contracts and no set shift pattern, so have to scrape together enough hours for a half-decent income.

And many workers now get no Sunday premium for their rate of pay. Extending working hours would increase the wage bills of retailers, making Sunday premiums even less likely. How will the government ensure that these staff are protected?

Prior to the 1994 Sunday Trading Act that allowed Sunday opening for a maximum of six hours, there was strong public support for change. But the Act has been a popular and successful approach. Some big supermarket chains have been lobbying hard for extended opening times, but there is no great pressure from shoppers for Sunday trading hours to be extended further.

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Government comparisons to France and Germany are misleading. France still has incredibly complicated rules on Sunday retail trading, which is generally prohibited. The main exception is a limited number of “international tourist zones” where all shops can stay open every Sunday and until midnight during the week.  And in Germany, Sunday trading is tightly regulated at the local level – for example, Berlin only allowed eight Sunday openings in 2014.

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It’s been reported today that the Chancellor is keen to extend Sunday trading because he believes it will have a positive economic impact. Rules were relaxed temporarily relaxed during the London Olympics, and there was an increase in retail during the period. However, the Olympics was such an exceptional event that it cannot be used as a meaningful guide to Sunday trading in normal circumstances.

Beside which, the economy is already too unbalanced and too reliant on retail. The recovery from recession has been weak, and it is far from certain that it can be maintained. ONS figures out today show that manufacturing is well below its pre-recession peak and in decline again. It’s a sign of desperation that the Chancellor is trying to strengthen growth through shopping instead of manufacturing.

With household debt rising again, we need a better economic plan than asking people to spend another day of the week putting debt on their credit cards. It would be far better for the government to consult on investment options for manufacturing innovation than a third consultation on Sunday opening. This would help ensure that the UK has a future as a country that doesn’t just buy things, it makes things.

There is a real danger that these proposals will lower the quality of life for retail workers, small shop-keepers and those who live in town centres and rely on the current restrictions for some respite.  Rather than generating a feel-good factor this could end up making many people more miserable than Morrissey at his most morose.

Paul Sellers is a research officer at the TUC.