Sunday trading laws illustrate the tyranny of the status quo

The other Sunday I arrived back in London around 7pm and went round the corner to the big Sainsbury’s near our flat. I needed to get milk and a few other things, as you do.

Too late, I remembered our Sunday trading laws – which mean that stores with over 280 square metres of floor space can only open for six hours between 10am and 6pm. On Easter Sunday they can’t open at all. Smaller shops, however, can open at will.

Younger readers may not understand why this is so. Let me tell you, as I have some personal history with this.

Back in the 1980s, the Shops Act of 1950 was still in operation. It preserved in amber the attitudes and assumptions of the late 1940s, placing what to today’s younger generations are now scarcely believable restrictions on what could be sold on a Sunday, and who could sell it.

You could buy cigarettes or ice cream, but not frozen vegetables or fish fingers. Other anomalies reflected the type of retail outlet allowed to open: you could buy newspapers and porn mags, but not bibles, fresh cream but not evaporated milk. You could buy bicycle spares, but not a bicycle, have your shoes repaired but not buy shoelaces.

Incidentally, these laws only applied to England and Wales; Northern Ireland had its own rules, while Scotland had no Sunday trading restrictions at all. It still doesn’t.

There had been more than twenty failed attempts, mainly by private members’ bills, to reform Sunday trading laws when Mrs Thatcher’s government decided to take the matter in hand. However, its attempt at reform in 1986 was defeated by a Tory rebellion, when 72 backbenchers defied a three-line whip. This was the only major Parliamentary defeat in Mrs Thatcher’s time in office.

It was the result of lobbying by Keep Sunday Special, a bizarre alliance of trade unionists, traditionalists, Sabbatarians and some prominent food retailers and department stores. This was a classic illustration of public choice theory. Concentrated lobby groups with a strong commitment to a particular issue tend to dominate over more dispersed consumers (which opinion polls at the time showed to be clearly in favour of liberalisation).

But in this case the Parliamentary vote proved to be a Pyrrhic victory. The Sunday trading laws were now exposed as inappropriate for the kind of economy and society which was emerging in the late twentieth century. The laws were increasingly challenged as businesses went ahead and opened on a Sunday anyway – and were prepared to fight for the right to do so before magistrates where necessary. Often, though, it wasn’t necessary, as local authorities (responsible for enforcing the law) turned a blind eye.

Around this time, I became peripherally involved with Open Shop, a pressure group headed by B&Q’s Nigel Whittaker. DIY retailers and garden centres were amongst the keenest advocates of Sunday shopping, as you might guess.

Together with my late pal Terry Burke, I wrote a paper for the Adam Smith Institute pushing the arguments for liberalising the law; John Burton (still on the IEA’s Academic Advisory Council) produced a similar report for the IEA.

Terry and John also developed a line as ‘expert witnesses’, touring the country to appear in provincial courts to offer economic arguments in support of retailers which were in the dock for breaching the Shops Act. I didn’t get involved with this, though I did background research and made quite a few radio appearances pushing the case. One I remember involved a heated exchange with a representative of the John Lewis Partnership. The ‘partners’ (who had until recently not even opened on Saturday afternoons) perhaps unsurprisingly didn’t fancy Sunday working.

Eventually, under John Major, the nettle was grasped again, and the Sunday Trading Act 1994 was passed into law. Because of the continuing strength of the Keep Sunday Special lobby, it had to be the compromise we still have today.

The restricted hours were supposed to facilitate church attendance; there was a clause which USDAW wanted, saying that those who started work with a retailer prior to 1994 could not be required to work on Sundays; and the restrictions applying to large stores were to protect smaller family retailers.

The last 27 years have seen major changes in society and in the retailing sector. Church attendance is a third of what it was in the 1980s, and the ever-shrinking Church of England is no longer the Conservative Party at prayer (in Maude Royden’s famous phrase); only 6% of its clergy voted Tory at the last election. Unions exercise little power today. Consumers can now order groceries, food and all manner of goods online for delivery at any time, and bricks-and-mortar retailing declines in importance all the time.

Little shops survive, but many of them are just pocket-sized versions of the big grocery stores. With the big Sainsbury’s closed, I went down the street to the Tesco Express. I got more limited choice, and probably higher prices, but I wasn’t supporting a small family outfit but ironically contributing to the profits of an even larger retailer than the one I wanted to use.

The restrictions, then, no longer make sense even in their own terms. Those who agitated for them are dead or deep in retirement. If we had never had such laws, like Scotland, who would ever seriously advocate their introduction? But the rules have proved resistant to scrapping by private members’ actions, and two government consultations (in 2006 and 2015) have led to no further changes.  The current government has neither inclination nor time to repeal them.

It is a relatively trivial matter. I am not seriously deprived by having to substitute Tesco’s yoghurt for Sainsbury’s on a Sunday evening, or having limited hours in which to purchase power tools or garden gnomes. Although abandoning opening restrictions might create a few more jobs, it is probably not worth a song and dance about. But it is typical of an economy which is regulated more and more every day, and rarely if ever deregulates even if the original reasons for regulation no longer apply.

In our ever-changing society, we should never try to freeze particular patterns of demand and supply by law. If we must have them at all, regulations which prevent or restrict economic activity should be time-limited. After twenty years, or whatever sunset period is thought appropriate, regulations should lapse. To renew them, Parliament should have to debate and vote again. We should not remain tethered to the choices of previous generations.

Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

6 thoughts on “Sunday trading laws illustrate the tyranny of the status quo”

  1. Posted 03/10/2021 at 20:29 | Permalink

    A few unconnected points. Another anomaly, I believe, was that, under the old laws, you could buy fish and chips from a Chinese takeaway but not from a fish and chip shop.

    Although only 6% of CofE clergy voted Tory, the churchgoers are a lot more pro-business and pro-Tory than the clergy.

    How about leaving this to local authorities? In other words, amend the current law to say that local authorities are permitted to make regulations around opening on traditional days (which might be different in different local authorities – Sunday/Saturdays/Fridays – Easter, Jewish new year etc): but, otherwise, there are no restrictions. And the default would be no restrictions at all unless the local authority introduced it (or the default could be the current law which the local authority could amend).

  2. Posted 14/08/2022 at 17:54 | Permalink

    Just a thought, most of the studies I’ve seen seem to reference 1957 as the year when we were happiest in the UK. Today in our much more liberal and enlightened time the most common cause of death for men under 50 is suicide. Seventeen percent of the population is prescribed one form of anti depressant or another. Twenty five percent of the UK’s population can expect some kind of mental health episode every year. When the rules were relaxed we were promised that nobody would be forced to work on a Sunday that lasted a few years but has now gone. We now live in a world where the concept of having a day when everybody in the family could be together is long gone. I would suggest that if instead of writing papers and lecturing you were one of the people being forced to work on a Sunday, struggling to bring up children and surviving on minimum wage you might feel differently about Sunday trading laws. The laws were put in place to protect the serfs that serve you. Unions don’t have power because they were decapitated in the 1980’s and people are not going to church because they have to work. Please this isn’t an argument about what kind of milk you can buy on a Sunday, it’s about the rights of ordinary working people. If you don’t believe me take a sabbatical ( although you should be opposed to them of course) and get yourself a job on the shop floor of one of our major retailers.

  3. Posted 24/10/2022 at 15:13 | Permalink

    “It is a relatively trivial matter”

    And therein lies the problem, it is so not a trivial matter, as our society fractures and we spend so little time considering other people, maybe it’s time to reflect on how we do this, having one day a week when people know that there friends and loved ones are available to socialise, support and share time together without been called upon by an onerous boss or company, it may just be the time to revert to the older sunday trading laws, not elevate them to “Open all hours”.

    Citing religion is a folly, citing more jobs – feeds into the big business philosophy, during lockdown families became closer, yes – it was enforced……. but a lot of people really did benefit from it – and surely that is what good governance is about, not purely generating more wealth.

    Looking at the state of politics in this country it’s very easy to see how such attitudes like the one in this article erode at our communities, what we need is some “out the box thinking”, not this.

    If you are looking for “Choice” why not make it illegal to force people to work on Sundays, and actually enforce it – underpin this with a guaranteed Sunday Rate of Pay – and enforce it, with heavy fines for those organisations who pressurise employees to work sundays, many of them do and get away with it.

    “Your employer must not subject you to a ‘detriment’, for example, denying you a pay rise because you opted out of Sunday working. Dismissal because you opted out of Sunday working will be automatically unfair.

    The Enterprise Act 2016 contained some changes to the rules on opting out of Sunday working. in the retail sector. These changes were supposed to make it a little easier for shopworkers to opt out of working on Sundays. However, these changes have not been brought into law and there is no date scheduled to do this.”

  4. Posted 10/11/2022 at 12:18 | Permalink

    I must admit, I’m unconvinced. I agree with the lapsing of regulations, but as far as Sunday trading is concerned I believe that there is more to this argument than just economic considerations. If you increase the supply of working hours, their value will drop. This suggests that in extending the number of available hours the hourly wages of those who work in the kinds of jobs that engage with Sunday working will drop. In order to maintain their standard of living such people (and they’re usually low paid workers) come under pressure to work more hours – i.e. on a Sunday. Essentially, they are penalised for taking a day off, and I suspect this is a bad thing.

    Closing non-essential businesses on a Sunday might be a little inconvenient and probably not welcome by the likes of B&Q, but that’s part of the point. Everyone needs a day of rest, and restricting the power to compel people to work on such a day would recognise that such compulsion should have its limits. Sunday closing allows people to have a day off without having to accept a financial penalty for doing so.

  5. Posted 25/12/2022 at 13:15 | Permalink

    Could you answer a question for me please. What year was it first legal for pubs to open christmas day? I am 65 and having argument with daughter 45 who says she was taken as a child to pubs on christmas day. I am sure pubs were shut. She was born 1978. As a 65 year old I despair of the world and what is happening on all fronts. I was born 1957 which was supposedly the happiest year !!

  6. Posted 25/04/2023 at 09:11 | Permalink

    Not withstanding that the Sabbath is actually on a Saturday (more accurately from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), there is currently a push by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) to introduce a worldwide day of rest each week, which would most likely be on a Sunday, for it was the RCC that decided to change the biblical Sabbath Day from Saturday to Sunday. Anyway it will be interesting to see how far the RCC actually get with this initiative. I can imagine the ‘pushback’ to this plan being robust given world governments are now primarily managed by big business. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that there is one of God’s Ten Commandments that begins with the word ‘Remember’ – most likely because God knew we would forget it and that’s the fourth commandment ‘Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holly.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *