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Holidays (Low-income Families)

Volume 518: debated on Friday 19 November 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

In view of the lead story in The Daily Telegraph today, I thought that perhaps I should cancel the debate, which in many respects relates to child poverty. The headline says, “Recession? You’ve never had it so good”. However, I will not cancel it because, for millions of children, what is in the headline is manifestly not the case. The Prime Minister’s enterprise adviser, Lord Young of Graffham, is quoted—no doubt raising his voice above the clink of champagne glasses—as saying that

“people will wonder what all the fuss was about”

when looking back at the Government’s spending cuts, the deepest in more than 30 years.

However, back in the real world, things are different, as I shall explain. The timing of the debate could not be better because today is the BBC’s annual Children in Need day. With memories of the summer holidays still hopefully fresh in people’s minds, and with holidays in the UK or abroad doubtless the norm for Members of Parliament and their families, I invite the House to reflect on the following disturbing statistic: for almost one in three families, there was no holiday away from home—not even a single day trip to the seaside for a third of the nation’s children. That is the reality in the UK, one of the world’s richest countries, where the divide between rich and poor widened over the past decade.

When answering a question in the House of Lords on 8 February this year, on the then Government’s attitude to social tourism, the Minister, Lord Davies of Oldham, was interrupted and asked to explain what exactly was meant by social tourism. He replied:

“The concept behind social tourism is to ensure that those in society who are less well off get the opportunity to go on holiday…That is the concept...and the Government are of course sympathetic to it.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 February 2010; Vol. 717, c. 478.]

Today, I would like to talk about social tourism and why we need to pay more attention to it in the interests of those who would get the most direct benefit, particularly children, and the economic benefit it would generate. In the UK, social tourism is a concept that is little heard of and even less well understood.

I am therefore grateful to the charity, the Family Holiday Association, and its director Mr John McDonald, whom I met recently. I was so impressed with what he told me that I decided that I would bring its excellent work and objectives to the attention of the House, in the hope that perhaps someone in Government will listen and conclude that it should be supported and encouraged. As Mr McDonald told me, movingly and powerfully:

“Holidays help to make stronger, healthier, happier families, which in turn contributes to a healthier, happier, caring society that benefits everyone.”

However, some 7 million people in the UK are excluded from breaks through lack of money, and more than 1.5 million families cannot even afford a day trip.

Of course, I am not talking about holidays that some people—I exclude myself— have, sipping cocktails by the pool under the Caribbean sun, but relatively simple off-peak breaks here at home—more Skegness or Sheringham than Spain or the Seychelles, more train than plane. Many of us manage to take a decent holiday at least once every year. We consider it a necessary part of life to ensure that we stay healthy—physically, emotionally and mentally.

The Government already use the lack of a one-week break away from home as a measure of poverty, and the Office for National Statistics provides the shocking figures that tell us that more than 2 million families with dependent children—almost one in three families—cannot afford a simple holiday. Sadly, that is likely to get worse as austerity measures gather pace. Official Government statistics reveal that 3.9 million children already live below the official poverty line.

Figures supplied by the Family Holiday Association, which describes itself as the

“charity that gives families a break”

show that 21% of children from households with either married parents or a cohabiting couple cannot afford a one-week break. For single mothers or fathers, the figure is 57%. The number of children, therefore, who do not have a holiday is 3,770,000. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics 2004 social inequalities report, 7 million people do not have a holiday—that figure includes children and parents. I am not sure whether there has been a report since, so perhaps it is time the ONS undertook a fresh one to reflect the current situation. I doubt that things have improved, or that they will improve without Government intervention, which I am calling for today. The 2004 report also gave depressing statistics on how many children did not enjoy even a single day trip—a total of 2,570,000.

Not only the lack of finance prevents children from having a holiday. Families often face complex issues such as long-term illness, chronic depression, disability—both physical and learning difficulties—family break-up and domestic violence. Sadly, more often than not, the families struggling in the most difficult situations cannot get away but would most benefit from a break.

Children especially suffer if their family can never have a break away from home. Not only do they miss out on quality family time, they have few opportunities to broaden their horizons, and have no special memories or stories to share with friends. They can feel excluded and isolated, which may eventually contribute to even more serious problems. A worker at a Women’s Aid refuge has told me this:

“I see some of the terrible difficulties families must deal with. A simple holiday helps families forget for a short time all the horrible things that are happening in their lives. After their break, I see mums and their children smile again. But more importantly, they seem much better able to cope with the everyday pressures they face.”

There is a growing body of scientific research—both British and international—that supports the contention that a break away from home can improve well-being and reduce stress, increase self-esteem and confidence, strengthen family communication and bonding, and provide new skills, widen perspectives and even enhance employability. A study from the university of Westminster published in April last year in the highly rated Annals of Tourism Research

“examined the value of social tourism for low-income groups, in terms of the benefits it can bring to the participants both in the short term and in the medium term…It has shown that for a modest investment in terms of time and money, holidays can facilitate significant benefits in the personal and family development of the participants. It has also highlighted new aspects of the social impacts of tourism, and has shown the potential of tourism as a part of social policy: not only because of the inherent benefits of the holiday, but also as a support for the success of other, existing interventions.”

However, the UK has a long way to go before access to holidays for disadvantaged families is an integral part of social welfare policy. Is social tourism a new-fangled idea with little or no real track record? The truth is that the concept of social tourism has deep and historic roots in the social welfare policies of many European countries.

In France, the “Chèque-Vacances” scheme, which is administered by the state-sponsored ANCV, last year helped more than 7.5 million people with a break. The mechanics of the scheme mirror those of our child care voucher system. Employees save money from their pre-tax salary to purchase their holiday vouchers, which can then be used to pay for accommodation, travel and restaurant costs. Some 135,000 establishments in France accept the vouchers, which come in €10 and €20 denominations.

In addition to the social welfare benefits that the scheme delivers to the millions of French citizens who participate, it is also recognised as a significant economic driver for French domestic tourism by pumping more than €3 billion into the tourism economy. The dual impact of social welfare and economic benefit is repeated in the multitude of schemes to be found across Europe, including the state-sponsored IMSERSO scheme in Spain. Last year, that holiday-subsidy project helped more than 1.2 million Spanish senior citizens to access an off-peak break at the Spanish seaside. A PricewaterhouseCoopers evaluation of the scheme for the Spanish Government found that for every €1 of subsidy, an additional €1.5 of tax receipts was generated for the Spanish Treasury.

One million-plus pensioners heading towards the coast during the quieter off-peak periods generates a great deal of economic activity, helping to extend the season and to generate and extend employment. PWC was at pains to point out that it had not even looked at the cost savings accruing to the Spanish health care system from animating so many senior citizens. Similar schemes are to be found throughout Europe from hard-up Greece, through to Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavia.

Not all social tourism schemes are huge like the French and Spanish examples. In Belgium, the Flanders tourist office has made it a condition of registering with the tourist board that holiday establishments provide free or discounted holiday nights. These offers are then aggregated into a brochure that is made available to social organisations throughout Flanders to help disadvantaged families access that much-needed break away from home. This year the Flanders Government expect to help more than 90,000 people with a Flanders-based break.

Perhaps the Government could undertake a trial scheme, based on what is achieved across the North sea in Flanders, to see how it could operate here—and I nominate the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk with their long coastline and seaside towns, large and small, whose economy would get a welcome boost while at the same time providing much-needed holidays for so many of the nation’s children who do not experience even a day trip to the seaside. From Hunstanton in north Norfolk to Southend in Essex, taking in such wonderful destinations as Cromer and Great Yarmouth, Felixstowe, Clacton and Walton, the East Anglian coastal towns would get a fantastic boost through the economic tourism that I propose today. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) told me only yesterday that he is doing research into economic tourism for his constituency, so I hope that the coalition Government will take forward what we are both seeking to achieve.

Linked with this, I draw the House’s attention to early-day motion 982 tabled last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), which is headed “Impact of Spending Cuts on Seaside Resort Economies”. Clearly any reduction in the spending capacity of already low-income families is likely to increase the number of children who will not have a holiday in future years. The motion calls on the Government

“to review urgently the impact of welfare reforms on coastal economies, and seaside resorts in particular, so that such areas do not suffer disproportionately from public spending cuts.”

In blunt economic terms, social tourism delivers economic benefits as well as huge benefits to disadvantaged and low-income families, not just children but parents, and to senior citizens with little disposable income. It seems that in many other parts of Europe, social tourism is intuitively understood to deliver benefits to individuals and families that makes it a very cost-effective prescription for improved health and family strength. There is also a clear understanding of the huge economic benefits that can follow if those people not currently able to participate in tourism can be supported to do so.

The European Economic and Social Committee, in its 2006 report “Social Tourism in Europe—The Barcelona Declaration”, dubbed social tourism

“a miracle in that all the practitioners and users obtain all kinds of benefits: economic, social, health, employment, European one is harmed by this activity…and the bottom line is that it would be difficult to find a human economic activity that is so universally recognised and supported”.

Following the Lisbon treaty, the European Commission has taken an ever-greater interest in tourism and has recently established the €3 million Calypso programme to promote social tourism and the social and economic benefits it can deliver. Some 21 EU and candidate countries have signed up to the programme. I report with profound regret that, according to the Family Holiday Association, the UK has yet to express an interest. As a result of today’s debate, I hope that this omission will be corrected, and our coalition Government will take seriously the importance of introducing measures— established in other countries and with a proven track record of success—to assist low-income British families and disadvantaged pensioners to have holidays.

Whatever our views on Europe, we need to pay attention to what is happening there. Spain has recently launched a scheme—Europe Senior Tourism—that has started to attract senior tourists to Spain on heavily discounted and state-subsidised low-season breaks. In its first season, some 40,000 people from elsewhere in Europe arrived in Spain to enjoy a break in which the Spanish had contributed €100 to the cost of each person’s holiday. When one considers the profit for the Spanish tourism economy, and the way in which its domestic IMSERSO scheme has developed, this scheme can be expected to grow substantially. My understanding is that the French ANCV is developing a similar scheme to attract EU visitors to France. Of course, only the hardened cynic would refuse to accept that this was all being done to promote anything other than European citizenship. I cannot imagine that already hard-pressed Blackpool and Great Yarmouth landladies, or their counterparts struggling to make a living on the sunshine Essex coast, will relish the thought of their low-season customers being attracted by heavily subsidised breaks to the continent when their Government do not seem to know what social tourism is.

People in Britain value their holidays as much as our European cousins, but the concept of social tourism has never been picked up by the British Government. Amazingly, I have been told about a report published in 1976 called “Holidays: the social need”, which was jointly sponsored by the English Tourist Board and the Trades Union Congress. Authored by the Social Tourism Study Group, it spoke about social tourism and its benefits just as you might expect to hear an exponent of the benefits of holidays speak today. It has been ignored by successive Governments for 34 years. Britain could have been the leaders but, sadly, the concept, in British terms, has lain forgotten and dormant.

Yet, of course, helping disadvantaged people get a break has been done by charities, trade unions and good employers for generations. Charities such as the Family Holiday Association helped some 2,000 families with a UK holiday this year, the trade union Unison has its own holiday park in Croyde Bay in north Devon, and there are good employers such as John Lewis plc, which owns five holiday centres that it runs for the benefit of its employees.

All Governments profess to want to lift people out of poverty by putting more cash in their pockets. With more cash, people would have access to more choices, and one choice that people could make would be to take a holiday, so the argument goes. But that is to imply that a holiday is merely a purchasing choice and to ignore the benefits to individuals, the family and hence to the community that a break can deliver. That argument has been comprehensively undermined by recent research.

Going back to the question in the Lords, Lord Davies indicated in his answer that the Government were sympathetic to social tourism and acknowledged the benefits that it can deliver. He went on to say that the Government even gave £10,000 to Tourism for All, a charity that supports holidays for people with disabilities. But he and his advisers seemed unaware that the long-established Family Fund, a charity fully funded by Government and set up to help families with children affected by long-term disability, spends almost half its £30 million budget providing short holidays for these families.

In this country, we already use the lack of a break away from home as a measure of poverty, we count the numbers of people who cannot afford to enjoy even a day trip and we spend lots of money, both private and public, addressing this issue, albeit in an ad hoc and unrecognised fashion. We need to take the issue of social tourism more seriously. We need to understand the significant benefits that it can deliver both from a social and from an economic point of view. I would have liked social tourism to have featured in the Marmot review, “Fair Society, Healthy Lives”, which was published in February. It will be recalled that Professor Sir Michael Marmot, at the invitation of the then Secretary of State for Health, chaired a year-long independent review into health inequalities in England, producing proposals to introduce evidence-based strategies for reducing health inequalities. I believe that he is supportive of the work of the Family Holiday Association.

I strongly believe that the new independent review on poverty and life chances being led by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) should take note of what can be learned from successful social tourism models elsewhere. I also believe that the domestic tourism industry needs to wake up to what is happening in the rest of Europe and to grasp the opportunities that social tourism can deliver here in the UK. Imagine what a French-type programme could do to support our seaside resorts.

Let me repeat my call to the Government to fund a pilot scheme for the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, not just for the seaside towns, but for other tourist destinations inland, of which I nominate Colchester, Britain’s oldest recorded town and home of Colchester zoo, as a prime example of how to boost the local economy through economic tourism. With children in mind, I point out that the world’s favourite nursery rhyme, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, was written in Colchester, so that is another reason to promote my home town as a place for children to visit, where they can see the house where the rhyme was written by the Taylor sisters in 1805.

Over the past few years a growing number of organisations have begun to join together to discuss how best to get social tourism on to the political agenda. The Family Holiday Association has led the effort, bringing together organisations as diverse as the Youth Hostel Association and Unison in a social tourism consortium. Social tourism seminars have been held in London and Edinburgh. Scotland, of course, has devolved responsibility for tourism. Joint programmes have been established both among the UK groups and with European partner organisations. Joint presentations have been made to the European Commission directorate-general of enterprise and industry meetings, and a staff member from the Family Holiday Association has been co-opted as a private sector stakeholder of the Commission’s Calypso programme.

A few weeks ago, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) hosted a reception at the House on behalf of the Family Holiday Association, at which those attending heard about social tourism and proposals for a cross-party group of MPs and Members of the Lords to establish an all-party group on social tourism. The anticipated all-party group will establish an inquiry into social tourism and aims to publish a report as quickly as is feasible. A wide range of potential witnesses have already indicated a willingness to participate in the inquiry, including representatives from Spain, France, Belgium and the European Commission. It is also expected to have input from local government and various tourist authorities together with members of the social tourism consortium.

I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members had an enjoyable holiday this summer. Millions of our fellow citizens, particularly children, did not. Even in these difficult economic times, putting that right should not be too much to ask. It would make both economic and social well-being common sense to do so.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing this debate. I am glad that he did not cancel it, as he said he nearly did, and instead, in his inimitable manner, gave a twinkling delivery at high speed about this important subject. I fear that the Hansard reporters might have to revisit his notes on the IMSERSO Spanish scheme, the ANCV in France and assorted other names. He did not miss the opportunity to take us blatantly and unashamedly on a Cook’s tour of the east of England, and not least of his own constituency—and why not?—and the sunshine Essex coast; I am sure he would like me to repeat that phrase. The Essex coast is almost as sunshiney as the Sussex coast, where my constituency is based.

This is an important subject, and it is perhaps appropriate, as the hon. Gentleman said, that it falls on Children in Need day. One of my most important duties this morning was judging the cake competition in aid of Children in Need in the Department for Education—and a fearsome competition it was! I thought it safer than the cycling marathon on the ground floor. However, I am glad to say that the most innovative cake was the “cruffin”, which is a combination of an apple crumble and a muffin, made by somebody in my private office. But I digress, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Gentleman is a redoubtable and tireless campaigner on behalf of all children and young people, as well as pensioners, whom he mentioned, and many other specialist categories of people. It is no surprise to me that we are here on a sitting Friday—although not in a packed Chamber, alas—discussing one way to improve those people’s lives. I echo his comments about the Family Holiday Association. He is right to praise the excellent work that it does with families who would otherwise be unable to benefit from a holiday, and it deserves our fullest praise and deepest thanks. I am also glad that he mentioned the important Family Fund, which provides much needed breaks for particularly needy families who have children with long-term disabilities. That has proved very effective in the past.

The hon. Gentleman is also right that there is a growing body of research indicating that holidays can greatly benefit families. They allow them time to spend together outside their normal circumstances, relaxing in different places, and they can make for happier and healthier families, as he rightly stated. When holidays are taken in England, as I would always recommend, they provide a boost to local tourism as well—especially in Colchester and Worthing. However, the people who benefit the most from the chance to get away from the trials and tribulations of their daily lives are naturally also those for whom it can be most difficult.

I am fully aware that, in some European countries, such as France and Spain, which he flagged up, family holidays are regarded as a right. Sadly, that is not the Government’s view in this country. Many people who are not in poverty choose not to go on holiday for many different reasons, and we would not want to force them to do so. It is surely up to families how they spend their time and money, and at this time when resources are tight and there are many competing priorities for taxpayers’ money, it is, I am afraid, unaffordable for the Government to subsidise holidays.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s calculations for minimum income standards estimate that the cost of one week’s self-catering holiday in the United Kingdom for a family of two adults and two children is about £620, with associated travel costs of about £130. The Family Holiday Association figures from 2004, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, suggest that each break costs £1,500. However, the Government are determined to focus their limited resources on reducing the deficit, putting public services on a sustainable footing and tackling the underlying causes of poverty, thereby putting everyone’s finances back on an even keel, so that families in the future can decide how they want to use their discretionary spending money.

Living in poverty, particularly at a young age, is a deeply distressing experience that can have long-term consequences. We want to end poverty and to do so not by treating the symptoms, but by eliminating the root causes, hence our commitment to the elimination of child poverty in particular. It is because nothing is more important than overcoming barriers to social mobility that we are investing more in getting early-years education right, for example. We recently announced that the entitlement to 15 hours per week of free education that the Government introduced for all three and four-year-olds will be extended to disadvantaged two-year-olds. We have also protected funding for Sure Start children’s centres and will refocus them on their original purposes, so that families who most need support get it.

It is because we are committed to improving education for the poorest families, so that they can go on to get the good job to which they have always aspired, that we are radically reforming education, including through the introduction of a new pupil premium that will attach extra money to the poorest pupils. It is because we believe that work is the best possible route out of poverty that we are introducing reforms to the welfare system to ensure that those who can work do so, while those who cannot receive the support that they need. We think that the right approach is to give families the power and resources to be able to take advantage of some of the things that the hon. Gentleman rightly flagged up.

With a good education and a job comes choice, and it will then be for families to decide whether they go on holiday and what sort of holiday they may want to take. But such is our determination to tackle poverty and inequality that we have asked Alan Milburn to assist us in our work to reinvigorate the social mobility agenda so that deprivation is not destiny.

Will the Minister ask Mr Milburn to look at how the French and Spanish Governments in particular regard their holiday schemes? Not only do they benefit the children of low-income families, but they boost the economy of seaside resorts and other locations in those countries. They generate income.

I heard the hon. Gentleman’s point about a double benefit. Social tourism is good for families who need a break, and for the industry and the resorts where they choose to go. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to forward his comments—the Hansard report of today’s debate—to Alan Milburn so that he can take them into consideration. I am happy to support him in doing that.

In addition to the work that we have asked Alan Milburn to do, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) is leading a review of poverty and life chances. Again, the hon. Gentleman’s comments are relevant to that review, and I encourage him to send further details to the right hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) was also enjoying the cakes in the Department for Education when I was having a conversation with him this morning. He is leading a separate review into how we can support local councils in early intervention because, as we all know, prevention is always better than cure. All that is relevant to what the hon. Member for Colchester alluded to this afternoon.

We announced as part of the spending review that we will bring together funding for services for the most vulnerable children, young people and families through a new early intervention grant, which will be worth around £2 billion a year at the end of the comprehensive spending review period. It will allow local councils to decide how they can best deliver their local priorities. Again, that may focus on leisure opportunities for deprived families.

We fully support the Family Holiday Association, and all organisations that provide support to families who cannot otherwise afford holidays. Their work is admirable, and improves the quality of life of thousands of families every year. We cannot promise large sums of financial assistance to support them at this stage, but I hope that they will continue their work.

I again thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter in the House this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.