WHAT does the Government think it is doing? When the Chancellor announced in his Budget speech that local councils might be given the power to relax Sunday-trading laws, the argument put forward was so weak as to be insulting — as if any conclusions about economic benefits could be drawn from the extraordinary period during the Olympics. The only comfort was that, during the consultation period, or, if necessary, in debates in the Commons and the Lords, sense would be bound to prevail, and the proposal would be quietly dropped. So the announcement by the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, on Tuesday that the unchanged proposal would be appended to the Enterprise Bill near the completion of its passage through Parliament seems only to compound the insult.
The defence of the Lord’s Day no longer brings Christians to the barricades as it once did. After the strictures of earlier decades, a degree of reasonableness has muted the arguments, making the Churches less prepared to respond to unreasonableness when it comes along, perhaps because it feels like special pleading for Christians. But the broad coalition of forces in favour of keeping Sunday special ought to give people courage: trade unions, small-shopkeepers, town-centre residents, many local councils, and right-thinking businesses — everyone, it seems, apart from the powerful business interests who have the Government’s ear.
The reasons for resisting Sunday trading go much deeper than its interference with normal times of worship. It will have a profound effect on those who work in the retail trade — 2.8 million, one in every ten people employed in the UK. The Churches have been slow to develop a contemporary theology of rest, something that is of fundamental importance to an individual’s well-being. But if this line of argument is too complicated, the deleterious effect on families is self-evident, especially when, at the lower end of the job market, it is common for both parents to have to work. In 2014, the Prime Minister announced that all new legislation would be subjected to the “Family Test” to assess its impact on families in various circumstances. It seems that this is yet another parliamentary stage the Government plans to do away with in order to further the interests of big business.
This is not the occasion for reticence. Since the Bishops, like the rest of the peers, will have no parliamentary opportunity to fight this, it is up to ordinary people to teach the Government a lesson in democracy, and persuade their MPs to fight it instead. The Government must know that the numbers are tight: it will take only a few Conservative MPs to vote with the other parties, and with their conscience, to tip the balance. But the time to act is short.