It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. You are a very hospitable person, but it is so cold in here—I have stood in warmer graveyards—that it is not so hospitable in terms of temperature. I hope that it will not be a political graveyard for anyone here, but it would founder ye, as we would say in Northern Ireland.
I wholly agree with the way in which Catherine McKinnell moved the motion. I think that everyone can say a hearty “Hear, hear” to what she put on the agenda. It was a comprehensive piece of work, and I agree that all the regions of the United Kingdom need to swing behind the point she made. She made sound, good points.
To put a little perspective on the case, in Northern Ireland there are 60,000 direct jobs in the hospitality sector. In other words, one in 20 people in Northern Ireland works in the sector. We are a small economy. Before covid, I had 1 million out-of-state visitors to my constituency—principally visiting the Giant’s Causeway, a world-renowned geological site. For a place with a population of 1.7 million, getting 1 million visitors dramatically changes the local economy. We have 45,000 jobs directly in food and drink. We contribute about £88 million to the Chancellor’s purse each year in direct taxation, and we contribute about £1.1 billion to our entire economic picture; that is, for an economy of £13 billion, a sizeable piece that the hospitality sector provides.
The impact of covid has therefore been staggering and massive, but we must look forward. In the last 52 weeks the hospitality sector has probably traded for only about 13 weeks, so it has not had the benefit of the VAT cut the Government gave it. That must be extended, and I hope that the Minister will relate that to the Chancellor. We need a kick-start plan to open up businesses—to help them to open up when they start back again, probably at some time in March. Loans under the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme need to be repaid, but it should be done softly, and they should be extended if possible.
I want to make an appeal in particular for the music sector, which entertains people when they come to Northern Ireland. I think of great singers such as Sir Van Morrison and others. He coined the words:
“We are not in this together.”
I hope that we get back to being in it together, and that we will be able to get benefit for our hospitality sector.