Plans to allow large shops to open for longer on Sundays will damage family life and do nothing to boost the economy, an unprecedented alliance of Christian leaders warns today.
For the first time, senior Roman Catholic, Church of England, Church in Wales, Methodist, United Reform Church and Salvation Army figures issue a joint statement opposing the government’s plan to relax Sunday trading laws.
The warning comes after ministers announced they would give local councils in England and Wales the power to allow large retailers in their area to open for longer, in measures contained in the Enterprise Bill, which is passing through Parliament.
Under current rules, small shops can open whenever they want, but on Sundays, larger stores are restricted to a maximum of six hours in the period between 10am and 6pm.
Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, said relaxing the restrictions would enable local authorities to “help struggling High Streets”.
He has faced opposition from traditionalist Tory MPs and faith leaders have spoken out individually.
Sajid Javid Photo: BETHANY CLARKE FOR THE TELEGRAPH
But the letter to the Telegraph marks the first time since the plans were announced that the leaders of the country’s major Christian denominations have joined forces to voice their opposition.
The letter is signed by the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Rev Alan Smith, who is the Church of England’s spokesman on economic affairs; the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, the Most Rev Peter Smith; the Archbishop of Wales, the Most Rev Dr Barry Morgan, and Methodist, United Reform Church and Salvation Army leaders.
“As leaders of Christian communities England and Wales, we oppose the government’s plans to further deregulate Sunday Trading laws,” they write.
“We are concerned that the further deregulation of Sunday Trading laws is likely to disrupt the rhythms of community life that are so integral to the common good. In a world of increasing commodification the space for shared time and activities, central to human flourishing, is becoming increasingly rare. Needlessly extending Sunday opening hours will only exacerbate this trend.”
The current Sunday trading restrictions offer “a balance” between consumer needs and the “health” of local communities, providing time for shopping as well as protecting “the common leisure time essential for family life and shared social activities”.
Their letter argues that there is “no evidence base” to show that relaxing the limit on large shops’ opening hours will lead to “substantial economic benefit” to Britain.
The move comes after the Telegraph last week published a letter from 150 council leaders and 40 MPs urging the government to push ahead with the relaxation of Sunday trading laws. They claimed that the economy would receive a £1.4bn boost from the change.
A study from Oxford University, however, claims the only clear impact will be to damage the businesses of small shops, who will lose customers to larger chain stores, the faith leaders say.
Fears have been raised that shop workers will come under pressure to work for longer on Sundays.
Two weeks ago, ministers announced a package of concessions designed to allay these fears, promising new protections to ensure shop staff can say “no thanks” to their bosses.
The measures included a new legal right for workers to refuse requests to work for longer on Sundays.
The faith leaders say they welcome the initiative but “remain unconvinced” that these protections will be “effective in practice”.