Has Sunday trading been a good thing? More than 10 years since it began, opinion remains divided. And with big retailers now pressing for complete deregulation on what is already the second-biggest shopping day of the week, the debate is again in full swing.
It’s not long since parliament voted on Christmas Day trading. The 1994 Act prohibited large shops in England and Wales from opening on Easter Sunday and on Christmas Day - when it fell on a Sunday.
However, Kevan Jones’ Private Member’s Bill on Christmas Day Trading received widespread support, notably from the government and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. It prohibits large shops from opening on Christmas Day - on whatever day it falls. A public consultation demonstrated 97% support for keeping Christmas Day special and large shops closed. The Bill received Royal Assent in October.
A similar campaign by Usdaw is under way in Scotland to prevent large stores there from opening on Christmas and New Year’s Days - to preserve at least two days when shopworkers are guaranteed time at home with their families. Large retailers in Scotland oppose the campaign. They claim that £56m of high street sales would be lost.
That’s the problem. On the one hand, the ever-voracious retail sector seeks to push its way towards 24/7 retailing in order to maximise turnover. On the other hand, people who see what that would do to the overall quality of life fight desperately against it. The issue is starkly polarised - market position versus social wellbeing, as better life values strive for survival against consumerist pressures.
That is why, after more than 20 years, the Keep Sunday Special Campaign is still going strong. Christian groups have joined forces with shopworkers’ representatives to show that, even though Sunday shopping has become hugely popular, British people dislike the disruption it causes to family life.
A recent NOP survey indicated that more than 71% of those questioned would not be too concerned if large shops shut on a Sunday. Nearly 50% said that Sunday shopping actually added to weekend stress levels. Two thirds of parents who work at weekends felt their children suffer from lack of quality time.
The initial justification for the Act was to
catch up with Europe - even though most European countries still maintain major restrictions on Sunday trading. By contrast, liberalisation in Britain seems a free-for-all rush towards total deregulation. Not only does that destroy Sunday as a family day and a day of rest, it also leads to closure of local shops and unwelcome increases in traffic and pollution.
We are a nation of obsessed shoppers. Our motto is ‘I shop therefore I am’. The temple-like structures of certain supermarkets add credence to the idea that, for many, shopping has become the new Sunday God. But God, the Creator, knew exactly what he was doing when he ordained a day of rest. As survey after survey confirms, far too many British people fail to relax at weekends, even though we work some of the longest hours in Europe. Instead, for a lot of people, weekends have become a time of stress instead of a period of relaxation and fun.
Spending time together is very important. Many of our social problems are caused by the damage done to family and community relationships when people do not relax with each other. Hence the close link between the campaigns to Keep Sunday Special and Keeping Time for Children - aimed at guaranteeing a regular day off work each week for vulnerable employees.
Major retailers do have the power to influence social attitudes and to meet contemporary social needs.
What a boost it would be if those retailers acted altruistically in support of the common good.