Bishop of St AlbansThe Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke on amendment 11 to the Deregulation Bill, which concerned the extension of the liberalisation of Sunday trading laws to garden centres. The Lord Bishop of St Albans spoke out against this amendment, arguing about the importance for human health and wellbeing of protecting the seven day week cycle. He said that if Sunday trading laws were to be liberalised to this effect, it would be a thin-edge-of-the-wedge effect, and so such considerations should be made in a separate bill, rather than this amendment.

Read the full speech here:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I, too, have concerns about this amendment. I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, conceded that this really is about changing Sunday trading laws. It seems to me that the noble Lord was quite explicit about that. This would be one stage in that process. I also noted that he talked about people’s right to choose. Part of this issue is precisely about rights: the rights of those who feel they have not been able to choose whether to work or not. That is the issue we are dealing with. I was not involved in the legislation, other than lobbying from outside Parliament more than 20 years ago. However, I remember the complexity of finding a compromise to enable us to move forward: it took a long time.

Noble Lords will not be surprised that I am concerned because I fundamentally believe in the whole structure of creation as a seven-day cycle of work and rest. I believe profoundly that the way that we are undermining that is fundamentally affecting spiritual and mental health and well-being. It is not incidental that, across the world, people work on this seven-day cycle. When I go around my own diocese, talking to people who work in some of the retail industry in Luton and Stevenage, I see the stresses and strains and I find myself talking to people who, unlike us—perhaps with the exception of one person here who works on a Sunday—feel they have very little choice.

There is a mass of evidence that there is something deep within the Judeo-Christian tradition about that rhythm. It has, of course, never been absolute; we have always had nurses working in hospitals. I concede that absolutely. The question is whether we want to change this consensus on the basis of this amendment. We do not live in a country where everybody wants to go to church on a Sunday; we never have done. However, if you just follow the television schedules you must acknowledge that there is a different rhythm in our national life, which reflects something that is bedded in a religious viewpoint but is much deeper than that.

Those who find themselves being pressurised to work very often say that in their interviews it is one of the questions that comes up very quickly: “Are you prepared to work on a Sunday?”, Some say that they reply that they would prefer not to and suddenly find that they do not get jobs very easily. Those who do get work find themselves pressurised. This concern to find a way forward, even through this modest amendment, needs more scrutiny.

Of course, it has a certain appeal—I thought the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, played it very well in presenting all the benefits. Should not a family be able to take their children and grandparents on a summer trip to the garden centre? It looks wonderful, does it not? There they are, having their cup of tea and refreshments and so on. The trouble is, as has been pointed out by other speakers, that we do not know what this definition is. It would certainly need a much better defined background if it is to work. I was going to talk more about the question of definition but others have already done so. However, it seems to me that this would give the go-ahead for quite a number of DIY stores with a modest area of plants to be able to open.

I am not at all against garden centres—I am a passionate gardener—but this is not a good way of changing our Sunday trading laws. It would open up a wide range of exemptions and a whole new line of work for all my lawyer friends. If we wish to open up the question of Sunday trading and disrupt the consensus that has held for 20 years, we need to do it in a much more measured way than by an amendment to this Bill.