Threat to Sunday shopping: Councils are poised for a pre-Christmas strike on stores that defy law. Patrick Hosking reports

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LOCAL councils are poised to crack down on stores that open on the commercially crucial last Sunday before Christmas, if the European Court of Justice makes a suitable ruling this week.

Nimble-footed councils are considering seeking injunctions to stop stores opening next Sunday if the court refers the thorny question back to the House of Lords, as expected. It is due to deliver its judgment on Wednesday.

Roger Butterfield, principal solicitor of Kirklees Council, said: 'I think local councils including Kirklees would look at the possibility of prosecuting people as well as seeking injunctions.' It would be feasible to obtain injunctions in the time available, he said.

Next Sunday is a key trading day for many stores, including all the main supermarket groups. Most other retailers plan to open selectively, including Burton Group, Dixons Group, Storehouse and Kingfisher.

Among mainstream retailers, only Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and its sister chain Waitrose, and C&A have held out against the tide of Sunday opening. Kwik Save, the discount grocer, caved in last month.

The European Court is ruling on whether the 1950 Shops Act in Britain contravenes Article 30 of the Treaty of Rome, which guarantees free trade. It is expected to hand the case back to the House of Lords.

Councils have given up trying to police the Shops Act since Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, said it was 'in abeyance' and the case was handed to the European Court. Stores have been opening without prosecution for more than a year. Two years ago councils slapped more than 100 injunctions on stores in Christmas week. Several councils are thought to be keen to renew hostilities with Sunday openers. Authorities that have taken a strict line in the past include Brighton, Eastbourne, Stoke-on- Trent and Norwich.

Paul Diamond, barrister and legal adviser to the Keep Sunday Special campaign, said: 'I think a few local authorities may clamp down. That will put pressure on others to fulfil their statutory duty.' However, most local authorities had been 'beaten into submission' by the Government's position.

The Government has outlined a series of options to MPs, including total deregulation and maintaining the present position.

Many of the largest retailers are united behind the Shopping Hours Reform Council's proposal to deregulate Sunday trading partially. This would allow smaller shops to open for longer hours on Sunday than large ones.

The normally secretive J Sainsbury, which has increased the number of supermarkets it opens on Sundays from 150 to 250 in the run-up to Christmas, last week began an unprecedented lobbying effort. It is fed up with uncertainty and bad publicity and it wants to exert pressure on the Government while the issue is hot. It also believes there is no going back, now that a million people visit its stores every Sunday.

Last week the Labour MP Ray Powell outlined a Bill that would restrict Sunday opening to certain types of shop, including garden centres, newsagents, chemists and petrol stations. It has the support of Usdaw, the shopworkers' union, Keep Sunday Special and some MPs from other parties.

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