Live Events and Weddings: Covid-19 Support

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Monday 9th November 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
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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.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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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.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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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.

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey
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I asked specifically whether the Minister would look into the pilot scheme that one of my constituents has put in place. Will he look into that and have a Zoom meeting with my constituent?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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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.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous
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Would the Minister consider allowing a five-person event if siblings or parents were terminally ill?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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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.

Karen Bradley Portrait Karen Bradley
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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.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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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.