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5.10 pm

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): I, at least, am glad that the official Opposition chose to have a debate that enables us to focus on the work of the Secretary of State's Department, although they seem to have done so inadvertently. They have not chosen the debate to outline any constructive views of their own, never mind focusing sharply on the criticisms that could be made of the Government's record in this area over 14 months.

Before I turn to the two matters on which I want to spend a little time in this rather short debate, I want to pay a personal tribute to the two Ministers in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport who have left office. Both were well-known enthusiasts for their subjects, particularly films and the performing arts, and both were unfailingly courteous in their dealings with me and, I believe, with all those with whom they worked. I also want to wish the new Ministers well in their very important roles.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan: No, I shall not give way. Interventions have already been on the generous side, and it would be unfortunate to give way before I have even embarked on the substance of my speech. I shall give way later if the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene then.

I should like to deal with tourism, which is the big spending industry for which the Secretary of State has responsibility. I think that he would acknowledge that the perception of representatives of the industry is that his Department does not give it the priority that is given to other more glamorous matters for which it has responsibility.

It is clear from what the Secretary of State said today, and more importantly from the paper that he published on Friday, that important matters are being considered and are in the pipeline. He began his speech with a quick round-up of what he saw as the Government's general achievements, and I shall not follow him down that route, save to say that I do not entirely share his perspective on the Government's management of the economy. The reliance on the Bank of England as the sole controller of inflationary tendencies has resulted in an overvalued pound, which has made life exceedingly difficult for the tourism industry, and has almost certainly contributed both to the reduction in the number of visitors to this country and to a pretty lean summer.

On the wider policy point, it is the view of the Liberal Democrat party that if we were to seek early entry into European monetary union, it would be of particular benefit to the tourist industry. It would not only reduce the transactional costs of tourism, but stabilise our currency in relation to Europe at a lower level, and, as a result, increase our competitiveness. Those matters will be debated in extenso on other occasions, but they seem to be conditioning the difficulties that are currently faced by the tourist industry.

I want to focus on the Secretary of State's proposals for restructuring the public bodies for which he has responsibility. He has allowed a fairly short period for consultation, but, given that this matter has been considered before, it is not too short. I am happy to supply

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the views of my party, as we published today our own consultative document, "Tourism Tomorrow". That will be a direct and first response to some of the issues that the Secretary of State has raised.

However, I should like to supplement that by responding directly to the Secretary of State's paper setting out options and choices. I hope that some matters are not cast in stone and that he will be prepared to rethink in the light of responses. I am unclear whether the Secretary of State has fully taken into account the consequences of devolution for his departmental responsibilities, and its impact on the British Tourist Authority. The paper mentions devolution, but the main clients who should be concerned about the promotion of tourism abroad will, following the completion of the Government's decentralisation exercise, be the nations of the United Kingdom. It is more important that their representative voice be heard at national level. They should decide co-operatively how best to promote the separate and distinctive interests of the four constituent nations, rather than start from the proposition that the British Tourist Authority is the right body upon which to build.

I like much in the Government's approach, but I do not think that the proposals for the English regions are apt. My experience of the tourist industry is that it looks to a higher level than the regions of England to determine strategic issues and national policy towards tourism. For the delivery of particular services, it looks to a unit much closer to the locality in which it operates than the regions. Notwithstanding the role of regional development agencies--which I am not seeking to diminish, because they will sometimes be deployed to the benefit of tourism--the proper unit for local provision of tourist services is the locality. Lumping the Lake district together with Liverpool in a region does not greatly assist: it creates a bureaucracy at an unnecessary level.

In his paper, which covers many subjects for which he is responsible, the Secretary of State is clear that some streamlining of the bureaucracy is desirable. Perhaps that is what the right hon. Gentleman should look at with the coolest and most detached eye.

I am however aware that, even in my northern constituency, for which the right hon. Gentleman has no direct responsibility save perhaps through the British Tourist Authority, there is discontent with the establishment of a local tourist board which covers half the land mass of Scotland as a region, when it is clear that the interests of even Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross would be better looked after locally by a body that does not seek to represent such disparate interests as are contained in the wider highland region. Big does not necessarily mean better here. We should not look to a building up of the regional dimension of tourist provision.

I want to question the right hon. Gentleman a little about the tourism forum to which he referred. There is the germ of an important idea here, but I understand that, for the representatives of the industry, it is too large and in a sense, in respect of Government Departments, it is not sufficiently strong. It would be preferable to have, as suggested in the Liberal Democrats' paper, some commission to bring together under the right hon. Gentleman's chairmanship Departments that will also impact upon the development of tourism--such as the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for planning matters, and the Department for

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Education and Employment for the important task of bringing quality education for management and service delivery to the forefront.

Those structural changes seem desirable not only to ensure that there is no passing of the buck from the Secretary of State's Department to other Departments, which I do not suppose he would wish to do, but to give added clout within Government to the forum as the voice of tourism: as the strategic powerhouse for the industry which is so massively important and has such enormous growth potential.

In some parts of the country, there is also another problem that must be recognised. Tourism must be sustainable and there are some parts of the country where setting up bodies to encourage tourism would be regarded as positively perverse. That adds to the force of my view that local tourist boards are better adapted than regional ones to tackle the particular needs of the tourist providers.

I move from tourism to the arts, which have great importance not only in relation to tourism--they are one reason why many people come to Britain--and not only in respect of the cultural industries, to which the Secretary of State has referred on a number of occasions. I welcome the steps that have been taken, particularly in relation to the film industry and, to some extent, the music industry, and I hope that that will lead to a more powerful British film industry.

I want to put into a little perspective some of the claims that have been made about the new spending directions and decisions. I read the Select Committee's report without a whole-hearted recognition of what it was talking about. It was a patchy report. However, it made a number of telling points. One of the legitimate points that it made was that there has been real underfunding of many of the Departments' dependent bodies of clients for a number of years, for which the Government cannot be wholly blamed. However, I do blame them for having accepted the budgetary settlements that were projected by the outgoing Administration. If they had a damaging effect in the health and education sectors, as I believe they did, they have also had a real and damaging effect in the arts and cultural sectors.

When the Secretary of State speaks, as he did, about this being a record settlement, we must remember that we have had some pretty lean years and that, at the end of this triennial period, we shall only be roughly back where we were in 1992.

Mr. Chris Smith: I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman and I hesitate to put him right. The arts underfunding in real terms during the past five to six years, to which he refers, has been of the order of £35 million. In the first year of this new settlement we shall almost put that right. By the time we get to the third year, we will have done a lot more than put it right.


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