May I say what a pleasure it is to follow Rachael Maskell? She is a friend and we have been involved in many debates similar to this one. I congratulate Elliot Colburn on securing the debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting it.
As we have heard, SMEs are truly the backbone of our economy. During the initial lockdown, my office was inundated with more than 1,000 emails from SMEs that were at a loss as to how to deal with that dreadful scenario. It was an incredibly difficult times to be an elected representative: I had never felt so much pressure as I did at that time, with the number of people who came to see me and the real tragedies that they faced. The burden became quite onerous, but we were able to help those people, and I thank goodness for that. My promise to them then—as it is now—was that I would do all that I could to get them information and press for the help that they needed.
I could not attend Westminster Hall yesterday, when the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington led another debate—he is here almost as much as I am! I just want to let him know that I read Hansard—maybe it is just me—and I read what he says. The hon. Gentleman referred yesterday to the UK and that
“Northern Ireland operated socially distanced weddings since June”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall,
Vol. 683, c. 272WH.]
I have that marked in Hansard. However, I want to refer to one wedding venue in the short time I have, as one industry I feel needs to be focused on is that of a wedding.
Within a wedding are so many SMEs. The industry mirrors exactly what is happening across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Venues for weddings, entertainment providers, the photographers, the make-up artists, the hairdressers, horse-drawn carriage providers, bridal boutiques and evening-entertainment providers, from florists to the small online businesses that make party favours—all have been precluded from working. Many are self-employed and none is looking optimistically at the future without massive changes and help.
As the Member for Strangford, I make this statement, which I know to be true although other Members may disagree. I represent Strangford, probably one of the most beautiful areas in the whole of the UK. I shall outline why shortly. I know that you, Sir Edward, might have a different opinion and others might as well, but that is just by the way. The wedding industry and the demand are strong in my constituency, and so too has been the adverse impact on the industry.
Just a mile or two from my home—I live on the edge of Strangford Lough on a farm—is one of the most beautiful venues you can imagine: the Orange Tree House. Since it opened, it has been a virtual hub for events, from weddings to birthdays to celebrations and business events. It is owned by Jan Hollinger and Simon Shaw—I name them because I am going to send them a copy of Hansard—and they have built that place up. I remember when it was just an old, abandoned building, and I have followed the whole process all the way. With just one look at this beautiful wee gem, we can see what the appeal is. Rain or shine, the views of the lough are incredible. However, one look today will show closed gates, closed doors and uncertainty.
As an SME, at one stage the owner had 37 staff on retention. When news of the new furlough scheme was released, she contacted me to say she was unable to pay the amounts that were the responsibility of the employer and was having to let 31 staff go—crippling news. I have watched this small business go from strength to strength, becoming not simply a viable but a thriving business. To put that into perspective, let me highlight the cancellations. I have the permission of the owner to say this, Sir Edward, because I asked her beforehand whether it would be okay. I want to give hon. Members the opportunity to hear what this means to one venue. There were 130 bookings 115 of them in the diary already by March: 75 of them were cancelled. The owner has kindly worked out the net loss to the local economy. The bed nights for the weddings, which are the main staple of local Airbnbs, have disappeared. The restaurants are not getting the usual visitors the days before and after the weddings. The suppliers of flowers and food and so on are getting no business. The effect of those cancellations from one business is £753,900 removed from the economy.
I know that every Member here could do the same thing for their businesses and the cost of the bed nights and food tabs. That is just one wedding venue and the owners need help. They need assurance they can take bookings, and the fact that there is so much uncertainty has led to people not feeling confident to rebook this year or in the year ahead. Venues and the local economy are losing income from that intricate web of service provision. I have wedding photographers whose business has been decimated, who cannot even do baby photos or other staples such as school photos. They need to get people in, but no one is allowed in at present. They need help and they need it now. Those who provide evening entertainment at weddings, whose job is their music and their art, are also finding that they have no hope for the future. To lose a sector of those artists is worrying for our future as a nation. We have asked the question many times, and we ask the Minister again to look at that.
Time has beaten me, but worse still, time is beating the wedding industry. We need to think out a better way of keeping people safe; this perpetual lockdown is not sustainable. I hope, as others have said, that when we look to the potential vaccine that the Health Minister referred to this morning on the news—I watched it in the hotel before I left this morning and it is good although it is early days—we can look at safety measures that allow people to celebrate a wedding and even safely allow people to gather after a funeral, which is another issue. I attended a personal funeral this last week and I understand what it means for the family not to be able to get together after a funeral, never mind a funeral service when we can only have 35 people there as well.
We have to offer support in the interim, but more than that, we have to futureproof the industry. Part of our task, as Members and Ministers, is to learn from what has happened and then look forward to the future, where we can make it better, and allow it to continue in any circumstance, in a safe and meaningful way. I am sorry if I have gone over my time, Sir Edward.