Now is the time to liberalise Sunday trading laws



It is almost always a bad idea to pursue measures that should be enacted in normal times in times of crisis. In this instance, however, it’s time to make an important exception to the general rule. Now is the time to liberalise this country’s restrictive, outdated Sunday trading regime.

The pressure that supermarkets, their workers and their customers are experiencing at the moment is enormous. Buying limits have had to be enacted to prevent ill-thought-through stockpiling. Special hours have had to be designated to vulnerable groups. Queues out the doors of shops stretch far beyond their premises. It is clear to anyone who has shopped for essentials over the last week that more can and must be done to help smooth the system.

The restrictions that keep all but the smallest shops from opening for more than six continual hours between the hours of 10am and 6pm on Sundays are anachronistic and inconvenient at the best of times. They pinch hardest in the kind of crisis we are experiencing today. For so many people who are keeping the economy moving and helping save countless lives, Sunday is just about the only time they are not on the front line of the Covid-19 epidemic.

For their sakes, more slack is needed in the system.

But it’s not just those working on the front lines with limited time to purchase supplies who would benefit from this liberalisation. Hundreds of thousands of people have sadly lost their jobs in recent weeks. Universal credit is being inundated with applications. More open hours means more economic activity and more jobs. Treating Sunday as a normal day could help lift countless people off welfare and into paying jobs. There has never been a greater time of need.

The Government has not held back in other red-tape slashing moves to protect employees and businesses. Relaxing regulations in allowing restaurants being able to become takeaways without permission from the state has proved an enormous success, saving jobs and feeding the nation. Once we have made it through this aberration of an intentionally induced recession, it may be time to reflect on which of these Government restrictions on commerce were ever truly needed in the first place.

Indeed, Sunday trading liberalisation is a move that has been a long time coming. Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to grant shops in England and Wales the freedom to trade during normal hours on Sunday led to one of only four parliamentary defeats over her eleven and a half year premiership.

Scotland for its part, along with much of the developed world, never instituted this peculiar statist straightjacket. It hardly needs noting that in those places, the sky has not fallen in. Families are no weaker an institution in those places than they are England and Wales. Society did not collapse when those trading restrictions were relaxed during the London Olympics.

Despite inevitable scaremongering from those who seem to oppose liberalisation in all its forms, places without Sunday trading restrictions do not see fewer rights for workers, who are not forced to work more hours. That’s one of the reasons why a cross-party coalition of MPs are now calling for this change. Conservative Nus Ghani and Labour’s Peter Kyle have written to the business secretary setting out the case. He would do well to champion this cause – it is likely to find receptive ears in Number 10.

This Prime Minister has experience in presiding over 2012’s successful Sunday liberalisation as London Mayor. He saw how it was good for the economy and good for society. If there ever was a pressing time to revive that positive Olympic spirit that lifted the nation during his mayoralty, it is now.

Tom Harwood is an award-winning journalist and commentator. Follow him on twitter: @tomhfh