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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 7:07 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 7:07 pm, 9th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am getting used to following Drew Hendry and preceding the Minister. I often agree with much of what the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey says, apart from his last point, which I nearly always disagree with.

We are discussing two important petitions, and we can see from the number of Members here that they are attracting quite a lot of attention. I pay tribute to Elliot Colburn for his excellent opening speech and for introducing the petitions, the first of which is the “Let Us Dance” petition, created by Jasper Levine. As somebody who, I must confess, was often found in the Haçienda nightclub in her youth and is a regular attendee at the Glastonbury festival, I am particularly pleased to speak in this debate. It was no surprise to me that there were more signatories of that petition from my constituency than from most other constituencies across the country. At this point, I thank Sacha Lord, the night-time economy spokesperson for Greater Manchester, who has been a great advocate on these issues on behalf of those in this industry, including those from outside Greater Manchester. The second petition is on the number of guests permitted at weddings, which we have heard a lot about. The arguments made on these issues by a number of Members are compelling, and I hope that Ministers will listen.

As we have heard, these sectors were a thriving and deeply interconnected ecosystem that supported millions of jobs across the country. I have held a number of Zoom roundtables with representatives from these shut-down sectors and those sectors closed in all but name. Many of the problems that we are discussing also affect the conferences and exhibitions sector, which we have heard a little bit about, as well as big sporting events. Together, these sectors make up a large proportion of the visitor and hospitality economies of our towns and cities. These sectors are at the centre of a wider ecology of jobs and employment, from make-up artists to florists, hairdressers, music technicians, security guards and many others. They contribute to thriving town centres, which include the hotel industry, hospitality, taxi drivers and many more, not to mention a huge supply chain, which we have heard much about. The majority of those businesses are not just viable, but are world-leading enterprises, generating and contributing billions of pounds to our economy. As we have heard, the wedding industry generated £15 billion in the previous year, the night-time economy over £66 billion, and conferences and events businesses billions more, on top of all the important trade deals made at those business events.

Since the first lockdown, the financial impact on those sectors has been alarming. I heard today in a roundtable I held with those from Greater Manchester that the night-time economy is down 90% since the beginning of the pandemic. Tens of thousands of weddings have been cancelled, although not for Esther McVey, who managed to have hers—congratulations to her. The wedding sector is not officially closed, but it is closed in all but name. Its trade has essentially stopped, but it has not been officially closed, which is having an impact. All the changes and inconsistencies have meant successive waves of restarts and refunds having to be paid out. There are also many sole traders, small and medium-sized enterprises in supply chains, and freelancers who have lost work, as we have heard. The chopping and changing has really taken its toll. As we have heard, bookings are made way in advance. The uncertainty in this sector could be the death knell for the weddings industry.

Even before the second national lockdown, which we are now in, it was clear that those industries needed more support. Although the reintroduction of the furlough scheme is welcome, that will have come far too late for too many. Those I have spoken to, on the many Zoom calls I have held, took decisions on redundancies weeks ago. Let us remember that, without the businesses to administer the furlough scheme, the jobs will not be saved either. What we are seeing is businesses starting to go bust, unable to pay the overheads that they incur—the rents, the venue hire, the utilities, the equipment hire and so on.

The first wave of cash grants has not reached most in the events and weddings industry—they did not qualify—let alone those in the supply chain. The second wave will not help most either. Even though the Government now seem to accept the principle of supporting businesses through the continued restrictions, in practice they are falling well short. For example, nightclubs and live events can qualify for a grant only from 1 November, despite being closed since March. Big conference events will not get anything at all, and the weddings industry will have to rely on the discretionary pots, which are seriously insufficient and will lead to a postcode lottery.

We should also remember that many businesses and self-employed workers in those sectors have been unable to receive any support at all, as we have heard, because they are from the 3 million excluded. Sole traders and the self-employed are excluded, while many company directors receive all their income through dividend payments. We need some proper sectoral support, as we have heard, and we have also heard some good ideas about that today—discretionary grants, action on rents, action on the 3 million excluded and ideas for rates relief for the next year and beyond.

However, as we have heard today, what most businesses want—this is what they tell me, and I am sure they say it to the Minister, too—is a route map out of closure. This is now the critical business issue, because most businesses want to trade. That is their job; that is what they do. We urgently need a real plan—a route map out for the sector. Mass testing, test, track and trace and isolate, and a vaccine would all make a difference. In the interim, these sectors need sensible guidance on how they can operate safely—we have heard some really good ideas from Edward Timpson and others on bringing all that together—because they want a level playing field, as we have heard in the debate. Why can a restaurant operate with 60 people from different households, but a wedding venue cannot? That just does not make sense. Why can people be in close quarters on an aeroplane, but cannot come together for a family celebration?

There are a number of other fixes, and I urge the Minister to bring the industry together, because these are creative, expert people, and let us not forget that they are used to managing events. That is what they do, so they know the people in the room, and they can manage it well.

These are viable businesses. They are not going through some structural change, like some other parts of our economy. They were massively growing before the pandemic. Let us be honest: the minute we are allowed to celebrate and party with our families again, we will be doing so. There will be huge demand for events and weddings. I hope the Minister has heard the calls today and that we can get this sector rolling again, and we can all have a party.