HC Deb 22 December 1988 vol 144 cc609-15

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

11.30 am
Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

Following that tragic statement, I turn to the tourist industry in the United Kingdom, Britain's fastest growing industry, which attracts to it almost 1,000 new people a year. Indeed, 1.4 million people are directly employed in the industry, and probably a further 1 million in schools and industrial catering. I understand that a record 15.4 million overseas visitors came to the United Kingdom last year and spent three times what we earn from car exports. That puts the industry into its proper context. We are talking about an annual turnover of some £5,000 million.

I have taken a great interest in tourism for many years, both before I became a Member of this House and since. I declare an interest as the parliamentary consultant to Consort Hotels, the largest consortium of independent hoteliers in the United Kingdom, whose headquarters is in my constituency.

The news, however, is not all good. The industry is not resting on its laurels. Some £2,000 million of capital investment is going into it. The industry is moving away from a low-paid image, especially when one sees young chefs with salaries of £20,000 and more. More specifically, in the Yorkshire and Humberside region, tourism is now worth some £600 million. It supports 85,000 full-time jobs and thousands more part-time jobs, in addition to the self-employed, but it is almost 20 years since the Department of Tourism Act 1969 reached the statute book. There is clearly a need for the review that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Lee), has set in motion of the British Tourist Authority and the English tourist board.

My first major question to my hon. Friend is why the review is so restrictive. Tourism affects everyone in the United Kingdom, not simply England. To leave Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland out of that major review is to do a disservice to those parts of the United Kingdom. Overseas visitors regard that as an arbitrary decision by the Government. My hon. Friend is an active and busy Minister, to whom I pay tribute, but his responsibilities stop at the English frontier and do not extend to the Principality of Wales or to Scotland, let alone to Ulster. We need a Minister to co-ordinate these activities, a matter to which I shall refer later.

That brings me to the role of the regional boards. For some years we have had 12 regional boards. Again, that is a rather arbitrary figure. My hon. Friend works assiduously in the Department of Employment. One of his other hats—as with his colleagues—involves the Manpower Services Commission. The MSC is divided into eight regions in England. It is peculiar that there should be 12 regional boards that cover those eight regions.

At the very least, will he not consider reducing the plethora of boards to eight so that officials do not duplicate work? It would be far better to reduce the number of boards but to increase their geographical size and to reduce them to four—a northern board, a central board, a south-western board and a south and south-eastern board. That would allow much better career development and a much greater scale of overseas work.

I have referred to the red tape in the English regional boards, but the problem is exacerbated by the number of national boards within the United Kingdom. Chaos has reigned because the national tourist boards do not work together initially on the Crown classification system—Scotland going ahead of the rest of the country, Wales carrying out a slightly separate operation and now England. The appointment of a Minister with overall responsibility for United Kingdom tourism is long overdue.

There is also an imbalance of tourism funding in the United Kingdom. In a debate on this subject in another place, Lord Ponsonby rightly referred to the fact that Wales receives roughly eight times as much funding from the Government, per pound of tourist spending, as is received by England, and that Scotland receives three times as much. Like the noble Lord, I do not begrudge the sums that are spent in that way, but there is nevertheless quite an imbalance.

The tourist information centres are urgently in need of review—for, among other reasons, their inadequate siting. It is vital that there should be tourist information centres at all our major ports of entry, yet at the busiest of all, Dover, the tourist information centre is located at the point where one leaves the country, not where one arrives. Some tourist information centres are relegated to the reference departments of town halls.

As for the inadequate opening hours of tourist information centres, to take one of Britain's busiest attractions, the Tower of London, which 2.3 million visitors visited last year, one finds that the tourist information centre is closed at this time of the year. It is closed for the whole of the winter season. I have seen parties of Japanese visitors, who are always welcome to Britain, looking into the tourist information centre where they see a scrawled note saying, "Reopens at Easter." Nothing could be further from the truth. It is time that tourist information centres at such major points were open throughout the year.

Furthermore, in the early evening—a time when accommodation needs to be made available for the travelling visitor—and on Sunday mornings, tourist information centres should be open, but of course that does not fit into the natural pattern of the local government officer's working day. How many of them have an adequate knowledge of foreign languages? Very few of them speak other than their native tongue. The same problem arises in other parts of the United Kingdom. There are problems over staffing and languages and the amount of literature that can be made available to visitors.

The charging pattern of tourist information centres is inconsistent. The Scottish tourist information centres charge a 10 per cent. commission for the first night's accommodation. There is no general framework throughout the United Kingdom. I do not believe that there is a rationale for maintaining automatic district council responsibility for this key sector of visitor information. The local government legislation requires six major services to be put out to competitive tender. I refer to street cleaning, refuse collection and the like. That means that almost £3,000 million worth of services will be put out to tender next year. I ask my hon. Friend to hold discussions with his colleagues to ensure that tourist information services should go out to competitive tender in the next tranche. Let the professionals market tourism.

In my own constituency of York there are two tourist information centres—the lacklustre one, where few of the staff speak foreign languages, which is closed on Sunday mornings and the early evenings that is run by the district council, which regards tourism as so lacking in interest that it does not even appoint staff when vacancies occur, and another one that has been set up by the professionals, the hoteliers, restaurateurs and others who provide various amenities. That is despite the fact that the Socialist-controlled council has twice removed their signs. However, they could work in harmony and I wish them to do so, because the professionals will always show the right way forward.

Above all, at a time when many of our constituents are turning to the holiday pages of their newspapers and television screens, tourist information centres could become United Kingdom's holiday shops and a chain of domestic travel shops. There are 50 British tour operators selling United Kingdom holiday destinations. Why not give their brochures away and sell their holidays through the British tourist information centres?

Turning to the major subject of signposting, the House should be concerned with two important matters. First, there is inadequate signposting on major roads. What consultation has there been with the Department of Transport in conjunction with the Department of Employment? Why is not greater notice given on the Al0 of the attractions available at major venues such as York? Why is the "i" information sign being removed from service stations?

The second aspect is deemed consent, which has been going back and forth between Departments, producing increasing red tape. I cannot understand why there are delays in implementing such a sensible measure. There are trials in Nottingham and Kent and experiments in three districts on the south coast. As they are slightly unusual places, there is a lack of enthusiasm in that part of the world, and no doubt my hon. Friend will report to the House that deemed consent is not a success. While the experiment on the south coast is taking place, I suggest that he should consider deemed consent in north Yorkshire and south Somerset, two quite different parts of the country within his portfolio of English tourism.

The year 1990 is to be designated "European year for tourism". With the completion of the single European market and the opening of the Channel tunnel, there will be even greater competition for visitors. By 1994, Britain's tourism could be worth more than £23,000 million. Will the United Kingdom take the lead in co-ordinating information on visitor facilities and accommodation? It seems incredible to overseas visitors to Britain that there are no common symbols, and when we visit other EC member states there is great confusion.

I believe that there is an EC classification in the non-binding EC recommendations on hotel symbols, but those who leave the House today and travel the length and breadth of Britain will see the great confusion on hotel boards. They will see the symbols of the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club which have their own inspectorates. Still fading on hotel boards, they are the hearts in the heart of England and the sea horses in the Isle of Wight. They will see the private sector Egon Ronay signs.

Some of the national boards believe that that is a good idea and have developed the crown symbol. That is clearly not enough, when pubs attract three or even four crowns. How can they be compared with a Park lane hotel? Five gold crowns are very appropriate to this time of year, but they would cause confusion to a visitor from Chicago looking to spend a little time in addition to his conference in London or elsewhere in such honey pots as York, Edinburgh, Stratford or further north in the Minister's constituency. Let us send a clear message to the new European Commissioner for Tourism. We need a European system for facilities and accommodation that commands respect and has integrity.

I know my hon. Friend's keen interest in educational matters as they affect tourism. I am pleased that the first GCSE course in tourism has been created and I admire the work of the Southern Examining Board in getting that off the ground, and the sponsors of the course, particularly the lead sponsor, American Express. I hope that the Minister will urge industry to participate fully in the modules where there is employer involvement and hold discussions with the Department of Education and Science to ensure that the course is widely known and not seen simply as a southern-based activity.

But that is still not enough. We are producing too many chiefs and not enough Indians. We are sadly short of craft trainees. There is a disproportionate number of potential managers. They cannot all manage, although they are qualified to do so. We should ensure that colleges produce courses with real career prospects, with more emphasis on housekeeping, kitchen brigades and service staff so that we do not have to employ those much-needed staff from outside the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend has also turned his attention to seasonality. What market research has been undertaken on the incentives required to extend the season? I know that he has spoken on many occasions about extending the season, but clearly the carrot has to be of a fiscal nature. Before the Chancellor goes into economic purdah, perhaps my hon. Friend will convey that recommendation to him.

Mr. Alan Devereux, chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board, an Essex anglophile who has moved north and for whom I have a great deal of time, said on 23 November: Scottish tourism cannot thrive solely on new buildings, swimming pools and visitor centres. I agree with him. He continued: Historic buildings and monuments represent the greater part of our entertainment portfolio and they need to provide increasing entertainment and amenity". I appreciate that I place my hon. Friend in some predicament in quoting from a leading figure in the Scottish tourist industry, but I did not restrict the debate to English tourism. That is one of the many examples applying to tourism in the United Kingdom.

The call today is for better co-ordination. The travel trade will not fly to the United Kingdom to assess opportunities at three separate trade exhibitions. There is the moot for England, and on different weeks there are events in Wales and Scotland. Surely we can combine travel trade events on one site and, if appropriate, rotate the venue.

The Department of Employment is a sponsoring Ministry for tourism but greater funds are coming from other Departments. A £6 million grant made recently in Birmingham by the Department of the Environment represents half the English tourist board section 4 funds and is more than 20 times greater than the average English tourist board grant. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister at the Department of the Environment is probably doing his Christmas shopping since we are sitting so late, but no doubt these points can be conveyed to him by my hon. Friend the Minister at the Department of Employment. As for section 4 funding, which represented a good deal, I hope that we shall continue a move from grants towards soft loans.

Clearly, we are getting value for money. The nation currently enjoys excellent returns for taxpayers' investment in tourism. For 1988–89, the British Tourist Authority received £23.8 million Government grant in aid. I understand that every pound of taxpayers' grant currently earns more than £300 in foreign currency. Let us compare that with the agricultural lobby. Britain supports the £11,500 million agriculture industry by Government grants of £1,855 million—a return of just £6.20 for every £1 of funding. My hon. Friend the Minister and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in the other place have a very good case to make in Cabinet to get a little larger slice of the taxpayers' cake for tourism.

The review now reaching its conclusion should ensure more competition in the supply of visitor information, less local government bureaucracy, an assurance of strong and continuous Government support to the British Tourist Authority and an end to the in-house consultative work by the English tourist board Scottish tourist board and Wales tourist board that can and should be undertaken by the private sector. A visitor to Britain means employment for someone else. We must not take our attractions for granted, York has shown the great visitor appeal of archaeology, with its Coppergate site being transformed into a Viking museum, which is one of Britain's liveliest. In the inner cities, such as Glasgow and Liverpool, new galleries have been opened.

Those examples must not become isolated instances. Co-ordination is required to harness constructively our great potential, within environmental constraints. Let us not allow the Greek prayer for protection against the scourge of tourism to he added to the alternative service book. Through proper planning, that fear will subside and Britain and its people will benefit immeasurably from the success of tourism.

11.48 am
Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) on his choice of subject for this debate, and I agree with what he said about the work that my hon. Friend the Minister does for tourism. The industry vies with oil as one of our largest earners of foreign income. It will continue to grow and be successful and, as a result, there will be growing pressure on the major tourist attractions. The greatest pressure will he on London, and that is why I wish to draw my hon. Friend's attention to the need to promote tourism in the regions.

We must do as much as possible to offer tourists every opportunity to see the attractions of the other England —the England that lies outside London—which my hon. Friend the Member for York and I represent and do our best to promote. Swindon is at the centre of a beautiful area of countryside, including the Cotswolds and the Marlborough downs. People in my constituency, including those who run hotels and the facilities that are available, are trying increasingly to promote the attractions of the area.

The promotion of Britain to those who consider visiting it must be undertaken on a professional basis. I pay credit to the British Tourist Authority and the English tourist board for their work in making the citizens of the European Community and countries further afield aware of what Britain has to offer to tourists. If more resources were made available, more could be done. As my hon. Friend the Minister examines the results of the recent review in his Department, will he remember the vital work that is being done professionally by those bodies?

The House would not regard it as adequate if private organisations, such as airlines, were left to do the work of promoting Britain abroad. That must be done by a professional body that is ultimately responsible to Parliament. I believe that it is well done at present, and I ask my hon. Friend to give an assurance that he will take those points into careful account and ensure that in the future Britain will continue to have as strong a presence overseas as have other countries which seek to be our rivals in the tourism industry.

11.51 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee)

At the outset of this debate on tourism, we should place on record our sympathies for those tourists to Britain who died in the appalling air tragedy in Scotland yesterday.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) for introducing this debate and for all that he has done over the years to raise the profile of tourism nationally and in the House. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) for his more recent work in that regard.

In recent years, the importance of tourism as a major national industry has been increasingly recognised. My hon. Friend gave the figures. The industry has a turnover of £18 billion a year, sustains 1.4 million jobs and grows at the rate of nearly 1,000 net new jobs a week. No other sector of the economy sustains new job growth at that rate. A major capital investment programme of about £2 billion, predominantly in the private sector, is under way. Tourism earns about three to four times more than the motor industry, and rather more than the aerospace industry, in export earnings.

The regional aspect of tourism is especially important and close to my heart, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon mentioned it. I am most impressed by the way in which tourism and leisure developments have played the lead role in rejuvenating many of our regions and cities that have suffered from economic decline. I think especially of the Albert dock development in Liverpool, which has raised the profile of Merseyside, the Wigan pier development, the waterfront developments in Hull, the maritime development in Swansea and a host of others.

My hon. Friend the Member for York talked of greater national co-ordination. While I have some sympathy with his remarks, I am sure that he will appreciate that it is not a matter for me. I can, however, offer him a little encouragement about separate exhibitions because the national boards are considering holding a British exhibition in alternate years.

The principle of a tourism review has been appreciated and acknowledged by hon. Members. Scotland and Wales were not included in the review because they make their own arrangements for tourism, but I am sure that they will be interested and involved in its outcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for York repeated his argument that we should reduce the number of regional tourist boards, but the Government have no power to impose changes on them. I heard my hon. Friend's arguments—I have heard them in the past—but we must question whether he benefits of the changes would outweigh the disruption. Nevertheless, I have taken on board the points that he made.

Crown classification has caused the industry considerable frustration. We are slowly edging to an agreement, which will involve a quantitive and bolt-on quality assessment. It is hoped that an agreement will be concluded shortly so that we can move to the new crown classification procedure by September 1989.

There has been a dramatic growth in tourist information centres over recent years, of which there are 562 nationally; about 394 are open all year. At an earlier Question Time, my hon. Friend the Member for York mentioned extended opening hours, and I agree with the points that he made about greater involvement of the private sector in the management and control of TICs. The possibility of using them as domestic travel shops has much to commend it, and at present about 80 per cent. of them are run by local authorities.

My Department and the Department of Transport are in continuous contact about the specific problem of signposting, which causes considerable frustration to many people in the tourism, hospitality and leisure industry.

With regard to deemed consent, my hon. Friend the Member for York rightly said that the east Kent experiment will be evaluated. He made an interesting suggestion about extending pilot projects and mentioned north Yorkshire and south Somerset as possible areas in which to do so. I shall put those specific proposals to the Department of Transport for its consideration.

The decision that we took in Brussels last week to designate 1990 as European Tourism Year marked the coming of age of tourism as an industry in Europe. It was the first time that we had had a meeting of EEC Tourism Ministers. We have begun preliminary work on plans for this country, and I assure hon. Members that the United Kingdom will play its full part in European Tourism Year, which will raise the profile of tourism as an industry in member states. There will be a range of awards and competitions to stimulate the industry and recognition.

I very much welcome the tourism GCSE. Thirty centres are piloting the scheme, with a further 30-plus planned by September 1989, when there should be about 600 students participating. I take my hon. Friend's point that it should not be a southern-orientated experiment. We want other regions to take it on board and I shall encourage the Department of Education and Science to do what it can to promote the GCSE on a more national basis. I shall use my good offices to encourage industry fully to support the GCSE concept.