I, too, congratulate Selaine Saxby on her excellent speech introducing this important matter, which affects all our constituencies and our economy.
I think we are all looking forward to the unlocking of hospitality. Personally, I am looking forward to attending a three times postponed Van the Man concert at the Europa Hotel in Belfast in June, and then—the following weekend—attending the wedding of my best friend Stuart and his beloved Rachel; that’s me getting invited to it now, Madam Deputy Speaker.
As many Members have already mentioned, the wedding industry has been under immense pressure and it is important that it is supported by the Government in a very practical way. The hospitality sector is a key economic driver across the entirety of the UK. Indeed, my constituency regularly attracts over 1 million out-of-state visitors to the Giant’s Causeway and the North Antrim coast annually. That is a significant driver for our economy. Hotels from Ballycastle to Ballymena, restaurants and all sorts of other facilities are a key part of that employment cycle, and they all need support. Hospitality is Northern Ireland’s fourth largest private sector employer. It has a £2 billion turnover and purchases a third of all Northern Ireland’s agrifood productivity, so it is essential in driving the cycle of our economy. Two thirds of our entire tourism spend comes from hospitality. In the past 12 months, 70 million drinks and 60 million meals have gone unserved as a result of the lockdown. Debts of over £1 million a day are stacking up; £1.4 billion is the loss so far—and counting—to the income of those businesses.
We need four things. First, we urgently need a fixed date for the opening of our sector. We do not have one at all in Northern Ireland, and that needs to be flagged up immediately. I understand that Scotland and England at least have a date. Secondly, we need flexibility on furlough. Thirdly, debt is a massive issue; the Government must back a loan scheme that allows for the consolidation of the debts accrued and a flexible payback system. Fourthly, local government needs flexibility over how it spends money. Tourism Northern Ireland actually handed back to Westminster £5 million in the last few months because we do not have the flexibility to reallocate that money to the areas for which the bid was originally made. The Secretary of State is prepared to put his nose into all sorts of matters in Northern Ireland. Put your nose into that matter, Minister, and fix that. Let us have the flexibility over those moneys and let us fix this sector.