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Sunday Trading - consultation on devolving Sunday trading rules

The current status

The current Sunday trading rules were established 21 years ago in the Sunday Trading Act 1994. These were designed to limit the opening hours of large stores (those with a relevant floor area over 280 square metres/ 3,000 square feet) to 6 hours on a Sunday. Smaller stores are entitled to open all day. However, with a move towards a more secular society over this period and the changes brought about by internet shopping, is there a need for change?

Motivation for change

With the rise of the internet over the past few years, online sales have increased the pressure on high street stores to provide greater access to shopping for consumers.

Internet sales currently account for 11.5% of all retail sales. This has risen by 7.7% in the last decade and shopping trends suggest that it will continue to rise.

In order to boost growth in the retail sector the Government is proposing a change to the Sunday trading rules to provide greater flexibility to shops over their Sunday opening hours.

The proposal is that power is devolved to local areas to determine retail opening hours on Sundays.

Effect on employers/employees

While many shoppers would welcome the greater flexibility and the enhanced shopping time this would give them, there would be an undeniable effect on both employees and small businesses.

Many people regard Sunday as 'special' and this was the original driving force behind the Sunday trading rules. In the proposal being put forward, the government have confirmed that it does not intend to change the current protection afforded to employees which enables them to "opt out" of Sunday working as long as they provide their employer with the requisite notice. However, in order to ensure the same level of protection applies following proposed changes to the current Sunday trading restrictions, amendments would be required to be made to the current legislation.

Whilst the Government has confirmed its intention to continue protecting retail employees, allowing local authorities to have the power to derestrict trading hours on a Sunday will, inevitably, have a knock on effect on the types of contracts available to retail employees. Increased hours will mean an increased need for employees who are available to work on a Sunday and so, perhaps, the provision of more "Sunday  working" contracts in which the employee is specifically being employed to work Sundays and may not therefore "opt out" of Sunday working hours.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, these restrictions have already been lifted and power devolved to them in respect of Sunday trading. Scotland has chosen not to apply restrictions to Sunday trading, whilst in Northern Ireland shops can open for up to five hours between 1pm and 6pm. The absence of any backlash from the relaxation of Sunday trading rules in Scotland and Northern Ireland suggests that it is a policy capable of being implemented practically.

However, is this deregulation and move towards a seven day working week merely the first step in a watering down of employment rights? Whilst the government is currently protecting employees' rights not to work on a Sunday, will this still be the case if derestriction leads to Sunday becoming a regular trading day like any other? What does this mean for religious minority rights going forward or those who wish to keep Sunday special?   

Effect on smaller businesses

The proposal may also affect smaller businesses in the long term. By allowing larger retail outlets and chains to compete with smaller businesses on a seven day basis, this removes the advantage that the Sunday trading rules provided to those small businesses.

This could, ultimately, lead to a loss of jobs in smaller stores and possibly the closure of more independent retailers.

Conclusion

With the dawn of the internet era, many of our habits and traditions have evolved in order to keep up with the pace of 24 hour demand from consumers. In order to keep up with this the Government has put forward this proposal, as a way of providing the flexibility for high street stores to compete with online businesses and smaller retailers.

Although there are many positives to the proposal, it will be interesting to see whether the protection enjoyed by retail employees in relation to Sunday working will continue in the long-term and who will ultimately benefit from these increased opening hours.

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