Relaxed Sunday trading laws - but has anyone asked the workers? Beth Brooks reports

The release last week of the Department of Trade and Industry's independent cost-benefit analysis into easing or removing current restrictions on Sunday trading in England and Wales is not happy reading for independents.

Lengthy, wordy and, at times, complicated, it is overwhelmingly in favour of relaxing current laws, concluding that "the impact of liberalisation would be beneficial". Indeed, the DTI estimates the economy could gain as much as £20.3bn over the next 20 years from longer opening hours. Breaking this down further, this is equivalent to £1.4bn a year or £64.10 per household per year.

However, it concedes, "the competitive process inevitably involves winners and losers". Large stores stand to benefit, the analysis concludes from improved price, convenience and more customers. However, it would impact negatively on small stores that are primarily substitutes for large stores, it says. "Data suggests the post 4pm trade when large stores close is significant for independent convenience stores."

Jerry Marwood, managing director of Spar UK, argues in this week's Saturday Essay: "Changing the law would reduce the viability of many small retailers."

But the analysis does suggest a positive effect on small stores that "complement" large stores. But does the concept of a 'complementary' store really exist?

James Lowman, public affairs and communications manager for the Association of Convenience Stores, is not convinced. "The scope of supermarkets is so great that not just c-stores, but bookstores, music stores and coffee shops are unlikely to be out of their reach," he says, adding the ACS would ask the DTI how many 'complementary' stores there are.

Martin Blaxall, director of management and economic consultancy Indepen, which carried out the analysis, says it did not attempt to estimate the number of complementary stores. "Some small stores would benefit from increased footfall in relation to larger stores," he adds. "The most obvious are in shopping centres, which often shut when large stores and supermarkets are required to close."

He notes the example of traders in Crystal Palace, south London, who claim they lost out on as much as 25-50% of trade after a former Safeway store in the area closed.

However, perhaps the biggest omission is any consideration of emotional and social implications, ironically, particularly for larger stores that may have to increase staff hours - something the analysis was heavily criticised for at a stakeholder Sunday shopping event in London to discuss the report's findings.

The meeting, introduced by new DTI minister Ian McCartney, was dominated by representatives concerned the report had only considered the economic implications.

Usdaw general secretary John Hannett was quick to criticise. "Any proposal to extend Sunday shopping is bad news for shop workers as it will have a devastating impact on the time members can spend with their families. The reality is that it will mean ten-hour Sundays for many."

One delegate said the debate hinges on the social and community aspects and as the analysis had left this out, it could cast doubt on its ability to shape future policy.

"This could be one failing," agrees one economic academic. "There may be economic benefits, but more problematic is the distribution of gains at the expense of staff and smaller retailers."

Lowman adds:"I would argue social issues are more important than economic issues."

Other concerns were assumptions, such as the true cost of local c-stores closing and pay rates. So why didn't the analysis attempt to address the social side of the argument?

Blaxall says: "The central aim of the study was to evaluate the economic costs and benefits of easing or removing Sunday trading restrictions. If arguments containing other matters have merit, it would be necessary for ministers to make judgements as to how they compare with the benefits of liberalisation that we have quantified."

The analysis is in the hands of the DTI. McCartney said the government was listening to all the arguments and would reach a decision in the summer.