HL Deb 19 May 1981 vol 420 cc827-30

2.42 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 whether they propose to take any action on the availability of discounted airline tickets following the discussion held with organisations on the suggestion that wholesaling of these tickets should be considered.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, as I said in answer to a Question by the noble Baroness on 26th March, it is for the agents to discuss with the airlines matters relating to methods of sale of airline tickets. There is no action for the Government to take until such time as the airlines are persuaded to favour a system of wholesaling of unsold tickets, and there is an IATA recommendation to this effect for Governments to consider.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, I have become so weary of this type of Answer. I wonder whether the Minister realises that stonewalling consistently is not only boring but an affront to the House when every piece of evidence is treated in that manner. May I ask Lord Trefgarne whether he is aware that in the current recession more and more airlines are using bucket shops for their surplus tickets and that among the most recent ones are reputable airlines such as KLM, Air France and Swissair? Finally, does the noble Lord recall that yesterday he told the House that it was not always wise to postpone decisions indefinitely? May I ask him whether he has now reached a decision to do nothing at all about this matter or whether they are still in an indefinite situation?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness finds my Answers on this matter wearisome. I suppose I should be out of order if I were to say that I find the Questions much the same.

Several noble Lords


Lord Trefgarne

As for the substance of the supplementary question asked by the noble Baroness, the problem, as she has described it, of the bucket shops is not precisely the Question on the Order Paper and is, indeed, rather a different matter. The question whether or not bucket shops should be authorised by the airlines to sell their tickets is a matter for the airlines, not for me.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, we have listened to these replies from Her Majesty's Government. Surely it is time for Her Majesty's Government to take a lead. Everybody knows what is happening. All the airlines are perfectly aware of what is going on. Why do not the Government say straight away either that this is illegal or that it is legal? If it is legal, then everybody will benefit from it.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as I have explained to my noble friend on several occasions, and also to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, and to a number of people who have been to see me privately, including Members of the other place with various delegations, the question of legality in this context is a difficult one to solve. It is not immediately clear upon what basis the illegality could be founded, although I am certain that there is an illegality of some sort. The difficulty is to find evidence which will stand up in court. As for taking a lead, as my noble friend suggests I should do, we do indeed take the lead in the bilateral negotiations in which we are involved from time to time for securing a régime of lower air fares, which is certainly the long-term answer to the problem.

Lord Young of Dartington

My Lords, even if the Minister is unable to announce any action, would he at least be prepared to accept that all consumers would be behind Lady Burton in the kind of stance she has taken on so many occasions in this House? If the Minister accepts that, can he give us any assurance at all that at some point in the future, in response to what is a very general consumer opinion, the Government might awake from their torpor on this issue?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, those who produce that sort of line of reasoning are, with respect, oversimplifying the problem. As I have said many times before, the air fares which are charged by individual airlines are a matter in the first place for the airlines themselves and subsequently for approval in this country, first by the Civil Aviation Authority and then by the Government. It is not open to me unilaterally to abrogate the agreements which we have entered into with other Governments.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, while accepting what my noble friend has said as to the position of the Government, can he indicate that as a matter of policy the Government favour getting rid of most of the restrictive apparatus of IATA and allowing air fares to be fixed, like many other commodities, by the law of supply and demand?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, IATA is an association of airlines and it is for the airlines themselves to decide how they want to order their affairs. If they think fit to join IATA, they have to follow the procedures which it lays down. My noble friend is quite right to suggest and, indeed, to invite me to assure both him and the House, that the Government do favour a régime of generally lower air fares. We should also favour the removal of some of the restrictions on the sale of air fares generally.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the noble Lord has indicated to the House that he is in some legal difficulty and that he needs evidence. Can the noble Lord give to the House some indication of the type of evidence which he requires in order that his legal difficulties may be resolved?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the sort of difficulties to which I have referred include, for example, the difficulty of ascertaining who has committed the offence of selling or using an air fare other than the one which is part of the authorised agreement. I can assure the noble Lord and the House that the difficulties are formidable.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in at least one of these cases the jury failed, or refused, to convict, that it seems to be very difficult to establish guilt in such cases and that this situation is bringing the law into wide contempt and should be brought to an end as soon as may be?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, certainly I agree that the present situation is unsatisfactory but I am persuaded—indeed I am quite satisfied—that the right answer is to find a régime of lower air fares which can be sold without many of the awkward restrictions which apply at present.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister is prepared to accept an unorthodox suggestion. Does he recall that when I asked him before about the wholesaling system he did not tell us that he had seen the organisations concerned until I asked him about that in a supplementary question? When he meets these organisations for the representations, would he allow those of us who are particularly interested in this from the point of view of consumer affairs, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, or myself to sit in and see whether we can bring some common sense to bear on this matter?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am not short of advice on these matters and I am always pleased to receive the noble Baroness when she wants to come and see me. Of course some people who come to see me do not always see precisely eye to eye with the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, and may not necessarily wish her to be present at meetings which they have with me, but, in principle, of course I have no objection to receiving the noble Baroness whenever she wishes to see me.

Lord Morris

My Lords, in his previous answer my noble friend referred to illegalities of some sort. Can he be a little more precise about that?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I fear I cannot. If I had had a better legal framework under which to operate on this matter, I think the problem would have been solved.