The Sunday Trading Act 1994 came into force 25 years ago yesterday, allowing shops to open on Sundays, but restricting opening times of stores over 3,000 square feet to six consecutive hours between 10am and 6pm.
This compromise followed the defeat of the Shops Bill 1986 – Margaret Thatcher’s only defeat in the House of Commons – which would have brought Sunday trading hours in England and Wales into line with Scotland, where shops can choose to open at any time of day.
The current rules were supposedly designed to protect small stores from the major supermarket chains. But the result has been somewhat different.
Towns are now awash with the smaller “Express”, “Local” and “Little” stores, charging much more for the same goods that you could buy in a larger store, with some items twice the price.
The 1994 law also restricted the opening hours of garden centres for the first time, resulting in their closure on their busiest day of the year: Easter Sunday.
This is an embarrassment. During the 2012 London Olympics, the government was so abashed by the archaic Sunday trading laws that they were suspended for eight weeks. People were free to shop at a time of their choice – with no harmful side effects – and sales rose 3.2 per cent compared to the previous year.
Boris Johnson, who got the Sunday trading restrictions suspended back then as mayor of London, should now as Prime Minister remove them for good.
It is madness that you can take delivery of your online shopping at 9am on a Sunday but you cannot visit a store at the same time to buy the same items. With as many as 12,000 shops closing every year, allowing retailers to open longer on Sundays could be the shot in the arm that our beleaguered high streets need.
Sunday trading laws do not preserve any valuable cultural aspects of our way of life. On the contrary, they make it harder to serve a traditional roast lunch at home with fresh produce and fit in time to get to church.
Moreover, the Sunday economy gives those who cannot work on weekdays the chance to earn some money – from students looking to reduce their debts to those who care for family members.
And far from interfering with family life, this can actually be sustained by Sunday shopping, getting children out of the house to participate in an enjoyable family experience, which may result in a meal out or a trip to the cinema.
When the Cameron government tried to liberalise Sunday trading in 2015, it was thwarted by the SNP, which denied shoppers in England and Wales the freedoms that those in Scotland already enjoy.
Scotland currently has a competitive advantage, but if we are to compete for the tourist dollars of overseas visitors, then the whole of post-Brexit Britain had better be open for business.
Currently, we are lagging behind. Even in over-regulated France, shops in designated tourist zones in Paris have been allowed to open on Sundays since 2009.
Of course, people need a day off, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a Sunday. Nor will all shops choose to open at all hours of the day, even if the law allows them to. It is a matter of choice for shopkeepers, as it should be for individuals as to when they want to do their shopping.
The trial has been done on Boris’ watch before, and we know that giving people these choices does no harm.
For Boris to succeed where the Iron Lady failed would surely demonstrate that modern post-Brexit Britain is open for business.
Main image credit: Getty