THERE are no new arguments about Sunday trading. Relaxing the restrictions on supermarkets and larger stores will mean longer working hours, more congestion, fewer small shops, less time that shop workers can spend with their families, and yet more of the nation’s time given over to acquiring things. These harmful effects were the reasons that commercial pressure from large retail corporations has been resisted until now — and should be still. The new “evidence” to support George Osborne’s tilt at Sundays is apparently a 3.2-per-cent rise in retail sales in London when restrictions were slackened during the 2012 Olympics. It’s a breathtakingly dirty statistic, given the large influx of visitors at the time. Retailers are said to be line for £200 million more in sales (Daily Mirror: “hundreds of millions”), a mere 0.2 per cent of the £100 billion turnover of UK retailers last year. The need to compete with online sales has also been mentioned, though Sunday trading is hardly going to fix this. In any case, there is seldom an expectation that orders placed on a Sunday will be fulfilled the same day.
The usual figures have remarked on the need to compete with other world economies and remove unwelcome regulations; and those who oppose the move, if quoted at all, are dismissed. The Financial Times suggested that the Chancellor’s proposal would “antagonise corner shops and the religious right”. This is thoughtless: the religious left, if these terms have any meaning, is just as concerned about the new burdens this would impose on shop assistants, suppliers, transport workers, town-centre service personnel, and on and on. And it is a slur to suggest that Christian opposition to Sunday trading is in some way an attempt to protect the Church’s interests. God will continue to be worshipped in the same way — just not by those who have to staff the tills at the supermarket.
Mr Osborne proposes that local councils be given the freedom to decide whether to lift trading restrictions. He must know that traders in Town A will be forced to respond if they see trade going to Town B. As slippery slopes go, this has a steep gradient. Nor is there a soft landing at the bottom: once town centres and out-of-town supermarkets are functioning seven days a week, the only thing to stop all other aspects of commercial life following suit is the reluctance of those managing them to lose their leisure time. There is something deeply unpleasant about the wealthier members of society preserving their quiet weekends while requiring those in the retail and service industries to work on the two days when they might spend time with their children. From various bits of rhetoric in the past, David Cameron’s government gave the impression that it valued family life, and wished parents to take the nurture of their children more seriously. There is much to be lost here, and very little to be gained, even by the people whose nagging seems to have turned the Chancellor’s head.