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Tuesday 14th August 2012 | 16:15
Labour press release
Chuka Umunna MP, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, has today written to
the Prime Minister to seek clarity on reports that the Government is
seeking to remove restrictions on Sunday trading.
A temporary extension to Sunday trading hours in England and Wales was
introduced by the Government for the duration of the Olympic and
Paralympic games on the condition that this would not be used as a
precedent for permanent change. Concerns on the changes were raised by
business groups, churches and other stakeholders.
Mr Umunna is demanding that David Cameron clarify the Government’s
position in light of contradictory statements by ministers in recent days.
The full text of Mr Umunna’s letter is below:
Dear Prime Minister,
Ending of Sunday Trading restrictions
I write to seek clarification on Government policy on the restriction on
Sunday trading hours following contradictory statements made by the
Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills, the Rt. Hon. Vince
Cable MP (the “Business Secretary”) and by the Secretary of State for
Communities & Local Government, the Rt. Hon. Eric Pickles MP (the
The restrictions on Sunday trading hours have been temporarily suspended
during the Olympic and Paralympic Games by your Government. The Business
Secretary and his ministerial team gave assurances to the House of Commons
during the passage of the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and
Paralympic Games) Act 2012 (the “Act”) - which gave effect to the
suspension - that the temporary suspension of the restrictions would not
be used as a ‘Trojan horse’ for permanent change.
However, in clear breach of those assurances and despite the fact that the
Business Secretary and his team lead on policy in this area, the
Communities Secretary has made it clear the Government is considering
permanent change in light of the operation of this Act. 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.
Consideration of a permanent relaxation of Sunday trading restrictions is
being made in the name of growth but no evidence has been advanced by
Government to show that such a measure would substantially boost growth or
lift the country out of recession – only a fundamental change to
Government economic policy, an active industrial strategy and a proper
plan for growth will get the recovery back on track.
In addition, there is little appetite for a long-term end to the
restrictions and many rightly worry that it will only serve to erode the
quality time those who work in retail reserve for families on Sundays.
Sadly, in breaking the commitments that were made, we are seeing a return
to a high-handed approach, which happened when the temporary changes were
first proposed - with little due process, little consultation with
business and stakeholders in the proper way, and briefing to the media
rather than bringing the matter to Parliament.
Below, I set out in detail the assurances given and the confusion created
by your Government:
Prior to the March 2012 Budget, the media were briefed that the Government
was looking to suspend Sunday Trading laws during the Games, with the
intention of making this permanent. This was to grab a quick headline
which, as we now know, sought to mask a failed Budget. There was little
effective consultation with business, unions or other important
stakeholders like such as Churches. It caused consternation amongst many,
particularly those who work in the retail sector. Sunday Trading
restrictions, drawn up after detailed consultation and agreement, were in
effect, being carelessly tossed aside.
Your Government had to backtrack and was forced to give assurances that
the suspension would only be temporary. We asked for written assurances in
this regard and asked that the temporary nature of the measure would be on
the face of the Act and with a sunset clause. Indeed, we only consented to
fast-track legislation - given Ministers had failed to plan for this
before - if there were these assurances that the measure would be
I refer to my letters to Business Secretary of 26 March and 21 April 2012
and the assurances that were given by your Ministers; these assurances
formed a central part of the debate in Parliament and concerns raised from
MPs across all parties.
In his letter to me of 20 April the Business Secretary said:
‘… this is not a test case for a future relaxation of the rules and there
are no plans for this temporary suspension to be made permanent. I would
reiterate Lord Sassoon's points in his response to Lord Eatwell that the
Government has no intention of using this Bill as a "Trojan Horse" for
In the Secondary Reading in the House of Lords, Lord Sassoon, Commercial
Secretary for your Government, said:
‘I make it clear that this is not a test case or Trojan horse for a future
permanent relaxation of the rules. The Bill is time-limited in its effect
and contains a clear sunset clause…If the Government ever wanted to look
at a permanent relaxation of the rules, new legislation would be required
and consultation would be undertaken. Parliament would also have the
opportunity fully to debate the issue. This Bill does not indicate any new
government policy on the wider issue of Sunday trading restrictions.’
And in the Second Reading in the Commons, the Business Secretary, Vince
‘The Trojan horse was invoked several times in the earlier debate, but I
can give the right hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that this is not a
Yet in an article in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, the Communities
Secretary, when asked if the restrictions should be permanently relaxed,
said he was:
‘Willing to look and see what the difference in trading patterns were
during the period of the Games’ and went on to say he was ‘always keen
that we respect peoples' religious beliefs. But I think we should kind of
look long and hard at the results.’
The report said that:
‘Senior Conservative ministers are keen to include unrestricted trading in
a Bill in the autumn of measures to stimulate urgently-needed economic
Will you therefore confirm that the Communities Secretary is wrong and the
Government will not be pursuing this change and will be keeping to the
assurances that have been given?
Can you explain why the Business Secretary appears to have been sidelined
on this issue? Why is there confusion at the heart of Government with the
Communities Secretary allowed to lead policy in this area when the
Business Secretary was the policy lead on this issue?
As has been made clear since the Government proposed these changes, there
is little evidence that a permanent change would be beneficial. A
permanent change was considered, for example, in your Government’s Growth
Review and the Red Tape challenge which found that there is little
evidence of increased business activity but that such a measure would
simply spread the hours of business and increases costs, as well as
negatively impact on those who work in retail.
This explains why there is little support for change, including amongst
larger retail chains. When the Government proposed a permanent ending of
the restrictions earlier this year, Justin King CBE, Chief Executive of J
Sainsbury’s Plc, said there was no benefit, saying:
‘We don’t believe in, have not campaigned for and will not campaign for a
general relaxation of the Sunday trading laws. Our customers aren’t asking
for it. I’ve never had a letter from a customer saying, "Please campaign
for longer opening hours on Sundays". The compromise that’s been reached
is essentially to keep Sunday special. If you want to do your shopping on
Sunday, you can. You can do it unhindered in small shops but only for six
hours in big shops. That seems to us to be the happy British compromise.
We’re content that Sunday is special and we don’t see customer demand for
a change in the current law.’
Mr King puts this extremely well. Permanent change would also negatively
impact on the country’s high streets which is why the Association of
Convenience Stories (ACS) has criticised what the Communities Secretary
has said. A significant proportion of the trade for convenience stores
trade is on a Sunday and their competitive edge would cease. A statement
today from the ACS confirms this:
‘Earlier this year the ACS estimated the cost in lost sales to small
stores to be around £480 million. ACS also conducted polling in April 2010
asking consumers how they felt about the Sunday trading regulations. The
results showed that 89% were in favour of either keeping or strengthening
the existing rules.’
In the exceptional case of the Olympics - where millions more visitors
were expected - we were prepared, with assurances that a precedent would
not be set, to accept a temporary relaxation. It is disingenuous to try
and use any temporary boost that the Olympics may have brought to force
through longer term change where there is little evidence or support.
What these changes will do is break up the consensus that was carefully
put together after proper negotiations over a long period of time between
businesses, unions, Churches and other organisations.
It will also mean the end of Sundays being special and put pressure on
families with 24 hour working across the retail sector seven days a week,
which could affect thousands of people. This impact on family life comes
from a Government that attempts to portray itself family friendly but, as
we see, seeks to do the opposite.
I would therefore appreciate you detailing why such a change is being
proposed despite the lack of evidence and why the unique Olympic
experience is being used to push through a long-term change?
Is what was reported yesterday not evidence of a weak Business department
which reveals the failure of your Government to deliver an effective
growth strategy, which this proposal will do little to address?
Does this not also indicate a confusion at the heart of Government and
illustrate once again the policy uncertainty created by constant bickering
between Ministers that holds back private investment?
I would very much appreciate your answers to the concerns I have laid out.
Many hundreds of thousands of business people and those working in
businesses deserve confirmation that you will not be breaking the
assurances that you and your Government have made.
Chuka Umunna MP
Shadow Business Secretary