[James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 329339 and 332789, relating to support for live events and weddings during covid-19.
E-petition 329339 relates to the number of guests permitted at weddings during the coronavirus pandemic, and e-petition 332789 relates to support for nightclubs, festivals and the live events industry. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who are in Westminster Hall for this Petitions Committee debate this afternoon.
I will turn first to the petition on weddings. This is particularly important to me, because I myself have had to postpone my wedding that I was supposed to have in July, but before I go on to lament that, it is important to know exactly what we are debating this afternoon. Just over 110,000 people have signed this petition so far, including 150 of my own constituents in Carshalton and Wallington, and the prayer of the petition states the following:
“Weddings take months and even years of intricate planning. Myself and many others believe the maximum number of guests authorised at wedding ceremonies should be increased. The number of guests permitted at weddings should be calculated according to venue capacity.
For instance, if a venue has a capacity of 600 people social distancing could still be practised with 1/5 of this number. People should not have to alter their plans if social distancing is observed. Surely, if beaches are allowed to remain open, weddings should be permitted to go ahead considering appropriate measures are put in place. It is more than apparent social distancing is not practised at such public places of leisure, thus guidelines for weddings should be reconsidered.”
As the Government outlined in their response, before we entered into a second national lockdown, weddings could take place, but numbers were restricted to 15 or 30 people. Sadly, once again, weddings are now restricted to deathbed weddings. I have heard worrying testimony from Professor Sandberg from Cardiff University, who pointed out to me that, across the country, interpretation of the guidance has been varied. Some areas insist that deathbed weddings can take place only in a hospital setting, which has denied some couples in really tragic circumstances the ability to tie the knot. I would be glad if the Minister takes that point away.
I understand some of the arguments that have been made—some were directed at me when my wedding got cancelled. There is the argument that two people who are in love should not need a big event to get married; they can have a smaller ceremony now and leave a big party to later. There is also the argument that people will always need to get married, so the wedding events industry will survive. Those arguments fail to acknowledge a few key difficulties, including the planning involved in putting a wedding on, and the wider effect on the industry and some of the traditions associated with weddings.
That last point is demonstrated by the story of the petitioner, Zaynah Ali:
“My brother was due to get married in August and coming from an Asian-Pakistani background we had planned this big wedding and had been doing so for well over a year.
I felt sadness, anger and every other relating emotions, I guess what made it even more emotional was the fact my brother’s wife to be had lost her dad to cancer when she was a baby.
The fact her father couldn’t be there for her big day was heart-breaking enough but the fact my grandparents couldn’t give her away in true Pakistani style made it that much harder.
They almost felt like they had failed her father.
There were also a few personal reasons as to why we did not want to postpone the wedding and I’m sure many people were in the same situation.”
I can indeed confirm that many are in that situation. My wedding had to be postponed due to the number of guests we had hoped to have. Like many others, we had planned for over two years. Postponing had an effect not only on us, but on the caterers, florists, decorators, entertainment, marquee companies and everyone else involved in putting on a wedding. I have spoken to local businesses, such as the Function Junction in Wallington, which supplies decorations for weddings and live events. It told me that while some people, like me, have decided to postpone and use the same supplier later, many, due to the uncertainty of coronavirus, have decided to cancel all together and not set a new date. That leaves the couple devastated and the business out of pocket.
According to research, the industry has already lost most of its planned weddings for the first quarter for 2021, and is facing pressures on those in the second quarter. If it has no commitment before July, the sector tells me that it will lose most of its revenue up to June 2021 or beyond, and even runs the risk of collapsing fully. I ask, therefore, that the Government look carefully at liberalising the restrictions around weddings once we come out of the second national lockdown and set out a road map for reopening the wedding industry in the longer term.
We hope and pray that a vaccine will allow weddings to take place normally some time soon—we have had some good news today—but we must also have a plan B for living longer-term with the virus. I argue, like the petitioners, that this could begin after the lockdown, with amending the guidance on weddings to allow for greater guest capacity based on the venue.
Many countries in Europe have permitted weddings with socially distanced numbers; in some places, the number is capped at, say, 100 in the equivalent of our tier 1 or lower-risk environments. Even in the UK, Northern Ireland operated socially distanced weddings since June, until the more recent restrictions were brought in. Weddings were granted parity with the hospitality sector, and there are no known outbreaks associated with weddings in Northern Ireland. That proves that it can work. In the longer term, weddings seem to me the perfect place to trial rapid testing. Given the planning involved, it is relatively easy to share details prior to the event, conduct testing on arrival, if necessary, and test and trace after the event. I hope that will be considered as a potential place to pilot rapid testing.
I have spoken about the impact of the pandemic on the industry. Further restrictions and uncertainty will only cause further damage. A commitment to socially distanced weddings, rapid testing trials and equitable support for the wedding industry, along with other hospitality businesses, will help to deliver a bounce back for this industry.
To date, over 145,000 people have signed the e-petition on live events, including 236 from my constituency. The petition states:
“The government has failed to provide specific support to UK festivals, dance venues and nightclubs. Covid-19 has hit hard on the nightlife sector having a major impact due to the suspension of mass gatherings. Followed by unclear guidelines and a lack of commitment…this has contributed to growing uncertainty within the arts sector, putting at risk millions of jobs. The government must make clear its commitment to ensuring the dance community survives the pandemic. #LetUSDance”.
I have been extremely grateful in preparing for the debate to the lead petitioners, Jasper and Anthony, as well as the Night Time Industries Association, for taking the time to share their concerns with me and explain the issues that the sector faces in a bit more detail. The figures are quite stark. The night-time economy is the UK’s fifth largest sector. It contributes £66 billion a year to the economy—6% of the UK total—and provides in the region of 1.3 million jobs, alongside an entire supply line of creative freelancers, sole traders and skilled technicians. Significant parts of the sector, unlike other hospitality businesses, have not been able to open at all since lockdown in March—particularly night clubs. Some venues have indeed invested heavily in becoming covid-secure, or have even repurposed. However, even those venues have been able to trade only at a fraction of their previous capacity. Many have also raised concerns about the implementation of the arbitrary 10 pm curfew. Now we are facing another national lockdown, and the uncertainty is growing. There are calls from the sector for an urgent set of sector-specific support packages.
Prior to the new national lockdown a survey was commissioned by the Night Time Industries Association and its members, and some pretty devastating statistics came out of it: 72% of businesses said they were unable to open or trade; 58% feared that they would not survive longer than two months after a job retention scheme came to an end; and 71% said they were set to make more than half their workforce redundant. Just a third said that they were able to repurpose. The average cost of repurposing was anywhere between £10,000 and £30,000, and 84% of businesses were achieving only 10% to 50% of their normal trade. That was on top of growing concerns about the implementation of a 10 pm curfew. The night-time economy was seen by many as being the target of restrictions despite evidence from Public Health England indicating that infection transmission in hospitality was only about 4%. The danger was that the curfew could drive people to congregate in the streets, in mass gatherings outside, or even to continue their night in unsafe, unregulated and illegal gatherings behind closed doors.
I have spoken to people from hospitality businesses in Carshalton and Wallington, who have expressed similar concerns. Thankfully, loyal customers came back to popular local businesses such as the Ginger Italian and the Duke’s Head, once hospitality was allowed to reopen partially. However, the 10 pm curfew was felt to be stunting their ability to recover. There have been further concerns about the allocation of support grants and packages, as there were fears that the contemporary dance music scene was not taken into account properly in Arts Council England funding allocations.
Night-time businesses and their supply chains have recognised that they need to put public health first, and they have worked incredibly hard to make themselves covid-safe for when the time comes, but they need clarity, in the form of a road map to reopening, so that they can prepare financially. The NTIA has a number of asks about finances, which include the continuation of employment support guaranteeing 80% of wages, an extension of the self-employed income support scheme, a sector-specific grant system proportionate to the operating costs of frontline businesses and the supply chain, a workable commercial rent solution, a reduced rate of VAT for hospitality throughout 2021, a business rates holiday for 2021-22 and, ultimately, the all-important strategy for exit from lockdown.
There are fears in the industry that without those measures we risk losing our nightlife and, indeed, our cultural heritage, for good. So again, while I say that today’s news is good and we hope that a vaccine might be coming fast, to allow some semblance of normality to come back, we have to have a plan for both sectors to live with the virus. Repeated lockdowns, as the Government have said, are not the answer. Further restrictions could well mean that the industry is not there to recover in the end.
In both the cases that I have spoken about, I urge the Government to look carefully at the concerns raised by the industry and at what support could be made available in the short term. Most importantly, for weddings and for live events, I urge them to set out a clear road map for reopening, so that businesses can begin to bounce back.
I am asked to advise the Chamber that if Members want to avail themselves of a clean cup there are cups at the back of the Chamber.
A glance around the Chamber demonstrates that there are a large number of people seeking to speak. Rather than my imposing a formal time limit, which I think substitutes quantity for quality, it might be courteous to others if hon. Members restrict themselves to roughly three minutes per head from now onwards.
I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for clearly setting out the case for urgent support for the weddings and live events sector.
One of my constituents recently stated to me, “Music is part of this country’s rich fabric, its heart and soul.” Those words really resonated with me, not least because of my own constituency’s rich musical and artistic heritage. From Ewan MacColl to Madchester, we have long relied on a blossoming night-time and live events economy, and we have been very proud of it.
However, the last six months have pushed many from across the sector into extreme financial hardship. We have seen everything from the complete closure of many live venues through to the exclusion of many businesses and freelancers from the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s business support schemes. Indeed, ExcludedUK estimates that more than 3 million are excluded from any Government business support at all. The Night Time Industries Association states:
“Recent announcements have given some light, but we have lost so many businesses, employees and self-employed already, we are still in a very vulnerable state.”
The weddings and events industry is equally vulnerable. In some cases, venues were able to reopen in a limited capacity as lockdown eased; others had to remain closed completely. Within my constituency there are places such as Ordsall Hall and Salford Lads Club, which both do weddings and live events, in addition to numerous venues beyond the city that employ my constituents, such as Samlesbury Hall.
These venues employ a number of staff, in addition to all the suppliers along the way, who supply everything from the table placeholders to the wedding dress to the cakes and flowers. Many weddings take years of planning and are now being postponed, because couples understandably want all their family and friends to be part of what should be one of the most magical and happy events of their lives. Even if the venues were somehow able to reopen fully—safely and with no restrictions—tomorrow, these events take years of planning and simply cannot be resumed at short notice. Couples are now contacting venues and suppliers to request the rearranging of their bookings to 2021, but if these businesses cannot survive the pandemic, re-bookings will be heartbreakingly irrelevant.
The live events sector, including trade shows and exhibitions, has been affected in similar measure. I am sad to report that the absence of sector-specific support thus far has meant that redundancies have already occurred in my constituency. Those affected range from joiners to designers, and they have no idea when they will be able to secure work again.
I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could address the following concerns urgently. First, will he commit today to working with these sectors to develop sector-specific support packages? Will he commit to delivering a road map towards the resumption of normal business in a logical, covid-secure way, so that there is clarity about the future for businesses and their employees and customers? Will he review further VAT exemptions that could support affected businesses in these sectors? Will he backdate and provide equitable support to all the wedding businesses and live events venues, at least in line with other hospitality businesses? Will he urgently address the significant number of venues that have still not received any support from the culture recovery fund? Finally, will he urgently commit to implementing a financial support package to protect the 3 million businesses, workers and self-employed people excluded from any Government support so far?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on introducing this important debate—he is proving to be a considerable upgrade.
The National Exhibition Centre, on the edges of my constituency, is one of the most renowned venues in the west midlands and nationally, playing host to conferences and concerts alike. Last month, the NEC announced that it was cutting 450 jobs because of the ongoing uncertainty. That is the reality for so many events businesses in this country right now. Since March, concerts have become a distant memory. Sports clubs that would supplement their business by playing host to weddings found that even when they were briefly able to open in the late summer, their major source of income had been cut off. I know of one golf club that has lost almost half a million pounds in wedding business.
Nightclubs and jazz bars remain shuttered while the musicians, events staff, sound engineers and DJs who work so hard to bring us this top-notch entertainment are furloughed, made redundant or desperately trying to make up in other industries the money that they have lost. Frankly, there are not that many jobs going around if people are looking for alternative employment. Also, there are major blackspots when it comes to the self-employed—something that the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which I chair, has highlighted at length.
There are wider impacts, too. Would we have seen the likes of the much-missed Amy Winehouse had she not been able to perform those early gigs in north London? Emerging talent depends on live events and relies heavily on the income they provide to keep investing in their own talent.
The culture recovery fund is welcome money for the arts, and I recognise that the Government’s furlough scheme has been a lifeline for millions of jobs where businesses have been able to operate, but live events and their reliance on having large numbers of people in one place, often in an enclosed space, in order to make a profit, are inherently incompatible with restrictions for covid-19. The £1.57 billion does not even come close to touching the sides of the losses sustained this year, and it is to be divided between such a large number of diverse types of arts businesses, so live events need ongoing support to recognise their precarious position and clear timelines to allow them to prepare to reopen, such as “no earlier than” dates.
In normal times, those are profitable businesses, with events accounting for half of all inbound UK tourist spend, and for £70 billion in direct funding. My Committee has therefore called for bespoke sector-specific support. The Government have provided that for theatres and arts venues on the brink; they now need to do the same for live events.
As hon. Members know, Newcastle has a globally renowned night-time economy. Our night life is a big attraction for locals, tourists and prospective students. Newcastle’s pubs and clubs are concentrated into clusters that have developed their own character, from the upmarket Quayside, through the down-to-earth Ouseburn and the famous Bigg Market, to the pink triangle. There is something for everyone, and a warm welcome usually awaits.
I am proud that Newcastle also hosts some iconic venues, such as World Headquarters, a pioneering and progressive underground club where I have to admit I spent much of my 20s. It has a long and rich history going back decades in Newcastle. Venues like that are the fabric of Newcastle and the north-east, helping to make us into the thriving, multicultural and cohesive community that we are proud to be.
Those are not dispensable businesses that we can allow to wither and die during the pandemic. We cannot assume that we will resume normal business, that they will be replaced with shiny new venues and that all will be well. If those businesses do not survive the pandemic, we will be losing our city’s character, part of our history, the thing that makes Newcastle what it is. The way to stop that is to give the support now.
The Government’s decision to include clubs in the restrictions support grant is a belated acknowledgement that they have not been able to generate any income for eight months. However, Ministers know that £3,000 a month—for those that get the most—will not be enough to cover the backdated losses that many of the places have faced. I want the Government to look at building flexibility into the local restrictions support grant. The night-time economy is in crisis, and we know that not every business will survive, but local authorities have the local knowledge and intelligence to know where that money can be best spent.
The petition is called “Let Us Dance”. People do not expect to go back to dancing in nightclubs straight away, but they want them still to be standing when they can go to celebrate when the pandemic is over. If we allow our night-time economy to fail, we will lose a part of our character and history that has grown organically over time. It cannot just be replaced. We should not leave a vacuum that will be filled with who knows what sort of business. Without support, we will be poorer financially and in spirit, and the Government should not want that to happen, as much as I do not want to see it.
The Government are allowing deathbed weddings during this period of second lockdown but, please, I make a plea to extend that provision for deathbed weddings to where parents or siblings of the bride or groom are terminally ill and not expected to live beyond 2 December.
My own mother was not able to come to my wedding, when I was married many years ago, because she was in hospital at the time, though she was able to watch it on video afterwards. For people not expected to live another two or three weeks, I please ask the Government to go back. Such weddings could be for the minimum legal number of five—the couple, the minister celebrant and two witnesses—but I think that would be a real kindness to that very small number of people. I please ask the Minister, who I know tries hard on this type of issue, to take it back to see if we can do something.
The wedding industry is a £10 billion business in this country, supporting an enormous amount of employment, and yet we have wedding venues—one in my constituency—that did not manage to receive the business support grant, the retail, hospitality and leisure grant or, at all, the discretionary grant. Some wedding venues, therefore, have fallen through the cracks. There has been great difficulty for couples whose insurance has excluded cancellation on the grounds of Government guidance alone, and some couples have been charged an 80% cancellation fee, which is entirely unreasonable. No one should be forced to effectively pay 180% of the cost of their wedding to get married the second time around. There are some big issues on the weddings front.
As far as the events and exhibition industry is concerned, one of my constituents, who runs an exhibition business, said: “I read, listen and watch leaders of industries bemoan the terrible impact that the second lockdown is having on their businesses, which I am very sympathetic to, and I see the Government provide substantial financial support to these industries. However, I look on with some incredulity that these industries have been able to trade in between lockdowns and have received support; yet the exhibition industry has neither been allowed to trade nor received any bespoke support. We have been locked down since March 2020 and will stay locked down until at least April 2021; yet we have received zero targeted support.” The events industry would echo those sentiments, and these are huge parts of our economy.
In relation to business rates, the Government gave discretionary grants to local authorities but there has been great variability in whether local authorities have granted rates relief to exhibitions and events businesses. I know of 40 local authorities that have, but other councils, for which I have sympathy, say that the Government have a proven track record in clawing back money that they believe has been paid out wrongly. There is therefore a postcode lottery on business rates. I ask the Minister to please give greater certainty to councils so that they can pay out business rates.
I thank you, Mr Gray, for chairing today’s debate, and I thank the 209 petitioners in my constituency—couples waiting for their happy day and the many people working in the weddings industry. I have met many people working in the industry, and last Thursday held a meeting with people who worked in all sorts of trades. I learned much, and it was fascinating to hear that 400,000 jobs across the country are dependent on the wedding industry, bringing in an income of £14.7 billion. In addition, we have a large tourist trade in the wedding industry, which attracts many couples to the UK to get married, so this issue is extensive for the economy as a whole and for people’s livelihoods and jobs.
An industry that should bring so much joy is, at the moment, bringing so much hardship. In the first two months of lockdown, people experienced the cancellation or postponement of weddings, so staff could not be furloughed; they had to work flat out to try to support couples during that time. Then, of course, they moved into the harsh reality of being unable to access vital Government support, the self-employed income support scheme and grants. We have heard about the VAT measures, which many organisations have been unable to access, and business rates, because many do not have direct premises.
The hardship has been acute for many. I heard from those working in the sector—predominantly women, I have to emphasise—that they had saved up for their first home and are therefore unable to access such things as universal credit. They are now living off their savings, eight months into the lockdown and pandemic. However, they described the future as well, which is where the Government can really help.
The announcement of the further lockdown and the extension of the furlough scheme to next March has brought a presumption that weddings will not be resuming any time soon. We therefore need the publication of a comprehensive plan on weddings so that people can start making plans. To give an example, one celebrant had 48 weddings booked for this year. Two went ahead as micro-weddings, 36 moved into next year and are now being rearranged because people are not confident, one moved into 2022 and seven were lost. That is the scale of the impact of the cancellation of weddings. Many are deferring for the second or even third time.
We therefore need to ensure that weddings are safe and socially distanced. If they can be certificated, that would be really helpful. Also, there is a lack of evidence to suggest that these are places where infections will be spread, an inference made by Public Health England. If there has been any evidence of infection, it would be good to have that data from Public Health England, but we need to ensure that there is testing and that specific support is introduced. Those working in the wedding industry in my constituency have asked for a scheme akin to the film and TV production restart scheme to help restart the industry.
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), who delayed his wedding, I speak as someone who got married in September and experienced the nightmare of having to change plans and guests right up to the last minute. In fact, the only two things that, fortunately, did not change were the date and the groom, so I feel that I have some understanding of how the wedding industry has suffered this year through lockdown. It has been a particularly turbulent year—and one that was unnecessarily turbulent, as the rules brought in were not based on science and were arbitrary.
Let me introduce right hon. and hon. Members to David Irlam, a constituent of mine who understands those arbitrary rules only too well. He owns a restaurant, King Street Kitchen in Knutsford, and he also has wedding venues, Colshaw Hall and Merrydale Manor in Tatton. There are stark differences: his restaurant is much smaller, yet David could legally host up to 60 guests from 30 different households there. He could not do so in his wedding venues, which are much bigger and with outside space: they were capped at 15 guests.
My constituent also said that Government had not taken into account the measures that the wedding industry could put into place to be covid-compliant, or the changes and distress when rules were changed overnight. When the rules were changed overnight, Arley Hall—a massive Jacobean hall with outside space, hundreds of acres and beautiful gardens—was allowed to hold a wedding service, but then all the guests left and went to a pub up the road, where they were allowed to eat. That venue had all the food and all the staff, but could not have that take place.
Tatton, and Cheshire as a whole, is an area with a thriving wedding sector. The number of weddings held the year before was 4,500; that figure is now down to 800, and the ones taking place are much smaller. When I speak to constituents who have wedding businesses, they say that, on average, they use about 25 preferred local suppliers. None of those suppliers has the income from those weddings now, but it does not have to be that way. With some thought, some coherence, and a road map to allow weddings to take place—in a covid-compliant way, obviously—the sector could re-emerge and allow weddings to take place.
At the Oak Tree of Peover, Jacqui Mooney explained to me that she has had to postpone 90 weddings and cancel 30; her income is less than one sixth of what it was. Please note that her business interruption insurance, for which she paid a very high premium, has not been of assistance in any way; furthermore, Competition and Markets Authority guidance and insurance companies have pushed brides back to the wedding venue, saying, “Quote frustrated contracts and insist on full refunds.”
The Oak Tree of Peover has helped brides and grooms in any way it can: it has postponed once for people, it has postponed twice for them, but it has been a logistical nightmare. In Jacqui Mooney’s words, “I dread things now if things do not turn around, because I can’t sleep of a night. I’m not eating because of all the things I have got to do and the money I pay back.” That is true of the business at Styal Lodge Weddings, too.
I end on this note, which is what David Irlam—operator of Colshaw Hall and Merrydale Manor—says: “I would happily be a guinea pig for the Minister. I will do a business venue that is covid compliant. I will do track and trace. I will make sure people are served at the table. I will make sure we do absolutely everything that is covid compliant. Please look at the rules we have put in place.” Please have a Zoom meeting with this person, and the rest of the people in my patch, so we can go back to having weddings and true once-in-a-lifetime—for most people—celebrations.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. The emphasis on business grants for those businesses with premises is probably one of the factors that led to many people in the sectors we are debating today being denied financial support; the fact that a lot of them are also freelancers or self-employed is another factor. However, many of the people who were excluded from support the first time around are being excluded once again. Given the speed at which events happened, the Government could perhaps have been given a little latitude the first time for not covering everyone; eight months on and with the benefit of that experience, however, there is absolutely no excuse for anyone being left behind this time.
We need a commitment from the Government that this issue will be looked into urgently, because by the time the current scheme comes to an end, some people will have been trading for nearly two years and will not have been entitled to a penny. How can that be allowed to happen? I hope the Government will listen and offer a roadmap for the wedding and live events industries, with sector-specific support for the intervening period until we get back to some sense of normality. Frankly, telling those people to find another job is a cop-out.
Like other Members, I will talk about weddings because I have been contacted by many constituents who have had to cancel or rearrange their wedding days. The wedding industry has seen numbers restricted and then restricted some more: the limit of 30 at a wedding lasted for just two weeks before it was reduced to 15. That means either that there was a specific piece of evidence that suggested the limit needed to be reduced for weddings but not for the funerals that took place during that fortnight, or that the limit should never have been 30 in the first place. Neither of those alternatives engenders much confidence that the Government are on top of things.
How can a judgment have been formed to change the limit back to 15 in just a fortnight? Given the restrictions to 30 or 15 guests at weddings, many people consider the wedding industry to be closed in all but name. By including outside suppliers in that number, couples have been placed in the invidious position of having to choose whether their photographer or granny attends. I do not think that is right at all.
The wedding industry did not get any benefit over the summer from the “eat out to help out” scheme, despite many venues being able to hold significantly more guests in a covid-secure way than restaurants can. Instead, we saw the sector largely ignored, despite how much it is worth to the economy and how much it benefits people in other, associated industries such as hair, beauty and photography. An important question that I have received from my constituents who have seen their wedding days restricted or cancelled is why they could go and sit in a restaurant with over 100 people socially distanced at separate tables, yet they could have only 15 people attend a wedding venue that can safely hold ten times the amount. I have to agree with them: on the face of it, it seems illogical. Given the massive financial impact that such decisions have had, I hope there is strong evidence behind that distinction being made.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. He will know how vital it is to keep public support for these measures and to ensure that they are evidence-based, logical and clearly explained.
I will remember that when we meet on Wednesday.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his excellent opening speech and for setting the scene so well. Given that I have only four minutes, I will focus on just one issue: wedding venues. Like many hon. Members, I have been contacted by so many people who have been affected—couples whose big day has not happened or has been seriously scaled down, and the businesses that supply wedding venues.
I want to focus on two unique venues in my constituency: Heaton House Farm and The Ashes. Heaton House Farm is in Rushton Spencer, and The Ashes in is Endon—both are in Staffordshire Moorlands. They are bespoke wedding venues; they do not do anything else. They offer large events and are licensed venues. They have the most incredible scenery. If you have been lucky enough to sit in the hairdresser’s and read Hello! or OK! magazines, Mr Gray, you will have seen the venues, because they host the celebrity weddings that feature in these great, august publications. However, they simply have no business at all at the moment—they have nothing. As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said, they could not benefit from “eat out to help out”, because they do not offer food outside weddings and large events. They cannot benefit from the VAT reduction, because they have no turnover—they are not making any money at the moment.
The Heaton House Farm team have taken over running a community pub in Rushton Spencer, The Royal Oak, just to find somewhere to employ their staff. Without that, they will lose their staff. They are not making a single penny on that; they are doing it so that they can keep their staff and to make sure that when they can get back to having weddings, they can do so in the best way they possibly can. They do not benefit from many of the grants because their rateable values are too high—they simply need to be able to get back to holding weddings. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) said, they can hold a wedding service, but they could not sit the guests until the regulations changed to allow 15, and yet those guests could go to the local pub and up to 60 of them could sit, socially distanced, in tables of six. That cannot be right. We have to find a way through this. I invite the Minister to meet my constituents from Heaton House Farm and The Ashes to discuss the issue to see what support the Government can find to help those incredibly special places.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Live events are obviously very important across North East Fife. Although nightclubs are thin on the ground, unlike in Newcastle upon Tyne North, North East Fife is the home of golf, and we look forward to welcoming the Open back to St Andrews in 2022 for its 150th occasion. However, I want to limit my remarks to weddings because, as many Members have already said, I have also been contacted by venues that are a key contributor to the local economy.
Kinkell Byre is a wedding and events venue that has been operating in its old farmsteading as a venue since 2003. It normally holds about 80 events a year, the majority of which are weddings. It is a small business with two full-time staff and three part-time, but it contributes substantially to the local economy because every wedding means revenue for not only Kinkell Byre, but a huge range of local suppliers, from photography and music to catering. It means 100 guests staying in North East Fife for two or three days, each of them spending in other locations on food and accommodation. Samantha from Kinkell Byre told me:
“The coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible for us to operate in any capacity. Our revenue has been reduced to virtually zero while costs still need to be paid to keep the business afloat for the upkeep of the old buildings, wages, insurance, marketing and professional services. We have tried to launch new ventures such as farmers’ markets and beer gardens but…have been prevented from going ahead by the local Environmental Health”.
She told me that the Government support so far has been “amazing”, and I recognise that support, too. However, she also says:
“under the current guidelines we cannot operate or generate any revenue and the business will not survive much longer…we have the space and the capacity to do events safely but with larger numbers than the current guidelines permit…The limit should be linked to the capacity of the venue.”
The guidelines are different in Scotland, where there is currently a maximum cap of 20 guests, but when England comes out of lockdown there will likely be a similar cap. To get through the pandemic, the UK and Scottish Governments have had to take on a great swathe of extra powers, but we need to ensure that they are exercised in the best way possible.
Not only Kinkell Byre is affected, but the hotels and B&Bs where the guests stay and the suppliers that I mentioned earlier. I want to mention one supplier: Amy, a small business owner whose florist business is largely focused on flowers for weddings. She moved to online only, giving up her shop, but remains hugely impacted by the restrictions. People are moving their weddings to next year or even 2022, and she is losing business as a result. She says we should change the restrictions and make them more sensitive to venue size. That surely is a way forward, alongside comprehensive testing, tracing and isolating. Amy highlighted that, to make matters worse, there is the looming threat of a no-deal Brexit, which would mean an 8% tariff on imported flowers, and there is simply not enough supply of flowers in the UK to meet the demand. If the Government do not agree a trade deal, that really will push her business over the edge.
If the Government will not change the restrictions, or cannot, they need to provide further financial support to enable these businesses to survive through until March. The furlough has been extended, but, for a business like Samantha’s, wages are a pretty minor cost in the scheme of things. Business grants were available over six months ago and are unlikely to have lasted in bank accounts until now. North East Fife would be nothing without those businesses. We often hear that small, locally owned businesses are the backbone of the local economy, but in North East Fife they are the face of the economy, too. They are what we encounter when we travel throughout the Kingdom.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this debate. I urge the Minister to look at the petitions in detail. Although I could speak at length about the issues facing live music in my own constituency at places such as the Anvil, and the many festivals I seem to go to when picking up my children, I will focus on weddings because I have been struck by the way that the restrictions that the Government have absolutely had to bring in have really gone to the core of people’s lives—whether it is the couples who have had to postpone what might have been an event that they had planned for not just months but years, or the wide range of businesses that have been fundamentally undermined.
I will focus on the correspondence that I have had from organisations such as The Barn at Avington, a wedding venue near my constituency; Balloons For U and Events For U, which have been fundamentally affected by the restrictions brought in around weddings and other events; Sofi Designs Bridal, which produces bridal wear as its main focus, and which has lost one of its main business lines without weddings; and DJs such as Aaron Purkiss and Garry Job, whose livelihoods have been fundamentally affected by what has gone on in the last six to nine months. All have written about the paralysis that has affected an important part of their income—the wedding industry—and the devastating impact on their livelihoods.
What those people need now more than ever is some certainty for the future. I know that the Minister cannot give us a cast-iron guarantee today about when things are going to change, but he can give us some certainty about the way in which the Government are going to move to a position where we start to live with the virus, rather than completely shut things down. We have heard about how we could change the rules around the capacity of venues to help weddings to go ahead on a slightly larger scale. There are many other things that he could be doing to prepare a road map for the future so that people can start planning their big day yet again, and businesses can see light at the end of the tunnel.
The right hon. Lady is making a compelling and powerful speech that resonates very much with the representations I have had from constituents. Does she agree that one of the big challenges that people face is the limbo that they have been left in—not able to plan for the wedding they dreamed of, or even one they could compromise on, and not knowing whether the insurance will cover the loss of everything that they have spent? That is why the Government need to give that certainty about what is happening to end the limbo for such couples.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point to which I am sure the Minister will want to respond in detail.
In closing, I commend Natasha Newland, founder of the County Wedding Clubs, for speaking up so eloquently for the sector, which directly and indirectly employs many people—not just in my area, but throughout the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the petitioners, my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), and, of course, the 394 people in my constituency who had signed the petitions as of this morning.
Live events, conferences, exhibition organisers, and events such as graduation balls have all been affected by the virus. Both petitions are important, but I will focus on the one that calls for an increased number of guests to be permitted at weddings according to venue capacity, as that has been the issue that I have had most contact about directly.
One such conversation was with Mr Henry Weldon, the managing director of Maverick events operating at Prestwold Hall—a beautiful and popular grade I-listed stately home in the heart of the Leicestershire wolds. He explained to me that, to date, he has seen more than 120 weddings and events rearranged or cancelled. His catering business and the venue combined have lost a turnover of £1 million in 2020 alone. He says:
“There are serious concerns about not being able to restart by spring 2021, by which time we will effectively have been closed for a year. Government must give support and confidence to our sector and hence to our couples who have also suffered greatly.”
As I said in my speech during the debate on the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 last week, we must use the next few weeks to plan for how we can create recovery for ourselves, our local communities and our businesses. As part of that, I strongly believe that we should take a different approach to events when the new restrictions have eased.
Risk assessment is key. I have had several conversations with Ministers in the past few months about adopting Northern Ireland’s approach to weddings, where venues produce their own risk assessment of how many people they can safely accommodate while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Of course, we should not limit that approach to weddings; we should consider extending it to conferences and music events, which are in industries that have been among the hardest hit.
Over the summer, we saw how it was possible to restart industries in a safe way. We allowed restaurants, hairdressers and leisure centres, to name but a few, to reopen, as long as they followed the covid-19 secure guidance. So why should the events that we are discussing today be any different? We cannot continue to restrict them indefinitely. We need a plan, as has been implemented for other industries, so that such events can restart, and I believe that the more nuanced approach taken by Northern Ireland could form the basis of such a plan.
A number of constituents have written to me expressing their sadness and anxiety about having to delay their wedding or make difficult decisions about which of the people closest to them cannot attend. As one constituent has said:
“I recognise the impact of covid-19 on everyone’s daily lives, but for those couples who are planning a wedding, the toll on our mental health is significant. A wedding takes years to plan. It has an impact on finances and postponing a wedding for a full year means there is a huge risk that immediate family members may not be around to see our big day, which is heartbreaking for us and for them. All I ask is that consideration be given that numbers are increased according to venue capacity. I feel that the hospitality industry has adapted in the wake of covid-19 and shown that there are ways to hold a wedding and be safe.”
I echo my constituent’s plea, and I hope that in the next few weeks the Government will give serious consideration to reforming the approach to these events.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray.
Dorfold Hall, Peckforton Castle, Combermere Abbey, Carden Park and Wrenbury Hall are just some of the stunning, romance-laden, fairytale wedding venues in Eddisbury, which are at the forefront of a thriving £10 billion-plus national industry that employs, as we have heard, over 400,000 people in around 120,000 viable and mainly family-run businesses across the country. I say “thriving”, but of course since March this sizeable chunk of our economy has been, to all intents and purposes, shut down.
It is important to recognise that the Chancellor’s significant financial support package has rescued many businesses from failure and kept other businesses, including in the wedding industry, on life support. However, since I spoke in the House in July and again in September in support of more targeted support for such businesses, I am afraid to say that the situation has only got worse. Indeed, the reduction on 22 September in the number of people allowed to attend a wedding to 15 saw 15,000 to 20,000 weddings cancelled and the loss of a further £450 million to £600 million in revenues.
If I look specifically at the Boutique Hotel Group, which is based in my constituency, I see that in 2020 to date it has had 432 weddings cancelled, and lost £7.8 million in sales and £3.7 million in net income. Dorfold Hall, which is near Nantwich, was only able to hold four weddings this summer, with the business closed for the greater part of the year. While the rest of the hospitality sector benefited from VAT relief and the eat out to help out scheme, wedding venues were in effect excluded.
As we have also heard today, that has also had serious consequences for nearly all the businesses that are in or around the supply chain for wedding venues. The managing director of the Boutique Hotel Group, Chris Naylor, told me that one of its suppliers—a florist—would usually turn over in excess of £200,000 from his venues alone, spread over 40 weddings a year, but it has provided flowers for only one wedding this year. The group’s recommended DJ and lighting company, which would normally turn over £350,000 from the group’s venues, has had no turnover since March. The photography company that the group uses, which would normally bring in around £1 million through 450-plus weddings at £2,000 per wedding, has not seen those sales coming in, and it employs photographers based across the north-west area. Significant hardship has been caused right across the wedding industry.
We have heard a lot about the road map, but it is time that we actually saw it realised, as something that builds from socially distanced numbers towards normal weddings, where situations and technologies allow. The wedding industry and many of the venues themselves are really well set up for that to happen. We can put them at the heart of the test and trace system, and we can also make sure that they have all the support they need financially, so that their cash flow can continue throughout what will continue to be a difficult time, because January and February 2021 are the most important months in which to sell 2022 weddings. That will also help with the cash-flow issues.
In the previous debate, we heard about a taskforce that has been set up to work towards spectators going to venues again as soon as possible to watch elite sport. We need a similar group for the wedding industry. I urge the Minister to do what he can to work with all those who have a keen and now urgent interest in making that become a reality, because there is hope. There is a lot of latent capacity within the wedding industry, a real chance to bounce back from what has been its worst ever year. There is an incentive for the Government as well, given the tax receipts that will flow as a consequence. I ask the Minister to continue to work closely with the wedding industry to ensure that we do not miss this chance to bring back a great part of our economy.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for opening this debate with such a good speech. The debate deals with two issues that are important both nationally and for my constituency, where 105 of my constituents signed the e-petition calling for additional support for live events and 91 signed the one calling for an increase in the number of guests permitted at weddings, according to venue capacity.
Over the past few months, I have organised regular roundtable Zoom calls with representatives of the Clwyd South wedding industry, such as Phil Godsal of Iscoyd Park, Andrew Marshall of Tower Hill Barns and Tracey Owen of Tyn Dwr Hall, and with others from further afield in Wales. At different times, those meetings have been joined by Ministers, including the Secretary of State for Wales, the Wales Office Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and the Minister for Economy in the Welsh Government.
In a constituency such as mine or that of many other Members present, with many rural communities, those venues are of particular importance for the local economy and jobs. I appreciate that this is a devolved matter in Wales, but the key issues, as the Welsh venues have highlighted, are similar to those in England. They can be summarised in five brief points.
The limit on numbers, whether that be 15 or 30, is arbitrary and should be related to the size of the venue. The limit is out of kilter with European venues, where the figure is often significantly higher—up to 100. The venues I talked to say that in the majority of cases, 50 guests is an economic number, and that it is difficult to break even with lower numbers.
With all due respect to everyone in the health industry, weddings are not super spreaders of the virus. All the guests are known to the bride and groom and therefore easier to control in terms of track and trace by the venue. There is also a strong vested interest among the guests—to them, there are no random guests—to look after each other health-wise.
In practice, it has been much more difficult for wedding venues to access financial support than other hospitality businesses, partly because they have been able to stay open in Wales unless there has been a national lockdown. However, that goes back to the limit on guests, where staying open for 15 or 30 guests is simply not economic for a wedding venue.
People book weddings up to 18 months in advance. Therefore, the industry is particularly badly hit by the lack of visibility going forward. It is not an industry that can stop and start, like some other hospitality businesses. I fully appreciate that the Minister and the Governments in Westminster and in Cardiff, as I have seen in the roundtable discussions that I organised, are listening and take the matter seriously.
Plenty of economic support has come forward but, as many have said this afternoon, it is not targeted in the way that it needs to be. One suggestion of a practical solution, given that a lot of venues are suffering from the withdrawal of clients’ deposits—that is now getting to be a very serious problem—would be the underwriting or financial furloughing of those deposits. That would bring stability and a breathing space so that the wedding venues can plan with greater confidence for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I pass on my congratulations to the petitioners, and double congratulations to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), on securing the debate and on his recent nuptials.
We have heard from Members around the Chamber with some similar issues. The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) talked about the plight of the excluded, which is something I want to return to shortly, and about a rich musical and artistic heritage—something we have in common across many constituencies, not least my own. The hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) talked about the incompatibility of tackling covid with the operation of the venues, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) talked correctly about the loss of character that went with the loss of some of the businesses.
We also heard from the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey)—and, again, my congratulations on her recent wedding—and others, such as the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) who talked about the enormous effort made to keep staff on when they did not qualify for support. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) talked about the supply chain impact, and the direct impact on the local economy. That, again, is something my constituency has in common with hers. The hon. Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) and for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) talked about the need for more business support and targeted support, and the difficulties for businesses getting access to that support. There were many common themes for us to talk about today.
It is indeed a tough time for the wedding industry and industries in the night-time economy. There are arguments for exceptions, which we have heard, but most people understand that the restriction measures are sensible and necessary. The majority of people understand the need for them. That does not make it any easier for couples who have spent months, or even years, often, planning their perfect day. They have been dealt a really tough blow by covid-19 and by the uncertainty that has meant taking the heart-wrenching decision either to cancel or to go ahead with their marriages without many of their loved ones being present to share the day. A wedding is an important milestone in people’s lives, and it is with that in mind that the Scottish Government are trying to strike the right balance between a policy that empathises, and putting the safety of communities first. In Scotland, the current rules are that in levels 1, 2 or 3 no more than 20 people should attend, and in level 4 it should be no more than 15. If we get to level 0—and I hope that some regions will get to level 0 in future—a more recognisable number of 50 will be allowed in the venue. However, we know that mixing at weddings, as at any large-scale party, creates a risk of further transmission of the disease, and it must be carefully monitored to make sure that that does not happen.
The impact is not just emotional, but financial, as we have heard. In Scotland the average cost of a wedding is £20,000 and therefore the knock-on impact on suppliers serving the industry is dramatic and is heightened by the fact that Scotland is a popular wedding destination, with an average of 29,000 wedding ceremonies a year since 2001 and more than 130,000 couples who live elsewhere having chosen Scotland as the destination for their wedding. We are grateful to them for sharing it with us. Behind those numbers are tens of thousands of wedding supply businesses that are now struggling to make ends meet because of the pandemic. The hospitality and wedding venue sector is worth £963 million for freelance or self-employed photographers, DJs, musicians, wedding planners and suppliers of wedding-themed products. That is a big, big deal. Many of those freelancers are self-employed people and are part of the 3 million who have been excluded from support in spite of countless calls from me, my colleagues in the Scottish National party and colleagues across the Chamber asking for them to be remembered by the Chancellor, and asking him to act. Unfortunately, they continue to be ignored.
The Minister must, today, answer and say what he is going to do about it. All businesses in the sector deserve to be allowed to keep afloat during the crisis, so that completely viable businesses that would in normal times be thriving can move on and be there for us to support the economy once we emerge from the emergency. The coming months are critical, so I once again ask the Minister to urge the Chancellor to give these businesses a fighting chance. Topping up bounce back loans is not the answer; leading companies into crippling toxic debt will not get them out of this. The Government should now convert those loans into grants for those businesses.
As I said, there is widespread recognition that restrictions are required to help fight this pernicious virus, but we need to ensure that these businesses and jobs are still there when we emerge. Wedding venues, nightclubs and music venues have seen their businesses decimated. In Scotland, despite having one hand tied behind our backs, we have gone beyond the Barnett consequentials: the Scottish Government have spent nearly £4 billion on tackling covid-19, including £2.3 billion on business support, with almost £900 million of non-domestic rate relief; a £1.3 billion business grant scheme; a £30 million creative, tourism and hospitality enterprises hardship fund; and a £185 million package of targeted support for small and medium-sized enterprises and the self-employed, which dominate the night-time business sector.
The UK Government must now live up to the £350 billion promise. Loans are not working for firms that are struggling, especially this winter. They should ramp up support for businesses in England, which is the right thing to do, and allow us to use the Barnett consequentials to support businesses in Scotland. Once again, the Chancellor must act to make things right for the excluded, who have been battered, bruised and brushed off. They are even worried that the £20 a week universal credit uplift will be removed shortly, so we need a guarantee on that too.
There should be provision for furlough beyond March in this sector. It is clear that the big talk of “whatever it takes” from the Chancellor is not being delivered; it is not what people are seeing. Financial powers should be devolved. Simple changes to borrowing rules should be made, to allow the Scottish Government to step in where the UK Government are not. We have been begging for this for months and months. The failure of the Tory UK Government to listen to the needs of the Scottish people is not new, but boy is it being recognised in Scotland just now, amplified throughout the Brexit debacle and now this crisis. It is no wonder that polls now show that people in Scotland want a new referendum, with a majority of people in 11 consecutive polls now saying that independence is the way for us to make the right choices for our future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am getting used to following the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and preceding the Minister. I often agree with much of what the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey says, apart from his last point, which I nearly always disagree with.
We are discussing two important petitions, and we can see from the number of Members here that they are attracting quite a lot of attention. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his excellent opening speech and for introducing the petitions, the first of which is the “Let Us Dance” petition, created by Jasper Levine. As somebody who, I must confess, was often found in the Haçienda nightclub in her youth and is a regular attendee at the Glastonbury festival, I am particularly pleased to speak in this debate. It was no surprise to me that there were more signatories of that petition from my constituency than from most other constituencies across the country. At this point, I thank Sacha Lord, the night-time economy spokesperson for Greater Manchester, who has been a great advocate on these issues on behalf of those in this industry, including those from outside Greater Manchester. The second petition is on the number of guests permitted at weddings, which we have heard a lot about. The arguments made on these issues by a number of Members are compelling, and I hope that Ministers will listen.
As we have heard, these sectors were a thriving and deeply interconnected ecosystem that supported millions of jobs across the country. I have held a number of Zoom roundtables with representatives from these shut-down sectors and those sectors closed in all but name. Many of the problems that we are discussing also affect the conferences and exhibitions sector, which we have heard a little bit about, as well as big sporting events. Together, these sectors make up a large proportion of the visitor and hospitality economies of our towns and cities. These sectors are at the centre of a wider ecology of jobs and employment, from make-up artists to florists, hairdressers, music technicians, security guards and many others. They contribute to thriving town centres, which include the hotel industry, hospitality, taxi drivers and many more, not to mention a huge supply chain, which we have heard much about. The majority of those businesses are not just viable, but are world-leading enterprises, generating and contributing billions of pounds to our economy. As we have heard, the wedding industry generated £15 billion in the previous year, the night-time economy over £66 billion, and conferences and events businesses billions more, on top of all the important trade deals made at those business events.
Since the first lockdown, the financial impact on those sectors has been alarming. I heard today in a roundtable I held with those from Greater Manchester that the night-time economy is down 90% since the beginning of the pandemic. Tens of thousands of weddings have been cancelled, although not for the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), who managed to have hers—congratulations to her. The wedding sector is not officially closed, but it is closed in all but name. Its trade has essentially stopped, but it has not been officially closed, which is having an impact. All the changes and inconsistencies have meant successive waves of restarts and refunds having to be paid out. There are also many sole traders, small and medium-sized enterprises in supply chains, and freelancers who have lost work, as we have heard. The chopping and changing has really taken its toll. As we have heard, bookings are made way in advance. The uncertainty in this sector could be the death knell for the weddings industry.
Even before the second national lockdown, which we are now in, it was clear that those industries needed more support. Although the reintroduction of the furlough scheme is welcome, that will have come far too late for too many. Those I have spoken to, on the many Zoom calls I have held, took decisions on redundancies weeks ago. Let us remember that, without the businesses to administer the furlough scheme, the jobs will not be saved either. What we are seeing is businesses starting to go bust, unable to pay the overheads that they incur—the rents, the venue hire, the utilities, the equipment hire and so on.
The first wave of cash grants has not reached most in the events and weddings industry—they did not qualify—let alone those in the supply chain. The second wave will not help most either. Even though the Government now seem to accept the principle of supporting businesses through the continued restrictions, in practice they are falling well short. For example, nightclubs and live events can qualify for a grant only from 1 November, despite being closed since March. Big conference events will not get anything at all, and the weddings industry will have to rely on the discretionary pots, which are seriously insufficient and will lead to a postcode lottery.
We should also remember that many businesses and self-employed workers in those sectors have been unable to receive any support at all, as we have heard, because they are from the 3 million excluded. Sole traders and the self-employed are excluded, while many company directors receive all their income through dividend payments. We need some proper sectoral support, as we have heard, and we have also heard some good ideas about that today—discretionary grants, action on rents, action on the 3 million excluded and ideas for rates relief for the next year and beyond.
However, as we have heard today, what most businesses want—this is what they tell me, and I am sure they say it to the Minister, too—is a route map out of closure. This is now the critical business issue, because most businesses want to trade. That is their job; that is what they do. We urgently need a real plan—a route map out for the sector. Mass testing, test, track and trace and isolate, and a vaccine would all make a difference. In the interim, these sectors need sensible guidance on how they can operate safely—we have heard some really good ideas from the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) and others on bringing all that together—because they want a level playing field, as we have heard in the debate. Why can a restaurant operate with 60 people from different households, but a wedding venue cannot? That just does not make sense. Why can people be in close quarters on an aeroplane, but cannot come together for a family celebration?
There are a number of other fixes, and I urge the Minister to bring the industry together, because these are creative, expert people, and let us not forget that they are used to managing events. That is what they do, so they know the people in the room, and they can manage it well.
These are viable businesses. They are not going through some structural change, like some other parts of our economy. They were massively growing before the pandemic. Let us be honest: the minute we are allowed to celebrate and party with our families again, we will be doing so. There will be huge demand for events and weddings. I hope the Minister has heard the calls today and that we can get this sector rolling again, and we can all have a party.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for leading this important debate on the two petitions. I am so looking forward to attending his wedding to his partner Jed when it is possible to do so. It has been postponed once, but I was really hoping that it did not have to be postponed a second time.
Before I address the specific concerns highlighted in this debate, I want to talk about the two issues at hand. First, on wedding receptions, I want to put it on record that both myself and officials in BEIS have received a number of representations from the wedding industry over the summer. It is pleasing to see the dedication of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) who, as a number of people have done, has brought the industry together, listened to the sector, reflected on its views and been working tirelessly for those sectors that are so hard pressed and unable to open fully, or in some cases at all. When I saw the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) and for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) on the call list for this afternoon’s sitting, I knew that they would be here because they have been tireless in catching me every time they can in the Lobby to reflect the concerns of their constituents. That is absolutely right and shows their dedication to this important sector.
I have had representations from many people from the wedding industry and spoken to many of them in various roundtables, because it is so important to listen and reflect on the road map of the considerations that have been outlined today. It is important to consider the context of this issue. We are keenly aware of the importance of weddings for many people and how their plans have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Indeed, we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) about her ceremony: numbers might have been curtailed, but I am sure the fun, the enjoyment and the love they have for each other was not curtailed in any way in their celebrations.
The situation also affects family, friends and guests, and, as we have also heard, the small businesses that that service and work with the venues and the planners to celebrate people’s weddings. That is pivotal to so many people’s lives, so we did publish guidance on how wedding celebrations could take place in England in a manner that was covid-19 secure and in line with social distance guidelines. The significance of those events was underscored by the fact that we enabled celebrations to take place initially with 30 people present, but regrettably that had to be lowered to 15. That included the couple, the witnesses and guests, but it did not include suppliers or venue staff working at the wedding venue. I know that is nowhere near enough for the viability of the sector.
I have had discussions about viability with the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), and, come the day when we are learning to live with the virus and we have rapid testing—when we have the results of the good news today of one particular vaccine avenue—I cross my fingers that those businesses will be able to switch on almost overnight, because the dates are there and those businesses are viable when we get out of this situation.
A huge number of couples have actually not booked their weddings and they are not waiting, ready to go, because they have lost their date. They had a date in July, but they have now been offered a date in January, probably at the same price and with no discount. This is really heart-breaking for many of these couples. I totally recognise the optimism of the Minister, but he should recognise the sheer heartache that many couples are living with today.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I see on my Twitter and Instagram feeds and elsewhere the pain and heartbreak of couples who were looking forward to that special day. We have also heard about the financial costs that people have faced, such as deposits and other difficulties. The initial moves and the conversations that we have had illustrate the importance that we attach to these life-affirming events.
Some hon. Members have talked about the contrast between the numbers of people allowed in restaurants and in wedding venues, but there is a fundamental difference: the very nature of weddings, which bring family and friends together from across the country, and potentially from around the world, means that they are particularly vulnerable to the spread of covid-19. Despite some media coverage to the contrary, the hospitality sector has worked so hard to become covid-19-secure that pubs and restaurants are some of the safest places in the country. I have spoken to venue owners and organisers in the wedding sector, and unlike visits to a public house or restaurant, where groups are more isolated, it becomes harder to resist breaking social distancing at weddings, where we spend extended periods among family.
We want to continue working with those professionals, together with Public Health England and other health professionals, to ensure that we can manage social distancing throughout the wedding process. Just today, I had a conversation with Richard Eagleton of McQueens Flowers and Sarah Haywood of Sarah Haywood Weddings & Celebrations. They are both seeking to build a taskforce of the kind that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury spoke about. I am happy to work closely, through a two-way dialogue, with them and their colleagues in the sector—the professionals who supply and service the sector, and the planners and venue owners—because that direct conversation will, I hope, lead to the kind of planning that hon. Members have suggested.
I will happily look into any pilot scheme that has been happening. That may be something that we can feed into the taskforce with health officials, so as to look at how we might bring weddings on stream as and when the health advice allows. I am not an epidemiologist, but this is also about behavioural science, as well as the economics, which are very much part of my brief at the Department.
I will cover that in a moment. On live events, in tandem with our discussions with the wedding industry, we are committed to continuing our work with the musical and cultural sectors to understand the difficulties that they face and help them to access support through these challenging times.
Ministers in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have been in discussion with stakeholders across the creative and cultural sector, including on the development of draft planning guidance for how music festivals might be able to take place in future. Significant funds have been allocated via the cultural recovery fund to protect cultural organisations across England—almost a fifth of the fund has gone to the music sector.
More generally, the Chancellor recently announced the continuation of the coronavirus job retention scheme—it is known as the furlough scheme—meaning that workers in any part of the UK can retain their job and be paid at least 80% of their salary up to £2,5000 a month, even if their employer cannot afford to pay them. The flexibility of that scheme will be retained to allow employees to continue to work where they can.
On the point about the night-time economy and flexibility, will the Minister consider allowing drinking-up time after 10 pm, once we are through this lockdown? Venues could then provide two sittings for meals and ensure that everybody did not leave the venue at the same time.
My right hon. Friend speaks of something that I have been working on for some time. I have seen it myself, and I have worked with, and had weekly conversations with, representatives of the hospitality sector. I have spoken to representatives of the nightclub sector on a few occasions as well, which I will come to in a second.
Some people have mentioned Northern Ireland, which has a separate system and a different system for weddings. The frustrating thing for me, when trying to work with health professionals and the hospitality sector, is that the incidence of transmission is so high in Northern Ireland at the moment. I am not suggesting that that is connected to the hospitality sector in any way, shape or form, but it becomes very difficult to disaggregate the data and to work through the evidence with health professionals. However, I will continue to do so.
Going back to the events sector, we have been working so that businesses will be protected from the threat of eviction until the end of the year. We have extended the moratorium for commercial tenants, which is incredibly important. Music venues create, present and support many different genres of music, and they have been eligible to apply for funds from the £1.57 billion support package for key cultural organisations to help them through the pandemic. As part of the cultural recovery fund, some festivals, dance venues and nightclubs received grants, including the Ministry of Sound and the MADE festival.
Some £3.36 million has been shared among 136 venues across England that applied for the emergency grassroots music venues fund, which has supported grassroots venues to survive the imminent risk of collapse, but I know that this is an ongoing situation. I have spoken to a number of nightclub operators, including Deltic, Fabric and Stonegate pubs, which owns nightclub venues as well. I have spoken to Mike Kill from the Night Time Industries Association, who has been mentioned a couple of times, and indeed to Sacha Lord, whom the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) talked about. He has been particularly proactive and constructive, and I welcome further discussions with him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington talked about deathbed weddings. Civil partnerships and weddings where one of the people getting married is seriously ill and not expected to recover are limited to six people in the national guidance. It should not be that local authorities enforce that in any different way, apart from that specific thing. I will take his point on extended families to the relevant Department and reflect on it with the Minister with direct responsibility for that area.
I served on the Petitions Committee with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for many years. I am getting used to being on this side of the desk rather than on the other. She talked about venues in Newcastle and the cultural void that will emerge if they disappear. I am also Minister for London, so I know about that only too well. I have talked about the Gotham City scenario. If the ultra-rich are insulated from everything and poorer people on low incomes are forced into the city centre to service those areas, but we hollow out the culture and the mass of people coming in and spending, that will create a very different city.
We will be so much poorer if we get rid of our culture as a result of this pandemic, so we must work as hard as we can to avoid the sobering statistics that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury talked about regarding nightclubs, weddings and other events. The impact on the economy is quite severe, so we will continue to work as hard as we can. The new national restrictions have obviously replaced the tiered local restrictions. I want to ensure that we can learn to live with the virus, and that we work towards getting a vaccine and rapid testing in the spring, so that we can come to the new reality beyond the new normal.
Sadly, time restrictions prevent me from mentioning everyone, but I thank all Members for their contributions. This has been an incredible debate and I think we have really raised the petitioners’ concerns. On that note, I thank the petitioners for taking the time to bring this matter to the attention of the House and giving us the opportunity to discuss it. I emphasise to the Minister that we want to ensure that, post the pandemic, there is actually an industry to recover.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).