Sunday trading laws could be suspended for a year in a move the government hopes will stimulate the economy.
As concerns grow about mass unemployment unseen since the 1980s, Downing Street is under pressure to secure jobs and boost business as Britain emerges from lockdown.
Boris Johnson, his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the business secretary, Alok Sharma, are said to support the measure, the Times reported on Saturday.
Sunday trading laws were introduced under the Sunday Trading Act 1994, which limits shops with retail space over 280 square metres to a maximum of six hours of trading.
New legislation would enable larger supermarkets to open for more than six hours on Sundays, a plan the chief whip, Mark Spencer, believes Labour and more traditionally minded Conservative MPs would oppose.
Paddy Lillis, the general secretary at Usdaw, the UK’s fifth biggest trade union, with more than 400,000 members, criticised the plan. “While we appreciate the desire to help the retail sector, this attempt to undo a long-held and respected compromise on Sunday trading is misguided,” he said.
“The last thing the retail industry needs is longer trading hours: there is no economic case for this and it will put extra pressure on the retail workers who have worked so hard throughout this crisis.
“Retailers have mixed views over the benefits of opening longer on Sundays and we have repeatedly demonstrated that it would be bad for business. Opening for longer will increase overheads but not necessarily take any more cash through the tills. The fact is that customers will not have more to spend just because the shops are open for longer.” Lillis said deregulating trading hours would put more pressure on shop staff to work longer and cause problems with finding childcare in an already stressful situation. “We urge the government to reject extending trading hours and to focus on supporting the retail sector by levelling the playing field on taxation and helping councils turn their town centres into lively and dynamic community hubs,” he said.
David Cameron’s attempt to abolish Sunday trading laws in 2016 failed after 27 Tory MPs rebelled.
Some supermarkets that have local convenience stores unaffected by Sunday trading laws are opposed to reform but others, including Asda and Morrisons, are said to be in favour.
James Lowman, the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said longer Sunday trading could hurt small shops and undermine efforts to keep staff safe during the pandemic.
“The majority of the public are in favour of the existing Sunday trading regulations, which strike the right balance between the needs of shop workers, consumers, high streets, small shops and supermarkets,” he said.
“Changing the current laws would serve only to displace trade from the local shops that have been keeping communities going during this pandemic. If anything, local shops and other retailers have been reducing the number of opening hours in their business to keep their staff safe whilst restocking and cleaning stores, and we expect non-essential retailers to operate with limited hours when they reopen later this month.
“There are many measures that have been recommended through high street reviews and task forces in recent years that could support the recovery of high street businesses, but at no point has a change to Sunday trading regulations been considered and with good reason. To upset the balance that has been struck on opening hours on Sundays would put small shops at risk, with increased costs but no guaranteed benefits for their larger counterparts.”
Polling conducted by Populus on 7 May showed that 58% of consumers support the existing Sunday trading regulations, compared with 21% who did not.
Rayhan Haque, the founder of the London Good Work Commission, which was established by London Plus, the hub body for the capital’s 120,000 voluntary organisations, said: “Any plans to suspend Sunday trading laws is a bad idea. Sundays give independent shops and smaller retailers, who have been hit the hardest from the economic meltdown, a rare chance to compete with big corporate supermarkets. This also normalises a seven-day working culture, exactly the opposite of the better work-life balance people want post Covid-19.”
The neoliberal platform 1828 said: “With this act in place, even if shops had the ability to open for longer on a Sunday, workers would still have the right to finish early or not work at all. Abolishing Sunday trading laws merely allows those who want to work more hours the ability to do so. It would, therefore, encourage job creation for those who need it and the subsequent economic benefits that come with this.”
Downing Street’s plans to revive the economy include streamlining licensing laws so that cafes and restaurants can serve food outside, doing away with the present 28-day minimum statutory consultation period and encouraging councils to pedestrianise streets to accommodate new outdoor markets.