On Thursday 17 December, Sir David Amess, MP for Southend West, spoke at the debate on Fairs and Showgrounds and called for these fairs to remain open during the Coronavirus pandemic and for the Government to give them more financial support, by means of the culture recovery fund.
Sir David is the Chairman of the Fairs and Showgrounds All-Party Parliamentary Group who help the industry in convening meetings with government departments who are introducing legislation to change existing legislation to the detriment of the fairs and showgrounds industry.
Sir David said “I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this debate. It is not just the coronavirus pandemic that is causing such a tough time for fairs and showgrounds. There are many other factors.
One factor is certainly fashion. The APPG for these organisations used to be hugely important in the House of Commons, with a very large attendance and proceedings overseen by none other than the Speaker’s father, the noble Lord Hoyle. It was the thing to do to be at those events. Fashions have changed and there are many reasons for that. Of course, once America started to have Disney World and all those other things, people began to travel abroad, and when they came home to the rides that we provided, they thought it was not quite like that. They have had a very tough time.
Having seen the APPG wither away, it is marvellous that we now have strong voices from two parts of Glasgow, South Shields, Norfolk and Gloucester here—the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), and my hon. Friends the Members for North West Norfolk (James Wild) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham)—as well as my new colleague from the north of England, my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell). I am very heartened that things are going to change. Let us be frank with each other. If we want to get things done, Members of Parliament need to lobby Ministers—it does not matter who the Government are. If the Government of the day think that there are not too many Members of Parliament interested in this subject, they just shrug their shoulders and it does not count. I am hoping that our numbers will grow and grow and we will become the powerful force that we used to be.
I agree with all the comments made by my hon. Friends and Opposition Members. I am simply probably going to repeat them. The community of shows and travelling fairs is a large one with more than 25,000 showmen in the UK. Many of those businesses, as we have heard already, are run by families who have followed the way of life for many generations and contributed to the economy and community life.
During the pandemic, many showmen have given up their time and effort to become keyworkers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, delivering food to supermarkets and vulnerable communities alike. Showmen have also wonderfully donated to NHS staff and hospitals all over the country, on top of their regular charitable work, which has raised significant sums of money for national and local charities.
The effects of the coronavirus restrictions hit the show and fairs community at the worst time possible. Having spent the winter repairing and maintaining rides, conducting safety checks and obtaining insurance and vehicle licences, they were forced to close down and miss all their peak months of operation, because let us be frank, that is usually Easter, Whitsun, summer and Christmas—as we know, there would have been something going on near Buckingham palace. It really has hit them at the worst time possible.
When businesses were allowed to open from 4 July, if covid-secure, show and fair operators spent thousands of pounds in order to ensure that their customers would be safe. Despite their efforts, as we have heard, councils throughout the country closed down the majority of fairs, although amusement parks and street markets were allowed to continue operating. That just is not right. For goodness’ sake, it all happens outside. It is unfair and it happened because there was not a strong enough voice in all parts of the House.
Councils were not given clear, specific guidance on the safety measures that fairs and shows needed to implement, and that led to confusion and the closure of all fairs. Many fairs that have been taking place for hundreds of years were forced to cancel—that is so sad—breaking a vital link to the surrounding community. Clear guidelines should be issued to councils to enable permission to be granted to fairs and shows in all areas of the United Kingdom. Those events, as the hon. Member for South Shields said, are part of the fabric of life in communities, and they bring in visitors to help the local economy, as well as being great fun.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, we can all remember the excitement when a fair or circus came to our area as children. We used to get so excited when the fair arrived on Wanstead Flats. Why I got so excited I do not know—but I did. A visit to the funfair was a magical experience, with candyfloss, which of course is bad for the health, toffee apples, which are bad for the teeth, and rides on the helter-skelter, which I could do. As for all the things that go round and round, my wife, not I, used to take the children on those. The carousel was a wonderful thing to behold.
The sights, colours and music were unforgettable, and the day usually ended with a journey home carrying prizes from the shooting gallery or other games. In my day it was a goldfish in a bag and, of course, as I was a child, if I never got the table tennis ball into the goldfish bowl, when the chap was not looking one of my relatives would cheat for me and just plump it into the bowl. Of course, there cannot now be live animals at fairs, and I think people go home with an oversized cuddly toy—which no doubt we put into raffles in our constituencies.
My own children loved to visit Never Never Land in Southend, just by the pier, which was owned and run by my late friend Mike Dolby—although that was not a travelling fair. I thought that the hon. Member for South Shields said that she had the best seaside town. We will argue about that outside the Chamber; but we are going to become a city, so if hers is the best town we shall be the best city. The children used to love the fun and fantasy that was everywhere. We cannot allow future generations to miss out on those wonderful childhood experiences. Why should they not have those fantasies? It is wonderful for children, and everything should be done to preserve travelling fairs and shows, to make new memories for families all over the country.
As has been said, the culture recovery fund that was set up to assist museums, theatres and other cultural centres has not been extended to showmen and fair operators, and I want to know why from my hon. Friend the Minister. As a valued part of our national heritage, surely showmen should be able to apply for assistance and grants to help them survive until restrictions are eased. It seems very unfair that they are being forced to shut down but are not receiving the financial compensation that is available to other cultural sectors. I am not going to shut up until we get help for them.
Finally, I want to make the case for the continued use of red diesel by showmen. The Treasury is currently holding a consultation on the use and taxation of red diesel, with the aim of restricting it to agriculture only. I know the arguments that the Treasury advances on that, but red diesel is vital to the show community. Other forms of energy are not appropriate for running rides or powering caravans. Increasing the taxation on red diesel would put added pressure on to businesses already hard hit by the pandemic. Let us give fairs and showmen a great Christmas by announcing that we will give them more financial support”.