Package Travel

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:26 am on 18th December 1989.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths , Edinburgh South 12:26 am, 18th December 1989

This directive is, in a number of areas, a pale shadow of the original draft and it offers only limited protection for holidaymakers. I do not recognise the rosy picture that the Minister has just painted, and nor do hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers who annually run the gauntlet of surcharges, airport delays, overbookings, dangerous facilities, switched destinations and unsuitable accommodation.

I welcome the efforts of the travel industry to ensure that more than 10 million people enjoy package holidays every year, but I also share the concern of the I million holidaymakers whose holidays have given cause for complaint.

The Minister has never made a secret of his desire to ensure that the directive gives less protection to the tourist than to the tourist trade. It comes as no surprise that the Government cannot welcome unreservedly even the modest package of measures to protect the travelling public that this directive offers.

Sadly, when the Commission suggested measures to protect holidaymakers, the Government lobbied to weaken the proposals, not to strengthen them. This directive allows people's holidays to be cancelled up to 24 hours before departure. It now offers no protection to the person crossing the Channel for a day trip—the first draft did. It sanctions bigger surcharges on the consumer than did the original, and provides no right to written reasons for surcharges. It burdens the consumer who has suffered with the need to prove negligence in some areas. It removes the requirement for brochures to detail contract conditions and for local tourist authorities to assist in resolving disputes.

There are some safeguards, which the Minister quaintly describes as burdens on the trade, but we want to know from the Consumer Minister about the burdens on the consumer—the burden of buying a holiday paid for in advance, with no guarantee of specific accommodation or even price. I am told that, when things go wrong on a package holiday, it is difficult to find anyone to take responsibility.

In six key areas, this directive is defective and far weaker than its original draft. The 1 million holidaymakers whose holidays were spoilt last year are entitled to know why a directive that offered them so much better provision has been watered down.

The Government have never made a secret of their concerns, not for the travelling public but for the travel trade. On 22 April, the Minister's predecessor spelled out his key fears in a letter. He said: Another important implication of the directive from the tour operators' point of view is that it may circumscribe their present abilities to restrict their liabilities when a third party (eg, a foreign hotelier) fails to provide the service contracted. By 22 August we had a new Minister, whose comments on this directive to protect holidaymakers were even more hostile. He wrote that his Department considers that the proposal … is unnecessarily burdensome and fails to strike a fair balance between consumer and supplier interest. I note that the Minister nods in assent. That was followed by three months of the most disgraceful lobbying by the Minister to weaken the directive. By 8 December the Minister had failed the consumer. He was able to write that the proposal has moved towards a more acceptable balance between consumer and supplier interests. He has used similar words tonight.

The changes in the proposals were severely criticised by consumer groups. The European Union of Consumers deplored what it called sabotage on behalf of government experts". It spoke of compromises which are less and less favourable to consumers. With more and more people going abroad, the need for consumer protection has never been greater.

My attention has been drawn to the plight of Mr. Clement, who booked a five-person apartment in Corfu. The total trip cost over £1,300 but the apartment was already occupied when he arrived. When he eventually got in there was room for only four beds, the kitchen was filthy, the shower was broken and when the toilet was flushed waste came up through a grille in the bathroom floor. The company representative was unhelpful and when he asked for compensation Cosmos offered nothing. He wrote again and was offered £50. He eventually had to resort to a court summons to receive a higher amount. He needed on-the-spot help from independent local tourist authorities to ensure that his holiday was satisfactory in the first place.

Under the directive, tour companies can still limit their liability to supply the holiday as booked and paid for. It appears that one can spend £400 on a holiday and the blame for failure can be shifted to some foreign supplier, often with impunity. The seller of a £400 television cannot legally tell the purchaser to seek redress in Japan or West Germany. In that respect, perhaps the travel trade is getting off lightly.

A holiday is bought on trust and paid for in advance, yet is subject to changes that may appear arbitrary and without a guarantee that the item supplied is the item that was purchased. The Minister should investigate whether practices such as surcharges and combining holidays when there are not enough bookings should be permitted unless they are advertised as such. He should spell out what redress is available to tourists at the holiday location.

In May, the Consumers Association carried out a study on travel agents. It asked a number of them for the cheapest flight to Europe and four out of five got it wrong. The Which? verdict was "appalling". The association asked for a holiday on an island suitable for an elderly grandmother and only two out of 36 got it right. The Consumers Association concluded that most agents were poorly informed.

The Minister recently gave his verdict on the travel industry. In a long-distance video presentation to a world conference in Mexico on the travel trade, he said: The industry has set itself a standard which is going to be very difficult to maintain. To hear the Minister one would think that this country has the highest standards, the best public protection and the lowest levels of consumer dissatisfaction. That is simply not the case. A survey of package travellers by the European Commission shows that while 27 holidaymakers in every 100 interviewed in Italy experienced problems with their package holiday, the figure for Britain was 37 in every 100. Those surveyed in France and Germany had lower dissatisfaction ratings, of 31 and 32 respectively. The Commission revealed a serious crisis of confidence in the British travel industry.

That fewer than 5 per cent. of people pursue their complaint raises a major question about the current complaints procedure. The Commission stated: The reason … is that the consumer, having paid the price in full before departing on his holiday feels that by making a formal complaint he may well find himself involved in an endless argument which if it has to be terminated in a courtroom may cost him more money than he can afford. Article 6 in its original form would have helped to tackle that problem.

I pay tribute to the work of the Association of British Travel Agents to try to monitor and improve standards. The revised ABTA code of conduct will give welcome protection to its consumers after November 1990, especially against negligence resulting in injury or death, and it makes provision for higher compensation in the event of a holiday being cancelled or altered. There is still scope for the trade to substitute holidays on a massive scale. Holidaymakers can still get a holiday in a hotel different from the one that they booked, and cannot cancel the holiday if the hotel is in the same category in price. Holidaymakers may still be forced to accept changes, such as the absence of advertised child care, because these are not seen as material alterations.

Welcome though the codes of conduct are, powerful trade regulations and sanctions are no substitute for Government-led consumer protection. Only last year, the Director General of Fair Trading had to step in an warn ABTA that holidaymakers were being surcharged for fuel price increases when world fuel prices were falling. In spite of the Minister's much-loved codes, supposedly prohibiting this unjustified type of surcharge, it went ahead. In his latest report, the director general, Sir Gordon Borrie, says: Examples of costing subsequently submitted by ABTA failed to convince the Office that unjustified surcharging had not taken place. Before this revised directive, surcharges of under 10 per cent. of the cost of the holiday were to be absorbed by the tour operator, and the reasons for surcharging were then to be set out in writing. Now, there are virtually no limitations on surcharging.

We have no specific legislation that exclusively protects the holidaymaker. Despite the enormous scale of our holiday industry, the United Kingdom lags behind several other European states in establishing specific legislation on the holiday trade. Other countries have specific laws that define the rights of the consumer and the obligations of tour operators. France, Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain all have such laws. In this country, the operators do not require a licence from the Government. The only licensing of any part of the trade is carried out not by the Government but by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Some countries have laws to protect the travelling public. In some—Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain—those laws are backed with licensing of all travel companies. The laws exist not because the consumers there have more need of them than we do. France and Italy, which featured so much more favourably in the Commission's study than the United Kingdom, also have laws and licensing. They have laws because their Governments aspire to give holidaymakers greater protection than ours will give.

Although ABTA covers 90 per cent. of the holiday trade, that still leaves more than 1 million holidaymakers with minimal protection. In his video from Acapulco, the Minister made it clear that he has no plans to force travel companies to abide by ABTA's new code of practice, but the need for protection has never been greater. That number of 1 million holidaymakers with complaints is growing, not shrinking. Standards are not improving, they are declining.

The Consumers Association published its survey on holidays in January. A fifth of holidaymakers reported that the tour operators made a change in their holiday arrangements, and half those changes were made during the actual holiday or within a fortnight from departure. Two thirds had their flight time changed, and for nearly one third, the resort itself or the accommodation was changed. The survey found that most holidaymakers were perfectly happy with their tour operator, but it also reported a significant drop in people's rating of tour operators since the last survey in 1986, with 9 per cent. expressing clear dissatisfaction with the operator, as against 7 per cent. two years previously. Sadly, when the Commission suggested measures to protect holidaymakers, such as an arbitration service by local tourist officers, the Minister, to use the words of the Secretary of State, felt for his wallet.

This is a minimum directive. When the legislation is implemented here, the Minister should seek four safeguards for the consumer. He must consider banning surcharges. He should ensure that the holidaymaker does not have to establish negligence so as to obtain redress. He must examine the need for joint liability between the operator in the United Kingdom and the agent abroad, with the appropriate on-site advice and help. He should enshrine in legislation the standards that ABTA applies to its members where these are higher than standards in the directive, including strict liability for property damaged.

The Minister began by stating that British holiday-makers get the cheapest holidays. We know, however, that cheapest is not best and that value for money is not synonymous with cheapness. Thousands of holidaymakers believe that they are not getting value for the money that they have paid. That is because they did not receive the holiday for which they asked, not because their expectations are too high.

We do not endorse the Government's hostility to EC directives that are designed to strengthen consumer rights. Travel organisers should provide the holiday that is booked. The price at the time of booking should be the price that is finally paid. On-the-spot, independent arbitration should be considered. If an hotel is not the one advertised, there must be immediate help if the holiday is to be saved, not the right to register a complaint on return after the holiday has been ruined. To put it simply, people want the holiday that they have booked at the price that they have paid. Sadly, neither the directive nor the Government are backing the holiday consumer.