Before I start, may I thank the hon. Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) for their maiden speeches? As I have said before, an abundance of talent has been shown by new Members from all parties, though I particularly enjoyed the two speeches today. I wish both Members well for the future in the House. I hope they will make many more contributions; if they are as good as they were today, we are in for a lot of good times. Their speeches were absolutely excellent.
The explanatory notes make it clear that the Bill includes a range of measures to help businesses adjust to new ways of working as the country recovers from disruption caused by covid-19. May I put on record my thanks to the Government and to Ministers for what they have done not only to hold fast against covid-19, but to ensure that businesses have an opportunity to go forward? The measures support the transition from the immediate crisis response to the recovery and getting the economy moving again. They support businesses in implementing safer ways of working to manage the ongoing risk of covid-19, in particular the need for social distancing.
I am probably not the only Member who has received a summary of information from SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers. It has asked a couple of questions that I want to put on the record with Hansard, and the Minister might be able to respond to them at the end of the debate. Some breweries do not have a premises licence and cannot offer takeaway and delivery directly to the public. The Bill will not help them during the covid-19 crisis. One in four breweries—about 500 out of 2,000 breweries in the UK—do not currently have any way to sell directly to the public, and the sales of small breweries have reduced by 65% to 82% because of covid-19. They have not received the same level of financial support as pubs and the hospitality sector, such as through the business rates holiday or the £25,000 grant.
Some 65% of small breweries have been mothballed since covid-19 and trade during the summer months will be vital for their survival. Some have been using temporary events notices to offer limited services, but they are by their very nature limited in time and number, and businesses must already be registered with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs under the alcohol wholesaler registration scheme and approved as a fit and proper person.
The small breweries ask the following questions. They call for an extension to the licensing relaxation to allow small independent breweries who cannot sell directly to the public to be able to do so on a temporary basis. That could be done by extending the authorisation of off sales to small breweries that do not hold a premises licence but are registered under the alcohol wholesaler registration scheme, and allowing small breweries that do not have a premises licence to apply quickly and more easily by treating the application as a minor variation—that might be a simpler way of doing this. Also, the number and time period for temporary events notices might be expanded to assist breweries, allowing for takeaways and deliveries. Will the Minister respond to those points at the end of the debate?
None of us in the Chamber could argue against the need for the Bill. With an estimated 25% of the people on furlough facing redundancy, there is a crystal-clear need for help for business, and not simply in the form of grants, but right through the economic period. Only this morning a business owner with two small convenience stores was on the phone asking for clarity on whether the new regulations will allow him to have more people in his shops, and therefore, it is to be hoped, fewer people having to queue who might then go elsewhere rather than wait. The current situation is unfair because the same problem applies to the big supermarket chains but the waiting time is less, and people can get most of their shopping in one place. All businesses apart from the major supermarkets are clearly facing a rough time ahead.
It is abundantly clear that we must enable businesses—especially small businesses, which are the backbone of the economy—to survive this time. We in Northern Ireland have a larger proportion of small and medium-sized businesses than the rest of the United Kingdom. The high street in Ards—Newtownards—which is my major town, won the Northern Ireland high street of the year 2019 award. We are doing, with others, all we can to secure grant funding and measures with the local council to help the boutique shops, which people travel to from the length of Northern Ireland, to survive. What a difference a few months makes!
The Bill also has measures to help haulage businesses and other commercial interests, and that is absolutely necessary. As I have said, I am supportive of this Bill, but a point was highlighted to me by an interested party, and it is of concern and must be addressed: the closure of the Bill powers. The Minister will have received correspondence from my office on the issue of licensing, and in particular HGV licensing. In simple terms, the Bill rightly gives the Secretary of State the power to issue exemptions from testing as he sees fit, and he can also withdraw that exemption at any time. However, there is a concern in that there is no obligation to set standards or rules, and the Secretary of State’s powers are constrained. In previous times, such power vested in a Minister would be resisted by Parliament, especially without a covering sunset clause to make the power temporary. I want to ask the Minister about this point; the Secretary of State mentioned it at the beginning of the debate, but unfortunately I did not get a chance to ask this question. The 12-month exemption can be granted so that haulage companies and operators can maintain their schedules for maintenance, so that they are not compromised and those schedules do not have to be rearranged twice. I just want to make sure that those companies are able to deliver and have their maintenance schedules in place, and will not be disadvantaged in any way.
There is also the issue of new vehicles and trailers. I welcome the information about a temporary reduction in duration of certain driving licences in Northern Ireland. That is a response to some of the things that I have written to the Minister about, so I am glad to see it in place. That tells me that we all have a role to play in the House to assure the Minister, or to change his mind—advise him—so that he comes forward with some ideas, which he clearly has. I thank him for that.
We all understand that unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. That is why I was pleased with the furlough scheme, and many people have taken advantage of it. To be honest, had the furlough scheme not been there, many businesses would not still be here. The scheme has done some excellent work to ensure that businesses can hold on, until they get the chance to reopen over the next period of time, which will happen.
We must also ensure that we secure the way forward, not having the Minister with absolute and unending power as the new norm. That is not how democracy works. I add this caution: I hold firmly to that belief in democracy, even if I do not always agree with its outcome, such as the imposition of abortion legislation in Northern Ireland—not an issue in the Bill, but an example of a recent decision that we think should have been for the devolved Assembly to determine. We are in grave danger of forgetting that we can never allow power to be abused, whatever form it takes. I ask the Minister to insert a sunset clause in order to bring the powers to an end, or to have further accountability in the process of decision making under the Bill.
I conclude with this comment: we need this Bill and I support it, but we also need accountability and limitation of power. I ask the Minister to come back to us on that matter. I thank the Government for all the help for businesses so far, but we need it for the future as well and to take us through to the last part of this year. I hope that with the reduction in the R rate across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, especially in Northern Ireland where it is reducing greatly, the future will be better—as Captain Moore always says, “Tomorrow will be a good day.”