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Tourism

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 11:37 am on 29th November 1996.

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Photo of Mr Hugh Dykes Mr Hugh Dykes , Harrow East 11:37 am, 29th November 1996

I am glad to follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), especially after hearing his final remarks. It would be naive to say that there should not be too much party politicking on whatever day of the week, because that is the very stuff of this historic Chamber; but an excess of it, and the exchanges of insults, the ranting and raving, and the sloganised imprecations that now characterise our daily debates are turning the public off to a significant degree. That attitude reflects, in part, on hon. Members. The right hon. Gentleman referred to empty Chamber syndrome, not only on Friday but on other days of the week. It is a fairly ominous development for Parliament.

I shall be brief. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Mr. Aitken), I shall have to leave before the end of the debate to attend other engagements. I apologise for that. Unfortunately, it will prevent me from hearing what I imagine will be an excellent and, as usual, competent speech by the Minister of State, but I shall read it very carefully and no doubt he will be able to put up with one or two subsequent letters from me on various policy aspects, if that would be in order.

I thank the Minister, not only for being a dynamic and confident Minister of his Department, which is an important Department and deserves to grow and expand in future, but for being especially helpful on the school playing fields problem that we have in London —not only central London but outer London, including my constituency of Harrow, East. I am grateful that, this morning, he once again agreed that we can fix a time for an urgent meeting next week to discuss the problem of Camden's ceasing to run the Prince Edward playing fields and the possible options. Those fields are on the verge of being vandalised and falling into dereliction as, in a week or two, for financial reasons, the present tenants —I use that word deliberately —give up running them.

I shall make several rapid points about tourism. Some relate to the activities of Departments other than the Department of National Heritage. As other hon. Members are anxious to speak, I shall not go into detail, and what I say will sound like a list, but perhaps I may develop some points later.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet mentioned the fire in the channel tunnel. When we contemplate that terrible fire and the damage that it has done to Eurostar and Le Shuttle services, we should react with sympathy, not criticism. It was a massive misfortune for the operators of the tunnel and the train services. We do not know what the three inquiries will produce. That service is crucial to the development and health of our tourism industry and the flow of our citizens abroad. It has been a wonderful success so far, and I can only express enormous sympathy for all concerned in the chunnel company and on the French side.

Subject to those three inquiries, I would say that, ominously, the fire appears to have resulted from the negligence of the owner of the vehicle where the fire started —perhaps also the driver, but I hesitate to say so because that could be massively unfair, so I shall not dwell on it —or sabotage or something similar. I hope that the truth will emerge from the inquiries, if it is able to be ascertained. That may be a problem.

In view of the great success of that service —the world's most wonderful transport project—the recent fire is in sharp contrast to the massive and tragic loss of life in ferry boat accidents. A great deal of attention has been given to injuries. Mercifully, only six or seven people were injured; others were in considerable discomfort, but the exercise of removing them from the train went extremely well. We understand that the mistakes made —subject to the inquiries, so I shall be careful what I say —are principally that, understandably, the steward opened the door and allowed smoke to come in and that there was confusion about whether the driver should proceed or stop. We do not know whether the electronics intervened.

We must all support the early resumption of chunnel services. There has been a rather malicious, "Oh, it will have to stay closed for years" attitude, especially in some of our more frenetic, hysterical, chauvinistic tabloid press. I hope that that will not be supported —it has not been so far —by anything that is said officially.

I am a strong supporter of the millennium wheel which, if all the permissions are sustained, is due to be created outside the still empty and unused County hall. By the way, when foreign tourists come to London they are open-mouthed and amazed at the history of the destruction of London government. That is another matter, which we shall go into another time. I opposed that idea when it was proposed by the Thatcher Government.

I hope that there will be more signs in foreign languages, in appropriate places, both official and privately promoted. Although English is the world's dominant language —we are blessed by that and it is fortunate for us —it is reassuring for foreign visitors to see signs in their own language. We are much better at providing such signs than we were 10 years ago, and we were much better at it 10 years ago than we were 20 years ago, but much more needs to be done.

Town twinning helps to promote tourism. The London borough of Harrow has a happy, felicitous and marvellously successful town-twinning arrangement with Douai, near Lille, the centre of the judiciary in north-western France. It is a great success in institutional, collective and personal relationship terms. It promotes tourism because people learn about it in a family and personal sense and then decide to visit one another's town and the surrounding areas. When the channel tunnel service resumes, that will be even easier.

The Government must try to reassure us through the appropriate agencies —London Transport, and our parliamentary authorities —in respect of a dramatic project: the lowering and creation of the Jubilee line connection at Westminster tube station and the new Parliament building. Apparently, both are now behind schedule. It is important for the Government to be able to reassure us that they will not run massively behind schedule. The matter is extremely important because many foreign visitors come to this location, despite the fact that it is a monstrous building site. I make no immediate complaint about that, but if it were to go on too long it could be damaging. Many people will flock to this area, to the benefit of our economy in the tourism sense, when those exciting projects are completed.

The British Rail Heathrow link was mentioned. I hope that it will not fall behind schedule and that we can have reassuring reports about it. I should like Ministers in general —this has a direct impact on tourism —to be more prepared to defend our membership of the European Union in the sense of the reciprocity of the single market in tourism. Thousands of visitors cross the planet as well as the member states of the European Union, but still the attitude of Ministers is not to defend our membership of the European Union enough, generally or specifically.

I make one important suggestion, to which I know the Minister, who is an extremely intelligent person, will react positively. We should do as other countries now do. Will he please discuss with the Department of Transport —we know that, whenever a new idea is promulgated, it takes about 19 years for it to be realised, so the sooner the better —showing the European flag on the numberplates of British cars, as it is in the other states of the European Union? That would be a good idea. Even if it started voluntarily, so that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) would not have to do it, it could be made compulsory later, once people realised what an overwhelmingly popular idea it was.

I conclude with a point of enormous importance to the tourism industry, on which the Department of National Heritage should perhaps hold discussions in future with two other crucial Departments, the DTI and the Treasury. I have expressed several times, and shall develop the theme relentlessly —so I warn my hon. Friend the Minister that letters will flow in due course, if he can stand opening them and reading them —my anxieties about the excessive costs of exchanging foreign currency at currency exchange bureaux in airports and elsewhere. They are often monopoly services in the sense that people cannot really leave a specific zone of the airport, and if they do, the rates quoted elsewhere are usually the same. The rates are based on the lead guidance rates of the leading commercial and clearing banks. As I said recently to the press, when I returned from France in the summer, I wanted to exchange some French francs back into sterling. The rates being quoted, even for quite large amounts of foreign currency, in this case more than £100 nowadays a modest amount of money for tourism and travel would be well into the £250 to £300 area —were phoney and the commission rates approached 10 per cent. In one case, it was well over 10 per cent. —and it was difficult to shop around and get a cheaper rate. There is a similar problem in booths in town and throughout the country.

The Government should look into that matter through the appropriate machinery —the Director General of Fair Trading. My hon. Friend the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs suggested that I contact the Director General of Fair Trading. I have done so, but I still await a reply. The obvious solution is to have the single currency, which is not the intellectual preserve of the central banking elites and high-falutin' officials deciding on their favourite projects. It is for Mr. and Mrs. Public.

I was entranced when a very right-wing colleague in the House —I will not name him —told me about his holiday with his wife, who I shall call, perhaps appropriately, Muriel. He said, "We drove my Daimler. We went around Holland a bit, around Belgium, a little bit in Germany, but that is a dangerous country of course so we did not stay there too long, and a little bit in northern France. We stayed in wonderful hotels and I used my credit card everywhere. But by the way, Hugh, always remember that I am dead against the single currency." It was a wonderfully illogical remark. We shall see how that pans out.

The single currency is a matter for tourists to benefit from. The credit card system allows them to do that, as do similar financial systems. The Government should directly encourage it, even during the preliminary phase before the central policy decision on a single currency is made, to promote the good cause of tourism in this country.

In the mean time, it is essential to reduce the huge cost of exchanges. Long-distance juggernaut drivers grumble massively about the inconvenience of the system. We all know the example of a family driving around half the European Union countries and exchanging currencies as they go across borders. Such a family would lose more than 50 per cent. of every gross pound that they spent because of that ludicrous process. The sooner we make a change, the better. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will undoubtedly give me a positive preliminary response to that very important suggestion.