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House of Commons

Wednesday 25 November 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Hill.]

9.33 am

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): It is a great pleasure to introduce this debate on tourism, which is a much under-debated subject in the House.

Looking around my constituency, which surrounds Colchester and includes many villages, one sees that north Essex is typical of the riches that England has to offer visitors from abroad and from other parts of the United Kingdom. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell), Colchester has a fabulous history from Roman times, when it was established as the capital of Roman England--until it was sacked by Queen Boadicea in the Iceni uprising.

Today, there remains most of a huge Roman wall that surrounded the old town. The town is dominated by the largest Norman keep in Europe, which was constructed over the vaults of the Roman temple that the Iceni destroyed. The so-called Dutch quarter of the town contains a wealth of timber-framed houses that were constructed from the middle ages onward.

The scars of the English civil war remain visible on many of the buildings in the area, such as the church tower at Little Tey, which was partly destroyed by the royalists' cannon. The bullet holes from their muskets mark the beams of the pub, which is now called the Siege inn.

Around Colchester, scores of tiny villages have survived the influx of new building, cars and commuters. They retain their charm and tranquillity, and each has its own gem of a church, many of which are of Norman or even Saxon origin. The Stour valley and estuary, which stretch along the Essex-Suffolk border and include some of the most stunning scenery in the east of England, contain Dedham Vale--dubbed Constable country by his famous travelling companion on the train.

That is the historical, cultural and natural heritage that provides the background and basis for hundreds of businesses and thousands of livelihoods in that little corner of eastern England. Scores of bed-and-breakfast businesses depend on the regular tourist traffic that comes off the Harwich ferry. The hotels, restaurants and teashops cater for the day trippers and weekend breakers. The East of England tourist board tells me that Colchester's shops have attracted 20,000 shoppers from Europe this year, despite the excessive strength of the pound.

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That is the first message: tourism is big business. Tourism and leisure are the United Kingdom's fastest-growing industry, and already comprise the fifth largest industry in the United Kingdom--it is bigger than the construction industry. Estimates vary, but it is worth more than £53 billion a year--5 per cent. of United Kingdom gross domestic product--and provides about 1.7 million jobs, which represents about 7 per cent. of employment in the United Kingdom. The British Tourist Authority claims that that is more than five times the number of jobs in the motor industry. In recent years, tourism has accounted for about 20 per cent. of new jobs in the United Kingdom economy.

In 1997, 26.2 million visitors came to Britain. They spent more than £12.8 billion--up 3 per cent. on the previous year. In addition, £3 billion was spent on travel with British couriers. In England alone, tourism is worth £42 billion a year and employs about 1.5 million people. In Scotland and Wales, tourism is the most important industry, and provides the only growing source of employment in many areas. Tourism employs more than 8 per cent. of the work force in Scotland and 9 per cent. in Wales. Now that there is a real prospect of lasting peace in Northern Ireland, tourism is fast becoming a major growth industry there as well, so I make no apology for claiming an hour and a half of the House's time on the subject.

The fast growth of tourism does not, however, make it an easy industry. Much employment is in the small business sector, where people work extremely hard, and long hours, for relatively little reward to establish the viability of their businesses. The BTA estimated last year that there were 220,000 businesses involved in providing services to tourism in Great Britain.

Because of our climate, the pattern of demand is highly seasonal. One would hope, therefore, that the tourist industry would rate as one of the Government's top priorities, especially as the potential for job creation continues to be huge. I hope, therefore, that the Government have fully taken to heart the criticisms made by the Labour-dominated Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which complained about the stated aim of the Department. Its declared

The Select Committee report complained about the narrowness of the aim, and added:

    "Nor, most importantly, does it make any direct reference to tourism and thus is reinforced the impression that tourism is viewed as the Cinderella of the Department. Yet it is far and away the largest industry for which the Department is responsible and, in economic terms, the most important."

On the page dealing with the aim and objectives in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport document, tourism is conspicuous by its absence. The Select Committee concluded:

    "We are, therefore, deeply concerned that, in policy statements by the Department and in public statements by Ministers, tourism is subordinated in favour of more glamorous and trivial matters."

I am an opera-goer. I do not think that opera is trivial, but we must also recognise the importance of tourism.

This is not a good start, after more than a year in office. Typically, once the spin doctors had got hold of the issue, there was a flurry of activity in the press, and the hapless Minister was sent on a somewhat ludicrous public

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relations exercise. On 10 August, the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting began a fact-finding tour of England. I am delighted that she felt the need to find out the facts, which should have already been at her fingertips. A press release states:

    "Tourism Minister . . . begins a major fact finding tour of English tourist destinations in Brighton today, ahead of the publication of the Tourism strategy later this year. Over the next two months she will visit every region in England to meet local tourism representatives and hear their views on the future of tourism and what the Government can do to support it."

That is after more than a year in office. The press release continues by quoting the Minister:

    "'With the holiday season upon us I look forward to seeing examples of best practice for myself . . . I want to hear . . . how we can back the industry locally and regionally to increase its competitiveness.

    "I will also be seeing how we can help".

It is a great privilege for the tourist industry to have a Minister offering help after more than a year in office. If she has listened to what real people involved with the tourism industry say, she will have heard what the problems are.

Miss Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): It is a bit rich of a Conservative Member to talk about what the Government have done after 18 months in power when they had 18 years in power. As a representative of a seaside resort, I have seen the tourism industry decline. Jobs have been lost in the industry and 70 per cent. of our local tourist accommodation is now being made into housing in multiple occupation. Five-bedroomed guest houses are selling for £5,000 in the resort of Morecambe. That is happening after 18 years of Conservative government. What did the Conservatives do for British tourism and for seaside resorts? They had their chance and they blew it.

Mr. Jenkin: The important point that the hon. Lady is making is that she agrees with the Select Committee that tourism should be the Department's first priority. It is sad that, at least for the first year in government, tourism did not figure on the Department's radar screen.

What will the Minister have heard on her visits around the country? I hope that it went better than the social security ratios.

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson): As the hon. Gentleman declined to answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith), I shall answer it on his behalf. Is he aware that, under the previous Government, the English tourist board's grant fell from £25 million to less than £10 million? Does he regard that as an illustration of the previous Government's commitment to tourism?

Mr. Jenkin: The Minister is trying to deflect attention from the Select Committee's report. We should concentrate on her job in government and the fact that she has been reprimanded by the Select Committee for neglecting tourism after a year in office. That is what should occupy her, not the previous Government's record.

What will the Minister have heard in all those tourist destinations that she visited during the recess? On the economic climate, she will have heard time and again--

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if she listened--how high interest rates and a high pound have hit the cash flow of many businesses in the past18 months. Those factors are a direct result of the Government's mistakes on economic policy.

Independence for the Bank of England meant that interest rates rose higher and for longer than was necessary, and the British Incoming Tour Operators Association estimates that the number of overseas visitors in the current year ending in September was 4 per cent. lower than in the equivalent period for 1997, and said that the trend is still downwards. There have been 1 million fewer visitors to the United Kingdom, resulting lost income of at least £1 billion. David Quarmby, chairman of the British Tourist Authority, estimates that that will have cost the UK some 30,000 jobs.

The Government have piled new costs on business. Those affect the labour-intensive tourist sector badly, making it more difficult to employ people flexibly, and more expensive. The Government have introduced regulations arising from the EC directives on working time, on parental leave, and on part-time workers. Much in the directives simply reflects the good practice of good employers, but the regulations necessarily involve a lot of paperwork and monitoring, and create the potential for discord between employer and employee. Perhaps the worst aspect of those new laws is that they are likely to reduce job opportunities for women, because they tend to prefer part-time jobs, many of which will be replaced by full-time jobs, which are more likely to taken by men. I should have thought that that would concern the Minister.

Those regulations are intended to do no more than replicate the burdens on employers that already exist in other EU countries. As usual, the EU raises the level of regulation upward at a cost to the UK's industry and jobs.

Sir Rocco Forte told Caterer and Hotelkeeper on 27 March 1997:

The Government are actively promoting the disadvantages under which the tourist industry will have to operate. The effects of the national minimum wage have yet to be felt, but that will be yet another burden.

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