Wednesday, August 05, 2015

They Didn't Think It Through No 19, Sunday Trading

Ministers will challenge the Church of England to support the biggest shake up of Sunday trading laws in a generation to help boost high streets and cut shopping bills for every household in Britain.
Under plans unveiled in a consultation today, local authorities will be given the power to prevent large supermarkets from opening longer in an attempt to revive Britain's high streets.
The Government will encourage councils to use the new powers to help town centre stores at the expense of larger out-of-town shops.
thus spaketh the Telegraph, amongst others. 
So lets get this straight. The Conservatives want the church's support in a plan to make Sunday identical to every other day, apart from in out of town supermarkets. Though that in turn will be up to local authorities, who may or may not use the powers they've been given.
Implicit in the plan is that supermarkets and out of town shopping are undermining the high street. That doesn't just happen on Sundays. It seems bizarre to pick on a few hours in the week on the most common day of rest as the saviour of the high street, when there are 6 other days already to work with. And the idea that a local authority can resist a supermarket is laughable - council are already bowing the knee to big money over the planning laws, rather than fork out thousands to fight court cases. Can we really see the big supermarkets taking it lying down when some puny District Council steps on their toes?
And then there's the maths. Or the 'maths', to be pedantic.
The government calculates that relaxing Sunday trading laws will lead to £1.4billion worth of benefits to the economy a year and increase the amount people spend by as much as 12.5 per cent.
I may be dense, but where exactly is that money going to come from? The entire argument around Sunday trading is based on economics - fair enough you say, trading: the clue's in the name. As though how we organise economics doesn't have any impact on anything else. There are other valuable activities beside shopping - worship, sport, relaxing, having time with the family, having a rhythm to life which includes a communal day of rest etc. There's no monetary value on this, so the governments calculations are one-sided. The only maths they've done are on what might be gained by extra shopping hours, not what might be lost in the process. 
Once we know the economic cost of people being fat, depressed, divorced and in debt, then we'll know the true cost of 'liberalised' Sunday trading. There is a price, and the people lobbying or legislating for this change won't be the ones paying it:
Retail and associated workers are hardly well off, and it is they who will pay the price of longer opening hours on Sundays. While most of their bosses will still enjoy weekends off, many retail workers already find they have no choice over Sunday working. They have lost, for a large part, the premium payments they enjoyed at first. In addition, they will face more childcare costs, which will probably be more expensive on a Sunday, or lose precious family time.
So it's a No from me. But blogging about it is a waste of time, far better to engage with the newly-published consultation about the proposals

Update: here's what I've put in the only bit of the consultation where you can actually write anything:
1. More Sunday opening means more Sunday working. For us as a church, meeting on a Sunday, this will compromise some of our members, and reduce both the quality of mutual support which members receive, and the church's capacity to act for community benefit. Our church provides a valuable service to the community, as well as a place of worship and Christian fellowship for its members, with preschool groups, lunch club for the elderly, support for local schools, 2 youth clubs, many hours of home and hospital visiting, and voluntary time and money given to the local food bank, debt counselling service and Street Pastors. Extended Sunday trading is likely to deplete the congregation because some will not be able to attend due to work commitments. It is also likely to make membership of town centre churches more costly, as the local authority will quite naturally want to levy parking charges. The church is a key component of the 'Big Society' and relaxing Sunday trading laws will undermine some of the social and community good the church provides. 

2. Sunday is an important day of rest and socialising. Moving to a 7 day a week pattern of working, with no difference between one day and any other, will undermine family life and social cohesion, by denying families and communities a shared day of rest for leisure, worship and recreation. More people will be excluded from family celebrations and community events because of work commitments. 

3. As a church we are involved in debt counselling and relationship support. Any changes to working practices which  result in couples spending less time together, or facing increased financial pressures, will put more demands on us as an organisation. It is claimed that the changes will result in increased spending on the high street - where will this money come from? There are other things for people to do with their leisure time than shop. 

4. The changes will undermine trust in politicians. David Cameron said this earlier in the year: “I can assure you that we have no current plans to relax the Sunday trading laws. We believe that the current system provides a reasonable balance between those who wish to see more opportunity to shop in large stores on a Sunday, and those who would like to see further restrictions.” This legislation is a clear breach of that statement, and would provide a strong signal to the public that politicians cannot be trusted to keep their word. Trust in public life is a vital commodity, and this undermines it. 

5. Your consultation document presents a very one-sided argument. The only thing is has to say positively about Sundays as a day of rest is that its' important to some religious people. I don't think this is the reason why the changes are opposed by unions and the Association of Convenience Stores. Sunday as a day of rest is valued by millions of workers, small business owners, and their families and friends. 

6. Workers rights are very poorly protected. To be able to refuse Sunday working, you are proposing that someone remain in continuous employment at the same place for 21 years. The courts have already decided that nobody can refuse to work on Sunday for religious reasons (, there is no protection for workers rights offered here at all. The experience of workers who try to opt out of Sunday working for family or religious reasons is very mixed.

7. I don't see any evidence that you have fully done your research. There are no figures on the likely impact on participating in sport, religious activities, Big Society social capital activities, parenting, tourism etc. For example:How many people will be unable to take part in next year's Yeovil Half Marathon (held on a Sunday) because of work commitments? In turn, how much fundraising will charities miss out on? And therefore how many jobs will be lost in the charitable sector? And what knock-on costs will this create for public sector bodies?  etc. etc. There is no calculation of the likely costs of childcare at a weekend (likely to be at a premium), and what kind of costs and benefits will be applicable to workers. By only presenting data around retail sales, you only seem to have taken account of one side of the argument. Either this proposal is poorly researched, or you have deliberately skewed the background information in the consultation. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Not Doing What Comes Naturally

YouGov has surveyed attitudes on polygamy, to see if there is a direction of travel for further 'liberalisation' in the definition of marriage. (I put 'liberalisation' in quotation marks because the word has a positive suggestion of freedom. It's like using the word 'decay' to describe change, it's not a neutral term).

39% of Brits think humans are not monogamous by nature, but at the same time only 18% think that polygamy is morally acceptable. Even though only 42% (!) think we're naturally monogamous, nearly 3/4 think that monogamous relationships can be successful if people work at it hard enough.

So for some of us at least, we don't think the law around marriage, sexuality and relationships should be based on what comes naturally to us. I'd have liked to see a follow up question to those who thought having multiple partners was natural but immoral: why? Or to the 47% who believe that, even if everyone involved gives their consent, having multiple relationships at the same time is wrong. Why?

YouGov, from what I can see, hasn't started tracking these results over time, so there's no way of telling if attitudes are changing, and by how much. Much of our education and culture around sex is based on informed consent: if you want to do it, and they want to do it, then what's the problem. There's also a presumption of freedom: do what you want to do, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone.

There's a sizeable chunk of Brits (I'm one) which doesn't believe that 'natural' is a reliable guide to 'moral' or 'legal'. If it was, we wouldn't need so many laws: but many of us find it 'natural' to hit people, cheat, speed, steal, fiddle taxes, lie, be greedy etc. Deferred gratification is one of the key skills learned early in life, to learn to say 'no' to what we want RIGHT NOW. Self control, in other words. The idea of self control when it comes to sex has become counter-cultural in the space of 3 generations. We've also been very nervous about promoting monogamy and its benefits (look at the recent fight around the token recognition of marriage in the tax system) because that's seen as stigmatising lone parents or being nanny state about people's sexual choices.

We may one day arrive at the right balance of nature and choice on one hand, and morality and self-control on the other. But leaving it all to the individual to make their own mistakes and find their own way is cruel. We're surrounded by the wreckage. There is an accumulated wisdom about marriage and relationships from many generations, and from Christian teaching, but we've been too nervous in talking about it because we don't want to be seen as lecturing people about sex and their own personal choices.

Christian teaching about sin is clear: doing what comes naturally isn't the same as doing what is good. Judging by the survey results, a lot of people get that, but talking about 'sin' will get us nowhere in a post-Christian society. How do we talk about God's gift of sex in a way that holds on to the wisdom, but still gets heard?