HC Deb 08 July 1977 vol 934 cc1733-42

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

5.39 p.m.

Sir Geoffrey de Freitas (Kettering)

I want to ask the Government to see what more they can do, with the British Tourist Authority, to foster our tourist industry. They are doing well, but I want them to do better. The 1969 Act, on which many of us took part, has been a success. A total of 11½ million overseas visitors will come to Britain this year, compared with 10 million last year, and 1½ million of them will be Americans. They will spend £2,750 million in Britain and in fares to British carriers—about £7 million a day.

Those figures show that tourism is big business. Each summer I am given clear evidence of the increase in the overseas invasion because of where I work and where I live. My House of Commons office is in Dean's Yard, Westminster. For several months of the year I must walk to the House through hundreds of people going in and out of Westminster Abbey. It is annoying, but I calm myself with the thought that a few summers ago I was one of hundreds of visitors in Florence who made things uncomfortable for the ordinary people there.

My home is in Cambridge. So great has been the annual invasion of Cam- bridge that the colleges this summer have had to introduce a system of passes to travel agents allowing them to bring in a certain defined number of visitors. This has been done with reluctance in view of our tradition of open hospitality, but it has become essential.

The crowds visiting Cambridge are a serious problem. One hundred years ago, the Master of one of our colleges was horrified that Mr. Thomas Cook was contemplating running excursion trains to Cambridge on Sundays. He wrote: Allow me to inform you that this must be as displeasing to Almighty God as it is to myself …and to all right-thinking Christians. Right-thinking Christians or not, the crowds are there to stay, on Sundays particularly so.

The colleges of Cambridge and other universities will be increasing competitors for the housing of conferences. Hotels will have to recognise this. As the colleges get more experience, they will find that people like the atmosphere of learning and leisure. That is why they come here from abroad, particularly to our ancient cities. The attraction of this country is not sun-drenched beaches or the rustle of grass skirts: it is our buildings, our language, our history, our institutions and, I like to think, our people.

I said that the Government and the BTA were doing well but could do better. London has a large tourist burden and many tourist advantages. It has a tremendous problem in the summer on the buses and in the Underground, but I am surprised to hear Londoners talk of taxing visitors. I wonder whether they realise that London's population and the number of jobs are falling and whether they have studied what has happened in New York. I do not want that to happen here.

As a London ratepayer, I want London to make itself even more attractive to tourists. I want the Underground particularly to use the imagination it used to show. I remember a very good poster with a picture of Henry VIII at the ticket office saying "A return ticket to the Tower and a single for my wife." It is that kind of imaginative approach which visitors to London find so interesting.

I do not want London either to increase or to decrease its number of visitors. It is just about right—about as much as we can take. With the increase in tourism, more and more of them should go outside London, especially to regions far away, like the North-East. Some of the loveliest country in Europe can be found outside London but it is seldom seen by overseas visitors. In the Midlands there are fine villages, beautiful churches and a great deal of interest.

At any one time about 60 per cent. of our visitors sleep outside London and about 40 per cent. sleep in London. My constituency is not well known as a tourist resort but it is typical of many places outside London. It has villages and churches, a castle—Rockingham Castle—and a remarkable new steel town which interests town planners and architects. I want to hear from the Government their plans for spreading the load and the advantages of having tourists to the furthest parts of the country.

I turn to the problem of the quality of service, in hotels and restaurants in particular. We must build up a sound service industry. It is not enough to remark on the decline in the number of work permits granted to foreign workers who are not needed so much today. Is my hon. Friend the Minister sure that we have the trained staff to take their place, not only in London but in the provinces? We know how difficult it is to organise hotel staff into unions. We know that we are behind other countries in some respects. Kitchen staff and waiters in other countries regard their work as a profession or a craft and have a ladder and ambition to get to the top. May we know more about the Government's plans for encouraging the training of waiters and cooks? At how many technical colleges are courses provided?

Most of us would agree that the tremendous boom was caused by the 1969 Act which allowed us to build hotel accommodation. The Government must follow that up. If hotels seek to modernise, they should be treated as fairly as manufacturing industry when it comes to building grants. Without that, I do not see how hotels will be able to maintain their high standards.

I referred earlier to the English language drawing people to this country. The spread of our language and institutions such as the British Council have contributed enormously to the interest throughout the world in our living, modern theatre, which is closely connected with our language and which we do so well. We must help the theatre to prosper. We must go out of our way to relieve it of the completely unnecessary burden of VAT.

My fear for the future of the tourist industry is complacency. We are doing well, but we must not fall into the trap into which the Spaniards fell. They thought that their boom would go on for ever. Today our rate of expansion is far greater than theirs. I take no pleasure in the knowledge that the Spanish tourist industry is not increasing. It must be regarded as an example and a warning.

We have to maintain the standards of our hotels, improve our services and do a little more about languages. How many British waiters speak a foreign language? We must remember that of the 11½ million visitors only 1½ are American, with perhaps another 2 million—though that is probably an excessive figure—from Canada, Australia and countries like India and Japan, whose first world language is English. The rest of the millions who come here have other Western languages, such as French, German, Italian and Spanish. We have to consider having more language teaching and demanding it from those who are in contact with tourists.

British Airways has an excellent system of highly-qualified linguists, but I want all its cabin crews to have at least a few sentences in some of the major languages. If an Italian passenger speaks French, it is a great asset to be able to reply to him not only in French but with a few words of Italian. It only amounts to a few words of encouragement to tourists.

The 1969 Act has worked very well. The British Tourist Authority has done well, and so have the three national tourist boards. The results can be measured in the thousands of millions of pounds which come in. There is, however, a danger of complacency. I ask the Government to convince me that they are aware of it and are doing something about it.

5.52 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Michael Meacher)

The main theme of the entertaining, balanced and comprehensive speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) was very important. He said that there was too much emphasis on tourism in London and suggested that not enough was being done to disperse tourists elsewhere. He will agree that in many ways London is Britain's No. 1 resort. It is a major artistic, commercial and business centre. Its location in relation to airports and seaports naturally encourages visitors to stay there. All this brings a great deal of business to London—to shops, theatres, public transport and hotels. The benefits to Britain and to Londoners from this traffic should not be underestimated. I am sure that my right hon. Friend does not do that.

But I am at one with him in saying that it is important to consider, first, how to cater satisfactorily for the increasing number of tourists in Britain, not least those from overseas, so as to avoid harm to the very sites and amenities that attract them in the first place, and, secondly, how to bring the benefits of tourism to those parts of the country where tourists, especially foreigners, are still comparatively rare, but where the economic benefits that tourism could bring would be particularly welcome.

The new tourism policy guidelines initiated by the Government in November 1974 were aimed at precisely those objectives. With the assistance of the four statutory tourist boards, we have been actively implementing these policies ever since. The consistent thread of these various efforts is dispersal from London, Oxford, Stratford, Edinburgh and other traditional areas, where practical and sensible, to the attractions on the periphery.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the effect of value added tax on London's attractions, including the theatre. The Government take the view that the theatres, in common with all other discretionary leisure expenditure, should be subject to the tax. That is for a good reason—because reliefs are confined to items of essential expenditure, in particular those which are important in the budgets of low-income families.

I turn now to what my right hon. Friend regarded as an important part of his speech, and that is Government assistance towards, and encouragement of, tourism investment. Now that the £57 million hotel development incentive scheme has ceased, Government help for tourist investment is channelled through the scheme of selective assistance to tourism projects in the development areas administered by the national tourist boards.

The English Tourist Board alone has given assistance to no fewer than 500 projects to the tune of £4.5 million over the last six years. That is a significant achievement. The mam disadvantage, however—and I am not complacent—is that so far it has been primarily responsive. The boards have waited for projects to be brought to them rather than the boards themselves actively going out and initiating good schemes in suitable places. It is for this reason and to pursue further the ideas inherent in the 1974 guidelines for encouraging part of the tourism market to go to new tourist areas that we announced on 20th May proposals to establish three new tourism growth points.

If these pilot schemes, which are located on the high Pennines, on the Yorkshire coast and on the North Devon and Cornwall coastal strip, work well, we hope to be able to go on and apply the same technique of encouraging tourism development in other parts of the country with plenty of tourism potential and the need to benefit from jobs and income which tourism can bring. A vital ingredient of this experiment is full public consultation with the communities affected. These proposals are for discussion and they may therefore be modified. They may be added to before they are put into effect, or even abandoned.

I shall be visiting Durham next Monday in order to begin this consultation, and similar meetings are being arranged for the other two localities. The essence of the proposals is that in each case the prospects for tourism development are suited to their character, that the possibilities of each locality look good, that the locality itself would benefit from an economic boost, and that it could readily absorb more tourists without environmental harm. These are the principles which underline the three areas we have initially chosen.

Total investment from all sources, public and private, under the scheme in each locality should be £2 million to £3 million over three to four years. The English Tourist Board may be authorised to contribute up to one-third of this from its existing Section 4 funds if, and only if, a successful partnership for the scheme as a whole can be worked out between the various interests concerned. That is the purpose of the consultation I shall initiate on Monday. If it works well we shall consider employing the same techniques elsewhere.

My right hon. Friend asked, with due modesty, what had been done for Kettering and other such areas in the Midlands. We recognise their potential interest. But the experiments that I have outlined do not mean that other areas which are not proposed as tourist gowth areas, or are not eligible for Section 4 assistance under the Act, are in any way being neglected. The need is not always for help with bricks and mortar. The main requirement may in particular cases not be for this at all. It is rather for better marketing, for training or for more research. Assistance in these instances does not come from Section 4. The whole of Britain benefits from the research, development and promotional activities of the statutory tourist boards, which are very largely funded by their grants-in-aid, from the help which they give to the regional tourist boards— covering my right hon. Friend's constituency area—and from the expenditure on training by the Hotel and Catering Industry Training Board.

My right hon. Friend's second main point was about working permits and special training in the industry. It has been policy since 1972, as he will know, to reduce the industry's reliance on overseas labour by limiting the number of permits issued annually. In pursuance of this, and taking into account the persistent level of unemployment, the ceiling for this year if 2,000.

In deciding the figure, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment took note of the advice that he received from the Manpower Services Commission that there was no risk that the industry would find itself short of facilities and resources to provide the training necessary to sustain domestic recruitment of untrained labour. Very great improvements have been made in training in the industry in the past few years, and the number of students has likewise been quite considerably increased.

I assure my right hon. Friend that such training is by no means confined to the London area. I think he was also concerned about that. Courses are sponsored by the Training Services Agency under the training opportunities scheme— TOPS—in all parts of the country. This is not in any way a London matter. Training for hotel and catering work is an important part of the scheme, but discussions have been taking place with the Hotel and Catering Industry Training Board about the further expansion of facilities, under TOPS, for training in the industry. In addition, the Training Services Agency has been making use of loan sanction arrangements to encourage local education authorities to put forward proposals for further TOPS training, including hotel and catering training.

My right hon. Friend asked how we can prevent standards slipping. I entirely accept that we should not be complacent here either. There are two relevant element. The first is the improvement in training in the industry, which I have already mentioned. I am not complacent. It could certainly go further. The quality could improve. We are striving to achieve that. We expect it to continue, with a beneficial effect on standards.

Tourism is an extremely competitive industry. There is international competition and there is competition between resorts in Britain and between individual establishments. I think there is every incentive—this is where the market is effective—for all sections of the industry to do everything possible to maintain standards. If they slip, or merely fail to improve, it is all too easy for the tourist to go elsewhere.

My right hon. Friend also asked me about tax allowance on hotels. The question of tax allowances for capital expenditure on the construction of commercial buildings, including hotels, was discussed, as my right hon. Friend may well know, on 22nd June in the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill. The report of the debate on that occasion, covered, I think, 13 or 14 columns of Hansard. I have not time to go over that but I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be able to refer to that debate. I am also sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have taken note of the plea which my right hon. Friend has made this afternoon.

My right hon. Friend made a perfectly fair and valid point about languages. He mentioned waiters—I cannot answer his question in that respect because I have not the facts—and also British Airways cabin crew, who can by no means always speak foreign languages. I know that he was asking not for fluency but for relatively limited ability to speak in a foreign language.

The airline's current recruitment literature for cabin crews stipulates that an ability to converse in one foreign language is desirable. It also points out that British Airways also regard experience in nursing and catering as essential, together with general all-round capability. These are also very important qualifications. I assure my right hon. Friend that language laboratory facilities are provided by the airline to assist cabin crew to improve their language ability. Employees are encouraged to become proficient by the payment of a supplement to wages. But I am sure also that British Airways will take note of the perfectly fair point that my right hon. Friend made.

My right hon. Friend asked us above all not to display complacency. That the industry is doing well I have no doubt. My right hon. Friend quoted the figures showing that both the gross and the net earnings are enormous and growing fast. It can be regarded as one of the great success stories of Britain.

However, there is no complacency about this. I hope I have indicated that we are aware of the problems and of the areas in which we can do better. We are especially concerned about dispersal and about improved training.

In the brief time available to me, I hope that I have given my right hon. Friend an assurance that we are very far from complacent.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Six o'clock.