Thomas Cook - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:36 pm on 25th September 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 3:36 pm, 25th September 2019

I thank both the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for their thoughtful questions and comments about this difficult situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about the various reviews that the Government will make sure are undertaken as a matter of great urgency. He also mentioned the accounting methods and the comments from EY. Thomas Cook of course uses IFRS, the standard accounting rules. Those are used in 125 countries and have been adopted by the EU. Some people will push those to the absolute limit, and maybe Thomas Cook did, but we cannot say for sure. Once we have got to the stage where the repatriation has finished successfully and everyone is home, we certainly will look into all sorts of things, including its application of the various accounting rules. The official receiver will review all payments made to the board and creditors in the lead-up to the date when the board declared the company insolvent. The official receiver is able to recall payments if it feels that they were not made in the right course of business.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, mentioned governance, which is really important as well. I hope that when these reviews have been finished, we will take away a number of lessons from them. The travel industry has always operated in the way it does. The issue now is that some of these organisations are very large, and when the worst happens it has a very significant consequence. Therefore, we as a Government need to think about the long-term future for aviation and travel organisations when they become insolvent.

This brings me on to the second major area commented on by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser: the airline insolvency review, which we asked Peter Bucks to undertake after Monarch. He submitted his report to the department in May this year. It is a long report; I am sure the noble Lord has read it. It has many different proposals—it was one of my responsibilities as the former Aviation Minister to go through it and see how we were going to take these various things forward. None of the things in it is easy, simple or without risk. There was a possible levy on passenger tickets but, as noble Lords will know from the repatriation today, simply having the money is only one thing—one has to have the aircraft.

That was the second thing that might be suggested: some sort of special administrative regime for an organisation. Again, that is quite complicated. I think we have one for energy companies and one for universities, but they are very difficult to put in place and require primary legislation. We are looking at that as a matter of urgency. The noble Lord also suggested looking at financial instruments. Again, we have been looking into that, at how they might either help or hinder—they might speed up a company’s demise.

I believe the German Government have been able to provide a bridging loan. I understand that Condor is in a different financial situation from the Thomas Cook Group as a whole, and maybe it is viable in the longer term. I very much hope that it is. However, we received a request from Thomas Cook for government support. I do not recall the date of the letter—it was possibly Friday. I will have to write to the noble Lord with all the details on what we received at what point and the reasons we decided to decline. I suppose one of the most obvious reasons was that Thomas Cook has until very recently been losing about £250 million a month, so it was not entirely clear to us that £250 million would be a good and viable long-term solution for a company which was clearly being weighed down by an incredible amount of debt.

The final cost of the repatriation is not known at this moment. I mentioned that it was £50 million for Monarch; this is at least twice the size and much more complicated. It is a fast-moving situation, but of course we are striving to keep costs to a minimum and are in open discussions with a number of third parties with which we will look to reach an agreement over future financial support.

With regard to the industry taking advantage, I agree with the noble Lord that this is very disappointing indeed. We do not expect anybody to take advantage in a difficult situation. On the flip side, I am very pleased by the support that we are being given by certain airlines—for example, BA and Virgin, which have both been offering rescue fares to people in places where we do not have repatriation flights.

Obviously, we have done a significant amount of contingency planning. We knew what our plan was for the hotels, but until the event actually happened we could not put that plan into place. The letters went out to 3,000 hotels; imagine you are a hotel far away and you get a strange letter from the British Government saying, “It’s okay, we’ll pay the hotel bill”. It just took a while for the message to get through. We used our diplomats and consular staff to get out there and talk to the hotels. We also went straight in at ministerial level, saying to Tourism Ministers, “Please can you speak to the hotels to make sure that people are not thrown out of them?”

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, also talked about what we called when doing contingency planning “keep the fleet flying”, which would of course seem obvious to anyone—they are planes, why can we not get them up in the sky? We really tried to look into that, but we need the legislation for that to continue, because operating an airline is not as simple as having a pilot and putting a plane in the sky. Unfortunately, one needs many indemnities and certificates, but we hope to be able to put something in place which would allow the fleet to continue to fly so that, should this ever happen again, that would be the most obvious way of sorting it out.

Those passengers not guaranteed by ATOL may well have other routes that they can use if they pay by credit or debit card or through travel insurance. If there is one other thing that has come out of this, it is that many people go on holiday nowadays and do not think about travel insurance or what might happen if the travel company goes into liquidation. People might want to think differently how they protect themselves when they go abroad.

I was appalled to see the scams too, people saying on social media that they are getting telephone calls from people saying that they can get their money back. We are working on it and the CAA will be putting out some stuff—it might already have gone out—making sure people are aware that there are scams out there. The good thing is that social media is doing its own thing. People who are not connected are already saying, “Beware, there are some very dodgy people out there”.