PLANS to relax Sunday-trading restrictions are being pushed through Parliament by the Government on purely “ideological grounds”, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has said.
MPs will soon be asked to vote on the changes, after legislation to give local councils and mayors the power to extend Sunday shopping hours was added as a last-minute amendment to the Enterprise Bill last week.
Dr Smith said that the Government’s claims did not add up: “They say this will bring economic benefit to Britain, but when you ask people to show you the research, nobody turns up with anything,” he said on Monday.
“There will be even more closures of smaller shops in town centres, so big out-of-town shopping centres can open even longer hours. The Government are determined to push this through on ideological grounds.”
Campaigners from Keep Sunday Special (KSS), an alliance of trade unions, shop associations, and the Church of England, have formally notified the Government that they plan to seek a judicial review of the changes.
KSS argues that the consultation on the reforms was not a genuine and unbiased attempt to gauge public support for the proposals. The campaigners say that evidence that contradicted the Government’s plans was ignored, and evidence that was quoted in support of the plans was out of date, or irrelevant.
“The consultation amounts to an advocacy document for the proposals, instead of being a balanced account of the views expressed by respondents to the consultation, suggesting that the Government had made its decision on this policy before considering consultation responses,” a statement from the campaign said.
A KSS spokesman said that judicial review was a last resort: “We do not enter into this action lightly, and do so with a heavy heart.”
Dr Smith said that he had not seen the details of the judicial review, and so could not comment directly, but insisted that the plans would hurt shop workers.
“It is argued it is about choice, but whose choice? When you listen to some of the shop workers who are going to be required to come in for additional hours on Sunday, many of them are on minimum wage — they are not in a position to go to judicial review.
“We are obsessed with materialism, and there needs to be a voice about having a rhythm of life. If weekend working is so wonderful, why do all the supermarket bosses have the weekend off?”
Under the existing law, big stores can open for a maximum of six hours on Sundays, whereas their smaller competitors have no restrictions.
The Government was facing possible defeat, as some Conservative backbenchers were set to join Labour MPs in voting against the measure. It is now expected to pass, however, after the Scottish National Party (SNP) reportedly dropped its previous opposition to the proposals.
The Shadow Business Secretary, Angela Eagle, said that the SNP had made a “dirty deal” with the Government to support Sunday-trading reforms — which do not directly affect Scotland — and thrown “shop workers to the wolves”.
On Sunday, a group of bishops and other church leaders, including Dr Smith, wrote an open letter to The Sunday Telegraph reiterating their opposition to further deregulation. The group included the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan; the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, the Most Revd Peter Smith; and leaders of the Methodist and United Reformed Churches, and the Salvation Army.
The current laws, which have been in place since 1994, offered a good balance between consumer need and protecting shared time for leisure and community use, the letter argued. “They also protect small stores from near-monopolies, and preserve the right of shop workers to spend time with their families.”
Rather than boost the economy, the letter stated, the changes would shift market share from smaller shops to the larger chains.
It went on: “Most fundamentally, however, we are concerned that the further deregulation of Sunday trading laws is likely to disrupt the rhythms of community life that are so integral to the common good.
“In a world of increasing commodification, the space for shared time and activities, central to human flourishing, is becoming increasingly rare. Needlessly extending Sunday opening hours will only exacerbate this trend.”
On Tuesday, the Chancellor, George Osborne, said that there was no contradiction between being a Christian nation and having all-day shopping on Sundays.
“There are of course arrangements that exist in Scotland, that exist in other European countries, that exist in the United States of America, many of which are countries with a strong Christian faith,” he told MPs.
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