MPs support Sunday trade compromise: Proposal would help smallest shops but curb opening hours for major stores

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SUPPORT is growing among MPs for a 'compromise' approach to Sunday trading in which home improvement stores, garden centres and small shops under 3,000 sq ft could open on Sundays but other shops - notably supermarkets and department stores - would be limited to the four Sundays before Christmas.

According to a poll of 100 MPs carried out for Retailers for Shops Reform, a group founded last year and headed by Marks and Spencer, 54 said the Government should include the proposal in its Sunday Trading Bill and 49 said they would either support or strongly support it.

However, the proposal received a cool response yesterday from the Shopping Hours Reform Council, the body campaigning for deregulation, which includes supermarket groups such as Sainsbury, Tesco, Argyll and Asda among its members and wants the bigger stores to be allowed to open for six hours every Sunday.

Roger Boaden, director of the council, said the proposals overlooked the main point, 'which is the freedom to shop and work when you want'.

The new group, which also includes Burton, C & A, Gateway, House of Fraser, Next, Iceland and Sears, says its plan would prevent a Sunday trading war and prevent many small shops from going under. Tony Ginty, Marks and Spencer's government affairs manager, said it wanted small shops to survive, maintaining the diversity which drew shoppers to town centres and to the larger stores.

The group argues that Sunday opening only creates extra business in the approach to Christmas. For the rest of the year, it means spreading sales over seven days, creating extra overheads. It says its plan would prevent shoppers being 'saddled with unnecessary price inflation' resulting from increased costs. It would also give legal protection for staff declining to work on Sundays.

The Government has promised a White Paper setting out three options, varying from total deregulation to the proposals from the Keep Sunday Special campaign group, which would restrict trading to a few specialist outlets. The options would be the subject of a free vote.

However, a Bill is unlikely before the next Queen's Speech, which many observers believe could postpone reforms until the end of 1994. The new group views the current options as 'imbalanced' and wants its own included as a 'middle-ground compromise' between restriction and deregulation.

The Keep Sunday Special campaign, backed by Usdaw, the shopworkers' union, and the Co- op, urged the new group to support the Private Member's Bill now being piloted through the Commons by Ray Powell, Labour MP for Ogmore, and said this offered the only chance of reform by the end of the year.

The Powell Bill, due to come up for its report stage next month, would permit Sunday opening for smaller shops, DIY and garden centres and only differs significantly from the latest plan in that it would not allow opening on the four Sundays before Christmas.