HL Deb 15 March 2000 vol 610 cc1541-4

2.50 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government whether they will establish a statutory hotel registration scheme.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there are no plans to introduce a statutory scheme at the present time. First, we want to evaluate the voluntary approach under the new quality standards to see whether it results in increased take-up and improved quality. If it does not, we shall consider introducing statutory measures, but only if the burden of any such new regulation can be justified.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply. I declare an interest as vice-president of the Northumbria Tourist Board and vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Tourism. Is my noble friend aware that, rather surprisingly, three-quarters of the members of the Association of British Travel Agents support a statutory scheme? Does he agree that there is a greater demand than ever on the part of consumers for visibly high standards, not only in hotels but in other aspects of holiday provision'? I recognise that there are difficulties; however, could we not learn a great deal from the many countries which have operated such a scheme for many years? I remind my noble friend that this matter was included in the Labour Party manifesto at the general election.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, perhaps I may deal first with my noble friend's final point. The Labour Party manifesto stated that we would introduce new quality assurance in hotel accommodation. We did not say that it would necessarily be statutory. We went on to say in the document, Breaking New Ground, that should the voluntary approach not be a success, Labour would move towards the second step; namely, the introduction of a statutory national accommodation grading scheme.

My noble friend is right: there is consumer demand for high standards. However, it must be recognised that the announcement last autumn of consistent, unitary standards between the AA, the RAC and the English Tourism Council is a major step in that direction. The inspectors are now working to common standards to provide a common classification in England and are, in effect, acting as small business advisers, helping hotels and others to improve their own standards. The voluntary scheme, which is achieving a 50 per cent take-up, is already leading to improvement.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, should there not be a "national beds inquiry" in the tourism sector in this country? Given that tourism is the quintessential industry of the European single market, will the Government ensure appropriate consultation and cooperation with our EU partners should any registration scheme of the type described he contemplated?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, tourism registration schemes are a matter for national governments, not for the European Union. They exist in France and the Netherlands but not in other European countries. As to quality in this country, the steps that we have already announced in the Tourism Strategy are having an effect.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is certainly a need to raise the standard of hotel accommodation, particularly at the affordable end of the sector and especially in London? Will the Government undertake to work closely on this issue with next mayor of London, whoever that may be?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords. The next mayor of London, whoever that may be, will of course have responsibilities in the tourism sector. The noble Baroness is right to say that it is not just a matter of hotels, but also of guest-houses, boarding houses and self-catering accommodation. We are making progress in those areas as well.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, is it not difficult for voluntary schemes to create standards anywhere near those of a statutory scheme? The voluntary schemes operate according to different criteria; they do not have the same standards; it is difficult for customers to know which are reliable; and they are not comprehensive. Does he agree that the Automobile Association, which has had a voluntary scheme for many years, having been taken over by Centrica now seems more interested in selling gas appliances than travel services to motorists and other travellers?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not think that the Automobile Association's breakdown service has anything to do with its classification of tourist accommodation. My noble friend does not give adequate recognition to the fact that in autumn last year we introduced a unified scheme between the English Tourism Council, the Automobile Association and the RAC. They do have common standards which are known to all, and their inspectors work to common standards. I think that my noble friend is being unduly gloomy.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, the Minister speaks of standards. Standards may well be high, but so are costs, and people who want to book hotels are surely most in need of objective, rather than subjective, ratings. At present, many of the voluntary ratings leave great areas of doubt. One couple's idea of a "well-furnished" bedroom may be very different from that of another couple. Does the noble Lord agree that it is therefore not surprising, given the cost of hotel accommodation here compared, for example, with that in France and Italy, that many people who travel prefer bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which is proliferating throughout the country?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I simply do not think that the noble Viscount is right. The voluntary scheme, jointly operated by the AA, the RAC and the English Tourism Council, applies objective standards to hotel and guest-house accommodation which are comparable to those of the Nomenclature Nationale and other standards in France. The simple difference is that it is not compulsory in the same way. I do not think that it can be said that there is a single version of a statutory scheme. A statutory scheme may consist simply of registration; it may require self-regulation, inspection to minimum standards, or inspection to new quality standards. There is a whole range of ways in which statutory schemes could be imposed, but it is better to try the voluntary schemes first and to give them a chance to operate.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister agree that our traditional seaside towns still provide extremely good value for money both to British visitors and to visitors from abroad? However, does he further agree that many are showing signs of wear and tear from their glory days? What plans do the Government have to give specific help to the seaside towns?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord is referring in particular to Blackpool. He will be pleased to know, if he does not know already, that there are local schemes in Scarborough and Blackpool which go further than the existing voluntary schemes and which will achieve some of the benefits that have been identified in more universal schemes. I congratulate Scarborough and Blackpool on what they are doing and I hope that other seaside towns will follow their example.

Baroness David

My Lords, will the Minister tell me about accommodation in pubs? I understand that there is a Good Pub Guide. Who compiles that; and is it to be relied on?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I believe that the Good Pub Guide is outside the sphere of government control—and long may it continue!