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10.25 am

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): The United Kingdom tourism industry, one of our most important money earners, now faces extremely testing times. For a long time, it has offered good prospects to those providing a high level of customer service, although rewards have rarely been achieved without significant investment and disregard of the timetable of an "ordinary" working week.

Tourism's importance to both the national and local economies is difficult to overestimate. I shall not go back over the figures on tourism's importance to the United Kingdom, as those have been dealt with sufficiently already in this debate. Nevertheless, the business generated by tourism accounts for more than 1.5 million jobs. We should not forget that fact. Certainly in the south-west, where my constituency is located, tourism is vital.

Foreign exchange earnings from overseas visitors make a valuable contribution to the UK's balance of payments and contribute directly to economic activity in favoured tourist destinations across the country. In Dorset, tourism plays a crucial role in local and regional economic activity and boosts local people's employment prospects--especially of school leavers, who may be unwilling or unable to move on to further or higher education. At its best, tourism produces good examples of training on the job. Many very committed young people go on to have a very successful career in the industry.

Tourism is vital for my constituents, and a great many jobs depend on it. Any decline in trade hits our employment and economic prospects immediately and hard. Many hotels, restaurants and entertainment facilities enjoyed by local people could not survive without a thriving tourism market to support their turnover.

We live in a popular area for visitors, not least because of the area's outstanding natural beauty. Our beaches win awards. Many people have second homes in Dorset, and, as we know, Bournemouth is a popular destination for both Conservative party and Labour party conferences.

The economic uncertainty faced regularly by many smaller providers in the industry is compounded by the seasonal nature of much tourist activity. Almost a quarter of trips to or within Britain occur in July and August. In the off-peak months, that can cause cash flow problems, especially for smaller family-run businesses.

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Then, of course, there is the weather. Apart from agriculture, the impact of poor weather is felt most keenly by tourism. If the summer is particularly bad one year, domestic demand may drop sharply. Consequent economic damage may be compounded if there is very little income at other times of year.

It is thought that tourism has growth potential in creating jobs and generating revenue. However, many issues--not least the Government's current policies--cloud the horizon and will undermine that potential. The Government's economic policies have had a heavy impact on the industry. Interest rates and exchange rates took their toll at the height of last summer's tourism season, and extra costs will continue to pile on pressure.

Red tape and regulation abound, and--with the introduction of the minimum wage, for example--will have a very real impact. Tourism relies on large numbers of students who undertake seasonal employment. It is also an industry in which young people have fewer qualifications but are willing to work hard for low initial reward, so that they may, with time, gain experience and better rewards.

I fear that the Government's proposals could damage the industry, particularly in the south-west.

Miss Geraldine Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fraser: I shall not give way to the hon. Lady. We have precious little time, and other hon. Members would like to speak.

If starting wages increase, employers will have to rethink their strategy and staffing levels to remain competitive in the global market.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, implementation of the European working time directive on work hours, annual leave and rest breaks also will have a major impact on the tourism industry. I am concerned that the Government have introduced regulations without adequate consultation with the tourism industry. The parental leave and the part-time workers directives are yet to come and they promise increased difficulties for an industry already under pressure.

I hope that the Minister will answer a couple of questions. Why does England get so much less grant in aid per head of population than Scotland and Wales? The south-west--as I have said, an area in which I have a particular interest--does especially badly. Perhaps the hon. Lady will respond on that point. The south-west is not a rich area. Indeed, it is an area of great poverty; and the further west one goes, the more poverty there is. Yet there is no reward, as there is in Scotland and Wales, for the industry with which we have to work in the area that I represent.

So far, our tourism industry has flourished, despite the rival attractions of overseas package holidays, the strength of the pound and the eternal problem of sometimes miserable weather, but I now fear for its future. Will tourism continue to prosper, and our local economy continue to reap the benefit, under a Labour Government? We face more costs, the import of more bureaucracy and

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the probable demise of the English tourist board,which fights for the industry at the national level. It is symptomatic of the Government's attitude that they want to abolish the ETB without knowing how to replace it--despite the almost universal support in the industry for a strengthened and properly financed tourist board.

Tourism is low on the Government's list of priorities. It is an afterthought and, perhaps, sometimes an irritation. The industry is misunderstood and sorely undervalued. Why else would the Department for Culture, Media and Sport issue a consultation paper requiring an industry response at its busiest time?

I am a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. It recommended that the Department's annual report should provide specific information on how its sponsorship results in enhanced economic performance in each of its sectors, based on the view of the Select Committee, which was overwhelmingly stuffed with Labour Members, that the Department's objective should be to foster the tourism industry. The Government have yet to persuade us and the House that they care. There are challenging days ahead and I urge the Government, once and for all, to take tourism seriously.

10.32 am

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): I am delighted to contribute to the debate. I heartily congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) on initiating it. Many hon. Members have spoken about the attractions of their constituencies and the importance of the tourism industry. That is certainly the case in South-West Surrey. The only problem for the industry is the Government's inaction in tackling the A3 at Hindhead--but more of that on another occasion.

Tourism needs champions. It is a fascinating industry and I congratulate the Minister on taking on these responsibilities. If she can leave the Department with the official responsible for tourism being most highly regarded and envied, she will have made a difference. The legacy which she inherits is one where the snobbery of the Department gives prestige to the arts, sport and culture, but not to the industry that can create jobs and make a difference.

Tourism could be a catalyst for the Department. We have discussed the errors that it has already made--the omission from the title, the omission from the mission, the censure from the Select Committee and its inability for several months to arrange a debate on tourism in the House. It has made many mistakes, but the hon. Lady may be able to save the day and join the list of champions of tourism and hospitality as the real sectors of growth for the next century.

I commend some other champions to the Minister. It is a people industry; it is about education, training and the people involved thinking that they are valued. Many are taking that message seriously. David Harborne has been doing splendid work at the Hospitality Training Foundation. I commend Professor Airey at the department of tourism at my university of Surrey. They are people who think that investing in people from vocational qualifications through to degrees will make a difference. I commend the Confederation of British Industry and its tourism task force. Some of the leaders of the industry--Rank, Whitbread, Scottish and Newcastle, Madame Tussaud's and many others--say that we have to act in partnership and put more back into the industry.

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Above all, I commend David Quarmby, head of the British Tourist Authority and English tourist board. It was disgraceful to launch the consultation document in such a way that it appeared to obliterate the English tourist board. My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) has done a magnificent job as our spokesman. He was at the launch of the BTA report on the day these insulting matters were being handled, and the people concerned were in ignorance of them. It is vital that there is a strong role for English tourism as well as a powerful and effective British Tourist Authority.

I hope that the Minister will persuade her Cabinet colleague to fight for the industry in Cabinet. She can do much to raise the profile, but she has to win the battles as well. Regional development authorities and local authorities can help by being more generous on planning. Rural areas could do better if only they could get the planning consents that they needed. Many of our heritage buildings could be transformed if they could get the planning consent and support that they need. The danger is that the RDAs and the local authorities want to municipalise tourism, rather than promote it. It is essentially a private sector enterprise, not a municipal activity.

Much has been made of seaside resorts. I happen to have a great liking for the Isle of Wight and understand the significance of tourism there. I am a great admirer of the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) and understand the importance of tourism there, too. I think that I have visited the constituencies of every hon. Member who has spoken today and appreciates the importance of the industry. I am tempted to remind the House that, when I was Secretary of State, it was the Year of the Pier. I think that people understand the importance of piers in our coastal resorts. I hope that the House will regard this as the "Year of the Peer" and understand the importance of peers in our constitution.

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