One of the country’s leading retailers has criticised the government’s planned changes to Sunday trading laws, saying they are open to abuse.
Under plans first revealed in the July budget, the government wants to hand new powers to local councils and mayors in England and Wales to relax rules that currently restrict the number of hours large stores can open on Sundays.
The changes would also allow local authorities to create special zones in which longer opening hours would apply.
Mike Coupe, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, said the proposals were too complex and not something customers wanted. Retailers were divided over whether there should be relaxation of Sunday trading hours, he said, but all agreed the current plans wwere “not a sensible way of going about it”.
The proposed laws “are open to interpretation and open to abuse. There’s a lot of complexity in the way it’s being framed,” he said.
The current rules worked well and were “a happy British compromise”, he added.
“There’s no customer demand for it, or colleague demand for it as far as we are concerned. The current rules work,” he said.
If change were deemed necessary, ideally the same rules would apply everywhere, he said, adding that passing control to local authorities could create a series of problems.
“If it’s going to be localised there needs to be some guidelines, some rules enshrined in law [about] whatever a zone actually comprises. I want to see a legally enforceable definition of a zone.”
He suggested that the proposals would make it possible to “draw a line around an Asda store and that could open and nothing else can”.
Under the 1994 Sunday Trading Act, stores over 3,000 sq ft are only allowed to open for six hours on Sundays.
When it launched a consultation on the planned changes in August, the government said the current system was “damaging to bricks and mortar stores and frustrating for customers”. It said the restrictions were holding back productivity for retailers and increasing prices.
A number of MPs, including some Conservatives are opposed to the changes, but David Cameron has personally backed the idea. Last week, he told parliament there was a strong case for change in response to a question from Labour’s Susan Elan Jones.
MPs were set to vote on the changes this week, but that has been delayed while ministers seek more support for the measures, which will be included in the cities and local government devolution bill.
The consultation into the planned changes closed last month, and the business department is analysing the feedback.
Retailers are divided. Andy Clarke, the boss of Asda, has hailed the proposals as common sense, and Marc Bolland, the M&S chief, said they would be welcome in some areas.
James Lowman, the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said the group was completely opposed changes that he said would seriously disadvantage independent shopkeepers.
“We think the current laws are a good compromise that work by balancing the needs of the small and large shopkeeper. They give us an advantage on Sunday evenings, cater to the needs of shop workers and are popular with consumers,” he said.
Polling conducted by ComRes earlier this year showed that more than three-quarters of the public support the current rules.
“There is no evidence that relaxation would increase overall sales. Sales would spread from small to large stores and over more hours,” Lowman said.
He said local authorities would also face a number of issues. If a neighbouring authority chose to allow stores to open on a Sunday, they might be forced to follow suit.
Lowman also suggested they were more likely to liberalise trading hours for out-of-town centres and shopping malls, meaning that already struggling high streets might come under more pressure.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010