THE economy is in a mess. Business confidence is low, unemployment remains high and underemployment means that many who are officially in work are struggling to get by on a part-time wage. The entire country is engaged in a hunt for growth.
And yet, in some circumstances, businesses are forced to shut their doors in the faces of eager customers. Under Britain’s Sunday trading laws, any shop over a certain size is forbidden from selling goods for more than six hours each Sunday.
The law leads to some absurd situations. Customers can be forced to wait outside, while staff and goods wait inside, or they may be permitted to browse the aisles but not buy anything, like a child under strict orders in a sweet shop.
We’re told there are good reasons for this policy.
Firstly, it is claimed that no one wants to shop on Sundays. Then, it’s explained that convenience stores would lose masses of business to larger rivals if this protectionism was lifted – a claim that rather invalidates the first argument.
After that, we are told that Sunday is a special, religious day. And yet the laws apply to those of all religions and to the irreligious.
Even more oddly, it seems that Sunday is only special for those who work in large shops. Hotel receptionists, chefs, taxi drivers and even online moneylenders are allowed to work on a Sunday. But, if someone was to operate a supermarket till for seven hours rather than six, there would be a problem.
The argument follows that, without restricted hours for large shops, Sunday would cease to be a family day, when parents can spend time with their children. Again, this anomalously applies to shop workers rather than to other sectors, and disregards the fact that many families enjoy going shopping together as a leisure activity.
Furthermore, no consideration is given to the impact on the family lives of the huge numbers of people who are unemployed or underemployed, leaving them unable to provide the money they need to pay the bills. It is ironic – and sad – that, in the name of enforced preservation of a family life, many parents are forbidden from picking up extra shifts to keep their household budget afloat.
Finally, it is asserted that, if shops are allowed to open full time on Sunday, shop workers would be forced to work the new hours against their will. The implication is that shop staff will be compelled to work seven day weeks, all year round.
This is obviously not the case. Countless other businesses, from factories and offices to call centres and restaurants, open on Sunday and yet they overwhelmingly come to a fair and sustainable arrangement with their staff. Many businesses are open right around the clock, all year, and address this challenge supremely well with shift working.
There are two reasons for this – firstly, employers are human beings with compassion. Secondly, a business suffers if it demoralises and exhausts its employees.
This debate had been hypothetical for many years, but now we have had a chance to test unrestricted Sunday trading in practice. For the duration of the Olympics and Paralympics, the laws have been temporarily suspended. It is remarkable for a free country that it should be newsworthy that shops can now sell when they wish, and shoppers can buy things in all of their spare time.
What has been the result? The good news is that the sky has not fallen in. Of course, the policy has not been a silver bullet to slay all economic demons, but no one ever pretended that it would be.
In reality, it has worked well. Goods can be sold and bought by everyone as they find necessary. Shop workers have gained more earning potential in tough economic circumstances.
By the same stroke, high street retail has become more competitive. After all, the internet is never closed to customers, so it is only sensible to put shops on as equal a footing as possible.
We regularly hear politicians declare that “Britain is open for business”. During the Olympic and Paralympic period, with the Sunday trading laws suspended, Britain truly is open for business – with beneficial results for customers, businesses, job seekers and the Exchequer. The obvious next step is to abolish these restrictions entirely, forever.
Mark Wallace is head of media relations at the Institute of Directors.