End of Sunday leaves once-powerful lobby near defeat

Drink reforms force `special day' campaign to focus on defending worker s. Martin Whitfield reports
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Betting shops and supermarkets are open, racing is allowed, all-day drinking is on the way. All that is left of the labyrinthine licensing and shopping laws is a ban on Sunday morning bingo. Even the Keep Sunday Special Campaign is close to admitt ing defeat.

John Major's announcement that curbs on Sunday drinking are to be lifted tidies up most of the remaining restrictions and makes Sunday more like any other day. Pubs will be able to open all day until 10.30pm and small off-licences sell alcohol from 10am to 10.30pm.

Dr Michael Schluter, director of the Keep Sunday Special Campaign, once powerful enough to give Margaret Thatcher a bloody nose, said: "There is not much left to deregulate. We are going to have to reconsider our position long term as the special nature of Sunday slides. Most of us think the Prime Minister is sending a signal to the public that consumer interests are more important than family life."

The campaign will carry on, to try to protect the rights of workers forced to work on Sunday, said Dr Schluter.

"All the research points to the fact that children need time from both their parents," he added. "We now have people working in order to keep their jobs on the days when kids are home from school."

The drinks industry felt the changes were some consolation for rises in duty following the Tory revolt over the imposition of VAT on fuel. But trade unions fear workers will be coerced into working on Sunday and lose premium rates.

The Portman Group, the drinks industry association, said the move was a step towards a more sensible drinking culture. "We have come a long way since the Victorians with their frosted-glass windows when the pub was a place of taboo. This is part of a positive trend towards a more relaxed system," a spokesman said.

Asda, the supermarket chain, said: "We fought long and hard for this to become law. It's very convenient and will help spread the load. Sunday shopping attracts more families and they will now be able to buy alcohol with their other shopping."

The Home Office said the planned relaxation in licensing would be included in a parliamentary Bill. Other elements in the Prime Minister's statement, such as lifting restrictions on greyhound betting, would be implemented under the so-called Henry VIII powers which allow the Government to remove "red tape" by special order.

Apart from the six-hour Sunday trading limit on supermarkets, only bingo halls have differential Sunday regulations which ban opening until 2pm compared with 10am on weekdays. Casinos can open from 2pm to 4am any day. The Campaign for Real Ale said therehad been no justification for stopping people having a quiet drink on Sunday afternoons.

Even the Methodist Church could see a positive side of the changes. The Rev John Kennedy, secretary of the Methodist Church, said: "Any move towards a more civilised and family-friendly attitude to alcohol carries risks but is deserving of cautious welcome."