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Bank Holidays in 2020

Volume 662: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this important issue before the House; it concerns many of my constituents and many other people around the country. Since being elected in 2015 I have secured a number of debates in Parliament, all triggered by someone from west Cornwall and Scilly raising an issue with me that deserves proper scrutiny and representation. The issue of the early May bank holiday next year is no exception.

I am here to add my full support to the decision to make the 75th anniversary of VE Day on 8 May 2020 a bank holiday and a national day of celebration and commemoration. Victory in Europe Day, generally known as VE Day, is a day celebrating the formal acceptance by the allies of world war two of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces on 8 May 1945.

It is worth remembering how we celebrated that momentous event all those years ago. At 11 am on 8 May church bells rang out across the nation signifying the end of the most destructive war Europe had ever seen. More than 1 million people took to the streets of London to celebrate. Crowds filled Trafalgar Square and up the Mall to Buckingham Palace, where King George, Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill stood on the palace balcony, waving and cheering the crowds on. Around the country, millions gathered in villages, towns and cities, marking the end of war in Europe with street parties, dances and parades. Social norms were abandoned as strangers hugged and danced with one another, and bonfires were lit in the street—I cannot imagine what local councillors would do about that these days. Despite rationing and years of economic strife, communities came together to cook sweet treats for children and shared meals with what food they had, and pub licensing hours were extended. Buildings and streets in major cities were illuminated for the first time since the start of the war, after years of blackouts to prevent German bombings.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and add my support to the bank holiday idea. I recently read through the biography I wrote of my grandfather, who was a 17-year-old paratrooper—they used to lie about their age—in northern France and Germany in 1945; it addressed that time and when he came home. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not unusual to mark the end of wars and major events in this way? For many years we marked Trafalgar Day and even the accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth I.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The days that he has referenced are really good opportunities for MPs to take part in the commemorations that happen right across the country, which I enjoy. I make a point of taking part in them and taking my children along as well, so that they can learn about our great heritage and our great service.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the 75 years, and about the 50 years. I have been a trade unionist for 30 years, and the only day of action I took was for the bank holiday to remain as a traditional May Day bank holiday. It must remain. Give us the extra day for the 75, but the traditional May Day bank holiday on the first Monday of every May is for workers and trade unions, and it must remain as well.

That is the argument I will be making as I remind the House about the incredible event that took place on VE Day and explain why it is absolutely right that we set aside time to celebrate that next year, so that the whole of Great Britain can take part.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and if he needs any advice on bonfires in Northern Ireland, we would certainly have lots of information. We do them every 11 July, by the way. I attend one in Newtownards and it is always very well attended. There have been almost 1,000 people there in years gone past. Does he not agree, however, that it is difficult for businesses and even community groups to accept this roll-out of a new bank holiday date? I support the principle of what he is saying, but the proposal is not even for a year’s roll-in. Does he share my dismay at the news of calendar makers losing hundreds of thousands of pounds due to the short roll-in? Does he share my concern at the environmental aspects of the wastage of perfectly good material because the Government, in this case, did not pre-empt the change in the same way as was done with the last change to a bank holiday, which was announced in 1993 for a roll-out in 1995?

I welcome that intervention, and I would be happy to apply for a Westminster Hall debate with the hon. Gentleman if he chose to speak on that further.

I want to make the point that I am not a fan of the way in which the Government have come to this decision, but it is really important for me, knowing what a great thing it is to remember the sacrifice made by the millions of men, their families and all the people involved in working and fighting for peace in Europe, that we spend a little bit of time remembering the great event that took place when that finally came to an end. For me, seeing the footage of crowds in the streets celebrating this momentous occasion—for them, a bittersweet moment after years of hardship, loss and fear—it is right that we should put aside all else and commemorate and celebrate that day on 8 May next year. I hope that we will be able to re-enact many, if not all, of the activities in our towns and villages. I would not need to go far, as I have a couple of sons in my own home who would be quite happy to tell me how to light fires, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned.

As I have said, I have no problem with the decision to move the bank holiday to 8 May. My problem is the cack-handed way in which the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy went about reaching this decision. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what impact assessment the Department did on the lateness of making such a substantive change to the bank holidays in 2020 before announcing this decision. What was the Department thinking when it decided to give just 11 months’ notice of the cancellation of the early May bank holiday?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is going to talk about this, but I will pre-empt him. At least two people have written to me to say that that was the ideal date for them to get married, and that they had invited people for the whole weekend. Their plans are now in tatters. We cannot just let people down in this way. It is not fair. People plan these things years in advance, based on the dates they know. Why do we not just have an extra day?

I am glad that I have support from around the House, because Adjournment debates are often poorly attended. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I completely agree with him. The Secretary of State announced the change to the early May bank holiday, and it was an enormous decision for large numbers of small businesses, for the tourism industry—which I particularly want to focus on—for the people who have already, for good reasons, booked their holidays next May, and for the people who have decided to use that weekend because they would be able to take their children away without interfering with their schooling.

I am disappointed that the Secretary of State himself is not here to respond to the debate, because the late notice of the announcement demonstrates a tin ear towards the tourism industry. For those in any doubt about the meaning of the expression “tin ear” and its use in relation to the Department’s attitude towards small businesses and many other people, it is defined as “a deafened or insensitive ear”. However, I want to make it clear that I do not include the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who has been asked to respond to this debate, in that definition, because he has had nothing to do with it.

I received a letter from a businessman on the Isles of Scilly a day after the announcement, and he put his concern across much more diplomatically, saying:

“I have to say whichever government department decided at this late stage, 11 months before, to change the dates really does need to wake up to the realty of the holiday market. This change has the potential to create many upset guests unable to change their booked dates.”

I know that I am not alone in receiving correspondence and representations from constituents and businesses, and I have selected a few extracts that help to express the various implications of the decision being so late. One constituent asked the following question of the Secretary of State in an email to me:

“Have schools been considered in this late announcement about the changes to the May bank holiday? This will cause problems especially as holiday dates are already issued, residentials and school trips will have been planned, and this is the Friday before the important Y6 SAT tests”.

Another wrote:

“Hello Mr Thomas,

I have also been affected by the change of the bank holiday. I have booked my Hen Do”—

we have already had a reference to weddings—

“for the bank holiday weekend, paying more to go on these dates so that more people could make it as they wouldn’t have to take the day off work. As the date has now changed, people are not able to make my Hen Do, and I am forced to pay to cancel the holiday booked for us all losing over £1000.

I hope you can help in this issue by asking the government to not take away our original bank holiday date.”

Another constituent wrote to me to say:

“Dear Sir,

I am extremely pleased that VE day is to be celebrated as a priority in 2020.

However, I do not believe that the decision yesterday to change the date to 8th May 2020 provides a suitable length of time for the country to adapt.

My family are now left with the option of losing financially to cancel our annual May Day Bank Holiday as our children will be required to attend school.

The tourism industry is just one example where 11 months’ notice is not suitable.

I would expect that more foresight would have been given to this scenario.”

Someone who is not a constituent—I will leave the House to work out where they are from—wrote:

“Dear Mr Thomas

I understand you are bringing up the cancellation of the May day holiday in Parliament.”

A small group of us, they continue, organises

“the annual bikers’ event and May day Morris dancing in Hastings. It is by far and above the biggest weekend in the annual calendar. Not only will it affect our events badly, it will also be a massive blow to local tourist businesses who rely on that weekend after a hard winter and tell me it’s their biggest earner of the year...Currently, Morris dancers and bikers from across the country”—

this is something that we can all look forward to—

“are planning a protest at Parliament on July 23rd. This is something we would rather not have to do”—

although I think we would welcome it.

“We fully support a commemoration of VE Day, but we do not support having our events that have already been booked and paid for, plus all those who have already booked hotels, disrupted with so little notice.”

Returning to my constituency, many will know that the world gig rowing championships take place on the Isles of Scilly on the early May bank holiday every year. It is a momentous event in my constituency’s calendar, and it takes a considerable amount of time to get all the gigs over to Scilly. However, it is currently unclear what changes will need to be made if the Government stick to their decision. Moving on to other disruption that I am aware of, we have all seen the story in the national press about the small business that is set to lose £200,000 having just printed next year’s calendars.

I am sure the Government do not need me to say how disruptive this decision is given how late in the day the announcement was made. The only possible, practical and pragmatic response is for the Government to keep the bank holiday to commemorate VE-day and to reinstate the early spring bank holiday on Monday 4 May. I make it clear to the Minister, to the House and to business that I have no appetite to create extra cost and disruption for small businesses, and I have never previously supported the idea of extra bank holidays. However, the fact remains that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has left the decision far too late and has caused far too much disruption and potential expense to far too many people. The appropriate response must be for the Department to reinstate quickly the bank holiday on 4 May.

There is support for that proposal, which may not surprise the House. The British Beer & Pub Association sent me a letter:

“For clarity the BBPA does support the extra bank holiday that Mr Thomas is proposing. Based on the four-day bank holiday weekend for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, we predict that the extra bank holiday would provide a boost to Britain’s pubs and brewers, with an estimated 10 million extra pints sold. This would also support the taxman and the economy—the taxman would receive £4.5m in extra duty revenue and VAT and it would provide a £30m boost to the economy.”

All of us, particularly those of us with rural constituencies, know the importance of small rural village pubs and how such opportunities really help them to continue their business of providing a community hub and keeping an eye on those who are otherwise often left at home on their own.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier that people book holidays for that weekend, and sometimes it is the only time that families get together because they have to work through the school holidays to keep a roof above their head. The UK has the fewest bank holidays in the G20. Does he agree with Labour, which wants to increase the number of bank holidays? Let us start next year with VE Day and then look at each country’s patron saint’s day.

The hon. Gentleman will realise that I do not fully support everything he has just said, but I support what he says about next year. That is the whole point of this debate.

We have left it too late. There is no question but that we need 8 May, but we should reinstate and keep the 4 May bank holiday, because that is what people have planned for, expect and, in many cases, have paid for. Tourism is a significant part of my constituency’s economy, and people have booked in advance because there has been real growth in staycations. People are staying in the UK for holidays, and Cornwall is obviously their No. 1 choice, particularly west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

I have always maintained that I represent the most beautiful, precious and wonderful part of the country. If people have any concerns about their wellbeing, they should come down for a well-deserved rest and therapy. I hope I have been able to get that across in this short commercial break.

I agree about the extra bank holiday for next year, but I do not have it within me, as a former businessman, to impose further bank holidays, particularly on small businesses, unless there is a good reason to do so and the Department handles it much better than it has on this occasion.

The British Beer & Pub Association’s letter continues:

“Furthermore, the BBPA have already called on the Government to grant extended hours to pubs, so pubs can make the most of the celebratory weekend.”

That is what happened 75 years ago, and I hope the Government follow suit.

In summary—I am reluctant to keep people away from any activity they might want to pursue in the beer industry later this evening—I have no appetite to create further cost and disruption for small business. That is clear, and I spend my time trying to do what I can to support small businesses. In fact, I have spent a lot of time over the past four years arguing that the Government should improve the lot of small business by simplifying the tax system—scrapping business rates, for example—creating training opportunities and ensuring that businesses have affordable access to credit.

I have a record of wanting to support and promote small business, and I am not one to disrupt it any further, but I believe we should give the extra bank holiday on this occasion. The Business Secretary has given too little notice of the changes to the early May bank holiday. The Government should reinstate the bank holiday on 4 May and keep the planned bank holiday for 8 May that was recently announced to celebrate the 75th anniversary of victory in Europe.

I completely support the proposed bank holiday. The challenge for businesses, particularly in tourism, is that the Government have given just 11 months’ notice of this change, as if the 75th anniversary has come as some sort of surprise. I sincerely apologise to business, which can ill afford another bank holiday, but it is too late to scrap the 4 May bank holiday. The Government should reinstate it, and reinstate it quickly—hopefully in the next 15 minutes.

May I echo your comments about the new Assistant Serjeant at Arms, Mr Deputy Speaker? I wish to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this important debate and on his interesting and informative speech, which covered everything from morris dancers to bikers. I also thank other Members for their interventions, particularly the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who never misses an Adjournment debate. I would be delighted to hear more about his expertise at bonfires. [Interruption.] Indeed, not in this building.

I share the views expressed in the House that VE Day is an important opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices of a generation. The Government believe it is important to commemorate the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women in the second world war on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, as we did for the 50th anniversary in 1995, when there were celebrations and street parties across the UK. My hon. Friend talked so eloquently about that.

Moving next year’s early May bank holiday to VE Day itself has been seen to be a right and fitting tribute to our heroes of the second world war. The sentiment of celebrating on VE Day itself cannot be monetised for the veterans who served in the war. The Government gratefully acknowledge the responsibilities that our country’s armed forces assume on behalf of the UK Government and our people.

While we respect the men who fought for us and gave us our freedom today, we must also remember that there is a traditional May Day. So this is not about moving it; it is about keeping both of them. Workers have a traditional May Day holiday, celebrated every year, in the exact same way as the men who went to war.

If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I will come to address that point.

The sentiment of celebrating VE Day is something that everyone in this House would agree with. As well as marking the allies’ great victory in 1945, the bank holiday on Friday 8 May is an opportunity to pay tribute to members of the UK armed forces who have served and continue to serve our country to this day. On this historic occasion, the Government want to ensure as many people as possible have the valuable opportunity to pay a fitting tribute. This is part of a wider package of celebrations the Government have supported, including the commemorations to mark the 75th anniversary of D Day, which recently took place across the UK. The 75th anniversary of VJ Day is also a significant commemoration in its own right and will be marked appropriately.

My hon. Friend has been a consistent champion of the tourism sector, which thrives in his constituency, drawing from his own experience of running a small business. Since his election to this House, he has prioritised supporting small business owners. Having served as a district and parish councillor, he has shown a deep commitment to his local community through his work at Westminster. I recognise that the Government’s decision to move the bank holiday from Monday 4 May to Friday 8 May next year will have an impact on the impressive May Day festival in his constituency, which I believe dates back to 1573.

Tourism has driven development in my hon. Friend’s constituency over the past 150 years and is an essential part of the area’s day-to-day life, impacting significantly on the economic activity of the local community. An estimated 2,850 jobs in St Ives are supported by visitor-related spending and 42% of jobs directly depend on tourism, so I understand the importance of this sector to his local area. These celebrations will have others like them across the country, and reorganising them will be a real challenge. I hope that plans can be adapted during the next 11 months to ensure minimal disruption. I also hope that other events planned may benefit from the change; I particularly hope that the St Ives literary festival, which begins only a day after the VE Day bank holiday next year, will attract even more tourists, due to the long weekend.

As we have heard, there are additional impacts on other specific sectors and planned events throughout the country. As we are moving the bank holiday rather than creating an additional one, we anticipate that the overall cost to business will be relatively low, but I genuinely recognise that the benefits and costs will vary from area to area and from sector to sector.

In my intervention on the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), I referred to the massive £200,000 cost to a calendar business. Does the Minister have an idea of how we can help to compensate that business in some way for its massive loss? That small business cannot absorb that cost.

I think I have read about that example in the newspapers. It is obviously a significant blow to that business and something that I feel is regrettable. I wish the decision could have been made in a more timely fashion and do genuinely appreciate the concerns expressed by firms throughout the country. As I shall say later in my speech, the impact on different sectors of the creation of an additional bank holiday, of which there would be even shorter notice, could have an even bigger impact on our economy and on some businesses. I appreciate some of the concerns expressed about this decision, but we need to strike a balance in our approach to the creation of additional bank holidays.

Let me reflect on some more of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives made about the importance of small business. First and foremost, we need to ensure that the decisions the Government take reflect the needs of small businesses, because small businesses are the backbone of our economy. In 2018, small and medium-sized enterprises accounted for 60% of UK private sector employment and had a combined annual turnover of £2 trillion. We try to support small businesses through my Department’s industrial strategy, and on an almost weekly basis I meet the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce to hear about their concerns and how we can best support them.

In May, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), who is responsible for small business, held the first ever small and microbusiness engagement call, to allow the Government to engage with hard-to-reach businesses. The next call will be on Monday, alongside the regularly scheduled SME advisory board meeting.

I appreciate what my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives said about the Department having a tin ear on this issue, but I reassure him that we regularly engage with businesses small, medium and large throughout the country. I have been in post for only two months, but in the past month I visited 22 businesses throughout the UK, from Kent to Derby and up to Burnley—I had to do some visits in Lancashire, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The Government are proceeding rapidly with discussions with the industry to deliver a tourism sector deal. Ten sector deals are currently part of our industrial strategy, and I very much hope that the 11th will be a tourism sector deal, which we hope to launch in the coming weeks. The deal will look to harness the opportunities that the UK has to offer and further boost our tourism sector.

My hon. Friend asked about parents having booked holidays on the date of the original bank holiday, which will now fall as a school term day. As I understand it, it is within the gift of headteachers to grant permission for children to be absent during term time, under exceptional circumstances. Given the rationale behind the moving of the bank holiday, a compelling argument could be made that the circumstances are indeed exceptional.

I accept that the decision will have a negative impact on some people, but moving the bank holiday remains a right and fitting tribute to mark such a watershed moment in our nation’s history.

Let me continue a little.

As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives acknowledged, we all know the history: in Cornwall, 4,786 casualties were identified as the result of world war two, including the deaths of 54 sets of brothers and nine sets of fathers and sons. I expect that the people of St Ives will understand the importance of honouring those who served in the war, as my hon. Friend rightly said, and pay tribute to the brave people of Cornwall who served or laid down their lives in conflict.

In the light of the lateness of the decision, my hon. Friend asked the Government to create an extra bank holiday to avoid disruption. The Government regularly receive requests for additional bank and public holidays to commemorate a variety of occasions, such as cultural history and military and religious events. My ministerial colleague, the Minister for Small Business, took a House of Commons petitions debate introduced by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) relating to holding public holidays on religious occasions last year, in which the merit of bank holidays for important religious occasions, such as Eid and Diwali, was debated.

It is the duty of any responsible Government, however, to judge impacts on the overall economy and the economic impacts on all sectors. Although an additional bank holiday may benefit some people and some sectors—my hon. Friend made a good point about the benefit it certainly has for our pub sector—the cost to the economy of an additional bank holiday is considerable. The impact on the economy of the one-off bank holiday for the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012 was estimated at £1.2 billion. The cost falls heaviest on the manufacturing sector, with the burden being twice as big as that on the service sector. We need to take into account not just the fact that there are different impacts on different sectors—some gaining and others not—but the size of those impacts. The Government considered these issues carefully and it was judged that moving the bank holiday, rather than creating an additional one, is the most appropriate way on this occasion following the precedent set by the 50th anniversary.

Friday 8 May next year will be a valuable opportunity for people across the UK to take time to commemorate the historic occasion of victory in Europe and pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives in the second world war on behalf of us all. I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me the opportunity to discuss the Government’s position on the significance of bank holidays in 2020.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.