HC Deb 23 May 1958 vol 588 cc1653-68

11.3 a.m.

Mr. Nigel Nicolson (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

I think it not inappropriate that on the Motion for the Adjournment for the Whitsun Recess the House should turn its mind to the problems of the tourist industry of Great Britain.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade has recently taken the initiative in calling a conference, under the auspices of the British Travel and Holidays Association, to discuss this problem. It was his opinion—I am sure he was right—that there were manifold interests, both of the Government and of private industry, concerned in the provision of adequate facilities for recreation and leisure not only for our own people but for our visitors from abroad. Accordingly, he suggested to the B.T.H.A. that such a conference should be held of all the interests and that it should take place in the offices of the Board of Trade.

The conference took place last week. It may, therefore, be a matter of surprise that so soon after that conference I should ask leave to introduce this subject in the House. But it is precisely because the conference took place so short a time ago that I think it is right that the House should, for an hour, devote some attention to the problem.

Many subjects were raised at the conference, and there were many Ministers present to answer the questions. I fully recognise that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade cannot be held responsible for all those problems. I am using him simply as a telephone exchange. In the suggestions which I shall put to him I am asking him to pass on to his colleagues the subjects appropriate to their Departments. I shall not mince my words. I shall shoot a quiverful of arrows at the Front Bench, and I am sure that my hon. Friend can catch them all on his shield.

The trouble seems to be that the Government, although they are sympathetic towards the tourist industry, have not hitherto matched their sympathy with sufficient action. I think it was very clear from the conference—I did not attend it, but I have read nearly all the speeches—that the holiday industry had two main grievances against the Government. First, it considered that the Government were not good hosts. Secondly, it considered that the Government in this respect were not good businessmen. I shall divide my remarks under those two heads.

The Government are, in a sense, our chief receptionists. They make the first impression upon the visitor from abroad. We have in London Airport, and in dock terminals like the Ocean Terminal, at Southampton, wonderful facilities which are a pride to every Englishman who returns from abroad. Our Customs officers are notoriously among the most discreet and sympathetic in the world. The same is true of our police and of all those attendants who make the passage from the aircraft or ship to the train a pleasant one to the visitor.

In spite of these advantages, I still feel that we do not welcome our guests as well as we could and should. Everybody knows that the first impression is one which may be abiding. There are many Englishmen whose whole attitude towards the French or the Germans is coloured by a chance encounter with a porter who was rude to them at Calais or with a young student who carried their luggage for them at Heidelberg. Exactly the same is true of our own reception of foreigners.

I think it is a pity that when visitors from abroad arrive, for instance, at Dover they should be confronted by a notice saying, "Aliens this way", which, in any language, is very rude; and that they should have their pets taken from them and put in quarantine for six months when the countries from which they come are as free from hydrophobia as our own. It is a pity that they should be asked to pay a 5s. airport tax and another 5s. for the bus ride from the airport to central London when, probably, they have no English currency and may not even know the difference between a florin and a sixpence.

It is a pity that they should be segregated from the relatives and friends who have come to meet them. The other day, at Southampton, I met my own parents who were returning from the Far East. Although the ship had docked and the passengers had landed, for two or three hours I was unable to see them—for fear that diamonds or laudanum might secretly change hands.

It is also a pity that once our guests are established on our shores we should deny them the comforts to which they are accustomed in their own country and which there is no reason whatever to deny them here. We have been accustomed to foreigners landing on these shores ever since the days of Julius Caesar. Surely it is time, to quote the words of the Thomas Cook representative at the conference, that we ceased to treat our visitors as "gate-crashers" and began to think of them more in terms of invited guests.

No man ever won a contract by offering his guest a drop of whisky in his tooth glass in a hotel bedroom because our licensing laws forbade him to give him anything to drink downstairs. No visitor is attracted to come here again when he finds that our Sundays, even in the centre of the Metropolis, are still governed by puritanical laws quite out of tune with our times.

Can we not make it easier for people to come here for short periods, especially from the Continent, without so many formalities of documents and Customs inspection which obviously act as a deterrent to any visitor? Could we not have weekend passport-free visits? That is done frequently on the Continent. On the Continent, too, many countries have arranged among themselves, often under the auspices of the Council of Europe, for visitors to be able to bring in their cars without these bulky carnets which are the bane of all foreign travellers.

It would be an advantage if, in smaller ways, too, we could undertake some re- sponsibility for our visitors after they have passed through the doors at the airport or docks. For instance, we could make it much easier for them to find hotel rooms. In America there is a system whereby it is possible to ring up any post office in any town, and that post office will undertake to find one a room. We do not have a similar system here, but it is one to which the Postmaster-General might well give consideration.

I end this section of my speech with one further suggestion, this time addressed to the Minister of Transport. We have a rule that no coach or bus may travel more than 30 miles an hour. On narrow roads that is clearly a sensible arrangement, but it is utterly illogical to apply it universally, whether the road is wide and straight, or narrow and curving. The speed limit should be applied to the type of road and not to the category of vehicle.

It is indefensible that when we ask people to come here and invite them to tour our country in our own coaches, or sometimes in the coaches which they have brought with them from abroad, we should tie down the speed of those vehicles to a wholly arbitrary figure which delays them and which makes them think that our laws are based upon convention and not on common sense.

I suggested at the beginning of my speech that the conference revealed that those who are responsible for the tourist industry consider that the Government are not playing their full part in its business side. This is a co-operative venture. It is not one which can be left solely to private industry. The Government have a very important part to play.

I wonder whether the Government will acknowledge the value of the industry. Do they not regard it as a little too much of a luxury and as unimportant? That is not so. It is an extremely valuable industry, especially in the dollars which it brings to this country. In his own speech to the conference my hon. Friend made some estimate of what future expansion is likely to be. He said: … it is surely not fantastic to imagine the doubling of our present number of visitors within the next decade. That would mean about 2,300,000 visitors to this country in 1968, bringing with them about £300 million of foreign currency which would be spent in this country and £120 million of that would certainly be in dollars.

This is nothing to be sneezed at. It is something to be encouraged and assisted. I believe that we are in danger of enticing all those people who come here and failing to provide for them, once they arrive, the necessary basic accommodation.

This is the paradox. While the trade is booming and every person, including my hon. Friend, can see that it is bound to expand further and further still, the industry is not thriving. At a time when we need more beds, we have fewer beds. Instead of hotels being built, hotels are being closed. Only one hotel of any size has been built outside London since the end of the war, the Leofric, at Coventry. One new hotel has been built in London and one has been rebuilt, compared with the dozens which have been closing down. Take the example of my own constituency. In Bournemouth, 50 hotels have closed down since the end of the war at a time when the holiday trade of Bournemouth has never been greater. How has this paradox come about? How are we to meet the demand which my hon. Friend himself admitted is not only possible but certain within the next ten years?

There are two reasons for the paradox. The first is that the holiday season for both the visitor from abroad and for our own holiday makers is confined to two or three short summer months. It is impossible for an industry to prosper if it is used to the full over only about one quarter or one fifth of the year. No other industry could survive that. It is exactly the same problem which our own Kitchen Committee faces. How can it hope to make a profit if the House is in recess for four or five months of the year and we are not here at the weekends? This is precisely the same problem which faces the hotel industry. The industry cannot meet its expenses for the whole year if hotels are half empty for seven or eight months and over-full for the remaining five or four.

What can the Government do to help us? They cannot change human character and they cannot change the habits of the British people by legislation. The British people are today convinced that their holidays can be taken only in the months of July and August. How- ever, in May and June, the days of sunshine are more, the days of rain are fewer, there are long hours of daylight, and the hotels are much less crowded. But, to ask an Englishman to take his holiday in May is like asking him to have a bath at three o'clock in the afternoon—it is neither a reward for industry, nor a stimulus to further endeavour.

Nevertheless, somehow we must persuade our own people to spread their holidays and to take advantage of the spring, early summer and later autumn months. The Government can help in this. They can have Departmental conversations with the Ministry of Education to see whether something cannot be done to stagger school holidays. We in this House might set an example to the rest of the country. I do not think that many hon. Members would complain if we rose for the Summer Recess in June and reassembled early in September. It would make some contribution in this problem. At present, we suggest to the whole country that the holiday begins in August, but it does not, it begins in May. This, as many hon. Members know, is about the best time of the year in which to see England.

The same effort must be made in regard to industry. We should try, much more energetically than we have tried hitherto, to persuade great factories to close for their annual holidays at different intervals and as many as possible at later times than at present. The foreigner should be persuaded that England is not permanently clouded in fog and rain except during the two central summer months. He should be persuaded that this is an agreeable country to visit, even in mid-winter, as I think it is, and particularly during the spring. About that, there can be no doubt at all.

The most serious objection of all is to the financial restrictions placed on the industry by the present policy of the Government. That is the main reason why the hotel industry is facing a very difficult phase at the moment, when its prospects are most hopeful. In a later passage of the speech which I have already quoted, my hon. Friend referred to this subject and compared the treatment of the tourist trade, particularly hotels, in this country to the treatment they receive in foreign countries. He went on to say: Here in Britain we generally prefer to think that the businessman knows his own business best, and that if an industry is any good, it can run under its own steam. That is a good definition of our attitude.

We do not require large subsidies for this industry, but we maintain that it should not be placed in a category of special disadvantage. That may seem to be an exaggeration, but I do not think it is at all. When we look at the legislation passed through the House in recent years we can see that in subtle ways burdens have been placed upon the tourist industry, or the Government have failed to remove burdens which are already there. The cumulative effect is to place the industry in this category of special disadvantage. We had one example only last month in the Local Government Bill where, in spite of pressure by many hon. Members——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member has very dexterously skirted the topic of legislation, but I think he is probably going over the border now.

Mr. Nicolson

I was calling the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the fact that there is a cumulative result. I was not suggesting that we could now repeal or amend the Local Government Bill. I was suggesting that its effect might be one consideration that we should take into account when viewing the general question. It was a mere illustration and I need not pursue it.

It would also be quite wrong of me, in view of the rules of order, if I were to refer in more detail to the financial measures the Government could take to relieve this special hardship. I would only refer my hon. Friend to the document produced for the conference by the B.T.H.A. in which, on the second page, are summarised all their suggestions for encouraging the expansion and modernisation of the hotel and catering industry. I will not even read out those suggestions, because they are well known and I do not want to stray outside the rules of order.

We have a particular opportunity and advantage in this country for expanding the tourist industry. The tourist industry is one of the utmost importance. It affects our standing in the world, because our visitors will judge us by what they find here and by the treatment they receive. Financially, it is very important to us. We cannot afford to lose to competitive countries, particularly in Europe, the dollars which could so easily be attracted here if only we did not waste our opportunities by failing to provide the necessary accommodation and other facilities. It is deeds, not words, that we want.

My hon. Friend, by suggesting that this conference should be held, symbolised the sympathy of the Government towards this industry. Those attending felt it was the most worth-while thing they have ever done, but they ended the conference by saying that they hoped the Government would pay careful attention to the points that had been put forward, some of which I have repeated here, in the expectation that when this great new influx of visitors reaches our shores in 1968 and before, simultaneously with the immense expansion of our own home tourist industry, the industry and the Government, working in co-operation, will be able to meet this challenge and opportunity.

11.26 a.m.

Mr. E. M. Cooper-Key (Hastings)

We are all very much obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for East Bournemouth, and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) for raising this very important matter this morning and, in his usual comprehensive and efficient manner, dealing in detail with what today is an outstanding problem.

I was fortunate enough to attend this conference on tourism. It was really remarkable for the way in which it was arranged and the attendance of Ministers and representatives of all sections of the industry. There is no doubt at all that this conference was the most important thing which has happened to the tourist industry since the war. There is vast scope and enormous potentiality in the tourist and holiday movement, which today employs about 630,000 people in this country, rather more than the motor and aircraft industries together. My hon. Friend has mentioned the important part the industry plays in the economic conditions of the country, and some more figures are worth quoting.

In 1957, we earned £95 million from woollens and £111 million from aircraft and aircraft engines, but from the tourist industry we earned £128 million. Our exports of electrical machinery to dollar areas, in 1957, amounted to £34 million, about the same as exports of whisky, yet tourist earnings were the highest of all dollar exports at £43 million. It has been estimated that by 1965 this industry could earn £100 million a year. It is becoming an increasingly competitive industry, not competitive as between resorts like Scarborough and Bournemouth, or Torquay and Hastings, but in national proportions between this country and countries in Europe where, since the war, they have been able to build quite a large number of up-to-date hotels by reason of Marshall Aid and a great deal of assistance given by local authorities and national subsidies.

As my hon. Friend said, there have been only two large hotels built in this country since the war, one in London and the Leofric, in Coventry. Our need is not for luxury hotels, but for modern middle-class hotels with the most up-to-date equipment. We must provide more sleeping accommodation. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, it is not possible for the resources of private enterprise to provide it, I think that there is here a very clear indication that there should be some assistance from the Government. We saw a very large number of Ministers attending the conference, but one Minister was absent. I should have liked to have seen somebody there from the Treasury.

There are a number of ways in which the Board of Trade and other Ministries could assist. For instance, Purchase Tax on equipment should be exempted. The new hotel to which my hon. Friend referred—the Leofric, in Coventry—paid Purchase Tax on furnishings and equipment amounting to £30,000. There are other methods by which the Government could assist. The investment allowances should be restored, and hotels and restaurants should be classified as industrial buildings.

My next remarks are addressed to the hotel industry itself, remembering that 9s. of every £1 spent by tourists in this country goes on hotels and catering. If we are to set about this business seriously, there must be some safeguards for the tourists themselves. I do not believe that such measures are required in London, but certainly they are in some of the provinces, which need to have certain safeguards for the tourists. This is an industry which it is very easy for amateurs to enter, and there are a few unconscientious people who bring wide disrepute to the localities in which they operate and to the industry itself.

There is much to be said for the practice in the island of Jersey, where there is an arrangement by which hotels, boarding houses and all catering establishments are divided into three registers, so that the tourist booking his accommodation can be certain of the standard of accommodation which he will receive on arrival. I should like to see the industry itself set up what might be called a national charter of standards. Hotels and restaurants can themselves go a long way to improve their services, the quality of the food and also the hygiene, especially, which often fall considerably below the standard demanded by North American visitors. In short, it would appear that, if we are to get any help at all for the industry, the industry must itself do a great deal to put its own house in order.

11.33 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. F. J. Erroll)

I very much welcome this debate, because it has provided an opportunity for the House of Commons to consider this important industry, which the Government fully recognise as being one of great importance to our balance of payments position. This debate is in itself a useful follow-on to the highly successful conference on tourism which was held at the Board of Trade at the end of last week.

I appreciate what my hon. Friend the Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) said in opening his speech, that he would use me as a kind of telephone exchange to pass on to other Departments what was not properly within my own province. I ant glad to give him that undertaking, and to assure him and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key) that all the points which they have made will be considered not only by Government Departments, but by those of my officials who are at present studying the points raised at the conference last week.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch divided his speech into two parts—the rôle of the Government as good hosts and as good businessmen—and I will try to deal with his points in the order in which he raised them. He quoted, in particular, the importance of courteous attention on arrival in this country, and I can assure him that we do take steps to ensure that our foreign visitors are made welcome and are treated with the maximum courtesy on arrival. Certain checks have to be made to satisfy ourselves that the visitors coming to our shores are genuine tourists and not people wishing to enter the country for another purpose and masquerading as tourists.

When we come to make a comparison with the Continent, while our controls at the ports may appear to be a little more stringent than they are in continental countries, foreign visitors, once they are here, are very much freer from supervision in this country than the foreign visitor is in most European countries. There is no question, for instance, of a foreign visitor having to hand in his passport every night during his stay in hotels in this country, to which British visitors to a number of continental countries have to submit. It is perhaps well worth while, therefore, having closer supervision at the ports in order to have greater freedom once the visitor is inside the country.

The problem of finding hotel accommodation during the peak of the holiday season is difficult in this country, as it is difficult in other countries, and I should like to take special note of my hon. Friend's suggestion about the system which he has described as applying in the United States of America.

My hon. Friend also made some reference to features of English life which might be calculated to irritate our foreign visitors, such as the apparent dullness of our Sundays and the difficulties in hotels of drinking exactly when one likes to drink. A good deal has been made of the problem of drinking whisky out of tooth mugs in one's bedroom, but I would suggest that that is not a very great embarrassment or difficulty, provided that there are sufficient tooth mugs in the bedroom.

I should like to make this important point. Our foreign visitors come to see Britain as she is, not to see a pale imitation of France, Italy, or some other country, and what may appear to us as irritating restrictions may be part of the charm of Britain to the visitor. They may well welcome a quiet Sunday as an opportunity for relaxation, and, while the restrictions on alcoholic refreshment may occasionally embarrass them, they probably also provide the opportunity for telling some good and amusing stories on their return.

Mr. N. Nicolson

At our expense.

Mr. Erroll

I do not think that is so very serious. I am sure no one has been deterred from visiting Australia because of the rather quaint licensing regulations there, and I do not think that my hon. Friend would be deterred from visiting Canada simply because of the regulations there. I would say that these matters are not so serious a deterrent as we who live among them might imagine.

I should not like to say anything about the coach speed limits referred to by my hon. Friend, because this is clearly not a subject for me to answer, but I should like to say that the Minister of Transport has been doing a good deal to open out the bottle-necks on some of the roads leading down to our holiday resorts, and that this should enable the large motor coaches to which my hon. Friends referred to complete their journeys more smoothly and more rapidly. In fact, on many of the principal routes to coastal resorts, which, we hope, will be heavily used this Whitsun weekend, important roadworks are now proceeding.

For instance, on the London—Portsmouth trunk road, the London—Brighton trunk road, the London—Worthing trunk road, the London—Eastbourne trunk road, the London—Dover trunk road, the London—Folkestone trunk road and the South Coast road as well, serious bottlenecks are being removed by one method or another. In fact, I have here no less than six pages of details of improvements which are taking place, and when all these are completed they will be a substantial help to holidaymakers using these thoroughfares to the coast.

I had the opportunity earlier this week of meeting some visitors from New Orleans who were coming to England for the first time, although they had been for one or two weeks on the Continent of Europe before coming here. I thought that, as I came fresh from the conference on tourism, I would ask them how they were getting on. It was quite embarrassing to hear the nice things they said about us, and I do not think we need have any doubts about some of the impressions which the average Englishman or English woman makes on foreign visitors.

They were enthusiastic about our natural kindliness and courtesy and the easy and calm way in which we receive them and their friends. I asked whether I could have details, and I think this example is particularly interesting. It happened only on Monday of last week. The man who was speaking to me said that he was not quite familiar with English currency and he put down what he thought was an appropriate tip for a hotel waiter in London when he was paying his bill. The waiter paused, and said, "Excuse me, Sir. You have given me far too much as a tip. I should be grateful if you would take some of it back."

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

A modern fairy story.

Mr. Erroll

It is a true story, and not an isolated incident.

This man went to a theatre and bought a programme. He tried to tip the programme seller, who said, "Oh, no. We do not take tips for this service in England," and refused to take the tip. Those two examples serve to illustrate how often a wonderful impression is created by people who, normally, we should never hear about, and I am sure that such examples go a long way to offset the occasional unfavourable remarks which may be made and to which my hon. Friend referred.

As I wished to get both sides of the picture, I asked this American visitor, he having been so kind to us, whether he could tell me anything which was unfavourable. He paused for a moment, and then said, "Honestly, I cannot think of anything at the moment. I have never had such a good holiday in my life." That is typical of the welcome we are able to extend and are extending today to our foreign visitors.

My hon. Friend questioned whether the Government was behaving like a good businessman in connection with this important industry. He suggested that we regard the industry as a luxury, but I can assure him that that is far from the case. The Government recognise the importance of this industry as a earner of foreign exchange and we are anxious to see it expand and go ahead. My hon. Friend may turn round on me and say, "In that case, why do not the Government do more for the hotel industry?", because he mentioned some hotels which have closed in his own constituency.

We recognise that the tourist industry must have a firm home base if it is to become a successful export industry. Therefore, we must have a flourishing domestic hotel industry so that our foreign visitors can come here and be efficiently and effectively looked after. We have a great interest in seeing that our existing stock of hotels is maintained in an efficient and up-to-date manner and that new hotels are built wherever it seems economically practicable to do so.

Nevertheless, we must recognise that some changes in domestic habits have come about in the last ten years. Many people in Britain, about half the population, take their annual holiday away from home. Many people prefer to take their holidays in a different form from the prewar pattern. The growth of holiday camps is one example; the development of caravan sites is another; and camping and simple holidays are very often the order of the day. Therefore, there may well be areas and particular localities where some hotels or boarding houses have not been able to carry on.

That does not mean that there are no opportunities for the hotel industry as a whole. The opportunities are very great at present because the industry can look forward to an assured future such as it has never been able to experience in the past. The figures quoted by my hon. Friend from my speech last week are the best estimates we can give at present. Surely it is a striking thing for the hotel industry to be able to look forward to this continued and steady expansion over the next decade, and that ought to give the industry, and those who would like to put money into it, a sense of confidence in the future.

We have been studying the problems of securing the necessary expansion in the hotel trade. There are obvious difficulties about granting subsidies to a trade, particularly as we have been exerting ourselves in other spheres to discourage forms of internal or export subsidies. There are also serious disadvantages in singling out a particular trade, or sector of a trade, for financial aid or tax relief. The Government's policy in the economic field is to leave private enterprise to use and to direct the nation's economic resources into the most useful channels, rather than to tell businessmen how best to invest their money.

I recognise that other countries take different views and either give tax relief to the hotel trade or allow interest-free loans, as in Austria or Switzerland, where the tourist trade is a far greater factor in their total overseas earnings than is our own. It must be remembered that assistance to a trade frequently involves various forms of inspections and controls which probably would not be welcomed by our own hotel trade.

Having said that, I should like to remind my hon. Friend that in the last year or so, the financial position of the hotel trade seems to have improved to some extent. On 7th January of this year the Financial Times reported that companies in the hotel trade which had reported in the first 11 months of 1957 had trading profits no less than 19 per cent. higher than in the previous year. There is some indication that investors are beginning to recognise that existing hotels are in a favourable position to cash in on the increasing tourist trade, both in London and in the provinces, and useful work has been done in improving and modernising hotels which makes a valuable contribution to meeting the total demand.

In contrast to what was said by my hon. Friend, I would point out that about 500 new hotel rooms have been built in London in the last year alone. I hope, myself, to be opening an extension to a London hotel in about ten days' time. The expansion of hotel accommodation in London is particularly important from the point of view of attracting foreign visitors, especially those who come to this country for the first time, because they want to come to London first and then perhaps to go on and see the rest of the country later. So it is in London that we must ensure that an expansion of hotel accommodation takes place.

There is one more matter to which I should like to refer, and that is the perennial problem of the shortness of the hotel season and the difficulties which lie in the way of any solution to this matter. Broadly speaking, there are three factors involved: industrial holiday periods, school holidays and the question of the August Bank Holiday. Arranging for industrial holidays is a matter for the towns and localities themselves. The figures which we have obtained show that the actual period of the school holiday is not normally a dominant feature in deciding exactly when families will have their holidays in the majority of cases. Here again, local education authorities have complete discretion in arranging the periods of school terms and when holidays shall be fixed, so that it may be possible for local education authorities and firms in particular areas to make sure that the holidays coincide.

The idea of an alteration in the date of August Bank Holiday has been canvassed in some quarters and a date at the end of August or the beginning of September suggested. This is a matter which raises very wide issues, and which I should not like to try to argue this morning. I would merely mention that the British Travel and Holidays Association spends about £4,500 a year in publicity campaigns designed to attract people to our resorts out of the season, or at the beginning or end of the season, in May or September, and do promotional work in favour of staggering holiday periods.

The Association receives a grant from the Government of £800,000 for promoting this work and, in particular, its "Come to Britain" campaign. That is a measure of the importance which the Government attach to this industry. That very sizeable grant is spent, I believe, with economy and efficiency each year and is undoubtedly an important aid in bringing more visitors to Britain and so still further strengthening our tourist trade.

Back to