Yes (or no), minister?

Hospitality might not get the minister it wants, but the government has to work more closely with the sector on a green recovery roadmap. David Burrows reports. 

Last Monday, MPs gathered to debate e-petition 552201 – the creation of a minister for hospitality – which has more than 200,000 supporters. What happened?

Well, there was talk of the need for “a voice at the heart of government” given the “lack of deep understanding of the sector”. There were tales of wasted food as parts of the country locked down at late notice, and of businesses “left guessing” about some of the rules.

There was also mention of the struggles facing suppliers, who are often left forgotten as parts of the industry close down at the click of the prime minister’s fingers. Many suppliers had become “banks” suggested Mark Pawsey, MP and chairman at the Foodservice Packaging Association, with their customers having no cash to pay them as their sites shut.

But, rather intriguingly, amidst all the current struggles, and in particular during the latter stages of the 90 minute debate, attention turned to the future and a new leaner, greener, sexier hospitality sector. ‘Net zero’ was even mentioned by Paul Scully, the parliamentary under-secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), a man who has consistently voted against measures to prevent climate change.

He said: “I want to see the creativity that helps define the hospitality sector put to good use in helping to tackle climate change, by developing and utilising new technologies and processes to minimise emissions and, importantly, waste. Although this is a challenging time for the sector, it is essential that, as we bounce back, we work with hospitality businesses to build back their industry so that it is stronger and greener.”

Putting aside the fact that the open-shut-open-shut policies of this government have led to food (and drinks) being wasted, the fact that ministers want to see the sector restart and recover sustainably is significant.

Scully admitted that his thoughts had, in part, been prompted by a letter from Green MP Caroline Lucas but they are now there, on record. “In short, hospitality matters,” he said. “We will continue to work with hospitality businesses to get them through the immediate crisis and then help them to build back stronger and greener.”

A lot of the debate, naturally, focused on that immediate financial crisis (rather than the equally immediate climate crisis). The support for the businesses in danger of dying was discussed at length, with many criticising the new £9,000 grants as “a drop in the pint glass”. “Having spent the last nine months in difficulty, [some owners] are now looking at losing not only their businesses, but their homes,” warned Catherine McKinnell, the Labour MP who led the debate and is proving a real ally for the sector.

That isn’t to say the government has failed to support the sector. Loans, grants, furlough and the innovative ‘eat out to help out’ scheme have all offered life support – and yet there is a feeling that most have been designed to prop businesses up for the 12 weeks ministers initially hoped this crisis would last, rather than the 10 months – and counting – it has.

A vote during the debate showed cross party support for a dedicated minister for the sector, but Boris Johnson, the prime minister, reportedly has no intention of entertaining the idea (though he at least has to consider it more seriously). He has plenty else on his plate, of course, but this will be a critical few weeks for the pandemic and his government’s response. Businesses are on the edge.

The feeling expressed by some during the debate was that this is a government that has made hospitality a scapegoat for its own failings to deal with the pandemic. With vaccines offering a way out, there were calls, at the very least, for greater industry involvement in new, inevitably more nuanced rules as the country eventually (and hopefully) opens up again. A roadmap is needed, said MPs, led if not by a new minister for hospitality, then at least by an interim ‘hospitality industry recovery minister’.

As Greg Clark, the former business secretary, suggested: “[…] these are the pubs, cafés and restaurants that will be at the forefront of the recovery when lockdown ends – the first to give job opportunities to young people, to give business to their suppliers and to attract people back to our city centres, high streets and villages across Britain. They will also be first to pay their taxes to the Exchequer.”

But why stop at reopening? How about a roadmap for responsible recovery that outlines the role of this once vibrant sector in meeting the country’s climate change ambitions, not to mention its efforts to tackle obesity? For this the industry must not only show willing, but real commitment to a low-carbon, lower-calorie future. Some companies have, but collectively there is much work to do. This is about ‘food’ ‘service’, so what kind of food do we want to serve?

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