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Business secretary insists agency support ‘being looked at’

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has told the boss of Henbury Travel that a more ‘sectoral’ approach to supporting different parts of the economy is being considered.

Richard Slater, owner of the Macclesfield agency, quizzed the minister during a call-in on LBC on Monday (July 19), highlighting problems with restart grants, a lack of sector-specific support and furlough – while agents are earning little or no commission amid the pandemic.

“Why are we bottom of the list in economic support; why are you ignoring travel agents?” he asked the minister.

Kwarteng said the government is not ignoring them, adding: “As a constituency MP, in Spelthorne, [travel businesses] have made the same point to me: you’re not looking after us.

“We have given loans, you have benefited from the furlough scheme, there has been some support.

“What we have avoided in this crisis is ‘slice and dice’ to bits of the economy, taking sector by sector approach. We have given lots of general support.”

In the “immediate impact” of the pandemic, the government took a “very general approach”, he said, but added that, as business secretary, he is looking at a more sectoral approach.

“For example, in the hospitality sector we have got a hospitality strategy which outlines ways in which we can help that sector going forward,” he told Slater.

“Travel agents are part of that conversation. I am looking at ways in which we can support key businesses.”

Slater said his agency has had to refund £1.8 million, and has been unable to take advantage of furlough because the agency has continued to trade.

He highlighted how a nearby hairdresser got a grant of £8,000 but Henbury Travel was eligible for just £2,667 as it had continued trading – although there was a travel ban.

The minister advised Slater to get in touch with the business department about the grants, admitting there have been “issues” with the way local councils have distributed them.

After the phone-in, Slater commented: “The minister did appear slightly understanding, but did use the H [hospitality] word, and how they had been supported, which is wearing thin.

“It did sound like they were considering some support, but I won’t hold my breath. He swept over the point about restart [grants].

“I do think he got that we couldn’t use furlough, or at least it’s sinking in finally.”

Despite Kwarteng’s comments, aviation minister Robert Courts said sector-specific support was not being considered when challenged by MPs later on Monday.

Courts reiterated the governement’s stance that the best way to support the industry was to increase vaccination cover and reopen borders, despite recent moves to reimpose restrictions on reopening.

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