Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 149 - 159)

THURSDAY 26 APRIL 2001

MS JANET ANDERSON, MP, MR BRIAN LEONARD AND MR SIMON BROADLEY

Mr Fearn

  149. We have been questioning this morning, and it appeared in the debate which we had yesterday. It is a pity that nobody was there from tourism, which usually happens, not because of your fault but probably because of pressures elsewhere. Tourism came into practically every debate that we had, every speech that we had. I asked questions, which were not answered by the Minister at the time but may be you will be able to answer this morning. The BTA need £8 million on top of the £2.5 million which they have had already as of yesterday. It has not come forward. It is supposed to be coming—when? The ETC should also be getting something towards the £35.5 million which they have asked for and so far have had £3.8 million. What follows? Are you in touch with the Treasury or not?

  (Ms Anderson) I can assure you we are in touch with the Treasury on an almost constant basis, and more so recently than ever before. Can I say first of all that I was in the chamber towards the end of the debate. Sadly, I could not be there for most of it because I was chairing a foot and mouth tourism summit in the Department for Culture Media and Sport, the third summit we have had in the Department with the industry, and that has proved very useful. I am aware of the points that were raised. You will know that the BTA and the ETC have had an additional £6 million, an initial payment in recognition of this particularly difficult situation we are facing. £3.8 million of that has gone to the ETC and £2.2 million to the BTA. As the Prime Minister made plain yesterday in Prime Minister's Questions, there is to be a further allocation of funding and an announcement will be made in the next few days.

  150. Do we have any clues? Are we going to do part of it, and a bit more? The boards only have £1.4 million from the ETC, and £1.4 million between all the boards is negligible. They are not going to be able to do much with that to help any kind of farming community which runs tourism establishments as well. It will not get down to the level that I, for one, would like it to go to.

  (Ms Anderson) We have probably been the first Government to recognise the importance of the regions and in fact, when we replaced the English Tourist Board with the English Tourism Council in 1999, that did release some extra money to go to the regions. Of the £3.8 million that has gone to the ETC from that initial allocation of £6 million, it is my understanding that £2 million of that will go down to the regional tourist boards. There has also been a grant to the RDAs in the most seriously affected areas of £15 million from DETR and we hope very much that a significant amount of that will go to help the tourist industry.

  151. I was in Cumbria, Devon and one or two other places, and in Cumbria especially, in the lakes, it was very busy at Easter. Following that they said that bookings from abroad had gone down dramatically: 40 Americans down to 14 in one hotel, and no Japanese in another because they had cancelled. I know you have ambassadors and this idea of ambassadors going over there and coming over here. What good do you think that is going to do?

  (Ms Anderson) We are using every opportunity to get the message across that it is still perfectly safe to come to Britain and have a very enjoyable holiday. When we realised there was a problem with overseas visitors several weeks ago now, I immediately went out on a two-day visit to New York and did back-to-back media interviews, met with representatives of the tour operators, with the travel trade press, to try and emphasize that it was perfectly safe. We did realise that many of our potential overseas visitors were confused. They were confusing foot and mouth, or hoof and mouth as they call it in the States, with BSE, with mad cow disease. We were asked questions such as, "If I come to Britain will my hands and feet drop off? Will I have to go through a vat of disinfectant? Will I have to bring my own protective suit or will the Government provide one?" There were all sorts of misconceptions which we had to do our best to dispel. My visit was followed by the Scottish Minister for Tourism, and the First Minister in Scotland, Henry McLeish went out, as did the Chair of the London Tourist Board, and the Secretary of State, Chris Smith, is in Canada at this very moment doing a similar exercise. But, of course, the British Tourist Authority have done an excellent job in trying to cure some of these misconceptions, not least a visit they organised last week at very short notice, with people coming over from all our main markets, both long-haul markets and in Europe. They were taken up to Scotland, they were taken to Wales, they were taken to the Lake District, and I met them on Friday afternoon, when they were entertained to tea by the Prime Minister's wife at Number 10. It is quite clear that that visit had been a great success and they were going to go back to their home countries and try and paint a more accurate picture of what was happening in Britain.

  152. So they did see the rest of Britain? They did not just stay here and go to Chequers?

  (Ms Anderson) They certainly did not. I do understand your point about empty hotels. I do not under-estimate the problem. I had a meeting on Monday of this week with 45 owners of country house hotels, who want more than anything to get their visitors back. That is what the industry wants more than anything.

  Mr Maxton: Would you agree with me, Minister, that all your efforts and the efforts of Henry McLeish and the other ministers involved and all the tourist boards and areas are almost impossible because of the way in which the British media has dealt hysterically and illogically with the foot and mouth crisis? Are not all the misconceptions that the potential American tourists have about Britain due almost entirely to the message they are getting from the British media? Would you join with me in making a plea to the media that they start acting sensibly and logically and for the good of the country, rather than just for cheap headlines?

  Chairman: And that the BBC might recognise that the word "British" is included in its title.

Mr Maxton

  153. I agree with you. I think the BBC's coverage of the foot and mouth disease has not been very much better than any other part of the media's.

  (Ms Anderson) I entirely agree with you, Mr Maxton, that a lot of the coverage has not been helpful, and in fact, when I was in the States, every television interview I did—and I did a lot—was preceded by that image of a bonfire of burning animals. I think actually it was the same picture they were showing all the time. One of the misconceptions was that there was a funeral pyre of burning animals in every field in Britain. It was important to try and dispel that misconception. There has been some suggestion to us that, as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, there should be something we can do to try and persuade the media to behave more responsibly. As you will know, Mr Maxton, we have very much an arm's length relationship with the media, and I think if we were to attempt to change that, there would probably be an outcry. But I do agree with you; it has not helped.

  154. You can at least plead for some logicality. Maybe that is an impossible plea but it is worth making.

  (Ms Anderson) We can try.

Mrs Organ

  155. At the point that the announcement was made by MAFF on 23 February that all footpaths would be closed as a result of infection, did that not ring huge alarm bells in your Department as to what would happen to tourism, particularly local tourism in local areas, and what did you do as a result of that? How did you get involved at the early stages?

  (Ms Anderson) We did not have a crystal ball; during February we did not know how long this was going to go on. I can remember the first meeting where we discussed this at Number 10, and I was asked what I thought the effect on the tourism industry would be. I said, "If this problem is fairly short-lived, they will get through it, but if it goes on for much longer, for too long, then there will be a problem." So we were certainly looking at it in February and asking the English Tourism Council for their advice. The advice we got initially was that in any event, February and March were generally quite quiet months for the tourism industry, so there was no cause for real concern. On 26 February we made sure that our web site was linked into MAFF guidance. On 6 March we held our first tourism summit—we had the third one yesterday—with people from the industry to decide what we should do. As a result of that, we have liaised closely with all the other Government Departments involved, we have given advice about staging events, about opening attractions and so on. We have also, in consultation with DETR, emphasised the importance of opening those parts of the countryside that can safely be opened, and we were very pleased that by Easter the National Trust had been able to open about 200 properties, and English Heritage about the same. We now have over 1,000 miles of towpaths opened which were closed, and I was very pleased this morning to learn that in Buckinghamshire, for example, where previously all the footpaths were closed, there was a blanket closure, 50 of them have now been re-opened. We are working through the rural task force, and we are working with our colleagues in local government associations to do all we can to assist the further opening of footpaths and indeed, the Prime Minister has given Beverley Hughes, Minister at DETR, that specific responsibility.

  156. But as it unfolded and became more and more serious, and there was recognition that we were coming up to Easter and there were cancellations from overseas visitors, and the whole thing was beginning to go pear-shaped, at what point did you recognise that you would need to go to Treasury and say, "We need some money. We need some assistance so that can market abroad and market internally, and that we can give assistance"? At what point did you wake up to the fact that this was really very serious, and that Treasury had to give you funds to do a job?

  (Ms Anderson) We are always trying to put the case for additional help for tourism, Mrs Organ, because that is our job as a government department, a sponsoring department. I am not sure I could give you the precise date. I am not sure whether Mr Broadley can assist me here.

  (Mr Broadley) It was early March that we asked the BTA and ETC to get their ideas together. As you have said, Minister, the first advice we had was that February and March are traditionally quieter periods in the countryside, but that if it carried on until Easter, that would be a very serious problem. So you commissioned the proposals which I imagine have been discussed already this morning, and you first reviewed them with them on 15 March.

  (Ms Anderson) We subsequently put in a bid for extra funds.

  157. Would you not agree that there is a feeling at the heart of government that we were actually prepared to sacrifice what we all recognised is a very successful and growing sector, ie the tourist industry, in order to safeguard the meat and livestock sector?

  (Ms Anderson) I think it is very important to get a balance here. I have been very struck as I have travelled round the country, principally to the most affected areas, Cumbria and Devon and Cornwall and so on, at the quite close relationship between the farming community and the tourism industry. In fact, in many areas they are inextricably linked and many farmers, of course, have been encouraged by the Government to diversify into tourism, and there are something like 12,000 farm attractions around the country. It was obviously in the interests, first and foremost, of both those sections of the rural economy to get the foot and mouth situation under control, because, as I say, while I think the tourism industry has welcomed some of the assistance we have been able to come forward with to help them over that initial difficult period with cash flow problems, they will tell you what they want more than anything is to get their visitors back. While we have done our best to emphasise that there are still things people can do, that large parts of the countryside are open, until it is truly open, we will not get all of those visitors back.

  158. Lastly, what do you think of the suggestion that was made at the debate last night by Dale Campbell-Savours, who obviously represents a constituency that has been extremely hard hit, about the possibility of a job retention subsidy? Many people in the tourism industry have seasonal workers, they are now laying them off because of what is happening, and they are looking for assistance to keep the people in the jobs over this period when there is actually no income, and having a job retention subsidy.

  (Ms Anderson) I think that is a very important point, and the longer it goes on, the more important it will become. I am sure that is something that will be considered by the rural task force, which is constantly keeping under review the kind of help that is available. For example, many people will be eligible for Working Families Tax Credit, in addition to some of the other measures we have brought forward, but we constantly have to keep that under review and make sure that people are aware of what they are entitled to. We have always said that if we need to do any more, then we will, because the tourism industry is very important. It is worth £64 billion a year to the national economy. I think it is 3-4 per cent of GDP compared with farming, which is about one per cent. So we do not under-estimate the importance of it, and we also understand the seasonal nature of employment and the difficulties that presents. If there is anything else we need to do, we will certainly do it.

Ms Ward

  159. I certainly welcome your comments in support of the tourism industry, so why, prior to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, was it proposed to cut the budget of the British Tourist Authority?

  (Ms Anderson) The British Tourist Authority now gets £35.5 million a year from us, so I am not aware that that was a cut. In fact, I think there has been a year on year increase.


 
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