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Holiday Accommodation

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to improve transparency for consumers comparing the quality of holiday accommodation.

My Lords, consumer protection legislation protects consumers when buying holidays. Currently, the law requires information such as inclusive pricing to be clear and transparent, so that consumers can make an informed purchasing decision. Failure to comply with the legislation results, where appropriate, in enforcement action.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, it is not mandatory for hotels and guest houses in England to display food hygiene ratings. Even some five-star hotels choose not to display them, because they have either had a very poor rating or, in some cases, failed the hygiene inspection. Will the Government make it a legal requirement—as it already is in Northern Ireland and Wales—for food hygiene ratings to be displayed prominently in order to drive up standards and, crucially, to enable informed consumer choice?

My Lords, I note what the noble Baroness says. She will know that we review this legislation every five years, and are currently reviewing it. There is a call for evidence at the moment; no doubt she and others will want to feed into it, and we can then consider whether changes can be made.

My Lords, is the Minister aware—I am sure he is—of my interest in short-term accommodation? Rarely do the people letting such accommodation reveal their situation. Does he consider that comparing the quality of holiday accommodation—as is referred to in this Question—should include the issue of whether or not it is legal?

I am aware of my noble friend’s interests in this matter. Her question is slightly wider than the one on the Order Paper, but I will ensure that her point about making sure that it is legal is taken into account.

I say to the Minister that there is no legislation to be reviewed because there is no legislation—in England it is voluntary. Wales passed legislation; so did Northern Ireland. When I launched the scheme, as chair of the Food Standards Agency, in December 2010, the plan was to get every local authority to join voluntarily. By about three years ago they all had. It does not cost anything to display membership of the scheme: the only cost involved for the person in the premises is to take the sticker out of the envelope that they have been sent, walk to the window and put it on the door. That is the only cost involved in making sure that we have mandatory display.

I am very grateful for the advice that the noble Lord is passing on to us. He is right that there is no legislation that insists that food standards advice should be put up. There is consumer regulation in this field: I refer him to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Payments) Regulations 2013, which he probably remembers from his time as a Defra Minister.

My Lords, food hygiene ratings exist to help raise food safety standards in business, and consumers welcome the “scores on the doors”. However, in England—the only nation in the United Kingdom where it is not compulsory to publish these ratings—only 28% of food businesses that score between nought and three display them. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that standards will not improve until businesses are made to display their ratings and literally clean up their act?

Again, I do not think I can take the noble Baroness much further than in previous answers, other than to note what she says and promise that it will be taken into account.

My Lords, I may have misread the Question, because I thought it was about the transparency of the costs of holiday accommodation—although we have covered many other interesting points. But can the Minister tell the House what the Government plan to do about search engines such as Google which have a mechanism for ensuring that it is not always immediately transparent whether they are displaying those offers where they get a rake-off—or are paid for advertising—high up their list? More particularly, what will the Government do about biases in their listings of the prices of particular holiday accommodation? I refer to my interests in the register.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, I probably misread the Question, because I thought it was going to be about the matters that he referred to—I did not think we would be talking about food regulations in restaurants. But that is by the by. I agree with him, however, that one needs to be careful about the consumer comparison sites. It is an area that might need further regulation; it might not. At the moment, however, I think that such sites can help consumers compare costs of holiday accommodation—for hotel bookings or whatever.

To follow that up, the CMA has finally done some really good stuff—started by this House—on things such as viagogo, and the fact that Google takes money to put things in a particular order. Will the Minister undertake at least to have a similar conversation with the CMA about what it can do about these comparison websites?

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness is referring to the investigation that the CMA launched in 2017 into accommodation booking sites. We are very grateful for the work that it has done. The investigation followed the CMA’s market study of online comparison tools. The CMA had its concerns and expressed them—about how a lack of clarity and accuracy in the presentation of information can mislead people. The important thing is that the CMA will monitor compliance with the commitments that the industry—the various booking sites—made, and I hope that, following that monitoring and having listened to any further advice that the CMA gives, the industry will take note. The CMA is clear that its advice should be followed.