The impact of Brexit has perhaps been the most striking absentee from the General Election campaign debate thus far.

But the challenges facing one of the country’s biggest employers and, arguably, contributors to societal well-being appear to have been conspicuous by their absence from the dialogue, too.

Dean Banks, a high-profile chef who owns seven restaurants across Scotland, launched a bid yesterday to raise the concerns of the hospitality industry and how the next UK Government could help a sector which continues to be blighted by burdensome overheads and the cost of living crisis.

Central to his list of wishes is a reduction in value-added tax, a long-term ambition of the sector, from the current main rate of 20% to 12.5%.

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Mr Banks, whose portfolio includes the Pompadour at the Caledonian Hotel and Dulse in Edinburgh, and Dune and Haar in St Andrews, said he has already demonstrated the benefit such a reduction could bring, after recently running “VAT-free Fridays” that gave diners 20% off their food bill. The chef declared the discount had an immediate impact, as customers took advantage of lower prices, resulting in increased football and spending for the duration of the promotion.

Alongside action on VAT, Mr Banks urged political parties to urgently address some other key challenges facing the hospitality industry, calling for relief from business rates to help with high costs, including energy bills. He also said the UK Government could ease labour shortages in the industry, which have been greatly exacerbated by Brexit and immigration policies of the Rishi Sunak administration, by providing incentives to help businesses attract and retain talent.

“The pandemic showed how resilient the hospitality sector is, yet high costs are taking a toll on venues across the country,” Mr Banks said. “As we approach the General Election, I’m calling upon both parties [Conservatives and Labour] to champion the industry within their platforms.

“An urgent review and action are needed, starting with a cut on VAT and cap on business rate increases for hospitality, so venues can get to grips with the rising costs of food and energy.”

The comments from Mr Banks reflect the continuing concern in the hospitality industry over the elevated costs it has faced since the inflation crisis began in 2021, and the simultaneous cost of living crisis, which has made eating and drinking out a lot less affordable.

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The refrain from the chef is not new, as followers of the hospitality sector’s fortunes will know. But it does reinforce the difficulty of running a business at a time when profit margins are so constrained, as highlighted by the number of businesses which are continuing to close.

Hospitality campaigners have for many years now been saying that the rate of VAT is too high, with some pointing to an imbalance between the way it is applied to their sector relative to supermarkets. As Tim Martin, chairman of JD Wetherspoon, routinely argues, the system is unfair on pubs because, while VAT is set at 20% for the on-trade, the majority of food sold in grocery stores is zero-rated.

UK tourism chiefs also argue that the rate of VAT here makes the sector less competitive compared with European countries where the tax is lower.

Those who defend the UK position may say that cutting the tax will result in less revenue for the Treasury. But proponents of a reduction say that, although this may happen in the short term, a lower rate will generate more in the long run. This is on the basis that a reduced rate of VAT would result in lower prices in pubs, bars, and restaurants, ultimately helping hospitality businesses to bring more customers in.

Of course, this is all well in theory, and unfortunately for the hospitality sector there would appear to be little chance of whoever forms the next UK Government putting a reduction of VAT for hospitality near the top of their economic priority list.

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Most of the debate on tax in the General Election campaign so far has been dominated by claim and counter-claim from the Tories and Labour on whether taxes will be raised or not from the perspective of individuals. In the eyes of the main parties, the rate of VAT applied to hospitality just does not look like a topic which would attract the attention of voters as they bid to maximise support in the run-up to July 4.

However, it is an issue the next incumbent of 10 Downing Street may want to consider, given the desperate need to boost economic growth in the UK. Official figures published yesterday showed that the UK economy flatlined in April, following growth of 0.4% in March, with the wet weather causing people to stay away from shops and weighing on activity in the construction industry.

Attention now turns to next week when we will find out the result of the June vote on interest rates by the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee.

“The flatlining economy in April underlines just how important hospitality is as a driver of growth,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, in response to the monthly GDP figures yesterday. “When hospitality suffers, as it did in April due to wet weather dampening consumer demand, the economy suffers too.

“It is clear that hospitality is a bellwether for the nation’s economic performance, which reinforces the need for an incoming government to act swiftly to create the right conditions for the sector to thrive.

“Fixing business rates, reforming the apprenticeship levy and reducing employment costs are all crucial measures that will allow hospitality to grow and create places where people want to live, work and invest.”