First published 19 March, 2012, on Mail Online
Before the last election, David Cameron said that he knew that ‘reviving society’ was as important as reviving the economy. He talked about transferable tax allowances for married couples to recognise the social importance of marriage and the commitment of time taken out to be a full-time parent. He re-envisioned ‘loving your neighbour’ as the ‘Big Society’, with citizens taking back power from the state to volunteer or run co-operative organisations.
But as the news broke at the weekend that extending Sunday opening hours was part of the vision for economic revival and supply-side reform, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Prime Minister reconciled this with his determination to ‘revive society’?
George Osborne claimed on the Andrew Marr show that to keep Sunday trading times as they are sent the message that Britain was ‘closed for business’. It seems to me that extending them sends the message that we are open for exploitation.
Take those who already work on Sundays in the big retailers. It is totally naive to think that they will be given a choice over whether to work longer. With our unemployment levels and ineffective employee safeguards, people will have to work longer or risk losing their job. And as the large retailers open for longer, smaller retailers will feel greater pressure to extend their opening times – there aren’t many levels on which the small guys can compete with the large boys but opening times has been one of them.
Instead of reviving society this will lead to the coercion of thousands of people into leaving their families for the entire two days at the weekend.
We already know through the outstanding work of Sir Michael Marmot that those who lack status in the workplace, i.e. those who have little control of their work circumstances, are those who experience the greatest inequalities. Imposing longer hours will make the situation of shop-assistants, some of the lowest paid, worse. We are stretching their resilience to breaking point; many families struggle already with parents holding down and juggling family needs with two or more jobs each. This proposal will impact childcare, access to healthcare, educational support and thus children’s long-term life chances.
Added to this the vision for the Big Society is dependent on people having the time to give to their communities: to know that they are needed beyond their workplace and front-door. If we have economic policies that increase inequalities and societal burden, the opportunity for people to be the ‘needed’ part of the Big Society will diminish, thus increasing not reducing their dependence on the state.
I’ve thought about the impact on where I live in Peckham. Local people won’t have any more money to spend; there will be no extra Olympic visitors contributing to the legal economy here. Yet the burden of extended opening hours will be felt by those on small wages and low status. There will be greater pressure on families, and in a community with a large Christian, ethnic minority presence, the support given by community gatherings at church on Sunday will be diminished.
This is a bad proposal. Economists may see the Sunday trading restrictions as red tape, but the whole thrust of Cameron’s pre-election narrative was that there should not be a trade-off between economic and societal gain. Last August he said, ‘from here on I want a family test applied to all domestic policy. If it hurts families, if it undermines commitment, if it tramples over the values that keeps people together, or stops families from being together, then we shouldn’t do it.’ It is a good test, this proposal fails it, and George needs to find more creative ways of declaring the UK open for business.