The Government has moved to stave off a politically damaging rebellion of up to 50 Conservative MPs over its plans to relax Sunday trading laws ahead of the Budget.
Ministers have resurrected the reforms, despite dropping a vote in November that would have allowed councils the right to extend Sunday trading hours. Ministers feared they could lose the vote amid opposition from backbenchers, Labour and the Scottish National Party. Unions and church leaders are also against the plans.
The reforms have been added to the Enterprise Bill to be debated this week, but David Burrowes, the Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, has tabled what has been described by his colleagues as a “killing amendment”. The showdown comes a week before the Budget.
More than 20 Conservatives have signed up to this amendment, and Mr Burrowes said ministers were now looking for a “way out”. Some MPs are rebelling on religious grounds, although a backbencher said he was against the idea on the basis that he liked the culture of laid-back Sundays.
Brandon Lewis, the Housing minister who has overseen the reforms, is hoping to placate them, and has tabled a separate amendment that would give councils the right to allow longer trading hours only in zones needing an economic boost such as high streets. This would leave local authorities with the power to decide whether the relaxation was necessary, while also averting further trade being sucked from struggling town centres to out-of-town parks dominated by large retailers.
Mr Lewis met MPs last week to discuss his compromise and will see more of them before the debate starts on 8 March. “Current Sunday trading laws pre-date the internet,” he said. “This is about making sure of an environment that is good for consumers. Doctors and nurses often work six-day weeks and Sunday is their best day to shop.”
One rebel said this was a “helpful” change that could mean he falls into line behind the Government.
A separate compromise, proposed by former cabinet member Caroline Spelman, would allow cities with large numbers of tourists to opt out of existing Sunday trading laws.
Mr Burrowes said he was willing to look at this idea, but warned that the Government could still have “a serious rebellion on their hands” if enough ground was not ceded. “The last thing they need ahead of the Budget is to have a divided party,” he said.
“If the Government is sensible about the situation they should come up with an alternative. If they don’t then it’s back to the barricades.”
However, a Government source said Ms Spelman’s alternative did not hand enough autonomy to councils. The source added: “We want to give local authorities flexibility and this would look like we’re saying that we are happy to devolve power – unless we don’t like what they’re doing with it.”
The Independent on Sunday understands some ministers and Government aides are even considering abstaining in this week’s vote.
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