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Tourism

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 1:08 pm on 29th November 1996.

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Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane , Rotherham 1:08 pm, 29th November 1996

I shall make a short speech, because Back Benchers of all parties are waiting to speak. I look forward to their contributions.

The. Secretary of State referred to the Budget. We need to address one aspect—or rather, one and a half aspects—of the national economic situation in this debate. The first is the alarming rise in the exchange rate. Sterling is creeping up against the dollar and the deutschmark week by week. The fact that the past two years have been good for tourism in this country almost certainly reflects the massive devaluation of the pound after the 1992 humiliation for the then Chancellor. As a tourist who occasionally goes overseas, I may welcome a stronger pound, but for our export industry the continuing rise in sterling presents real problems. It will certainly cause problems for our inward-bound tourism industry.

We need a policy to ensure stable interest rates, inflation and exchange rates. None of those factors holds at the moment, alas. To build a strong and enduring tourist industry—a policy that the whole House supports—they will have to be addressed.

The other sad part of the Chancellor's sad Budget was the tax on children and children's holidays implicit in the doubling of the air passenger duty, to which the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) has already referred. According to 1995 figures provided by the Library, 3.5 million children travelled by air that year. There is a case for exempting them from the doubling of air passenger duty, or even exempting them from the duty altogether. I am happy to say that there is all-party support for an amendment to that end that I have tabled to the Budget resolutions on the Order Paper.

The issue of air travel into the United Kingdom is relevant. Heathrow, our main port of entry, is immensely crowded. No other country in Europe or the world so funnels its tourists and other passengers into a single airport. The most common noise heard in London, or at least this part of London, is that of planes flying overhead. I can think of no other major capital city that suffers that level of noise pollution.

I want a strong Heathrow, a strong British Airports Authority and strong flow of visitors into the United Kingdom, but I wonder whether we shall have to consider at some stage whether all those passengers have to come into Heathrow. We must try to spread the flow of arrivals across other airports and, as hon. Members from both sides have said, encourage people to visit the regions.

Tourism outside London and the south-east is of great concern to all those hon. Members who, like me, do not represent constituencies within the M25 beltway. I have no problem with the proposed giant ferris wheel on the south bank. I understand that we shall be able to see Tunbridge Wells from the top of it. I know that it has always been an ambition of many hon. Members to be able to see Tunbridge Wells from somewhere in the centre of London.

How can we get a more balanced tourist trade? One important area is the upgrading of staff quality and competence. The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) referred to interpretation. Our skills in language interpretation are notably deficient. We shall not get skilled staff by continually driving down wages. Over the past 17 years, the British share of the world tourism market has sunk from nearly 7 per cent. to 5 per cent. We have a £3.5 billion balance of trade deficit in tourism.

British tourists flock in their millions to Europe, where they often enjoy better-priced facilities. Minimum wage legislation, if it exists in the countries concerned, and the social chapter, are respected there. The sooner that we send out a signal that British tourism will not be based on very low wages the better. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), in his excellent report "Breaking New Ground", has set out a clear policy on the matter, which will be welcomed widely in the tourism industry.

I make a special appeal for Yorkshire, the region in which my constituency is situated and which has some of the finest tourist attractions in Europe. I am a great walker and I cannot see a hill without wanting to scramble to the top of it, hoping that I can conquer my fear of vertigo to do so. The dales and the peak district of Yorkshire stand comparison with any equivalent walking region in the rest of Europe.

However, we need more. We need to increase the availability of heritage attractions in Yorkshire. I was astonished by a reply I received only last week from the Minister, who is responsible for tourism—he is not here at present—to a question in which I asked him to identify the museums and heritage centres for the rail, car and steel industries. There are 36 railway museums and 21 car museums. There are major coal mining museums, including the national coal mining museum for England, the Scottish mining museum and the Lancashire mining museum. But for steel, one of the industries to which Britain gave birth and in which we still have an excellent record, there were only four rather minor cottage and craft museums—I mean no offence to them. The time has come to put on the map the need for a major heritage tourist centre for steel.

In Rotherham, there is a wonderful project, the Magna steel project, which is backed by British Steel, by the business community, by the local council and by the local community. The intention is to open a steel heritage centre in Rotherham. Rotherham is where the cannons that sunk Napoleon's fleet at Trafalgar were made and where the Bailey bridge was developed. It is still a major steel-producing site.

Steel conferences are often international. I am sure that many of those conferences would come outside London instead of crowding inside London if the Magna steel project was set up in Templeborough in my constituency. Unfortunately, both the Millennium Commission and the Secretary of State have shown almost complete indifference to the application for funding for the project. I hope that the Magna project—which is part of the steel heritage, which is a proud part of the British heritage, which will attract tourists outside London and which will be a focal point for the many international conferences for the world steel industry—will be given the attention it deserves.