HL Deb 05 April 2001 vol 624 cc906-8

3.16 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to increase government funding to the British tourism industry.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government announced on 20th March a package of measures to alleviate immediate financial hardship of small businesses through rate reliefs, rescheduling tax and national insurance contribution payments and identifying sources of credit and other support. The Government are also considering funding to the English Tourism Council and the British Tourist Authority to lead programmes over the next few weeks to reinvigorate tourism in the English countryside and to boost the message abroad that Britain is open for business. An announcement can be expected tomorrow.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply. Can he say how the grants that have been made to the tourist industry over the past four years compare with the present position, having regard to all the measures he has just mentioned? The two important grants to the British Tourist Authority and the English Tourism Council have been welcomed. But in view of the problems that still exist because of foot and mouth disease, is continuing consideration being given to increasing the grants? In addition, will not the proportion of rate relief to be borne by local authorities, which is 15 per cent and 25 per cent, present difficulties to the local authorities? Is that being re-examined?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend asked about the funding of the British Tourist Authority and the English Tourism Council. The English Tourism Council will receive a grant of £10 million in the coming financial year, £12 million next year and £12.5 million in the year after. That is the basic funding. I referred also to an announcement that is to be made tomorrow. On the question of local authority expenditure, it is proposed that local authorities will have 95 per cent of their costs of operating the rate relief refunded by central government.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that what his noble friend Lord Dormand said is quite correct? For businesses that have a rateable value of more than £12,000 per annum, 25 per cent of the rate relief will have to be borne by the local authorities, which are already under pressure as a result of a reduction in their revenues as a consequence of the foot and mouth epidemic.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, both noble Lords are correct about the figures. If this appears to cause hardship, it is one of the many matters which the Rural Task Force is willing to consider again in its ongoing deliberations on what needs to be done. But I can say that the reduction of the business rate took place on 1st April and our helplines show that it is much appreciated.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, will my noble friend accept the plaudits of both the travel and tourism industries for the halving this week under the Budget of the airport passenger departure tax, which in itself was an inhibition to encouraging tourists to come to the United Kingdom? Can the Government now go one step further and eliminate this Tory stealth tax?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, on behalf of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I am happy to accept the plaudits mentioned by my noble friend. However, I am not prepared to predict any further changes in government taxation policy.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, has the Government's task force, which met yesterday, considered the possibility of making available loans to businesses? While the moves already made by the Government are helpful, many small businesses in the sector are going broke. They need immediate loans to keep going, not merely tax breaks.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the report of the work of the task force made to Parliament on 20th March made clear that we were in touch with banks and leading financial institutions, encouraging them to relax their rules on loans. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that this is enormously important.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, following on from the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, is it not the case that the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease merely serves to compound in many areas of our tourist industry a problem which already existed? Small businesses operating in seasonal areas are more and more feeling the pinch, in particular those in our seaside resorts. Aside from the funding and other measures that the noble Lord has outlined, does he agree that, over the medium and long-term, we are going to have to look at the whole strategy of funding tourism in this country and to think about where that funding should be aimed?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not think that I accept the case put by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland; namely, that tourism was suffering before the foot and mouth outbreak. In fact, our tourism figures both for visitors from within this country and for those from overseas continued to he buoyant throughout the year 2000, despite the strong pound. Nevertheless, the matters referred to by the noble Viscount will continue to be considered.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that tourism was a wonderful and successful industry that did not look for handouts until the present tragedy struck? I say that as someone who once held some ministerial responsibility for tourism. In those days, tourism was our fourth largest invisible export. Can the noble Lord tell the House what position it holds now?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, certainly I accept that the tourist industry has not been looking for handouts. What it has been seeking—as it did when the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, was a responsible Minister—is assistance with marketing. That is still the case. Indeed, a great deal still needs to be done to improve the marketing of our wonderful and very valuable tourist industry.

I am not sure whether anything has changed as regards tourism holding fourth place in terms of invisible exports, but I shall write to the noble Baroness on the matter.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, can the noble Lord explain the discrepancy in the level of resources provided for the promotion of tourism in Scotland and that available in some of the English regions? I am thinking in particular of the north-east of England. I understand that Scotland spends around 40 times more on the promotion of tourism than does that part of England.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in this House we are not responsible for how much the Scottish Executive elects to spend on tourism. However, the noble Lord, Lord Watson, will be pleased to know that, on 28th March, the Scottish Executive announced a package very similar to that which was announced in this House on 20th March. As regards the funding of the Northumbria Tourist Board, to which I believe the noble Lord referred, I am sure that he will recognise that that tourist board is an extremely lively, active and successful organisation.