In March, one of the measures the TaxPayers’ Alliance suggested to tackle the coronavirus public health emergency was the suspension of suspending Sunday trading restrictions. Positively, Parliament seems to be waking up to how a suspension could aid the effort against the coronavirus, with 40 MPs putting the idea of a temporary suspension to business secretary Alok Sharma.
But there are plenty of reasons to support making any suspension permanent. There is a growing sense in Britain that restarting the economy is a key priority. The chancellor and business secretary should realise that suspending Sunday trading laws would aid this effort, providing a big boost to a recovering economy.
What are Sunday Trading Laws?
The Sunday Trading Act 1994 mandates that shops over 280 square metres in England and Wales only open on Sunday for six consecutive hours between 10am and 6pm. Before its introduction, buying and selling on a Sunday was by and large illegal. Thatcher’s government tried to introduce the more radical Shops Bill in 1986 but it was defeated in the House of Commons at the second reading and the effort was shelved. The 1986 Bill would have brought England and Wales in line with Scotland, where shops have always been legally able to open whenever they like. The 1994 Act was ultimately a compromise, designed to achieve a liberalisation for retailers whilst still appeasing members of parliament and campaigners that wanted Sunday treated differently.
It’s worth noting that there have been gaps in the Sunday trading laws. It was lifted for eight weekends in 2012 for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. The justification given by then chancellor George Osborne was that it would help maximise the economic benefits of the Games. According to Mark Allatt, director of campaign group Open Sundays, “sales rose 3.2 per cent compared to the previous year.” 1
Why should the restrictions be scrapped?
The government should have lifted these restrictions during the pandemic. But we must also consider economic recovery in the long run. Free market capitalism is the only feasible way out of our current plight. Permanently removing burdensome regulations such as Sunday trading laws would be a vital first step in boosting economic growth. Open Sundays estimates that removing restrictions would benefit the country to the tune of £20.3 billion over 20 years.2 Both the Federation of British Business and British Retail Consortium were supportive of a previous pilot in certain areas of England and Wales, as part of attempted reform in the Enterprise Act 2016.
The current crisis has highlighted exactly why such restrictions make little sense and actually harm workers and consumers. We’ve all seen the enormous queues for supermarkets and should be doing everything possible to reduce bottlenecks - suspending Sunday trading laws would do exactly that. One supermarket chain has already taken the initiative. Morrisons has breached the Sunday Trading Act by allowing shoppers, specifically NHS staff, to purchase products from 9am. The firm is technically breaking the law. But it seems from the response that the government at least acknowledges that during this time of crisis such arbitrary restrictions are unhelpful.
In the coming months, perhaps more than ever, it will be vital that we do everything possible to boost the economy. Many people have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the Treasury will face a difficult job, both balancing the books and getting the economic engines roaring again in the coming years. Not only would suspending Sunday trading laws make life easier for shoppers, but it could offer a major lifeline for those desperately seeking employment. If stores were open for longer, it is not unreasonable to assume that they would need more staff to fill them. Currently, there is no shortage in the supply of labour to the market. Should the economy begin to recover once the most intense social restrictions are removed, there will be even more need for new jobs, including in supermarkets, to fill the gaps.
Supermarkets and their employees are working wonders to keep the nation supplied with food and to limit the spread of coronavirus. Many chains have been quick to install plastic screens at checkouts, as well as regularly sanitising trolleys to protect staff and shoppers. Their supply chains haven’t faltered - we’ve seen the brilliance of free markets first hand. That innovative, competitive edge is exactly what will be needed to drive the economy forward once the current crisis ends. If supermarkets want to open for longer on Sunday (pandemic or no pandemic) - and their customers want them to - why should they be prevented from doing so?