Holidaymakers (Algarve)

– in the House of Commons at 12:59 pm on 29th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West 12:59 pm, 29th July 1983

I am pleased to have the opportunity before the House goes into recess and its Members go on holiday to draw attention to the epidemic of deaths in the Algarve region of Portugal of tourists from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands because of defects in the flats, apartments and villas which were supplied to them.

It is time for the Government to conduct a full review into the circumstances and to apply pressure on the Portugese authorities to ensure that all the apartments used by British visitors are safe and of a proper standard. It is time also for the travel agents and tour operators to put their businesses into order by ensuring that they do not sell holidays to any British tourist unless they are satisfied that the accommodation is safe, and are prepared to give a written undertaking to their clients that they will enjoy their holiday and, so far as is possible, will return in good health and not be asphyxiated by fumes in their apartments.

This is a large problem. There have been 18 deaths of British tourists in the Algarve, but it is not appreciated that there may be many more. The death certificates of those who are known to have died of asphyxiation have not in all cases given asphyxiation, and certainly not carbon monoxide poisoning, as the cause of death. Some death certificates have referred to food poisoning, others to butane gas, which is not poisonous, and still others to excessive sexual activity. That is a curious form of death for people on holiday.

The time has come for the Government to insist upon proper autopsies being carried out on those who have died. The Portuguese authorities, being unable or unwilling to open the past, have not yet investigated a backlog of about 4,000 deaths, not just in the Algarve, but all over the country. We do not know how many of those deaths were of people on holiday in the Algarve, or who died because of defects in their accommodation. We know of 18 deaths, and there may be several hundred others. We know that at least 24 British citizens were revived after they had been gassed. We must protect those who are at risk.

When this matter was brought to light, largely through the energetic efforts of The Sunday Times and its reporter Robin Morgan, the Portuguese authorities set up a limited investigation. I have no wish to harm Portugal or its tourist industry, and still less our important and excellent travel industry, but I am anxious to ensure that British citizens holidaying in the Algarve are safe. I hope that the Portuguese authorities, the travel industry, tour operators and the Government share that anxiety and will take steps to ensure that the problem is resolved.

Unfortunately, we are told that the Portuguese authorities are inspecting only those flats and other accommodation that are registered with the Portuguese travel authority, which is at most only about one third of the accommodation available. Therefore, it seems that the Portuguese authorities will not inspect about two thirds of the available accommodation. Even if they inspect the premises, it seems likely that the inspections will not come up to our standards.

The local authorities produced nine written reports which did not approve of the gas heaters, but they were overruled by the tourist department. Ten days before the tragic death of John Oakden, the local authorities found the apartment in which he was staying to be safe, which it was not.

The Portuguese authorities have taken about three months to provide certificates for 100 flats in Ben Pesta and Vila Real. Not only is the Portuguese Parliament in recess until mid-September, so that until then owners have no duty to have their properties inspected or registered, but even the limited inspections will not be completed until 31 October. I suggest to the Portuguese authorities that that is not enough. They have made a beginning, but there could be tragedy not only for the people who go to the Algarve but for the tourist industry, on which the Portuguese depend so much.

It is true that in the summer months there is less danger because people keep their windows open, but surely it is not right to say to travelling Britons, "However much noise there is outside, and however chilly it is at night, please keep your windows open, otherwise we cannot guarantee that you will survive." I submit that the time has come for all apartments to be closed until the Portuguese authorities, for a start, have declared the apartments safe to be opened, and that meanwhile the British travel industry should not sell accommodation in such uninvestigated and uncertificated apartments.

I have received a most courteous delegation from the British travel industry. I asked them what I thought was a perfectly reasonable question. I said, "Are you prepared to advise your members to provide for their clients a certificate that the accommodation to be occupied is inspected and safe?" I also said, "Are you prepared not to sell accommodation until it has been inspected and certificated? Will you provide written guarantees to your clients that they will not be asphyxiated in accommodation occupied by your members?" The answer, I regret to inform the House, was no. They thought the questions were unreasonable and that it was not practicable to do what I suggested. They added that there was already Portugese bureaucracy to deal with, that the time scale was difficult, and that anyway it was the summer.

I ask the travel agencies and tour operators, and those who represent them, to reconsider the position and provide guarantees. I advise all Britons who have booked or who intend to book holiday apartments in the Algarve to insist on written certification and not to accept any accommodation until they have the written assurance of those who are selling it that the accommodation is safe.

I do so having particular regard to a statement which is quoted in The Sunday Times and which was made by Travel Club of Upminister, Essex, which is said to be Britain's biggest tour operator to the Algarve. The club refused the services of Mr. Adam, a person who was being sent out by another tourist firm, John Hill, as a gas expert. Mr. Harry Chandler, the chairman of the club, when asked why it refused Mr. Adam's services, said: I thought at first it was a good idea. Then I thought of his going among my pensioners and putting the fear of God into them. I have 800 out there now. We are as sure as we can be that our apartments are OK. I have written to all owners asking them to inspect them immediately. I suggest that that is a wicked and irresponsible attitude, and that anyone who travels with the club should demand written certification of the premises.

It is not enough to ask the owners of premises to inspect them. It should be done by an independent body. To turn down an independent inspection is in itself an indication of fear—which the club's many pensioner clients ought indeed to have if those who send them are not even prepared to have the apartments properly inspected.

I ask the Government to inquire into the ownership of premises in which British citizens have died. I understand that inquiries have been made in certain cases—among others involving Mr. Chandler—as to which premises were owned by them or by other British citizens, and that answers have not been given.

The Association of British Travel Agents has circulated a couple of pathetic circulars, one of which concludes: Members are reminded of the general advice previously given to the effect that they should take steps to ensure that all accommodation and ground services contracted abroad in connection with package holidays meet national and local standards and regulations for fire and general safety. That is not good enough when 18 British citizens are known to have died, others may have done so and all tourists are at risk, more in the winter than in the summer, but even now.

The time has come for the Government to take action. It is not enough to rely on such excellent bodies as the British Safety Council to distribute circulars or to rely on the excellence of some tour operators who are carrying out inquiries and certification procedures. Some are prepared to give their clients the guidance, information and, above all, certainty which they deserve. It is not enough for the Government to ask, as I understand they have, that safety measures should be translated from Portuguese into English and pinned up in bedrooms, with tourists being told to keep their windows open.

We are dealing with a grim matter of life and death. The action taken by travel agents and the Portuguese Government is not enough and nor, I regret to say, is that taken so far by the British Government. I ask the Government to note the words of Mr. Drury, a chartered engineer from Leicester who has been involved in the inquiries in the Algarve. He says that the Portuguese authorities have refused to disclose any details of the standard to which premises are being compared. What are those standards? The Government should demand that the Portuguese authorities provide that information.

I ask the Government to note the miseries of the families who have been bereaved in this series of tragedies and who are not satisfied with the inquiries that have been made. I ask the Government to review the information in their possession—they have much such information—and to hold an inquiry into the circumstances of the awful and tragic deaths in the Algarve.

Circulars, pamphlets and beautiful brochures are still being distributed. They advertise the Algarve as, for example, a place of Scenic beauty, friendly people and superior accommodation. It is only superior accommodation to which our citizens should go. The tragedies of the past must not be matched by deaths in the future.

Photo of Mr Bryan Gould Mr Bryan Gould , Dagenham 1:12 pm, 29th July 1983

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) for allowing me to take part in the debate. I went to the Algarve in February this year, while working as a reporter for the current affairs programme "TV Eye", to investigate five of the deaths to which my hon. and learned Friend referred.

My hon. and learned Friend is right to say that there have been many more deaths than those brought 10 the attention of the authorities. One problem is that the Portuguese are not competent to recognise carbon monoxide deaths. General practitioners fail to recognise the cause of such deaths and ascribe them to various other causes. In addition, the Portuguese forensic services have a four-year backlog.

Anyone who has been to the Algarve will understand the second problem. There has been an explosion of building work. People who, a generation or even only a decade ago, were illiterate peasants are being taken on by the building industry and constructing buildings at a tremendous rate, with little regard for safety standards.

The third problem is a technical one. With due respect to Robin Morgan, who deserves great credit for raising the matter, he did not take the issue far enough. Too many people are left with the impression that the deaths occurred because of the occasional defect in water heaters or the use of inappropriate materials in flues.

The problem is much more serious and arises because the Portuguese do not understand the dangers of carbon monoxide. Even in this country there are scores of deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning every year, but at least we know that proper fluing is required as a safety measure and that atmospheric and temperature conditions can make an enormous difference.

We discovered that five of the deaths of British holidaymakers in the autumn of last year occurred on the coldest nights of that year, and there is no doubt that the new practice initiated by the British travel industry of letting accommodation during the winter has exacerbated the problem. During the summer, ventilation has managed to avoid some of the difficulties which might arise.

I believe that the Portuguese are now aware of the problem, but they lack the medical, administrative and technical expertise to grapple with it. It will take years, if not decades, for them to look at the thousands of flats and holiday villas in the Algarve in each of which a chimney or a flue may not be adequate for the purpose for which it has been installed. For that reason, since I know that the Portuguese have been to London to discuss these matters with our Government and with the industry, I believe that the proper response from the Minister is to offer the Portuguese not condemnation and browbeating but a real measure of practical co-operation so that British expertise can be put at the service of the British travel industry but most importantly of British holidaymakers who otherwise are at considerable risk.

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney , Wycombe 1:17 pm, 29th July 1983

The House and all potential British holidaymakers owe the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) a debt of gratitude for, if I may use the word appropriately, ventilating this very important and serious subject. I am also grateful for the contribution of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould).

While I recognise the gravity of the subject and the fact that it is important that the Government should understand their responsibilities in that area, I suggest that we must not fall into the trap of becoming too alarmist and exaggerating what is, I accept, a serious problem. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West spoke of 18 deaths in the Algarve. I accept his statistics, because I am sure that he has done his homework. However, the British community in the Algarve is made up of a large number of retired people, and it is obvious that deaths from natural causes figure largely in the statistics quoted by the hon. and learned Gentleman. His suggestion that there are several hundred other deaths verges on the alarmist. That is not to take away from the seriousness of the problem and the Government's approach to it.

When the first tragic information became available following the postmortems carried out in this country, the Government, through our embassy in Lisbon, immediately took action and transmitted the information to the Portuguese authorities asking them what action was being taken to investigate the deaths.

The Portuguese sent an inspector from the Department of Tourism to the Algarve with instructions to make a report as soon as possible. The Portuguese Secretary of State for Tourism, who has a very deep interest in the reputation of his country as a tourist attraction, also commissioned a special investigation into the deaths by the Portuguese national civil engineering laboratory of the Portuguese Ministry of Housing and Public Works. I am glad to confirm in response to the hon. Member for Dagenham that we sent a British expert to assist in that investigation.

Tests showed that the gas heating and cooking facilities had unacceptable levels of carbon monoxide in some of the apartments. The report also made the criticism that the equipment had not been installed in accordance with Portuguese Government standards, and evidence that heaters were poorly maintained and serviced was produced.

Although the report did not reach any substantive conclusion or make specific recommendations, the Portuguese Secretaries of State for Tourism and Energy set up a special commission to supervise measures relating to the installation and checking of this equipment in designated tourist apartment blocks.

It was announced that after a satisfactory check a safety certificate of guaranteed maintenance would be issued for public display in the villas and apartments affected. At the same time, two other investigations were set in hand by the Portuguese authorities. The public prosecutor in Faro, the regional capital, started an investigation into the deaths of the British subjects. The results of the investigation, which was in place of that normally carried out by individual local authorities, are due to be issued by the end of July. A second investigation has been undertaken by the Institute of Legal Medicine in Lisbon. We await that report. We have formally requested the Portuguese Government to make the reports available. We continue to make the Portuguese authorities aware of our concern, most recently on 20 July through our ambassador in Lisbon.

Today we received reports on the progress that the Portuguese are making in putting this worrying situation right. Teams of technicians have been sent to all the properties in the Algarve registered with the Ministry as holiday homes to identify gas installations that do not meet Portuguese safety regulations. That has been completed. All the owners of installations identified as substandard have until 15 December 1983 to bring the equipment up to safety standards. The problem arises mainly in the winter. The standards are new and higher. I cannot give details, but competent authorities will keep a close eye on them.

The arrangements relate only to properties which are officially registered with the Ministry of Tourism. Perhaps other problems must be solved in non-registered accommodation, but I am confident that the Association of British Travel Agents is well aware of the problem. I am sure that the British tour operators will try to ensure that they make contracts only with the owners of property holding the safety certificates.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

Is the Minister planning to advise British citizens not to go to any property in the Algarve unless it is registered and has been inspected?

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney , Wycombe

I take a more restrictive view of the duties of the British Government towards citizens. I am delighted that we have the opportunity to ventilate the problem and I hope that what has been said will be made clear to all tour operators and all those considering a visit to the Algarve. I believe that there should be strict limits on the amount of direction that Government should give to the public. The British public are well aware of the problem, thanks to The Sunday Times and the hon. Member for Dagenham in his previous and present incarnations.

The role of the tour operators is important. I have no doubt that they will take note of today's debate and in particular the hon. and learned Gentleman's characterisation of their status as "pathetic". As he says, he is in touch with them and will have made his points directly to them. For our part, we shall keep the problems that he has put forward closely in mind. As so many efforts are being made by the Portuguese to get the thing right, it would not be justified at present to go fully down the road proposed by the hon. and learned Gentleman. However, I assure him and the House that I and the officials concerned will keep the matter under close review. We shall summarise all the information available to us. Indeed, I have touched on some of it today. We shall review it and take a final decision as winter approaches, which would seem to be the right time. The hon. and learned Gentleman's points are well appreciated and, with the co-operation and good sense of the British public, I trust that it will be possible to avoid any other problems.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

The all-party safety group has taken on, as its first project, the holding of an inquiry into those deaths. Is the Minister willing not only to hold an inquiry and a review in order to reach a conclusion—which would be most welcome—but also to undertake to make the results available to the House and the committee?

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney , Wycombe

I am certainly happy to keep in touch with the hon. and learned Gentleman. If there are any positive points that it would seem advisable and right to communicate to the House, we shall certainly do so. At this stage, I do not want to give any other firm commitments, because the situation is developing quickly. The information available to me shows that it is also developing in the right direction, in the sense that the Portuguese authorities are very well seized of the problem. I repeat that they have a clear and obvious commercial interest, quite apart from their other responsibilities, to put matters right. They are working hard at it and I am confident that progress will be made. Therefore, I hope that this may well be the last time that we need to take such a serious view of what is, nevertheless, an important issue.

Once again, I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving us all the opportunity to examine the problem. The problem has proved serious, but has perhaps not been anything like as serious in numerical terms as he suggested at some points in his speech. However, the Government believe that their approaches to the Portuguese authorities and the response that has been made means that, if British visitors to the Algarve take the safeguards now available to them, they should have much less cause for concern than before.