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House of Lords

Monday, 19th April 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before business begins, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to represent the Government at the European Ambassadors' lunch on Thursday 22nd April, when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

Overseas Travel: Advice from FCO

Lord Hurd of Westwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have yet completed the review announced on 11th January by the Foreign Secretary of the system by which his department gives advice on safety to British citizens living or travelling abroad.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the review of Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice should be completed by the end of June. Travel advice is under constant review and the FCO aims at all times to provide accurate and timely information to enable British nationals to make informed decisions. But we also look to travellers and to the travel industry to take responsibility for their personal safety when overseas.

Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer on a subject which is not the most important but one of the trickiest with which she and her colleagues in the Foreign Office have to deal. Is there not a strong distinction between the tourist and the British resident who works, perhaps is married, has settled down and put down roots in a foreign country and who may be just as competent as the Foreign Office to assess whether they should stay or leave?

As for the tourists, is there not some danger of drifting, under pressure from the travel companies, into a position where the Foreign Office--not the travel companies nor the individuals--takes responsibility which does not belong to it for the decisions of individuals? Can the noble Baroness make a little more clear the distinction which emerged somewhat opaquely from her Answer between the giving of facts and information and the giving of advice to individuals whose circumstances vary greatly?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Yes, my Lords, I can agree with much of what the noble Lord

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said. Foreign Office advice is exactly that: it is advice. It is not intended to indemnify either tour operators or individuals against eventualities of their travel. Individuals and tour operators must take responsibility for their personal safety. But the advice is intended to allow travellers to make informed decisions. There is no such thing as risk-free travel in any part of the world, as sadly we have seen.

I also appreciate the distinction that the noble Lord makes about tourists on the one hand and residents on the other. Many residents in foreign countries will generally be more familiar with local circumstances. But on occasions they will still look to the Foreign Office for the political advice which may inform decisions that they need to take about their own safety.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, what lessons does the Minister believe have been learnt so far by the Foreign Office as a result of the tragic kidnappings and murders of British tourists and workers in Chechnya, the Yemen and Uganda? In what way have those lessons been incorporated into the Foreign Office system of travel advice?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, in considering the travel advice in relation to the tragic events to which the noble Lord referred, I personally looked at it searchingly. At the time one could not have known the circumstances which would have led individuals to take different decisions from those that they took. It is all very well being wise after events, but we must act on the basis of what is known at the time. We review all travel advice every month as a matter of routine and some travel advice in particularly difficult parts of the world is reviewed more often than that.

We do not have all the answers, otherwise we would not be having the current review. I welcome any suggestions which any noble Lords wish to make to the Foreign Office. They should be sent to the office for the purposes of that review. We have already had a very useful seminar with members of the travel industry and they have put forward a number of suggestions which we shall now review and take into account.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, does the Foreign Office give its advice to travel firms without being asked, or does it rely on the travel firms to seek that advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? When it gives advice to the travel firms does it recommend that that advice be passed on to customers?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, travel notices are distributed throughout the travel industry as a matter of course, via electronic information systems. The Federation of Tour Operators, the Association of British Travel Agents and the Association of Independent Tour Operators then forward the advice to their respective members. In that way, more than 90 per cent of the travel industry are able to access the information. So it goes out, as a matter of course, but on occasions, particularly when trouble is apparent in different parts of the world, tour operators

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will want to telephone the Foreign Office to find out about certain parts of the world or particular regions of a country where they have fears or worries.

It was suggested that the Foreign Office should have a dedicated line just for tour operators rather than for the general public. That was one suggestion which came out of the seminar to which I referred. We hope to introduce such a dedicated line for tour operators by the end of this week.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us who travel abroad but who do not go through travel agencies are grateful to the Foreign Office for the intelligence that it gives us? In the light of that information we then make up our own minds.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for making that point. A good number of people who want to access Foreign Office travel advice do so as individuals and not through tour companies. It is worth remembering that a number of countries throughout the world seek to emulate the travel advice of the Foreign Office. Canada is one example. Very recently a number of French colleagues visited the Foreign Office to look at the way in which we give travel advice. They were favourably impressed and used it as a model for their own travel advice.

Passenger Train Services

2.43 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to comply with Section 4 of the Railways Act 1993 in considering proposed new passenger train services from train operators; for example, from East Anglia to the south-west and north-west of London.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, decisions on approving access rights for new passenger services are a matter for the rail regulator. In deciding whether to approve rights the regulator will have regard to his duties under Section 4 of the Railways Act 1993, including the promotion of competition and the carriage of both passengers and freight by rail. In all cases other operators affected by a proposal will be consulted.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for his helpful reply, I declare an interest as adviser to Adtranz. Is the Minister aware of proposals by GB Railways to run passenger services between Chelmsford and Basingstoke to create a kind of east-west Thameslink? Will my noble friend put

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pressure on the regulator and Railtrack, who I believe have the duty to provide capacity, to ensure that these services start as soon as possible?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, this is primarily a matter for the rail regulator. I understand he has indicated his belief, based on the evidence presented to him so far, that the proposed Ipswich to Basingstoke service would provide a range of new services and satisfy local and national transport needs. He has encouraged Anglia together with Railtrack to develop this service and other aspects of Anglia's proposals to a stage where they are capable of detailed examination. At the same time, he has urged full consultation with other affected operators.

Lord Cadman: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Government's procrastination with regard to the introduction of north of London Eurostar services to the regions is a contravention of this section of the Act?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not agree. The term "procrastination" should not be applied to a proper assessment of the facts. The Government have sought a further consultancy as to the viability of those potential regional Eurostar services north of London.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the major reason for privatisation of railway services was that British Rail was inefficient and that privatisation would provide a much better, cheaper and more reliable service? I understand that latest reports show that the services provided by the private organisations are worse than they were under British Rail. Is not the corollary of that the bringing back of railway services into full public ownership?

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