Michael Meacher – 1978 Speech on Tourism

Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Meacher, the then Under-Secretary of State for Trade, in the House of Commons on 26 July 1978.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) has made a speech which befits his position as chairman of the all-party committee on tourism and which I think was witty, detailed and very well informed, as one would expect, and closely argued. He raised a large number of points, and I shall try to deal briefly with each of them.

My right hon Friend’s theme was that of spreading the blessings of tourism not only seasonally but also geographically. He will know that the Government’s policy on this matter has been quite clear since 1974, in particular in the guidelines on the application of section 4 expenditures to the development areas and special development areas, where we emphasised the need to make fuller use of the scenic and other touristic assets in those parts of the country which would benefit from the development of tourism.

We asked the tourist boards to emphasise this in the course of their work. The aim, as my right hon. Friend knows, was not to divert existing trade from established resorts to new areas but to tap the growth in visitors, including overseas visitors in particular, but not only them, and to encourage them to leave the beaten track and to try new areas in Britain.

For British people, the emphasis has been more on extending the season and on exploring the less familiar parts of Britain instead of taking a package tour abroad. I think it is fair to say that the tourist boards’ response to this initiative has been excellent. The attractions of the rest of Britain besides London and the traditional resorts, which my right hon. Friend praised so highly and so rightly, are now featured prominently in their literature. New heritage routes and trails have been developed to encourage people to visit particular localities. Joint marketing ventures have contributed to the retention and growth of Continental traffic through northern and western ports. Off-season and weekend promotions have brought valuable extra business to hostels in all parts of the country at their less busy times, and plans are afoot to encourage the increasing numbers of overseas motorists to undertake more adventurous and wide-ranging itineraries.

My right hon. Friend asked for the Government’s view of Amsterdam referring to itself as London’s third airport. I think it is not for me to comment on the way in which a foreign airport chooses to market its services, but I will say that Schiphol is not one of the options which the Government will consider for handling the longer-term demand for air transport in the London area.

My right hon. Friend made reference to the London visitor survey. He quoted the statistics about the 10 per cent. of complaints. The response to questions about the problems encountered by visitors to London certainly varies from year to year. Last year fewer visitors found overcrowding a problem. The strengthening of the pound inevitably made prices less attractive, in terms of foreign currency, in comparison with the previous year. I should also add that a broader survey of all overseas visitors indicated that last year over 50 per cent. found ​ prices less expensive than in their own countries. That, after all, is a very relevant comparison.

Mention was also made of bureaux de change charges. As a result of complaints, the Bank of England recently carried out a survey of one-third of the bureaux operating in the London area. In the Bank’s view, the charges displayed were not unreasonable. The higher commission rates may, of course, reflect the cost of providing a service outside normal banking hours and at the weekend. One would expect there to be a certain higher charge for that service. But, if my right hon. Friend has evidence of unreasonable rates of commission being charged, certainly we can ask the Price Commission to investigate.

My right hon. Friend also asked about what was happening in the tourism growth areas such as the North Pennines, Scarborough and Devon and Cornwall. After a lot of hard work by all concerned in the region, I approved the first of these schemes in outline a few weeks ago. I am pleased to have this opportunity to pay tribute to the local authorities, the Government agencies and other interests, including those from the private sector, in getting together to stimulate tourism in a wide area of the North Pennines while at the same time—this is very important, because it is an issue which has arisen in some of these areas—doing everything possible to safeguard the essential environmental character of the area.

My right hon. Friend also inquired specifically about progress at Scarborough. I am afraid that I cannot give him any special news about the Manor of Northstead or about the gardens of Scarborough, but I can tell him that I am still awaiting substantive proposals from the working party concerned. I know that the Scarborough scheme was delayed because the initial proposals for the alterations to the Spa Hall failed to secure listed building consent after a public inquiry. I understand, however, that revised proposals, taking account of the inspector’s report, are being energetically pursued, and I hope to receive a submission soon.

I was then asked whether we were doing enough in respect of the catering ​ industry. My right hon. Friend mentioned a number of mouth-watering English foods. I hope that that message is conveyed in the right quarters. The problems of the catering industry are being studied by the hotel and catering economic development council and is sub-groups. In particular, I should mention the now completed work of the catering industry study group, which produced “Trends in Catering”, a booklet incorporating a large amount of data on the catering industry which had previously not been made available. This was intended as a benchmark to assist the industry in its future development and in its investment decisions. On the recommendations of the EDC, the catering supplies steering group is at present investigating the feasibility of establishing a body to represent the interests of the catering industry as a whole. As my right hon. Friend will know, the industry is at present represented by numerous trade associations.

In the same context, my right hon. Friend asked about standards and whether they were being maintained by British waiters and cooks in the light of the drastic reduction in foreign staff in hotels over the last three years. With regard to foreign workers, although the annual quotas for work permits for the industry have been reduced drastically, a significant number of those issued with permits since January 1973 have remained here, as, indeed, one would have expected, with the approval of the Home Office. Many have remained in hotel and catering work. There is no reason to believe that the reduction in the annual quotas has affected standards generally.

It must be remembered also that training for the industry with the training opportunities scheme continues to expand throughout the country, and last year the number of people successfully completing courses was no less than 50 per cent. up on the previous year.

On the question of overseas conferences—my right hon. Friend mentioned one in particular which chose July-August, with all the inconvenience and congestion that that causes—the Government have very little control over the timing of such conferences. Very few take place in the main holiday season. In fixing the dates, ​ organisers have to take account of the programme of the international organisation involved or of the wishes of the delegate countries.

However, if my right hon. Friend is referring to Government hospitality which is provided in conferences not organised by the Government, that hospitality is in fact confined to a single evening reception whenever the conference is held. There is really no scope for variation in that.

My right hon. Friend mentioned complacency in terms of what he described as the decline in the number of visitors in the first quarter of this year. He said that this had been a jolt for the industry and he suggested that this might have been an antidote for the complacency which he previously feared.

On numbers, I think that my right hon. Friend may perhaps be going a little too far. What we have experienced is a slowing down in the rate of increase rather than an absolute decline. In fact, the BTA is now forecasting about 4 per cent. growth in overseas visitors this year. I hope and believe that my right hon. Friend is right about a lessened risk of complacency. There could be nothing more destructive of standards, above all in a service industry, than the belief—which is inevitably wrong in the long term—that the customers will keep on coming anyway.

I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend said about the BTA and the Government in their role towards the tourist industry. I agree also that the BTA has done a very good job. It would not be right to forget the ETB and the other national tourist boards, and the non-statutory regional boards, all of whom contribute to the success of the industry and the extension of its benefits throughout the country.

Let me conclude by briefly summing up the Government’s main strategy for the tourism industry. First, there are the newly-announced initial allowances for hotel construction. I am grateful for the reference by the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) to the point about the Budget. I do not know whether it was the first time this had ever been mentioned in a Budget, but these allowances demonstrate convincingly the importance that the Government attach to tourism, which is now our second largest earner of foreign currency—a remarkable achievement.

This is a most convincing demonstration of the importance which the Government attach to tourism. The allowances will stimulate new investment through the country, at an estimated cost in a full year of £15 million. This is additional to the value of the existing allowances for plant and machinery.

Secondly, I have already mentioned the selective financial help available to stimulate tourism investment in many of the more beautiful and remote parts of Britain, including most of Wales and almost the whole of Scotland. Thirdly, the industry benefits from the grants-in-aid given to the statutory tourist boards, currently almost £19 million a year, most of which is used to promote visits to and within Britain and to spread the benefits of tourism more evenly throughout the country. We take my right hon. Friend’s message to heart tonight. No doubt this could be done more thoroughly and more fully.

The industry has served Britain well in the last few years. With these incentives and help, I have every confidence that it will go on doing so in the future.