Hospitality Industry: Government Support — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:31 pm on 11th January 2021.

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Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee 4:31 pm, 11th January 2021

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point; perhaps the Minister will comment on that in his response.

This is a timely debate, because although many businesses have taken a significant hit since March, hospitality, which thrives on social mixing and travel, has been crippled by repeated lockdowns and the risks posed by the virus. Local economies with a higher proportion of workers employed in such sectors have been disproportionately hit.

Many restaurants have pivoted to providing cook-at-home and takeaway offers with contact-free delivery or kerbside collection. In these strange times, Geordies can enjoy takeaways from all manner of venues across our city, from the Thyme Square café on Station Road, with its carry-out Sunday lunches, to the cook-at-home offerings from 21 and the Michelin-starred House of Tides on the quayside. None the less, the situation remains incredibly challenging for all. A recent UKHospitality study found that 41% of businesses in the sector thought that they would fail by mid-2021, and one in five thought that they would have enough cash flow to survive beyond February.

Even when restrictions were relaxed over the summer, most people could still go to restaurants or pubs only with the people they lived or bubbled with. The simultaneous closure of sports stadiums, cinemas, music venues and theatres has a knock-on impact. If the business of people catching up with family and friends over drinks, going on dates, or having a bite to eat after a match or film is lost, that is a huge chunk of revenue. Hospitality also lost out badly from the drop in tourist spend this winter. Other parts of the hospitality sector, such as nightclubs, have remained closed since the first lockdown in March. From the reaction to the recent debate on the night-time economy, I know that Newcastle’s iconic nightlife is sorely missed by visitors and locals alike.

On Friday, when I met the petition’s creator, Claire Bosi, and some of its leading supporters, including the founder and CEO of Home Grown Hotels, Robin Hutson, and chefs Tom Kerridge and Angela Hartnett, I heard powerful examples that demonstrate the Government’s lack of deep understanding of the sector. To be clear, there is enormous gratitude for the considerable support that the Government have provided through the billions spent on measures such as the job retention scheme, the business rates holiday and various grants, including those announced by the Chancellor last week. The Government would do a lot better, however, if they stopped seeing the sector as being amenable to a one-size-fits-all approach. Ministers’ main lever for controlling the virus over the last nine months has been to switch the entire sector on or off at a moment’s notice, with little consideration given to its complexity and diversity.

When restrictions were eased over the summer, we saw the reopening of large chain pubs—with customers often bunched together at outside tables—at the same time as small restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts, where social distancing is easier to maintain. The curfew policy suffered from the same one-size-fits-all mindset. It was evidently drawn up with bars in mind, but unlike restaurants they do not have to turn over tables. The curfew might have been appropriate for a city centre bar—although there were many issues with large groups of customers all leaving at the same time—but it made no sense for small restaurants or rural hotels, which might have been unable to safely spread out the accommodation of all their guests for dinner as a consequence.

August’s eat out to help out scheme, although clearly popular at the time, was seemingly designed with little regard to whom it would help and the incentives that it would create. Rather than supporting those who are struggling the most, it potentially ended up being an untargeted giveaway to customers and businesses. It also made eating out much cheaper relative to takeaways and, in retrospect, helping restaurants by targeting subsidies at takeaways might have been more effective at boosting sales while maintaining the social distancing that is so required.

I understand that there are reasons why the Government have made lockdown announcements very shortly before their introduction, but that has caused some real issues for the sector. I was told of a chef in London who had two tonnes of oysters delivered just two hours after London entered tier 3, with no customers to serve them to. Yesterday, we heard reports of chickens possibly being culled due to a fall in bulk egg orders. When hotels were closed by national lockdown or entering tiers 3 and 4, hoteliers were left guessing whether they were even allowed to serve their guests breakfast in the morning. I know that these are not decisions that any Minister takes lightly, but if it is genuinely not possible to give more notice of such changes, what more can the Government do to support businesses that are caught off guard?

The repeated shutdowns of the hospitality sector have also meant that the businesses that supply it have been forced into hibernation for much of the past year. There is a whole other set of issues there that the current support measures—which are largely designed around jobs and rent, not around businesses holding large amounts of stock, often perishable—just do not reach. Little financial support has been available throughout the pandemic. With severe restrictions in place across the country since the autumn, demand for their stock has diminished seriously.

I also worry about the impact of that on-off cycle on the mental health of the staff who work in the sector. They have had to return suddenly to public-facing roles, turning on the charm and smiling at customers, when they do not know whether they will be able to hold on to their jobs for much longer. It has been great to see the widespread recognition of the strains that lockdown has put on the nation’s mental health, but we need to pay particular attention to the sectors most affected.

Thanks to the ingenuity and dedication of scientists in the UK and across the world, there is now a clear way out of this crisis. We know that the economic disruption will not be permanent. We will, no doubt, expect hospitality to play a significant part in the hoped-for bounce back of economic activity and employment, in particular among young people. We have good reason to believe that for at least the businesses that manage to survive.

The pandemic has concentrated a tremendous amount of economic pain on workers in certain sectors, predominantly insecure workers, and they deserve our utmost support. However, there has also been a build-up of savings among those more fortunate, who have been able to maintain a steady income. Many have saved the money that they used to spend on bars, hotels and restaurants, rather than splurging it on more parcels from Amazon, but there are limits to how much of that will ultimately be spent on hospitality in due course. In all likelihood, people are likely to go out to the pub two or three times a week, eventually, but that will not happen soon.

There will be a catch-up on spending in that social consumption—or we very much hope so—when things eventually return to normal. As the nation is vaccinated, the economy reopens and the rules we apply in hospitality inevitably become more nuanced and complex, it is important that we have input from the hospitality sector as to how we can design policy not to repeat the mistakes that were made in the summer of 2020 when the sector reopened.

We need to get ahead of the problems, and the petitioners have argued that splitting that representation between two crowded Departments—the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—is not working. One of the leading supporters of the petition, Robin Hutson, put it succinctly:

“I’ve long held the view that the hospitality sector requires really focused representation in government. This is about the future of our industry and the campaign and petition showcases the strength of feeling across the country on this issue. Hospitality is a sector that deserves a seat at the top table.”

That responsibility sits across two Departments, which is not a problem. Hospitality sector businesses are businesses, but they are also a creative art—in fact, much of the arts sector relies on hospitality as a source of revenue to underpin its activities. We used to have more Ministers with cross-Department briefs, out of recognition that some issues unavoidably straddle Government Departments, but that seems to be out of fashion at the moment. I worry that it creates an incentive for passing the buck between Departments, which reinforces the case for a Minister for hospitality.

It is hard to believe some of more farcical debates that we have had, such as the controversy about whether a Scotch egg constitutes a meal. If we had a dedicated hospitality Minister, we might not have ended up with that mess. If a new ministerial role is not something that the Government are open to, we must at least recognise that the sector needs a strong voice in Government, with a genuine recognition of its diversity, greater engagement with businesses and a much deeper understanding of the different ways that they are affected by lockdown measures.

The hospitality sector is an industry that has always been driven by passion and soul. It is not an industry in which businesses generally have huge amounts of cash reserves, and we know that many businesses operate at just above break-even point. The industry knows it needs to encourage more home-grown talent, now that it cannot rely on people coming over from Europe. There is a levelling-up piece here, as I have mentioned. Hospitality is one of the few industries that is represented in almost every part of the country. It is an industry that is a gateway for so many people who do not particularly enjoy the academic side of school but who have creativity and graft and can be successful, if just given the chance. If the Government understood and took the industry seriously, it could be a route to transformation in every community right across the country. We need to raise the profile of hospitality and encourage young people from the UK to do apprenticeships and to see entering the industry as a “Sky’s the limit” career. As we set out our stall on the world stage in the post-Brexit era, one of the key things that will attract people to our country—with their investment—is our culture and its offerings, and a big part of that will be the richness and quality of our hospitality.

Newcastle’s hospitality sector has something for everyone: restaurants offering everything from hearty traditional Geordie pub grub to innovative fine dining, hipster-style hang-outs for craft beer and gourmet burgers, and a thriving street food scene. Our nightlife is famous in its own right and is regularly featured in guides and magazines—Newcastle is often one of the top places for an unforgettable night out. However, my fear in the current situation is that the larger, more standardised chains will have the resources to survive into the post-pandemic era, but the smaller, heart-and-soul operations might not. We will see a hollowing out of the sector. I do not want to see my city lose any part of what makes it unique, and I am sure colleagues feel the same way about their areas.

I know there is a limit to how much heart and soul people can give when they have been hammered month after month. Even in the best-case scenario, there are several months of closure ahead. Countless smaller owner-operators are now worse off than they were when the pandemic began. Some took out personally secured loans in March. Having spent the last nine months in difficulty, they are now looking at losing not only their businesses, but their homes. It is a real tragedy, because they were good and viable businesses before this unseen crisis came along.

What does the sector need? The one-off grants announced by the Chancellor last week will of course be strongly welcomed, and they should help more businesses to stay afloat. The resource that the Government have put in through the job retention scheme has been a lifeline to sector employees, but industry representatives have made it clear that the current support is not enough to cover the costs of many businesses and will not secure their long-term viability. We need a longer-term plan to help businesses to plan their survival while the vaccine is rolled out, starting with clarity on how long the new support payments will be available. UKHospitality and others have called for an extension of the business rates holiday and a 5% VAT rate, to provide certainty in the longer term. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on whether that is under consideration.

I also urge the Government to commit to examine urgently the inadequacies of their support measures as they relate to hospitality suppliers and, as I said in our previous debate on the night-time economy, to consider introducing some flexibility to the local restrictions support grants, to give local authorities the freedom to grant and target support towards the businesses that need it and can use it best.

The petitioners do not expect to go back to dining out, dancing in nightclubs and checking into hotels straightaway; the public health situation is at a critical point, and saving lives must take precedence. However, they want there to be a greater understanding of the diverse nature of their sector and a strong voice for them in Government. Above all, and like us, they want this country’s mix of pubs, hotels, restaurants and clubs, which does so much to enrich our lives, to still be standing when this crisis is over.