It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I start by paying tribute to Elliot Colburn and thank him for securing this important debate. He made a series of important and detailed points that will certainly be welcome in Westminster Hall.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, SMEs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. As we have already heard, they really are the powerhouses of industry in our regional economies. Prior to becoming an MP, I worked for an SME in export, trade and marketing, and it was seeing things like Business Link—for anyone who remembers that—axed in the so-called bonfire of the quangos back in 2011 that made me feel that, for all the talk of trading our way out of the recession, the Government at the time did not really understand the type of support that SMEs truly valued. I was keen to bring those experiences with me to Parliament. We will need to trade our way out of this again, so what do we need to do to lay the groundwork to build back better?
I want to focus my remarks on those businesses in my constituency that have faced particular hardships over the course of the crisis. Halifax has been in the equivalent of tier 2 restrictions since July. We entered restrictions over three months ago, when our infection rate was in the 30s per 100,000. At one stage, we got it down to around 14 or 15 per 100,000, but the restrictions were not lifted before the second wave we are currently seeing sweep across the country brought about another spike. My SMEs have been living with restrictions far longer than most, and it is really starting to take a toll.
Children’s soft play centres have been among those hardest hit, and I commend places such as the Mill Playcafé and Play Palace in Halifax for doing all they can to diversify and keep their doors open. However, they are the types of leisure facilities, much like bowling alleys, which were the last to be able to reopen under the national restrictions. They then faced further tier 2 delays. When they finally got the go-ahead, they had additional restrictions on how many children could use the play areas safely, meaning that takings have been down by around 80%, completely undermining their viability and business models.
The packages of support for SMEs do not reflect those differences and the fact that some businesses have inevitably faced more hardship than others under the restrictions. I am not here to suggest that it would be easy to tailor the support to the exact requirements, but I say to the Minister that it is necessary to take that approach. My colleagues on the Labour Front Bench have been asking for sector-specific support, so I hope the Minister can reflect on soft play centres specifically in his response.
One recurring message from local businesses is that November and December are usually their best months. Whether it is Saks salon or Carter’s market stall selling nightwear for the winter months, turnover across the year factors in an expectation that the business will do well in the run-up to Christmas, especially given the year that these businesses have had. The hope that the best months of the year were still to come was keeping lots of businesses going, but it will take a great deal to recover from the reality of missing out on trade at this key time.
I have spoken to lots of the market stall traders at the impressive Halifax borough market, one of the last indoor Victorian markets, and which first opened in 1896. The council is staring into a massive black hole in its finances for this year and did what it could to give stallholders a rent break at the start of the crisis, but its position is such that it needs to continue to charge rent, even when the footfall has been so low that takings for traders have been a fraction of what they would normally be.
Due to a variety of different business models and employment practices within the market, not all of those working in it have been able to access the various different schemes. With this in mind, I wrote to the Government to ask the Secretary of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if the money already announced for the recovery of culture and heritage could be used to support the borough market as a cultural destination and heritage building, as a means of supporting the businesses in it. I received a response on
There is a great deal more I could add, but I will say in closing that Halifax had been punching well above its weight as a northern Pennine town before the virus, and I know that we will get there again. We have a real strength in depth across our SMEs, but we have faced a perfect storm of restrictions. I also add that we were recovering from the devastating floods of February before we almost immediately had to turn to face the virus, so we need to know that the Government are responsive to and understanding of our almost unique circumstances in Halifax.