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Thomas Cook Customers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:24 pm on 5th November 2019.

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Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (International Trade) 1:24 pm, 5th November 2019

As your next-door-but-one constituency neighbour, Mr Speaker, may I congratulate you on your election?

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. She is right to raise these matters today, because they raise serious questions that will need far more attention in the new Parliament, whichever Minister is at the Dispatch Box. I also have some questions today to take this forward.

In her statement, the Secretary of State mentioned a “high aggregate amount”. Can she tell us more about what that is? On the question about audit, to which I will return shortly, will she tell us why no regulation was in place to ensure that this serious weakness did not materialise? I should also like to put on record my thanks to all those involved in bringing 140,000 holiday- makers home.

We welcome the fact that the online services have now been bought, and that shops in the constituencies of Members across the House are being reopened by Hays Travel, but why oh why did Thomas Cook have to close first, and why were the opportunities that were given to the shops and online services not given to the airline? Intervention to ensure the retention of those viable parts of the business would have been a major step towards addressing the serious weaknesses that the Secretary of State identified in her statement. The Government were told at the time that parts of the business were successful, and Hays Travel clearly agreed because it bought the shops. There is also value in the brand, which is why the online business has been recovered. Could the airline have been saved, as the ones in Germany and Scandinavia were, if the liquidation had been delayed?

Why did the Government not listen to those calling for intervention? Why did they not take a stake in the company, so that the shops and digital business could have been transferred while still trading and so that other parts of the business could have been saved? Let us remember that the Turkish and Spanish Governments wanted to step in. They saw the potential value, but our Government did not. Had our Government intervened, the hardship to which the Secretary of State rightly referred could have been identified and possibly avoided. Does she regret her failure to speak to the company and to intervene to protect the jobs and rights of workers? Had the company continued trading, with the Government holding a stake, the rights of workers would have been protected. It is good news that staff will now have jobs with Hays Travel, but will they be paid for the time since Thomas Cook closed? Will their rights from their years of service be protected? Are staff being TUPE-ed over, or not?

What can the Secretary of State tell us about her response to the warnings about auditor conflicts of interest? She mentioned audit responsibility and potential failure in her statement. Auditing conflicts of interest have been repeatedly identified at Carillion, at BHS, in the banks and now at Thomas Cook. Has she read the excellent report from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and what is her response to its recommendations, including its calls for a new regulator and for the audit profession to be proactive rather than reactive? Why is the Secretary of State so resistant to change? The Competition and Markets Authority wants action; why does not she?

What action is the Secretary of State taking to address the scandalous payment of bonuses to executives who have profited at the expense of workers and customers and who presumably have direct responsibility for the appalling hardship to which she has referred? Analysis by Unite and Syndex shows that £188 million in bridging loans would have prevented the liquidation. That would have allowed profitable parts of the business to be sold while still trading, and for workers’ rights to be protected. This would have supported the wider economy and communities, too.

The Government should be a partner of business, not stand apart from it. That means intervening and providing support where intervention stands a chance of succeeding. The more evidence emerges about the Thomas Cook collapse, the more it appears that the case for intervention was there to be made. If they would not intervene at Thomas Cook, exactly when would the Government intervene?

If the Secretary of State wants to avoid hardship for those covered by insurance, she needs to change her approach and her attitude to intervention. When she referred to a drop in the ocean in responding to a question from the shadow Business Secretary, she demonstrated that she did not agree with her predecessor, who said that reforms were needed to ensure a strong level of consumer protection and value for money for the taxpayer. He was right, was he not?

The Secretary of State said that the Thomas Cook approach was unacceptable and that support must be given to those severely impacted by its closure through no fault of their own. I agree, but the Government have failed Thomas Cook. They sat back and let it fold. Only proper reforms will make sure that catastrophic failures of this type do not happen again.