HC Deb 10 March 1950 vol 472 cc709-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. Adams.]

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Edward Carson (Isle of Thanet)

On the Adjournment today I make no apology for raising the question of the tourist trade; in other words, those people who come to this country from abroad. I do not think that at present we are well enough aware of how important the tourist trade is to us. I shall quote a few figures which I think will show just how vital the tourist trade is. The number of people who came from abroad in 1949 was estimated at roughly 550,000, compared with 504,000 for the previous year. That is an increase of 9 per cent. over the year before, compared with about 450,000 in the immediate pre-war years. Tourism has become one of our biggest dollar earners, and we have to recognise the fact.

It is very hard to differentiate between those who come from dollar countries and those who come from the Empire and the Continent, and so forth, but I think we can say that American tourists, in 1949, totalled something like 140,000. That, of course, includes those in transit. They are estimated to have spent something like 70 million dollars during 1949. The target for 1950 is 600,000 visitors; and we hope to collect£65 million in foreign currency. This includes the payment of fares from abroad, without which it would be something like£45 million. We are expecting 200,000 visitors from the United States of America.

I ask the House to look at the figures. They indicate how vital it is to us that these figures should be increased in every way possible. We do not go after tourism nearly as hard as many countries of the Continent do. We should go for it with a good deal more vigour than we do at present. We are apt to get a kind of an inferiority complex and to think that because we suffered more in the world than a great many other countries we cannot expect tourists here. I do not think that is so. There is a lot that we can offer, and my sole purpose is to try to show how I think we can offer more than we do now. I gather that an hon. Member opposite wishes to speak after me, and that he will fill in the gaps that I leave.

We must realise that the tourist from America or from anywhere else is not the sort of person who expects the earth. He knows what we have suffered and he appreciates our difficulties. He wants to see England for its own beauties, and he asks only three basic things. He asks that hotels should be reasonably priced, and that there should be good food and good travel facilities—and a reasonable price can be bracketed with those three requirements. We are not trying—if we are, we are wrong—to cater for the American millionaire or film star. They are, of course, desirable in their way, but if we are to increase the tourist trade we should have the increase from among ordinary American citizens. We want more of them over here, although they may not spend as much per head as the richer people. We want the ordinary person to come over here to see our country, and spend his money here. Therefore, we should not think in terms of the Savoy or the Ritz or that sort of hotel; we should think far more in terms of the ordinary, good middle-class hotels, because it is the middle-class persons whom we are trying to get.

We have not nearly as many middle-class hotels as we should have, with decent service at reasonable prices. Every Member of Parliament spends a certain amount of his time in railway hotels—I know I do—and the service leaves a lot to be desired. To be fair, it is not always the fault of the Government so far as food is concerned. It is the result of lack of imagination on the part of the management. One comes across this sort of thing in a number of cases. With a little more imagination we could compete on more or less equal terms with France and other countries on the Continent.

We are only touching the fringe of this matter, and I am certain that we can get far more tourists over here than we have done in the past if we approach the problem in the right sort of attitude. I will say no more about food, except that I think there is a case—I put it no higher than this—for the Government reconsidering the question of the 5s. allowance for food in restaurants. Whether something can be done or not I do not know I leave it at that, and I shall be grateful for a reply from the Government Front Bench.

I come to my last and main point, travel. When somebody conies to this country he wants to see as much of the country as he possibly can. He wants to move about; he moves about a great deal more than the ordinary Englishman on his holiday, because he has only a limited time in which to stay here. I cannot say that our travel facilities are adequate. I appreciate the difficulties arising from the war, but even so more could be done. The railways do not produce everything they should at the right price. For example, the return fare from Southampton to the Scottish Highlands is something like£9. That is rather excessive for a visitor who may want to go not only to Inverness or the Scottish Highlands but round the country as well. Would it not be possible to provide a cheap ticket for a visitor who stays here for a month and wants to see as much of the country as he possibly can? Could not there be a ticket varying in price from, say,£10 to£20 according to the length of stay, so that a tourist can go wherever he likes on British Railways? I think it is a possibility.

My second point also concerns travel. We in this country can go abroad by coach or car, and we find it very easy on Polytechnic tours or Cooks tours. One can join a coach and go where one likes. I am told that at the moment private coaches in this country are very short of petrol. Coach proprietors find it extremely difficult to make both ends meet, and either they must have more petrol or cut down their activities, which would be a grave blow at our dollar earnings as coach travel is very popular. I have discussed the question of coaches and self-drive cars with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power time and time again, and we have not yet reached agreement on it. I suggested that there should be a special allocation of cars for overseas visitors and that these cars should be kept exclusively for overseas visitors. The trade would welcome it and would keep those cars for such a purpose. A scheme could be worked out whereby there would be a check on the cars to ensure that they were being used exclusively for people coming from abroad.

We have put forward two schemes, one whereby white petrol could be used under proper control and the second whereby red petrol could be available for these cars, again under proper control, which is much more practicable. Has anything been done about that? I saw in an evening newspaper last night that unlimited petrol would be produced for foreign tourists this year. Is that to be the case? I consider that travel is the most important consideration for people who come to this country; they want to get around as much as possible. I believe the gaps in my speech will be filled by hon. Members who follow me, but I feel that this is a problem to which the Government have not given sufficient attention. I hope they will give sufficient attention to it in the future.

4.11 p.m.

Mr. John Lewis (Bolton, West)

I think the House is indebted to the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Carson) for raising this very important question, particularly in view of the fact that we wish to encourage visitors to this country from the Western Hemisphere. After all, those who visit England from those areas will have to spend hard currency—dollars which will to a great extent assist in the solution of our economic problems. I wish to stress that if it is our intention to encourage these good people to stay in this country and to spend their money here, we must most carefully examine some of the existing restrictions, from their point of view unreasonable restrictions, which make them say to themselves, "We shall stay only a day or so in England and then we shall be off to Paris to enjoy ourselves."

I have in mind two points upon which I should like to make some observations. When American visitors come to this country—and we anticipate there will be thousands more landing on our shores for the Festival of Britain—they often wish to go into the stores and to be able to purchase British goods without difficulty. What is the position? They go to a large store in the West End, or perhaps to a small shop. in another area, but instead of being able to pay in cash for the goods which they require they are called upon to complete forms and are told that they cannot take the goods away but that the goods must be delivered to ship. I have been told by those responsible for these retail-export sales, who deprecate very strongly the restrictions which exist at the moment, that these restrictions are responsible for the loss of literally hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

When the visitors are told about the formula they have to adopt and the forms they have to fill, they say they will not bother and they go out of the store in a huff, with the result that vital retail sales for the export market, sales that are without the usual attendant costs in packing and delivery charges, are lost to this country. They are lost because these visitors are not prepared, in the circumstances, to go through all the paraphernalia which is insisted upon at the moment. In those circumstances I feel that the ingenuity of the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be taxed in order to ensure that American visitors who come to this country can take their dollars into the store, make their purchase free of Purchase Tax and take their goods away with them. I see no difficulty about it at all.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that American citizens should get goods free of Purchase Tax while British citizens should pay it?

Mr. Lewis

Of course. If the hon. Gentleman will just think for a moment, he will remember that goods for export are free of Purchase Tax. There should be some scheme evolved whereby the American visitor who pays in dollars could go into a store and get goods free of Purchase Tax, and take them away with him without the necessity of the goods having to be sent to the ship. This seems to me a very simple proposition. To claim the rebate of Purchase Tax the manager of the store would only have to produce the paying-in slip for the dollars which he has received, by an arrangement with the banks and Customs and Excise. So it seems to me abundantly clear that there would be no difficulty about checking up dollar sales, and that there would be no black market in dollars, as some people fear. That is the first point that I have in mind, and I hope that there may be some possibility of relieving the burden on the visitors to this country, who resent it.

My other point is the reaction of the visitors from the Western Hemisphere who use restaurants in this country. They are told there is a 5s. meal. They go into the restaurants on the assumption that that is the price for a meal. They find that they are charged about£3 for a 10s. bottle of wine. They do not mind even that; but on top of that they find that their bills bear no relationship whatever to their previous assumption that 5s. was the price of the meal per head. Music charges, house charges, surcharges, and so on, result in their bills being very much higher than they anticipated, and they go away thinking they have been caught.

In my view, the restriction of the 5s. meal should be lifted immediately. There is no justification for it at all today, because competition enables people to go to places where they can get the best meal and the cheapest price. It seems to me that were the 5s. restriction lifted that would be no reason whatever why restaurant proprietors, who perhaps are losing money on the 5s. meals, should find it necessary to charge exorbitant prices for drinks in order to cover their losses on the sale of food. I believe there are small losses incurred in many restaurants on the sale of food. I think that if the prices of wines were controlled in restaurants, the result would be that we could lift the restriction of the 5s. meal, and at the same time encourage visitors, who come to this country and who are used to being able to get what they want, and are not prepared to accept just what is on the menu at a fixed maximum. This is one of the reasons why they go to Paris and Brussels and other places, whereas it should be our intention to keep American and Canadian visitors here as long as possible, so that they will spend as many dollars as they have available in this country.

If these two factors which I have mentioned are considered, I think it will be a great help so far as our retail export trade is concerned, because I regard the tourist trade as an essential export trade, by which we are earning dollars and could earn more, without the attendant costs in respect of packing and delivery. I believe that because of the restrictions American visitors who would stay in this country for many weeks have, after a few days, gone abroad to other countries where there are no restrictions, and they have done so because they come to Europe for a holiday and wish to spend their money in the way that they please.

4.19 p.m.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton. Pavilion)

I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Carson) on having raised this matter now and not later because, due to devaluation, a very large number of Americans are already beginning to come over here even at the present moment. Therefore, we must really deal with the question of the tourist trade at once.

Now let me tell the House something. I had this experience during the General Election. It was at Oxford. I went there to speak, and I stayed there in an hotel of considerable prominence, and well-known. It was fantastic: a number of things that happened there will discourage American visitors. I was not allowed stamped hotel notepaper in the evening because I was told that it was too expensive and was rationed. In the morning I was not allowed special knives and forks at my table because of rationing of knives per group of tables. Again, I found that in my room during certain hours I was not allowed to have any service because of the Catering Wages Act. All these things will frighten people away. The particular hotel I stayed at is one of considerable importance, and is well-known in America.

My hon. Friend has given us some figures about people coming here to stay. They do not indicate how long they stay. As a matter of fact, they are staying for a far shorter time than before the war and something must be done to try to make them stay longer. I have two suggestions to make. One, I think, would apply to the Ministry of Transport. That is with regard to people who cannot find room in London. It must be remembered that there are the Provinces to be considered in this matter and the towns near to London. Take my division of Brighton, for instance. There is the Motor Show coming on in the near future in London, and Americans cannot find enough accommodation in London; they are trying to find it in Brighton. but there are no trains late enough to get them back to Brighton around midnight and there have not been such trains since the war though there were up to 1939. There appears to be no reason why there should not be a midnight train back to Brighton and other reasonable provisions made on this service.

Another point is with regard to motor coaches. After the war Switzerland, France and other countries completely altered the seating of their motor coaches on the lines of the American coaches and made them more comfortable. We have not yet done that in this country. Our coaches require more petrol, too. It is a comparatively new tourist service. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would look into these matters with a view to helping our hotels and tourist trade, and of attracting more visitors here during the summer from abroad.

4.22 p.m.

The Secretary for Overseas Trade (Mr. Bottomley)

In order to save time, I will say first that I agree that the figures quoted are approximately correct. I think that we can say that the Government realise the importance of this industry. It has now grown so that it is within the category of the highest dollar-earning industry in the country. This has been done by the co-operation of all, including the many industries connected with the catering and hotel trade and by the Government themselves through the medium of the British Tourist and Holidays Board.

The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. J. Lewis) raised the question of the personal export scheme. I think that it would be wrong for the impression to be given that things are as bad as he suggests. They are certainly not. I have heard many complimentary remarks by traders who have said how helpful the scheme has been, particularly after we changed it last year, so that it is no longer necessary to have purchases sent to the ports or airports. It is now possible to buy goods in the shops and take them away. I agree that we are still not satisfied, and we want to make further improvements. If any hon. Member has any suggestions to make, we shall be glad to have them in the Department. I can assure my hon. Friend the matter is constantly under review.

Mr. J. Lewis

Is it still necessary to fill up forms?

Mr. Bottomley

We have, as a result of investigation, gained the information that for the four months to the end of September. we obtained income to the amount of£750,000 for goods purchased in the shops under the personal export scheme.

With regard to petrol, that is more a matter for the Minister of Fuel and Power, and I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, who is here, has taken a full note of what has been said. There are already excellent facilities in existence for enabling overseas visitors to have preferential treatment over the home consumer in order that they should have satisfaction, and we hope that this helps us to earn the currency that we desire. I could give fuller details but I think that is a matter concerning my hon. Friend.

I ought to say that we are aware of the need to attract the right kind of tourist, in the sense that while we know certain people who can afford it would always make the trip, we want to attract the middle-class—if that is the right expression—who are now travelling more than before. If we can appeal to them in any way, we shall do so. One of the limiting factors is that of transport. In that connection, last year some additional ships, came into service, and for the coming year the Ministry of Transport are making arrangements for two further vessels on the trans-atlantic route, which will give us an additional 10,000 berths, thereby enabling more visitors to come to our country.

Mr. Teeling

What about the motor coaches?

Mr. Bottomley

The hon. Member will be aware that a person providing a car-hire service, whatever form it may take, gets an allowance of petrol which enables him to give the service. A similar scheme applies in the case of coaches. If the result justifies it, they get an additional petrol allowance, in order to earn the income that we desire to get from those who come from overseas.

Another limiting factor, of course, is that of hotel accommodation. There is a tendency to think that London is the only place in this country in which a visitor can stay. Well, we are doing all we can to show that there are many other equally desirable parts of the country. Perhaps I can say that better than most, as I am a Londoner. We are doing all we can to encourage a broadening of the ways in which provision can be Made. In London —which, after all, is the capital city, and it is only natural that people should want to come here—we are doing all we can to release hotels, and we hope that this year the Washington Hotel may become available for use. The Carlton has already been mentioned, but it may not be easy to make that available. Whether it be London or anywhere else, if any hotelier can show that it is necessary to extend his building, or to provide additional bedrooms or other facilities to earn the currency we must have—not just for home purposes—then I readily give the assurance that the Government will do everything possible to assist in that direction.

Mr. Teeling

Does that apply to furniture?

Mr. Bottomley

I would not go so far as that, otherwise we might be told we were subsidising them, and I think we have come to the end of that sort of thing.

Sir W. Darling

They will want beds.

Mr. Bottomley

I am sure the hon. Gentleman has roughed it at times, and would not be averse to doing so again if he thought that it would prove desirable in the result.

We have, also, through the President of the Board of Trade, suggested that London clubs might help. I am pleased to say that in that connection the London clubs have responded magnificently, and are making reciprocal arrangements with clubs on the other side, so as to share their facilities. I know that many clubs have suggested to their own members that they might invite their American friends to share their club facilities during a stay in this country.

There are other things which could be mentioned, but time does not permit it. Perhaps I should just make this further observation on accommodation. I had an opportunity of going to Sweden, where I saw temporary hotels, and I think that kind of scheme is really worth considering. Indeed, I can say that it is being considered by civil servants, and I hope something will result from that whereby we can provide temporary hotels which will provide satisfactory accommodation. Equally, we hope to use this magnificent River Thames of ours by having floating ship hotels, and so on. There are difficulties, but at the moment we are considering the possibilities very carefully. I think we can say that we have had a successful year in 1949, and we look forward to an even more successful one this year.

I ought to make one further comment before sitting down, and that is about the need for some central co-ordinating organisation. The British Tourist and Holidays Board with its Tourist Division, the Travel Association, have done some magnificent work. For 12 months now there have been deliberations in order to achieve integration, and, thereby, a more successful development. As a result of those talks I think we are coming to the stage where we shall reach a final conclusion. A good deal of public money has been put into this, and Parliament should see that it is developed in the way it ought to be.

The Press has reported that there has been consultation between the B.T.H.B. and the Travel Association. They had a meeting yesterday; there has been an adjournment and I do not think we can at this moment allow the attention of this organisation, which must be concentrated on the important problem of increasing tourist traffic, to be diverted by these organisational difficulties. If the form of re-organisation proposed is not accepted in a reasonable time, then, in view.of the representations constantly made about improving the tourist traffic, the Government must do some- thing about finding an alternative solution without delay. I think I can say, therefore, as my right hon. Friends and I have said so often on the question of the export trade, that as far as tourism is concerned we welcome all helpers.

There are just two other things I ought to mention before concluding, in case it is thought I am running away from them. First, railway tickets. In that connection we already have made some provision. Of course, the matter can be looked at again.

Mr. Carson

It does not go far enough.

Mr. Bottomley

My Parliamentary colleague has taken a note of that point. The food question is, of course, important. On the lifting of the 5s. meal limit, I share the view that if we want to attract tourists in the middle-class group, the 5s. limit to a meal is quite enough. They are the people we want to attract, and if we alter the provisions for those who are prepared to pay much more it may be found that it is not so easy to get the kind of person—

Mr J. Lewis: They are bound to pay it. It is made a minimum.

Mr. Bottomley

Of course it is a minimum, but if a person—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-eight Minutes to Five o'Clock.