Many Olympic visitors will take advantage of the shopping opportunities afforded by Westfield Stratford City, but few from outside the UK (and not many from within it) will be aware of complexity of the UK’s trading laws or the requirement for the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Act 2012 to enable them to engage in retail therapy on Sundays. Although there was a significant relaxation of Sunday trading laws in England and Wales in 1994, restrictions still remain and the Church Times reports that lobbying groups, such as Keep Sundays Special, the shop-workers’ union USDAW, and others are anxious that the present derogation under the 2012 Act is a temporary feature.
The complexity of Sunday trading within the UK is encapsulated in the speech of Lord Mancroft to the House of Lords on the Second Hearing, Scrap Metal Dealers Act:
‘Those of your Lordship who are connoisseurs of legal jumbles will still give the prize to Clause 17 of the ill-fated Shops Bill of 1958, which took thirty-four lines of the draftsmen’s fearless prose to establish the principle that only a Mohammedan or a practising Jew could operate as a barber in Scotland on a Sunday’
The earliest restrictions on displaying or selling goods on Sundays and major feast days – the Fairs and Markets Act 1448 and the Sunday Observance Acts of 1627 and 1677 – were of religious origin. However, in the 1930s a number of Private Member’s Bills were brought to ensure a day of rest for shop workers, the interests of small traders, as well as maintaining ‘the separate and traditional character of Sundays’. This tension between religious- and workers interests has been exacerbated by the demands of the larger retailers for longer opening hours and the unions’ opposition to the erosion of worker rights.
The House of Lords Library Note on the 2012 Act contains a detailed analysis of the history and politics leading to the present situation which is determined by the Sunday Trading Act 1994 in relation to trading hours, and Part IV of the Employment Rights Act 1996 for rights regarding the Sunday working of shop and betting workers. Separate provisions apply to Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Although London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 provided the ‘framework’ legislation relating to the 2012 London Olympics, the Sunday trading provisions were not presented to Parliament until six years later, leading to suggestions that this was ‘emergency legislation’ and doubts over its temporary nature. This is not strictly true, since the 2012 Act is conventional primary legislation that contains a ‘sunset clause’ repealing the Act at the end of the period of suspension of the Sunday trading restrictions.
However, it was necessary to employ the fast-track procedure in its passage through Parliament, and a number of contradictory statements have been made regarding its permanence. The Explanatory Notes to the Bill leave one in no doubt as to its primary objective, [at para. 13, emphasis added]
‘The Government will make Parliamentary time available to ensure that this Bill is scrutinised. In addition contact has been made with the Opposition and the Lords Spiritual so they understand the nature of the Bill in that it is a time limited measure aimed at giving a short but sizeable boost to the retail sector.’
Whilst there is no doubt that the Act is time-limited, this does not guarantee that the return to the status quo will extend beyond the short term. There has been a groundswell for change for 60 or more years, as identified in the HoL Library Note,
‘In the 30 years or so following [the Shops Act 1950], no less than 19 Bills (one Government Bill, twelve Private Member’s Bills in the Commons and six Private Member’s Bills in the Lords) were introduced to Parliament which sought to change the Sunday trading laws in some way’.
The 1994 Shops Act was reviewed through a consultation in 2006 but the 1,000 or so responses from consumers, religious groups, employees and business suggested that there was no substantial demand for change. Nevertheless, further attempts at introducing change have been made, albeit unsuccessfully, by: Philip Davies MP during the passage of the Localism Act in 2011, to empower local authorities to reduce or extend the Sunday trading hours of large shops; and in July 2011 by Mark Menzies MP, through the Sunday Trading (Amendment) Bill 2010–12 introduced under the Ten Minute Rule, to require the Secretary of State to allow local authorities to vary existing Sunday trading laws for the period of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Prior to the Budget in March 2012, concern was raised here and here regarding the use of the temporary change during the Olympics “to learn lessons” and “to provide evidence of the economic benefits of a permanent relaxation of Sunday trading laws”. However, the government subsequently sought to allay such fears: Sir George Young, Leader of the House of Commons, confirmed [at col. 948] that the changes:
‘will apply only to the Sundays during the Olympics and Paralympics, so it will be strictly confined to that period. It is not our intention at this stage to go for the wider reform’, [emphasis added – the phrase ‘at this stage’ is not included in the HoL Library Note].
This position was repeated in a written answer [at col. 1003W] by Norman Lamb, Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs,
‘[t]he temporary suspension of Sunday trading restrictions is not a trial and will assist in ensuring that visitors to the Olympics can take full advantage of all the UK has to offer, including its world-class shops. It is not a pilot for a wider liberalisation of Sunday trading, nor will the Bill contain powers for wider liberalisation. Should the Government ever decide that a more permanent suspension of the Sunday trading rules is necessary, legislation and a full consultation would be required.’
And there the matter lies. For now.