Assertion, rather than justification, is the main tactic of the anti-high street lobby when it comes to the Sunday trading laws debate. It’s probably one of the broadest coalitions you will ever see, with Labour teaming up with the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley, traditionalist Tory MPs, and the trade unions. There are two strands to their arguments: a paternalistic one, where workers and small businesses should be “protected”, and a quasi-religious one, where Sunday should be treated as “special”.
The paternalistic premise fails to acknowledge that low-income employees, who are typically paid by the hour, may actually want more work to provide for their families, and more jobs will also be created for others. On top of that, their “special” or resting day could actually already be Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, owing to the nature of our increasingly flexible, 24/7 economy. We’re not all lucky enough to enjoy a five-day, nine-to-five working week.
The relaxation of Sunday trading hours back in 1994 as part of the Sunday Trading Act has proven there is a great economic appetite for working at weekends. The number of people in employment reporting that they usually work on a Sunday doubled between 1994 and 2015, rising from 8.5 per cent of the workforce to 16.7 per cent, according to the Office for National Statistics.
There is also a simple but important point to make, especially in relation to the framing of this debate, that a further relaxation or suspension of the law, as has been reportedly mooted by the government, wouldn’t force employers to stay open all day on Sundays. It would simply give businesses the freedom to do so – a choice some of them already use to operate for limited hours on Saturdays.
Elsewhere, we can’t get away from the fact that the current rules are two decades old, and the nature of business has changed during that time dramatically. Amazon, for instance, was created in the same year the Sunday Trading Act came into force. It is now a retail behemoth with a market capitalisation of more than $1.2 trillion. Internet sales as a percentage of retail sales, meanwhile, have been steadily growing over the past two decades, with Covid-19 lockdowns fuelling a record high of 30 per cent in April this year.
Talking of the novel coronavirus, Labour and the unions are arguing that workers shouldn’t be “forced” to work more hours on Sunday, as they already feel at risk. But this claim fails to acknowledge that larger businesses, by their very nature, will have more access to capital expenditure to put protective measures in place for their staff, and their facilities are often larger, making social distancing easier. The major supermarkets, for instance, have, among other things, installed screens and put in place rules to limit the number of people in their store.
The alternative is allowing consumers and workers in England and Wales to operate in smaller facilities, where social distancing is harder and employers may have less free cash to spend on proactive measures and policies.
When the rules were relaxed for the 2012 Olympics, there was a bump in sales. A better example would be deregulation in Sweden, the US, and Greece, which had a positive impact on turnover in all countries. We shouldn’t, therefore, be governed by nostalgia dressed up as conservatism. That’s really just Luddism.