The Queen's Speech: Shopping hours reform: Big stores set for Sunday trading

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The Independent Online
SUPERMARKETS and large stores look certain to gain the right to open legally on the four Sundays before Christmas - a step which opponents of Sunday trading have categorised as the 'thin end of the wedge'.

Even under the most restrictive of the three options announced in the Queen's Speech, big shops are virtually assured of a bridgehead into legal Sunday trading. Critics have repeatedly claimed pre- Christmas Sunday opening would lead eventually to Sunday becoming just another shopping day.

The options open to MPs in what the Government has said will be a free vote has been cut from four to three. The excluded proposal is that originally backed by the Keep Sunday Special campaign, which wanted opening limited to food and convenience stores of under 3,000sq ft and only garden centres, do-it-yourself stores and motor supply shops among shops over 3,000sq ft.

Last month the campaign broke off talks with Retailers for Shops Act Reform, a group which includes Marks & Spencer and the House of Fraser, on a compromise designed to reduce the number of options facing MPs. The campaign argued that allowing big stores to open on the four Sundays before Christmas would breach an important principle: it would be 'only a matter of time' before this was extended to six or eight Sundays, or even Easter, it argued.

This week, after criticisms of from supporting MPs, the campaign agreed to back the retailers' formula to present 'a unified front to protect the more vulnerable elements of society and the long- term interests of the consumer'.

The position of Keep Sunday Special campaign was also undermined by the decision of Usdaw, the shopworkers' union, to support more general opening.

The campaign has also backed down on its insistence on double- time premium payments for staff who work on Sundays although it says it will continue to campaign for this as the Bill passes through Parliament. However, the two groups' proposal has been tightened up so that DIY and garden centres cannot sell other products, such as furniture or electrical goods, on Sundays.

The Sunday Trading Bill is likely to be introduced on 29 November. The three options range from total deregulation - already introduced in Scotland - to the partial reform backed by the Shopping Hours Reform Council, which includes superstore groups such as Sainsbury and Tesco, and the 'regulatory' proposals from Keep Sunday Special and the Retailers for Shops Act Reform.

Under partial deregulation, all small shops would be allowed to open all day and those over 3,000sq ft would be limited to six hours. Opponents of Sunday trading claim that this option is 'as near to total deregulation as makes no difference'.