HC Deb 17 February 1993 vol 219 cc315-7
13. Mr. Denham

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what concerns have been expressed in the further representations he has received from the Association of British Travel Agents, the Consumers Association and trading standards officers in respect of the EC package travel directive.

Mr. Leigh

The Association of British Travel Agents and the Consumers Association have made clear their preference for a licensing system for all organisers of packages. The Government have rejected such a system as unnecessarily expensive and bureaucratic. My officials have been discussing with ABTA and with trading standards officers the interpretation of the directive and enforcement of the implementing regulations.

Mr. Denham

The Minister must be aware that last year 40,000 people, including many of my constituents, lost their holidays and their money through the collapse of the Land Travel Company. Given that the majority of reputable travel operators and consumer organisations believe that the bonding system which the Government support is an utterly worthless protection against unscrupulous cowboy operators, why does the Minister refuse to introduce a licensing system to protect holidaymakers against dubious and dodgy companies?

Mr. Leigh

The reason why we have rejected a licensing system, after careful thought, is that upwards of 30,000 small operators would be embroiled in the system; therefore, the unit cost would be extremely high for those small operators and it would put up costs to consumers. We believe that the bonding and insurance arrangements that we have put in place are adequate protection for the consumer. Indeed, the consumer is protected for the first time. We do not believe in imposing on business unnecessary burdens which drive people out of business and put up costs to consumers.

Mr. Allason

Is my hon. Friend aware that in many parts of the country trading standards officers are regarded as the enemy of business and that they are imposing intolerable burdens on small businesses? Is he aware also that in my constituency, for example, hoteliers are obliged not just by trading standards officers but by others in the local bureaucracy, such as environmental health officers, to clean and paint the ceilings of their kitchens with disinfectant twice a day to ensure that they are completely free of contamination? That is the kind of burden which is driving small businesses out of business.

Mr. Leigh

Trading standards officers have an essential role to play in society and they perform their duties with great skill and diligence. We in the Government pay tribute to their work. At the same time, it is important that, as part of my hon. Friend's deregulation initiative, we look at all 7,000 regulations which are imposing burdens on business and that we ensure, particularly with regard to European directives, that we do what is necessary to carry out the spirit and the letter of the law. We should not go over the top and overburden business with burdensome regulations.

Mr. Faulds

On a technical point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. I can take neither a technical nor any other point of order in the middle of Question Time. I am sorry; the hon. Gentleman will have to bide his time.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

What assurance will the Minister and the Government give that another Land Travel type of collapse will not happen this year when ABTA says that his weak laws and lax supervision put thousands of holidaymakers at risk?

Mr. Leigh

As usual, the hon. Gentleman grossly overstates his case. He knows that, whatever directives are in place, whatever laws are laid down and however many burdens are imposed on business, it is impossible to ensure that there will never be another Land Travel in future.

We cannot regulate against people acting corruptly or lying to trading standards officers and to overseers of their business. That is fact. In the directive we have created a balanced measure which provides protection to consumers for the first time. It provides a proper bonding and insurance scheme. At the same time, we have resisted a burdensome over-regulatory licensing system which would have covered no fewer than 30,000 small operators, including even those who provide fishing weekends in Scotland. The licensing system that the Opposition would impose on business would push up costs for all consumers. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. It seems that not all hon. Members on the Opposition Back Bench can hear. Perhaps something can be done about that.

Mr. Dykes

Does my hon. Friend have the same objection to licensing for business and incentive travel operators?

Mr. Leigh

We have tried to keep a fair balance for business travel. Business travellers are as entitled to protection as ordinary consumers are and that is why we have decided, after considering all the arguments, that business travel should be covered by the directive.