The proposal is included in a paper looking at different options for devolving Sunday trading rules to local areas, so that shops and high streets in designated areas would be able to open longer and compete with online retailers. Currently, shops in England and Wales that are larger than 3,000 sq ft in size can only open for a maximum of six hours on a Sunday.
Business minister Anna Soubry said that the proposals had "the potential to create thousands of jobs across the country and help British businesses to thrive". But Andrea McIlroy-Rose, retail property head at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com said that the burdens could outweigh the benefits for some retailers.
"Whilst more flexible shopping hours are obviously an attraction for customers and retailers alike, with most retailers offering extremely good online shopping facilities the obvious question is whether the administrative burdens this will bring to retailers and the personal cost to staff in trying to balance family life with these additional hours are worth it for the sake of a few more shopping hours on a Sunday," she said.
The consultation proposes devolving powers to set Sunday trading hours either to local leaders through devolution deals, or to local authorities more generally. In each case, those given the power would be able to choose to extend Sunday trading hours throughout the whole of their area, or within specific parts of their area. This would allow them to extend hours for specific shopping centres, town centres or particular high streets, according to the consultation.
"Large stores already have some flexibility to open for six continuous hours between 10am and 6pm," the consultation said. "Therefore, there is already some variation in opening times across the country with some stores perhaps opening between 10am and 4pm and others between 12 midday and 6pm."
"These proposals enable further flexibility in shop opening hours according to the needs of the local economy, for example, depending on the level of international tourism and the availability of public transport, and subject to the wishes of the local community," it said.
The existing Sunday trading laws were introduced in 1994, and limit large shops' opening hours to six consecutive hours between 10am and 6pm on Sundays. There are no restrictions on smaller shops' opening hours. The legislation also prevents large shops from opening at all on Easter Sunday. The government does not intend to lift the restrictions on Easter Sunday opening, or to amend separate legislation preventing large shops from opening on Christmas Day.
The government said that internet shopping had "come of age" in the 20 years since the 1994 legislation came into force, allowing consumers to order goods online at their convenience. Internet sales now account for 11.5% of all retail sales, compared to just 2.8% when this data was first collected nearly a decade ago. Extending Sunday trading rules could benefit retailers by an additional £1.4 billion per year, according to the consultation.
Retail employment law expert Paul Gillen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-law.com, said that although the consultation would be broadly welcomed by retailers the proposals also raised from "legal and operational" employment issues.
"Firstly, the issue of staffing costs must be considered, and whether extending trading hours on a Sunday would lead to additional revenue or simply extend the period and staff costs over which the same revenue would be made," he said.
"Secondly, there are issues about additional staffing and whether this is covered by current staff or additional staff. If staffed with current staff, the employer would have to check contracts of employment to see if there is a right to vary the contract and, even if this is a case, to apply such rights reasonably and probably with calls for higher rates. If additional staff are required, this could lead to recruitment and training costs," he said.
"Thirdly, any additional salary costs would also have knock-on effects on other staffing costs, including pension contributions, any increase for overtime payments and also increased holiday payments. Fourthly, employees need to be aware that some longer-term employees employed before August 1994 do not have to work on Sundays if they do not want to. Other employees can opt out of Sunday working by giving three months' notice, unless they are specifically recruited to work only on Sundays," he said.
"Finally, employers will have to work within the Equality Act 2010. Working on Sundays is likely to give rise to claims of discrimination if employees with religious objections to working on Sundays are forced to do so, or if they are treated differently by the employer or by other colleagues for not working on Sundays. So, from an employment law and HR perspective it is not as simple as gaining a few more hours trading but will need some thought on planning, cost analysis and careful employee communication," he said.
The consultation closes on 16 September 2015.