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Lord Inglewood: My Lords, it is a matter of satisfaction that the Government have given such pleasure to the noble Lord. Once the law is in place the noble Lord can rest assured that the processes of law will take their course in an impartial and proper manner.
Lord Hunt of Tanworth: My Lords, I have much sympathy with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. However, is the Minister aware that we are discussing a complicated issue which relates to immunities granted to international bodies generally? There is a big question as to whether one can make an exception for the Commission and its role and distinguish it from other international bodies. It is an issue which the European Communities Committee has taken up in a recent letter to the Home Secretary. Can the Minister assure us that the letter will be considered in that context?
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for pointing out how technically complicated the matter is. It lies on the cusp between administrative law and criminal law and between the responsibilities that are vested in the Community under Pillar 1 and those dealt with under the third pillar of the Maastricht Treaty. I assure the noble Lord that the matters he raised will be given the most serious consideration.
Lord Eatwell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that an effective attack on fraud in the Community requires that greater powers to investigate national dispersion of Community moneys be given to the central authorities of the Community?
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the important point is that proper investigation is carried out and that those responsible are brought to book. Inevitably that will involve a partnership among all parties. It is not possible to say that there is a paramount party involved in the transactions. It involves member states, national governments and Community institutions.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what has happened to the task force of outside experts which was so firmly recommended by your Lordships' Select Committee after six years of studying the problem? Further, does my noble friend agree that the only way to win the battle against this fraudulent Euro-monster is to remove the money from the grasp of the fraudsters, possibly by repatriating the common agricultural policy which costs £30,000 million a year and abolishing the structural funds which cost a further £10,500 million a year?
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his opening remarks. However, I am not in a position to give him the detailed response that he seeks. Nevertheless, I am willing to write to him to inform him of the up-to-date position. My noble friend proposes the
Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, will the Minister give the House an undertaking that the matters that I ventured to lay before your Lordships today will receive the careful consideration of the Ministers participating in ECOFIN both tomorrow and the next day?
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the attack on fraud, waste and mismanagement has been a major theme of British-European policy for many years. As the noble Lord pointed out, ECOFIN is meeting to deal with the matter, as also is the Justice and Home Affairs Council. By the end of the month I am hopeful that we shall have a much stronger regime in place than we have at present.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Viscount Astor): My Lords, the English Tourist Board is conducting a review of the crown accommodation classification and grading scheme, which is a voluntary scheme. Our aim is to improve the scheme so that consumers are given adequate information to enable them to select accommodation of the type and quality that they seek. We intend to publish our proposals for the crown scheme for consultation with the industry this summer. Our final proposals will be announced by the end of the year.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, I am concerned about my noble friend's suggestion that it should be a voluntary scheme. Is he aware that most countries have an identifiable minimum standard and that tourists visiting from other countries are thereby assured? In view of the very high earnings of the tourist industry in this country and the present slow growth in London compared to other continental capitals, does my noble friend not think it is time to bring in a proper registration scheme?
Viscount Astor: My Lords, I have to say that the case for introducing a mandatory scheme for such regulation has not been made. Moreover, it is not supported by the industry. The Government do not totally rule out compulsion, but the clear message from industry is the less regulation the better so as to allow people to do the job, and not more regulation. It is important that there should be a scheme. However, what is really important is that it should be a scheme that consumers use and understand. In that way, it would also have the laudable effect of raising standards in the industry.
Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that a registration system works very well in France and has done so for many years; and, indeed, ensures a good standard of accommodation, particularly in the more moderately priced hotels?
Viscount Astor: My Lords, the scheme in France is entirely based on classification with no grading. The clear message both from the industry and from consumers in this country is that they want to know about grading; in other words, they want to know about the quality just as much as they want to know what the accommodation is. That is where the scheme is different. It is also noticeable in France that the scheme is not used by industry as it might be because the rate of VAT that one pays depends on one's classification.
Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that it is time that we had harmonisation of star ratings throughout the Community? It is not a regulation; it is something which enables consumers to make a choice and which provides them with information. At present there are so many conflicting star ratings across the whole Community which is especially bad for this country as a major destination for tourists. Therefore, surely we should have a level playing field in that respect.
Viscount Astor: My Lords, the star system is indeed used by the AA and the RAC in this country; and indeed by some European countries. Of course, it means entirely different things in each European country. We believe that the best system for the Government to back, through the English Tourist Board, is the crown accommodation classification and grading scheme. It is twice as popular, in terms of the number of hotels that have signed up to it, as the AA scheme and it is well used. However, we believe that it needs some improvement to make it more understandable for consumers. We also believe that a voluntary scheme which is backed and used by the industry is much more preferable than a statutory scheme imposed by government on an industry which is extremely important for our economy.
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the Minister said that no case had been made for a statutory grading scheme. However, is it not the case that the McKinsey Report, as reported in the press, had as its first finding the fact that the hotel industry itself believed that the main solution to the problems of quality in the industry lay in having a compulsory grading scheme?
Viscount Astor: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, ought to know by now never to believe everything that he reads in the press. But I have to say that his attitude is entirely to be expected from a party which believes that regulation improves industry and does not hamper it. That is why we believe that our deregulation initiative is so important in helping industry thrive in this country.
Viscount Astor: No, my Lords. That is not the case. What is entirely clear is that the majority of people do not believe that there should be a statutory scheme for the hotel industry. However, some sections of the travel agency industry, particularly the incoming travel agents associations, believe that there should be a statutory scheme as that would enable their businesses to sue either hotels or members of the tourist board if the accommodation for their members did not come up to scratch. That is the danger of a statutory scheme. It is just a charter for lawyers to make money. We believe that it would be much better to devote energies to improving the industry. I am sorry that noble Lords on the Front Bench opposite no longer believe in industry.
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