Live Events and Weddings: Covid-19 Support — [James Gray in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:59 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:59 pm, 9th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I pass on my congratulations to the petitioners, and double congratulations to Elliot Colburn, on securing the debate and on his recent nuptials.

We have heard from Members around the Chamber with some similar issues. Rebecca Long Bailey talked about the plight of the excluded, which is something I want to return to shortly, and about a rich musical and artistic heritage—something we have in common across many constituencies, not least my own. Julian Knight talked about the incompatibility of tackling covid with the operation of the venues, and Catherine McKinnell talked correctly about the loss of character that went with the loss of some of the businesses.

We also heard from Esther McVey—and, again, my congratulations on her recent wedding—and others, such as Karen Bradley who talked about the enormous effort made to keep staff on when they did not qualify for support. Wendy Chamberlain talked about the supply chain impact, and the direct impact on the local economy. That, again, is something my constituency has in common with hers. The hon. Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) and for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) talked about the need for more business support and targeted support, and the difficulties for businesses getting access to that support. There were many common themes for us to talk about today.

It is indeed a tough time for the wedding industry and industries in the night-time economy. There are arguments for exceptions, which we have heard, but most people understand that the restriction measures are sensible and necessary. The majority of people understand the need for them. That does not make it any easier for couples who have spent months, or even years, often, planning their perfect day. They have been dealt a really tough blow by covid-19 and by the uncertainty that has meant taking the heart-wrenching decision either to cancel or to go ahead with their marriages without many of their loved ones being present to share the day. A wedding is an important milestone in people’s lives, and it is with that in mind that the Scottish Government are trying to strike the right balance between a policy that empathises, and putting the safety of communities first. In Scotland, the current rules are that in levels 1, 2 or 3 no more than 20 people should attend, and in level 4 it should be no more than 15. If we get to level 0—and I hope that some regions will get to level 0 in future—a more recognisable number of 50 will be allowed in the venue. However, we know that mixing at weddings, as at any large-scale party, creates a risk of further transmission of the disease, and it must be carefully monitored to make sure that that does not happen.

The impact is not just emotional, but financial, as we have heard. In Scotland the average cost of a wedding is £20,000 and therefore the knock-on impact on suppliers serving the industry is dramatic and is heightened by the fact that Scotland is a popular wedding destination, with an average of 29,000 wedding ceremonies a year since 2001 and more than 130,000 couples who live elsewhere having chosen Scotland as the destination for their wedding. We are grateful to them for sharing it with us. Behind those numbers are tens of thousands of wedding supply businesses that are now struggling to make ends meet because of the pandemic. The hospitality and wedding venue sector is worth £963 million for freelance or self-employed photographers, DJs, musicians, wedding planners and suppliers of wedding-themed products. That is a big, big deal. Many of those freelancers are self-employed people and are part of the 3 million who have been excluded from support in spite of countless calls from me, my colleagues in the Scottish National party and colleagues across the Chamber asking for them to be remembered by the Chancellor, and asking him to act. Unfortunately, they continue to be ignored.

The Minister must, today, answer and say what he is going to do about it. All businesses in the sector deserve to be allowed to keep afloat during the crisis, so that completely viable businesses that would in normal times be thriving can move on and be there for us to support the economy once we emerge from the emergency. The coming months are critical, so I once again ask the Minister to urge the Chancellor to give these businesses a fighting chance. Topping up bounce back loans is not the answer; leading companies into crippling toxic debt will not get them out of this. The Government should now convert those loans into grants for those businesses.

As I said, there is widespread recognition that restrictions are required to help fight this pernicious virus, but we need to ensure that these businesses and jobs are still there when we emerge. Wedding venues, nightclubs and music venues have seen their businesses decimated. In Scotland, despite having one hand tied behind our backs, we have gone beyond the Barnett consequentials: the Scottish Government have spent nearly £4 billion on tackling covid-19, including £2.3 billion on business support, with almost £900 million of non-domestic rate relief; a £1.3 billion business grant scheme; a £30 million creative, tourism and hospitality enterprises hardship fund; and a £185 million package of targeted support for small and medium-sized enterprises and the self-employed, which dominate the night-time business sector.

The UK Government must now live up to the £350 billion promise. Loans are not working for firms that are struggling, especially this winter. They should ramp up support for businesses in England, which is the right thing to do, and allow us to use the Barnett consequentials to support businesses in Scotland. Once again, the Chancellor must act to make things right for the excluded, who have been battered, bruised and brushed off. They are even worried that the £20 a week universal credit uplift will be removed shortly, so we need a guarantee on that too.

There should be provision for furlough beyond March in this sector. It is clear that the big talk of “whatever it takes” from the Chancellor is not being delivered; it is not what people are seeing. Financial powers should be devolved. Simple changes to borrowing rules should be made, to allow the Scottish Government to step in where the UK Government are not. We have been begging for this for months and months. The failure of the Tory UK Government to listen to the needs of the Scottish people is not new, but boy is it being recognised in Scotland just now, amplified throughout the Brexit debacle and now this crisis. It is no wonder that polls now show that people in Scotland want a new referendum, with a majority of people in 11 consecutive polls now saying that independence is the way for us to make the right choices for our future.