Business and Planning Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Ben LakeMain Page: Ben Lake (Plaid Cymru) - Ceredigion)
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(3 months ago)Commons Chamber
The Government are asking Parliament to expedite the parliamentary progress of this Bill. In everyday circumstances, it would not be fast-tracked, but would be subject to a lower gear of progress. We are not in ordinary times or everyday circumstances, and the Opposition recognise, and have indeed constructively argued, that many of the measures outlined in the Bill need to be in place before the summer recess in order to be effective.
If legislation is not passed in time, hospitality businesses and their customers will not be able to benefit from the flexibility and covid safety arrangement measures relating to outdoor seating and alcohol service over the coming months. Likewise, road hauliers and others are dependent on heavy duty vehicle and passenger-carrying vehicle testing and licencing, and construction projects may be paused or delayed without planning permissions being extended. Furthermore, the measures will facilitate bounce back loans by disapplying unfair relationship provisions in the Consumer Credit Act 1974.
Our position on the Bill is one of constructive engagement. We want to provide support for hard-pressed businesses while giving additional freedoms and flexibility to respond to covid-19 spatial requirements. Although the additional freedoms will be welcomed by many, I ask the Minister for reassurance that checks and balances are in place in order to maintain social order. We want to ensure access for those with visual impairment or limited mobility, and the right to peace and quiet in residential areas must be maintained. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) will come on to that later.
It is also important that these measures are temporary and time-sensitive, with constructive engagement at the heart of any proposals to extend the operating hours of a construction site. Good planning is an enabler, rather than a constraint. Consultation helps to deliver good community, business and place outcomes.
Amendments 2 and 3 are common-sense amendments that aim to extend to more businesses the provisions in the Bill and ensure a streamlined procedure for businesses serving food and drink to access pavement licences. We welcome the provisions that will allow cafés, restaurants and pubs to reopen quickly and serve more customers, while maintaining a safe environment. The amendments would simply extend those measures to include spaces where temporary pavements have been created or extended for social distancing measures, so that businesses will be able to take advantage of that. I note the calls for caution. This needs to be done sensibly, and the impact on staff, local residents, local authorities and disabled pedestrians must be kept in mind.
New clause 2 addresses a vital omission in the Bill. The food and accommodation sector has had the largest decline in economic output of all sectors with available data in this crisis. An extraordinary drop of 92% between February and April led to almost 6% of workers being furloughed. Despite the help the Bill offers to businesses, it does not offer “business as normal.” It is vital that we understand the impact the measures in this Bill will have on these industries, especially considering the support the Government are currently providing through the furlough scheme. We need not undo the good work done by the scheme so far. The new clause would require the Government to publish a report every six months on the impact of the Bill in the context of the coronavirus job retention scheme. Such a report is vital to the understanding of the ongoing impact on hospitality, tourism, leisure and the travel sector. Only by knowing the scale of the problem after the measures in the Bill are implemented will the Government be able to match it with the proper level of tailored support that this sector will clearly need.
New clause 3 addresses the lack of regular data provided for applications for coronavirus support schemes. The Government do not currently release data on the number of businesses that fail to access loan schemes. Current data relates only to the total number of applications and the number of loans granted. Again, we must know how well the schemes are working in order to help businesses through this crisis, so I hope the Government will consider this new clause.
New clause 4 relates to part 2 of the Bill, which in turn relates to my brief, and the Minister’s brief, of planning and construction. I broadly welcome, as does the Royal Town Planning Institute, the planning measures in the Bill that will ensure that building work can safely restart, especially in light of the “build, build, build” message that will be detailed tomorrow in the Prime Minister’s much trailed speech. However, considering the impacts of longer working hours and extended planning permissions on neighbourhoods is important. Under the new clause, the Secretary of State would return to the House if he wished to extend the measures relating to construction working hours or extensions to current planning permissions beyond 1 April 2021. That is not to say that we would necessarily oppose any extensions, but it is vital that these provisions are not extended without explanation, and the new clause addresses that.
Finally, new clause 5 would require the Secretary of State to publish a report detailing the extra costs of processing these measures for local authorities. It is not clear at the moment what the measures contained in the Bill will cost local authorities in practice. Throughout this crisis they have been working around the clock to protect their communities from the covid-19 outbreak and its immediate impact. The Bill highlights that local authorities will also be crucial in the recovery phase. Their work has, as my colleagues my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) have said, come at a huge financial cost. Austerity measures over the past 10 years have had a devastating impact on local authority budgets, and despite the rhetoric of “whatever it takes,” the Government have not provided local authorities with anywhere near the level of funding they need in the wake of the immediate crisis. The provisions in this Bill will certainly result in yet more work and higher costs for local authorities, including for local planning departments, which have already had to cut spending by half in the last decade. Given that, it is essential that we understand fully what the impact of these changes will be on local authority finances and that local authorities are fully consulted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) has made clear, the measures in the Bill will also not have a uniform impact across the country, and that needs to be taken into account.
We have enjoyed constructive communication on this Bill with the Government, and these amendments are tabled in a similarly constructive way. I look forward to the Government providing us with the detail and assurances on the broad range of issues I have outlined.
This is a short Bill, and the measures it contains are necessary to help otherwise viable businesses to survive the unprecedented impact of covid-19. The clauses relating to the hospitality sector are especially important. Other hon. Members made it clear on Second Reading just how important the sector is, and the Minister, in summing up the debate, pointed to the fact that the sector employs as much as a third of the UK workforce. Others have also argued effectively that when these businesses are able to reopen safely, they will urgently require as much flexibility as possible to adapt to the new ways of operating, not only to comply with social distancing requirements but to cater to changes in consumer demand and habits.
Break in Debate
As the MP for a constituency that has a lot of small breweries, I have some sympathy with this. I would not want to see more off sales in my constituency, but does the hon. Member not think the root of the problem is that these small breweries did not get support through the existing Government mechanisms, which went quite a long way but did not cover this sector?
Not only do the breweries have an issue with how to sell their products; they also had a lot of their product in storage, which then went off and had to be disposed of in whatever way that is done. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the breweries had a double whammy in not being able to make sales and having their stock destroyed?
I rise to discuss new clause 6, which stands in my name. The Bill has been very rushed. It was announced on Thursday in the business of the House. We had to lay amendments by Friday, and I thank you, Dame Eleanor, for allowing a manuscript amendment today in order to get the new clause put forward.
As the Government rush into this legislation—I think there are questions about why that is—it is important that we make sure there are points of review and reflection about how well it is working. To put it more charitably, I am trying to save the Government from themselves. I think there is a lot of support across the House for the new clause, but in the very short time between Thursday and now, it has been hard to marshal all that and enable people to come and express their views.
The Minister may be able to answer this, but why has the Bill been quite so rushed, given that we have been in lockdown since 23 March and we knew that was coming for some time before then and given that we knew these sectors would be among the hardest hit? One would have thought that somebody in the Government would have been working up a Bill and stress-testing it before now, so that it was not such a surprise to Members of this House and sectors out there.
Local government has been caught rather by surprise. Of course it has been involved. I am not saying to the Minister that the Government have not spoken to local government. It would be extraordinary if he had come to the House from his Department and not done that. But there has not been enough detailed discussion about the impacts. We have heard, and I will not go into the detail again, about some of the impacts in constituencies such as mine and other urban constituencies with a high density of licensed premises, where antisocial behaviour has already been happening as a result.
We are already seeing problems, so there is a warning sign for the Government. The reality is that once off sales are allowed, as the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan said, at the same hours as on licensed premises—almost with a sweep of a pen, with a very short period for councils to object—we will see an awful lot more sales off the premises at all hours of the day and night. We also have the big issue about the resources involved from the police and local councils to police it.
It is easy to say, as the Minister did, that the police have certain powers and there are powers for local authorities, but the issue is the resourcing. We cannot just do all of that in one go. A lot of licences are being applied for. There are more than 1,300 licensed premises across my borough as a whole. How many licensing officers are needed to do that work? The police have other things to do with their time—certainly that is the case in my constituency, where they are dealing with serious crime issues, as well as antisocial behaviour and managing and policing social distancing and covid-19 regulations. There is a lot on everyone’s plate. We want to support businesses, but a three-month review after this has been in place would give the Government the chance to come back and either reassure us that it is all fine everywhere, or, if there are problems, look at ways of addressing that. The Minister has heard today from the Labour Front Benchers that there is strong support to get the economy going, and backing to make sure that businesses can survive the next period, as we still live in the pandemic. That is really important, certainly in a constituency such as mine with so many licensed premises, but we have to get that balance so that residents do not lose out.
This is a very mild amendment. Earlier, the Secretary of State rejected it because I had discussed a rolling amendment—I just say to the Minister that I had very little time to draft it and get advice about how to make it fit. I did not have time to discuss it in detail with the Government, otherwise I would have, and I know that other Members around the House agree with it.
I will not push the amendment to a vote today, but I am hoping that in the other place, they will have more time to think about, listen and reflect upon it, and that, in the meantime, the Government will also have time to reflect on it. Perhaps the Minister can give me some indication of whether this is something that the Government are willing to reflect on—to build in, simply, a three-month review point, so that three months after the Bill becomes an Act, the issue would come to the House again. A Minister would come to explain what is happening and we would have a debate about how this is working in our constituencies up and down the country, in the four nations of the UK, and we can make sure that we are getting it right. If there are problems then, the Government would have my backing to bring in certain powers to ensure that the antisocial behaviour that I fear this may herald is tackled, and I am sure that the Government would have the backing of other Members.
It would be helpful to hear from the Government about their thinking on this very mild amendment. We pushed for a review of the covid-19 legislation, which was pretty draconian. That was accepted by the Government and I propose this review in a similar spirit. I do not think that this will provide uncertainty for businesses. A review, when there has been such cross-party support in general for a proposal that supports businesses, is unlikely to completely reverse it, but it may allow for amelioration of some of the worst impacts if they materialise, as I fear they may in my constituency, or it may allow for different approaches to how the measures are applied in different nations of the UK, different regions or different cities.
They key thing is that if we have the review, it would give the Government and the House an option to look at this again. I think that something as draconian as this—the biggest change in licensing rules for decades—warrants a review. Some of these licences will be granted for a year if they pass through on the nod. A lot of them will go through very fast because of a lack of resources in local authorities. I urge the Minister to take my suggestion for this amendment constructively. I will not push it to a vote today because I recognise that, although the Bill is rushed, the amendment is also rushed. I hope, however, that the other place will consider it, that the Government will approach it thoughtfully and that when the Bill returns to this place, we can consider having a three-month review.