Clarke poised to ease the ban on Sunday trading

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LAWS THAT may liberalise Sunday trading will be announced by Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, in the autumn - possibly as early as the Conservative Party conference - despite a European legal opinion yesterday that appeared to support a ban.

Supermarkets and DIY stores announced yesterday that they would continue to open on Sundays despite the opinion from Walter Van Gerven, the Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice.

It came in a case brought against B & Q, the DIY store, by two city councils. Although not binding, it is expected to be endorsed by the European Court of Justice in the autumn.

The anti-Sunday trading lobby last night hailed the opinion as a landmark victory, but B & Q said it would simply put the issue back into the hands of the British government and pave the way for continued confusion in the courts.

Mr Van Gerven's judgment said that 'legislation of a member state which prohibits shops from opening on Sundays pursues an objective which is justified under Community law'.

The opinion, however, equally seemed to imply that countries could opt for Sunday trading, and with the final European Court judgment due in early autumn, Home Office sources indicated legislation to liberalise Sunday trading would be announced shortly afterwards, in line with the Government's manifesto commitment.

The opponents of Sunday trading said yesterday's opinion would provide an incentive to local authorities to prosecute offenders, but B & Q said the opinion failed in any way to clarify the law in England and Wales (Scotland is unaffected). Other Sunday trading companies such as Tesco, W H Smith, Do-It-All, J Sainsbury and Safeway said they, too, would continue opening on Sundays.

The rules on Sunday trading were framed by the 1950 Shops Act, which in turn was based on legislation from the 1930s. The pro-trade lobby argues that the principles of the Act - to safeguard employment rights and religious and cultural considerations - can be observed without disproportionate disruption to trade. Its supporters, the retail lobby, argue that stopping Sunday opening will lead to a distortion of trade within the EC, something prohibited under the Treaty of Rome.

The issue of proportionality - the extent of measures taken to observe the spirit of the Act in relation to the implications on trade - is an issue on which the sides cannot agree.

Yesterday's interim judgment came as the result of a case against B & Q initiated by Stoke-on-Trent and Norwich city councils. In a joint statement, the councils said: 'Today's guidance to the court justifies the stance we have long adopted and will in due course rectify the wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs which exists in the English courts and which has allowed some retailers to trade at considerable profit in breach of the law.'