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Travel Agents

Volume 808: debated on Monday 23 November 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the future of high street travel agents; and what plans they have to appoint a Minister to be responsible for the travel sector.

My Lords, we are regularly assessing Covid-19’s impact on tourism businesses. We recognise that these are extremely challenging conditions for those in the sector. High street travel agents have, of course, been able to access the Government’s comprehensive economic support package. While we have no current plans to appoint a new Minister for the travel sector, a cross-government global travel task force has been established to consider what steps the Government can take to enable a recovery of international travel.

I declare an interest as a member of the TSSA parliamentary group. In the summer, nine out of 10 holidays were either cancelled or changed. ABTA said in August that 90,000 people’s jobs were either at risk or had already been lost. That figure increased to 164,000 people by the end of October. Will the Government look at a specific strategy for this sector and specific support? The TSSA and many businesses are asking for one Minister to have specific responsibility to put forward a strategy for this area because responsibilities lie across a number of departments—some are with the Department for Transport, some with other departments, and some fall between. Is this not something that the Government could look at and perhaps discuss with industry and the trade unions?

We have many consultations with the industry and we have put in place a strong package of financial support that businesses in the sector can access, including government-backed loans, various grant schemes and the extended furlough and self-employed support schemes.

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone whose holiday was understandably cancelled due to Covid. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that it is unacceptable that some travel agents should still be holding back on refunding customers and using customer payments as interest-free loans to their business without customer consent? Should not the ending of such practices be a condition precedent of eligibility for government support schemes, as well as future certification as fit and proper travel agents?

Companies have a legal obligation to ensure that they treat their customers fairly and that they pay refunds when they are due. Where disagreements exist we encourage customers and businesses to seek to find a solution that is mutually acceptable to both.

My Lords, while the imminent threat to the travel and holiday industry is the pandemic, can the Minister say what support the Government intend to give from 1 January to British holiday firms and the thousands of British workers, permanent and seasonal, including young working-class people, whose jobs and job opportunities are at risk following the UK leaving the single market?

The noble Earl makes a good point. We have published lots of information for the travel sector to access. As I said, we are putting in place a comprehensive range of support to help the sector through this difficult and challenging time.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to my entry in the register of interests. Would the Minister accept that the call for a dedicated Minister is no reflection on the way he carries out his own duties? Such an appointment might help to bring sector-specific support for the travel industry, where, as I am sure he is aware, the number of redundancies is now expected to exceed 160,000. Would he agree that such an appointment would enable the Government to offer a cost-effective Covid-19 testing system to allow holidaymakers to travel and to shorten quarantine periods for those who return?

There is of course a Minister for Tourism: Mr Huddleston, in DCMS. He is currently convening a cross-ministerial task force on the travel industry. The noble Lord can look forward to announcements tomorrow on that.

My Lords, the Government are currently developing a tourism recovery strategy to rebuild the £30 billion of export earnings that inbound tourism generates for the UK. What financial assistance are the Government providing to UK tour operators to enable them to get through this year and next year to deliver the tourism strategy that the Government want?

I outlined the measures that we put in place for individual travel businesses, but bigger operators have been able to access extensive loan and grant schemes. However, I readily accept that it is a very difficult time for businesses in these areas.

My Lords, all aspects of the travel industry, international and domestic, have been hit as a consequence of the pandemic. With the continuing uncertainty in making foreign travel plans, would my noble friend the Minister agree that there is a unique opportunity for our domestic tourism and hospitality sector to be restored and to flourish? However, for this to happen, we first need to ensure these sectors survive what are likely to be an incredibly challenging few months ahead. Can my noble friend outline what steps the Government are taking to assist with this, especially in the hospitality sector?

I agree with my noble friend. She is absolutely right that there is a unique opportunity for our domestic travel industry and hospitality sector to flourish once they get through these extremely difficult and challenging few months. She will be aware that the furlough scheme extension and the tourism and hospitality VAT cut extension both run until March next year. We hope that they will help the industry.

My Lords, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association has said that the Government have “ignored calls for help” from our travel trade and that the buck

“has been passed from the Department of Business to the Department of Transport and back again.”

Can the Minister explain why that is the case and why the travel sector has slipped between departmental cracks during the pandemic? Can he explain what support the Government will give because of the existential threat to high streets and travel agencies in particular? What additional help could the Government consider giving to this sector so that good companies do not go out of business or have to make people redundant?

It is nice to see that the TSSA is well represented in today’s questions from noble Lords. As I said, there is a Minister for Tourism. A cross-departmental tourism task force has been set up and, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Snape, there will be an announcement tomorrow.

My Lords, following on from the previous question, could my noble friend look into the somewhat misleading, confusing and contradictory statements applied to travel agents? On 31 October, all non-essential retail was ordered to close. On 5 November, the Chancellor said in the other place that

“Travel agents’ businesses … will benefit from business grants”,—[Official Report, Commons, 5/11/20; col. 513.]

but when the regulations and guidance were published, travel agents seemed to be excluded. I urge my noble friend to clarify what the situation is, especially since florists and pubs, which can do click and collect, have qualified for support that seems not to have applied to high street travel agents.

I will certainly have a look at the issue that my noble friend refers to, but I think the guidance has been very clear and most sectors of industry have been rigorously applying it.

I believe that the advent of a vaccine gives a real glimmer of hope that the people working, as travel agents are, to the future have a lot to look forward to, provided they can get through the probably three months that we will have to wait until the industry starts to recover. I am quite happy that, if the Government believe they have made things clear so that people know what help is there, they have in fact done all we can ask.

I thank the noble Lord for his support. The developments on the vaccine are encouraging. It is not my area of responsibility, but we all have our fingers crossed that the vaccine will prove successful, and that we will be able to help the industry through its current short-term difficulties and that it has a bright future ahead.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest in the register. I ask the Minister to urge on his friend convening the cross-departmental tourism task force the need to take on board the genuine concerns of the trade unions, and in particular pilots, who, because they have a need for a certain amount of flying hours, are being quite challenged on keeping their flying credentials up to date. I hope the Minister will be able to encourage his friend to look across the whole spectrum of problems in the travel industry.

I will indeed pass on my noble friend’s concerns. As I have said, I cannot predict what will be in the announcement tomorrow, but we have been looking very closely at all the problems that exist for the tourism sector, in particular for those who want to travel abroad. I will certainly pass on my noble friend’s remarks.