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12.8 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) on initiating the debate. As the Liberal Democrats support the Labour Government, I hope that they will listen to his words.

I was a little apprehensive about speaking in the debate because I do not want Southend to become known as an economic blackspot. Many Londoners regard Southend as the finest seaside resort in the country. I have only represented part of the town since 1 May 1997. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) has represented the other half for a great length of time. Coming to the town new, I was somewhat surprised at the seriousness of some of the social problems. That is why the local authority, which is a combination of Labour and Liberal Democrats, has produced a nine-point plan, all of which I support. We feel that we should make Southend's voice heard.

If tourism is seen to be a serious matter, it is disappointing that, during the first 18 months of the new Government, there has been no debate on it. It is appalling that the Labour party is no longer holding its conference in Blackpool. If Blackpool is good enough for the Conservative party, it is surprising that it is not posh enough for the Labour party. That is very damaging for seaside resorts.

As I have said, we feel that Southend's voice should be heard. We want the social problems to be addressed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East has said, we have much higher unemployment than other parts of the country. We feel that the town should be supported as a family destination. It is very close to London and we are blessed with beautiful coastal views, which have inspired so many artists in our town.

We need more support to deal with the skills shortage in Southend. We want to promote the town as a sub-regional shopping centre, and we ask for the Government's support in that. We want to promote inward investment and the development of sites that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East mentioned earlier. We want to improve transport links for the borough. There is not enough imaginative use of the River Thames.

We want to promote partnership working and attract national and European funds. Earlier this year I met the commissioner who has responsibility for those matters. Whatever questions I asked, I was told to work with the Government in promoting grant aid to the country, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East has said, for many reasons we do not qualify.

Southend is a wonderful seaside resort. I am delighted to say that Southend parks department is now in the international finals of a gardening competition, and I hope that the UK, represented by Southend, will win. On Friday in my constituency, thousands of people attended the switching on of the lights in Leigh-on-Sea, and that is a very attractive part of the town. I do not want to disagree with the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac),

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but Southend and Leigh-on-Sea have the finest fish and chips in the world. We undoubtedly have the finest ice cream in the world. That comes from a company that is run by a Rossi.

Southend-on-Sea has a great deal going for it, but in the past 18 months the Government have not taken seriously enough the many social problems articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East. I do not want to be churlish, but I hope that when the Minister replies, he will consider favourably the calls from my hon. Friend and myself to support Southend.

12.12 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) on initiating the debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss the important issue of serious, significant problems for the seaside holiday sector of the tourist industry.

We have heard speeches by hon. Members on both sides of the House who all have the distinction of representing seaside holiday towns. I suspect that only the Minister and I do not share the honour of having a seaside town in our constituencies, although I am told that maps and reports reveal that if global warming continues at its current rate, it is only a matter of time before we have Chelmsford sur la mer, rather than in the middle of Essex.

It is fortunate that my county has, as demonstrated by the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), a number of popular holiday resorts, including not only Southend and Westcliff but Frinton and Clacton. I see that the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson) is in his place.

There are problems in such towns throughout the country. It is interesting to place in context the events of the past quarter of a century which have accentuated the problems that are now so acute in many of those towns, as highlighted in hon. Members' speeches.

There has been a significant increase in the business of package holidays abroad. Packaging the cost of flights and accommodation abroad allows many more people to leave this country for warmer climes to go on holiday. I suspect that one of the major incentives that caused those numbers to rise to today's levels was the abolition of exchange controls in 1979. That not only meant that more people could afford to go away because the increase in volume brought down prices through economies of scale, but enabled people more easily to spend more money abroad.

As the hon. Member for Torbay said in his opening remarks, just under four out of 10 holidays in this country are taken at seaside holiday resorts, although that is worth a significant £4.2 billion. The figures also reveal that 18.5 million holiday trips are taken to the seaside in England in a year, generating the not inconsiderable sum of £3.2 billion. However, seaside towns and the domestic tourist business are becoming more and more dependent on the home market. Less than 5 per cent. of people who come to the UK for a holiday go to a seaside town. Those towns are sustained and supported by a narrow base of visitors compared with the potential maximum.

The rosy, picture postcard idea of holiday resorts is in many cases, sadly, no longer the reality. Hon. Members have spoken of many problems, including those of

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housing stock and infrastructure vis-a-vis transport. Those towns are unable to compete, through no one's fault, because the UK's climate is not always conducive to people spending their holidays and their money here. If one wants two weeks of almost guaranteed sunshine and warmth, one does not choose Britain every year. If this summer was anything to go by, I am fearful of what will happen next year because many people do not want to sit on a windy promenade in drizzle or pouring rain when they could be using their bucket and spade on the Costa del Sol or in other parts of the world.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Would it not be a good idea for the Prime Minister to spend a week of his holiday in a British resort? Perhaps he could draw by lot if he does not want to come to Worthing. For him to take his holidays in other countries is a slap in the face to our seaside towns.

Mr. Burns: My hon. Friend makes an extremely cool intervention. I hope that the Prime Minister pays attention to that point. Although my hon. Friend has plugged his own constituency, Conservative Members believe that the Prime Minister is free to choose to spend his time with his family in one of the many holiday resorts in this country.

The issue of asylum seekers was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and for North Thanet (Mr. Gale). Asylum seekers and social security claimants are increasingly moving to seaside holiday towns, using their accommodation and causing ensuing problems. As my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge said in his excellent speech, nobody blames the Government for that, but it is important that the Government treat it as an urgent matter and come up with constructive ways to alleviate the problems experienced by my hon. Friends' constituents.

I want to raise two economic matters that adversely affect many seaside towns and which were not mentioned by Labour Members. The first is the impact of the high pound on the tourist industry in this country, including holiday seaside towns. People who might otherwise choose to spend their holidays in this country are discouraged by the disproportionate cost compared with earlier times when exchange rates were not so high. The second point is the minimum wage, which will adversely affect many hoteliers and businesses.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns: No, because I want to leave the Minister enough time to reply.

The minimum wage will adversely affect the tourism industry in particular. I wonder whether the Government fully appreciate what the impact will be, not only on the industry, but on employment levels.

Mr. Quinn: And disposable incomes.

Mr. Burns: The hon. Gentleman mentions disposable incomes. When the minimum wage is introduced and we witness its impact on the tourism industry in the form of job losses, it will not be warmly welcomed. The hon. Gentleman's remarks may not be as popular then as they are now.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East mentioned the problem of higher unemployment rates, especially in the winter months--because, of course, the tourism industry is largely seasonal--for people living in those towns, and the strains and problems that it imposes on communities.

I could say much more, but I should allow the Minister to answer--as I hope he will--the points that all hon. Members have made in this important debate.

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