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Businesses and Covid-19

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 29 September 2020

What recent discussions he has had with representatives from those business sectors most affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (906771)

What recent discussions he has had with representatives from those business sectors most affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (906782)

What recent discussions he has had with representatives from those business sectors most affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (906788)

Ministerial colleagues and I have engaged closely with affected sectors throughout the covid-19 pandemic. Recently, I have had meetings with representatives of the retail, hospitality, consumer goods, weddings, nightclubs and events sectors, and small and medium-sized enterprises across the UK.

I thank the Minister for his response, but it is simply not good enough. My local pubs, bars, restaurants, theatres and taxi drivers were already fighting for their survival. The introduction of an arbitrary and unevidenced 10 pm curfew has led one of my constituents, Stephen Sullivan, who runs Ziggy’s in South Shields, to say, “I simply can’t see a way forward. There is no way out for my business.” When on earth will the Government abolish this curfew?

I am sorry that the hon. Member does not feel that speaking to 3,000 or 4,000 businesses over the past few months to understand their issues is good enough. None the less, I understand the concern of the hospitality sector and other sectors in South Shields in particular, where there are local restrictions. It is so important that we get the economy up and running as soon as we can. The Government’s first priority is to save lives, but to save businesses and livelihoods is just as important.

I am proud of my many constituents who work in the creative industries, such as musicians, actors, producers and designers, to name but a few. Making ends meet in this sector can be difficult at the best of times, but it is now even more precarious as many businesses will not yet be able to reopen. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that workers in creative induction, including permanent, freelance, self-employed and those previously excluded, can receive financial support in the tough months ahead?

That is something that I continue to engage with the Treasury and with businesses on, to understand it and to see what more we can do. I am someone who has in the past been a company director and paid myself through dividends, so I understand the position of those in the creative sector, who are doing much the same thing. We will work together to see what more we can do.

I used to work in the nightclub industry, like 70,000 people in the UK. Clubs are currently shut down on Government advice and are getting no support with rent, rates or other overheads. Loans are no good because they are just building up the debt. These are businesses that will be not just viable, but thriving businesses and good employers if they can get through the covid shutdown. What are the Government going to do to help them to get through this crisis?

I have met nightclub representatives and people who run nightclubs. I have met with Sacha Lord and other people who work with the elected Mayors. We have set up a nightclub taskforce to work with the Night Time Industries Association and other owners to try to work our way to a covid-19-secure nightclub, when we can start to open up the economy. Many nightclubs have actually repurposed to be able to open as bars and other areas of industry.

The Minister says he understands, but it beggars belief that his Government still refuse to support businesses that were vibrant and viable. Workers, freelancers, creatives and the newly self-employed have been hung out to dry. Government sources now predict that all pubs, restaurants and bars will be ordered to close for two weeks initially. Without furlough and restricted by curfew, why is he creating another class of the excluded?

I am not sure where the Government sources are coming from. As I say, lives are absolutely first in our priorities; we are trying to make sure that we can stop the transmission of this virus. We want to keep the economy open, which is why we have put measures in place so that, although they are hampered because they cannot trade fully, pubs, restaurants and other sectors can stay open at this time.

The Government will not provide grants to struggling firms, they are giving a pittance to the self-employed and they are replacing furlough with a scheme that excludes businesses closing on health grounds. They are incentivising the rest to cut staff, with 3 million already thrown to the wolves and more to come. Did the Minister demand that the Chancellor introduce an emergency Budget to save the excluded? If not, is it not the case that his role is simply not viable?

The Government have put in £160 billion-worth of support, wrapping our arms around as much of the economy as we can. We have put off business rates for these businesses. We have extended the VAT cut for another few months for the hospitality sector in particular. We will continue to see what more we can do to keep our economy open.

I am afraid that talking and engagement are all well and good, but what we need is some action. Does the Minister think that Deer Park in Devon, which was fully booked for weddings next year, or the conference business in Manchester, which was 90% booked for next year, are unviable businesses? The Government have thrown those and thousands of other thriving businesses on the scrapheap this week—businesses that were very much viable and will be so again when the restrictions are lifted. They have taken the loans. They will not qualify for the job support scheme. They were promised that track and trace would allow them to reopen, yet the Government have now turned their back on them. The Conservatives are no longer the party of business. As a very small measure, will the Minister reallocate the cash grant underspend to ensure that we do not see thousands of businesses go bust on his watch?

We have handed out £11 billion-worth of cash grants to businesses across the country. In terms of the underspend, the under-allocation varied by local authorities and how much money they could get to those businesses, which is why we need to have it in to reconcile. I work with the wedding sector. At the moment it is impossible to work through a system that makes it viable for those businesses to open beyond a certain number. However, they will be viable businesses in the future.