A Response from the Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council
The Church of England is present in every community of the country and seeks to serve all its people. It is therefore intimately connected to the lives of communities in urban, rural and suburban contexts and extends its ministry to the nation through the work of chaplains in numerous sectors. For many years, the Church of England has sponsored and employed chaplains to the retail industry, working with shop workers and managers in the industry. The church is therefore well equipped to reflect the views of both local communities, and people in retailing, in its views on the desirability or otherwise of extending Sunday shopping hours.
The Mission & Public Affairs Council of the Church of England is the body responsible for overseeing research and comment on social and political issues on behalf of the Church. The Council comprises a representative group of bishops, clergy and lay people with interest and expertise in the relevant areas, and reports to the General Synod through the Archbishops’ Council.
The Church of England’s approach to Sunday Trading
The Church of England has consistently resisted attempts to make Sunday a shopping day like any other. It has, however, never taken a rigorously Sabbatarian position which condemned all work undertaken on a Sunday, nor has it sought to impose Christian worship, or specific religious understandings of society, on others. Our arguments against extended Sunday Trading have always been based on three principles which are shared by many people of other faiths, and of none, as well as Christians:
The protection of vulnerable members of society and the recognition that the freedom of some often places burdens on others who need to be protected.
The importance for human well-being of having a rhythm of work and leisure which recognises the importance of aspects of life other than commerce and work.
The necessity, for the sake of the common good, of protecting time when people can undertake elective activities together, whether with their families or in the wider community.
The consultation document alludes to the religious objections which some hold toward Sunday Trading. This does not adequately capture the Church of England’s position. We are not motivated solely by our own interests or a desire to maximise participation in our own Sunday activities. Nor do our arguments start from revealed doctrines that are not accessible to non-believers. Our objections to extended Sunday shopping hours stem from our commitment as Christians, and as the national church, to the common good of all the communities of this country. We believe that a shared day of leisure for a critical mass of the population is a necessity if people are to be able to work together for the common good and that this will be damaged by further extending shop opening hours.
The fact that the common day of leisure in Britain is Sunday reflects the Christian heritage of the nation. For those who are not Christians, the protection of one day of the week as a time of shared leisure remains important. The point at issue is not that Sunday is a uniquely and intrinsically “holy day” but that society is diminished if all days are treated the same in commercial terms.
We discuss the impact on the Church of England under Question 3.
Question 1. Should local areas have the power to extend trading hours on Sunday?
We do not believe that there is any strong need for longer Sunday trading hours. The 1994 Act already permits all shops to open for six hours on Sundays and smaller stores to open at any time. This difference on grounds of size was explicitly designed to offer some protection to smaller stores against the ability of large retailers to use economies of scale to achieve market dominance and restrict consumer choice. The need for protection on grounds of diversity, consumer choice and combating monopolistic tendencies, remains and would be destroyed by further deregulation of shop opening hours, whether locally or nationally.
It has long been apparent that the drive for shopping hours deregulation is driven more by the desire of some large retailers to increase market share (often at the expense of smaller stores) than by overall increases in sales. Some years ago, the John Lewis Partnership referred to this as “the standing effect” – in a crowd watching an event, someone stands up to get a better view: soon all are standing and no one has a better view. We do not believe that the prospect of temporary market share advantage for some large retailers is a sufficient reason to destroy the current, minimal, protection that smaller shops enjoy – regardless of the wider social disbenefits of longer Sunday trading hours which we outline below.
The Economic Arguments
We do not find the economic arguments for extended Sunday trading to be convincing. In particular, the claims that longer hours would generate lower prices due to “increased efficiency from shops being able to make more use of existing stores” is countered by the proposal to devolve decision-making to local areas which would lead to major diseconomies due to the patchy deployment of distribution systems etc. which are geared for national coverage. It appears that the claims of economic benefit are calculated on an assumption of universal extension of Sunday trading hours with no in-built recognition that some local areas may not opt to extend hours. The consultation document ignores the tension between local decision-making and economic benefits predicated on uniform opening hours and this suggests that there is a covert expectation that all local areas will opt for extended hours. We explore the question of the power imbalances between local areas and large retailers under Question 2.
The growth of internet shopping is a major new development and it is entirely understandable that the sections of the retail industry which have invested heavily in shop premises will be exploring ways to improve the share of the market delivered through built outlets. We would support measures which helped to retain the salience of the High Street because we believe in the unique importance of face-to-face human relationships, including those that take place in a market context.
However, we are at a loss to see how extending Sunday Trading hours beyond the already-generous provision of the 1994 Act (which sought to balance economic and social goods) would address the rise of internet retailing in any significant way. At best, it might afford some very temporary slowing down of the trend toward internet shopping, but it would do nothing to address the huge advantages enjoyed by internet retailers such as the avoidance of journeys, parking problems, transporting heavy or cumbersome purchases home, and so on.
In short, we believe that there is no meaningful link between extended Sunday shopping hours and the need to redress the balance between internet and High Street shopping habits.
The consultation document refers to the extended shopping hours introduced as a temporary measure during the London Olympics in 2012. It mentions the 5.5m day visitors and 450,000 foreign tourists who came to London but does not mention the fact that the experiment in extended Sunday trading hours caused no increase in sales and a considerable decrease in the business of smaller shops.1 This confirms the view that extending Sunday shopping hours enhances the market share of larger stores at the expense of smaller ones, to the detriment of competition and choice, and affords no discernible benefit in overall economic terms.
We do not believe that extended Sunday Trading hours will generate anything like the economic benefits claimed. On the contrary, devolved decision making and longer hours may create new diseconomies for retailers which must be borne in order to retain market share, whilst the community at large bears the cost.
The Social Arguments
We recognise and welcome the Government’s ambition to “make Britain the best place in Europe, and one of the top five worldwide, to do business by 2020”. We suggest that such an ambition ought to be accompanied by a similar ambition to make Britain one of the best places in the world to live and work, since the Government’s objective is presumably to maximise the wealth of the nation measured in the overall well-being of the people, not just in terms of profits which might, in any case, leave the country. It is crucial that economic and social arguments are taken together in order that governments and others have a comprehensive understanding of what “prosperity” means.
The consultation document has nothing to say about the social impact of extending Sunday Trading hours – yet, ever since the issue was explored in the Auld Report of 1985, and to the present day, the anticipated social impact has generated the most controversy on this issue.
The protections built into the 1994 Act to allow shop workers to opt out of Sunday working have not proved to be robust. Since soon after the Act, shop workers have reported coercion at various levels which has made it hard to resist enforced Sunday working. As the industry employs many people, especially women, with families, the loss of family time for shop workers is a considerable concern and further erosion of the time they do have is something we will continue to resist.
The social arguments against extended Sunday Trading hours go far beyond the lives of those who work in the industry. When shops are open, numerous other workers are required to provide ancillary services of many kinds. Demands on the police, refuse collection services, public transport and so on all increase, entailing a larger Sunday work force which is not directly involved in retailing.
Despite the (in our view) generous opening provisions of the 1994 Act, Sunday remains a day when most people, most of the year, can expect to enjoy leisure at the same time as their friends, families and others. This common leisure time is essential for shared social activities such as amateur sport, community involvement and religious observance. It is not necessary that everyone has Sundays off – there will always be a need for some to work on Sundays – but there is a critical mass of the population for whom a shared day of leisure is essential for joint activities, family life (especially as families are now more geographically scattered than ever) and community building. The Church of England’s huge, nationwide, experience of voluntary action and building social capital shows us that this critical mass is often fragile. Yet at a time when we are seeing an important shift of responsibilities from the state to the voluntary sector (including informal community networks) in fields such as social care, plus massive voluntary action to provide services such as food banks, the demand for people to act together for the common good has never been stronger.
We believe that proposals to extend Sunday shopping hours are directly contradictory to the Government’s desire to build more resilient local communities and to encourage social capital to take the place of the state in creating good neighbourhoods. It runs counter to the whole philosophy of The Big Society which the Prime Minister championed and which the Church of England supports strongly.
It has often been argued that shopping is an important leisure activity for families. We do not deny this, but note the growth in the number of people who cannot enjoy that freedom because they are employed to serve the rest. We do not believe that a trend toward longer shopping hours will promote the kind of resilient community life which would improve the quality of life for all.
Question 2. If the power is devolved, who do you think should be given the power to change Sunday trading rules?
As explained above, we do not accept that a case has been made for extending shop opening hours on Sundays. However, we are interested in exploring the idea that local areas might determine for themselves the opening hours of their shops. The Church of England is both a local and a national institution – it offers a Christian presence in every community in the country and is closely connected to the lives of the people, not just its own members, through the parish system and its chaplains in different sectors (including retailing). We are therefore naturally inclined to support local decision making on the well-known “subsidiarity principle” – that is, that decisions should be made at the lowest level commensurate with effectiveness.
However, we are concerned that local areas, whether represented by local authorities, mayors or any other body, are not in a position to negotiate on a level playing field with some of the larger retail corporations. If local decision making is to be meaningful, local areas must be in a position to make decisions which would not be attractive to retailers, as well as decisions that retailers want. A way of testing the proposition is to ask what might happen if a local area wished to restrict Sunday opening to fewer hours that the 1994 Act permits. The fact that the consultation document nowhere imagines this possibility implies a covert assumption that the only decision a local area might be permitted to make is to extend hours. If that were the only option, it would be a mockery of local decision making.
When extending Sunday trading has been debated before, large national retailers have argued strongly for a consistent national policy so that they can maximise the efficiency of their national-scale structures of distribution etc. They have frequently used this point to argue for England and Wales to come into line with Scotland on shopping hours. It is hard to conceive that they are now willing to accept numerous regional variations in opening hours which would introduce considerable inefficiencies. We believe that any local area which does not rapidly extend Sunday trading hours will come under intense pressure from some retailers to do so. The “standing effect” already noted applies to local areas too – even when they see no local benefit to extending hours, local areas may experience many disadvantages if other areas extend hours and they do not. Again, this is not what is meant by real local self-determination.
The imbalance of power between large retailers and local authorities is well known. There has been considerable publicity about the inability of local authorities to prevent supermarkets from developing stores which local opinion did not support. There have been widely-publicised cases of retailers agreeing to join in development projects as “flagship stores” only to use the threat of eleventh-hour withdrawal to gain concessions which the local authority opposed. Cases where local opinion has prevented a large retailer from doing what it wanted to do are few and far between.
Our desire to see greater local autonomy and decision making in all fields of life is moderated by the knowledge that, where local power is more of a myth than a reality, the subsidiarity principle demands protection for local interests at a higher level. We do not see any current local structure of decision making that is sufficiently powerful and robust to resist the wishes of large retailers and to enforce the wishes of local people. The question remains whether such robust structures could be introduced. Until they have been devised, we believe that local communities need the protection of national policies to prevent them being dominated by powerful commercial interests.
The consultation document floats the idea of devolving decision making through bespoke “devolution deals”. This is a new and, as yet, untested, concept. Much more detail of how such deals might work, especially how they would draw in the opinions and interests of local people and not just local politicians, is needed before it is possible to say whether such a move would represent an adequate answer to the imbalance of power between local people and large retailers. And, we reiterate, if such devolution is to be real, it must make provision for local decisions to reduce, as well as extend, opening hours if that is the will of local people.
There is also a problem in balancing the legitimate needs and claims of retailers, local residents, shop workers and other affected parties. Shop workers and others who would have to work to support extended shopping hours may not live in the area where their shop is sited. How could their interests be defended? Retailers can threaten to relocate their store in a neighbouring area which takes a different view – the threat need not be carried out to be effective.
We do not believe that any structure for genuine local decision making currently exists that would safeguard the right of local people, shop workers and other interested parties to make and enforce a genuinely local decision. On the contrary, we believe that a local authority, mayor, or other body which genuinely believes that extended shopping hours would be bad for their local community will come under such pressure to extend hours that they will be unable to resist. This is not real devolution of power.
In our view, only a local referendum on shopping hours, with the result enforceable in law, comes close to being robust enough to embody real local decision making, although we recognise the limitations and problems of a “referendum culture”. If the government is serious about devolving power to local areas on this and similar issues, much more thought is necessary – and the fact that the consultation document only offers the power to extend, not to further limit, shopping hours suggests that the current proposal is a matter of allowing local communities to decide only if they come up with the “right” answer.
Question 3: How would you be impacted by local changes to Sunday trading rules?
Although the Church of England operates 24/7, and increasingly offers services in the evenings and mid-week, Sunday remains a highly important day for us. It is the day when the majority of church members attend services together. Although committed church members will put religious observance before shopping, Christians who work in the retail industry are often faced with a conflict between work and the observance of their faith. Protection for those in the industry who do not wish to work on Sundays (for whatever reason) has been weak for employees who predated the 1994 Act and ineffective for staff who began work after that date, since employers have found it easy to frame questions at the application stage which imply that those who will not work on Sunday will not get the job. At present, the restrictions on Sunday opening hours for large stores do allow many Christian employees to attend early services where they are available. Extending hours further will make that impossible.
We are also concerned at the impact of longer working hours in the retail industry on potential church members as well as existing ones. Once an employee has signed away their right not to work on a Sunday it is extremely difficult to reclaim such rights. People who come to faith and wish to change their working patterns to allow religious observance face daunting hurdles at work. Again, extending trading hours will make this worse.
It is very important to understand that religious observance (not only for Christians but for adherents of many faiths) is, of its nature, a corporate experience and not an individual one. The problem is not just that those who work on Sundays can access religious services on other days – the church already makes extensive provision for this. The point is that any corporate activity, whether of a religious or secular nature, requires people to meet together – this necessitates the broadly shared leisure time that we have alluded to earlier. Sunday, at present, still permits this whilst allowing considerable parts of the day to be available for shopping. Changing the balance of hours would damage the corporate nature of religious worship, just as it would damage the corporate nature of other voluntary community activities.
To reduce these points to the idea that “Sundays are special to some people for religious reasons”, as in the consultation document, is misleading and inadequate. Christians practise their faith every day of the week. Sunday is special for churches, just as it is for amateur sports groups, community groups and others, because it is a day when the pace of life changes for most people, work gives way to elective activities, and people can come together to do the things that constitute a flourishing community or a “Big Society”. Christians worship God together for “religious reasons” – they do so on a Sunday because worship is, of its nature, a corporate, community activity. In this, our objections to extending Sunday trading hours are no different to those of other community organisations which require a regular time of shared leisure to enable people to work together for shared benefit and the common good.
We are against proposals to extend Sunday trading hours because:
We are not persuaded that the claimed economic benefits can be realised.
We believe that the economies envisaged as a result of longer opening hours will be more than offset by the diseconomies caused by local variations – and that the idea of devolving decision making is either an economic disincentive or a sham.
We do not believe that the protection for workers who do not wish to work on Sunday is sufficient to protect their need for family and leisure time.
We are concerned that the minimal protection of smaller shops in the 1994 Act will be lost to the detriment of competition and consumer choice.
We believe that extended shopping hours will damage community resilience.
We would support measures that devolve decision making to local level provided that:
The local decision making body has sufficient power to resist, if necessary, the economic leverage enjoyed many major national retailers.
Local decision making bodies are free to reduce, as well as extend, local shopping hours if that is the wish of the local community.
We see no existing local body which has the power and authority to meet the first criterion and we are concerned that the consultation document envisages the possibility only of extending, and not reducing or otherwise changing, shopping hours. We believe that much more thought is necessary before devolution of decision making is meaningful and we cannot support the proposals as currently framed.
Chair, Mission and Public Affairs
The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England
1 The 2012 experience showed no benefit to overall retail sales: ONS data and BRC data reported a decline in sales of 0.2% and 0.4% respectively. Convenience stores saw a particularly large decrease in sales in the period when large stores were permitted unlimited opening hours. (From a report by Oxford Economics, “The impact of Olympic Sunday trading liberalisation on convenience store turnover”, November 2012.