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Tourism

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 1:23 pm on 29th November 1996.

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Photo of Lady Olga Maitland Lady Olga Maitland , Sutton and Cheam 1:23 pm, 29th November 1996

I am pleased that we are having this important debate. I looked at Hansard for reports of previous tourism debates; an impossibly long time has elapsed since the last one. I think it was nearly two years ago, and the previous one was another two years before that. We have had too few debates on tourism, which is surprising considering the important role that it plays in this country.

I want, first, to pay a special tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage for her efforts to raise the profile of tourism. She has been a champion, and I do not think anyone could have done more. I know also that she has been ably supported by her Minister. One example of her energies was her visit to Tokyo to spread the good news in Japan. Japanese tourists play a key role among visitors to this country and they are coming in greater numbers than ever before. It is important for my right hon. Friend to keep her eye on the ball, and I congratulate her on her foresight in going to Japan. Tourism from Japan brought receipts of £554 million in 1995, excluding air fares, so her efforts were worth while. I hope that she will not stop at Japan, and that she will also visit other countries.

There was a slight ripple of laughter around the Chamber earlier when my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) claimed that his constituency is the queen of the suburbs. He claimed that Ealing had the right conditions to attract tourists. I have to take issue with my hon. Friend; if he thinks Ealing is good news, I reckon visitors would get an even better deal if they came to my constituency of Sutton and Cheam, which is a leafy, pleasant area with many avenues, parks and quiet streets. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) can testify to that; I know that he has a close relative living there and that he is able to bear good witness to what we have to offer.

My remarks are not totally in jest, because it is nice for visitors to London to stay somewhere quiet and pleasant. We are well placed for transport—we are not only on the main lines to Victoria, but are equidistant from Heathrow and Gatwick. The main arterial route of the M25 is also close by, making it easy for visitors to travel across the country.

Companies should also bear in mind our affordable conference facilities. Not all companies are immediately attracted to the main conference centres in the centre of London and they should think carefully about deploying their efforts to a pleasant suburb, such as Sutton, where they would get good value for money.

In fact, the whole debate hinges on the key point of value for money. Few people realise what a significant role tourism plays in our economy. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the spirit of our tourism has been driven by freedom from regulations. The industry operates according to market forces in a low tax economy and, of course, has the most wonderful resources in the world. It is not surprising that tourism is responsible for more than 5 per cent. of our gross domestic product, amounting to £38 billion. I welcome the fact that the United Kingdom is fifth in the world in earnings from foreign visitors, who last year accounted for a blockbusting £12 billion, up by more than 22 per cent. on 1994.

As has already been mentioned today—it is worth re-emphasising—the industry employs 1.7 million people. Admittedly, some of the jobs are part-time or seasonal, but all those people have jobs. The industry is also responsible for 220,000 businesses, 200,000 of which are classified as small businesses, which are a key factor in the industry as a whole.

The industry is labour intensive, and employs more people than the Russian Army or the Indian railways. As the Select Committee report pointed out, it employs more people than are involved in agriculture, coal mining, steel making, car and aircraft manufacture, food production and the textile industry put together.

Considering the enormous tie-up of resources and people involved, it is astonishing that we have not given the Department of National Heritage the status that it deserves. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Mr. Aitken) said, it should be called the Department of National Heritage and Tourism. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will join me in pressing that, eventually, we should make that change.

The industry involves such a significant amount of capital that we must ask ourselves why it does not achieve the attention and esteem that it deserves. It is disappointing that it is not recognised as a central element in the economy. I think one reason for that lies in the very nature of the industry, which consists of places of leisure. Somehow, leisure is not considered serious.

The industry embraces hotels, heritage attractions such as castles, places of entertainment, theatres, fairs and jousting. They are all too easily disregarded as somewhat frivolous—as an optional extra perhaps. How short-sighted people are to think in that way. We must bear in mind the indispensable and growing contribution that tourism makes to the economy, not to mention the role that it plays in our balance of payments.

There is much that we can do not only to boost the status of tourism but to capitalise on its success. Marketing must be a priority, so it is not surprising that it has been a popular topic in the debate. The British Tourist Authority has £35 million earmarked for it in the next financial year to market the United Kingdom abroad. With that sum, it will undertake promotions through a network of 42 overseas offices. Within its rather limited resources, the BTA has tried to be as effective and innovative as possible, and I pay tribute to the enormous energy that it puts into that effort.

However, I share the concern expressed in the National Heritage Committee's report on tourism, published this week, that a greater return could be achieved if more money were spent on promotion. I note the Committee's recommendation that the Government should increase the sum paid to the BTA by £100 million over the next five years. That would quadruple the current allocation.

There is, rightly, a debate about whether that is the correct figure, but the broad principle ought to be borne in mind. Before the Minister faints with shock at the idea of my asking him and the Government to spend more money when we are trying to cut the public sector borrowing requirement, I shall remind him of the point ably put across by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), the Chairman of the Select Committee: we should regard whatever sum is deemed appropriate not as a grant—non-returnable dead money—but as an investment, from which we shall get more back.

I am persuaded that marketing is an important key to our success. There is no point hiding our talents under a bushel. It is worth nothing that, in central London, Regent street, Oxford street and Piccadilly are littered with tourist offices from other countries, door after door. We should recognise that such offices play a key role.

People do not come to this country unless they know the good news; to tell the good news, the tourist industry cannot rely on the bush telegraph. It has to go out and "get 'em in."

I read with some attention the experiences of the Select Committee when it visited the United States—it was struck by the sheer scale of promotion. The state of Virginia alone spends $1 million on overseas promotion, while Massachusetts spends $2 million. That should be compared with the BTA's promotion budget for the whole of the USA of £5 million, which includes about £750,000 for advertising.

The BTA claims that every pound spent on promotion in 1994 generated £14 for the British economy, and the corresponding figure was estimated at £23 for 1995 and £27 for 1996—a handsome return for every pound spent in promoting our country. It follows that larger investments would reap the highest reward and would bring greater revenue to the Treasury, making the original investment worth while. I hope that that is a persuasive argument for an increase in funding.

We have just had a succesful Budget, and the Chancellor has been able to report that the economy is growing continuously and steadily. I hope that, in next year's Budget, he will he able to respond to requests from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage for more support to boost British tourism.

I wish to comment on the quality of tourism in the United Kingdom. It is encouraging to see more and more overseas visitors in Britain, but we should not take their arrivals for granted. We must ensure that they receive good value for money, especially in terms of accommodation. In my years in political life, I have travelled across the country and stayed in innumerable hotels. I must say that I have had some "Fawlty Towers" experiences.

I shall never forget the first time I attended a Conservative party conference up in Blackpool. I was shown into a little hotel in Coronation street, where we always seem to end up. The price was modest, but I was surprised that, when I was shown to my room, I had to ask, "Where is the bed?" The man showing me round said, "Here," pulled a rope out of the wall, and down it fell. He left and, a few minutes later, my room was plunged into darkness. I thought, "Goodness. A power failure." I dashed out into the corridor and found that the lights were on, and suddenly it struck me—my room was on an electricity meter. I then had the most appalling hunt for the meter, which was in a cupboard, and I then had to find out what coins it took and go and get them. All told, it was a miserable experience. That was Blackpool, but things do not go wrong only there.

The other year, my husband and I attended another Conservative party conference, this time in Bournemouth. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the bathroom door fell off its hinges and across the bed as the manager showed us to our room. We may laugh—I certainly did at the time—but it is absurd. We should not have such hotels.

It is interesting that these things seem to happen at what I call the middle-ranking hotels—those that are neither cheap and cheerful nor luxurious. I have never had a bad experience while staying in bed-and-breakfast hotels, which have always been of the highest quality, whether in towns, in the country or on a farm. They are personally run by the householder and his wife, who provide the best possible service and attention and certainly the most magnificent slap-up British breakfast.

Foreign visitors do not always have such good experiences, however. A British Tourist Authority survey shows that 28 per cent. of visitors to London do not believe that London hotels provide good value. Of overseas visitors who did not stay in London, 36 per cent. felt that their accommodation was poor. Criticisms related to room size; decor; washing facilities, especially the availability of private bathrooms—amazingly enough, that is still a problem; meal hours, as restaurants often close at 8.30 pm, just as guests arrive, and are inflexible about what they can do for a late traveller; and cost.

The shortage of hotel space in London means that poor hotels are not driven out of business by market forces. Travellers have no choice but to accept second best. There should be a proper registration scheme for accommodation, modelled on that in Northern Ireland, where registration is compulsory and has been since 1948. I cannot understand why it has taken us so long to jump on board. In Northern Ireland, inspections are carried out to ensure minimum standards and a certificate is issued categorising the unit as a hotel, guest house, bed and breakfast and so forth. Indeed, it is an offence to provide accommodation without a certificate, and it has been known for such certificates to be withdrawn following serious complaints.

The Consumers Association is keen on compulsory registration, as is Westminster city council, the BTA chief executive, the British Incoming Tour Operators Association, the British Resorts Association and the Tourism Society. They all want statutory classification, although there is a debate about grading. There should be clear grading so that people know exactly what they are getting, which is important.

Although the Department quails, I gather, at the work and expense involved, it would be short sighted to sit on the fence, hoping that voluntary registration will suffice. That option would have none of the necessary rigour, and would do little to push for improved standards. Hotels that are poor performers would not register voluntarily, so we would still face the difficulty of how to tackle unsatisfactory service.

Labour's new tourism strategy spells new dangers. The industry's biggest resource is its people. We need to take care of them, and not only in terms of training. Personal service must be valued, respected and seen as a worthwhile and dignified career. We must also protect the interests of the work force. I am concerned for them, bearing in mind the fact that they number 1.7 million people. They would be put at great disadvantage if the industry suffered from the insidious workings of the social chapter. The tourism trade would be burdened with damaging new regulations, such as the 48-hour working directive, the parental leave directive and the planned part-time and temporary workers' directive. They would crush the industry and job opportunities rather than build it up. Under new Labour's plans, this prosperous industry would be dragged down because jobs would be put at serious risk by the minimum wage.

I was disappointed when the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), referred to sweatshops and poverty pay. It is all very well to use highly emotive language—that is easy—but what we really have to do is to look at people's lives.

Is it right to push around and socially engineer jobs so that some benefit from an increased wage and others are thrown on the scrap heap, without a job and dependent on unemployment benefit? If we asked any one of the 1.7 million people working in the industry if he would surrender his job so that his friend next door could get a bit more pay, the answer would be no. Nobody would go on the dole voluntarily rather than have the dignity of working and supporting a family.

We must understand that one man's pay rise would be another man's job loss. Moreover, the pressure on businesses would cause them to go bankrupt. Let us not forget that we are dealing with 200,000 small businesses that are vulnerable to pressures. They are not what Labour Members would describe as fat cat enterprises that can absorb an enormous amount of shocks; press them too hard and they would go under.

Even if businesses stayed afloat and paid the increased wages, the costs would be passed on to the tourist, who would resent it and stop coming here. We should seriously consider the effects that the Labour party's proposals could have on the tourism industry and the jobs that it provides.

It is important to encourage people—not just foreigners, but English families—to visit not only London, but our wonderful and beautiful regions. We should adopt the New Zealand saying, "Don't leave home 'til you've seen the country." We should encourage our friends, neighbours and constituents to see some of their own culture and heritage.

Of course, we cannot stop people flitting off to Kos for two weeks, but we can encourage them to see more of this country, even if only for a few short breaks in the year. Everyone has heard of the Londoner who has not been beyond the M25 but has been to Corfu; we should get him to the Cotswolds, to East Anglia, Oxford and Cambridge.