Holidaymakers (Consular Assistance)

– in the House of Commons at 1:43 pm on 29th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Neil Thorne Mr Neil Thorne , Ilford South

The role played by consular services has grown considerably in recent years, especially in their responsibilities towards holidaymakers. Few people embarking on a journey overseas expect to call upon our consular services while they are abroad. Therefore, it is all the more important that the services should be adequate and efficient. This responsibility must relate not only to dealing with problems that have arisen but to providing a protective barrier against matters that might cause difficulty or danger to those visiting a country, perhaps for the first time.

I draw the Minister's attention to two types of problem experienced recently by my constituents. In the first case, Mr. and Mrs. David Peacock of 23 Brixham gardens, having saved up for some years, took their young family—a girl of four, Kelly, and a boy of two, Mark—on a package holiday to Minorca arranged by Cosmos. They stayed at the Pinguinos hotel, which was specially recommended by the tour company as a place for children. On Tuesday 7 June, the family had a traumatic experience. They left their hotel at 10.45 am to take their daughter to a children's club in a nearby hotel. When they arrived they found that there had been a postponement until 11.30 am, so they waited for their daughter to be collected to go to the beach.

Mr. and Mrs. Peacock then returned to their hotel to collect their son's swimming things so that they could go to the beach to watch the older children. They entered the lift at about 11.45 am. Mark Peacock was holding his father's hand. As the lift began to move upwards, the boy slipped on the floor, which Mrs. Peacock had noticed was wet. The boy put out his hand to stop his fall, and, since the lift was three-sided without a door, be touched the lift shaft wall and his arm was immediately dragged between the lift car threshold and the lift shaft, despite Mr. Peacock's attempts to hold him back. Mrs. Peacock pushed the red emergency button, which did not stop the car. In desperation she began to push all the floor buttons, and the lift stopped at the sixth floor where the father managed to free the child's arm, which was badly lacerated and bleeding heavily. Mr. Peacock attempted to check the bleeding while the lift returned to the hotel reception area.

After first aid with a towel, the family were pushed into a taxi and driven to Mahon where a family doctor sent them immediately to a residential hospital. A solution and dressing were applied to the child's wound while a theatre team was assembled during the time needed to allow the child's previous meal to be digested. At 2.30 pm, Mark was taken into the operating room, where his muscle and arm were stitched back. Mr. Peacock was subsequently advised by the surgeon that his child was exceptionally lucky because two other children had lost limbs through similar lift accidents earlier that month.

As soon as the child could leave hospital and arrangements could be made, the family returned to England. On their return they immediately consulted a surgeon to establish whether the accident had been dealt with adequately and whether permanent damage was likely to result. It is important that they then set about preparing their insurance claim to recover the losses that they had suffered. In doing this, they were fortunate because they had taken the trouble to insure themselves for the visit, so their medical and other incidental expenses should have been covered. They had insured themselves with the Home and Overseas Insurance Company through Europ Assistance, and I understand that that action has considerably alleviated the worries that might have ensued if they had not had adequate insurance. However, in order to recover the costs of their holiday and the expenses of various taxis and other charges that fell upon them, they had to get a report from the hospital surgeon and also a report on the tests subsequently carried out on the lift.

When the accident took place, the lift was, very properly, shut off, and no further inspection could be made until a Government-authorised inspector had carried out an inspection, although I understand that the inspector was in fact selected by the lift maintenance company. One would not expect that to happen in Britain, where an entirely independent body or organisation would carry out such an inspection.

It would appear from verbal accounts that the report gives the lift a reasonably clean bill of health, and that the questions concerning the slippery floor and the operation of the lift emergency button were both cleared. Whereas one might readily accept the report that was given, certainly in Britain one would expect a Government inspector to carry out such an inspection, so that there would be no question of the inspector having any interest as between the company and the people who suffered a nasty accident.

Obviously, there were severe translation difficulties throughout the incident. My constituents believe that some of their distress could have been alleviated if the tour operator's representatives had done more to help in that regard, and also in expressing interest in my constituents' subsequent difficulties. Since their return, the company has been more helpful, but it is anxiously directing any claim towards the Spanish hotel company and the lift operators. There, of course, lies a major problem because of the difficulty of establishing what rights there are in a Spanish court and the kind of treatment that might be expected. If one were operating entirely within Britain, one could easily obtain in any town legal advice and satisfactory opinions on which an action could conveniently be started.

People do not go abroad expecting to have to enter into a legal contest. Therefore, I assume that one should expect to be able to turn to the consular services to look after and protect one's interests.

I have spoken on the telephone to the tour company. and its Miss Horsfall, who deals with queries of this sort, was most helpful in answering my inquiries. She has promised a good will offer to my constituents of a 20 per cent. reduction on a future holiday. Whether my constituents will feel able to take advantage of that remains to be seen.

The incident gives rise to several questions that we ought to ask our consular services. Do they look forward to the problems that could arise or do they just look back to the problems which have arisen? Do they advise tour operators on what action they should take and on the sort of services that holidaymakers should expect?

The Cosmos advertisement said that the hotel selected by my constituents was considered suitable for children and family holidays. The possible problems presented by three-sided lifts had been overlooked, because we do not have such lifts in this country.

The surgeon told my constituents that two children had lost limbs in similar accidents in the previous month. That suggests that those children probably also came from countries that are not used to such lifts. It would have been helpful if the consular services had drawn the attention of tour operators to the problem and had advised them against describing holidays in hotels with three-sided lifts as being suitable for families.

The consular service ought to bring such matters to the notice of the general population as well, and I should like them to give greater support to those pursuing claims. My constituents wrote to the consul in Majorca on 5 July—they have not yet received a reply—asking for help in obtaining the report that they require from the hospital to lodge a claim for the refund of the cost of the part of the holiday that they lost and for the reimbursement of incidental expenses. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain such information and to lodge legal claims against the hotel or the lift company.

Some other constituents of mine are also having a traumatic experience. They are visiting Sri Lanka and face different problems. Several are of Tamil origin and frequently return to Sri Lanka. They had great difficulty discovering what transport was available when they arrived. Information about rail and road services is hard to come by and stories emanating from that sad country show that the situation there leaves much to be desired.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has heard reports of passengers being burnt to death in buses and schoolchildren being raped at the road side while waiting for transport and the allegations against the armed forces, who have been accused of murdering children and elderly people in that troubled land. It is alleged that one village has been wiped out by the Sri Lankan air force. I am told that people in refugee camps in Colombo have been attacked by Sinhalese mobs, in spite of being under the control of the security forces.

Those are matters of great concern to the traveller. I do not need to underline the importance of the situation and how much we rely on the professionals in the consular offices on the scene. They have a very important role to play and it is not one which can be tied purely and simply to history. Their responsibilities must be constantly brought up to date, and we must conscientiously consider what new measures are required to take us into the 21st century and whether a different type of response is needed from these officers.

It is extremely important to know what staff numbers are available to assist our constituents when they are, for example, in Minorca or Sri Lanka. It is especially important to ask ourselves whether the consular services provided by Her Majesty's Government are adequate to meet today's demands.

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney , Wycombe 2:15 pm, 29th July 1983

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) for introducing the debate. His constituents are to be congratulated on having a Member of Parliament who takes such a close interest in their welfare.

Before dealing with the more general subject of the consular provision offered by Her Majesty's Government, I take up the two specific matters raised by my hon. Friend.

I was sorry the hear of the dreadful tale of the Peacock family, and I offer my personal sympathy to them for what occurred to their son, Mark. I understand that a report of the incident has not been received in London, but I note that Mr. Peacock has written to our consul in Palma, Majorca, and I have no doubt that the consul is investigating the matter to see what more we can do to help.

I must make it clear that there have to be strict limits to what consuls or honorary consuls can do. They are not lawyers, and it would be wrong for them to give legal advice, but they can tell constituents, as an example of the consular services that are provided, where they can obtain advice. In this case it is probable that a lawyer should be brought into play with a view to making an approach to the Spanish authorities or to the hotel. I shall be surprised to learn that it is not happening already. However, I shall take the appropriate steps to ensure that every assistance that is legitimate within the realm of consular service is given so that the family may be provided with the information that they need to pursue their insurance claim.

I am very glad that the Peacock family were wise enough to take out insurance. We hope that all holidaymakers have sufficient foresight to do the same.

I am also glad to hear that the tour operator is now taking a positive interest. It is obvious that tour operators have a direct responsibility, for narrow commercial reasons if for no other, but I think that they accept generally that they have a wider and deeper moral responsibility.

Sadly, there is little that we can do about the injuries to Mark Peacock, but we shall offer every assistance that we can with the formalities of the insurance claim.

Photo of Mr Neil Thorne Mr Neil Thorne , Ilford South

Would it be a good idea if the tour operators themselves had to take out a form of third party insurance so that they were able to cover any claims? This would obviate a great many of the problems. I have in mind the average motor car accident. If two vehicles collide, normally the insurance companies take over the responsibility of the insured for any subsequent court action. The claim is met by the insurance company and legal proceedings are pursued on its behalf. Can we not encourage tour operators to take the responsibility for pursuing that action off the shoulders of the holidaymaker?

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney , Wycombe

That sounds an interesting and positive idea. I am no expert in tour operation and perhaps there is already some such scheme. Perhaps my hon. Friend will make his suggestion to the Association of British Travel Agents. My hon. Friend will agree that there must be a strict limit to Government intervention, because we are talking about a private choice for individual holidaymakers. I should be interested in hearing the tour industry's response to my hon. Friend's suggestion.

I can say nothing more about the Peacock family. The incident was not reported to us at the time and therefore there was no question of consular help not being available on the dreadful day of the injury. We shall follow up the case to see what help can be given over insurance. I recognise the time element.

My hon. Friend asked about provision in Minorca. An honourary consul has recently been appointed for Minorca. He is an experienced retired member of the diplomatic service. I am sure that he will give any British holidaymaker who gets into trouble good service. I shall deal later with the general question of staffing, because there is a limit to the number of consuls that we can appoint.

Events in Sri Lanka are sad. The country has close links with Britain. Many of us feel close to all our Commonwealth friends because of historical links. The communal disturbances are not a new phenomenon there. We believe that the Government of Sri Lanka are taking all the necessary steps. Throughout their history they have made a number of moves towards lessening communal tensions. Sri Lanka has a parliamentary democracy. When Her Majesty the Queen visited Sri Lanka in 1981, it was to celebrate 50 years of constitutional government in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. That is a splendid record, but it is under threat by communal violence.

Sri Lanka is an independent and democratic country, but it has a serious communal problem. Friends of Sri Lanka sympathise and we are doing all that we can to help and support efforts to restore peace and human rights. The Sri Lankan Government are dedicated to human rights and have signed the human rights convention. I very much hope that they will look into the reports that we have had. I should be very surprised if some of them do not turn out to be exaggerated. Sadly, all democratic Governments and others are growing only too accustomed to the terrible problems of terrorism and violence. Violence produces repression, which in turn produces more violence. None of us can safely escape that dreadful vicious circle.

My hon. Friend referred to the professionals, or, in other words, to the British high commission in Colombo. It is taking a close interest in the way in which affairs develop. As the position develops hourly, the BBC and the media will keep the British public informed of what is happening. For the time being, we would advise people not to travel to Sri Lanka until the situation has become clearer and has settled down. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that that is the best advice that we can give.

My hon. Friend most opportunely raised some wider questions just when most of us are going off on holiday. He referred to the role of the consular service in helping British holidaymakers abroad and to the possibility of anticipating problems that could arise. With respect, there must be limits to such a happy state of affairs. Would that we could all anticipate the problems and difficulties of life. It is not very realistic to expect us to go far down that road. The fact is that going abroad presents special problems. One of the charms of going overseas is that it is not Surbiton, or, for that matter, Norbiton. We all want to go somewhere that is different. The pressures and difficulties and even, for example, the lift designs may be different, and may give us all special problems.

The consular service cannot be expected to provide quite such an all-embracing service as my hon. Friend might wish. Tour operators also have a large part to play in ensuring that the conditions their customers find at the resorts are as advertised. On the whole, the travel agents have taken that message on board. Again, there are rather strict limits to the degree to which the Government should, or could, intervene.

I am sure my hon. Friend recognises that there has been a tremendous increase in the number of British tourists overseas, and that has put a great strain on the consular service. In 1967, I think that there were about 7 million British visitors overseas, compared with 20·5 million last year. Thus, in 15 years the figure has almost trebled.

During that time the consular service has been reduced by about a quarter. As my hon. Friend recognises the need to conserve public resources, I hope that he will applaud that decision. Although we have reduced the numbers by 25 per cent., we have increased consular cover from 128 countries to 158 countries. I have already cited Minorca. The cover is therefore wider, and the consuls are working harder as, indeed, they should do. On the whole, the service that they provide is very well appreciated.

When there are 20 million people going overseas every year, things have to go wrong. I am glad to say that the bouquets that arrive at the Foreign Office for the service provided by our consular service significantly exceed the brickbats. There will always be brickbats, but we shall continue to investigate all of them, and all complaints. Where they are justified and well merited we shall take action to cure the problem. I thank my hon. Friend for giving us this opportunity to examine the consular service, which is adequate for the people of this country.

It being half past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.