That’s why I agree with George Osborne’s overhaul of this legislation. For too long now, we have been riven by a peculiarly British mixture of guilt and fear about Sunday trading. It’s as if shopping is still a frivolous activity which should only be barely tolerated on a Sunday.
There is no moral case for this. We are a multi-faith society in which committed Christian church-going has dipped to an all-time low. And, as most of us know, there is nothing very frivolous about shopping on a Sunday. It’s more a case of fit it in when you can, whether it’s for new school shoes or a screwdriver. Have you ever got up early on a Sunday morning with a to-do list as long as your arm only to sit there outside the DIY store, waiting for it to open? I have, far too many times.
However I’m not sure the Chancellor is right with his plan to devolve the decision on how long shops can open on the Sabbath into the hands of local authorities. Knowing their bureaucratic ways, we’re going to end up with a confusing mess, with one town staying open until six and another pushing for an all-nighter.
As Adrian Pepper of the Open Sundays campaign group says, it is now the norm for adults in most families to be in full-time work, so the only time they can shop is at the weekend. Make that part of the weekend. In most towns, it’s not before 10am or after 4pm on a Sunday. “Restricting Sunday opening makes no sense,” Pepper argues.
He’s right. As Morrissey so memorably put it, nothing sums up misery and frustration more than a Northern town on wet Sunday afternoon. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. In Barnsley, it hasn’t changed that much since I was 12. I was bored then. I am bored now. And annoyed, because I have a family to run and things we need. Also, most Sundays we have a hundred and one things to do. It’s 4pm before we know it. No wonder we end up buying online, because the internet never closes.
Can we call this progress? Can we call this civilisation? Not at half past four on a Sunday afternoon when my son informs me that he’s got baking on a Monday morning and I have to drive three miles to the other side of town to the nearest Tesco Express to track down some random item – such as glace cherries – that he must have for school.
Selfish? Perhaps. However, I want everyone to keep the bigger picture in their heads while we debate the finer points. What – in this day and age – is really that wrong with shops opening for longer on a Sunday? The argument which is always brought forward is that is unfair to shop workers. If not a day of rest, then they deserve a few hours of rest.
However, there are plenty of people at the beck and call of their employers who will be asking why shop-workers should be such a special case. Teachers, for example, who tend to spend most of their Sundays marking books. Cinema staff, carers, call centre staff, those who man our emergency services. The hours before 10am and after 4pm on a Sunday are not sacrosanct to them. And, as the lady in my local Premier convenience store points out, she is made to work until 9pm on a Sunday evening, yet her sister, who works at Asda, is not.
Oh dear. Who would have thought that shopping could be such a minefield? So far, this revolutionary move is not exactly doing Osborne any favours – there are now more pressure groups criticising him than praising his bold stance. The trade body which represents convenience stores says it spells doom for the corner shop. Independent retailers are concerned that they won’t be able to afford to pay their staff to work for longer. And The Keep Sunday Special campaign is furious that Osborne is going back on an apparent promise made only a few months ago to honour the existing laws.
I am old enough to remember all this from 1994, when the Sunday trading regulations were first relaxed. The world hasn’t come to an end since. If we drag our feet on this now though, our high streets and town centres and shopping malls just might.