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Confusion on Sunday trading 'to worsen'

THE GOVERNMENT will not attempt to enforce Sunday trading restrictions despite a clear ruling from the European Court of Justice that it has a right to do so under EC law, Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, said last night.

With most local authorities also unwilling to enforce the 1950 Shops Act, supermarkets, DIY retailers and department stores will open this Sunday even though their arguments were dismissed in peremptory fashion by the European court.

Last night, lawyers said the muddle over Sunday trading could worsen after Christmas when councils that refused to take action could find themselves in court. The confusion would only end when the Government introduced legislation, the lawyers said.

At the European Court of Justice, retailers, spearheaded by the DIY group B&Q, argued that British legislation, which restricts Sunday shopping, fell foul of articles in the Treaty of Rome guaranteeing free trade within the EC.

But, giving judgment yesterday, the court said that EC law 'does not apply' to the issue of Sunday shopping. Hannah Reed, legal adviser to the Keep Sunday Special Campaign, said: 'It is not a European issue. The whole thing has been a smokescreen put up by certain retailers.'

Nevertheless, local authorities will remain 'cautious' about upholding the law, according to Steve Bassam, assistant secretary of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. 'On the face of it, authorities should now move to enforce the legislation, but without the active support of the Government . . . I think there will be great reluctance to do anything other than to respond to local pressure,' he said.

Last night, it appeared unlikely that support from ministers would be forthcoming. Sir Nicholas said: 'I have considered whether I should also take action to enforce the law but have decided that the public interest does not require intervention at the moment. I shall keep the position under review.'

Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, has already announced that the House of Commons will be asked to decide whether to tighten or liberalise the law, or maintain the status quo. Mr Clarke said he would prefer deregulation.

Until that legislation comes into force, probably in the summer of 1994, many local authorities will attempt to turn a blind eye to Sunday trading, with only a small minority seeking injunctions through the courts, lawyers believe.

Plymouth council in Devon, said: 'While we have tried to enforce the law fairly stringently, the fact that the Home Secretary has said that traders can do what they want means that we are in a quandry.'

Some retailers, such as B&Q and Asda, were unrepentant, pledging that their stores would remain open on Sundays. Others, such as Sainsbury's, were more cautious, saying that their shops would be open this weekend but that they would review the ruling.