I have been contacted by many businesses and workers in the Leeds night-time economy.
As the MP for the city centre, I am only too aware of the importance of pubs, restaurants and the night-time economy to Leeds and to the livelihoods of all those why rely on those businesses for their employment. I know how incredibly difficult things are at the moment and I have written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to raise my concerns.
As the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) highlights, the sector is suffering particularly badly from the effects of the lockdown. Many businesses continue to experience very serious difficulties and I share the NTIA’s concern that the industry faces a wave of closures and job losses unless the Government ensures that the right sector-specific support is made available. My view is that the £1,000 job retention bonus risks wasting billions of pounds on businesses that do not need it, while hard-pressed sectors like the night-time economy do not get the help they require.
Workers in hospitality should not be treated in the same way as those in sectors already back to full capacity. Unless we take a targeted approach, we face the danger of a wave of redundancies. That is why as the Opposition we have consistently been calling for support under the furlough scheme to be maintained for businesses that continue to be heavily affected by public health restrictions. The recent measures announced by the Chancellor are too little and too late and 2/3 of income for someone who is already on the minimum wage is simply inadequate.
The Chancellor has talked about viable jobs, but the simple truth is that all the jobs in your sector are perfectly viable apart from in circumstances where the restrictions make it impossible to earn a living. I’m sure, like me, you recognise the need for effective action to be taken to stop the spread of the virus and for establishments to take all the necessary measures to help in this task (which I know you have been doing). But, in those circumstances I do think that the Government has an obligation to target support at those sectors that are in trouble because of action that ministers have taken in the public interest. I can assure you that as the Opposition we will continue to press the Government on this.
Having said that, as you will be aware, Covid infections in Leeds, and elsewhere, have been rising sharply and admissions to hospital are also increasing. In Liverpool critical care bed capacity is now 90% full. Following the Prime Minister‘s announcement of the new three tier system on the 12th October (which I support although I do not think it will be enough) Leeds has been put in the high category which means that bars and restaurants can remain open, albeit with the 10 pm closure. The Council had argued hard for this outcome – they were worried that we might be put in the very high category – but I have to be honest and say that unless we can stabilise the number of infections in the city very soon then there remains a real chance that this might still happen in which case pubs are likely to close. That’s why it’s so important that we all do our bit to reduce the number of contacts we have to help reduce the spread.
On the 10pm curfew, it was not possible to amend the orders in the House of Commons on 13th October. The vote was all or nothing, although if the House’s procedures had allowed it, as the Opposition we would have proposed an amendment to implement the Welsh approach where there is drinking-up time, off sales are banned after 10 o’clock and there is no hard stop at 10 pm.
The science on all of this is imperfect and I don’t think we will ever get to understand the precise contribution of each activity to the spread of the virus. But a basic truth holds – namely the more contacts we have in the course of a day, the greater the risk that the virus will be passed on to each other and to those we live with. Therefore, society has to decide which contacts are going to be restricted while allowing essential activities – like children attending school – to continue. In the current circumstances where we are losing control of the virus, there is no option that will protect every sector of the economy. I think a circuit break, as recommended to ministers by SAGE on 21 September, will be needed and the sooner the better. I know that this is not what you want to hear but it must be accompanied with a package of support for all the businesses affected.
Finally, as you may also have seen, the leaders of Leeds, Newcastle Manchester and Liverpool councils wrote recently to the Government calling for greater help to deal with the current crisis, better consultation about restrictions and much more local track and trace. I support their proposals and I have attached a copy of their letter below.
Hilary Benn MP for Leeds Central
Page updated 22nd October – You can read the response Hilary has had from the Minister for Media and Data about the #LetUsDance campaign and support for nightclubs here.