23 December 2010
Margaret Thatcher only lost one parliamentary vote during her eleven years as Prime Minister, a vote on Sunday Trading. Alex Attwood, Social Development Minister in Northern Ireland should beware as he recently announced plans to introduce more flexibility around Sunday shopping - it wasn't so long ago that they used to tie up the swings on Sundays in certain areas of Northern Ireland! Campaigners in England and Wales are keeping a close eye on the issue, as the big retailers there would like to see the laws liberalised further.
In Northern Ireland, large shops (floor area exceeding 280 square metres) are restricted to opening for a maximum of five hours between 13.00 and 18.00 on a Sunday. In England and Wales large stores are restricted from opening more than six hours between 10.00 and 18.00. In Scotland Sunday Trading is completely deregulated. Any possible change is a concern to the unions, small business groups and the Church. Freedom to shop takes away the freedom of someone else who has to work. It's not just the shopworkers - police, security, banking, distribution, transport, health and catering staff all have to work when shops are open. The UK is top of the table for evening and weekend work, but bottom of the table for child wellbeing.
Across the UK, 1.5 million parents will be working this Sunday - when do they get to spend time with their children? There is no clear public demand for any change. Polling by the Association of Convenience Stores in March 2010 found that 89% of people support the existing laws in the UK or want to see them tightened. Small stores and family businesses will suffer. Extended Sunday trading hours will not bring new money into a finite economy; it will simply reallocate money from small local convenience stores to large national retailers. Local community groups and sports leagues will also struggle as more people have to work.
For many people Sunday has a particular religious significance as a day set aside for worship. A 2007 survey by Tearfund found that 45% of people in Northern Ireland attend church regularly. There is a legal opt out for retail staff but USDAW, the
shop workers union, found that 62% of workers have come under pressure to work on Sundays when they didn't really want to. The Social Policy Unit is expecting opposition and even if the Minister recommends a change in the law the matter would have to be passed by the Executive. Indeed, Sunday Trading could become a key issue during the Assembly elections in May. Yet it also presents the churches with a challenge and opportunity to engage in a more positive way, demonstrating that we are interested in more than 'protecting our own'. Sunday Trading is not just about church attendance but an issue that is important to the whole of society. People need a shared day off to rest in our 24/7 society and a day to enjoy and invest in the relationships that are so vital to individual and national wellbeing.