Derek Thomas – 2019 Speech on Bank Holidays in 2020

Below is the text of the speech made by Derek Thomas, the Conservative MP for St. Ives, in the House of Commons on 18 June 2019.

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this important issue before the House; it concerns many of my constituents and many other people around the country. Since being elected in 2015 I have secured a number of debates in Parliament, all triggered by someone from west Cornwall and Scilly raising an issue with me that deserves proper scrutiny and representation. The issue of the early May bank holiday next year is no exception.

I am here to add my full support to the decision to make the 75th anniversary of VE Day on 8 May 2020 a bank holiday and a national day of celebration and commemoration. Victory in Europe Day, generally known as VE Day, is a day celebrating the formal acceptance by the allies of world war two of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces on 8 May 1945.

It is worth remembering how we celebrated that momentous event all those years ago. At 11 am on 8 May church bells rang out across the nation signifying the end of the most destructive war Europe had ever seen. More than 1 million people took to the streets of London to celebrate. Crowds filled Trafalgar Square and up the Mall to Buckingham Palace, where King George, Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill stood on the palace balcony, waving and cheering the crowds on. Around the country, millions gathered in villages, towns and cities, marking the end of war in Europe with street parties, dances and parades. Social norms were abandoned as strangers hugged and danced with one another, and bonfires were lit in the street—I cannot imagine what local councillors would do about that these days. Despite rationing and years of economic strife, communities came together to cook sweet treats for children and shared meals with what food they had, and pub licensing hours were extended. Buildings and streets in major cities were illuminated for the first time since the start of the war, after years of blackouts to prevent German bombings.

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and add my support to the bank holiday idea. I recently read through the biography I wrote of my grandfather, who was a 17-year-old paratrooper—they used to lie about their age—in northern France and Germany in 1945; it addressed that time and when he came home. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not unusual to mark the end of wars and major events in this way? For many years we marked Trafalgar Day and even the accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth I.

Derek Thomas

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The days that he has referenced are really good opportunities for MPs to take part in the commemorations that happen right across the country, which I enjoy. I make a point of taking part in them and taking my children along as well, so that they can learn about our great heritage and our great service.

Hugh Gaffney (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab)

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the 75 years, and about the 50 years. I have been a trade ​unionist for 30 years, and the only day of action I took was for the bank holiday to remain as a traditional May Day bank holiday. It must remain. Give us the extra day for the 75, but the traditional May Day bank holiday on the first Monday of every May is for workers and trade unions, and it must remain as well.

Derek Thomas

That is the argument I will be making as I remind the House about the incredible event that took place on VE Day and explain why it is absolutely right that we set aside time to celebrate that next year, so that the whole of Great Britain can take part.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and if he needs any advice on bonfires in Northern Ireland, we would certainly have lots of information. We do them every 11 July, by the way. I attend one in Newtownards and it is always very well attended. There have been almost 1,000 people there in years gone past. Does he not agree, however, that it is difficult for businesses and even community groups to accept this roll-out of a new bank holiday date? I support the principle of what he is saying, but the proposal is not even for a year’s roll-in. Does he share my dismay at the news of calendar makers losing hundreds of thousands of pounds due to the short roll-in? Does he share my concern at the environmental aspects of the wastage of perfectly good material because the Government, in this case, did not pre-empt the change in the same way as was done with the last change to a bank holiday, which was announced in 1993 for a roll-out in 1995?

Derek Thomas

I welcome that intervention, and I would be happy to apply for a Westminster Hall debate with the hon. Gentleman if he chose to speak on that further.

I want to make the point that I am not a fan of the way in which the Government have come to this decision, but it is really important for me, knowing what a great thing it is to remember the sacrifice made by the millions of men, their families and all the people involved in working and fighting for peace in Europe, that we spend a little bit of time remembering the great event that took place when that finally came to an end. For me, seeing the footage of crowds in the streets celebrating this momentous occasion—for them, a bittersweet moment after years of hardship, loss and fear—it is right that we should put aside all else and commemorate and celebrate that day on 8 May next year. I hope that we will be able to re-enact many, if not all, of the activities in our towns and villages. I would not need to go far, as I have a couple of sons in my own home who would be quite happy to tell me how to light fires, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned.

As I have said, I have no problem with the decision to move the bank holiday to 8 May. My problem is the cack-handed way in which the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy went about reaching this decision. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what impact assessment the Department did on the lateness of making such a substantive change to the bank holidays in 2020 before announcing this decision. What was the Department thinking when it decided to give to give just 11 months’ notice of the cancelation of the early May bank holiday?​

Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is going to talk about this, but I will pre-empt him. At least two people have written to me to say that that was the ideal date for them to get married, and that they had invited people for the whole weekend. Their plans are now in tatters. We cannot just let people down in this way. It is not fair. People plan these things years in advance, based on the dates they know. Why don’t we just have an extra day?

Derek Thomas

I am glad that I have support from around the House, because Adjournment debates are often poorly attended. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I completely agree with him. The Secretary of State announced the change to the early May bank holiday, and it was an enormous decision for large numbers of small businesses, for the tourism industry—which I particularly want to focus on—for the people who have already, for good reasons, booked their holidays next May, and for the people who have decided to use that weekend because they would be able to take their children away without interfering with their schooling.

I am disappointed that the Secretary of State himself is not here to respond to the debate, because the late notice of the announcement demonstrates a tin ear towards the tourism industry. For those in any doubt about the meaning of the expression “tin ear” and its use in relation to the Department’s attitude towards small businesses and many other people, it is defined as “a deafened or insensitive ear”. However, I want to make it clear that I do not include the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who has been asked to respond to this debate, in that definition, because he has had nothing to do with it.

I received a letter from a businessman on the Isles of Scilly a day after the announcement, and he put his concern across much more diplomatically, saying:

“I have to say whichever government department decided at this late stage, 11 months before, to change the dates really does need to wake up to the realty of the holiday market. This change has the potential to create many upset guests unable to change their booked dates.”

I know that I am not alone in receiving correspondence and representations from constituents and businesses, and I have selected a few extracts that help to express the various implications of the decision being so late. One constituent asked the following question of the Secretary of State in an email to me:

“Have schools been considered in this late announcement about the changes to the May bank holiday? This will cause problems especially as holiday dates are already issued, residentials and school trips will have been planned, and this is the Friday before the important Y6 SAT tests”.

Another wrote:

“Hello Mr Thomas,

I have also been affected by the change of the bank holiday. I have booked my Hen Do”—

we have already had a reference to weddings—

“for the bank holiday weekend, paying more to go on these dates so that more people could make it as they wouldn’t have to take the day off work. As the date has now changed, people are not able to make my Hen Do, and I am forced to pay to cancel the holiday booked for us all losing over £1000.​
I hope you can help in this issue by asking the government to not take away our original bank holiday date.”

Another constituent wrote to me to say:

“Dear Sir,

I am extremely pleased that VE day is to be celebrated as a priority in 2020.

However, I do not believe that the decision yesterday to change the date to 8th May 2020 provides a suitable length of time for the country to adapt.

My family are now left with the option of losing financially to cancel our annual May Day Bank Holiday as our children will be required to attend school.

The tourism industry is just one example where 11 months’ notice is not suitable.

I would expect that more foresight would have been given to this scenario.”

Someone who is not a constituent—I will leave the House to work out where they are from—wrote:

“Dear Mr Thomas

I understand you are bringing up the cancellation of the May day holiday in Parliament.”

A small group of us, they continue, organises

“the annual bikers’ event and May day Morris dancing in Hastings. It is by far and above the biggest weekend in the annual calendar. Not only will it affect our events badly, it will also be a massive blow to local tourist businesses who rely on that weekend after a hard winter and tell me it’s their biggest earner of the year…Currently, Morris dancers and bikers from across the country”—

this is something that we can all look forward to—

“are planning a protest at Parliament on July 23rd. This is something we would rather not have to do”—

although I think we would welcome it.

“We fully support a commemoration of VE Day, but we do not support having our events that have already been booked and paid for, plus all those who have already booked hotels, disrupted with so little notice.”

Returning to my constituency, many will know that the world gig rowing championships take place on the Isles of Scilly on the early May bank holiday every year. It is a momentous event in my constituency’s calendar, and it takes a considerable amount of time to get all the gigs over to Scilly. However, it is currently unclear what changes will need to be made if the Government stick to their decision. Moving on to other disruption that I am aware of, we have all seen the story in the national press about the small business that is set to lose £200,000 having just printed next year’s calendars.

I am sure the Government do not need me to say how disruptive this decision is given how late in the day the announcement was made. The only possible, practical and pragmatic response is for the Government to keep the bank holiday to commemorate VE-day and to reinstate the early spring bank holiday on Monday 4 May. I make it clear to the Minister, to the House and to business that I have no appetite to create extra cost and disruption for small businesses, and I have never previously supported the idea of extra bank holidays. However, the fact remains that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has left the decision far too late and has caused far too much disruption and potential expense to far too many people. The appropriate response must be for the Department to quickly reinstate the bank holiday on 4 May.

There is support for that proposal, which may not surprise the House. The British Beer & Pub Association sent me a letter:​

“For clarity the BBPA does support the extra bank holiday that Mr Thomas is proposing. Based on the four-day bank holiday weekend for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, we predict that the extra bank holiday would provide a boost to Britain’s pubs and brewers, with an estimated 10 million extra pints sold. This would also support the taxman and the economy—the taxman would receive £4.5m in extra duty revenue and VAT and it would provide a £30m boost to the economy.”

All of us, particularly those of us with rural constituencies, know the importance of small rural village pubs and how such opportunities really help them to continue their business of providing a community hub and keeping an eye on those who are otherwise often left at home on their own.

Hugh Gaffney

The hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier that people book holidays for that weekend, and sometimes it is the only time that families get together because they have to work through the school holidays to keep a roof above their head. The UK has the fewest bank holidays in the G20. Does he agree with Labour, which wants to increase the number of bank holidays? Let us start next year with VE Day and then look at each country’s patron saint’s day.

Derek Thomas

The hon. Gentleman will realise that I do not fully support everything he has just said, but I support what he says about next year. That is the whole point of this debate.

We have left it too late. There is no question but that we need 8 May, but we should reinstate and keep the 4 May bank holiday, because that is what people have planned for, expect and, in many cases, have paid for. Tourism is a significant part of my constituency’s economy, and people have booked in advance because there has been real growth in staycations. People are staying in the UK for holidays, and Cornwall is obviously their No. 1 choice, particularly west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

I have always maintained that I represent the most beautiful, precious and wonderful part of the country. If people have any concerns about their wellbeing, they should come down for a well-deserved rest and therapy. I hope I have been able to get that across in this short commercial break.

I agree about the extra bank holiday for next year, but I do not have it within me, as a former businessman, to impose further bank holidays, particularly on small businesses, unless there is a good reason to do so and the Department handles it much better than it has on this occasion.

The British Beer & Pub Association’s letter continues:

“Furthermore, the BBPA have already called on the Government to grant extended hours to pubs, so pubs can make the most of the celebratory weekend.”

That is what happened 75 years ago, and I hope the Government follow suit.

In summary—I am reluctant to keep people away from any activity they might want to pursue in the beer industry later this evening—I have no appetite to create further cost and disruption for small business. That is clear, and I spend my time trying to do what I can to support small businesses. In fact, I have spent a lot of time over the past four years arguing that the Government should improve the lot of small business by simplifying the tax system—scrapping business rates, for example—creating training opportunities and ensuring that businesses have affordable access to credit.​

I have a record of wanting to support and promote small business, and I am not one to disrupt it any further, but I believe we should give the extra bank holiday on this occasion. The Business Secretary has given too little notice of the changes to the early May bank holiday. The Government should reinstate the bank holiday on 4 May and keep the planned bank holiday for 8 May that was recently announced to celebrate the 75th anniversary of victory in Europe.

I completely support the proposed bank holiday. The challenge for businesses, particularly in tourism, is that the Government have given just 11 months’ notice of this change, as if the 75th anniversary has come as some sort of surprise. I sincerely apologise to business, which can ill afford another bank holiday, but it is too late to scrap the 4 May bank holiday. The Government should reinstate it, and reinstate it quickly—hopefully in the next 15 minutes.