HL Deb 28 September 2000 vol 616 cc1035-54

9.46 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to encourage the use of information technology to promote the development of the tourism industry in England.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have put their names on the list of speakers, especially as the debate is taking place at such a late hour. Perhaps I ought to say a particular thank you to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, who has given up a birthday celebration drink in favour of speaking in this important debate.

I also look forward to hearing the Minister's response, on this occasion more so than usual. During the summer break I was intrigued to note that among the usual confetti load of press releases from the DCMS two referred to the setting up of an e-tourism group. I only wish that I could have the same cause-and-effect result when tabling an Unstarred Question. I welcome the two press releases for the promises that they hold out. I hope that tonight the Minister will be able to provide some information to go with those policies. Perhaps he will tell the House what timetable the group is working to, who is driving it—that is, who is taking responsibility for making sure that something really does happen as a result of it—and how much money the Government have committed to their investment in the development of e-tourism. When the summer spending statement was announced by the right honourable Chris Smith in another place, there was one notable absence: there was no money for tourism. Perhaps that will be rectified during the course of this debate. I look forward to hearing that.

The Internet offers one of the biggest tourism marketing opportunities of the 21st century. It has the potential for individual businesses to provide information to, and take bookings from, a much wider number of potential customers than ever before. Some have said that the net has been over-hyped as a marketing tool. I disagree. I believe that we are only just beginning to understand its true potential. We need to make sure that English businesses are ahead of the game in attracting business through this new and exciting medium.

The Internet is already used by about 350 million people around the world. In the United Kingdom alone the number is expected to double within the next four years. We need to make sure that all those net users have easy access to information about English tourism—we want them to spend their money here. They must have easy access to a reliable booking service, and, above all, when they surf the net, they must be able to trust the information they find there. The virtual holiday on the screen must live up to expectations. Otherwise, the businesses will simply fail to win repeat business for themselves and, perhaps much worse, they will put the Internet customer off using the web to buy tourism services from anyone else. It must never be a case of, "Great website, but shame about the product".

Two summers ago I used the Internet to find a holiday in Devon. It was by no means the first time that I had used the Internet; indeed, I had been using it for several years before that time, even before it became a fully-fledged world-wide web. But it was my first foray into using the net to research, find and book a holiday at very short notice. I am pleased to say that I found just what I wanted within 30 minutes on the web, although I have to admit that I was just plain lucky to do so. As customers and providers we all want to cut down on that element of luck.

The use of the web for obtaining information, and its use as a digital reference book, is vast. Many people, just like me, are using the web to research and shortlist their holiday destinations. It has huge potential. But relatively few people book on-line at the moment. And, as I discovered this morning, if you try to do so, you can really become unstuck because so many of the hotels in England at present with e-mail addresses never even reply to e-mails when you try to find out about them. So then it is back to snail mail, or the telephone for booking. Overall, only about 31 per cent of the providers of quality-assured tourist accommodation even have their own websites. All that must change and change soon.

But the major problem for customers is very simple: how do you find the right product in the mass of information that exists on the web? There is, of course, the excellent VisitBritain website run by the British Tourist Authority. I am delighted that it won the "Best Website" category in the Guardian and the Observer "Travel Awards 2000" in August. That website is riot set up as, nor is it intended to be, a "portal site for England". So the question that I pose tonight—I hope it is a rhetorical one—is: would it be the right move to develop such a portal; in other words, a key site that acts as the gateway to finding the product? I look forward to hearing about the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, with the Ossian system in Scotland.

My preference is to try to avoid a huge publicly-funded monolith. I am sure that the noble Lord is not surprised that I come from that kind of background. I prefer, if possible, to seek an industry-led partnership—business solutions for business problems, with the Government enabling progress and not getting in its way. But I am always ready to listen and see what happens.

One thing is certain. If a VisitEngland portal is established it will not succeed unless it has a back-up call centre and, above all, is very heavily marketed. However, I am afraid that the Government have made that impossible by simply removing the marketing function from the English Tourism Council when it changed from being the board just over a year ago. That is their mistake. We shall put that right when we are in office. We shall provide the English Tourism Council with a marketing voice for England.

There are currently some excellent pilot projects around the country that try to cover just about every important issue in tourism; for example. ABTA is presently running a pilot booking system with the ETC and the Yorkshire Tourist Board. It is quite an adventurous system and one that allows the 26 participating travel agents to sell hotels, attractions, transport and special packages to Yorkshire.

However, it is not a matter of just talking to customers who want to research information about tourism. People who work in tourism also need information regarding how they can approach that career. The website should cover a whole range of information. The Centre for Research and Policy in Disability at Coventry University has carried out much valuable work developing two related websites called, "Into Work" and "Employ Tourism". Both sites aim to improve access to employment for disabled people in the tourism sector.

But the key problem for all those systems is that they are not inter-operable and, therefore, they cannot talk to each other. If a portal site were created for England and I chose, for example, to go into the South West's VISIT system to get information, I would then have to come out of it before I entered one of the others, like the Yorkshire one, instead of being able to transfer easily between them. That sounds crazy. It is not businesslike.

Do the Government intend to define a national standard of inter-operability between systems? The analogy put to me by Malcolm Bell of South West Tourism—I thank him for his helpful briefing—is that of the mobile phone system. After all, no one asked the Government to develop the mobile phone system, but they set the standard and regulated the operation and we can call between suppliers without bothering about the technical niceties that make that possible.

It is important to remember that, unlike conventional communication methods, the Internet is excellent for transmitting information that is accessible to people with a variety of individual needs. I declare an unpaid interest as the patron of the Tourism for All Consortium. For example, websites have the potential to be accessed via speech browsers for people with visual impairments. However, it is vital for those people who are deaf and hard of hearing that we do not go down the line of having website content delivered in audio format only as that would exclude them. The important matter is to ensure that the tourism industry gets its website design right for all its potential customers. We have a great opportunity to make the web work well for English tourism. Let us get it right now. Domestic tourism in England simply cannot afford to ignore the arrival of the digital age. It is not a fad—it is our future.

9.56 p.m.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for introducing this important subject. It is a timely debate. The noble Baroness has already mentioned the Government's e-tourism initiative. This is our first opportunity to debate that subject as the House returned from the Summer Recess only yesterday.

I have a statistics leaflet from the Printed Paper Office which indicates that 45 per cent of all adults in Britain have used the Internet at some time or another. It undoubtedly is the way ahead not for the future but for the present. There is widespread use of the Internet in the United States. The prime purpose, apart from accessing banking information, is to book travel arrangements.

This time last week I chaired a meeting of area tourist board chairmen and chief executives in Scotland. I do not sleep terribly well in hotel rooms. I woke up early and watched the 6 a.m. news. The lead story concerned the missile attack on MI6. I immediately thought that that would scare off the Americans and that they would not visit Britain for at least six months. The second story concerned the petrol crisis and the continuing publicity it has received. I thought that that would not help tourism either, particularly in areas such as Scotland which depend so much on tourists who arrive by car.

The third story concerned the all-time low that the euro had hit. The next day a rescue operation of the euro took place. The euro hitting an all-time low is responsible for the fact that our tourism balance of payments deficit has doubled over the past three years. That has not been caused by inactivity on the part of the BTA but by factors outwith anyone's control. In the term "anyone" I include the Government. Of the three incidents I have mentioned only petrol taxation lies within the jurisdiction of the Government. The fall of the euro results from international currency speculators deciding that they do not want to buy the euro at the moment.

The factors I have mentioned all influence tourists when they decide whether to visit this country and are outwith the control of bodies such as the British Tourist Authority and the Scottish Tourist Board. That, of course, will not prevent both the BTA and the STB being blamed next year if tourism figures are down.

In the circumstances I therefore mildly echo the noble Baroness's remark that it is a matter of regret that the BTA was not given extra funds for tourism. I should like to think that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will find some extra money at some point over the next three years to provide extra funds for the BTA. It should be a matter of national shame that a small country such as Ireland can outspend Britain by a factor of three in marketing tourism in the United States. That is not something of which anyone in Britain should be proud. It causes a degree of concern to those of us who are dependent on the efforts of the BTA to increase visitor traffic to our parts of the country.

Tourism receives such a small budget that even a quantum leap in funds would not make a dent in some of the other government budgets. I share the noble Baroness's belief that more money should be provided for tourism. Over many years it has been difficult to convince the Treasury of any government that tourism is an important activity. Matters are improving all the time. I do not make a party political point. Over the effluxion of time, the penny is dropping gradually that tourism creates a great many jobs and is probably our biggest single industry. People think that it is important for the Highlands of Scotland and the West Country of England. In fact, over 50 per cent of all foreign tourist expenditure is in London. In part it is because London is a great city in its own right. It is also the principal residence of our head of state and the site of our legislature. In addition, successive British governments have insisted on making it the main—in many cases the only—point of entry for foreign tourists. It is not surprising that over 50 per cent of all tourist expenditure from abroad is spent in London. London in particular benefits from tourism.

I hope that more resources will be given to tourism. At the very least we can ask that tourism should not be disadvantaged. The Government have, I believe rightly, laid great stress on the growth of e-commerce. They want to convert all businesses to e-commerce by 2005. Here is a wonderful opportunity to encourage an important but fragmented sector of the British economy. The tourism industry in Britain does not consist only of hotels such as the Ritz and the Savoy but also of 125,000 small and medium-sized enterprises. Eighty per cent of them have an annual turnover of under £250,000. Consider, my Lords, what a difference it would make to the campaign for e-commerce throughout Britain if this entire vitally important sector could be e-commerce compatible within a very few years. It is a task well worth striving for.

Anyone can point to the effect of the Internet. Small bed and breakfast businesses in the Highlands—no doubt the noble Baroness can refer to other parts of Britain—have not had a good season this year. However, those on the Internet have been full and have gained 95 per cent of their business from the Internet. Hotels in remote areas gain 85 per cent of their business from the Internet. But on one's own on the Internet, one is lost in cyberspace. One needs a marketing strategy. We are looking for an electronic backbone for e-commerce in the tourism industry in England and Wales.

The English Tourism Council is to be commended for pressing for a degree of co-ordinated leadership. I agree with the noble Baroness. I should not want it to be a public sector monolith. Project Ossian, our website visitScotland.com, is a public sector activity. It started with the Scottish Tourist Board devoting some of its own funds, with the assistance of the princely sum of £240,000 from the DTI in its sector challenge funding. We devoted our own marketing funds to it. Area tourist boards—they are partly funded by tourism businesses and members—came in with more money. More recently, the Government have come forward with a little support money. We aim to bring it forward to the public/private partnership within a few months. I welcome Janet Anderson's statement on 4th August on the c-commerce initiative. I share my honourable friend's hope that it will be matched by deeds in the near future.

Since the noble Baroness invited me to do so, perhaps I may say a little about Project Ossian, our website visitScotland.com. We have developed it because, as in England, the tourism industry is hopelessly fragmented and we could not rely on a private sector operator to come in and look after the small bed and breakfasts as carefully as it would look after Gleneagles hotel, Turnberry or the Old Course hotel. We came in with some base funding to get the project moving.

The project is more than a website. We think that it will change the way tourism is marketed. The important point is that it enables the smallest tourism business—a bed and breakfast—to compete with large-scale hotels in the biggest marketplace in the world in a way that they could never hope to achieve through conventional media such as television and the press. It is a central database system covering just under 16,000 businesses. It is visited by 10,000 people a day. The definition of visiting a website is spending more than 10 minutes browsing through it. That is significant and it will generate a lot of business. We are also trying to persuade Scottish manufacturers to include details of our website on their merchandise and packaging, because it should be a seamless activity.

After the first couple of years of investment, the intention is to move fairly quickly to a public/private partnership. It is a measure of the success of Project Ossian that more than 45 private sector partners—all of them reputable businesses with international reputations—have expressed an interest in forming a public/private partnership. My colleagues at the Scottish Tourist Board are trying to whittle that down to 15 consortia by persuading the companies to get together. The eventual aim is then to get that down to four groups, which we will invite to negotiate with us. We aim to announce the shortlist in early October, which is only a couple of weeks away. We then hope to be able to announce our new partners by spring 2001.

The project is the first information technology initiative—and the first tourism initiative—to he backed by the former Treasury body, Partnership UK. The governance structure has been precisely designed to balance private sector disciplines with Partnership UK's public sector mission. Perhaps the English Tourism Council might find that a useful model to follow. I wish it every success, because it is vital for the future of tourism in England and throughout. Britain.

10.7 p.m.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I join in this debate with considerable diffidence because I know very little about the tourism industry and even less about information technology. However, I take it as a welcome follow-on to the Unstarred Question in my name that we debated on 4th November last year, when I said: The Disability Discrimination Act is now in place, but what is being done to ensure that there is proper access for all that tourists need? That means not only physical access to hotels, restaurants and places of interest or amusement, but access to the information that they require. What is being done to provide information in a format suitable for those who are visually impaired and guests with hearing problems and to provide information in a suitable manner for those with mobility problems?".—[Official Report, 4/11/99; col. 1085.] Those questions are still apposite this evening.

In response, the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale, pointed out: The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has the potential to make a significant contribution to widening access to tourism opportunities throughout society in the UK. The first rights under the Act came into force in December 1996, requiring service providers not to discriminate against disabled people by refusing them service, providing them service on worse terms or providing a lower standard of service". I suggest that that applies as much to the information provided on information technology systems as to physical access and accommodation.

The noble Baroness continued: The next stage of rights took effect on 1st October this year … Service providers are now required to take reasonable steps to change the way in which they provide their services so as to make them accessible for disabled people".—[Official Report, 4/11/99; cols. 1095–96.] That, in theory, is physical access. However, I believe that it should apply also to access to the information provided through information technology.

I am told that research by the English Tourism Council shows that, given accessible facilities, the total number of people with disabilities who are likely to take a holiday in England is 2.7 million. It is estimated that that number could increase to approximately 5 million when families and carers are taken into account. I do not believe that that takes into consideration the potential for tourists who come to this country from abroad with their carers who are themselves disabled. It is important that we provide them with the right kind of information and that it is accurate. As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, said, tourism is a major industry in this country and it has terrific potential for the earning of foreign currency. We are a trading nation. Tourism is an item of trade. We may not physically pass it across the counter but it is an item of trade none the less.

Research has shown that holidays are important to people with disabilities and that England is a relatively more popular destination than many of our overseas competitors. We have that advantage now. Let information technology keep that advantage for us, increase the advantage and increase the number of tourists coming from abroad with their money to be spent in this country. We need their money; we want their money. Let us have it and let the Government help us to have it.

The potential for growth in information about accessible tourism on the Internet is very high. A key challenge is to make the Internet an integral part of research into and booking an accessible holiday. We are all learning. The Internet is changing very fast. Information technology is improving almost day by day. One goes out to buy a computer today; it is out of date in a month's time. We need to keep up with what is going on.

Although the potential exists for tourism among disabled people—and there is no doubt about that—much depends on the degree to which accommodation and tourism services meet their needs. We need to make certain that their needs are met and that the information showing that it meets their needs is provided to them in an easily accessible and understandable form.

It has already been mentioned by my noble friend that such information needs to be suitable for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It also needs to be provided in a way that is suitable for those with mobility problems. Nowadays it is not difficult to use a digital camera so that, once one has been put on to the right hotel, bed and breakfast, restaurant, theatre or whatever it happens to be, one can by e-mail send a photograph of the facilities to disabled people in another part of the United Kingdom or, indeed, in another country so that they may see those facilities and judge for themselves whether or not they are suitable for their use. As I have said in this House on more than one occasion, the needs of disabled people are of a greater variety than those of able-bodied people. They cannot use all the facilities that we can, and we must be able to show them what is available.

I have mentioned deaf and hard of hearing people, as has my noble friend. I hope that a proper system will be set up so that, as the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, suggested, people can go to a central point to obtain information from which they can be directed to an individual hotel, place of interest, theme park or what have you. Such a system would allow individual photographs—in fact, they are not photographs because there is no photographic film; they are images on the equivalent of a disc—to be transmitted to the individual who is seeking the information so that he can make a wise choice and not be disappointed. If people are disappointed they will not come to this country again and spend their money. If we satisfy the needs of foreign tourists we will have repeat business.

Let us not forget that with medical improvements more people are living with disabilities than some years ago. More people with disabilities are living longer. As we get older, and through medical science live longer, we all need greater help in getting around and enjoying those facilities.

10.16 p.m.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, may I first congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, for drawing our attention to the importance of information technology to the tourism industry. Her strong support for this industry and IT permits us, I believe, to dub her as the "IT" girl of tourism in your Lordships' House.

I and my family took advantage this summer of the basic information technology available in our local travel agency to book a late holiday in Brittany. We thoroughly enjoyed being lost in France, but I was conscious that, to some degree, we were buying a pig in a poke when it came to booking our holiday flat. Little information was available from the travel agent about the apartment itself, and even less about the attractions or the resort other than it specialised in quiet Sundays!

I was further disappointed that my travel agent was unable to tell me something as basic as the comparative journey times for the regular sea crossings between the English and French passenger ports. I look forward to the time when, in booking package holidays, that kind of information is provided readily and easily by travel agents using IT effectively.

The best thing about this package holiday was that, through a business to business Internet, we were able to book an overnight stay at a Campanile hotel on the road down to our destination. These hotels are designed in their no-frills way to deal with the needs of the overnight traveller. Typically, they are sited on industrial estates and near motorways—again, ideal for the onward traveller who, on this occasion, does not have time to absorb local colour.

Incidentally, I discovered that there are some 15 Campanile hotels in the United Kingdom, the majority staffed by entrepreneurial French couples whose main selling point is to bring French cuisine and hospitality to British towns like Runcorn in Cheshire. They act as a wonderful advertisement for the French tourist product, lacking only, as they do perhaps, a French widow in every room. Booking a package holiday outside Britain is standard nowadays and IT is increasing the flexibility of delivery, but it is still rare to be offered a package holiday in Britain, never mind one improved by the intelligent use of information technology. An exception is the Rothay Garden Hotel in Grasmere, as I am informed by Chris Collier, chief executive of Cumbria Tourist Board. Apart from the usual half hoard, a lunch hamper is offered to the keen walker eager to exercise his or her right to roam in the Lake District. In addition, through the Internet and the help of the Holiday Planning Service offered in-house by experienced staff, your holiday can be tailored to your specific desires. Not quite that French widow in every room but at least a free entrance every day to a local attraction or advice on travel to and from Grasmere at your fingertips and provision of the top 10 best-selling novels in the United Kingdom today, not excluding such titles as Not a penny more, not a penny less. Indeed, the all-in competitive price packages neatly all those services and more. There is only one thing more tiring than a good holiday and that is planning it.

Another good example of IT helping the British tourism industry, and most especially the many small and medium sized enterprises found within it, is provided to me by colleagues from ABTA and by its aptly named chief executive Ian, I.T., Reynolds. He tells me about travel agent John Downing's Mercian Travel Centre in Worcestershire. Here, Mr Downing, working with a go-ahead software company, CSL, has equipped himself with the technology that ensures fast communication with his clients. As that entrepreneur spiritedly declares, the name of the game is to use the Internet for what it is—a way of adding value to the client. Thus Mr Downing puts together special destination reports or suggested itineraries for corporate customers in a hurry. He even e-mails travel updates to customers on the day of departure. That is what I call a real aftercare service.

It is no wonder that that firm has increased its business 100 fold and is operating in the US for the first time. Currently, the firm is encouraging CSL, to provide not only online booking facilities and an intranet link with its suppliers and vendors but also an accounting system which automatically reconciles tickets and invoices.

What is the next step? It is voice recognition systems which free up staff for other tasks. It is a real handsoff—or should I say hands-on?—system, using IT intelligently for competitive advantage.

All those new opportunities are coming about because of the major advances in IT in the past decade: the advent of the Internet as a viable communications system; the convergence of computing, telecommunications and television technologies; the growth of international e-commerce; and the new telecommunications networks with galaxy capacities.

IT, then, can confer enormous advantages to firms willing to embrace these new technologies. The financial gains include sales of tourism products via the web and the electronic mail of accommodation, transport, entertainment and holiday insurance; the generation of sponsorship from banks or telecom companies vying for exposure on the web; and lower print runs of travel literature and reduced costs for print distribution which save budgets and lead to savings in traditional forms of marketing. Non-financial gains include increased marketing effectiveness and enhanced quality of service, including extended market reach, especially overseas, and increased communication with other players in the local tourism industry. High productivity is a certain gain when investment in staff ensures competent use of the technology, empowering staff so that job satisfaction translates into enhanced staff performance.

I am indebted to Dr Roger Carter and Colin Potts, Chester's tourism officer, for that analysis. Incidentally, they and other colleagues are combining to ensure that Cheshire's tourism industry is using information technology to good effect. Indeed, Chester's own real-time access accommodation booking system, using touch tone, fax or PC is available on www.roomcheck.co.uk/chester. Your Lordships are always welcome in Britain's most beautiful city. Chester was, of course, founded when Latin was the e-mail language of Europe and Roman coins the single currency.

How, then, to turn all that enthusiasm into hard, practical business. I congratulate the Government on their enthusiasm for IT signalled early in this Administration by the Prime Minister's ambition fully to equip our schools with information technology facilities. Tourism Minister, Janet Anderson, recently pointed out that one in four new jobs in Britain has been created in the tourist industries. She notes also that Americans using BTA's award-winning North American call centre were four times more likely to use the Internet than to make a conventional call in planning their transatlantic holiday. That is a palpable hit for the Internet. I also applaud the establishment by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport of an e-tourism action group, due to report in June next year, on future developments. Equally encouraging has been the use of enlightened European Union programmes and funds dedicated to improving the use of information technology in the single European market of tourism. The North West and the South West have been particular beneficiaries. We should never forget that tourism is the quintessential and representative industry of the single market and that the single currency and IT are the two most important catalysts speeding up that market.

Perhaps I may highlight one advantage of IT which does not get enough recognition. Just as the single currency will be an enormous boon to Europe's 7 million blind people because the euro notes and coins are designed to be "blind friendly", so too will Europe's 56 million hard of hearing gain from the Internet. For many of them, conventional technologies, such as the steam telephone, are a barrier to leading fulfilling lives and, of course, for booking a holiday. Some 420,000 of our fellow citizens, even with an amplification device, cannot hear well enough to use a telephone. However, the Internet bypasses that silence of the cans. The Government and the tourism industry must not be deaf to the needs of the disabled as a whole. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, reminded us of that fact. For many, the information on the Internet will forestall the embarrassment of arriving at hotels and guesthouses which are anything but disabled-friendly, a matter highlighted in the recent Disability Discrimination Act. I remind colleagues that on 1993 figures alone, the disabled market is worth £l0 billion to Britain in overseas visitors. Shall we scorn that opportunity to make money and help our fellow citizens? I hope not. For our hard-of-hearing community alone, let us ensure that IT is here to stay.

If we fail to embrace the new technologies and the euro, as CBI chief Digby Jones said at the most recent British Hospitality lunch, The Yanks will stop coming". We will fail in our ambition to develop tourism in this country, and in the EU, to the benefit of us all.

I conclude by asking, "Tourism: can you spell it?" As my children will wittily tell you, the correct answer is, "IT", information technology. Let us take it to heart.

10.27 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to have this debate, although she could have chosen a better time! It is clear that a portal site for English tourism is something which must happen. It is the way in which everyone wants to use the web. If they want a holiday in England, they want to know where to go. Some of us like spending hours trying to find a small hamlet on the Isle of Skye on which to spend our holidays. Indeed, people can succeed in marketing that kind of site. However, most of us want to be presented with information in a way which makes it easy for us to find what we want. That is clearly something we must achieve.

What do we want such a site to be like? We want it to be well designed. Clearly, someone has to spend money on it. We want it to be universal. There are many small tourism businesses in England. We do not want them to be excluded merely because they are not part of whatever grouping may be running the site. We also want it to be fair. Let us suppose that I want to find a hotel within reach of Chester, and I dial into the site which contains 100 such hotels which meet my criteria. In what order will they be presented? It is the nature of the Internet that I shall look at the first two or three sites first. How fairly a site is run, how popular it is and the question of everybody getting an equal crack of the whip will make a great deal of difference to all the people who contribute from industry.

The site must also be functional. Clearly the people who run it must have a real capacity to develop Internet systems. It is difficult to make a site that runs well and consistently; many commercial sites do not. The site must be consistent in its standards. It is no good allowing hotels to describe themselves without any sort of check on their quality. There must be some imposition of standards and some degree of discipline and check.

Only the Government can do that. The tourism industry in England is fragmented. There is intense rivalry between different parts of it. Left to itself, it will develop little nexuses. For instance, Stratford has a good website where people band together. There will be many individual efforts where people who have a specific product to offer will make a success of it over the Internet.

There is no hope that an English tourism site will simply come together because it is a good thing for all those involved in the tourist industry. But if it is clear that a good English site is to be introduced, it will be to everybody's advantage to join in. As we have seen in Scotland, they will all pile in behind and be eager to be part of something which will clearly bring each of them a lot of business. It will generate a flow of people visiting the site because it will be the sort of site which people wish to visit.

It is also clear that the tourism business should pay for this site. It should not be a free gift from the British nation to the tourist industry. Those businesses will benefit and they should pay. It should not be necessary for the Government to invest one penny in the site, other than to set up the structure. They must set the rules and make sure that they are adhered to. That is a function the private sector cannot perform. Other than that, we are only looking at a few million pounds for five years. That is not a lot of money in relation to the size of the industry. As long as people are sure that it will happen, it ought to be possible to dig that money out of the industry and, indeed, to make a large profit out of running such a site.

As long as it is clear that the site will happen; that it will be fair; that it will be consistent and that it will be universal because the Government will ensure that, it will be a thoroughly profitable and worthwhile business in which to be involved. All the Government need to do is to make it happen, and make it happen right.

I do not see what my noble friend described as "a consortium" running such a website; I see it very much as a public/private partnership. But at all times there must be the controlling influence of the public sector in ensuring that the site is properly run. At the same time, there is no reason why the Government should dictate exactly how it should be run. There is no reason for them to limit the initiatives which might arise to run it in different ways and to make money out of it.

Such a website can be introduced in stages. It is easy to think of grandiose solutions with enormous new computer systems. We see occasional examples of that in the private and public sectors. But it is always a disaster to approach things in that way. There is no reason to do so. A good database will be needed and therefore people must pay for entries, otherwise they will not care what data they submit. A quality control system must also be funded. However, once the database is in place, the systems for allowing people to visit the site can be built in stage by stage.

It is not necessary to start with an all-singing, all-dancing integrated booking system. That is incredibly complicated machinery. It can be done quite simply. Any tourism business worth its salt has a fax. A booking and confirmation system can easily be run by having an e-mail and fax system alongside a touch-tone telephone going out. That is easily usable by someone using the web. They can make an e-mail booking and receive an e-mail confirmation or refusal. It does not have to be real time. It does not have to be the best possible system at stage one.

The Government should take that initiative. They should put their courage, faith and a financial guarantee behind it in order to ensure that it happens. They should provide good people to ensure that what happens is right and they should do that very soon.

10.34 p.m.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, perhaps your Lordships will forgive me if I cannot match the enthusiasm of some of the previous speakers. The noble Baroness has painted a picture of tourism which will be set alight in this country by information technology. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, gave us an enthusiastic tour d'horizon of the situation which confronts us, saying that it will continually improve.

During the Recess I spent some weeks travelling around Europe, in particular France, Italy and Spain. In the past and recently I have spent a great deal of time in the British Isles, in both England and Scotland. There is no doubt that in tourism the Internet is gaining in importance and nothing will stop that. In preparing for the debate tonight I chose two towns at random, Shrewsbury and Ludlow, to look up on the Internet. I did not do the work; I cannot, but my wife can. However, my wife was not available, so I asked a researcher in my office for assistance, and very interesting the websites were, too. But they were extremely different.

As your Lordships will know, each town has an historic reputation. Shrewsbury gave a long preamble into its medieval history. Then curiously a section in the middle initially sought to explain how difficult it was to park there. The site did not say much about the hotels. When I inquired around your Lordships' House I was told that the hotel accommodation was quite terrible. Apparently, there is a Pickwickian hotel which has many corridors and dark corners and is obviously full of atmosphere. However, it is hardly suitable for foreigners, whether they come by car or other means of transport, and it would not be easy to present on the Internet.

I know only the racecourse in Ludlow but, curiously, that is not on the Internet. I believe that all our 59 racecourses should be on the Internet because they are part of tourism. I am told that Ludlow, which is a pleasant town with a racecourse, is a gastronomic centre. Next time I visit I shall not hurry back but shall try to sample the food. But again the hotel accommodation is very poor and is only lightly touched upon on the websites. The websites are eccentric, quaint and charming but must be immensely misleading to foreigners, if they can find them. I do not know whether their information is available in foreign languages.

Yesterday I spoke to a director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. I was most encouraged by that museum because its Internet website informs foreigners that in the evenings they can go there from the hotels in which they are staying. It also has a reasonable restaurant. Indeed, it was the first museum in London to have a restaurant and it is building on the old reputation. Today many art galleries and museums have excellent restaurants. However, the in formation does not appear in any foreign language.

The noble Baroness mentioned domestic tourism, but I believe that we are interested in attracting foreign tourists in the same way as I am attracted to France— I am going to Brittany next weekend—and I know that the websites for Dinard and St Malo are very interesting. There is an interesting uniformity of information which appears in English, German, Spanish and French. In that respect we lag far behind, as perhaps we lag behind in many other areas. But of course the French have had the advantage of the Minitel system—that is a combination of the telephone and computer—so they are used to such electronic communication. No doubt we shall soon catch up.

Behind the enthusiasm which noble Lords have rightly shown, I am concerned about what we a:re putting onto the Internet at the moment. When I visit France I go by car or on my motorcycle. I am getting old and more often I drive. I usually stop at hotels in central France off the beaten track. I always find a hotel with a bar and without a restaurant. I do not find accommodation on the Internet, although I have looked up some websites. I am never charged more than £30 for the night and I never spend more than £15 on my meal with wine. Where can that be matched in Britain? The fact is that in Britain our restaurants and hotels are vastly over-priced. In this country the standards of service to the customer fall far behind those offered in the three countries in Europe which I have mentioned.

One is aware that in the pods of the London Eye young women act as hostesses. They do not intrude but they are there to inform and reassure visitors. One hardly ever sees an Englishwoman in those pods; they are all New Zealanders, South Africans or others who speak English and come from countries with a tradition of paying attention to customers and learning quickly what they want to know. The standards of service here are not good.

I do not want to continue on a pessimistic note, but what we have to offer is as important as how we offer it on the Internet. Rather than give ourselves a general pat on the back under the cloak of the great IT revolution, I believe that we should ask the Government—certainly the department does not have much extra cash to help with those matters to which reference has been made—to provide decent roads and transport systems to deal with traffic jams and ensure that hotels are graded in a proper way, which does not happen now in this country. The only value that one gets here is in bed and breakfast, but a good part of that market is not on the Internet. As in the past, one must thumb through books to find that service.

If one sees a French or German number plate on a car, for a start one knows that the occupants are not here for the gastronomic experience. Presumably, they come to look at our heritage and, it is hoped, our museums and galleries, in which I and the Minister have an interest. With the help of the Government those bodies have made enormous strides to present what they have in an interesting and entertaining way, and they now have excellent websites. Generally speaking, behind all this there is too much in what we have to offer in terms of tourism which is not good.

The noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, mentioned the Ossian in Scotland, which is an interesting development. I do not know why we are debating it because, as I understand it, tourism in Scotland is wholly devolved. However, Ossian connects all tourism providers to the system and so provides some uniformity. The noble Lord kindly gave your Lordships a thumbnail sketch. I do not believe that in England there is anything similar to Ossian. Is there any plan to have such a system? The Minister will tell us what support is provided by the Government. I am aware that there is a discretionary budget at their disposal but it is very small when all the statutory grants-in-aid have been dispensed.

Yesterday the Government announced the establishment of IT centres all over the United Kingdom, which presumably will cost billions of pounds. Perhaps in his summing up the Minister can tell noble Lords how much of that will be available to tourism.

By all means let us welcome the widespread acceptance of the Internet. I use the Internet through my wife. For this purpose my computer ability is very basic. We have been impressed by what we have found in France, Italy and Spain. But what I have found in this country is patchy and odd. A certain amount of standardisation is needed, which would be welcomed by foreign visitors, who I hope will come in increasing numbers. Costs are high because of the exchange rate. Many British people are going abroad because it is so cheap to do so. It is sad that attendances at historic houses, which foreigners normally like to visit, have fallen greatly. Historic houses have a hard time because of that and VAT and so on.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and with the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that one should be enthusiastic. I am enthusiastic too. But we may have to say goodbye to some of this eccentricity because I believe that a little more standardisation and method are needed. If the Government can encourage that, so much the better.

10.45 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for introducing this important subject for debate. As the noble Baroness said, it is appropriate that she has done so at a time when Janet Anderson has set up the advisory group on IT and tourism. I shall say a few words on that subject later in my speech.

When preparing for the debate, I carried out a mapping exercise. I tried to look at the different aspects of tourism which were capable of intervention by information technology and at the advantages and disadvantages of information technology in those aspects. I also thought about who should be responsible for further advances. I divided tourism issues into four categories: first, general information—topographical information and so on; secondly, travel issues; thirdly, accommodation; and, fourthly, attractions. Part of the latter category is topographical in the sense that it is general information, but part of it is bookable—I refer to leisure attractions, theatres and so on.

I looked at the issue of marketing and the way in which we get access to all of those aspects of tourism. There is some misunderstanding. It is true that the marketing budget of the English Tourism Council is now subsumed in that of the British Tourist Authority and that the British Tourist Authority has responsibility for inward tourism, not just to England but to the other parts of Britain also. In the previous spending round, the BTA received an increase in funding of £5 million over the period 1999–2002. Evidence that that has been well spent is in the VisitBritain website, which has been praised during the course of the debate. Very often, people coming to Britain from abroad think that they are coming to Britain rather than specifically to England. That is the appropriate way to look at the matter.

I referred to topographical information. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, asked about foreign languages. The BTA is on course to complete its launch of 36 websites—27 in countries in which it has offices and 11 where it has an information service. Those websites are in the languages of the countries concerned. That is of enormous importance in attracting people from outside this country. Apart from that general attraction and marketing exercise, a great deal of topographical and general information about why people should come to England is available in hard copy. In other words, it is in books, pamphlets and leaflets. They may be accessed by e-publishing or by electronic record ordering. However, I suggest that, other than through the work of the BTA, this is not an area where government should be directly concerned.

Similarly with travel information, clearly it is the responsibility of government—building on the analogy drawn by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, between mobile phones and coherent portals for information—that information on travel should be made available in a coherent form and that relationships should be established between air, train and bus travel as well as car hire and so forth. Historically and inevitably, most information about travel is produced by travel agents and by the carriers themselves. That will probably always be the case.

Nevertheless, the example which was referred to—TravelCumbria—is interesting. It provides a seamless integration between the BTA's VisitBritain website and Cumbria County Council's journey planner, in addition to providing information about accommodation and attractions, to which I shall refer in due course. The user can call up descriptions, opening times, prices and timetables as well as far more detailed information. One can find out that a bus stop is 50 yards from a hotel and that buses arrive at 20 minutes past the hour on a Saturday. A role does exist for government to encourage and help to fund portals of that kind.

Information about accommodation provides an obvious use of information technology. All noble Lords who have spoken have rightly referred to it. However, we should examine the structure of tourist accommodation in this country. Around 20 per cent is made up of hotel chains, such as Hilton and Best Western. Such chains, including some of the voluntary chains, now have websites which give information about the members of the chain as well as providing booking facilities. The remaining 80 per cent of accommodation provision in this country is in the hands of small businesses—bed-and-breakfast establishments, small hotels and so forth.

Issues which have been raised in the debate concern coverage of any website and the quality. As regards quality, I think that it is well known that we are making considerable progress towards the production of an acceptable single grading scheme by the English Tourism Council, the AA and the RAC. That scheme has achieved only 50 per cent coverage and it is obvious that it must be further developed if it is to provide the level of fairness rightly referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. A combination of coverage and quality-guaranteed grading will be necessary to ensure that accommodation websites are properly useful. Until such websites achieve a form of critical mass, they run the risk of producing almost damaging information.

I was glad to hear from my noble friend Lord Gordon about the success of Internet access for the tourist industry in Scotland. His comments about the Ossian project were extremely interesting. I was interested, too, in the examples cited by my noble friend Lord Harrison of successful tourism in England, again with the aid of information technology.

As regards travel, I neglected to say that the DETR is working on a "transport direct" website which will provide fully integrated information, although not necessarily a booking system, which I described earlier as being necessary.

The fourth category would comprise bookable attractions: entertainment such as theatres, historic houses, racecourses and so forth. Again, a combination of information needs to be provided and that must be the responsibility of the attractions themselves rather than one for government. But there is a responsibility on government to provide coherence to the way in which it is presented in order that people can make rational choices on good market information. Again, it is possible to go on from that to direct booking via the Internet. Recently, for the first time, I have been booking at theatres via the Internet. It seems to work better than listening to dreadful music as one hangs on trying to get hold of the box office.

There is a huge range of products and services in respect of which information technology is relevant. The advantages are that information will always be more up-to-date than the ancient guidebooks on my bookshelves; that it can be more accurate because it is locally provided; that it can be more comprehensive than anything else; that it can be interactive and provide the possibility of ordering and booking; that it can be, as I have described, provided in the language required by the user.

There are of course potential disadvantages. Many people need personal advice and flexibility because their thinking develops as they make a booking and talk to a travel agent. One cannot really do that in quite the same way when the information is screen-based. We must be realistic about the reaction between personal contact and what one can do on a screen. There are still problems with payments and security over the Internet which have not yet been fully resolved. Many more services could be provided—for example, maps produced by the Ordnance Survey using information technology and digitised mapping—but clearly there are many areas where we are only at the beginning of what is being done.

I have covered most of the points raised and I turn, very briefly, to what the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said about the advisory group, which was also referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Harrison. The advisory group is time limited; it must report by the end of July next year at the very latest. It is certainly thinking about a possible public-private partnership rather than massive government investment. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, rightly said, the interest in seeing that this works is very largely from the private sector. It is likely that the private sector could contribute. I am not suggesting that the Government can make a profit as they have out of the mobile phone spectrum, but I do not think huge public investment is the right way to look at it. The ambition of the group is to provide an electronic infrastructure in England which is capable of integration with the approaches made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a major contribution of skill and finance from the private sector.

Let me say a brief word about access for disabled people, a matter referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Lords, Lord Swinfen and Lord Harrison. The English Tourism Council is relaunching its own website in October which will contain a wider access section that will link up to other proactive websites, taking forward the issue of accessibility.

The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, is quite right: there are two aspects to this. One is physical access, which in the private sector is not for the Government to achieve, except possibly occasionally by grants. There is also the question of information and the advantage of information technology for those who are hard of hearing or have mobility problems. That is obvious. We must not ignore the fact that information technology is, by definition, very largely inaccessible to people with sight problems. So I do not think that we should be 100 per cent optimistic about what is going to happen.

I have used up more than the time available to me, and I apologise for that. I hope that I have made it clear that the Government have an active and analytical view of the role of information technology in tourism. They are actively pursuing, through their advisory group and in many other ways, the promotion of tourism through information technology and the promotion of information technology in tourism.

House adjourned at eleven o'clock.