Statement in Reply to Amanda Solloway MP & The Prime Minister

Following our letter sent to the Prime Minister on 20th February with over 200 signatures, raising the issues currently facing wedding venues, businesses, suppliers and couples, we have this week received a response from Amanda Solloway MP, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation which you can read in full at the end of this statement.

To say that the response is disappointing is an understatement and we strongly challenge the claims made by the Minister in the letter. We have shared our robust counter arguments here to be fully transparent with all those supporting us.

To openly clarify our position on the statements made:

“We recognise the unique significance that marriages and civil partnerships hold in people’s lives. However, weddings by their nature are inherently social occasions which are particularly vulnerable to transmission.”

We would like to add that marriages and civil partnerships also hold significant cultural and religious meaning, and are not just social occasions but a fundamental right of passage which enables many to continue their lives together in full. Many cultures and religions prevent couples living together or starting a family before they are married. To not acknowledge this is discriminatory. We also challenge the evidence on weddings being particularly vulnerable to transmission. See WVSG paper here.

“We are aware that couples require time to plan their wedding day and for suppliers to deliver these events. Therefore, we hope that this roadmap will provide the clarity needed for both businesses and consumers.”

This statement demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding around the level of detail and clarity required, and the lead times by which we plan weddings and life events. As of 1pm on Friday 19th March, almost 4 weeks since the roadmap was announced, we have still not received full published guidance on what exact rules and restrictions will be in place from 29th March. Furthermore, there has been increased confusion and disparity between the headlines of the announcement, and the detailed guidance yet to be formalised. The average lead time for planning a wedding is 6 months – 12 months. At a very minimum we need 2 months notice to make changes to plans, particularly if significant in impact.

“We recognise that the wedding industry is going through a difficult period. I am pleased to inform you that the Chancellor announced in his Budget on 03 March 2021, a raft of new measures to help support the sector.”

“A number of these new measures will help businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry, in their recovery and reopening.”

‘A raft of new measures’ suggests that tailored support is forthcoming for this particularly hard hit sector, or that existing packages of support being extended will be sufficient. This is not the case. 50% of wedding businesses have received no financial support thus far, and will not be able to take advantage of extended or new measures announced by the Chancellor on 3rd March 2021.

Most wedding businesses were unable to access the Local Restrictions Grant (LRG) due to being deemed open by local authorities when restricted to 6, 15 or 30 guests. These arbitrary limits placed upon our sector do not permit a viable level of trade, and so we were open in name only.

Many business owners have been unable to furlough as they are limited company directors, or must continue to work unpaid whilst supporting hundreds of thousands of couples through multiple postponements or cancellations.

Furloughing of remaining staff costs a business with businesses still having to fully fund National Insurance contributions and pension contributions, plus wage top up where applied. These costs can be significant and become even more onerous whilst the business remains closed or severely restricted.

Additional Restrictions Grants (ARG) have been insufficient (the average amount is £1334 received) and dependent on discretionary rules from local authorities, they have been based again on those with premises and rates payable. This excludes all those who have been forced to give up premises, those who work from home, and those without bricks and mortar premises. It is also a postcode lottery across the country with a “first come first serve” approach.

Wedding businesses have not been recognised or listed as part of the hospitality industry and they have not received the same level of grant support, stimulus packages or reduction of VAT

Wedding businesses have not been able to access the Cultural Recovery Fund

The government have still failed to take into consideration the act that the wedding industry specifically has been the first industry to close and will be the last to reopen, that we are a seasonal sector, that we have a vast and complex supply chain and that the time involved in reopening requires a significantly longer lead-in time than pubs, restaurants, hotels and other services.

“These include extension of the Coronavirus Job Support Scheme to the end of September 2021.”

This scheme has been invaluable for some businesses with staff, although it has not supported skeleton staff required to keep working in order to keep venues maintained and to cover administration of postponement and cancellations. It has also not been a successful scheme for small or one director limited companies.

The September end to this scheme also creates a cliff-edge for those wedding businesses who are able to access it. Wedding trade and revenue starts to tail off in autumn in our seasonal industry, and as this coincides with the end of the scheme, it’s likely that many businesses will be forced to make redundancies having been unable to trade viably throughout Spring and Summer  2021.

“£5 billion for new Restart Grants which includes a one-off cash grant of up to £18,000 for hospitality including those in the wedding industry that pay business rates.”

It’s disingenuous to suggest that the maximum l£18,000 grant is widely accessible, particularly to those in the wedding industry of whom many will not be eligible. With viable trade not possible before 21st June at the earliest, those that can access the Restart Grants will have a significantly higher loss in revenue and debt taken on having been closed in all but name without sufficient support over one year already. It also appears, yet again, that there has been no consideration of the skilled, talented and experienced supply chain who we rely upon to fulfil contracts and full events.

“The Government is also providing all Local Authorities in England with an additional £425 million of discretionary business grant funding…”

The administration of grants by Local Authorities has, in the vast majority of cases, failed spectacularly. Huge numbers of businesses and individuals have been rejected from these schemes for spurious reasons and there is no standard criteria applied to applications. Grants are not paid in a timely manner and the entire grant system is under investigation. Those in the wedding sector are in no way materially assisted or supported by these grants.

“Extension to the VAT cut for 5% for hospitality across the UK until the end of September 2021, followed by a 12.5% rate for a further six months until 31 March 2022.”

The VAT cut does not apply to wedding businesses. We have not been officially recognised as hospitality. This scheme does not remotely support the wedding industry.

“An extension of the UK-wide Self Employment Income Support Scheme has been agreed to September 2021, with 600,000 more people who filed a tax return in 2019-20 now able to claim for the first time.”

Given that 50% of those working in the wedding sector have been unable to access any support at all, we do welcome the adjustment of the SEISS eligibility criteria. However, SEISS has been ill-managed. Those eligible have had to wait months for the next round of applications to open and no one knows when they will receive their next payment. In the meantime these business owners and workers are facing immediate financial crisis across the country.

“More support for small businesses – the ‘Help to Grow’ scheme. Measures include managing their businesses better and developing digital skills.”

Wedding businesses do not need ‘help to grow’, they simply need to be allowed to work. To even suggest that we are in the situation we are because we need to learn how to manage our businesses better or develop digital skills borders on the offensive. We are struggling because we have been effectively closed for a year and now cannot trade viably until late June at the very earliest. It’s not a lack of skill, commitment or business acumen that is holding us back, it is government policy and lack of financial support or understanding. We are a highly skilled, trained and experienced workforce. 80% of businesses in the wedding industry are led by women. Many chose to start a business in this sector due to the ability to work flexibly around childcare commitments, but have a huge variety of skills and experience on their CVs and educational record. It is why we are such a successful and profitable industry worth £14.7bn every year.

To summarise, the response to our letter sent to the Prime Minister and replied to by Amanda Solloway MP, represents yet another example of the government failing to listen to the lived experiences and feedback of venues, businesses and couples in every constituency in the UK.

We have no published guidance on reopening plans, no specific support and no demonstrable understanding of the entire wedding supply chain or any type of wedding that sits outside of the ‘traditional’ view of what a wedding is.

Arbitrary guest numbers do not work for the vast majority of couples and they prevent businesses from trading viably until 21st June at the earliest. Venues and suppliers have been closed in all but name for a year, and now they have to survive for another 14 weeks as a minimum before viable trading is even possible. There are no assurances that all restrictions will be removed in June, and combined with a lack of insurance cover available in the market, there is a sincere lack of consumer confidence seeing couples in Q3 and Q4 postponing, further eroding businesses’ ability to bounce-back this year.

Despite the economic and societal value of weddings, we all still remain at ‘the back of the queue’, whilst other live events can recommence in May with much larger numbers and fewer restrictions.

We repeat our calls for clarity, parity and support, we remain committed to raising the issues experienced by couples and businesses with government and MPs and we are, as always, open to all conversations that will facilitate the safeguard this world-leading industry, 400,000 jobs and the future of hundreds of thousands of couples right around the UK in every culture, religion and community.

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Original Response from Amanda Solloway MP