HC Deb 30 March 1961 vol 637 cc1615-30

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising the subject of the spreading of annual holidays and the whole question of Bank Holidays. Last week, on 21st March, I asked the Prime Minister two Questions, Nos. 40 and 49. My first Question pointed out that we had less Bank Holidays than other European countries and asked for another each year in September. The second Question referred to the congestion at holiday centres in the weeks immediately before and immediately after August Bank Holiday and asked for consideration of the spreading of annual holidays by moving Bank Holidays which act as magnets for annual holidays.

The Prime Minister's reply—it was not an Answer—was characteristically Victorian, unimaginative and procrastinating. I say "unimaginative", for this is what he said: nowadays people are not dependent on Bank Holidays alone for their periods of holiday and recreation. The Prime Minister seemed to use that as an argument for not having Bank Holidays, clearly not understanding that a Bank Holiday is in addition to annual holidays.

Albania was one of the countries which I quoted as having more Bank Holidays than we do. I do not know how annual holidays are organised there But Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway and Sweden, for example, have a proper system of annual holidays, yet they recognise the impor- tance of Bank Holidays and have more than we do.

I said that the Prime Minister was "proscrastinating". He said: As for the question of spreading the holiday season over a wider period, that is being examined."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st March, 1961; Vol. 637, c. 202.] It is thirteen months since we were told, on the last debate on the subject, that the problem was to be examined by a committee. That debate of February, 1960, has at least had one victory—that is, the extension of Summer Time—but what about the spreading of the holidays?

Let us first consider the peak load of holidays in July and August. Overcrowding is bad and is getting worse. Obviously, it is getting worse by volume, as anyone will understand. What is not appreciated generally is that it is not only getting worse by volume but that the percentage of people taking their holidays in July and August compared with the rest of the year is rising. The figures put out by the British Travel and Holidays Association show that in 1951, 64 per cent. of people who took holidays started them in July and August. By 1959, the percentage had risen to 68 per cent. At the same time, during those same years—and this is really distressing—the percentage of people beginning their main summer holidays in June had fallen, as had the proportion of people taking their main annual holidays in September. Therefore, the load is increasing not only in volume but in proportion. At this rate, in July and August in ten years' time, we shall have to queue for a ticket entitling us to an hour on the beach and in twenty years' time in those months there will be standing room only in the sea.

It was Bernard Shaw who said that a perpetual holiday was a good working definition of hell. If he came back in ten years' time he would have to revise that definition and say that perpetual hell was a good working definition of a holiday—in July and August.

What are some of the consequences of the holiday peak in July and August? The first obvious one is that so many people have their annual holiday in the summer month which has the worst possible weather. The records over the last thirty years show that August has less sun and far more rain than June. Yet the proportion of people taking their holidays in June is going down and the proportion of those taking their holidays in August is rising.

Secondly, in these peak holiday months, accommodation is more expensive and more people have to pay higher prices. Thirdly, foreign tourists coming to this country are discouraged, because their picture of these islands is not of queues and diesel fumes and they are likely to be disappointed. It can be said, of course, that they have strange ideas about what this country is like. They visualise the countryside in August and they think of people in pink coats riding to hounds and picture the Dagenham Girl Pipers in attendance at the Tower of London and Morris dancers round every corner. They do have a romantic idea of our country and tend to be disappointed when they get here.

Ours is a small island, and it is congested, but we are making the problem so much worse for ourselves by not spreading the holidays just when we have an opportunity of building up an enormous and highly lucrative tourist industry. We have so much to offer to people from overseas, not only history and places with historical associations, but in the beauty of the countryside as well.

Tourism is beginning to be a very important part of our export trade. It is already bringing in £150 million a year. It is up last year 20 per cent. on the year before, and that year, 1959, was 10 per cent. up on 1958. Of these tourists 400,000 come from the United States. There is an interesting calculation which the British Travel and Holidays Association has made, that each one who comes by sea and comes in a British ship and stays a couple of weeks here contributes as much to our economy as if he bought a typical British car in the United States. Of the 1¾ million tourists who came to this country last year it is calculated that one-quarter of them spent some time at a seaside resort. This emphasises again the importance of spreading our holiday season which, by custom, is concentrated so much on the seaside resorts.

While I am arguing broadly against concentration of holidays and against discouraging foreigners from coming here, I must mention an important service to foreigners which we ought to render to them if we are to encourage the tourist trade. East tourist town should have a greeter for tourists, someone who really welcomes the foreigners and encourages their questions; and each greeter should have an honorary assistant greeter at each hotel who goes out of his way to help tourists. When I say "foreigners" I mean people from abroad; not necessarily foreigners, but people from the Commonwealth as well.

I have myself more than once fulfilled the honorary rôle in my constituency, in Lincoln. I have acted as assistant greeter, when I have run into tourists coming to my constituency and given them information and so on I remember giving some information to a coachload of American negro Methodist ministers about the birthplace of John Wesley, which is not far from Lincoln. Later that year I got a Christmas card from Georgia. That in itself is not important, perhaps; but what was important was that it was addressed to me as "The Tourist Information Officer" care of the hotel at which I helped them. Clearly, they had expected to find somebody there who would be anxious to help them and tell them such things as the whereabouts of John Wesley's birthplace.

How do we spread annual holidays? The first difficulty is that we are working against custom and habit, particularly in the North and Midlands. I shall deal with only three suggestions, first, by staggering the trip or wakes weeks, second, by altering school holidays, third, by altering Bank Holidays. First, as to staggering the trip or wakes weeks in the Midlands and the northern cities. They tend to come at the end of July and the beginning of August.

Looking at this problem first of all from the regional point of view—and I use only Ministry of Labour figures—it will be seen that in the Midland region, which includes my constituency, 500 large firms close down for a complete week or two every year, and 470 of those close down in the last week of July or the first two weeks of August. If one looks at the problem from the point of industry as a whole, it will be found that 80 per cent. of the country's large engineering firms close down for a complete week or two and that three out of four of these firms close down in the last two weeks of July or the first week of August.

The city which I represent is an engineering city in the Midlands and therefore it will be seen why I am particularly concerned with this problem. My constituents, following the pattern of the industry and of that part of the country, take their annual holiday at the most crowded and most expensive time of the year and incidentally, so far as it is in August, they take their holiday when rain is more likely than at any other time in the summer.

So much for the problem of the trip weeks. The second way of spreading annual holidays is by altering the school holidays. A number of schemes have been suggested and have been discussed at great length in the House and elsewhere. I shall concentrate on only two points. I would draw the Minister's attention to an article in last week's Sunday Dispatch. Then I ask that steps be taken to encourage the reduction of Christmas and Easter school holidays by a total of between three and four weeks and the addition of these weeks to the beginning of the summer holidays. This would have the immediate effect of adding three or four weeks to the holiday season for people with families. Many other far more elaborate schemes have been suggested by different authorities, including the provision of four terms a year, but I should like earnest consideration given to the much simpler device that I have just mentioned.

Thirdly, there is the altering of Bank Holidays, or rather the changing of only one and the creating of one new one. I do not suggest that we should change Easter at all. After going into the matter a great deal in the past year or two, I am convinced that to try to change Easter brings up emotional and religious problems far deeper than any difficulties that a fixed Easter would solve. We have had 1,300 years of fixed Easter in this country and for the 600 years before that there was turmoil because no one could agree which day was Easter. We should therefore be thankful now that the day is fixed.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the House passed the Easter Act, 1928, which is still on the Statute Book, enabling the Government to provide for a fixed Easter?

Mr. de Freitas

I am well aware of that, but I acquit every Government since then. As I have said, the problems involved and the religious issues raised would be far greater than any benefits derived from fixing the date of Easter. To illustrate the difficulty experienced before we had a fixed Easter, I might remind the House that in one of the years just before the Synod of 654 a king of Northumbria celebrated Easter on a certain day by feasting whilst in a different part of his palace his queen, under the guidance of some Kentish priest, was fasting because according to the priest the day was Palm Sunday—a difference of a week. It took 6 centuries before we were able to sort out Easter, and so let us leave well enough alone.

In the case of Whitsun I suggest that instead of having a Bank Holiday on the day after Whit-Sunday we have a Bank Holiday on the first or second Monday in June. The weather then is usually good. There is also every reason to expect that this Bank Holiday would also act as a magnet for annual holidays and that people would have their annual holidays from then on in June. They would then have a month with long daylight hours, good sun and usually a good spell of weather.

I would not suggest that the August Bank Holiday should be moved. It may be inconvenient. It certainly is a wet week-end to choose, and I am sure that if 70 years ago we had had meteorological records as we have today it is extremely unlikely that Sir John Lubbock would have proposed or the House would have accepted having a Bank Holiday then. Therefore, besides moving the Whitsun Bank Holiday to the first or second Monday in June, I suggest having a new Bank holiday on the first or second Monday in September.

I believe this would be good in itself. After all, we are the only country I know that has no holiday between the beginning of August and Christmas. It would be good in itself because we have fewer Bank Holidays than any other country. Also, it would act as a magnet for people to take their annual holidays around that time by suggesting September as a holiday month. Let us remember that so much of the taking of holidays is a habit, and if we can induce people to break the habit of fixing their holidays around August Bank Holiday it would be a great success.

I gave the Minister details of a number of points that I would raise, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) has some important observations, not necessarily in entire agreement with me, that he wants to make, and I wish to give him the chance. I trust that the Minister will reply to my points, and I would particularly ask him to tell us when we shall hear about the Inter Departmental Committee and whether its findings are to be made public. When are we to be told about it?

I think we can say that our debate last year was a success in that it really has had some influence, I have reason to believe, on the extension of Summer Time. But what about the spread-over of holidays? The continued delay that we have had has been most discouraging.

4.38 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) has made out a very persuasive case. I appreciate that from the point of view of Ministers and Government Departments the most unpopular of all the Adjournment debates is the one that takes place immediately before the House rises for any Recess. When all his Ministerial colleagues have fled the scene, a Minister is put on duty to reply to the not unimportant subject that is sometimes raised and for which the last Adjournment debate before the Recess provides the only opportunity.

When I raised this matter in the House in February the question that I put to the President of the Board of Trade was related to the Inter-departmental Committee. We have had no official statement yet about it, and I hope that the Minister of State will be able to tell us something about it today. I have reason to believe that the Committee has recommended moving the August Bank Holiday to the first half of September. If that is so, the time has come for the Government to make up their mind whether or not to accept what I believe to be the recommendation of the Committee.

I know that there are many problems. The question is tied up with school holidays, industrial holidays and so on, as my hon. Friend has pointed out. I agreed with the President of the Board of Trade when he said that there is no simple answer to the problem, but he said, on 2nd February: Anything we can do to spread out the holiday season and avoid these ridiculous peaks will be very valuable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1961; Vol. 633, c. 1166.] I suggested to him that it would be in the public interest and would spread the peak demands on transport and accommodation if the August Bank Holiday were celebrated in the first half of September. He replied that this was precisely the sort of suggestion that ought to be considered. Several weeks have now elapsed, and I hope that the matter has been considered. This is perhaps a topical moment for the Minister of State to make an epoch-making announcement on the subject.

There is a lot to be said for abolishing the Whit-Monday Bank Holiday. It is completely disregarded in the older universities, where Whit-Monday happens to come in the middle of the summer term and is a working day. That is, at least, the case at Oxford. I do not know whether it is so at Cambridge. But as the abolition of the Whit-Monday Bank Holiday has been accepted for a long time in the two older universities, if we gave the public a quid pro quo in the shape of a September Bank Holiday it would be found most acceptable.

All the arguments are known. They have been deployed briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln and I hope that we shall have an encouraging reply from the Minister of State.

4.42 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. F. J. Erroll)

I very much welcome the opportunity this debate affords to give publicity to the need for action by the many interests involved to secure a wider spread of the holiday season. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) for telling me beforehand something about what he intended to say, because this is a very wide-ranging subject and my remarks, in the brief time at my disposal, cannot cover all the ground. I shall take careful note of the points he has raised and will look carefully also at the intervention made by the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton).

The hon. Member for Lincoln made some telling points, particularly about the growth of the holiday habit. The number of people taking holidays away from home has roughly doubled since the years immediately before the War, and is still rising. No less than two-thirds of these holidaymakers start their holidays in July or August, and, what is even worse from the transport point of view, over three-quarters start at the weekends.

I shall now deal mainly with the question of spreading the holidays, though I recognise that Bank Holidays, and their position in the calendar, bear upon the matter. I shall deal with them before I sit down. I think that we all recognise today, as we did when the House debated the subject in February last year, that the present concentration of holidays into a very short period is undesirable from many points of view.

The hon. Member for Lincoln has described the general effects, including the adverse effects on foreign tourists who may come to this country expecting a green and pleasant land and find it heavily congested with domestic holidaymakers. There are also the appalling traffic problems and, what is more important, the frustration and inefficient use of the country's resources. I do not propose to go over the ground that he covered, except to say that the Government recognise the importance of achieving better arrangements, and it is on that account that an Inter-departmental Committee was set up last year to examine the issues.

For years, the cry of the holiday trade has been, "why does not somebody do something?" The general public are now beginning to adopt the same cry. But it is always easier to join that cry than to be amongst those who play their part in putting these things right. The hon. Member for Brixton referred to some of the complications and difficulties. We cannot just brush them aside and say that we will arrive at an easy solution, for there is no easy solution because of the complications and the diverse interests which have to be considered.

It is indeed a big social problem which affects people in all walks of life, yet it does so in an area which is peculiarly personal, an area in which the Government's task is to create the right climate of opinion rather than interfere with personal preference. Some like their holiday early. Others prefer it late. Some like to hitch it to the Bank Holiday, while others would keep as far away from the Bank Holiday as they possibly could. Some like crowds, and others like solitude.

One might have supposed that, with such a variety of tastes, the holiday season would have spread naturally over most of the summer months and maybe into the spring and autumn as well. It probably would but for two things, namely, the habit of many industrial concerns of closing for their annual holidays during the peak period, and the very understandable reluctance of the parents of school children to go away other than in the school holidays.

The House must not think that this is a state of affairs which the Government can put right by a wave of the hand, so to speak. The British Travel and Holidays Association, which is largely financed by a Government grant, carries out a campaign each year to extend the holiday season, but I say here and now that anything in the nature of compulsion is out of the question. For example, the Government have no powers to dictate to the educational authorities when they shall close their schools, nor to direct industrial establishments when to take their holidays.

I want to give the House some idea of the size of the problem in addition to its complexities. The holiday dates of about 6 million employees in manufacturing industry and coal mining are determined by the closure of their places of employment. Nearly three-fifths of all closures cover at least one of the two peak holiday weeks. Education authorities naturally put educational requirements first in planning their calendar while in industry holiday dates are often settled in democratic fashion between the employers and the employees. We cannot just sacrifice the requirements of the educational calendar to the desirability of spreading holidays more evenly. Both are important.

The country—and I emphasise the country and not the Government—is therefore faced with an exercise in how much each interest concerned can contribute—and it must be a contribution—towards a common solution.

The Government can help in identifying the facts and we therefore asked the Social Survey Division of the Central Office of Information to inquire into the factors which influence the choice of holiday dates. The Ministry of Labour also carried out an inquiry into the dates and form of holiday arrangements in industry.

The results are very interesting, particularly because they have cast doubt on various theories which were previously regarded as well recognised facts. For instance, it has long been said that a large proportion of holiday makers deliberately take their holidays to coincide with the August Bank Holiday weekend. In fact, the survey disclosed that only 6 per cent. of the sample thought that if the date were changed that would in itself affect their holiday plans. That is important in any consideration of the matter.

Mr. de Freitas

Is it not equally important that one gets into a habit, and that it is not a matter of what was thought?

Mr. Erroll

That may be, but it has been said that the strongest force in the world is the force of habit and one must take into account the fact that there is this habit and that, even if the date were changed, it would not in itself affect holiday plans, except for a mere 6 per cent. That is the finding of the Social Survey.

Mr. de Freitas

It was not correct.

Mr. Erroll

I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Member but I am just giving the results of the findings of the Social Survey which inquired into the public's wishes, habits and practice.

Mr. de Freitas

The wrong conclusion has been drawn.

Mr. Erroll

I am not drawing any conclusions, but merely stating what the facts are.

It is true that the removal of the August Bank Holiday from what is at present a peak of the holiday season might have some beneficial effects, particularly if the large volume of day trippers which this holiday attracts—and this is a factor which we must take into account—could thus be diverted to a time when the roads were less crowded.

A change might also help to break down the tradition that August is the proper time to take a holiday. However, a very old-established holiday like this cannot be changed without the most careful thought. Moreover—and this is a point which I should like particularly to stress—it is very much easier to propose a change than to select a new date. Even among those who desire a change in the August Bank Holiday date, there are considerable differences of opinion as to the new date which should be chosen. These range from a later date in August to a date in October. I am not saying that the Government are setting their face against moving the August Bank Holiday to later in the year. All I am saying today is that the Government are not going to be rushed into an ill-considered decision.

Mr. Lipton

Is the Minister going to tell us what the Inter-departmental Committee recommended on this subject? That carries a lot of weight.

Mr. Erroll

I will deal with the Committee before I sit down.

Another thing which the inquiry showed was that 38 per cent. of all holiday parties were free to go away at any time during the summer, though in fact this category actually supplies about one-third of those who go away in the peak season.

Mr. de Freitas

It is habit.

Mr. Erroll

It may be habit, but habit is something to be reckoned with. Here is a large section of holiday makers who could make a big contribution to ironing out the peak if only it would do so. On the other hand, there are many who, were they free, would clearly prefer to avoid July and August.

The broad picture which emerged from the inquiry was that those who go on holiday in July and August fall into three roughly equal groups: those who choose the period freely; those who are constrained to choose it and have no objection; and those who are constrained to go then, but would clearly prefer to go in another month. With greater freedom it would be reasonable to expect a considerable shift of dates, probably towards June.

We cannot achieve this freedom for employees by calling upon employers to change their dates of closure. These may be geared to the requirements of customers or dictated by a variety of economic reasons. Nor would it be well received by those employees who would prefer to go on taking their holidays at the traditional time. But I ask employers and employees alike to consider whether the traditional dates are necessarily the best. I have been encouraged, moreover, to see a spontaneous move in some places—notably in the motor car industry—to examine this afresh, and I hope that the publicity which this debate will afford will do something to awaken elsewhere a desire to re-examine the possibilities.

The hon. Gentleman referred to town weeks, or Wakes Weeks. The fact is that the traditional Lancashire Wakes Weeks are already spread in an organised fashion over the whole period from the end of June to the end of August, resulting in an even spread of holidays for the populations of these towns. This is clear evidence of what could be done by other towns in England and Wales which go in for a system of "town holidays", if only they would get together and organise a spread of their holiday dates.

I do not wish to minimise the difficulties which would be encountered, but, given the good will of all concerned—the local authorities, the education authorities and both sides of industry—I do not think that the problem would prove to be insuperable. Perhaps the local authority associations might give some thought to ways in which this sort of organised spreading of town holidays might be achieved.

A brief word about school holidays. Everyone knows that they play a big part in channelling holidays into July and August. But it is wrong to suggest that education authorities are being obtuse or selfish in framing their calendars. The problem of school holidays is one of the most intractable of all. Education authorities in general have not rejected the idea of making some con- tribution to a common solution, but, as I said earlier, no one section of the community can be expected to settle this problem for the rest.

Various specifics have been suggested, including the one proposed by the hon. Gentleman; a four-term year; earlier G.C.E. examinations; a staggering of holidays by different education authorities, and many others. All these things must be considered not just by the Government, who, as I say have no power to direct, but by those who would have to operate them.

As for transport, the congestion could be eased at once if employers, employees, hotels and those who offer other holiday accommodation were prepared to co-operate so that more holidays could begin mid-week. This would do little to extend the season, but it would do much to reduce the weariness and frustration of holidaymakers going to or returning from their chosen holiday resorts. I commend this thought to all who have a common interest in bringing about an improvement—and there are many of them. The British Travel and Holidays Association estimates that the total expenditure on holidaymaking in the United Kingdom is £450 million a year. I only hope that we all get good value for the money we spend on our holidays. Is it unreasonable to suggest that some of this £450 million should be ploughed back by the holiday trade into a campaign to extend the season? There is already evidence to show that such a campaign could be successful.

The B.T.H.A. has run a campaign to encourage overseas visitors to come here out of the peak season, and this has been most successful. In 1960 we have had as many American visitors in the six off-season months as in the six summer months of 1950. In fact, the number of American citizens arriving in Britain in October last year was 33 per cent. higher than in the same month of the previous year.

I believe that the 38 per cent. of holidaymakers to whom I have referred as having a free choice provide a ready-made target for a sustained publicity campaign by the hoteliers, resort authorities and others.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman referred to lengthening the period of British Summer Time. We hope that this will play its part. The problem of Bank Holidays, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister explained to the House last week, is being examined. I am sorry that the hon. Member should have referred to the Prime Minister's reply in the terms he did.

Mr. de Freitas

What I said was the truth.

Mr. Erroll

It is far from the truth. Since 1955 nearly all those who have served a qualifying period of employment with their firms have been entitled to a holiday with pay, and virtually all workers now get paid for six public holidays a year. Other countries have different reasons, religious or otherwise, and different traditions, but I do not think that we must always be influenced by them. We must remember the interruption of the flow of production that another Bank Holiday would entail. That must be considered. The present evidence does not convince me that there is a case for an additional Bank Holiday, but we are certainly looking at it, among all the other matters.

In the moment that remains I want to refer to the Inter-Departmental Committee, because this Committee is composed entirely of officials who, as a Committee, tender their advice to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. He does not think that the Committee's Report to him should be published as such, since it represents the views of officials to a Minister, but I have drawn on the Committee's findings in preparing my reply to the debate, and Government policy in this complicated field will be much assisted by the Committee's Report, as well as by such additional advice as it may be asked to provide from time to time.

Mr. de Freitas

Will the right hon. Gentleman promise to look at what I have said in HANSARD. For him to talk as he did about holidays in Albania and elsewhere shows that he did not listen to what I said.

Mr. Erroll

I listened very carefully.

We must remember that concentrated holidays are not peculiar to Great Britain. Nor is the practice of another country the one which we must necessarily follow in all its aspects. Various European countries have their holiday problems, and their individual solutions. These have been or are being studied by the Inter-Departmental Committee. These studies have disclosed that most of the causes of the present-day holiday congestion and the remedies for it are inter-dependent and interlocking. For example, earlier school holidays would not reduce the congestion unless industrial holidays were also altered.

The Government, therefore, prefer to await the outcome of discussions which are still in progress before they put forward any positive suggestions for handling a situation in which any restraints on liberty of choice would be unthinkable, and in which the rights or views of any section of the community, be it educational, industrial or the holiday trade, cannot be overridden for the benefit of some other section.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o'clock, till Tuesday, 11th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 28th March.