HC Deb 21 October 1971 vol 823 cc1071-82

12 midnight.

Mr. Edward Milne (Blyth)

The Financial Times of 2nd October said that 23 million package tour brochures would be delivered to British households in the coming weeks. An increasing number of people will take holidays abroad. We are prompted to ask whether the travel industry has taken heed of the difficulties encountered by holiday makers and what they are going to do about it.

During last summer conditions prompted responsible newspapers into editorial comment. On 28th September the Daily Telegraph said: Some complaints are inevitable from the myriads of people who travel abroad on package tours. … Probably no one concerned is entirely blameless. But clearly something must be done from the British end to ensure that people's holidays are not ruined by muddle or incompetence, wherever it lies. It is surely self-evident that tour operators should be sufficiently in touch to be able to inform their clients if things have gone wrong 'on the ground', and those clients must have the right to decide whether they will take alternative accommodation or cancel their holidays if, for instance, the hotel of their choice is not yet completed. It is not good enough for them to discover the fact on their arrival or be decanted, tired and cross, at another hotel. … The Association of British Travel Agents is to hold an inquiry. … It says it will not shirk its responsibilities. What are these?' The Guardian said on 28th July: As the holiday calamity story continues the travel industry is becoming distinctly worried about its public image. In a search for scapegoats the national Press, the professional complainer, Greek ship workers, the Spanish tourist authorities in general and Spanish hoteliers in particular have all been invoked. A final quotation will complete the broad background of what has been happening in the travel trade. On 9th July The Times editorial said: The readiness of package tour operators to plead diminished responsibility when holiday arrangements go wrong appears to have increased, to be increasing and ought to be voluntarily abandoned. … If a satisfactory answer is not soon found by operators, one may be found for them. That is why I am interested in the Government reply tonight. The Government earlier this year seemed to be examining the idea of operator registration. Action will have to be taken sooner or later. … That deals with last summer. I want to take the House a little along the road that we have travelled over the last 10 years. This situation is no isolated phenomenon. On 30th May, 1962, I introduced a Ten Minutes Rule Bill. In case it is thought that we are too harsh on the Association of British Travel Agents let me quote what I said then: The Association of British Travel Agents and its code of conduct, the integrity, competence and high standard of service given by the profession will be the background to the standard needed in this flourishing industry."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th May, 1962; Vol. 660, c. 1365.] It is unfortunate that both the Government and the association failed to respond to this approach, because the then Secretary of Thomas Cook & Son Ltd., who was also President of A.B.T.A., reflected the head-in-the-sand attitude prevalent in the travel trade at that time by opposing the proposed legislation and stating that complaints against the travel trade could be counted on the fingers of one hand. They certainly could not be counted on the fingers of one hand during the past summer.

At an A.B.T.A. lunch in 1962, the President of the Board of Trade said: Licensing is not for us. I do not complain about that attitude. But what were the Government prepared to do if licensing was not the answer? They failed to heed the warnings given by the Association of National Tourist Office Representatives on 9th January, 1963, which urged that the Association of British Travel Agents should reexamine its schemes whereby tour operators and travel agents would offer, in the words of the Association of National Tourist Office Representatives of the main European countries, unshakeable guarantees to the travelling public and to such parties with whom they contract. Again, we produced a Ten Minutes Rule Bill in February, 1963. As we said, despite the admirable code of conduct we were still faced with ruined holidays.

In 1965 A.B.T.A. began to see the light. Sir Charles Doughty, the then Member for Surrey, East, introduced an A.B.T.A.-sponsored Bill. This also failed to persuade the Government to register the travel trade. Then A.B.T.A. ran away from the implications of its own intentions, and it has been searching for a solution to holiday problems ever since.

The Bill's sponsor, in the debate, said: 'Indeed, the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne) introduced a Bill … last year. I have examined it, and i am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, laudable as his intentions were, the Bill did not go far enough".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th March, 1965; Vol. 708, c. 817.] Nobody else travelled any further. Neither the hon. Member for Surrey, East, nor the association which supported the sponsoring of the Bill, was prepared to do anything, although, in fairness, the association decided to introduce its scheme known as "Operation Stabiliser".

On 9th December, 1965, I tabled a Question to the President of the Board of Trade on the subject of licensing and the association's attitude. I was told that the Department keeps the need for legislation constantly under review, but wished to see how the holidaymakers and the travel trade are affected by the A.B.T.A. stabiliser scheme.

That was 1965. Six years have gone by—six years in which there has been a constant flow of complaints on the matter, as was the case last year.

On 1st February, 1967, it was obvious that "Stabiliser" had not worked. We still had ruined holidays.

On the first of the morning sittings in the House of Commons, a Ten Minutes Bill was again brought in seeking travel trade legislation. The hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis)—I have given him notice that I would raise this particular point—opposing the Ten-Minute Bill—but in the Lobbies it was carried and was sent on its journey towards Second Reading—said that I had flogged the travel industry to death, with a good deal of exaggeration, to which he has added this morning. The hon. Gentleman said that he had a private interest in the matter, and, having a financial and private interest, he knew something about the travel business. He said: It is not true", as the hon. Member for Blyth 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st Feb., 1967; Vol. 740, c. 416.] That again indicated the head-in-the-sands attitude of A.B.T.A., and it has been underlined in recent weeks in statements in the travel trade gazette. It says: A new look Association of British Travel Agents is ready for approval, A.B.T.A. says its training formula will hit those tales of holiday woes. Not a case of moving with the times, but running behind them all the way.

Moves that are to be welcomed are the idea of independent arbitration, suggested by both A.B.T.A. and Clarksons, which we suggested to them more than two years ago, when we also proposed that if independent arbitration on the question of the claims of holiday makers would be taken up by the travel trade we would be prepared to withdraw the legislation which we were then preparing to bring before the House of Commons.

It is often said by the travel trade, and said in its defence, that the public only get what they pay for, and that prices and profits are too low; but that has recently been repudiated by the trade itself. On 21st September, 1971, the travel trade gazette reported that the United Kingdom travel industry this week sharply refuted a warning by the Air Transport Licensing Board that package holiday prices were too low. Some holiday firms described the warning as nonsense. The tour operators study group said that the statement was patently ridiculous'. The question of cheap holidays being responsible for the chaos and the muddle is, therefore, refuted by the travel trade itself.

The holiday maker is the fastest growing factor in the consumer and service industries in this country, and yet he has the least protection and safeguards in the product he buys. No purchase is taken so much on spec as a package holiday and family savings are tied up in the main household buy of the year in many homes. It was therefore with interest that I was invited recently to be the chairman of a new non-profit making consumer protection organisation which we believe will provide for the holiday maker a comprehensive travel service of all kinds.

I shall not mention the details now, but I want the Minister to take note of the fact that it was disappointing, in a year which has produced so many spoiled holidays, that the chairman of the tour operators study group should attack the idea without finding out what it was all about. The chairman is regarded in some quarters as one of the more progressive of the travel trade chiefs, yet he has this to say of the new association: We would have to resist any such assocition because it could only be formed to cause trouble for tour operators. Every small complaint is magnified a thousand times by the Press so that the situation is out of proportion and Mr. Milne's association would make things worse. Consumer protection groups would be a menace to the trade. I prefer to leave the judgment to the holiday makers who wrote to myself, to other hon. Members, and to the Press about their holiday experiences, but it is interesting to note that in the midst of this holiday chaos A.B.T.A. has its woes as well, because in the Daily Telegraph of 11th October, 1971 there was the following headline: Tour agents fall victim to air and hotel chaos. and the article then gave in some detail the difficulties encountered by members of the Association of British Travel Agents travelling to Cannes for their annual convention. They had delayed charter flights, hour-long waits for luggage to be brought to hotel rooms, and over-booked day excursions. When they arrived at Cannes that weekend it was their turn to complain. The only people who arrived on time were those who travelled on scheduled flights by B.E.A., Air France, or by French railways. That is what happened on that occasion according to the Daily Telegraph.

We ask the Government to consider the possibilities of registration and of putting a Minister in charge of this growing industry. A Ministry responsible for tourism could take these matters away from the realm of the Department of Trade and Industry, which still lives in the 1950s when it comes to dealing with the travel trade.

Two points need special consideration. Many holidaymakers fall sick abroad. In the North-East we have had two major examples of this kind only this week. One concerns a Newcastle couple who have exhausted their insurance cover of over £1,000 and have had their passports kept by the Spanish authorities, with a three-week stay in hospital lying ahead of them. It should be possible for the Government to make arrangements with overseas Governments to assist in such cases. After all, the Spanish Government and their economy benefit greatly from British tourists. Some sort of arrangement is needed. I hope that our embassy will be asked to raise with the Spanish Government the question of the withholding of the passports of British people because of unpaid hospital bills arising from sickness during holidays.

I have refrained from mentioning firms and details because of the brief time at my disposal, I am sure that the Department will have ample information. Letters which Members of Parliament have received refer to the untruths and misleading statements printed in the brochures of travel firms, and ask for consideration and compensation.

I am pleased to see that one of the leading firms is looking into the possibility of training schemes for members of its staff, in order to convince them that they can still convey the personal touch.

What has happened to holidaymakers during the past summer must never happen again. It is largely preventable. It has not been prevented because the travel trade has never made serious attempts to prevent it. It is a serious problem. The British people are waiting for an answer, and I hope that they will get it.

12.19 a.m.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

The hon. Gentleman has left me little time—

Mr. Milne

It is my Adjournment debate.

Mr. Lewis

The hon. Gentleman asked me to come, and I said that I would—

Mr. Milne

On a point of order. I did not ask the hon. Gentleman to come. He said that he intended to come, and I said that I should—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. It is no business of mine what one hon. Member says to another.

Mr. Lewis

The hon. Gentleman exaggerated on the last occasion, and he has exaggerated tonight. I do not know where he spent his holidays, unless he was attending a series of funerals. Certainly he is incredibly gloomy about this industry.

There are difficulties from time to time, of course. That is true of any business. If one patronises one tailor regularly, occasionally one gets a bad suit. Not many people who buy motor cars do not find that they sometimes go wrong. Of course, some people's holidays go wrong and are not as they would have liked, but millions of holidays taken abroad and in this country are all the better for what has been done by the tour operators in the last few years.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is now engaged in some sort of business—non-profit making or otherwise—and that some people will get paid by the company to which he belongs and which is connected with the travel industry. This is the biggest growth industry since the war and it supplies employment in many areas where there is unemployment. Millions of people who never imagined it possible are able to take holidays abroad because of what this industry has done. I am referring to ordinary working-class people.

In recent years the Association of British Travel Agents has provided a fund which enables any person who has difficulty with his holiday to be compensated. The tour operators are soon to start a bonding scheme. All this is well known to the hon. Gentleman, whose speech tonight was not only an exaggeration but was disgraceful, particularly as it was made about an industry that is doing good for the British people and their leisure time.

12.21 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Anthony Grant)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne) has chosen to refer to the activities of tour operators and travel agents. I recognise the great interest which he takes in this subject. I also know the expert knowledge which my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) has of the industry. I regret that there is not sufficient time for me to do full justice to all the points made in this short but important debate.

As the hon. Member for Blyth said, in recent months there has been a good deal of Press publicity about spoilt holidays. I agree that spoilt holidays are heart-breaking and infuriating. I welcome the fact that the Press has given these problems wider notice, but it would be wrong to overlook the fact that complaints are comparatively few when compared with over 4½ million holiday visits abroad, excepting holidays to the Irish Republic, by United Kingdom residents in 1970, of which about 2½ million were inclusive tours. I realise that this can bring no satisfaction to the holidaymakers whose holiday has been cancelled at short notice, or whose accommodation has turned out to be unsatisfactory, but it is important that the matter should be kept in perspective.

It is also important that holidaymakers should be able to enjoy the holiday for which they have saved and made arrangements and it is right that they should find the facilities and accommodation which were advertised. The Trade Descriptions Act contains a number of provisions designed to protect tourists by discouraging false statements made knowingly or recklessly about the provision of any services, accommodation or facilities and the location or amenities of any accommodation. A good many holidaymakers may be unaware that these matters fall within the province of the Weights and Measures Authorities.

I welcome this opportunity to make it clear that if anyone considers that a tour operator has contravened the provisions of the Trade Descriptions Act he should make the facts known to his local weights and measures authority. He can find its address at the town hall. The fact that about 20 prosecutions have been brought by the weights and measures authorities shows that the Act is working effectively in this field.

Some of the inconvenience to passengers going on or returning from holiday results from flight delays for a variety of causes. Many of these are outside the control of the airlines concerned, but others may be entirely or largely their responsibility. Section 3 of the Civil Aviation Act which was passed last Session, charges the Civil Aviation Authority to take the interest of the customer into account in exercising its responsibilities and this is one of the areas in which this duty will have an important bearing.

The Act also provides for regulations to be made which would require tour operators and organisers of charter flights to be licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority, and the Authority would be able, where appropriate, to require financial guarantees as a condition of granting such licences. It is expected that the Authority will wish to exercise these powers as soon as possible after it has been set up.

The main purpose of this provision is to enable the Authority to regulate the air transport industry, of which tour operators are an integral part, but it will also afford a measure of protection to the traveller. This provision will not cover those tours which are restricted entirely to road and sea travel, but about 80 per cent. of the inclusive tours from the United Kingdom make use of air travel, and this may well increase as holiday travel extends to more distant places.

There have been an increasing number of complaints about the activities of the operators of affinity group travel. With the introduction of licensing by the Civil Aviation Authority it is our intention that affinity group and possibly other forms of charter travel from the United Kingdom should also be arranged only through licensed travel organisers. So far as incoming traffic is concerned, whether on British or foreign airlines, our aim will be to ensure that similar standards are applied, although there are obvious difficulties in achieving this where the travel organiser is doing business in a foreign country that does not exercise similar controls.

Over the past five years the travel trade, under the guidance of the Association of British Travel Agents, has introduced a series of measures to safeguard the interests of travellers. The Association rightly looks carefully at the standing and qualifications of applicants for membership and members, once elected, are required to observe a code of conduct in their relationships with their principal suppliers, with the public and with other travel agents. I understand that the Council of the Association is considering what further steps the Association can take to ensure the financial stability of its members and deal with complaints which may be made by travellers, and such matters as bonding and arbitration. These further measures will be welcome to the Government.

As an increasing number of people go abroad on holiday and the traveller becomes more discriminating in his tastes it becomes more important that the tour operator should ensure that the services he provides are of the right quality. The Government are concerned that the traveller should get a fair deal, and we completely understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the heartbreak that occurs for, happily, a minority. As I have explained, we have taken steps to provide for a measure of control over the activities of organisers of travel by air, while the Association of British Travel Agents is actively engaged in ensuring that its members should be in a position to provide the services which the holidaymaker requires.

I have read with interest, as I listened with interest, to what the hon. Gentleman said about the organisation that he has set up. We shall study and follow its activities and his activities in this question very closely.

As to the hon. Gentleman's point about the problems in Spain of his constituents, he may rest assured that we shall look into the matter very carefully. Many such problems are of an international nature, and we can operate in an international field in what I think he would find a hopeful and satisfactory way.

In these circumstances, we consider that there would not necessarily be any advantage to the unfortunate traveller at this stage in imposing a system of registration on the travel trade as a whole, which would embrace all types of carriers, of the sort the hon. Gentleman has in mind. In our view, this would be the introduction of a cumbersome machinery, not necessarily in the interests of the traveller or the travel trade. We prefer, certainly at this stage, the voluntary system with the improvements which have occurred.

I welcome this short debate. The Government are well aware of the difficulties experienced by some holidaymakers. We have taken action only relatively recently in civil aviation. Travel agents have shown responsibility. I hope that they will increasingly continue to do so, and that as a result next year there will be many more extremely happy holidays un-spoilt for many more people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.