In Depth

How will extended Sunday trading laws work?

Consultation proposes either bespoke local deals or blanket devolution

A consultation has been launched by the Government on extending Sunday trading in local areas across England and Wales, in line with an announcement at last month's Budget.

Many larger retailers have been calling for the change for years to what they see as an outmoded restriction as they face competition from the internet, which doesn't have opening or closing hours. But others, such as small business groups, have reacted angrily to a proposal that will erode an important competitive advantage.

What is being proposed?

The Government's plans would see prohibitions limiting large stores from opening on Sundays for more than six hours lifted in certain circumstances. The decision would be devolved to local leaders, so it is unlikely that all-day opening on Sunday will be ubiquitous at least for a while.

There are two options on the table that would mean the decision is devolved either to specific local leaders as part of bespoke deals with the Government, or more generally to all local councils across England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland already have powers over Sunday trading devolved to their regional parliaments.

What are the current laws?

Under the Sunday Trading Act 1994, shops with a floor space of more than 3,000 sq ft are currently subject to the six-hour restriction. This means smaller shops such as convenience stores can set their own hours and can open for longer than their larger rivals.

What do the big businesses say?

As you might expect, most are in favour of a proposal they have advocated for years – especially given the amount of trade being lost to internet-based rivals. Dixons Carphone group chief executive Sebastian James told Retail Week: "We welcome the proposals to allow local people to determine whether they should be able to shop for longer on Sundays… On the whole, more flexibility for businesses and customers is a good thing."

Is there opposition?

Yes, not least from small businesses that currently enjoy a competitive advantage on a Sunday. James Lowman, the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, was quoted in The Guardian declaring the plans to be "complicated and harmful" and bemoaning the loss of a "small but important advantage". Others claim there will be no benefit for the wider economy and the reform will just see more trade moving to larger stores at the expense of the smaller shops.

There are also those who argue the change will negatively affect retail workers. The GMB union reacted to the Budget announcement by saying it has "not seen any compelling evidence to support the need for change" and demanding "legal safeguards to give a genuine choice for people working in retail".

What protections are there?

The Government has assured workers that the existing provision in the Employment Rights Act 1996, which gives all employees except those specifically employed to work on Sunday the right to opt out of doing so at three months' notice, will not be changed. For new employees, shops may be able to circumvent this by ensuring the need to work Sundays is agreed when a job offer is made and written into contracts.

As for High Streets, there could be other protections to prevent the ongoing loss of business to large out-of-town shopping centres. One option being proposed is that local authorities have the right to designate 'zones' in their areas where trading will be extended, to boost shopper footfall in specific locales and prevent out-of-town centres hoovering up trade.

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