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Holiday Accommodation

Volume 523: debated on Tuesday 15 February 2011

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship again today, Mr Hollobone.

I represent a largely rural constituency which covers more than 2,000 sq km from the fertile coastal strip of seaside towns to the mountainous and sparsely populated glens. What all parts of Angus have in common is their beauty, which has made tourism an important and growing part of the local economy. The latest Office for National Statistics classification discloses that almost 10% of jobs in Angus in 2008—the last year for which I can find figures—are tourist-related, which is significantly above the national average of around 8%. As well as the more traditional holiday tourism, my constituency also attracts a significant number of visitors from the UK and overseas who are attracted by field sports. It will therefore be no surprise that I maintain an abiding interest in tourism development issues, which affect the economic development of Angus and the prosperity and well-being of my constituents.

I should say at the outset that I am not here simply to lambast the Government for their attitude to tourism. I took a great interest in the furnished holiday lettings relief and its impact on the self-catering sector, and campaigned hard against the ludicrous proposals put forward by the previous Labour Government. I acknowledge that the present Government have introduced new proposals which, although still not ideal, are a significant improvement on what had been proposed, and last week I submitted to the Treasury my third response to consultation on the issue in less than a year. I do, however, wish to concentrate on a proposal which I believe could cause serious damage to this vital industry: the Minister’s proposal to do away with the current, widely recognised star rating scheme for holiday accommodation. He has suggested, in effect, that consumers instead look at private internet sites such as TripAdvisor.

I have pursued the matter through a series of parliamentary questions and have been somewhat perturbed by the answers, since it seems clear that the Government are moving towards self-assessment and feedback rather than the current star rating scheme. Incidentally, the Minister stated in one answer that tourism is a devolved matter for the Scottish Government. That is not the whole picture, at least at present, as VisitBritain is responsible for marketing tourism for the whole of the UK in significant parts of the world, including the crucial emerging markets of Brazil, China and India, under what I understand is referred to as the “quadrant model”.

Many tourists coming to the UK will be looking for a holiday that covers several centres, including Scotland. Therefore, the current hard-won system, with all the national tourist boards and the Automobile Association co-operating in a similar star system, has a great deal of merit. Allied to that, such a system is common overseas, so visitors from other areas will be familiar with the concept and be able to recognise easily what type and standard of accommodation is available for consideration in all parts of the UK. In particular, visitors from the emerging markets that I have flagged up are unlikely to fly directly to Scotland, unless arriving via charter arranged under an incentive scheme, or for a conference. In such limited cases, use of self-catering accommodation is extremely unlikely.

I cannot overstate how hard the tourist industry has worked to bring into being the common standard, which ensures that a three-star self-catering cottage will be of the same quality in Scotland, England and Wales. I cannot emphasise enough how much work was done by the tourist boards and the industry, which compromised on sometimes heartfelt positions for the greater good of the industry going forward. In a rolling programme, self-catering was the first sector to apply the common standard. Other sectors have now joined, but the self-catering common standard was the first to be reviewed as standards and visitors’ expectations have moved on.

I consider the mooted scheme to be a serious error. The star-rating scheme has built up considerable trust and recognition over the years as a robust scheme that gives us a good idea of the standard of accommodation we are likely to encounter, based on an objective assessment by an independent body.

May I add to the hon. Gentleman’s argument? Will he consider that, whatever system we have going forward, we need to make it less onerous? The very small businesses in my constituency certainly find the current scheme difficult. If someone has a bed and breakfast and a cottage, the two assessments are separate, so whatever scheme we have, may we make it simpler and more affordable?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. As I will explain in my remarks, the new proposals will make the situation even worse for self-catering small businesses.

I accept that the current scheme is not perfect, and many hoteliers believe it too prescriptive, homogenising and sanitising accommodation with what some deride as its tick-box approach, which can penalise quirky, extraordinary or mould-breaking properties. Subscription to the scheme has been less extensive than was hoped, especially in England and, more particularly, in London. However, for all its limitations, it delivers an objective assessment based on published and transparent criteria. TripAdvisor and its like do not. Instead, individuals can register their views on holiday accommodation on a website, but their views are totally subjective and could be influenced by a huge number of the variables encountered.

The comedian Michael McIntyre has a funny routine based on someone using TripAdvisor to rate a holiday. Like all good comedy, it has a germ of truth. He notes that someone looking at the various comments on TripAdvisor is most likely to believe those that are bad. Indeed, often, only the disgruntled care to write up the experience—others simply do not bother.

Last year, I holidayed on the beautiful island of Seil, in self-catering accommodation found on the VisitScotland website and chosen on the basis of the star rating. My family and I had a great holiday, and we would thoroughly recommend it to anyone but, on returning home, with many things to do, writing a review on a website was the last thing on our minds. That is a danger for good properties.

That strikes to the very nature of the problem. There is absolutely no quality control over what may be posted on such sites. There is no effective way for the hotelier or holiday cottage provider to prevent someone with a particular beef—perhaps they did not get on with them, perhaps they were unreasonable, or perhaps they were simply vindictive—from commenting on the website. Yet such a comment could have a serious impact on the business. If the Minister has any doubt about the capacity of rival tradesmen who have lost in legal disputes, or of the plain malicious, to pursue vendettas in acts of cyber-sabotage, he could do worse than consult the website

While in theory the small business owner might have redress in law, few would have the resources to pursue such an action. Has the Minister looked at the jurisdiction section in the terms and conditions on—in case he does not know the website address? If he does so, he will find:

“This Website is operated by a US entity and this Agreement is governed by the laws of the State of Massachusetts, USA. You hereby consent to the exclusive jurisdiction and venue of courts in Massachusetts, USA and stipulate to the fairness and convenience of proceedings in such courts for all disputes arising out of or relating to the use of this Website. You agree that all claims you may have against TripAdvisor arising from or relating to the Site must be heard and resolved in a court of competent subject matter jurisdiction located in the state of Massachusetts.”

Despite the somewhat impenetrable English, that appears to give sole jurisdiction to the courts of the state of Massachusetts.

I am sure I am not alone in finding it strange that a Minister of the Crown will be recommending that consumers in the UK should consult, and that UK taxpaying accommodation providers should find themselves at the mercy of, an organisation that specifically seeks to exclude the writ of Her Majesty’s courts, as a supplement to and eventual substitute for a state-sanctioned system of quality assurance. For a Government that pride themselves on reducing the burden on small businesses, that seems a curious tack to take.

Should the jurisdiction barrier be laboriously and expensively overcome, the hard-pressed business which seeks to obtain redress for defamation also runs up against a comprehensive disclaimer on the website:

“TripAdvisor takes no responsibility and assumes no liability for any Content posted, stored or uploaded by you or any third party, or for any loss or damage thereto, nor is TripAdvisor liable for any mistakes, defamation, slander, libel, omissions, falsehoods, obscenity, pornography or profanity you may encounter”—

which makes it sound much more interesting than it probably is.

TripAdvisor will retort that it makes provision for management responses, but experienced practitioners whom I have consulted advise that that can too easily fall into an entrenched argument of “He says” or “She says”, from which there is no easy way out, and all in the public domain. Others have reported difficulties in accessing that right to reply, being told that any robust defence of the business breaches the user guidelines.

If that were not bad enough, there can be serious differences between how hotels and self-catering are treated on such sites. In a recent article in The Sunday Times, Adam Raphael, editor of The Good Hotel Guide, made the point:

“TripAdvisor, the best known hotel review site, carries millions of consumer reviews, but its usefulness is marred by its failure to screen out collusive and malicious reviews.”

He freely admits to having an obvious interest in the matter but points out that, in preparing his publication, his team track every review sent to them and know who the writers are, where they are coming from and how sound their judgments are. Tellingly, he adds:

“When our readers disagree, we send an anonymous inspector to spend the night at the hotel or B&B, at our expense.”

Adam Raphael also makes the point that TripAdvisor and similar sites have no idea who is writing reviews and make only a feeble attempt to check that they are genuine. He cites one response to a hotel’s complaint that a critical report was planted by a competitor:

“Since reviews are posted by our members on an open forum, and we do not verify the information posted in this, we are unable to provide you with proof that this member reserved, stayed or actually visited [your] hotel.”

Perhaps the final nail in the coffin was when TripAdvisor published a list of its top 25 hotels in the UK—one of which was, in fact, in administration and closed. That sets out the problem. Adam Raphael was looking at it from a different, commercial angle, but surely a star scheme administered by the national tourist agencies within the UK is the best way to ensure that tourists—whether domestic or from overseas—know what they are getting and can trust.

Bad as matters are for larger hotels, however, a much more serious situation could be faced by holiday lets in more rural areas such as mine in Angus, or that of the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) in the south-west. Just to show my inclusiveness and to demonstrate that this concern is not just a Scottish one, I made some inquiries as to how many English self-catering properties were listed on TripAdvisor. I thank the chief executive of the English Association of Self Catering Operators for doing the spadework.

The Minister might be interested to know that in the whole of England there are 3,706 such properties—in Devon only 239, in Cornwall 362, in Norfolk 76 and in Dorset 167. He might agree that those numbers are very small for some of the principal holiday destinations in England. Clearly, that is a small fraction of total self-catering accommodation in England. My understanding is that to get listed, a business has to pay to get on such a third-party site or hope that a client nominates them. As Adam Raphael notes in his article, that has already led to allegations that some hotels are offering inducements for good reviews on the sites.

The main point, and the thing that concerns me most, is that most self-catering accommodation would get very few reviews on such sites, unlike larger hotels, and therefore the impact of one unreasonable review would be far more detrimental to a small business. Will the Minister consider the difference between the accommodation types and the business models that they operate? A self-catering property that is let out for 25 weeks a year—fairly good going in the current market—might see 35 bookings made. If an average of three people visit per booking, that gives 75 people per property per year who might leave feedback on sites such as TripAdvisor. That includes children and close family members. Contrast that with a 10-bedroom hotel. According to the most recent annual UK occupancy survey for UK serviced accommodation, published in 2009, room occupancy averaged 58%. An average of two people per room would give 2,117 bookings and 4,234 visitor nights that could result in feedback on sites such as TripAdvisor. Put simply, such sites do not work for self-catering. The allied system is called FlipKey, but it is expensive to use as there is no linked booking engine for self-catering to generate funding, as Expedia does for TripAdvisor. FlipKey take-up has been understandably low.

The internal systems in Scotland and the other nations of the UK are devolved, and I understand that VisitScotland is likely to continue offering a quality assurance scheme along the lines of the current star-rating scheme. It sees the scheme as offering opportunities rather than being a burden, and in answer to initial reports on the proposed changes it responded that Scotland’s star-rating quality assurance scheme is recognised as a world leader. VisitScotland has recently signed a three-year contract with the Swedish agency for economic and regional growth to develop a quality assurance scheme for visitor attractions and the accommodation sector. It has worked with Namibia and South Africa on quality schemes, and is currently in discussion with Norway, Finland, Estonia and Swaziland.

A huge amount of effort has been put in over the years between VisitScotland, VisitWales and VisitEngland to produce a common standard for those visiting all parts of the UK and, in the case of foreign tourists, those encouraged by VisitBritain. If the Minister goes down the road of self-assessment, that will render the common standard meaningless and tourists will have to deal with at least two competing systems. At a time when we need to work together to encourage economic development in our rural economies—of which tourism is a vital part—that seems a backward step.

The chief executive of Farm Stay UK wrote to me yesterday:

“As we position the UK on the world stage with the Royal Wedding, the Olympic and Paralympic games and the Rugby World Cup, now is not the time to be pulling away from a quality initiative.”

I would add the Commonwealth games in Glasgow to that list.

I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response. I urge him to reconsider this matter before it is too late, and to meet with the chair of the Federation of National Self Catering Associations, and the CEO of Farm Stay UK, whom I am sure can put the case for the self-catering sector more forcefully than me.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I am delighted to respond to the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) on this important issue, which has been slightly distorted in the public debate thus far, so I am glad for the opportunity to respond to his points and to set the record straight.

The hon. Gentleman has helped me by securing this debate—for which I thank him—and by kindly asking me a written parliamentary question, which I answered on 2 February. There were a number of associated questions, but one was specifically on this topic and I shall start by reading part of the answer that I gave him at the time. I hope it will provide answers to much of what he has spoken about today. I stated:

“We are not considering abolishing the schemes, but rather passing them over to be run by the industry itself instead.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2011; Vol. 522, c. 819W.]

That is crucial because a large part—although not the entirety—of the hon. Gentleman’s argument was based around the principle that we are scrapping the star-rating schemes. We are not. I made that clear to the hon. Gentleman in a written answer, and I am happy to repeat it now. I accept that star-rating schemes have a purpose and are valued and useful. That use has historically been strong, and it will continue in the future.

It is all very well for people to get over-excited about the wonders of the internet; it has many great things that it can provide for us all. However, many people are still not particularly comfortable using the internet or find it hard to afford—we talk about the digital divide—and those people need an alternative source of information. Trust has built up in star-rating schemes over time, and we would be foolish to abandon that.

I understand what the Minister says, but will he clarify what that implies for the cost to small businesses—the point raised by the hon. Member for Newton Abbot? Is money being provided to the national tourist board—in England, in the Minister’s case—to continue the scheme in its current forum? Are considerable increases in cost to the small holiday-letter expected, so that the scheme can continue?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, these schemes are typically run on a combined cost basis. At the moment, the Government provide a modest amount of funding through VisitEngland to pay for a small number of staff who are involved in administering the scheme in England. There is more than one scheme, such as that sponsored by the AA and various other organisations around the country. I was in the New Forest the other day visiting its impressive local tourism organisation. It has a New Forest accommodation rating scheme. In most cases, people typically pay a small sum to be part of such a scheme, and in the best-run ones, the sums paid by the participant are graded according to the size and type of accommodation provided. No one is suggesting that that system is due to change.

In this country we still have a system where Governments get involved in rating the quality of hotels and other kinds of holiday accommodation. I find that bizarre because we do not have—thank goodness—a Government rating system for cars or cornflakes or almost any other kind of consumer product. There is good reason for that, because in most fields of life we trust people to make up their minds based on good consumer information. It is important that people have good consumer information when booking a holiday or accommodation, but the emphasis should be on providing that information rather than on the Government saying, “We know what ‘good’ looks like.” Anyone in the tourism industry would accept that the goalposts are moving fast, and there is a welcome proliferation of different kinds of accommodation for different niches. It is difficult for any star-rating system to keep up with that, particularly a state-mandated and sponsored system.

The 2008 report by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport pointed out the importance of the star-rating system in driving up quality. At that time, the Department listed the scheme as one of its great achievements. The Minister’s arguments seem to turn that on its head.

I do not think they do. I have repeated something that I had already told the hon. Gentleman in a written answer: we are not planning to can the scheme; we plan to continue with it, but to allow the industry to take it over. I have spent the past five minutes explaining some of the strengths of such a scheme, but it is peculiar at the very least, and unusual compared with other industries, for such a scheme to be state sponsored.

I started by agreeing with the hon. Gentleman that star-rating schemes are an important part of a holidaymaker’s assessment of where they want to go and stay. They are not the only thing, and increasingly there are other sources of information. I will come on to the different sources of information, including the hon. Gentleman’s jeremiad against TripAdvisor and all its ills. Clearly, star-rating schemes have a place, but I find it bizarre that in a world where we have many star-rating systems other than the state-sponsored one, and where we do not have state-sponsored quality approval schemes for all sorts of other consumer goods, we somehow think it sensible and right for the Government to be the author and intermediary of something for hotels. That is a bizarre anomaly.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about some of the alternatives, saying that they also have flaws. I will come to that in a minute. It is important to realise that although star-rating schemes have their strengths and are a trusted brand in many cases, they also have their limitations. As I was beginning to point out, a welcome and increasing variety of accommodation is available. In the last 18 months to two years, across Britain as a whole we have seen a huge increase in the amount of self-catering accommodation that people are using for their holidays. There is also in the hotel sector an increasing proliferation of types of hotel—niche players of one kind or another. There are people providing green hotels, which have a very low carbon footprint and are environmentally sensitive; high-style boutique hotels; and everything in-between. That is to be welcomed, but it is extremely difficult to argue that one star-rating scheme can capture that breadth and richness.

It is quite instructive that we have only to think of the expectations that people have of what a typical three-star hotel will provide today compared with 10 or 15 years ago to illustrate how things have changed and will continue to change. The chances are that 10 or 15 years ago, people would have expected a reasonable hotel room to have a trouser press in the corner and a phone. Nowadays, whether or not people like the trouser press, they are much more likely to be concerned about whether there is wi-fi access. The fact that a great many people have mobile phones nowadays makes the phone relatively less important. All I am saying is that the criteria need to move with the times. The industry is reacting well and rapidly to reflect that diversification of market opportunities. It is extremely difficult to expect a single state-run star-rating scheme to keep up with all that, even though—let me agree with the hon. Gentleman once more, just for the sake of clarity—he and I both accept that star-rating schemes are important. I am arguing about how we provide one, rather than whether they are a good thing.

Before I talk about some of the alternatives and whether TripAdvisor is the worst or best thing since sliced bread, I should pick the hon. Gentleman up on one other point. He began by acknowledging that tourism is a devolved matter, and he is absolutely right. For the sake of clarity, let me point out that VisitBritain is in charge of marketing Britain as a whole—as one would expect from the name—to the world outside to drive inbound foreign visitors to the UK. We are taking all sorts of measures to get it properly funded and make it able to do that in the most effective way possible in the next three or four years, because we have an amazing set of international events that will be attracting people to this country.

I am thinking of events such as the royal wedding, which is due very soon, but also, in 2012, we have the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the Olympic and Paralympic games, plus the cultural Olympiad. In the years following, we have two different flavours of rugby World cup; we have another Ryder cup coming up in golf; and of course in Glasgow we have the Commonwealth games. There is a huge opportunity for us to sell the UK as a destination. Even if people are not coming here to see those events, they will probably be viewed by some of the largest TV audiences the planet has ever seen, so they present an unparalleled marketing opportunity in attracting people here in the years following the events, just because they liked what they saw on TV.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that VisitBritain has that pan-Britain role. However, it is also worth pointing out that the decisions by Scotland, Wales or England on things such as a star-rating scheme are entirely local; they are fully devolved. Therefore, although I appreciate his remarks at the start of his speech, I gently say to him that a great deal of his concern about the star-rating schemes in Scotland must be directed to the Scottish Executive, rather than here. I do accept, however, that there is a point about consistency between the different nations.

I am listening to what the Minister is saying but I rather fear he has missed my point. I fully accept that, internally, these things are devolved. Indeed, VisitScotland has made very clear its support for the existing scheme. However, that is not the argument. The point I was making about VisitBritain is that, given all the events that are coming up, most of the tourists will fly into London because Heathrow is the premier international airport and there are very few direct international flights to Scotland’s airports—apart from certain destinations—particularly from many of the countries where VisitBritain operates. My concern is that if tourists come to the UK, they should be able to be assured that the type of starred accommodation available is similar throughout the various countries of the UK. I suspect that many of them will travel about a great deal while they are here. The worry is about breaking up a hard-won scheme that has taken many years to establish. If Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland keep their schemes, as I think they probably will, and England goes its own way, there is a real danger of causing confusion and affecting important international tourism to the UK as a whole.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I suppose the most reassuring response I can give is that the good news is that the tourism industry, both collectively and individually, is not stupid and understands the importance of common standards. He will understand that all the different existing schemes—I mentioned the AA scheme and the very local example that I saw in the New Forest—take notice of, and in many cases contribute to, a common set of standards, so there is a direct read-across between, for example, the AA scheme and others. That is clearly to the advantage of the entire tourism industry. Handing the English scheme back to the industry is very unlikely to endanger that, because it is clearly to its commercial advantage. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

In the couple of minutes I have left, I shall move on to the hon. Gentleman’s point about some of the alternatives. There was a long and impassioned section in the middle of his speech about the evils of TripAdvisor and all the things it gets wrong. For the sake of clarity, I point out that this Department and this Government do not hold a brief for TripAdvisor or anyone else like that at all. It would be entirely wrong of us to pretend that we did, or even to do so. TripAdvisor is the most commonly used such website in this country. It is used by people who are not stupid and who find what it says helpful—although I think many of them take what it says with a pinch of salt, because some of the reviews need to be viewed with a careful eye, for the reasons the hon. Gentleman laid out. However, there are plenty of alternatives, and many of those have very tight—and perhaps in some people’s view, tighter—quality controls on the kinds of postings they allow. For example, many of them allow postings to be made only by people who have genuinely visited and stayed the night in the accommodation in question. Therefore, postings are made only by customers. They cannot be made by the people running the bed and breakfast down the road, who feel like posting something nasty even though they have not stayed in the accommodation. There are different ways of dealing with the quality control angle.

Websites of any kind that provide customer reviews live or die by the trust the British public place in those ratings. If someone visits such a site and thinks it is being spiked or generally misused, they are much less likely to go back to it. Therefore, there is a huge reputational risk for any websites that allow low-quality reviews to become too large a proportion of the total. For example, if, in the hon. Gentleman’s view, TripAdvisor is getting it wrong too often and others are doing a better job, we would logically expect people to transfer their affections very quickly, given the rate at which things move in the digital world, from that website to another one. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that such websites are not perfect, and there are concerns about them, but there is an eminently sensible self-correcting mechanism whereby people can vote with their feet—or, in this case, with their mouse.