MPs today debated the creation of a dedicated Minister for Hospitality, following a widely circulated petition that amassed over 200,000 signatures.
MP Catherine McKinnell opened the debate, reflecting on the scale of hospitality’s contribution to the economy and the need for very diffuse businesses to have a direct line to the government. She referred back to the insufficiency of current grants introduced by Rishi Sunak in January, and to the central paradox that restaurants face. They are being told that spring will be better for them, but they currently don’t know if support will be there for them to make it.
Conservative MP Greg Clark, a former business secretary, then emphasised what many restaurateurs believe: with vaccines purportedly allowing some relief by Easter, it would be a great waste of investment, time, and toil to allow businesses to fail between now and spring / summer 2021. He pushed for business rates holidays and VAT cuts to be extended, as well as suggesting that employers should not have to pay National Insurance contributions on furloughed employees.
Labour MP for Warrington North Charlotte Nichols, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Pubs, said she “remained angry” at the 10 p.m. curfews and “farcical definitions of substantial meals.” Scotch eggs wince around the nation. Nichols also reflected on pubs being disallowed from selling takeaway alcohol, even in a closed container, describing the £9,000 one-time grants announced at the start of January as “a drop in the pint glass.”
Business rate and VAT cut extensions were a running theme of contributions, as were sentiments about a “return to normality.” Local contributions regarding music, tourism, and hotels also highlighted how diffuse hospitality is as an industry. MP Steve Double, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Hospitality and Tourism, suggested that Minister Paul Scully in attendance was, in fact, a minister for hospitality, if not formally, and also joined calls for “more support” from the government as well as more understanding of the unique impact of short-term closures on restaurants and pubs, as opposed to other retail establishments. He also pushed for a full reform on business rates, as well as a holiday.
Shadow Minister for Business and Consumers Lucy Powell MP reflected on the fact that businesses are taking decisions “today” on their staffing and debts, with no guarantee of what measures could be introduced to see them through to spring. She condemned a “scattergun approach” to hospitality relief over the last ten months, and also called for more foresight on what exactly the rumoured “reopening” in May will look like, regarding restrictions.
The government minister in attendance was Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets Paul Scully. He said that a group had been set up within the Department for Business, Energy, and Individual Strategy (BEIS) to represent hospitality over the last ten months. He referred back to loan schemes, furlough, and Eat Out to Help Out, alongside more recently released grants, as justification for government intervention, as well as eviction protections for rent arrears occasioned by COVID-19. He said that hospitality’s place at the “heart of community” was what made it so important, hinting perhaps that its position on business representation could also be served from a cultural perspective.
He said that currently hospitality is between BEIS and the Department of Culture Media and Sport; the former deals with food and beverage businesses like restaurants, cafes, pubs, and bars. He was non-committal on the possibility of bringing in a Minister for Hospitality, choosing instead to focus on the need for recovery after the coronavirus crisis, and committed to maintaining support for the hospitality sector “until vaccines are rolled out.” It was unclear how he would be able to apply this to chancellor Rishi Sunak.
While the type of debate means there will be no vote or concrete resolution on the issue, MP McKinnell closed the debate by reiterating Scully’s refusal to consider the question of a Minister. She said “we can not only get the government’s response [to the pandemic] right, but get it right for hospitality. The old saying goes ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,’ but I’d say we do know what we’ve got.”
“It would be in the government’s interest to put this in place.” Now restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars will wait and see if they will.