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Disputes Continue Over Britain’s Sunday Trading Laws

May 8, 1991

LONDON (AP) _ The Archbishop of Canterbury is dismayed. Shop workers are promising action. The European Court of Justice could be dragged in.

The battle over the ″traditional British Sunday″ has erupted again after courts last week allowed dozens of major stores to do business on the Christian day of rest.

The courts overturned temporary injunctions enforcing Britain’s Shops Act of 1950, which forbids the sale on Sunday of an eccentric selection of goods.

For instance, Britons can buy gin and girly magazines but not tea or a Bible - although cathedral gift shops are open on Sundays.

The law applies only in England and Wales. Northern Ireland has its own Sunday closing law, and Scotland does without.

The procedural rulings did not change a comma in the act, but the strong traditionalist lobby fears it is the beginning of a retail free-for-all on Sundays.

″We regard this as a classic case of big business bulldozing its way through the law,″ fumed Michael Farrington, a spokesman for Keep Sunday Special, a powerful grouping of religious and community groups, shop workers and retailers.

The Most Rev. George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury, said such rulings ″negate the holiness of the day, a day of rest, when people can worship.″

According to the UK Christian Handbook, a reference work, only 12 percent of Britons are weekly churchgoers.

Opponents of the law, including the National Consumer Council and the Shopping Hours Reform Council, were delighted by the courts decisions.

″Deregulation has worked well in Scotland. And more people go to church in Scotland on Sunday than do in England and Wales,″ said the National Consumer Council’s Wendy Toms.

″What’s wrong with being able to buy a tin of beans on your way home from church?″ she said.

Keep Sunday Special, backed by other retailers including the giant Marks and Spencer, helped defeat legislation to liberalize the law in 1986.

″We are not going to stand idly by this time while the wishes of our members not to work on Sundays are ignored,″ said Sean Galvin, of the 370,000-member Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which supports the group.

″Members will be out in their areas on Sunday and will report any stores they find breaking the law,″ Galvin said.

Three-fifths of the local councils don’t enforce the act, and it is ignored by at least 60,000 shops, including increasing numbers of do-it-yourself stores catering to gardeners, decorators and carpenters, said Roger Boaden, director of the Shopping Hours Reform Council. Offenders can be fined up to $1,700.

Other district councils, encouraged by Keep Sunday Special, have acted against major hardware outlets which prominently advertise their defiance. Many of these stores find it profitable just to pay the fine and stay open, so some councils have turned to seeking injunctions to enforce the law.

Prime Minister John Major has called for a review of the Shops Act, and the Home Office has been besieged with advice from the contending forces.

″This issue really raises temperatures,″ said Home Office spokeswoman Lesley McLeod. ″It’s no secret that the legislation’s a bit bizarre.″

″You can sell fresh fruit and vegetables, but not the tinned variety, newspapers and periodicals, but not books. And you can buy food for your horse or mule,″ she said. ″I guess that was important in the 19th century.″

Also permitted are liquor, meals (except at fish and chips shops), medicine, aircraft and cars. Forbidden are hardware, tools, paint, timber, garden furniture, kitchen goods and recorded music.

In separate hearings on Tuesday and Friday, the Court of Appeal and the lower High Court overturned injunctions against Woolworths, the B and Q do-it- yourself store, the Co-op grocery store and Wickes Building Supplies.

The courts said the councils should have guaranteed retail losses because of the injunctions if they ultimately lose their legal fight to have the act enforced.

Some councils are considering going to the House of Lords, the non-elected upper chamber of Parliament, to have the law affirmed.

B and Q has already asked the House of Lords to overturn it. It argues that the Shops Act infringes free trade guarantees in the Treaty of Rome, which Britain signed as a member of the 12-nation European Community.

If it loses, the retailer could appeal to the European Court of Justice.

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