DEBATE: Should we scrap Sunday trading laws?

Emma Revell and Gabriel Gavin

April 13, 2021

Emma Revell, Head of Public Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs, argues YES

Shops may have finally reopened after months of lockdown restrictions but a little noticed element of the roadmap is a provision for non-essential retail to open longer hours, a temporary change the government says will “provide a much-needed boost for many businesses”.

How then can the government continue to enforce limited opening hours on large businesses up and down the country just because it is a Sunday?

Retail opening hours aren’t sacrosanct, as the temporary extension to opening hours shows. Prior to 1994, buying and selling on a Sunday was illegal aside from some minor exceptions and the current Sunday trading rules were relaxed for an eight week period during the 2012 Olympics.

No one is suggesting shops be forced to open longer hours, merely that government shouldn’t prohibit them from doing so. Children’ toy shop The Entertainer doesn’t open any of its over 150 locations on Sundays because its founders are Christians. Other businesses may decide that the current opening hours are enough for its customers and that it would not make economic sense to open longer. That is their right, but the move would have public backing.

According to a YouGov survey conducted last year, 48 percent of the public would support moves to scrap Sunday trading laws, with a further 21 percent undecided. Government has no business – pun intended – preventing retailers from meeting this demand.

Some argue Sunday trading laws should be maintained because they encourage people to use small, often independent retailers when the larger ones are closed but government regulation shouldn’t be used as a protectionist tool.

At a time when the economy needs every boost it can get, we should be celebrating diversity in the retail sector and rushing to meet customer demand and if that happens to be at 6.01pm on a Sunday, so be it.

Gabriel Gavin, a Moscow-based journalist and writer, argues NO

There are some ideas whose time has come. And there are others, slightly stale and still on the shelf, that get pulled down by think tanks every now and then as a cure for all ailments. Scrapping Sunday trading laws is just that – a policy best left back in the box.

Britain’s post-pandemic recovery should be a renaissance for small businesses, which get a rare leg up over supermarket chains and shopping centers one day a week. Not a chance for more concessions to the giants of the high street in the name of flexibility, as if local shops, deliveries or simply planning ahead weren’t enough.

It will increase sales volume, some say. But would you honestly be more inclined to buy an extra pair of trainers if the shops were open another three or four hours on Sunday? It will create jobs, others claim. Maybe, although existing staff are more likely to be pressed to pick up extra shifts, after working through a grueling pandemic.

Regular churchgoing might now be as popular as rainclouds in a pub garden, but for many families, Sunday is still the only day when parents and children are home together without work or school. A shop workers union poll last year should have settled the matter decisively – 90% oppose scrapping the rules, and just 3% support it. So let’s not pretend this policy is about helping them out.

Yes, the law is a relic of a bygone era. Nonetheless, it was an era where families were stronger, and where work could be balanced better with, well, life. A culture of 24/7 non-stop consumerism might be the way things are headed, but when was the last time we stopped to ask whether it was really making us happy?


Written by Emma Revell and Gabriel Gavin

Emma Revell is the Head of Public Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Gabriel Gavin is a Moscow-based journalist and writer.

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