The Commons votes down an attempt to loosen the Sunday Trading Laws

The Enterprise Bill would have relaxed restrictions on Sunday trading

When the Government proposed a relaxation in the Sunday trading rules in England and Wales it created a rare political conjunction. Much has been written about David Cameron’s narrow majority but for him to actually lose a vote in the Commons requires an issue that unites Labour, the SNP, most of the minority parties and a significant number of Conservative MPs.

The proposals in the Enterprise Bill, which would have given local councils powers to relax restrictions on Sunday trading, provoked just such a combination. In a late addition to the Bill ministers wanted to give councils a new power to extend Sunday trading hours beyond the current six-hour limit for larger stores.

Opponents struck when the Bill reached its Commons Report Stage, the point when all MPs have a chance to consider amendments – including the Government’s addition on Sunday Trading. Conservative opposition was led by an influential backbencher, David Burrowes, who said he was all in favour of the Bill’s central aim of cutting red tape and freeing business but this was a step too far.

He feared an ‘inevitable domino effect, of a race to the bottom, if local authorities get hold of the powers’ and that once one had extended Sunday trading hours, neighbours would be forced to follow. He was, however, challenged by a Conservative colleague, Robert Jenrick, who said people should have the right to shop when they wanted. Mr Burrowes retorted that he had been listening to his constituents. ‘I am not sure whether he has looked at his mailbag but I have looked at mine and many shop workers, faith groups and others have asked me, “Why are we doing this? Why are we trying to unpick something that is fairly settled, even if it is not perfect?”’.

He received unaccustomed support from Labour MPs. Joan Ryan noted that 49% of retail workers were parents or carers ‘and their Sunday is special to them’. Jim McMahon, newly arrived in Westminster after a by-election in Oldham, reminded MPs that he had been a member of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which the Government consulted on the devolution of Sunday trading powers. ‘I can categorically say that those powers were not asked for or requested; they were forced on that body.’

Sensing trouble, the Government had offered to restrict the change to 12 pilot areas – but the Speaker had declined to select for debate the last-minute amendment offered by ministers, on the grounds that it had been put down too late.

That left the Minister for Housing and Planning, Brandon Lewis, in the uncomfortable position of asking his opponents to back down, on the promise that he would change the Bill later… ‘An evaluation of this exploratory phase will be published. We are circulating a draft for colleagues to consider and I will be asking them to support… which will then allow us to do this in the House of Lords.’

He said that the laws on trading in England and Wales were last updated in 1994. ‘Back when the only time we heard of Amazon was when we talked about the river and back when our high streets faced no external pressures. The internet is liberating and changing the way we live and work but the pressures on our high streets are rising and the internet plays a part in that. Our measures will help them by giving local councils the right to expand Sunday trading.’

That brought a scornful response from the SDLP’s Mark Durkan. ‘He is trying to tell us that he is selling on some sort of deferred click and collect basis – an option that is not available or in front of us today. Is the Minister not pushing something that will be a predictive text version of public policy that will end up becoming the default position for local authorities, firms and workers who do not want it?’

A Government defeat had looked likely ever since the SNP announced its intention of opposing the Sunday Trading proposal. Eyebrows had been raised because the change wouldn’t affect Scotland where there is no similar Sunday trading restriction – but their spokeswoman, Hannah Bardell, was concerned about the knock- on effect. ‘The shop workers trade union, USDAW… has warned that the implication of the legislation, without safeguards, is that premium pay for Scottish workers, and indeed workers across the UK, will be threatened by erosion.’

When the issue was put to a vote the Government lost by a margin of 31: In the end 26 Conservative MPs lined up with the Opposition – prompting the Shadow Business Secretary, Angela Eagle, to ask if the Government would ‘respect the will of this House and abandon their tawdry attempts to reintroduce this proposal?’

The Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, said the defeat was ‘disappointing’ and that more flexibility on Sunday Trading would have helped protect jobs in ‘struggling local businesses’. He accused the SNP of ‘childish and hypocritical actions… They seek to deny English and Welsh shoppers the same freedoms that are enjoyed in Scotland and although they are a party built on the principle of devolving powers from Whitehall, they deliberately stand in the way of a measure that does just that’. Later, the Government confirmed it would not seek to overturn the vote.