THE House of Commons has defeated the Government’s attempt to relax Sunday trading restrictions. On Wednesday evening, MPs voted 317 to 286 to maintain the current rules.
Twenty-seven Conservative MPs defied the Government to vote against a proposal to give local authorities the power to extend Sunday trading hours.
They were joined by Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP), who announced their opposition to the changes on Tuesday, after press reports had earlier suggested they would abstain or vote in favour. Although there are no Sunday trading restrictions in Scotland, and the Government’s plans affect only England and Wales, the SNP argued that allowing seven-day shopping across the UK would lower the premium pay-rates that Scottish workers currently receive for working on Sundays.
The three-hour debate saw MPs from all parties stand up to speak against the Bill. Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds said that he was a practising Christian, and that Sunday was a day on which he and his family attended church. Given that Christianity was still Britain’s largest religion, Sunday should remain a “special day”.
Gavin Shuker, a former church pastor, agreed. Christians opposed extending Sunday trading not just to promote church attendance but because of a “deep-rooted sense of who we believe people to be. . . We are created with the ability to rest as well as work,” he argued.
The junior minister tasked with leading the Government’s reforms, Brandon Lewis, suggested that the changes were necessary to help High Street shops fight back against online retailers.
The laws on trading had last been updated in 1994, he said, when Amazon meant little more than a river. (The online trading company was founded in that year.)
In an attempt to fend off the backbench rebellion, the Government added late amendments to the Bill, which strengthened protections for workers who do not want to work on Sundays.
Even later, it tried to insert an amendment that would turn the proposals into a restricted pilot for a handful of selected regions. The impact of the changes would then be reassessed in a year’s time.
But this last amendment was tabled too late to make it into the Bill, forcing Mr Lewis to promise MPs that such a change would instead be added during the House of Lords debate, if only they would vote through the Bill.
But MPs were unconvinced, despite increasingly frantic attempts by the Government to win rebels back to their side. The Times reported that David Cameron personally spoke to several backbench Tory MPs; but 27 still rebelled.
Conservative MP David Burrowes, who led the rebellion, said that shop workers and faith groups had urged him not to allow the “settled” compromise on Sunday trading be unpicked in a few hours of debate.
“We need to be a voice for people who don’t have a choice to work or not on Sundays,” he said. “It hasn’t been properly thought through or evidenced.
“This issue came before the House under Mrs Thatcher’s Government, and it was defeated with a huge majority. I urge the Government not to make the same mistake again today.”
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman, the C of E’s official representative in the Commons, proposed another amendment that would allow only large shops in tourist areas to open for longer on Sundays over the summer and before Christmas, while retaining the current limited opening hours for all other stores.
She said that this compromise, modelled on a similar law in France, would prevent the erosion of Sunday as a day for leisure and family time.
“I tend to agree with the Bishop of St Albans,” she said. “An increase in opening hours would only lead to more people being pressured into spending Sunday apart from their children and their families” (News, 4 March).
Ultimately, her compromise was never put to the vote, as the alliance of disaffected backbench Conservatives, Labour, and the SNP was enough to hand the Government its second defeat since winning power last May.
Responding to the vote, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, who has led the Church of England’s opposition, said: “Our current Sunday-trading arrangements balance the needs of businesses and consumers with those of families and communities, and as such are backed by the majority of the public. Given the lack of clear evidence about economic benefit, and concerns about impact on workers and their families, it is right that the Commons has dropped these proposals.”
The Christian lobby group CARE’s chief executive, Nola Leach, also praised the decision: “You cannot put a price on the importance of family life, and so we are delighted MPs have kicked the Government’s pointless Sunday-trading plans into the long grass.
“The Government have brought this very embarrassing defeat on themselves by bringing these anti-family plans back — and doing so in a manner that denied MPs and peers the chance to properly scrutinise the proposals.”