Sunday Observance

An earlier post described the legislation that has been introduced to overcome the restrictions applying to Sunday trading for the duration of the London Olympics.  Now, at the point mid-way between the Olympics and Paralympics, doubts are beginning to be raised regarding the permanence of this arrangement, and the Church Times reports that the government is ‘to reflect’ on Sunday shop hours.  A spokesman for the Prime Minister is reported to have said:

‘there was a specific Act of Parliament passed for the period of the Olympic and Paralympic games – we are a couple of weeks into that. . . . . I am sure that people will want to reflect on the experiences of those weeks. A number of people want to look at this issue.’

The statement has triggered further debate on this contentious issue to which has been added a further political dimension concerning the earlier assurances that were given regarding the temporary nature of the measure.


The background to Sunday Trading is given in a House of Lords Library Note and the current arguments of those speaking for and against have been summarized in the God and Politics in the UK blog.  Essentially, the positions of the various proponents are:

  • Most churches and faith groups follow the line of the Church of England which strongly opposes ‘any attempts permanently to erode the special nature of Sunday, which legislation still reflects’.
  • Unions representing shop workers have concerns regarding workers’ rights and attempts at coercing them to work on Sundays.
  • Shopkeepers with premises having a relevant floor area less than 280 square metres are not subject to the restrictions within the Sunday Trading Act 1994 and as such are at a commercial advantage whilst these remain.
  • Larger shops are only permitted to open for up to six consecutive hours between 10am and 6pm on Sundays.
  • Some large shops are exempt from these restrictions, including: farm shops that sell their own produce; shops whose business consists wholly or mainly of selling alcohol, or motor supplies and accessories, or cycle supplies and accessories; registered pharmacies (as long as they are only selling medicinal products, veterinary medicinal products and surgical appliances); shops at designated airports; shops at railway stations; service stations and petrol filling stations; and exhibition stands.

Recent statements have re-emphasized these positions, with Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, Institute of Directors being in favour of retaining the relaxation, and John Hannett General Secretary of shopworkers’ Union USDAW, joining the Rt Rev John Pritchard Bishop of Oxford and James Lowman Chief Executive, Association of Convenience Stores on the anti-position.  However, Justin King the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s, a potential beneficiary of extended hours has stated:

“Maintaining Sunday’s special status has great merit for our customers and our colleagues, and relaxing Sunday trading laws is certainly not a magic answer to economic regeneration. The current trading rules play to common sense. Those calling for a permanent change will need to demonstrate a strong economic case for any change to be justified. We will certainly not be calling for change.”

The political argument is summed up by the Shadow Business secretary Chuka Umunna who said:

‘This breaks all the promises made to Parliament, business and to those working in the retail sector. This is a serious matter not least because many of those who agreed to support the Act did so because they were told it would not be used as a ‘Trojan horse’ for further change.’

The extent of the commitment given by government may be assessed from the statement made to the House of Commons by Sir George Young, Leader of the House, [at col. 948];

‘[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’,

and by the Written Answer  by Norman Lamb, Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs, [at col. 1003W],

‘[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 liberalization of Sunday trading, nor will the Bill contain powers for wider liberalization. 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.’

Both were delivered to allay fears of a more permanent change, but neither categorically commits to a permanent return to the status quo.  In view of its long history, it would be unusual if the prospect were not considered in the short term.  The following statement made by the Salvation Army would be a good starting point,

‘. . . . . all people need a balance of work and rest. Rest is needed on a regular basis for the maintenance of health. The scriptural basis for the weekly day of rest is the teaching given in the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11).  . . . .

 . . . . . in any highly-organised society some forms of labour will be essential but considers that commercialised sport, political meetings and unrestricted trading secularise the day intended for man’s renewal and refreshment.

It is recognised that legislation in itself – in a multicultural and secularised society – cannot safeguard the Lord’s Day, but  . . . the legalising of unrestricted retail trading on Sundays will have adverse social, cultural, economic and psychological effects, and supports the efforts of groups opposed to unrestricted Sunday trading.

 . . . . . .  there must be legal protection against victimisation for those whose beliefs or consciences will not permit them to work on what they see as the Lord’s Day. There should be no jeopardising of job applications, no discriminatory action taken against them, and there should be safeguards against dismissal on the grounds of their unwillingness to work on Sundays.’

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