Do we need a Minister for Hospitality?

Houses of Parliament in London

And are there any suitable candidates? Nick comments on a recent petition and a future debate.

A week on Monday, on 11 January at 4.30 pm, the House of Commons is scheduled to debate whether the UK government should acknowledge the overwhelming importance that hospitality plays in the British economy and for the first time ever appoint a Minister for Hospitality.

This comes as a result of a petition #SeatattheTable that has been signed by over 170,000 requesting this. It is a petition that I have not yet signed. My overriding concern is based on a phrase whispered to Benedict Cumberbatch playing the role of Dominic Cummings at the end of the TV play based on the Brexit campaign, Channel 4’s The Uncivil War, by his opponent played by Rory Kinnear. ‘Be careful’, whispers Cummings’ opponent, ‘of what you wish for’.

There is no questioning the value of the hospitality business to the UK economy. Hospitality is Britain’s fourth-largest employer, accounting for 3.2 million jobs directly and a further 2.8 million indirect jobs, according to data from Ignite Economics commissioned by the British Hospitality Association. The research says that the jobs are spread around the country, with hospitality being among the top six employers in every region of the UK.

Hospitality’s gross value added (GVA) – the increase in economic value from the production of goods and services – of 5.9% is almost double that of the economy as a whole.

The industry has a lot going for it. The data show that labour productivity in the sector has grown at more than double the rate of the overall economy since 2008. The industry GVA of 3.2% per hour worked compares with 1.5% for the wider economy.

In financial terms, in 2019, hospitality and tourism brought in £73 billion to the UK economy, or £161 billion including the indirect impact, including £15 billion in exports and £38 billion in direct tax receipts. Moreover, this is an industry that is spread, albeit somewhat unevenly, across the whole of the UK – no need for levelling up – and most of the jobs do not require an enormous amount of skilled labour or many years of training.

The government’s response so far is that, while it ‘acknowledges the importance of the hospitality industry to the UK economy’ (my use of scare quotes here as this is the government that has just talked through the Brexit deal!), responsibility for the hospitality industry will continue to be looked after by two departments: the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Here is my first caveat. There is simply no point in establishing a Minister for Hospitality if he or she does not have a seat in the Cabinet. And that I believe is a long, long way off. But without this, how will the industry’s voice be heard loud and clear? Who will shout out on its behalf? I simply do not believe that a passionate, experienced voice speaking on behalf of an industry that has never been represented at such a level will have much impact if it is not allowed into Cabinet meetings. The chances of our current Prime Minister allowing such an innovation are, sadly, very slim indeed in my view.

And what of the government’s response to hospitality’s current spokespeople? On Twitter Alok Sharma MP, current head of the BEIS department, does make a reference to food but it is in mourning for his dog Olly, hoping that he is enjoying some turkey in ‘doggie heaven’. Over at the Department for Culture, minister Oliver Dowden posts on Facebook a picture of himself and his wife grinning while holding a whole stalk of Brussels sprouts. The seemingly equally eager-to-please Nigel Huddleston is the MP in Oliver Dowden’s department tasked with tourism. Each of them look comfortable in a business suit and tie but regrettably both seem equally bereft of any experience in hospitality or in tourism.

My argument is that responsibility for the industry is far too important to be left to such inexperienced gentlemen and it is a failure to appreciate just what hospitality currently delivers that shows just what this government is overlooking.

2020 has shown how many jobs are at risk when we British cannot go out and enjoy ourselves and when visitors from overseas cannot travel. In November 2020 figures from the ONS (Office for National Statistics) showed that unemployment in the hospitality sector increased by 58,000 to 171,000 over the past year, a third of all job losses in the UK. This was of course before the December lockdown and the impact of the new variant of COVID-19 we are suffering in the UK, with all its consequences. This was also before Brexit and associated consequences during the traditionally much quieter first three months of the new year.

Any future Minister for Hospitality will also face the challenge of deciding exactly whom they represent. The British hospitality industry ranges from the well-known hotel groups such as Premier Inns, which ran to over 75,000 bedrooms in 2018, to the huge number of much smaller, often family-owned hotels and bed and breakfasts; the same range applies to restaurants, bars and pubs; and that is not forgetting the numerous considerably smaller tea shops, cafés and sandwich outlets. The British Hospitality Association estimated in pre-COVID days that there were approximately 127,000 hospitality outlets in the country. This is an enormous constituency for any one person to speak on behalf of.

That is not to say that speaking on behalf of the UK’s hospitality industry is impossible; this responsibility could fit with the qualities and aspirations of one exemplary individual. But that individual has to have had one foot in the hospitality industry at some stage in his or her career to be able to stand up and speak on behalf of such an important industry. And sadly, I cannot see anybody with the requisite talents within the ranks of the current government.

There would be one innovative reason for a Minister for Hospitality. Now that we have ‘reclaimed our sovereignty’ this would be the first such appointment within one of the world’s most established economies, a sign that this government acknowledges its worth and is looking to a post-COVID future. But this too, I fear, is beyond the outlook of our present government.