You’d think that any measure that would help to get people out spending would be all to the good, wouldn’t you? Well, not so. The government’s latest genius idea for rebooting the retail sector is to abandon Sunday trading laws for a year, at least in the case of the larger supermarkets. Those laws at present mean that Brits cannot actually spend the entire day of rest shopping; just six hours of it. Rishi Sunak and Dominic Cummings are both said to be all for the idea, which, I suppose, makes it a shoo-in.
Personally I think it’s an abominable idea. For starters, the likelihood that at the end of the year, Britain will revert to the status quo ante is precisely nil. It’s far more likely that the laxity will extend to the entire retail sector. Me, I’m all in favour of some kind of day of rest, some break from the frenetic round of bloody shopping that characterises national life outside the pandemic. Already, Sunday is the second busiest trading day of the week; is the ambition to make it the actual busiest? Retail workers have rights too, one of them being to have one day on which they don’t have to start early and on which they can start slightly later and finish slightly earlier, a little more time with their families on a day when the children are home.
And don’t tell me that it’s up to the workers whether to work on a Sunday or not. For a couple of years after the old restrictions on Sunday trading were abandoned by a Tory government, I went out of my way to ask shop assistants what chance they had of asking not to work Sundays, on account of it being a day of rest. The answer invariably was a cackle of laughter, and not a nice laugh either. In a competitive environment you have to rely on the laws for protection from your employer setting your hours at their convenience, not yours. The notional protections in the legislation for employees who wanted to opt out of working on a Sunday was in practice zero. It was one of the issues that brought home to me the very real gap between political promises and lived reality.
Sir Keir Starmer has made clear that Labour doesn’t see the case for change and he’s right. And Conservatives who actually respect stuff like traditional values, churchgoing and family life – you know, the kind of thing they’re meant to believe – should back him. Tory rebels saw off the last bid to undermine the Sunday trading laws; they can do it again.