HC Deb 04 February 1971 vol 810 cc2055-66

10.14 p.m.

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

Mr. William Whitlock (Nottingham, North)

The Trade Descriptions Act, 1968, contains a number of provisions designed to protect tourists by discouraging certain types of false statements as to the provision of holiday services. Since the passing of the Act a number of prosecutions have taken place for offences under the Act. No doubt the Act has done much to inhibit misleading information in tour brochures, but it is apparent that some tour operators have, to put it euphemistically, shown a marked lack of zeal in ensuring that people who go on holiday have accurate information about the arrangements that have been made for them.

At this time of the year when many people are making arrangements for their summer holidays, stirred by those tempting television shots of foreign holiday resorts, I am glad to have the opportunity of discussing ways in which tourists can be and are being misled.

Recently a constituent of mine expressed great anger and disappointment at the way in which his holiday last year fell so far short of what he was led to expect by the well-known firm of tour operators which regularly advertises on television. He was sent a brochure of over 200 pages by Clarksons and, attracted by the photographs and descriptions of accommodation on Ibiza, he booked a holiday there for his family. Although the firm's brochure advertised the accommodation at which my constituent spent his holiday as hotel accommodation, the sign outside the so-called hotel described it as a hostel, and the notepaper available at the establishment clearly proclaimed it as a hostel.

My constituent told me that almost 100 per cent. of the guests at the hotel complained bitterly about the conditions there, and eventually the Clarksons representative in Ibiza was induced to meet the complainants. The guests therefore had the opportunity of letting off steam, but the meeting served very little other useful purpose. The complaints put to the representative were as follows: that the accommodation was poor and dirty, the food was poor, the staff was untrained and badly and uncleanly dressed, and, in general, everything was well below the standard to be expected from a hotel, especially from one which was so glowingly described in Clarksons' brochure.

My constituent paid extra for a room with a balcony, but he could not use the balcony, or even open the windows of his room, so bad were the fumes, smoke and smells arising from a stackpipe from the hotel kitchen.

Having been unable to obtain satisfaction in Ibiza, my constituent, on his return to this country, went to Clarksons and asked for a refund of the cost of his holiday. That request was rejected. He was referred by Clarksons to page 210 of the brochure and was told—although this statement is not true, as I shall later show—that as he had been accommodated in the hotel of his choice and in accordance with the booking confirmation sent to him, the terms of the guarantee did not apply.

I find that statement amazing. Here is a large firm which sends out to its potential customers glossy brochures designed to persuade people to choose accommodation which it arranges, yet if a customer is accommodated in the place of his choice, no matter how misleading and false are the eulogies which have led to his selection of that accommodation, the much-advertised guarantee is invalidated. The word "guarantee" which the firm plasters so prominently over its brochures means precisely the opposite from what it seems to imply. Therefore it is misleading and false.

Clarksons pointed out to my constituent that accommodation is variously described in foreign countries because of the tax peculiarities of those countries. I cannot see that that is any excuse. If accommodation abroad is described by the owners as "a hostel", and if what we consider to be hostel service and not hotel service is available there, it is wrong for a British travel concern to describe the establishment as "a hotel". It is especially wrong for that firm to continue to describe the hostel as a "a hotel" when so many complaints have been made about the standard of accommodation there. In this year's brochure Clarksons continues to describe the establishment to which my constituent went last year as "a hotel".

Earlier I said that Clarksons had contended that my constituent had stayed at the hotel of his choice. But, in fact, he had wished to go to another hotel in Ibiza. But he was told that the hotel of his choice had no vacancies and was recommended to stay at an establishment which he later found was most unsuitable. Although he was given the assurance that the recommended accommodation was of the same standard as that which he had wished to have, he found that it fell well below the standard of all the hotels in the neighbourhood whose charges were similar to those he paid. In spite of all this he obtained no refund.

Let us consider the experience of another of my constituents. He booked his holiday through a Nottingham agency with Sunair and wanted to go to Benidorm. Just before he was due to go there a friend returned from Benidorm and said that the hotel of his choice not only did not exist, but had not even been begun in the process of construction. My constituent telephoned the Sunair London office and was blandly informed that, instead of going to Benidorm, he would go to Teneriffe and that written instructions about this change would be sent to him in the following week. When he did not receive the promised information within the week he telephoned the Nottingham agents and found they knew nothing about the difficulties in Benidorm or about the proposed change to Teneriffe. When he later telephoned Sunair he was given the name of a hotel in Teneriffe where he was assured he would be more than satisfied. A few days before he was due to go on holiday, he received a letter from the agents to say that his holiday destination had been changed again, this time to Ibiza.

Badly needing a holiday, and at this late stage unable to make other arrangements, he agreed to go to Ibiza. There he encountered conditions even worse than those I have described for my other constituent. There was a continuous and unpleasant smell from drains throughout the holiday, very poor food which was sometimes uneatable, the service was so bad that five hours a day were wasted in waiting for food; the charges for drinks were higher than anywhere else on the island. Taps sometimes yielded only hot water, sometimes only cold, and at other times neither, although at intervals water came through the ceiling of his bedroom. There were vermin in the beds and a rat that ran around the hotel upsetting the guests until finally it was run to ground on the third floor. Again the local representative of this concern was persuaded to come and see the people who complained but he said he could do nothing and that complainants should refer the matter to the London office.

The liaison office of Sunair Holidays wrote to my constituent after he had complained on his return from holiday. This man's letter just brushed aside the complaints and studiously avoided comment or apology about the cavalier manner in which my constituent had been bounced from one booking of a hotel to another before he went on holiday. The experiences of my two constituents can be corroborated by other people who were there with them.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

I served on the Committee stage of the Trade Descriptions Bill in 1968. We thought that we had this matter completely buttoned up. We thought that this type of claim could no longer be made. The Clarksons' claim literally has no meaning at all. No one disputes that Clarksons from time to time gives good value for money. The problem is that when it receives a complaint it will not handle it, so the guarantee has no meaning. This is particularly true of at least 100 people who spent a holiday in Benidorm at the Hotel Costa Blanca last year. Clarksons has done nothing about their complaints.

Mr. Whitlock

This is the point I was making. Literally thousands of people can tell similar stories to the two which I have just related to the House. Certainly the family of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was caught in this way by some other concern.

I am sure that large numbers of people, who have travelled abroad and been taken in by false and misleading statements such as I have outlined this evening, have given up attempts to obtain refunds on the cost of their holidays when they have had pointed out to them by these tour operators the small print in the brochures which completely nullifies the alleged guarantee.

I have advised my constituents to report these matters for investigation to their local weights and measures inspectors. The local weights and measures authorities have a statutory duty to enforce the Act and they have the necessary powers of inquiry. I have no doubt that those very hard working local officials are valiantly coping with whatever additional burdens have been placed on their shoulders by the Act.

When a large concern handling the travel arrangements of many thousands of people behaves as though the Trade Descriptions Act had never been passed, then I believe that the racket—because it is a racket—should be tackled at national level. I understand that the Board of Trade is free to take proceedings. I hope that the Minister will tell me that he will now instruct his officials to investigate complaints like these and to take all necessary action. Certainly action is necessary to curb the activities of those who are so heartlessly wrecking the dreams of so many people who have spent hard-earned cash on what they imagined and hoped would be the holiday of a lifetime. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that his Department will tackle the problem vigorously.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

I am sure that the whole House is greatly obliged to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Whitlock) for raising the question of tour operators who flout the Trade Descriptions Act.

I was disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not mention the largest tour operator of all—British Rail. I have many complaints from constituents—I wish that I could mention them all in a couple of minutes—who habitually travel to places between Waterloo, Weymouth and Bournemouth on Friday evenings. Many of them buy first-class tickets. All that they receive for that first-class ticket is permission to stand in a corridor with those who buy second-class tickets. I suggest that under Section 13 of the Act, which refers to the provision of services as well as goods, it is a misrepresentation and something of a racket for British Rail to charge about £1 for no service at all.

It is also true that under another Section of the Act any person who does misrepresent what he sells in that way, whether he be a director of the company or an official of the company, is equally liable to prosecution with that company. It is a racket to sell and to describe as first-class accommodation which is in no sense first-class and which constitutes nothing other than permission to stand, and which is no more than exactly what——

Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understood that this evening we were supposed to be discussing the failure of tour operators to comply with the Trade Descriptions Act. As the hon. Gentleman knows, British Railways does tours, but the hon. Member is referring not to British Railways' tour activities but to its travel activities, which is completely different from the subject matter of my hon. Friend's Adjournment debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

I think the hon. Gentleman knows that technically we are on the Adjournment, and that is the position for the Chair, but I understand that the hon. Member who has the Floor of the House is coming to the end of his remarks.

Mr. King

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has wasted the time of the House. He knows that on the Adjournment one can raise any subject that one chooses. I have chosen travel, which comes within the title of this Adjournment debate. However, I have made my point, and I hope it will reach those who control British Railways that this is a form of misrepresentation and deceit which ought to stop.

10.31 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Whitlock) has raised the subject of the package tour, and I have great sympathy with the point of view that he has been putting forward. There is no doubt that the package tour has brought within the reach of millions of people the Mediterranean or even further afield holidays which they might otherwise never have been able to afford, and as this is often the first holiday in, and first experience of, far-away places it is very important that the holiday brochures which people receive should give them a fair chance of deciding which places they wish to go to, because such people have little or no knowledge from their own experience of what they might expect. As the hon. Gentleman said, it may involve the savings of a year, on a holiday which has been dreamed of and saved for for a much longer period even than that, and it is therefore essential that people should be able to rely on the information which they get from holiday brochures.

The consequences of a failure of the sort the hon. Gentleman has been describing is not only a ruined holiday but disillusionment with the function of travel and the part which package tour operators play in it, which, I am sure, is no good for the holiday business, or for the resorts concerned, and I think that the hon. Gentleman has done a service in raising this matter.

Section 14 of the Trade Descriptions Act, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and for which the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) claimed to have some paternity, is a powerful weapon and, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, is, I believe, entirely appropriate for dealing with this matter: It is a section which uses relatively few words, but the scope of the words is very wide, indeed. It deals with statements about services, accommodation or facilities, and the definition certainly covers travel facilities of the sort that have been discussed tonight.

Mr. Carter-Jones

We thought that this was buttoned up, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Weights and Measures Inspectorate is having great difficulty in this matter, and would like guidance from him.

Mr. Ridley

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue, I shall come to that.

The provision of services, accommodation or facilities, statements about the nature of services, accommodation or facilities, statements about the time at which, the manner in which, or the persons by whom they are provided, are all covered by the Act, and there is no doubt that the location of amenities or accommodation and details of them in the brochure can be covered by this Section. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any statement which could be made about a package holiday which could influence the customer in his choice and would not be covered by the Act. This applies not only to direct and express statements; anything likely to be taken as a statement as to one or other of these matters is deemed to be such a statement. If the statement is made in this country it makes no difference whether the service or the accommodation is provided in a different country. If the statement is false to a material degree, the Section can bite upon it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King), who raised a different form of travel, in my opinion quite properly, will be able from what I have said to gauge whether the offence which he alleges is committed by British Rail is covered or not. The weights and measures inspectors can initiate prosecutions if they think that the Act has been contravened.

The Board of Trade has ceased to exist and the Department of Trade and Industry, its successor, has no power to prosecute under Section 14; only the weights and measures authorities can, and they have shown themselves ready and willing to act where their inquiries show this to be justified. We have been informed that there have been 20 prosecutions relating to overseas holiday information and in 14 there were convictions, with fines ranging up to as much as £600—convictions to which the Press has given due publicity. We have been notified of a further 12 cases in which local authorities are intending to prosecute. Indeed, according to the papers yesterday, which the hon. Gentleman may have seen, one prosecution was heard last Tuesday and resulted in three convictions of associated companies, each of which was fined £2,000, a total of £6,000.

These figures prove that Section 14 can and does work in relation to statements about package holidays, not only about their basic features, but about ancillary facilities. The lifts, sandy beaches, the nearness to the beach, telephones in bedrooms, swimming pools, night clubs—all these things, where promised but not provided, have featured in these prosecutions.

These prosecution figures are very small indeed, in relation to the thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of people who go on package tours and the thousands of brochures in travel agents' offices. This is not surprising, because, apart from the action of the law, it is not in the interests of the tour operator to supply defective information and disenchant his potential clients. The idea that one can build up a great business founded on a myth, on deception, is not true, because one's customers will leave one. The package operator who finds a new customer wants to keep him for the next year and the year after that. He would not be able to do so if the customer suffered the sort of experiences which the hon. Gentleman's constituents have.

That is not to say that there will never be disappointments—one must see the other side of this argument as well—nor that every disappointment can or should result in a prosecution under Section 14. An advertisement for a holiday next summer can at best reflect a well-organised plan, and all the diligence in the world cannot guarantee that nothing will go wrong with it. The aircraft may not be able to start or may be delayed by fog, causing one to arrive very late at one's destination. The previous occupant of a room may feel sick and be unable to vacate the room, and one may not, therefore, be able to get it. The hotel keeper may have trouble with the heating system which, with the best will in the world, he cannot put right. The chef may walk out. It may be hell for the holidaymaker, and it is understandable that he should be cross about it, but one cannot in all honesty make a criminal of the tour operator who, in good faith, believes that the chef is in the kitchen but, on the day the holidaymaker arrives, walks out.

Thus, although the tour operator, before publishing his brochure, must have taken all reasonable precautions to ensure that what he offers will be provided, if something nevertheless goes wrong the operator's conduct cannot simply be regarded as having been criminal conduct. For this reason the offence in Section 14 of the Act is rightly confined to false statements made knowingly to be false or made recklessly.

The hon. Gentleman referred to exclusion clauses. These are, of course, matters for the civil law as opposed to the criminal law. As I have said in reply to previous Adjournment debates, the Law Commission has studied this matter very carefully in relation to goods, and it has been decided that it would be possible to stop such exclusion clauses only by taking fresh legislation to amend the Sale of Goods Act. The Government are hoping to do this. It is a question of whether it can be fitted into this or a later Session. There is no other way of eliminating exclusion clauses. As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is a matter which is for the civil law as between the person who complains of his holiday package and the tour operator. Nevertheless, the Government wish to put this right, and this will certainly be done when the opportunity occurs.

I trust that the hon. Gentleman can feel assured that the Trade Descriptions Act is competent to deal with the holiday brochure which blatantly fails in what it offers. Holidaymakers cannot always expect that everything that they hope for will be there. With the best of intentions, plans sometimes go wrong. However, they have remedies at civil law if a contract is breached, and I hope that what I have said will encourage tour operators not to include exclusion clauses in their brochures because, in due course, we hope to make that illegal.

Mr. Whitlock

Is it not a fact that the hon. Gentleman's Department is not prevented by Statute from taking proceedings? Could he not under the existing common law arrangements take action —perhaps under the Prosecution of Offences Act, 1908—because the failure to honour this statement mentioned in this brochure which I am holding up—that everything is guaranteed—should be tackled quickly? I believe that it could be tackled by the Department now.

Mr. Ridley

I have said that my Department is not entitled to prosecute anybody under the Trade Descriptions Act. The responsibility for bringing prosecutions rests with the weights and measures inspectors. If it is a breach of the civil law, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, then the responsibility for taking action rests with the individual citizen who is aggrieved. The hon. Gentleman must know that what I am saying is correct and that it would be wrong for Gov- ernment Departments to engage in the wholesale prosecution of people. We certainly do not have the powers to do so.

The Question having been proposed after Ten 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 sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.