Sunday trading laws must go

Sunday trading laws as we know them today were introduced under the Sunday Trading Act 1994.  This law limits “large shops” over 280 square meters from opening for more than six hours on Sundays. While there is support for these laws from religious groups who want to monopolise this particular day of the week, socialists who say they’re protecting workers’ rights, and communitarians who want to “discourage the further commercialisation of British society”, there is simply no justification for the law remaining in place.

Sunday trading laws do not protect workers’ rights. In fact, they do the opposite. Stemming from the Christian tradition that Sunday should be a day of rest, it is argued that a unified weekly holiday is essential to maintain a family unit and improve worker productivity during the week.

But even under current laws, this is only the case for a minority who work in retail stores and betting shops. Those in other professions, such as the emergency services, do not enjoy the same protection. This argument is also undermined by the fact that workers are already protected under section 4 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.  This act gives shop and betting workers the right to a written request not to work on a Sunday and means an unwillingness to work on Sunday is not counted as a fair reason for dismissal.

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.

Another common argument for Sunday trading laws is that those who wish to abolish them are motivated by the greed of big business. But what about small businesses? With the government and local councils looking for ways to bring consumers back onto the high street, preventing longer opening hours is counterintuitive.  Shops on the high street face significant competition from online competition, and Sunday trading laws uneven the playing field.

The high street already has the extra fixed cost of premises, and restricting the hours of trade merely adds to the burden by reducing the number of hours this cost is spread across. When the Sunday Trading Act 1994 was introduced, the internet was only in its infancy.  So, while this may not have been a problem at the time of its introduction, the rise of e-commerce means the law is painfully outdated.

Furthermore, Sunday has been recorded as the second most popular day of the week to go shopping, with 44 per cent of individuals going into town, so limiting opening hours and, in turn, reducing footfall is a very anti-business – small and big – policy. The depressing effects of Sunday trading laws also have a wider impact on the economy. Indeed, it has been predicted that abolishing them has the potential to boost the UK’s GDP by over £1.4bn a year.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that abolishing Sunday trading laws does not make it mandatory for shops to stay open longer, it merely offers greater freedom of choice for everyone involved. Because it is frankly ridiculous that it is a criminal offence in the UK to sell a loaf of bread on a Sunday evening in certain stores, even if it is in the consumer’s interest – indeed, it may be the only day of the week some people have time to go shopping.

Opening for longer hours also increases the scope for turnover, translating into greater profits and tax revenue, and potentially lower prices.  Indeed, some ministers have claimed that abolishing Sunday trading laws could lead to a reduction in shopping bills by over £64 a year for the average consumer.

Sunday trading laws play no role in protecting worker rights, they unnecessarily limit job creation and economic growth, give online shops an unfair edge over those on the high street, and limit consumer choice. The arguments in favour of the current laws were made when Britain was a more religious country and online shopping was not the norm, but they are now outdated and detrimental to both consumers and workers.

Written by Emilia Fletcher

Emilia Fletcher is a student at the University of Birmingham. She was an intern at the IEA in 2017 and attended Freedom Week 2018.