Page last updated at 10:25 GMT, Wednesday, 2 May 2012 11:25 UK
Two months of Sundays: Olympics v day of rest

By Ed Lowther
BBC Democracy Live

Two women relax in a London park
A weekly pause is a Briton's birthright, according to Winston Churchill

Large shops will be open for longer on Sundays for eight weeks over the Olympics after Parliament agreed to a temporary change to the law. But many MPs were worried about the erosion of the traditional day of rest.

So what are Sundays for?

That was the fundamental question underlying Monday's debate on Sunday trading during the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.

MPs passed all stages of the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill, meaning that restrictions on opening times for larger stores will be suspended during the Games.

Conservative MP for Congleton Fiona Bruce answered: "Sunday is still a day on which many people in this country can come together with family and friends to wind down, to exercise, to have a different kind of day or, most importantly, to recharge our batteries."

The government's position
Retailers should be able to benefit from the large influx of tourists
Britain must be seen to be 'open for business'
There are no plans to extend the liberalisation beyond the Games
Workers will be able to opt out if they want

Labour's Rosie Cooper added: "Sunday is a day of collective rest and worship - a day for families to spend together."

For the DUP's Jim Shannon it was vital for people to have one day on which they could "enjoy their family life, their attendance at church and the inspiration of their preachers".

Olympian breakdown

These MPs and dozens of others were concerned that the government's decision to push through a temporary relaxation of Sunday-trading laws will be detrimental to shop workers' quality of life.

Sunday is a divine and priceless institution... the necessary pause in the national life and activity; it is the birthright of every British subject... and above all our great heritage, and one which is our responsibility, privilege and duty to hand on to posterity
Winston Churchill

If the economic benefits prove to be as great as ministers believe, soon the clamour for a permanent liberalisation will prove irresistible, they fear.

Ms Bruce said this would be bad for the social development of the workers' children, as they would spend more time home alone, in turn leading to increased rates of anti-social behaviour, as the neglected children grew into teenagers.

Elderly, disabled, or terminally ill people would also suffer if their carers worked for longer at weekends, she predicted.

"Is the cost in health and well-being worth paying?" the Conservative MP wondered.

DUP MP William McCrea added that the shop workers, and not just their dependents, would be hard hit by such a change.

"Stress and mental illness are on the rise in our country," he noted, claiming that "13.5 million working days are lost in Britain each year as a result of work-related stress".

Shopping mad?
13% of British adults shop at supermarkets every Sunday
46% shop at supermarkets at least one Sunday a month
37% rarely or never shop at supermarkets on Sunday
77% said they would not change their behaviour if laws were relaxed
Source: DTI survey, 2006

Mr Shannon drew a comparison between hard-working retailers and the athletes who are set to converge on London.

"Any Olympian will say that the body needs rest from training. If they push too hard, they will see no benefit, but will suffer breakdown and injury. Our business people work hard and deserve their few hours off at the weekend," he said.

Anyway, shop workers should have the same right as everybody else to sit in front of the television and enjoy the Games on a Sunday, Labour's Ian Lavery said.

Under current legislation, which ensures that stores with floor spaces larger than 280 sq m (3000 sq feet) cannot open on Sunday for longer than six hours, Sundays offer a rare and vital chance for smaller shops to curtail the rise in market share accruing to larger retailers, according to other MPs.

Individual freedom

But maybe Sundays also present a golden opportunity for cash-strapped families to boost their income.

If people who do not want to work for longer on Sundays do not have to, why should the state prevent those who do want to from doing so?

The question was posed by the libertarian-minded Conservative MP Philip Davies.

Rebutting sceptical MPs, Business Secretary Vince Cable opened debate on the bill

Fellow Tory Mark Menzies had a particular demographic in mind: "The temporary relaxation of Sunday trading will come at a time when students, in particular, will be desperate for additional shifts."

Students were particularly keen on Sunday working, Mr Menzies claimed, because it was easier for them to fit Sunday shifts around their studies.

The debate about the purpose of Sundays is inextricably bound up with competing views about whether the government has a duty to defend religious tradition and workers' rights, or to prioritise economic development and individual freedom.

It has been a fraught debate for decades: Margaret Thatcher's bid to liberalise Sunday trading was rejected by Parliament.

In 2006, after consulting widely on a change to the Sunday trading regime, the previous Labour government decided that John Major's Sunday Trading Act 1994 had got the balance about right.

But on Monday, MPs decided to make an exception for the Games, temporarily shifting this balance as they voted by an overwhelming majority of 273 votes to 131 to back the bill.

Olympics hit by Sunday trade laws
26 Jan 12 |  London
1994: Sunday trading legalised
02 Dec 02 |  28

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