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Thomas Cook

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:03 pm on 25th September 2019.

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Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 2:03 pm, 25th September 2019

I would like to thank the Secretary of State for giving me timely advance sight of his statement; that is a welcome change. What I do not welcome is the collapse of Thomas Cook, which is a tragedy for the 178-year-old business, its customers and its staff. The travel company went under because successive chief executives failed to steer the group effectively or to evolve the business. Thomas Cook had five offers for its airline business, yet these were rejected by the board. I, too, would like to pay tribute to Richard Moriarty and his team at the Civil Aviation Authority for the work done yet again to repatriate holidaymakers. I applaud their sense of public service and duty.

Aviation is a fiercely competitive industry that has lost services because of terrorism and Brexit uncertainty. The Government’s dithering on their aviation strategy has only added to these difficulties. In May, speaking on airline insolvencies, the Secretary of State’s predecessor said that the Government

“will work swiftly to introduce the reforms that are needed to ensure a strong level of consumer protection and value for money for the taxpayer.”—[Official Report, 9 May 2019;
Vol. 659, c. 33-34WS.]

This was misleading. The Government have done nothing to protect consumer or taxpayer interests. The Government have sat back and let the company fold.

Yesterday, Governments in Scandinavia stepped in to back Thomas Cook subsidiaries in that region. The German Government also stepped in with a loan of €380 million for the Thomas Cook subsidiary Condor, to help that company to survive. The chief executive of Thomas Cook Airlines, Christoph Debus, has seamlessly just gone to work for Condor, and jubilant scenes of the survival of the subsidiary are doing the rounds on social media. Can the Secretary of State tell the House what steps his Government took to enter into a joint investment with other interested nation states? It is reported that the Governments of Spain and Turkey were understandably willing to do this, but seemingly the UK Government were not.

We are somewhat reassured that there is provision to return holidaymakers to the UK, but sadly there is no provision for the return of Thomas Cook’s staff. The unions Unite and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association have valiantly fought for their members, while this Government have done nothing. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that all staff will be repatriated? Can he say what provisions he is putting in place to ensure that customers who have lost their planned holidays are fully compensated and able to make alternative arrangements at no expense to themselves?

The Government learned nothing from the Monarch collapse two years ago. Monarch cost taxpayers £40 million in repatriation costs and Thomas Cook looks set to cost a similar amount or more, not to mention redundancy and future welfare payments. Can the right hon. Gentleman give us an estimate of what the total costs are likely to be? Monarch was the victim of financial engineering by Greybull Capital two years ago, and of conflicts of interest with the company’s administrator. Similarly, the collapse of Thomas Cook raises major questions about the accounting of the firm by PwC and EY, never mind the bonuses paid to senior executives. On that point, will the Secretary of State make it clear to those executives that they should return their undeserved and unwarranted multi-million pound bonuses, including that of Peter Fankhauser, who has had £4.6 million in bonuses since 2014?

I say again that the Government have not acted to protect the public interest, and that nothing has been learned or done to improve how our insolvency arrangements deal with such exceptional and complex circumstances. What is more, the ATOL fund has been much reduced by the Monarch fiasco and has had to rely on insurance to make up the shortfall. Does the Secretary of State believe that the reforms of ATOL enacted by his Government have been effective? The Government must confirm that they will immediately guarantee the workers full compensation for unfair dismissal, given the lack of proper consultation, and that those workers will not have to pursue the matter through the courts. Can he confirm that they will be relieved of that burden and stress?

In a further sad development, we also learned today that Northern Ireland’s last manufacturer, Wrightbus, has gone into administration with the loss of 1,400 jobs. In July, the Prime Minister said that

“we will do everything we can to ensure the future of that great UK company.”—[Official Report, 25 July 2019;
Vol. 663, c. 1496.]

Is it not the case that this Government are guilty of the industrial neglect of this country? In contrast to other countries, UK Ministers have stood by and let some of our great companies wither and die. This Government are engulfed by inertia and incompetence. They are not a functioning Government, because of the Brexit chaos and Prorogation paralysis that they have brought upon themselves. The people of Britain are paying a high price for their inadequacy. They have failed to reform insolvency rules and failed to improve financial reporting. This is a colossal failure of political leadership from this Government. They were warned, but they did nothing. That is a shameful failure to fulfil their duties and their responsibilities.