Currently – under laws dating back to the 1990s – large shops (of over 280m 2) in England and Wales can open on Sundays but only for up to 6 consecutive hours between 10am and 6pm. Following a public consultation, the Government has recently announced that it intends to reform the laws relating to Sunday trading.   What will the changes mean for businesses and their staff?

Will large shops be able to open for longer on Sundays?

Not necessarily. The Government does not propose to change the maximum Sunday opening hours for large shops. Rather, it intends to give local councils (and the Mayors of London and Manchester) the ability to extend Sunday trading hours in their own areas, or in specific parts such as town centres or high streets. Whether large shops can open for longer will depend, therefore, on the approach taken in the relevant local area. It remains to be seen whether a standard practice will emerge.

Will shop staff be able to opt out of working longer hours on a Sunday?

Yes. Currently, employees must give three months' notice if they wish to opt out of Sunday working. Employers who require their employees to work on Sundays must notify them of this in writing within two months of them starting work. If the employer fails to do this, the employee is only required to give one month's notice that he or she wishes to opt out.

The Government intends to make changes to the Sunday opt-out rules. Firstly, for large shops, employees will only be required to give 1 month's notice if they wish to opt out of Sunday working. The notice period will be reduced further where employers fail to notify staff of a Sunday working requirement. Similarly, employees will have the right to opt out of working more than their normal Sunday hours. Secondly, the obligation on employers to notify shop workers about their rights will be strengthened, and a corresponding minimum Employment Tribunal award will apply where employers fail to do so.

What about smaller shops?

Currently, smaller shops (of less than 280m 2) are under no restrictions in terms of the hours they can open on a Sunday. The Government does not propose to change that. Also, the reduction in the Sunday working opt-out period will also only affect large shops. However, it appears that some of the other changes (for example, the Sunday working notification requirements on employers) may apply to all shops.

What should businesses do to prepare?

The changes to the law are still at an early stage. The Government's proposals still need to be set out in detail as draft legislation. As the decision to extend Sunday trading hours for large shops will ultimately rest with local authorities, businesses should consider engaging with law makers on a local level to understand the likely position.

However, the reduction in the notice period which shop workers must give to opt out of Sunday working will apply to all large shops (regardless of the area). In addition, changes to the requirement on employers to notify staff that Sunday working may be required look set to apply in relation to all shops. Businesses should therefore prepare to review their processes to ensure they are capable of adapting to a stricter regime.