Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Silly Regulations

It was a public holiday here in England yesterday. This is nominally to commemorate May Day, and hardline capitalists occasionally have been known to state feebly that the holiday should be abolished and replaced with a holiday to commemorate something else. (Unlike the British themselves, we in Australia are good citizens of the Empire, and so we have a public holiday to celebrate the birthday of the Queen. Might I suggest the British adopt this one, given that it is their queen? As with most Australian public holidays (including, until recently, our national day), this holiday is held in different days in different states. The Queen thus has three birthdays: her actual birthday, her official birthday, and her official birthday in Western Australia. But I digress). In Australia, only Queensland and the Northern Territory celebrate May Day, but every other state does have a "Labour Day" on some day or other. While on the Australian federal system, I could also mention that Australia uses three different incompatible railway gauges, and the only states that use the same gauge as each other have no common borders. Also, in summer, Australia manages to have either five different time zones (six if you count the one that applies only to uninhabited desert), including one of the very few borders in the world where you turn your clock backwards as you move east.

Where was I? Oh, yes. May Day. Nobody in England actually pays very much attention to what the May Day holiday actually commemorates: it is just a long weekend. In most places (including England) public holiday Mondays feel like extra Sundays. You have got your washing and cleaning done for the weekend, so it is a pleasant opportunity to see a movie, go for a leisurely stroll, and generally get some leisure time in. Trains run to Sunday timetables. Some shops, museums and other attractions are available to you, but not as many as on other days of the week, and not generally with the same level of stress.

Except, there is one peculiar thing that is peculiar about public holiday Mondays in England. They are just like Sundays, except without the effects of the Sunday Trading Act (1994).

Prior to 1994, shops (other than very small shops) were not permitted to open on Sundays. As the 1990s went on, this became less and less acceptable to both shop owners and people who would like to shop on Sundays, and the law was widely disobeyed by shops who then paid fines. The government decided something needed to be done about this, and discussion started about the possibility of legalising Sunday trading. Various church groups complained loudly about how nobody would have a free day to spend with their family ever again, and how nobody would come to church, and so on. (Actually, nobody goes to church in England anyway). The government scheduled a free vote, which is what you do when you are debating serious moral questions like this. Three proposals were put on the table. One was the status quo. A second was complete deregulation. A third was to allow shops to open on Sundays for six hours only. Most MPs voted for this third proposal, which allowed them to vote for Sunday trading but at the same time pretend they were voting for a compromise. Thus the Sunday Trading Act (1994) became law.

Although the act allowed shops to open for a maximum of six hours on Sundays, it didn't say which six hours. Different types of shops responded in different ways. Supermarkets tend to open from 10am-4pm, to allow people to buy their groceries before lunch if necessary. However, this is really annoying if you discover you have run out of coffee at 3.45pm. Businesses catering to more leisure related shoping tend to choose a later six hours: either 11am-5pm or 12pm-6pm. This means that you can do your shopping on Sundays, but you have to go at the right time. If you are too late, tough. In the centre of London, bookshops that are open to 11pm on other nights have to close at 6pm on Sundays. Thus we are protected from the moral hazards caused by browsing in the evening on a Sunday.

However, this law does not apply on public holidays. On public holidays, opening hours are unrestricted as on any other day. Shops do not open as long as they do on weekdays, but they open longer than on Sundays. Rather than being open from 10am-4pm, supermarkets open from 9am-6pm. (Those that normally open 24 hours open 24 hours). Most shops close at 6pm rather than 5pm. It is not necessary to rush off early to find anything open, but shops can instead open at those times they think they will get customers. Typically, we get about eight hours of trading rather than six. Such things as bookshops in central London are actually open until 11pm as usual. We get a tantalising glimpse of what Sundays could be like without government regulation of opening hours. And, oddly, it is more relaxed than Sundays are. The short Sunday opening hours actually create more stress.

Of course, it was only a couple of years ago that the Germans were still talking about whether their shops should be allowed to open on Saturday afternoon, so I suppose things could be worse.

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