Sunday trading: Why it's back on the agenda, and why it shouldn't be

Government plans to devolve decision making on Sunday trading would allow large stores such as Selfridge's to open all day on Sunday.Reuters

Sunday trading is back on the agenda with a vengeance. At present large shops and supermarkets are only allowed to open for six hours. Last year the Chancellor, George Osborne, promised in his budget that councils and mayors would get the power to set Sunday trading laws in their own areas; he backed off after a revolt by Tory MPs – Christian MP David Burrowes among them – and an intervention by the SNP. Now, however, business secretary Sajid Javid has said a Commons amendment will be tabled to the Enterprise Bill. A Tory minister has indicated Scottish MPs could be barred from voting on the proposals. According to the Sun on Sunday, which has campaigned on the issue, at least 150 local councils have said they believe widespread opening will be good for them and create jobs.

It's just wrong. Thou shalt not work on the Sabbath, that's what I say.

I doubt if you actually speak in Jacobean English. But while it may be wrong, that isn't a very strong argument against Sunday trading. For one thing, the Sabbath is Saturday, not Sunday, and for another, we shouldn't be trying to make laws forcing people to observe our religion.

But if people have to work on Sundays, they won't be able to go to church.

See above: we should be very uneasy about trying to privilege one religion through the legal system. Lots of people have to work on Sundays anyway. They can go to church during the week.

I don't understand, then. What's so wrong about it?

Sunday trading as we have it now was introduced in 1994 under the Tories led by John Major. It had previously been illegal under the Shops Act 1950, with a few exceptions. Major was put under huge pressure by supermarkets and thought it would be a popular move in the light of Britain's flagging economy, just emerging from recession. Campaigners against widespread Sunday trading, including the shop workers union USDAW, argued that it would damage family life as couples might not have a whole day to spend together with their children any more. The six-hour compromise was the best that could be achieved.

So it has nothing to do with religion?

Everything has to do with religion, but if you mean it's not about quoting the Ten Commandments at people, yes. However, the principle of a communal day of rest is built into the scriptures from the earliest times. We ignore that at our peril.

I like being able to go to the supermarket on Sundays.

How nice for you. The person serving you might like to be with their family.

Do you mean they have to work on Sundays if they're asked?

The law was passed after USDAW was assured that Sunday working would be voluntary; many Labour MPs switched sides and backed it. It remains the case that people can opt out of Sunday working if they want. However, campaigners argue that the pressure on them to conform and the knowledge that they are inconveniencing other workers means they don't do so; also many need the money.

I assume if shops opened longer on Sundays people would make more money?

You would probably be wrong. It would perhaps make more money for supermarkets, but drive small convenience stores out of business. Once they've gone, the supermarkets would make no more money because people would just spend the same amount on different days.

So why do it?

Why indeed? The campaign is arguably being driven by people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. They're quite happy to see the lower classes labouring away when they'd rather be at home, as long as they can stock up on their organic yoghurt and quinoa. Whoever has to work on Sundays, it won't be them. 

I like that 'arguably'.

Thanks. Do your shopping on Saturday. 

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods