HL Deb 04 June 1981 vol 420 cc1352-4

3.26 p.m.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what are the difficulties in ascertaining "who has committed the offence of selling or using an air fare other than the one which is part of the authorised agreement" [Official Report, 19th May 1981, col. 829] when the Government have received from organisations concerned actual tickets purchased by them from bucket shops.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, in answer to a Question by the noble Baroness on 21st May, I indicated the nature of the evidence that would be required in order to prove that an offence had been committed by the airline or the agent concerned in the sale of tickets at fares not authorised by the Government. It is not at all easy to obtain such evidence. The mere purchase of a ticket at an alleged discount is not enough, more especially if the ticket shows the correct fare.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

Unfortunately, my Lords, the Minister has referred to the wrong date; if he looks at the Question on the Order Paper, he will see that I have taken it from 19th May, and it is that to which I should like an answer. Is it not a fact, first, that he has received from a large organisation discounted tickets which it has succeeded in purchasing? Secondly, is it not a fact that in a number of the cases those tickets were issued by an airline, and two photostats show the validation certificate supporting that? Additionally, is it not a fact that the firm holds copies of receipts showing that they paid for those tickets and which show that the money paid is less than in the tariffs? As the Minister has seen those figures and has that evidence, may I ask what he is prepared to do about it?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I was well aware that the Question referred to the Answer which I gave the noble Baroness on 19th May. I am further aware that the Answer which I have just given referred to another Answer which I gave to her on 21st May. I assure her that that was deliberately intended because on 21st May I explained in more detail the matter I had referred to on 19th May. It is quite correct to say that I have received certain documents from an important organisation in the travel trade about this matter which purport to be evidence of illegal discounting. But I have to tell the noble Baroness that the evidence which has been presented to me so far would not support a prosecution.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, is the Minister actually saying that the evidence which he has and which he knows is also in my possession merely purports to prove those facts? Is he not aware that the purpose of sending that evidence to the Minister was to show that tickets could be sold by an airline through a bucket shop at a discounted rate—the sort of information for which the Minister had asked—and that they can be freely obtained in the United Kingdom? What more are people to do if evidence which they submit is just swept under the carpet by the Minister, who answers a question he has not been asked?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the truth is that there is very little between the noble Baroness and myself on this matter. I am as anxious as is she to ensure that the law is upheld, and I certainly regard it as my duty to see that that happens. But according to my legal advisers the evidence which I have received, and of which the noble Baroness is aware, is not such that a prosecution is justified. The fact that the purchaser of a ticker holds a receipt which shows that the amount of money that he paid is not the same as the amount shown on the ticket voucher does not necessarily mean that the ticket was sold at a discount. I say that, because, for example, the airline might owe something to the potential traveller—

Several noble Lords


Lord Trefgarne

Noble Lords laugh, but in fact in years past it was a well-known ruse that airlines would enter into certain agreements for advertising with a travel agent. For example, an airline would pay the travel agent a fee for exhibiting the airline's advertising matter in the travel agency, and by so doing it got around the price control arrangements.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in default of the co-operation of all concerned, would it not be better to acknowledge that the law is unenforceable in these cases and that the policy that it purports to uphold is contrary to the spirit of free enterprise?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I entirely agree that some of the fare control arrangements are unsatisfactory. That is why we are seeking to produce, and to achieve by negotiation with our international partners and indeed with the airlines concerned, a more competitive and appropriate régime of air fares. I wish that we had made more progress, but we have made a little.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, might it not be a good idea to send round someone to whom the airline does not owe money and see whether he can collect evidence similar to the evidence that the noble Baroness is speaking of? That might advance the matter a stage further.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the difficulty with that suggestion is that it falls within the category of agent provocateur, I am told, and I understand that the courts have taken a dim view of that.

Lord Morris

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that, if the law as it is at present appears to be manifestly unclear, and/or indeed unenforceable, it is the bounden duty of any Government to initiate legislation to clarify the law as a matter of urgency?

Lord Trefgarne

Yes, indeed, my Lords; I should be happy to do that. However, the difficulty is that I can do it only with the agreement of our international partners, which so far has proved difficult to obtain.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, so that the matter may be elucidated, will the noble Lord undertake to communicate to the House the specific points relating to the evidence that he has already received? I have in mind the specific facts that have been admitted, the specific points that he considers to be defective. Steps might then be taken to provide the noble Lord with evidence which will meet the requirements of even his legal advisers.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that nothing has been admitted by alleged offenders. But what I want to stop short of is actually offering a detailed and definitive legal opinion on some hypothetical case.

Lord Derwent

My Lords, is it not a fact that the whole House much enjoys these monthly matches between by noble friend and the noble Baroness? Today I think it is a draw so far.

Lord Trefgarne

Would that they were only monthly, my Lords!

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