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Fiscal Support for Events Industry: Covid-19

Volume 682: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered fiscal support for the events industry during the covid-19 outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. There are plenty of events happening these days, but unfortunately they are not the kind of events that we want. Ever-changing political events related to the global pandemic have devastatingly disrupted our ability to take part in the more fun kind of events and our ability to mix and gather safely. Usually, the UK has a truly world-beating, year-round programme of cultural activities: music, theatre, arts and outdoor festivals, as well as conferences, ceremonies and shows—events that happen thanks to the collective efforts of a diverse, trained and skilled workforce that employs around 1 million people. Those events bring us together, inspire us and lift our spirits. Sadly, since March 2020, the cultural map of events has been all but wiped out, and those events have been held only via computer screens. This vibrant sector has been brought to its knees.

I support the need to take action to tackle the increasing spread of the virus. Balancing public health against economic damage is clearly very tricky, although there is no single step more important than controlling the virus when it comes to getting things running again properly in the events sector. Not only are professionals in the events industry keen to follow the rules, but they could help to frame future solutions. The British Events Industry Coalition has members who have expertise in planning and running safe events of all shapes and sizes. They would be delighted to lend their health and safety knowledge and industry experience to help frame future regulation. They have innovative ideas, such as a formal BEIC safety kitemark system, by means of which events could demonstrate adherence to standards, boosting public confidence and getting people back through the gates when guidance allows. I hope that the Minister will be willing to work with industry on that, and I look forward to his response.

Last month, I asked the Prime Minister what to tell constituents in successful, viable businesses whose jobs rely on live events, and he said that it was better that they “get back into work”. I am sure that they would all agree; everyone in the events industry is itching to get back to doing what they are so brilliant at doing, and to pursue careers that they worked so hard to achieve. However, I have to say that the Prime Minister’s response was somewhat puzzling, given that my constituents still cannot do what they want under the Government’s restrictions, which either prevent events from running altogether or allow them merely to limp along in a financially unviable way.

Recently, the Chancellor made it clear what the Prime Minister meant by getting back into work: that people from all walks of life should retrain. To press that message, a Government-backed poster is doing the rounds featuring a young ballet dancer and rather gloomy text, which says that her next job could be in cyber but she does not know it yet. Forget the dedication, blood, sweat and tears and years of professional training for a career in the arts, and forget following passions—get stuck behind a computer. It is a worthy job, no doubt, but is that really the message we want to send to our aspiring young talent? Having tried unsuccessfully to get clarity from the Prime Minister on what he meant by “get back into work”, I hope the Minister can perhaps shed some light on this conundrum.

For those who are not sure what to retrain to do, the UK Government provided a handy quiz to help people find a suitable new career. It is a bit like one of those personality quizzes in glossy magazines that might be found in a dentist’s waiting room, and the results are equally ridiculous. On social media, I saw a choir conductor who was not too happy when advised to consider colon hydrotherapy as an alternative career. I had a go myself, and it suggested that I could perhaps be a football referee, although taking a second job that has something to do with football is clearly not something that a serious politician would consider—except, of course, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who clearly has too much time on his hands. My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) suggested to me yesterday that if the Prime Minister were to take the quiz, it might suggest that he retrain as a Prime Minister.

The UK Government’s response to the crisis faced by the events industry has been crass, to say the least. They showed a real lack of understanding of the value of the sector and the far-reaching consequences of letting these jobs simply vanish. These are skilled professionals in viable careers that form the backbone of the UK’s cultural and economic life. Why on earth would the Government give up on them?

In my constituency, and in my council area of Ards and North Down, culture and the arts are vital. It is a core issue for the council, to promote jobs and help things go forward. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, when it comes to events, whether in partnership with the National Trust or events companies, the council has a key role to play?

I absolutely agree. Local government across the islands plays a critical role in making sure events can take place, and in supporting events—particularly community events, which I will come to later.

It may be that, as some have suggested—I could never be so cruel as to do so—those in the Treasury do not actually value the arts, but they must surely respect the billions of pounds the arts bring into the coffers. If they do not understand the value of that income, perhaps they need to take the retraining website quiz themselves. Let us consider outdoor events alone. I thank the incredible volunteers at the “We Make Events” campaign for compiling the figures. Across the UK, 141.5 million people attended outdoor events in 2018, spending £39.5 billion and supporting 589,000 jobs, with a gross value added of £30.4 billion.

We are very good at running events. In these challenging times, we need to look at what we are good at, to support, encourage and protect those jobs. The great thing about this massive economic generator is that it is the opposite of London-centric. It meets the Government’s proclaimed levelling-up agenda and it provides jobs right across these isles, no more so than in my Midlothian constituency, which not only has a proud tradition of community events and gala days, but is home to many businesses and freelancers who work in the world’s most fabulous and famous global events right on our doorstep in Edinburgh.

In Scotland, prior to the pandemic, the creative industry was among the fastest growing sectors, supporting around £9 billion worth of activity in the Scottish economy. With its contribution growing by 62% from 2008 to 2017, across the UK the creative industries were growing at five times the rate of the economy as a whole, contributing £111.7 billion in gross value added, and creating jobs at three times the rate of the UK average in all parts of the country.

These businesses are not just viable; they are essential to the UK’s growth and recovery from the crisis. Culture and events are not frivolous add-ons, or optional luxuries when other more serious jobs are taken care of. They are central to our heritage, happiness and mental health—part of what it means to be a human being. This crisis has surely shown us just how valuable the arts are in creating resilient communities. Hard times have been eased by music, art and creativity, as people look for ways to come together virtually, while we cannot do it face to face.

Nobody in the sector is simply sitting back holding out for handouts. They want to work. Businesses are innovating and finding ways to adapt, and people are taking jobs wherever they can find them to survive. Performers are looking for platforms to share their talent in innovative ways, such as “Stars in their Homes”—run by a constituent of mine—in which performers take to Facebook at the weekend to bring a bit of joy into homes across the country. The fact remains, however, that all sorts of skilled professionals dependent on live events have been left in the cold with very little support: people in staging, lighting, security, audio-visual technology, sound engineers, promoters, planners, hospitality suppliers, photographers, florists, technology manufacturers—the list goes on. All of that is before we get into the associated hospitality links and benefits, but given the time constraints, that is perhaps one for another day.

The decision on what is viable seems to me utterly misguided. There are so many examples of successful businesses, such as the audio-visual technology specialists in my constituency, VisionEvents, which were operating a booming business at the top of their game internationally before covid-19 cut their legs out from under them. These are creative, self-sufficient companies doing fantastic work to adapt to virtual events, but there are limits and constraints on the income gap that can be covered virtually in the absence of live events.

There is and always will be a demand for events, but if we allow these jobs to be lost now, it will be very difficult to pick up again where we left off and we will lose the competitive advantage that the UK currently enjoys. The Minister will no doubt draw attention to the job support scheme extension, albeit limited, and the fiscal support for the arts. That is welcome; I make no bones about that. There are clearly details still to come, but the question remains whether that goes far enough to protect the industry and support those on the brink. These funds may help venues and organisations to plan and adapt, but huge networks of individuals and support services, such as those in the hire and supply sector, are making huge losses every day.

Sadly, so far the announcement does not look like it will stave off mass redundancies. Crucially, it still misses all those freelancers who fell through the gaps in the job retention and self-employed support schemes. An estimated 3 million people have been excluded, many in the arts, in jobs that do not quite fit the spreadsheets—Excel or not. Individuals who lost their income overnight could lose their home or be left to struggle in poverty if they are not given support until the sector can get back on its feet.

No doubt the Minister will point to the £1.5 billion culture recovery fund. That is essential and will be crucial for much of the infrastructure and keeping many venues alive, but a comparison with the billions that the arts generates each year really puts it into perspective. Also, it does little for boots on the ground. As the We Make Events survey that was published today shows, the vast majority in the live events sector do not benefit from the fund. I understand it is not fully allocated yet, so I hope the Government will consider extending its remit to cover the full range of the live events supply chain.

Like the furlough replacement, the fund appears to be targeted at regional lockdowns. Sadly, it will not reach many of the businesses that we have discussed today. The Chancellor famously said he will do whatever it takes, but he is falling short when it comes to the live events sector and the specific challenges that need to be addressed. I invite the Minister to commit to a meeting with industry representatives from the We Make Events campaign, which would be more than happy to work with him to find a solution to help the industry move forward. It has set out its asks that are vital to the sector in a way that will work, and it has a realistic financial plan supported by the CBI. Its campaign, like the industry itself, is a global leader, having spread to 28 countries around the world. Are we going to let such expertise wither as other countries recognise the need for support, or can we actually recognise the benefits that the arts and culture bring to society?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this important debate. It is the second or third occasion that we have encountered each other in this forum. He raises significant issues that I will try to deal with forensically. I draw attention to the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), who has responsibility for sport, heritage and tourism, which also covers the events industry. We are working with my colleague the Exchequer Secretary to deal forensically with the challenges that the hon. Member for Midlothian set out in his excellent speech.

As the hon. Gentleman powerfully highlighted, the past months have been intensely difficult for the businesses and workers in the events industry. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the challenges in his local authority area, which are mirrored across the country. Local authorities are trying to work constructively with the sector in a very difficult set of circumstances. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Chancellor both recognise the energy that the industry devoted to the pilot tests in early September to explore how individual events could be run safely. I acknowledge how frustrating it must be that, despite the success of those tests, they have been overtaken by circumstances.

The hon. Member for Midlothian mentioned the We Make Events campaign a couple of times. I am sure my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be keen to engage with that campaign, if he has not done so already. I recognise the innovative work that different sectors of the economy are doing to try to overcome the different challenges and how they affect different sectors.

Last month, in the light of rising covid-19 cases, the Prime Minister had to pause the reopening of business events, and yesterday he set out how we will further simplify and standardise local rules by introducing a three-tiered system of local covid alert levels in England. Given the challenges facing the sector, it is imperative that we fully understand the long-term impact of covid-19 upon it. Contrary to the hon. Gentleman’s prompts, I will not reiterate all the Government support schemes for the arts, but I will say that, as a former Arts Minister, I still communicate a lot with the arts sector. Indeed, I received a message at the weekend from Darren Henley, the chief executive of the Arts Council, and I feel passionate about the sector’s concerns. We are committed to continuing to reappraise what has happened so far. That is why the Treasury has been working intensively with employers, delivery partners, industry groups and other Departments to gain a deeper insight into the conditions that would make it financially viable for the events industry to reopen in a covid-secure way.

Some of the sector has benefited from the Government support packages to safeguard the economy during the pandemic. That includes the broader measures of deferral of VAT payments and a year-long rates holiday for eligible businesses, although I acknowledge that for some, whose rateable value falls below the threshold, that has not been something that they have been able to use. I am not presenting all these interventions as fully comprehensive for every business, and the Chancellor, as the hon. Member for Midlothian acknowledged, has said that.

Some businesses have benefited from a range of Government-backed and guaranteed loan schemes, the retail, hospitality and leisure grant fund and the discretionary grant. In addition, 94% of events venues have been able to make use of the coronavirus job retention scheme. Last month, we committed to helping viable businesses facing lower demand due to covid-19 through the new job support scheme. All small and medium-sized businesses, including thousands in the events sector, are eligible. On Friday, the Chancellor announced a further extension to that scheme, which will provide temporary help to businesses that have been legally required to close as a direct result of the covid-19 restrictions. We intend that extension to cover those directly employed by business conference venues and exhibition centres that have been unable to open as a result of the further measures to address the rising cases of covid-19 announced on 22 September.

We will be setting out more detail in due course. I recognise that it would be ideal for me to announce that now, but a lot of work is going on to clarify it. It is important that we have clarity in the communications, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working very closely to ensure that that is clear and is made available as urgently as possible. Sadly, we cannot promise to save every job or every business, but I can commit that we will continue to listen to representations from across the House and monitor the impact of our economic support, and we stand ready to evolve our policies as required.

This is an extremely challenging time for a sector that I grew very close to and have great affection for, and I empathise with it very clearly and strongly in the challenges that it faces. I can assure the hon. Member for Midlothian that his representations in his very fair and balanced speech will be taken account of, and I can assure the wider audience this morning that we will do everything we can to bring clarity as soon as possible. Indeed, I shall be talking to the Under-Secretary, who is responsible for this sector, after this debate has concluded. That concludes my remarks. I hope that I have responded in some way effectively to the remarks that the hon. Gentleman made.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.