HC Deb 01 February 1967 vol 740 cc413-8

10.5 a.m.

Mr. Edward Milne (Blyth)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a bill to register certain sections of the travel trade and to introduce a code of conduct for the travel trade. Happenings in the travel trade have occupied the attention of hon. Members on both sides of the House during the past few years. Indeed, as far back as 30th May, 1962, I was in a similar position as I am today. Great changes have taken place during that period in this rapidly growing industry since the then chairman of the Association of British Travel Agents talked of complaints in the trade as being capable of being counted on the fingers of one hand. That ostrich-like attitude was followed by a number of failures in the travel trade. and bodies like Fourways, Fiesta, Spain Only, Rentavilla and others became national names throughout the country.

Although useful ambulance work to save those ruined holidays by the Association of British Travel Agents, Hotel-plan and others was carried out, many people lost not only their holidays but vast sums of money as well. Throughout this period, the Board of Trade has had to stand almost helplessly by and do little or nothing for those unfortunate people.

The attitude and the procedure appear to be to leave the travel trade to work out its own destiny. The two main organizations—the Association which I have already mentioned and the Travel Trade Association, with members involved in the trade failures to which I have referred—have been unable to clear up the situation that exists.

In presenting a Motion of this nature, there is not time to go more fully into the past and, in pressing for this Measure, I want to look at the position as it exists today and to convince hon. Members on both sides that legislation is even more necessary than ever. So much is the present uneasiness reflected in the travel trade and throughout the community that an organisation similar to the A.A. and R.A.C. has bean set up to give safeguards to holidaymakers which the travel trade has up to this stage failed to give.

In dealing with this rapidly growing industry, the House cannot fail but to be influenced by happenings in other sections of trade and commerce. The insurance liquidations have shown the effect on the public mind of failures in that field, which spring very much from the same causes as the failures in the travel industry. The collapse of Davis Investments, with its effect on Davis Travel, is probably the most recent example that one can give of this situation. At this important time of the year, it has set many people wondering about the security of their holiday arrangements.

It is true, and in fairness it is necessary to say, that Davis Travel responsibilities have been taken over by another firm, but those of us who have followed the happenings in this trade know that a great deal of unhappiness still remains.

We are not alone in seeking this form of registration or licensing. Many European countries have already introduced such a system and found it to be of benefit. At the moment, the Dutch Government are spending over £30,000 to probe into the Dutch travel trade. Our own Board of Trade has decided to await the outcome of the travel trade's own efforts, and the Association of British Travel Agents has introduced what it has termed "Operation Stabiliser". Operating for the last 18 months, it has certainly blocked the entry into the trade of many intending agents, but, in the process, it has raised protests about the closed shop attitude in the trade.

From complaints which have reached me, those seem to be justifiable in themselves. Great delays have taken place which appear to indicate that Operation Stabiliser at best is a clumsy device and at the worst is giving to the trade a system of licensing which it pretends to oppose but which it is actually carrying out. In fact, though claiming to be against the licensing of the trade, the appeal court of A.B.T.A. for entry into the trade is operating in this way. Appeals are heard in secret, with no Press allowed in. Under its regulations, A.B.T.A. travel agents and tour operators are allowed to trade only with each other. I have noticed the argument put forward in travel trade publications that the time is not opportune and that the travel trade can ill afford at this time to come under parliamentary scrutiny. I feel that we are entitled to ask why not. Public money is at stake, and we ought to be demanding that protection be afforded, because some of the journals which are complaining about the trade being put under public and Parliamentary scrutiny go on to say in some of their other columns: "Unwelcome as the facts may be, 1966 has seen an increase in complaints from holiday-makers."

I notice that Press reports, even this early in the season, following the glossy brochures and mass Press advertising, are starting to talk of worried tour operators moving to cut losses. Already firms are beginning to talk about load switching, which is the transfer of holiday arrangements from one firm to another. In itself, that is not necessarily a bad thing, but on being informed of those changes, many people who have paid deposits to the travel trade do not wish to go on the altered holidays, and many of them have been losing deposits in the past on that account. Too many travel agents and tour operators regard the complaints which they receive as frivolous. However, it is not frivolous for great numbers of families throughout the country who have lost their whole savings spent on holidays. I know from my own experience in this matter how long it takes for complaints to be dealt with. I raised a number of complaints with the Board of Trade recently which started back in the middle of October and which now are still being dealt with and investigated.

Even in the short time at my disposal, I feel that the need for this type of legislation has been demonstrated. I trust that the House will agree to the Motion and allow the Bill to go forward to a Second Reading.

10.14 a.m.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)


Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to oppose?

Mr. Lewis

Mr. Speaker, it has become somewhat usual these days to allow a Ten-Minute Rule Bill to go through without opposition. However, there are two reasons why I oppose this Bill. The first is that last night, on television, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) indicated to the country that, because a Ten-Minute Rule Bill of his on coursing was allowed to go through unopposed yesterday, that was to be taken as acceptance by the House. That in itself would seem to justify my line this morning. If it is of any consolation to the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne), I once had a Ten-Minute Rule Bill which happened to come forward on a big occasion when my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath) was due to make an important speech on the Common Market. I had my Bill and, unhappily, my right hon. Friend had to wait, because it was opposed by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot).

I oppose this Bill rather reluctantly because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I have a private interest in the matter. Nevertheless, I hope that the House will recognise that, having a financial and private interest, I know something about the business to which the hon. Gentleman has been referring for a long time and has again referred to today. He himself indicated that he has been interested since 1962. The fact that he has seen a great improvement in the period since 1962 ought really to encourage him to get away from the subject now. He has flogged the travel industry to death, with a good deal of exaggeration, to which he has added this morning.

It is not true as he said that, nowadays, many people lose a lot of their savings because of disastrous holiday arrangements. These things have been put right by the travel industry, and I am very glad that they have been put right.

What the hon. Gentleman wants is Government registration and Government control, and that is in line with what hon. Members opposite want in respect of a great many free enterprise activities. The truth is that the Association of British Travel Agents and the Travel Trade Association have got together in recent years and done the very things which the hon. Gentleman wants. Those two associations represent the majority of agencies, and they have registered their members. In addition, they have created a rescue fund to which every member travel agent contributes. That fund now stands at something like £100,000. The claim on it last year was £200 or £300, which indicates to the hon. Gentleman the limited difficulties that arise. They are so minute as almost now to be non-existent. The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, but his right hon. Friend the Minister of State to the Board of Trade answered a recent Adjournment debate and accepted that such complaints had become less and less and that the travel trade had provided this safety net for members of the public.

A.B.T.A. also lays down standards. Every agency which is a member of the Association of British Travel Agents has to provide accounts and has to produce them each year in order to prove to the association that it has stability. Tour operators are governed on safety by Government regulations. The nationalised airlines, quite apart from the private airlines, can check on the financial stability of operators who charter their aircraft. The whole tour operation field is governed by international air transport regulations. All these are safeguards. Some of the trouble in the past and some of that which the hon. Gentleman quoted has been caused by foreign operators and by foreign companies in this country. He knows that perfectly well. However, even they are having great difficulty today, if sub-standard, because of the power of the Association and because of its increased membership. This is all to the good.

The hon. Gentleman really cannot have it both ways. He cannot ask for registration, and then complain, as he did this morning, that there is a closed shop. The closed shop would be even greater if we had Government regulations. What the hon. Gentleman is really doing is having a crack at free enterprise. He is engaged in pinpricking protestations.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman about this business. It started after the war as a new industry, with no basis. It had to compete with the State through the nationalised airlines, British Railways, and so on. It has helped to make tourism what it is in this country. It has helped to make it a top currency earner. For although we send many people abroad, many people come to this country and spend foreign currency here.

Free enterprise pioneered cheap charter travel; it pioneered air car travel, and it is now busy pioneering hovercraft travel. It saves the carrying companies of this country, including the nationalised carrying companies, millions of pounds a year in promotion costs and in ticket offices, and if the hon. Gentleman disagrees with that it proves that he does not know what he is talking about in presenting this Bill. The hon. Member says these are strong words. They are, because this is a business which I happen to know.

This business has taken a great many risks, and in so far as it has put its house in order, I hope, at the beginning of the holiday season, that the people of this country will have confidence that they can enjoy their holidays. Only one thing is stopping them from doing that and it is not the trade itself. It is the hon. Gentleman's Government, because in so far as the Government have cut the travel allowance to £50, they have made it difficult for the travel industry to keep up the standards that it is seeking to provide. Indeed, the Government are creating a situation in which the very risks to which the hon. Gentleman has referred will be increased, and I therefore oppose the Bill.

Mr. Speaker

Since a Division has been claimed, I have to declare that the proceedings stand deferred. The Order of the House of 14th December provides that the Question may be put before the Adjournment of the House is moved at the end of business tonight, whenever that may be.

The Proceedings stood deferred pursuant to Order [14th December] (Sittings of the House (Morning Sittings)).

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