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10.37 am

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) on initiating the debate and thank him for his generous comments about my constituency. I make but one addition to the civil war aspect and remind him that Colchester stood for Parliament.

In a forum where there is a great deal of political disunity, tourism should be a subject that unites us. If I have any regret today, it is about the politicking that has taken place--until this morning, I was not aware that tourism was a party political issue. That is certainly not my experience in the area that I represent.

Tourism is an inward industry, with visitors from overseas. Certainly Colchester has benefited recently from day tourists from the continent, so our greater European links need to be mentioned in that context. However, there is also tourism from within the United Kingdom, and I want to flag up one or two issues. One is the beach hut, and I declare an interest as I have a beach hut in the hon. Gentleman's constituency at Brightlingsea. The previous Government introduced value added tax on beach huts, of all things. That is not an incentive for people wishing to spend their holidays at home and be day visitors to many of our seaside resorts. The Minister is smiling, but this is an important issue in many of our smaller seaside resorts.

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The second matter concerns the need for cheap accommodation, especially for young tourists from home and overseas. I make a special plea for capital grant funding for the Youth Hostels Association and similar organisations that provide accommodation for young people. I ask the Minister to investigate whether there is any way in which the Government could provide capital funding for new hostels and for refurbishment of existing ones.

10.39 am

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): This has been a good debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), without whose initiative in calling this debate we would still be waiting for the Government to hold one. It is remarkable that there has been no Government-inspired debate on tourism since the election more than 18 months ago.

There have been some excellent speeches, and one theme was clear throughout--tourism is important; tourism matters. Tourism matters in a constituency such as mine, where it brings in more than £100 million a year and is responsible for about 6,000 jobs. That is one reason why I take such an interest in the subject and am pleased to be part of our Front-Bench team. I also speak as a vice-president of the British Resorts Association and as patron of the Eastbourne Hotels Association.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken this morning with knowledge of the subject and conviction, and I thank them all. I fondly remember the visit to Eastbourne of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) during the Year of the Pier. I was not sure whether the mention of civil war made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) was historical, or referred to the one currently raging in his own parliamentary party.

I have already mentioned my constituency. In a letter to me, the excellent director of tourism in Eastbourne, Ron Cussons, expressed his own concerns and supported those of the British Resorts Association. The Government have drawn on the BRA's excellent work in projects such as those to measure the local impact of tourism, but the director of the BRA, Peter Hampson, expressed in a letter his concerns about the new structure and role of the English tourist board. He asked:

Mr. Cussons endorsed those concerns and went on:

    "The season this year has not been good due to the World Cup, the inclement weather for Eastbourne and the high exchange rate. Fortunately, the conference trade has been exceptionally good. Therefore, the hotels have traded reasonably well."

We recently held a "listening to Britain" meeting for those involved in tourism in Eastbourne attended by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), the deputy Leader of the Opposition, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring). Those present, who represented a good cross-section of local tourism interests, voiced their concerns on several issues, including the widening tourism deficit, current rates of value added tax, the abolition of the ETB,

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inadequate transport infrastructure, interest rates, the strong pound, the minimum wage and inadequate funding for tourism generally.

We shall return to those themes, but for now I simply ask the Minister whether she agrees with David Quarmby, the chairman of the British Tourist Authority, who said:

What a damning indictment of the Government's economic policies. What does the Minister have to say to those 30,000 people who would have had jobs in tourism, but for her Government's policies? In opposition, the Labour party had many honeyed words for people involved in tourism throughout the country. After more than 18 months in office, how have the Labour Government risen to the challenges that other hon. Members and I have described?

The Government's first act was to change the name of the Department, but in such a way as to emphasise the importance of other activities at the expense of tourism. I have never heard a remotely convincing explanation for the omission of tourism from the title of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. No doubt the Minister will have another try today.

In its own statement of aims and objectives, the Department made no mention of tourism--a glaring omission. More recently, on the occasion of the appointment of the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) to the post of Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting, the Government took the opportunity to downgrade the role of Tourism Minister from Minister of State to Under-Secretary of State. Apart from the gross discourtesy to the Minister, for whom I have a high regard as a former Whip, what message does that send to an already beleaguered industry?

In the most recent spending review, tourism received only 2 per cent. of the Department's total allocation--£6 million, compared to £115 million and £125 million for museums and the arts--yet it generates more than 80 per cent. of the Department's revenue. No wonder Richard Tobias, chief executive of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association, described the sum as "meagre". On top of all that, the Government are seriously proposing to abolish the English tourist board, while leaving the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland tourist boards in place. That has brought forth a howl of protest from every corner of the country and every section of the industry. I presume the Minister has seen the conclusion of Travel Weekly--that there is 97 per cent. support in the industry for an enhanced and strengthened ETB. The feelings of the industry were in no way assuaged by the absurdly short consultation period.

We already know the funding figures: 25p per head for the population of England; £4.81 for Scotland; and £6.36 for Wales. The figures speak for themselves. There is no sign of the Government reintroducing section 4 grants to England, even though those are enjoyed by other parts of the UK. Fred Cubbage and his team at the South East England tourist board have stated:

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    Is it time to level the playing field and acknowledge the power of the England brand as one of the key magnets for overseas tourism? We think so."

Against that background, combined with the worrying slide in revenue figures, what is the Government's solution? It is to abolish the ETB.

That could not come at a worse time. There is a record deficit in tourism across the country and a record 10 million holidays were taken abroad last year. As if that were not bad enough, devolution is upon us: I have little doubt that Scotland and Wales will grasp the opportunity of devolution to increase their spending on promoting their countries--and why not? What implications are there for the long-term future of the BTA? The Government have become masters of the law of unintended consequences, but who is to speak up for tourism in England if the ETB is destroyed? How would the Government ensure that the strategic role now played by the ETB continued to be carried out?

"Ah, yes," I hear the Minister say, "but what about the long-awaited tourism strategy?" What indeed? I must congratulate the hon. Lady on her attempts to right some of her predecessor's sins of omission by visiting at least some tourist resorts. However, there was a strange omission from the list that I saw, as the hon. Lady did not propose to visit the premier seaside resort in the country. Let me put that right now, by extending an enthusiastic invitation to her to visit Eastbourne and assuring her of a warm and friendly welcome.

When are the Government going to start to listen to the tourism industry? When can we expect the Government's strategy? It has been a long time coming. We were told originally--last year--that it would be published "next summer"; then, this year, the promise was, "later this year"; and the most recent prognosis was that it would come in the next few months. On the subject of tourism, one can say without fear of contradiction that the Labour Government have hit the deck limping. Will the Minister tell the House today when precisely her strategy document will see the light of day and when the ETB will be put out of its misery?

Today's debate is a wake-up call for a Government who have shown precious little concern for tourism--our fifth largest industry--since their election. As we have heard, the industry brings more than £50 billion a year to the British Exchequer and employs nearly 2 million British people. It directly accounts for 5 per cent. of British gross domestic product and 8 per cent. of all consumer spending.

I can promise our tourism and hospitality industry that the Conservative party will battle for tourism in Britain. We have pushed hard to secure this opportunity to debate the crisis facing our seaside towns and tourist attractions, which is a result of the Government's lacklustre attitude toward the industry. Towns across the country, from Bournemouth and Blackpool to Skegness and Southend, need the support of the Government if they are to thrive. That support is patently not forthcoming.

Tourists and employers are paying a high price for Labour's damaging policies. There have been four basic economic blunders: raising taxes, punishing savers, massively overspending taxpayers' money, and piling suffocating costs on to business. Those have combined to drive up interest rates and artificially strengthen the pound, causing domestic and foreign holidaymakers to stay away from Britain's coastal resorts, national parks

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and major tourist attractions. In addition, the stifling regulation of job-destroying legislation, such as that on the working time directive and the minimum wage, will serve only to deepen a growing crisis in British tourism that the Government have engineered. It shows just how low a priority the Prime Minister places on that valuable national industry that his Department for Culture, Media and Sport does not identify tourism in its name, its aims or its objectives. The all-party Select Committee even acknowledged that tourism is

    "far and away the largest industry for which the Department is responsible and, in economic terms, the most important . . . yet tourism is subordinated in favour of more glamorous and trivial matters."

The only attention that the Government have given to British seaside towns since the election has been to turn guesthouses into overspill DSS hostels for asylum seekers, and to delay and delay again over a fantasy tourism strategy. To add insult to injury, they have forged ahead with plans to abolish the ETB. Tourism is paying a very high price for the inadequate policies of this Labour Government.

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