Covid-19: Hospitality Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:35 pm on 24th March 2021.

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Photo of Stephen Flynn Stephen Flynn Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:35 pm, 24th March 2021

I commend Selaine Saxby on securing this important and topical debate. As my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss said, a vibrant city centre is very much the sum of its parts: its retail, its leisure and its hospitality. On that point, I would like briefly to reflect on the terrible news from Aberdeen today that our local John Lewis store is to close. Some 265 good jobs are currently up in the air, and my heart goes out to each and every individual who is potentially impacted. I know that, across the political divide in Aberdeen, we will all unite to try to convince the organisation to take a different path—one that retains such a vital department store in the city of Aberdeen. It is probably apt to reflect on the importance of such a story in the wider context of a city centre, because we all know that when we go to city centres to enjoy what is on offer, it is not just for the pubs, the food, the cinemas or the parks; it is also for the shops. As I say, it is a collective, and we all need to be very mindful of that.

As we have heard from numerous Members, the last year has been an extremely challenging time for those in the hospitality sector. They have had to face myriad changing circumstances, be that in relation to social distancing, opening times or what they can and cannot serve. I have a great deal of sympathy for them in that regard. They have had to put up with an incredibly difficult set of circumstances, and I know that they have diligently tried to adhere to everything that has been put in front of them. I sincerely hope that in the not- too-distant future, we can all get back to enjoying ourselves in establishments across Scotland and the UK.

For my own part, I cannot wait to get back into BrewDog and down to the Cove Bay Hotel for some food or, indeed, to North East Fife, because I have a couple of vouchers for some places in St Andrews that I am desperate to use. I was given them at Christmas in the expectation that I would be there before now. It was nice to hear the remarks from Wendy Chamberlain about what her constituency has to offer; it is a wonderful part of the world.

We are all keen to get back out there and enjoy ourselves, because having that social contact with people in environments that we all love and enjoy is the very essence of our being. That is to come, but in the meantime, we need to reflect on the challenges that will still be there for the hospitality sector. When things open up, it will not simply be a case of “back to normal”. First, those in the sector will have to deal with the fact that restrictions are still in place, but they will also have to deal with the fact that consumer confidence is shattered. People are going to be a little bit anxious about doing what they previously did. It is incumbent on the UK Government to take cognisance of that fact, in particular in relation to VAT. The 5% cap for the hospitality sector has been a good move, but we need to see that extended until the end of the year, at least to allow businesses the certainty that they need.

That certainty is important. It was important last autumn, when businesses in Scotland tried to close due to public health reasons, and we asked the UK Government repeatedly to extend the furlough scheme. They delayed and delayed, and only at the last minute they decided to extend it on the basis of the situation in south-east England. We cannot allow that to happen again. Scotland does not have the powers that it should have in that regard. It is of much frustration to me, as I am sure the Minister will be aware, that we cannot borrow to try to fill the gap caused by the shortfalls in the UK Government’s schemes.

Of course, where we can take action, we have taken action. Scotland’s Finance Secretary delivered our Budget recently, and we went further than the UK Government on rates relief. I have heard today the frustration of several Members about business rates and the fact that in England there will be a taper of the support over the year. That is not the case in Scotland, where there will be 100% rates relief throughout the coming financial year. We are trying to provide the certainty that we can to hospitality businesses; it is time for the UK Government to step up and do likewise.

I am conscious of the time, so I will finish where I started, with some local narrative. Towards the end of last year, there was a lot of difficultly in the hospitality situation in Aberdeen and some challenges with adherence to social distancing and the like, but the hospitality sector in our city got together and created Aberdeen Hospitality Together. That re-instilled the confidence that we all needed. Dutifully led by Stuart McPhee from Siberia Bar & Hotel, people across a whole host of venues managed to put in place a format that people could believe in and trust. As we move out of lockdown in the coming weeks and months, that trust is going to be so vital. I look forward, as indeed does everyone else in the Chamber, to getting back into a pub and drinking far too many beers.