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House of Commons

Wednesday 5 May 1999

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. Betts.]

9.33 am

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the British tourism industry. This is not the first time that the industry has been debated in this Parliament, but there has not been a debate on the issue in Government time. It has fallen to the Opposition and to Back Benchers to seek to bring the importance of the industry and its circumstances to the attention of the House.

The debate is timely and necessary, not least because of the publication in February of the Government's document "Tomorrow's Tourism", which sets out the Government's view of the strategy for tourism. Last Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced the conversion of the English tourist board into the English Tourism Council, so it is entirely right that we should debate tourism at this time.

We should keep the interests of the tourism industry at the forefront of our deliberations because of the industry's importance. The industry generates expenditure of £53 billion a year, and accounts for up to 5 per cent. of our gross domestic product. It is our largest invisible export, and provides employment for 1.75 million people. It has been responsible for one in five of the new jobs created in this country over the past decade. The industry is managed by some 200,000 businesses around the country, the great majority of which are small businesses. In my constituency--as in all others--tourism bulks large as a provider of employment and expenditure, and as a generator of enterprise.

In that context, I should like to reflect on the fact that restaurants, bars and shops, as part of the hospitality and leisure sector, are at the heart of many high streets and city centres, including the city centre of Cambridge, part of which I have the honour to represent. In London, our thoughts must go to those who run the restaurants, bars and shops of Soho, who were providing hospitality and leisure last Friday when the area was bombed. Yesterday, they set about "business as usual". Our thoughts and congratulations should go to them for the way in which they have responded to those challenging circumstances.

Not all is well in the tourism industry. The latest statistics on overseas travel and tourism show that, in the year to February 1999--as compared with the year to February 1998--the deficit on the travel account of our balance of payments grew from £5 billion to £7 billion.

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In Cambridge, an effective strategy was put in place in 1996. It was set up on the basis of the then figure of 3.6 million visitors to Cambridge, and on the expectation that, by 2001, the city would be dealing with 4.2 million visitors. In 1998, the numbers fell to 3.2 million visitors. What was essentially a strategy devised around the dispersal and management of a growth in visitor numbers is now being adapted to one that emphasises the enhancement of the visitor experience and the opportunities to visit Cambridge.

The strategy also makes sure that visitors have ample opportunity to take in attractions outside Cambridge, of which the imperial war museum at Duxford, with the American air museum--opened recently with lottery support and following considerable fundraising in my constituency--is an example.

In the past few days, the English tourist board has published its summary statistics on visits to tourist attractions, which show an overall drop of 2 per cent. in such visits. We are not simply managing long-term growth, and it is clear that we are working with an industry that is not maintaining its share of world markets, and is in continuing need of a strategy.

The Government's document "Tomorrow's Tourism" is an aspirational document, as is often the case. However, as is equally often the case with Government documents, the aspirations look fine, but the actions set out are more of a work in progress than an attempt to match up to the strategy. I share the concern of the industry--expressed not least by the British Incoming Tour Operators Association--that it is necessary to determine strategy first, and then to move to structure. However, the Government seem to be changing the structure and letting the strategy flow from it. That is the wrong way round. I would rather that we concentrated on purposes than processes in the first instance.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): My hon. Friend will recall that Mr. Rodgers of the Labour party, who later became Lord Rodgers of the Social Democratic party, signed 35 of my amendments to set up the English tourist board, which was not in the original Bill that became the Development of Tourism Act 1969. The idea was to try to ensure that England was helped equally with Scotland and Wales, which had never previously been the case, and has never been the case since. I hope that my hon. Friend will urge the Government to ensure that there is equality.

Mr. Lansley: My right hon. Friend brings a great wealth of experience to the subject, and he is absolutely right. The grant in aid to the various tourist bodies in England is about 20p per head, whereas it is £3.76 in Scotland and £4.99 in Wales.

The British Incoming Tour Operators Association said that it is clear that Ministers in Scotland and Wales, and indeed Northern Ireland, have understood that investment in the tourism industry can have high rates of return, whereas in England the message has not been understood. Joined-up government, as the buzz phrase has it, does not seem to work in the tourism industry.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): Can my hon. Friend confirm that the situation is worse in real terms than in per capita terms, because the English tourist board last year received £9.9 million, whereas the Scottish

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tourist board received £19.3 million? There is double the spending in Scotland in absolute, let alone per capita, terms.

Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend is right. Comparisons are odious, and I am not suggesting that the Scottish tourist board is acting in anything but an effective manner, but that effectiveness shows how much of the potential for action in England remains unrealised.

I am worried that there may be even further division within England of the way in which marketing is carried out. London is to have a mayor and its own direct marketing budget. Where does that leave other parts of England, such as South Cambridgeshire, which are considerable visitor attractions but receive little support?

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addition to the deeply frustrating question of the differential funding of tourist boards, the steps that the Government have taken have further disintegrated the joint approach to promoting Britain around the world? Scotland and Wales, being so much more generously funded than England, inevitably have much more affluent teams of people selling their part of the United Kingdom. There is a disintegration into different tribes promoting their own separate areas.

Mr. Lansley: If the Government intend that there should be a strategy, what more obvious example of joined-up thinking--to use their parlance--could there be than for overseas marketing to be conducted in a co-ordinated way on behalf of all the countries of the United Kingdom? There is some scope for the Scottish and Welsh boards to undertake their overseas marketing through the British Tourist Authority, but that is not true across the board.

I fear that there will be further fracturing, with London undertaking its own promotion. I applaud the idea of the mayor taking an activist stance in promoting London, because our tourist industry as a whole depends more on the role of London as a gateway than on any other single factor, but that should not be done in isolation from the promotion of other destinations--Scotland is a prime example--to which visitors can be drawn.

We need a strategy rather than simply work in progress. "Tomorrow's Tourism" contains references to transport, but they amount to no more than an assertion that tourism must be part of the integrated transport policy announced in the transport White Paper. There is a very close relationship between the way in which transport is managed locally and the volume of visitors to a location such as Cambridge, for example.

In 2000, local authorities will produce local transport plans for the first time. It should be incumbent on those authorities to prepare the plans in co-operation with other local authorities, the private sector and the tourist industry, so that we can see that they are consistent with local visitor management plans. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions should take explicit account of the impact on the local economy when considering transport policies and programmes bids.

Positive planning is important. Because it is mostly small businesses, rather than the big battalions, that are involved, tourism is often at the behest of planning rather

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than being able to influence it directly. We must view tourism as a positive part of the planning process, not least because, as is evident in Cambridge and many other places, bringing in visitors can generate money that can regenerate an area if it is spent well.

Our heritage, with all our historic buildings, is the principal reason that visitors come to this country. We can use tourism as a positive agency for conserving our heritage. It brings in a lot of money, and we can use the tourist dollar in the planning process--through the preparation of conservation plans for historic assets,for example--to achieve broader environmental and planning objectives.

Planning policy guidance 21 is several years old. When, in the plethora of PPG reviews, do the Government intend to review it, in the light of, for example, the discussion on sustainable tourism? Tourism can be better managed so that it does not degrade the environment and, just as historic assets can be improved by tourism resources, it can make a positive impact on sustaining our environment.

Historic buildings brought back into use for tourism purposes can be better preserved as well as enhancing the visitor experience. For example, in the cities of New England there are buildings from the industrial revolution which have been preserved simply because they are being used as a visitor attraction.

In the range of joined-up government, what thought have the Government given to taxation in this context? I know that the British Tourist Authority has considered the impact of VAT on the competitive position of the United Kingdom economy in comparison with other European economies. Will the Minister respond to that? What scope is there, for example, for considering zero rating for the repair and adaptive reuse of historic buildings, which, as I explained in respect of the promotion of environmental sustainability, would certainly be a considerable incentive for the undertaking such work?

As for joined-up government, the principal failing at the moment--I am afraid that "Tomorrow's Tourism" neglects this altogether--is the impact of Government regulation on the industry. From talking to representatives of many businesses, I have found that most staff in my area are already paid more than £3.60 an hour. That is not entirely true across the country. The wages of many employees in restaurants, bars and shops, for example, have been raised to the minimum level.

Bearing in mind the experience of my area, the Government might take the view that the minimum wage and the working time directive do not cause businesses problems because they do not impose a direct cost on them. However, the compliance costs falling on businesses are substantial. For example, the working time directive is having a considerable impact on the way in which businesses can manage shift patterns for employees such as night porters in hotels. In a very flexible industry of many small businesses that do not benefit from a large administrative infrastructure, and in which staff come and go reasonably frequently, the minimum wage and the working time directive impose a burden of compliance that is out of all proportion to the benefits either to the employee or--certainly--the business.

One hotelier to whom I have spoken--he knows that it is true for many of his colleagues--has had to employ one person virtually full-time to manage the requirements of

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the minimum wage and the working time directive, given the presumption that an employer is not paying the minimum wage unless he can prove the contrary.

One obvious further example of the need for co-ordination is in accommodation grading. One of the things trumpeted in "Tomorrow's Tourism" is that there is to be a new unified accommodation grading system, but it will harmonised, not unified. We will still be dealing with three organisations--the English tourist board, the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club will be working together--and there will still be different systems in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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