The law can be an ass – look at what happened with our Sunday trading

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As one of Jersey’s foremost retailers he’s well placed to comment on what’s happening to your equivalent of the high street, and whether many shops would actually open on the Sabbath if they could.

Unfortunately, for this debate, whether they do or don’t is irrelevant. Scrapping pointless legislation that prevents premises from opening on a Sunday has nothing to do with increasing trade.

I have some skin in this particular game. When I was more gainfully employed as editor of the Guernsey Press we ran what I’d like to think was a spirited campaign against what we christened the dog’s breakfast legislation restricting Sunday trading.

Before that, it was Sunday opening – enabling pubs to open, restaurants and hotels to sell alcohol after 2 pm and overturning the 9 pm drink curfew on Good Friday.

Sunday trading took longer, not least because there was a particular civil servant who fought tooth and nail to retain bizarre restrictions which meant you could buy soft porn on a Sunday but not a bible.

He and his political masters even engineered amendments that controlled how and when garden centres might sell Christmas decorations on a Sunday.

The highlight, however, was after Blue Diamond launched a flagship garden centre at Le Friquet that wanted to open on a Sunday.

This was fine because the parish had no objection and it was invariably packed. Donkeys are content with simple pleasures. However, the relevant States committee wrote to the douzaine to warn them that if they were challenged over improperly applying the relevant legislation (by allowing restricted goods like vases and firelighters to be sold on the Sabbath) it would be game over.

Yes, they could face a judicial review, costs in excess of £50,000 and who knows what damages from the religiously offended, outraged by such blasphemous commercial activity.

And so it came to pass that the centre continued to open, but with the bits that people really wanted to buy roped off. At a stroke, government highlighted more effectively than we ever managed what a nonsense, what a complete dog’s breakfast, the laws really were.

Happily, they’ve since been repealed, along with the restrictions on pubs, plus the ban on garages selling petrol on a Sunday, and the sky hasn’t fallen in.

We’ve avoided civil unrest, Sunday is still a different, quieter day, but families can decide whether that’s a better time for them to visit the shop of their choice. If it’s open, that is.

Which is why I think Sandpiper’s Mr O’Neill was looking at this the wrong way.

I come from a simple perspective. The less visible government is, the better. The least it interferes in our lives, the happier we are.

It’s not for the States to tell businesses when or how to open. That’s quite properly a matter for the owners. And, come to that, its customers.

There is a role for bureaucrats in ensuring that opening hours or the way the business operates does not cause nuisance; that staff who don’t want to work on a Sunday are adequately protected.

All that, however, is – or should be – covered elsewhere and in other legislation, which brings me back to Mr O’Neill’s comments.

The Sunday-trading debate should be less about the stresses faced by retail and all about dragging pettifogging government off the back of business (and individuals, come to that) and allowing bosses to open when’s right for them and their customers.

When that’s been done, then you can have a debate on the future of retail in Jersey. As an aside, Guernsey’s experiences in that regard are not encouraging.

A recent States survey indicated that choice, in the sense of range of goods, and price are the main motivators for shopping online, followed by home delivery and flexibility in when to

More than 90 per cent of those who took part in the survey bought things online. Parking was seen as a local issue. That said, a majority wanted to shop in the island, but said some of these factors stopped them from doing so. That also probably provides a clue as to where any retail strategy should start from.

In the meantime, best of luck with scrapping Sunday trading restrictions, for Islanders will thank you when you do.

There will be no revolution afterwards, however. Following an initial trial period, establishments will work out whether it works for them or not.

In our case, the big winners were the supermarkets, where doing the weekly shop has become more of a family affair and rather more leisurely.

Town has more people in it on a Sunday, in part because some of the UK multiples open, which gives an excuse for a browse and a coffee afterwards.

In short, not much has changed, other than people really can’t believe that there used to be restrictions, that it took so long to remove them, and that Sundays have actually become a bit easier to manage.

The big win, however, is that a pointless piece of bureaucracy has finally been binned and we’re all the better for it.

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