In a move likely to inflict a damaging defeat on the UK government, the nationalist group at Westminster announced last night it would side with Conservative rebels in opposing a relaxation of trading laws.
SNP deputy leader and economy spokesman Stewart Hosie said the party will oppose the government even though extended Sunday trading has been allowed in Scotland for some time.
Small shops in England and Wales can open when they choose but stores that are larger than 3,000sq ft are restricted to six hours between 10am and 6pm. If they break the restriction they could face a fine of up to £50,000.
The SNP move will to block relaxing Sunday trading laws will infuriate UK ministers as the nationalists had previously indicated they would abstain, following assurances that UK employment laws would be amended to protect workers from being required to work on Sundays against their wishes.
After a party meeting at Wesmtminster last night, Mr Hosie said the group had concluded those changes did not go far enough and they would join Labour and the Tory rebels to oppose easing restrictions in England and Wales in today’s key vote.
Mr Hosie said: “We have had Sunday Trading in Scotland for some time and the SNP has never been opposed to it, however our concerns here are rooted in the knock-on impact to Scottish workers who would be at risk of pay cuts – many of whom are already suffering from George Osborne’s cuts to tax credits and other in work support.
“SNP MPs have considered all sides in this debate and our decision has been made so workers in Scotland are protected.
“The SNP welcomed the additional employee protections brought forward by the UK government which amends the Employment Rights Act to protect any worker from being forced into working on a Sunday – however they do not go far enough.”
The party had come under intense pressure from Labour and the shop workers’ union, Usdaw, not to allow ministers to get their way.
With up to 30 Conservative rebels reported to be ready to defy the party whips and vote against the relaxation of Sunday trading laws – and another 20 said to be preparing to abstain – the parliamentary arithmetic would appear to be stacked against the government.
Defeat would be a particularly bitter blow for George Osborne who first announced his plan to allow local councils in England and Wales to decide whether larger stores should be able to stay open for longer than the current maximum of six hours in his summer Budget following last year’s general election victory.
The Chancellor said the move would benefit “struggling high streets” helping them to compete more effectively against internet retailers.
Before the SNP announcement last night, a Downing Street spokeswoman said relaxed Sunday opening hours could deliver economic benefits to communities.
The spokeswoman said: “We think this is a way to enhance the ability of communities to support their High Streets to deal with some of the pressures that they face from the online market that we have these days and where we haven’t updated Sunday trading rules to reflect that.”
However Labour and the unions have argued that it would lead to an erosion of shop workers’ pay and conditions across the UK while the Church of England has also voiced concern about the impact of the changes.
James Lowman, chief executive of Association of Convenience Stores, said the move would damage smaller traders.
He said: “MPs from every political party in the House are unconvinced by the Chancellor’s arguments on Sunday trading, including many within government.
“There is clear evidence that these proposals will be damaging both economically and socially, and we urge MPs to vote against the government’s plans.”
In July last year the UK government was forced to withdraw its bid to relax the ban on fox hunting in England and Wales after the SNP said its MPs would vote against the move.
Prime Minister David Cameron described the party’s decision not to abstain and vote against his government as “entirely opporunistic”.
Ms Sturgeon hit back by saying: “I think if there’s an opportunity – as there appears to be here – and on an issue where David Cameron appears to be out of touch with majority English opinion as well, to actually remind the government how slender their majority is.”