I share concerns about the future of pubs and the hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It is clear the economic effects of fighting the virus last longer for businesses than the duration of any given restrictions, and we need to go further with our support. I understand the role of pubs to their local community, especially here in North Devon where we have so many rural pubs. The Prime Minister expressed regret in announcing the current national lockdown, but I agree with him that robust action is needed to bring the virus back under control.
While I appreciate that closures are unwelcome news for publicans, it is reassuring that the Chancellor has unveiled further economic support for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, including pubs. One-off top-up grants have been announced for the third lockdown, worth up to £9,000 per property, to help businesses through to the spring. For those businesses not eligible for the grants, a £594 million discretionary fund is being made available by the Government as a matter of urgency. The one-off grants come in addition to billions of pounds of existing business support, including grants worth up to £3,000 for closed businesses, and up to £2,100 per month for impacted businesses once they reopen.
I am pleased that a robust package of support has been introduced since the start of the pandemic. No pub or other business in the hospitality sector will be required to pay business rates in 2020-21, and HMRC has made it easier to claim back the duty on any beer thrown away as a result of pub closures. I also welcome that the temporary reduction of VAT to 5% has been extended by a further 3 months to the end of March 2021. Additionally, the Chancellor will defer VAT repayments through a new scheme until March 2022.
We await the budget on 3rd March to see what additional support will be made available to the hospitality sector as we move through the unlock roadmap.
Amazon holds close to one third of the market share of e-commerce in this country and operating online does not mean a company’s responsibilities to society are lessened.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the independent regulator for work-related health, safety and wellbeing. HSE has published guidance on warehouse safety which employers such as Amazon must follow. With the additional safety risks posed by Covid-19, I am pleased that the HSE is conducting spot checks and inspections on businesses to ensure they are adhering to Covid-secure guidance and keeping employees safe. If an employee feels their workplace is not safe due to health and safety issues or Covid-19 measures, they can report it to their local authority for the HSE to investigate.
Regarding taxation, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on individual taxpayers. However, it is right that companies pay the tax that they owe to the Exchequer so that the Government can fund the public services that we all rely on. The Digital Services Tax for online companies was introduced to ensure that search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces pay UK tax that reflects the value they derive from UK users.
In response to concerns over privacy, the Government expects Amazon, like all organisations who process personal data, to comply with the UK’s Data Protection legislation, including the Data Protection Act 2018 and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.
Finally, I am hopeful that the steps that Amazon has taken so far in the effort to decarbonise, and I encourage the company to continue with its Science-Based Target commitments in order to move quickly towards Net Zero.
Hospitality Supply Chain Support
I do understand that many businesses feel that they have not had the same level of support as others, it is not just those in the hospitality supply chain. While the Government had tried to be as fair as possible where it can with its financial support, there are some areas where more could be done. Please be assured this matter has been raised with ministers and will continue to be so.
With hospitality, while the support has been relatively generous there is still a strong feeling among businesses that it may not be enough. In supporting hospitality directly, it is hoped that they will still be able to pay their bills to their suppliers in the support chain and be ready to buy again as soon as possible. In essence, the Government is supporting the supply chains customers, so they can in turn support the entire system. Likewise, where we have seen schemes like ‘Eat out to Help out’, this may well have been seen as a scheme to support bars and restaurants but the knock on effect within the entire supply chain will have been noticeable.
I personally hope to see other such innovative schemes for the spring as well as some extended support when it comes to business rates or indeed VAT.
Minister for Hospitality
The outbreak of Covid-19 had a significant impact on the economy and I recognise that the hospitality sector has been particularly affected. Limitations on opening hours, household mixing and social distancing requirements have been difficult for many businesses and I understand that restricting the spread of the virus in a sector which exists to bring people together is challenging.
I have quite rightly spent a considerable amount of time lobbying on behalf of the hospitality and tourism businesses of North Devon.
My ministerial colleagues have worked hard to support restaurants, bars and hotels throughout the outbreak. The includes the introduction of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan scheme, the £3 billion reduction in VAT for hospitality businesses, the 100 per cent business rates relief for hospitality, retail and leisure businesses, the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Business Grants Fund, the Small Business Grants Fund, the Bounce Back Loan scheme, the Job Support Scheme, the Local Restrictions Support Grant and the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme.
Government support for the hospitality sector involves several departments such as Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, HM Treasury, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, as well as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The legal maximum number of paid ministers is 109 and this is set out in statute. A new position would require the elimination of another position and it is not clear which the petition proposes to remove.
We do have a Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage in Nigel Huddleston MP, somebody who I have a great deal of confidence in and have worked with closely over the last nine months as well as Paul Scully MP, who is the Minister for Small Business with responsibility for pubs, who I again meet with regularly to discuss the plight of North Devon pubs.
The concerns of the hospitality sector are well recognised by both ministers but many of the decisions at present are linked to the Department for Health and Social Care whilst we fight a deadly virus and the huge response to support businesses through the pandemic, I have no doubt, and indeed will continue to fight for extra support for the hospitality sector once the vaccination programme is advanced. Many of the asks from the hospitality sector at this time relate to the future, and with so much uncertainty with the course of this pandemic, ministers in all departments are not able to give the long term information that businesses, understandably crave.
I do understand the motivations behind the petition in highlighting the importance of the sector, and indeed hope to speak in the debate, but I believe that the current approach has provided and continues to offer substantial support for the sector during these difficult times.
Electrical safety and online marketplaces
I am familiar with Electrical Safety First's campaign for better regulation of online marketplaces. As you will know, the UK has a strong product safety system to ensure products are safe before they can enter the market, and this includes products sold online.
I understand your concerns regarding this issue, and I take the problem of counterfeit electrical goods seriously. It is therefore welcome that the Government is working across the industry and with law enforcement colleagues on a number of initiatives to tackle this issue. You may also welcome the fact that officials in government are working with representatives from online platforms to discuss the availability of counterfeits on their platforms. Action is also underway to ensure a co-ordinated law enforcement response against the sellers of these counterfeits.
In addition, the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) is reviewing product safety legislation to make sure the existing legislative framework is adequate. This is due to changes to traditional supply and distribution chains as a result of e-commerce.
I will continue to follow the developments in this area and in particular the OPSS review into the current product safety legislative framework. This is an important issue and the Coronavirus pandemic highlights how more and more consumers are relying on e-commerce.
Night Time Economy
I know that it has been a particularly challenging time for those operating within the night time industry. I sympathise with anyone who is currently facing redundancy during this difficult time.
It is important that as our economy begins to recover, with more businesses reopening and staff returning to work, that there is a welcoming and safe night time economy. The night time economy is hugely important to our entertainment and culture in the UK, and it is the UK's fifth largest sector. To help the smallest businesses operating in the night time economy, the Government has put in place grants which have been distributed through North Devon Council. Further, all businesses operating in the retail, hospitality and leisure sector can benefit for a business rates holiday for 2020-21 as the Chancellor removed the previous threshold on eligibility for this support.
To support jobs, both the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and the Coronavirus Self-employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) provided a taxable grants worth 80 per cent of an employees’ wages, or a self-employed person’s average monthly profits over the last three years, up to £2,500 a month. I welcome the extension of SEISS which means that self-employed individuals can qualify for a second and final taxable grant, when the scheme reopens for applications this month. This second grant will be worth 70 per cent of average monthly trading profits, capped at £6,570 in total, and according to the same eligibility criteria as the first grant. This extension matches the support available under the CJRS as the Chancellor announced that the CJRS will continue until the end of October, with new flexibility having been introduced from August to also help get employees back to work. This includes furloughed workers being able to return to work on a part-time basis, with employers being asked to pay a percentage towards the salaries of furloughed staff.
Temporary new measures have been introduced to protect tenants renting commercial property from aggressive forms of rent recovery. To achieve this, the Government has legislated to enact a moratorium on commercial forfeitures due to non-payment of rent, due to end on 30 June; temporarily voided statutory demands and winding up petitions issued to commercial tenants; and changes have been made to the use of Commercial Rent Arrears Recovery.
As you may know, bars may reopen provided their premises are Covid-19 Secure. The full details of the guidance can be found online at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19/restaurants-offering-takeaway-or-delivery. Unfortunately, nightclubs, casinos, bowling alleys, indoor skating rinks, and some other venues must remain closed until it can be proven that their premises can be made Covid-19 Secure. I know that the evidence is being kept under review and Ministers are working with industry representatives to draw up further guidance. The full list of businesses which can reopen is available online at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/opening-certain-businesses-and-venues-in-england-from-4-july-2020.
I will continue to raise your industry-specific concerns at the highest level to make sure that the Government is aware and I will follow any developments closely.
Support for the Aerospace Industry
Aerospace is an important strategic sector of the UK economy and I am concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on the industry. The Government have put support in place, which is on top of the longer-term assistance delivered through the Aerospace Growth Partnership.
The Government is providing targeted assistance to firms, in addition to the £2.16 billion of loans that have been paid to airlines and aerospace companies through the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Finance Facility to support businesses affected by loss of funding. Current sector-specific assistance includes the provision of £450 million research and development funding through the Aerospace Technology Institute, as well as the establishment of the Jet Zero Council to oversee the UK’s mission to produce the first zero carbon transatlantic passenger jet. In total, over £6 billion of support has gone to the aviation and aerospace sector, which I hope will protect the industry and jobs. I will continue to monitor the situation closely.
However, I know that there is still a high level of concern about the future of the aerospace sector. I will continue to raise those concerns with Ministers to ensure that the Government is doing everything it can.
I have received a number of emails from constituents concerned about reports that there may be a temporary relaxation of Sunday trading legislation. I strongly believe that it is important for Sunday to remain special, and I do not want to see workers lose the extra time they get to spend with their families. I am therefore instinctively nervous about the media reports. However, as with all media reports of this kind, we must be careful to remember that there actually may not be any plans to relax Sunday trading legislation.
If such proposals were put before the House of Commons, I would want to be absolutely certain that such a change was temporary, and that it would provide a meaningful economic benefit which would support our post-pandemic economic recovery. I would need to both of those conditions to be fulfilled before considering supporting such proposals.