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Caithness firm to be represented in talks on tourism and hospitality industry support

By Gordon Calder

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A CAITHNESS business is to be represented at a meeting with the UK Treasury to discuss how support for the tourism and hospitality industry can be improved.

Wick-based wholesalers Sutherland Brothers Ltd agreed to attend after north MP Jamie Stone secured the meeting. The Liberal Democrat MP hopes to involve a cross-section of local businesses to persuade the Treasury to extend its support schemes for the sector.

The Treasury's promise to meet Mr Stone came as the MP and David Sutherland, managing director of Sutherland Brothers, sent a joint letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak requesting an extension of business rates relief to food and drink wholesalers.

"Food and drink businesses are vital to the economy in the Highlands but have been hit hard by the effects of the pandemic," Mr Stone said. "These businesses rely on selling to customers in retail and hospitality, both of which are no longer buying food and drink as they once were.

"Sutherland Brothers Ltd has lost 80 per cent of its sales in this time but continues to run at a loss to provide a lifeline to isolated communities in the far north.

"I am grateful for their sacrifices but dismayed the government has offered no targeted financial support for food and drink wholesalers. Sixty-six per cent of Scottish wholesale businesses have either been rejected from the Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund or are still awaiting a response.

"This is unacceptable for businesses which provide both an important service and employment for local people in my constituency."

Speaking remotely in a debate about the UK economy, the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP said: "When the Highland tourism industry does eventually open, it's unlikely that an awful lot of businesses will make enough money to see them through the dark winter months. So I wonder if the minister would agree with me that it would be helpful to have a meeting to discuss how the furlough scheme and other support schemes could be fine-tuned and tweaked to make sure these businesses survive."

Jesse Norman, the financial secretary to the Treasury, said he would be "very happy" to have a meeting.

Afterwards, Mr Stone said: "I'm setting up the meeting now and hope to involve a cross-section of local representatives from the hospitality and tourism industry. I hope we can get the change wholesalers like Sutherland Bros, and other businesses connected to the industry, desperately need."

Mr Sutherland said: "Over 128 years we’ve built up a strong family business, employing 35 locals.

"Since lockdown, and despite a 80 per cent loss of sales, we've been fundamental in supporting the Highlands and Islands communities, their shops, care homes, hospitals and local producers. We've carried on delivering vital food and drink supplies to the outer islands, at significant cost to our family business, because we believe it’s the right thing to do.

"We have received nothing, but we will be needed to help resupply the hospitality and tourism industry when it opens and to support our local communities, producers and our neighbours when this is over."

Mr Stone wants businesses connected to the industry to contact him if they have a specific issue or an idea they would like raised with the Treasury.

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