BRITISH members of Parliament this week are being given a free vote on whether to abolish laws that heavily restrict doing business on Sundays. Unlike most votes in the House of Commons, parliamentarians will be allowed to vote regardless of their party's position.
If they decide to approve a seven-days-a-week shopping regime, they will do so in the teeth of criticism from church leaders, who believe Sunday should be kept special, and trade unionists worried that workers will be exploited under new rules.
Few areas of British life are as surrounded by chaotic regulations as trading on the Sabbath. Under existing law, for example, it is illegal to sell or purchase a Bible, but permissible to deal in pornographic magazines.
John Major, the prime minister, is leading the call for reform, but he is refusing to risk his government's reputation in the House of Commons vote due this Wednesday.
Instead, he is offering members of Parliament a choice of three Sunday-shopping options: total deregulation; partial deregulation, with small shops allowed to open any time and large stores and supermarkets limited to six hours; and a continuation of current rules, except for a free-for-all in the four weeks before Christmas. Mr. Major says he prefers the first option, but he is moving cautiously.
The last attempt to reform the 1950 Shops Act, in 1986, resulted in a narrow Commons defeat for Margaret Thatcher's government. Many Conservative parliamentarians, under pressure from constituents and religious groups, broke ranks and voted against the bill. Similar pressures persist today, which is why the prime minister is treading on eggshells.
When it became clear that the government was determined to hold a vote to resolve the issue, George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in a Nov. 29 letter to the London Times: ``The spiritual, psychological, and physical health of our nation would be poorer if there were no longer one common day in the week which was substantially different from the rest.''
Ahead of the Commons vote, the government has had to give in to pressure from trade unions, which demanded that any reform should protect the rights of workers who do not want to work Sundays. The unions demanded that a ``conscience clause'' be included in any new legislation. The government abandoned its earlier refusal to entertain a ``conscience clause.''
Home Secretary Michael Howard says initial soundings of public opinion show a strong wish by people to be allowed to shop on Sunday. But he told the Commons on Nov. 29: ``They should be able to spend Sundays as they wish. Whether shops should open is a matter for the conscience of individual shopkeepers and shoppers, not for the courts and the criminal law.''
Earlier this year, Sainsbury's, Britain's largest supermarket chain, had warned managers that refusal to work on Sundays could damage their career prospects. The company later withdrew the threat amid complaints by workers' representatives and a barrage of criticism by Labour Party parliamentarians.
Trade unions still say there will be heavy pressure on their members to work Sundays, with preference likely to be given to part-time workers who do not belong to unions.
Pressure from supermarkets to be allowed to trade on Sundays has prompted counter-pressures from thousands of small shopkeepers. Small traders allowed to sell a limited range of groceries and other goods on Sundays claim 25 percent of their profits result from Sunday trading.
Alasdair Barron, director of Keep Sunday Special, a national lobby group opposed to Sunday trading, says thousands of small shops would be forced to close if supermarkets were allowed to remain open seven days a week.
According to government figures, the number of independent grocers in Britain has fallen from 145,000 in 1950 to 35,000 today. Keep Sunday Special says that trend will be accelerated if current laws are reversed.