Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I beg to move that the Committee considers the draft Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018, which were laid before the House on 16 April. The purpose of the draft regulations is to update and replace existing legislation by implementing the requirements set out by the 2015 European package travel directive. It may be helpful to give some background on consumer protection and the importance of consumer rights before I explain the changes in detail.
In this country, we have a long history of delivering high standards and strong protection for consumers. That history extends into our time as a member of the EU, where we have been influential in developing the EU’s consumer protections. Indeed, the current framework reflects UK priorities. But in some areas the UK has chosen to go further, providing additional protection for British consumers. For instance, through the Consumer Rights Act, we regulated for the supply of digital content, ensuring that there are clear rights for people buying things such as movies and music online. As e-commerce continues to grow, those protections give shoppers the peace of mind that they need to make a purchase, which is crucial to our prosperity. Household expenditure accounts for around 60% of the UK’s economy, more than a trillion pounds a year. Package holidays form an important part of households’ expenditure. Each household spends an average of £1,200 a year on package holidays, around one-third of their total spending on recreation and culture.
Our recently published impact assessment shows that the new rules we are proposing will protect an extra 10 million UK package holiday trips, bringing those who mix and match their holidays in line with those who opt for traditional prearranged combinations. Last summer we consulted on the idea of a light-touch approach to implementation of these proposals. We published the Government’s response to the consultation and the impact assessment last month. The EU’s deadline for transposing the requirements of the EU package travel directive into UK law was this January, with a further six months for these requirements to be brought into force. The travel industry is aware that we are copying out the directive, which has been in the public domain since 2015. We recognise the concerns raised that the Government are late in implementing the regulations. Therefore, we have engaged intensively in advance of laying the regulations to help the industry adjust, and will continue to work with businesses on implementation after the regulations come into force.
Package travel regulations have provided protection to travellers for many years, but they were introduced in 1992, and much has changed since then. Technical innovations have opened up new ways of buying and selling holidays. This has provided increased choice and flexibility in the travel market, allowing consumers to mix and match components of a holiday to suit their particular needs However, such rapid change has left new methods of packaging holidays outside the scope of the current regulations. The 2018 package travel regulations will address this gap. We are ensuring that people who book package holidays through travel sites online enjoy the same rights as those who book with a traditional travel agent. The draft regulations will introduce a broader definition of package holidays to capture modern booking models.
The regulations will also introduce a new concept of linked travel arrangements, or LTAs. These provide some level of protection for looser combinations of travel services than exist in a package holiday, so they have fewer requirements. We are also making it a requirement that package travellers are given clearer information on what they are agreeing to and what their rights are. In addition, we have strengthened the insolvency protection so that consumers can get their money back or be returned home if the company that arranged a package goes bust.
The United Kingdom is required to designate central contact points to supervise UK-established package organisers that are selling into other EU member states. After careful consideration, we have agreed that from July the Civil Aviation Authority will take on that role. With regard to the enforcement of the regulations, the arrangements will be as before, with the responsibilities being taken on by either the Civil Aviation Authority or trading standards.
The department’s impact assessment, which was published alongside the regulations, estimates a net cost to business of around £100 million a year. However, these changes will level the regulatory environment for all businesses selling travel packages. Businesses which have been providing packages not previously covered will now be subject to the full range of protections under the 2018 package travel regulations, including the organiser taking on liability for all the services provided under the contract and providing cover against insolvency.
All these measures will help to ensure that on the day we leave the EU we will maintain our high standards of consumer protection, delivering the stability and continuity that consumers need. It is also our objective to have effective protection in place for consumers purchasing goods and services cross-border in the future. The way that consumer protection will apply when buying across borders is still a matter for negotiation, but we are determined to co-operate closely with our EU partners on matters of consumer protection.
The regulations will enhance protections for consumers when buying package holidays either through the traditional method or online, and they have been welcomed as a positive step by the travel industry. Throughout the consultation process and the development of policy, we have sought to strike a balance between increased protection for consumers and minimised burdens on businesses. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
My Lords, this updating of the 1992 legislation is welcome, as things have undoubtedly moved on a great deal since then. We now use computers and we travel a great deal more, particularly taking short breaks. The Minister has outlined how important holidays are to the UK public, so I welcome the fact that the definition of a package is to be expanded. Of course, we were prompted to do this by an EU directive, and we have only until 1 July to deal with it. The impact assessment makes it clear that these regulations—and the Minister said as much just now—do not go beyond EU requirements; rather, the EU directive has in effect been simply copied over.
When we discussed this issue last year, in the wake of the Monarch Airlines insolvency, the Minister at the time, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, made it a point of great pride that we in the UK had the first laws to protect the purchasers of package holidays and that our laws go beyond the protections available in other countries. Given that, my first question is whether this is a conscious change of policy by the Government in terms of consumer law. The Monarch situation revealed again the differing levels of protection available to travellers, depending on how they purchase their holiday and the unfairness that existed between different sorts of purchase. It demonstrated that nowadays relatively few people buy traditional packages for their holidays, although I read recently that declining public economic confidence has started to reverse that trend. People are now looking for more security and are therefore more likely to buy a package. So it is to be welcomed that these regulations are specifically designed to cover other sorts of arrangements.
Just when I thought I had got my head around linked travel arrangements and what they mean, I find that there are two other categories as well. When we discussed this last year, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, made it clear that the idea of a linked travel arrangement was still in the process of being divined. Looking at the categories, I see that there are prearranged packages, which is the traditional arrangement we are all used to, and dynamic packages, which have the features of a package but allow the consumer to pick and mix, to customise the content of their package, buying from one trader. As a further option, travellers can put together the components of a package themselves—one assumes online—based on specific offers from more than one trader. The Explanatory Memorandum says that, although this has elements of from more than one trader, it comes from a single point of sale. My second question to the Minister is this: what does a “single point of sale” mean?
Last night, I happened to be organising a weekend away. I booked my flight on a holiday package website and then up popped the offer of a car hire. But as I dealt with the car hire, I found myself on a separate website, although it had come to me via the first one. I am interested in how this option differs from other options. I quite understand that, if you walk into Trailfinders, you can buy a variety of things from one point of sale. But what is a “single point of sale” when you are dealing with this on the computer?
Apparently, in addition to and separate from the two forms of dynamic package and the simple prearranged package, there are linked travel arrangements. These are the combination of at least two different travel service for the same holiday but, unlike packages, they involve separate selection and payment for each services and separate contracts. Those are created with a trader and, according to the explanation, a linked travel arrangement is created where the,
“trader facilitates either … the selection and payment of two or more services for the same trip, under separate contracts with individual providers, upon a single contact with a point of sale, or … the separate selection and payment of two or more travel services for the same trip through targeted linked booking processes within 24 hours without transferring the travellers’ payment details. Conversely, if the traveller’s payment details, name and email address are transferred then this would count as a package”.
I understand the last sentence, but I got lost halfway through the rest of it.
The point I am making is that this is hugely complex. How is a person purchasing their holiday to know that it is linked by a trader rather than a link inspired by Google? I get extremely worried when I visit a restaurant, for example, and am then asked to rate it. I have not told anyone I am going there—I have simply carried my phone there—yet, somehow, Big Brother knows I have been there. We are all susceptible to having things promoted to us as a result of our choices, using the computer or simply carrying around a phone. This is so complex that publicity will be essential. It will affect a whole new cohort of traders—the Explanatory Memorandum estimates a one-off cost of £620 million to the industry and an annual cost of £48 million. This is a significant new thing for the industry. So my question is: how are the Government planning to raise awareness within the travel industry?
Secondly, the phrase “ATOL-protected” is publicly well understood. It might sometimes be slightly misunderstood, but the public understand that the phrase “ATOL-protected” is going to give them some level of financial protection. It is a sort of gold star insurance for the more cautious traveller. How are the Government planning to explain these more complex regulations to the general public? The Minister talked about levels of compensation, but how will it be clear to members of the public that they have gone into one form of dynamic package rather than a linked travel arrangement, or vice versa? It is so complicated. It is ironic that we are planning to introduce this now, as we are about to leave the EU. It involves a big benefit for the travel industry, as it involves mutual recognition of insolvency rules. Traders have only to comply with the insolvency regime in the member state where they are established, instead of a multiplicity of regimes.
Finally, I ask the Minister an associated question. When you cancel a flight, very often you have to stand the loss—you might be lucky enough to have insurance; you might have bought a flexible enough flight at a greater price, whatever. But I understand that, when you cancel that flight, part of what you paid is taxation. Whatever the circumstances of your cancellation, you are entitled to a refund of that taxation. It is often a relatively small amount of money in relation to the cost of the flight, but this is not always the case. Am I right about that? If so, what has been done, and what are the Government planning to do, in relation to general consumer law—in relation to travel, and to air travel in particular—to make travellers more aware of that right?
I conclude by saying that this is good for consumers—it will encourage travel and will, therefore, be good for the travel industry—but it introduces complex new definitions. If consumers are to benefit, rather than to be hoodwinked or lulled into a false sense of security, we need a big government information campaign.
My Lords, I have no personal interest to declare on this matter though, as a fellow of the Institute of Travel and Tourism, I have some degree of affection for the subject before the committee today. Having been appointed way back in 1992 as a transport spokesman in the other place, I think it was the first directive I actually dealt with from the then Opposition Front Bench. As far as I remember, it amounted to about five pages in those days. It included the Explanatory Memorandum. It is a measure of how far we have come—whether forwards or backwards I leave to the Committee to judge—that the legislation before us is 41 pages with a 47-page impact assessment. As the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, things are a lot different these days compared with 1992. In a way, the Minister was being too modest when he talked about the Government’s involvement in this package. I do not often find myself in a position of praising Ministers and accusing them of undue modesty, but it is true to say that the British Government have led the field, as far as the EU is concerned, on consumer protection in this area. The Government should be commended for that.
There are three main advantages to the instrument: as has been said, it widens the definition of a package holiday; it will enable British companies to sell across the EEA; and it guarantees repayment if any aspect of a holiday package fails. Will the Minister confirm that the implementation date is July this year? He might have said that in his speech. If he did I beg his pardon, I missed it.
Although the industry feels that there could and should have been a little more time for consultation, it appreciates the consultation that has already taken place. Indeed, I spoke to Mr Steven Freudmann, the chairman of the Institute of Travel & Tourism, about this legislation a few days ago. He expressed his view on behalf of a substantial chunk of the travel industry that this legislation goes a long way to increasing consumer protection and is to be widely welcomed.
As far as the linked travel arrangements are concerned, praise ceases there. Indeed, when I read and reread the linked travel arrangements I was, like the noble Baroness, completely baffled as to what it meant. Indeed, I was so baffled that I got the ITT to pass me the name and telephone number of a lawyer who specialises in these things. I rang him with some trepidation. Noble Lords will be aware that ringing lawyers is never a very wise thing to do. It is inevitably followed by a whacking great bill that makes the bank manager blanch, but on this occasion the information I requested came gratis.
I hope I can go some way to addressing the noble Baroness on the situation she outlined. Having booked one aspect of a package holiday, namely the flight, she asked whether other aspects booked separately were covered under the legislation. My point to the Minister and the noble Baroness is that as far as I can see, and as far as the legal advice I have had is concerned, no part of the package is, in fact, covered other than the first part. If she makes a mistake, if that is the right term, in booking the flight and then returning to book a hotel, hire a car or whatever subsequently, that aspect of her package will not be covered under the legislation. I am sure the Minister will be able to tell me whether I have that right or wrong, but it indicates a weakness in the legislation. If we are to have these welcome packages that assist holidaymakers and package bookers, it is of some concern that the difference in treatment is not immediately apparent between those booking their package straight off and those booking parts of the package, albeit at the same time.
I repeat that there appear to be no benefits as far as the second service is concerned. I would be grateful if the noble Lord will tell us whether we have it right. If we have, what is the department prepared to do about it? The travel industry generally welcomes the legislation and the proposed consultation. I ask the Minister to see that the travel industry is properly consulted if any difficulties arise and that its views are heard following the implementation of the directive. It is welcome, with a caveat about the weakness of the linked packages and the baffling nature of the legislation which, quite frankly, I did not understand. I am sure that the Committee, like the travel industry, will give a cautious welcome to this legislation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and my noble friend Lord Snape for their comments. They have eased the amount of ground I have to cover because they have raised issues that I would otherwise have dealt with.
Although I welcome the regulations, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, in saying how confusing they are—certainly the latter part on travel arrangements. However, I am comforted by what my noble friend Lord Snape said, not least because he is on my side for a change. Normally when he speaks in debates, he attacks me from the Benches behind, but this time we are on the same page and singing from the same hymn sheet. We think that these regulations will do a lot for consumers and we are grateful for that.
That is what I meant. Perhaps I may deal, first, with the date of implementation, which I am sure will be entirely in line with the Minister’s expectations. This measure has been in genesis for a number of years. We knew that it was coming from about 2015, so waiting until 1 July 2018 to implement it seems rather like an overabundance of time, and I wonder whether the Minister will comment on that.
Secondly, why implement this measure in the middle of the holiday season? Changing the regulatory structure and the information for consumers bang in the middle of when they will be taking their holidays is an extraordinary thing to do and does not seem very sensible. It is certainly odd that the expectation was that the regulations would be implemented no later than 1 January 2018, although a six-month extension was allowed. However, we have managed to do it on the very last day possible, which, as I said, is not at a very convenient time, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments. I point out to him that, having heard his exhortations to himself to try to do better, we are now in a situation where only one of the last 10 SIs has been implemented on the common commencement date, and even for that one it was the wrong common commencement date. I look forward to a positive response on how performance will improve.
Having said all that, I thought that the Explanatory Memorandum was terrific and I congratulate the civil servants on what they have done. I read it with great interest right the way through. It was convincing and covered all the points that I had in mind. They did a very difficult job very well. It is a very complicated area. I am not complaining about the complications; nevertheless, work was done to try to come up with figures reflective of the changes, and I thought it was very good.
However, what I missed in the regulations was the complementarity of the effect that they will have on consumers. These are the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018, but they are not to be taken separately from the negative instrument. That instrument will be brought forward by the DfT but I am afraid I could find nothing about it. That may be my fault but I understand that there is to be another regulation which is not under the control of BEIS and therefore BEIS will not be answerable for it. However, as someone who is interested in this area, I, and certainly consumers, would have found it very helpful to have both measures together. I do not know whether the Minister can comment on that but perhaps he can arrange for me either to be informed or to be sent a copy of the negative instrument so that we can see both sides of the story.
The negative instrument, which is coming from the Department for Transport, provides the answer to a number of questions around whether flights booked separately form part of a package. The regulations that the CAA is responsible for come into force because of that instrument and not this one. I think that this is covered in detail in paragraph 4.6 on page 2 of the Explanatory Memorandum. The Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Act 2017, which was given Royal Assent in November 2017, is the founding legislative form for that.
The other thing that I wanted to pick up was the question of guidance. There are two aspects to that. First, there is the question of how consumers will work out how this is. I would be interested to hear more comments from the Minister on that. Secondly, there will clearly need to be guidance for those in the business who actually operate this stuff. On page 5 of the Explanatory Memorandum, paragraph 9.1 says that BEIS,
“will issue non-statutory guidance for business on their responsibilities under the new Regulations at the same time this instrument is laid”.
As we heard, it was laid on 16 April so presumably that guidance is available. I would be grateful if the Minister could make sure that we get a copy of that as well. I would like to read what is being said by the department to businesses.
Finally, the worry I have about this in practice is that while the regulations for those who take flight bookings, which stem from the DfT, are being organised by one body—the CAA—the actual body that is charged with sorting this out for the package end in the regulations, as I understand it, is trading standards. Trading standards is under considerable pressure for all sorts of reasons, not least the fact that the pressure on local authorities is reducing the amount of money available. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that and whether additional resources will be available for those who will have to address any complaints that may come forward.
I thank all three noble Lords for their comments on these regulations. In summary, I think all three were saying that they welcomed them but that the regulations were somewhat on the complex side and they needed some explanation and guidance. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, gave from his own history the example of the first SI that he dealt with in opposition, many years ago back in 1992. He and I do not have to remember it but that legislation was only five pages long and these regulations are somewhat longer. The first thing to say is that things have got more complicated. As the noble Lord knows, the way we buy things has got much more complicated than it was some years ago. The old, simple package holiday is no longer there; we all buy things in a completely different way.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, gave an example of the way that, as families, we sit down in front of the computer and say, “Right, let’s get a flight”. We take many more short holidays and may suddenly think, “We’ve got a long weekend—let’s get a flight”, then up jumps the offer of car hire, hotels and other things. In a sense, we create a package. For that reason, things will obviously be more complicated when putting together the regulations. It is therefore quite likely that they will have to contain more than the five pages that the noble Lord, Lord Snape, remembers so well.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but is not one of the Government’s aims here to make sure that people who buy things digitally have the same rights and experiences as those who might walk into a shop and buy them on the ground? I think the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, was making is that it is actually not being replicated here. There is not quite the same sense of buying, in a shop at a particular time, the package—even though it comes in slightly different forms. That is the issue which is causing concern.
The noble Lord is quite right to highlight that as an issue. The point to make is that when you are buying something slightly different, as a package, it will be quite difficult to put together exactly the same regulations as those remembered so fondly by the noble Lord, Lord Snape, which covered only five pages. To try to give the same sort of coverage when something so completely different, which did not exist in the past, is being bought necessarily makes for more complicated regulations. It is not that we have become more verbose since 1992. It is just harder to do these things.
I was going to offer some thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for his thanks for the Explanatory Memorandum. It is very rare that we get praise of that sort but we are grateful for it.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again but, regarding the question of what constitutes a package, set against linkage, it is not just about going on to a computer and booking a flight. What would happen if I went into a travel agent and said I wanted a weekend in Marbella, they had the perfect flight for me from Birmingham, my local airport, at 6 o’clock on a Friday evening, I booked it and paid for it there and then, but then said, “What about car hire at the other end?” Is that covered by the package, or is that regarded as a linked package and therefore not covered, in the way that getting the whole thing together and paying for it all at once would be? I am sorry if that is a bit complex, but I hope the Minister understands what I am getting at.
I will deal with these points when I get on to the different sorts of coverage. I was broadly trying to get across that we were trying to give coverage where there was not coverage in the past. I believe it was the noble Lord who congratulated the Government on being the first to offer these protections, helping to get these regulations and trying to get a degree of protection for the consumer in them.
I will deal with some of the points raised, starting with the common commencement date. My advice is generally that common commencement dates do not apply to the implementation of EU legislation and, in this case, there was no compelling reason to diverge from that position. What we did—I appreciate that we have taken some time over it—was to give a degree of time. I think that has been useful for the industry and this is why we have gone up to the wire, going up to 1 July rather than doing it on 1 January.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, also asked about the other regulations coming from the Department for Transport, which will be negative regulations. I remind noble Lords of how seamless the Government are in the way they operate, with no silos between departments. My advice is that the Department for Transport expects to publish its final ATOL regulations and the formal government response to the ATOL conversation in the coming weeks. At the same time, they will be laid before Parliament and come into force in line with the implementation deadline of 1 July, so the noble Lord has time and we will try to make sure that we can meet this.
I return to the questions, largely led by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, on the single point of sale and the complication of the LTAs. Put simply, it is when the same retail premises, the same website or the same telephone service is used to put those together. I appreciate there is a degree of complexity; that is why we hope to provide guidance that will help to explain the concept as far as possible, making it easy for the consumer so they know that they are buying an LTA. Although LTAs do not offer the same level of protection as a package, traders who facilitate putting together an LTA will be required to inform the traveller that they are not buying a package and therefore will not benefit from the protections associated with that package.
We want to make sure that there is appropriate guidance to assist the industry with that concept and, as a result, to assist the consumer and make sure that they are aware that they are buying an ATOL-protected product. The noble Baroness was correct to stress the importance of the initials ATOL.
I am grateful to the Minister for his attempts at explanation. He clearly understands the subject a lot more deeply than I do. The problem with ATOL-protected packages is that they are something that the trader put together. All these other variations, whether it is either sort of dynamic package or a linked travel arrangement, are things you create for yourself. If you choose this car hire rather than that one, you may choose this car hire from the website, but that car hire would be from a different website. Given the average person’s knowledge and understanding of computers and sources of information—most of us are fairly hazy about where we get a lot of information and there will be no label saying, “This is protected”—my concern is how people will know that they are protected and what is the level of protection.
Briefly, because there are so many variations, we are talking about shades of grey. It is now difficult to justify having different levels of compensation depending on whether you create your own package or are given one by a tourism operator.
The noble Baroness is stressing the complexity of what has come into existence over the years. Earlier, she stressed the need to ensure that the industry was properly informed, but she went on to say that it was important that we ensure that the consumer—I always stressed the importance of the consumer—is also protected. What it makes even clearer is that we in the department must ensure that we provide the appropriate protection and compliance. That is why we want to work with the industry and regulators to help them understand all the changes being introduced, develop some guidance and ensure compliance. We will also be working with Citizens Advice to ensure that the guidance helps. I hope that, as a result, we can ensure that consumers are fully aware of what protection they have.
I appreciate that I probably have not got this out as clearly as I should like to all three noble Lords who have spoken, and I will probably end up writing a letter setting it out in some detail—I see from nods that that would be popular and appreciated.
I end by dealing with the noble Baroness’s final point. She asked about the policy change and why, having been the leader in this, we were going only as far as the current directive suggests. We have always been the leader when it comes to the protection of holidaymakers. I was grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Snape, said at the beginning. Obviously, we will continue to do that whether we are inside or outside the EU but, at the moment, it is vital that we bring the directive into force. That is what we are obliged to do by 1 July.
As the noble Baroness is fully aware, thereafter, it will be open for us to go further, should we wish. The United Kingdom recognises that there is a need at this stage to introduce that stronger consumer protection to address the gap that has been identified and it is important that we implement those changes at this stage irrespective of where we are with our exit from the EU.
The directive is the maximum harmonisation, so there is limited scope at this stage to go beyond it. As I said, I hope to write to noble Lords to set out some of this with slightly greater clarity to make clear what we are doing. I accept that the arrangements are complex, but life is more complex than it used to be and how we buy holiday packages certainly is. I think it is a great deal more convenient and a great improvement, but it means that protections have to be devised in a different way.
I again thank the noble Lord for his welcome for our Explanatory Memorandum—it is very rare that we get such praise, so when we get it, I always like to thank people for it. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Committee adjourned at 7.30 pm.