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New tourism minister Barbara Follett grilled by Caterer readers

19 February 2009 by
New tourism minister Barbara Follett grilled by Caterer readers

There's a new tourism minister in place - Barbara Follett - and we've offered Caterer readers a chance to grill her on current policy. So read on to find out her responses to questions on major issues: the cut in VisitBritain funds and planning for the Olympics among others. Before that, we interview the minister in person, plus get the views of shadow tourism incumbent Tobias Ellwood. Could he offer hospitality a better deal?

Minister's Questions

It's an enormous office with a touch of the 1980s about it: bright white sofas, multicoloured modern art paintings, and sculptures on tables dotted around the room. The contrast with the grey, whiteboard-lined rooms of the civil servants outside couldn't be starker and walking through the door, sinking into the shag-pile carpet, with Nelson's Column looming out of the window and Parliamentary debate flickering on a large flat-screen TV, we know we've found the minister's room.

Eventually we spot Barbara Follett at a large meeting table in the far corner. She looks younger than her 61 years, smart suited, hair brown-bobbed, and with a disarmingly calm, controlled manner, as if there's nothing to worry about, really.

While that may be true about some things in life, it certainly isn't the case for the hospitality industry in its view of the Government. Philip Green, for example, chairman of trade group UKinbound, accused Follett's predecessor Margaret Hodge of "driving away foreign tourists with high taxes disguised as green initiatives, ridiculous red tape and a schizophrenic attitude to air travel". Hodge stormed out of the Government cocktail reception they were both attending.

Even worse, the swarming wasps' nest that is industry sentiment has just been stirred with a big stick by chairman of VisitBritain Christopher Rodrigues. His comments that Britain's hotels and restaurants offered "poor value for money" and "grumpy staff" didn't help anyone - Barbara Follett included. So there's work to do, then?

"Well, I have to say that most UK hotels I've stayed in have been excellent. The problem is that people don't remember the good ones. The publicity that came out afterwards showed his comments had stuck somewhat, but I know how tough it is, and how you have to be superhuman when carrying out any customer-facing work. It's not a fair world, and we have to make sure people have never got anything complain about. That's what VisitBritain was trying to get across."

This is being diplomatic, in a fashion - still agreeing that the industry isn't up to scratch in various areas, while praising it. But Follett has good reason to be careful as, the day before, answering a query about additional funds around the 2012 Olympics, Follett had said no more money would be made available. Immediately, Bob Cotton at the British Hospitality Association hit back with a press release, culminating, in bold letters, in the observation that this showed there was "no support at all" for tourism.

"Well, he's wrong," says Follett. "There's no more support for the Olympics, but there's plenty of support for tourism in general. The Sea Change project, helping seaside towns in the UK, and the VAT cuts have contributed enormously."

That may be true, but why has the Government frozen Olympic funds? "Well. most of it has been allocated. We've already said, ‘This is our budget this is what we need.' I'd like to get rid of the sniping attitude of ‘You're not doing enough for us.' I'd like the tourist industry to be more unified. It actually does pretty well - and is doing well at the moment."

Aware of disquiet

At least Follett is aware of the disquiet, verging on anger, in the tourism industry -which is progress of sorts. But isn't it hardly surprising that people are unhappy when VisitBritain funds have been cut so significantly?

"Yes, but all you hear about is the £35m for VisitBritain. Sadly, people get completely stuck on this money, but these are just funds for marketing. That's what VisitBritain does, and does it very well. And the fact is there are other ways to market apart from VisitBritain, which is why funding was cut."

Some would argue that the marketing budget for VisitBritain is the main direct spend on tourism in the UK, but Follett insists that "The money coming from other departments, as well as via regional development agencies, is the true sum." These calculations lead us in a rather different direction, to £300m annually, plus around £500m a year towards promoting skills in the hospitality industry.

It sounds impressive, if harder to measure. But moving away from the size of spend, one thing that has to change for sure, say the Tories, is the way the money is spent. VisitBritain, for example, clashes with the regional development agencies (RDAs), which themselves can overlap local authorities, says Shadow Tourism Minister Tobias Ellwood (see below). What does she intend to do about this?

"It's clear that many RDAs are excellent, but in other cases their performance has been patchy," says Follett. "Most things are delivered via the regions, and that's why I intend to change how they run." Follett plans to start by holding a summit with RDA heads in order to find out how they can work better together.

So, despite what some might like to happen, or wish into being, there are no plans to downgrade the role of the RDAs. That's the bad news. Although, to be fair, the Tories say they would keep these quangos in place, too, along with Visits Scotland and Wales - a major non-step for a party that has no truck with devolution. However, the Tories do have an interesting plan about business rates, which is worth Follett considering, surely? It is this: wouldn't it be better for monies to be kept in the area that they would be drawn from, so that the more successful an area is -something reflected in its business rates - the more money comes back to it?

Not so, apparently. "It's a no-go as far as the Treasury are concerned," says Follett. "The RDAs receive money, but giving back money on this local a level would mean that your ability to manage that money would be weakened. Sometimes you might want to concentrate on regeneration, but if areas have their own ideas, it would lead to a very uneven delivery."

Fair enough, but if the Government won't inject finance in micro-fashion, then surely they should be able to do the next best thing: encourage the banks to start lending money again, especially to those independent hotels or restaurants that really need it?

"Absolutely. And we're trying to get credit flowing. But I'm also urging business to go to Business Link - to which we've given extra money - and have a health check," she says. The website (www.businesslink.gov.uk) has been set up to help smaller businesses that may be in financial difficulties, and is confidential.

Behind all this, however, is still the sense that the Government doesn't really care about tourism, and that it gets lost in a role in which one person - Follett - encompasses the cultural and creative industries, which itself becomes hard to find in a department covering media issues and sport. There's a feeling in the industry that tourism falls between departments and doesn't have back-up from Government as a result.

"I can't comment historically, but I intend to restart the inter-ministerial group, which used to exist but fell into disuse. When it comes to tourism, you do need around eight or nine departments involved." This is a positive step - and she'll need all the help she can get, because Follett, MP for Stevenage, has some experience in tourism, but not a great deal. She worked in her current department as a Parliamentary private secretary and was appointed a regional minister for the East of England in 2007, but prior to that she was chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party Women's Committee and Parliamentary private secretary to the minister for women.

Follett has never worked in a restaurant or hotel either, "but my children have been there, so I know how tough it can be", she says. "I've seen how if you're having a bad day at work the last thing you want to do is be nice to people. But that's what people working in hospitality have to do - and I applaud it, I really do."

The industry, however, would probably like to know if these warm feelings will ever turn into hard cash. Will the UK ever reach the heady levels of its European rivals, where direct funding of the tourism industry by government generally dwarfs British investment?

"Well, we've put in lots when there's been emergencies in the tourism industry before, such as in the case of foot-and-mouth. And while times may be difficult, we're not in one now." Some might argue with that view, however.

Interview by James Aufenast

Barbara Follett's CV

2008

Minister for Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism

2007

Parliamentary Secretary for Equality

2007

Minister for the East of England

2006

Parliamentary private secretary, Culture, Media and Sport

1997

Select Committee member on international development

1995

Selected as a candidate for Stevenage

1993

Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research

1987

Founded the Labour Women's Network

1947

Born, Kingston, Jamaica

Policy summary

Government

  • Summit between regional development agency heads, part of which will be to better co-ordinate regional tourism.
  • Reinstate inter-ministerial meetings, with 8-9 departments brought together to discuss tourism.
  • £350m invested in Train to Gain skills programme, and new National Skills Academy for Hospitality.

What's the alternative? The views of shadow tourism minister Tobias Ellwood

What is your view of the tourism industry in this country?

Well, the Government is trying to paint a picture of everything being rosy. The tourism industry is basically robust, that's true but that's in spite of the Government, not because of it.

First of all, we have to recognise that the structure and support mechanism of British tourism has gone woefully wrong. That's a consequence of devolution, with Scotland and Wales doing their own thing and the regional development agencies all taking responsibility for tourism in various corners of Britain. We don't have a cohesive approach everyone is looking after themselves.

We need to move towards a point where England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all represented by VisitBritain, rather than competing with them to attract visitors from overseas.

So what would you change?

We'd like more of a voice in Parliament. The actual responsibility for tourism falls to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but four-fifths of all legislation that affects the tourist industry comes from other departments. A good example of this confusion is the price of visas, which was doubled overnight by the Home Office. However, it made an awful lot of people go to mainland Europe instead of the UK. Heathrow is the responsibility for the Department of Transport, yet the Heathrow experience is one of the most frustrating aspects commented on by business tourists. The whole thing just requires more thought and co-ordination.

How do you change that?

Under a Conservative Government we'd create a tourism minister and on a regular basis hold round-table meetings between members of the Treasury, the Home Office, the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBRR).

Would you move tourism to the Department for Business?

No, because even if we did, we'd still need someone to deal with all the transport links, the fire regulations and the Home Office about representation in embassies abroad. However, we would definitely need it to work closer with DBRR. We should be harnessing the opportunities presented by the euro and dollar at their present levels, instead of which the Government has allowed the budget to stagnate at around £35m over the past few years.

The Conservatives are not likely to raise revenues to increase spend for public bodies, so where will additional money come from?

We're talking tens of millions here, not billions. It doesn't need much to improve things. VisitBritain claims that for every pound they spend on advertising abroad, they get £40 back. That's a wonderful investment - if only the Government would recognise it.

Would you bring back the Hotels Building Allowance?

We are looking at that. It's one aspect of what we're examining. But we have to fix the support structure first. Bournemouth is sited next to Poole, but they compete with each other for tourists. That's madness when you think about it, because anyone going to Bournemouth is likely to pop into the New Forest, visit Christchurch Harbour, and walk on sandy beaches to Poole itself.

How do you manage that?

First we have to encourage local authorities to have a tourism strategy, which would force them to look at the wider context. This Government provides incentives to local authorities in areas such as recycling - so it makes more sense to shut the tourism office, sack your tourism director and then use that money in other areas of local Government to meet targets which then get financial reward from central Government. How mad is that, when tourism might be so important to that destination?

So you will shift incentives from recycling to tourism?

I don't want to undermine other incentives, but in those areas that tourism is so important they don't want to suddenly lose out because of the way Government targets are set up. We're looking at ways of keeping local business rates local, so if a business does well, the money stays in the regional coffers. Therefore, there's a direct encouragement for local councils to say, "Yes, it's worth us supporting these businesses."

Over to you…

An "obstinate refusal to take training seriously", according to Bob Cotton, in his guise as chairman of the Tourism Alliance. "We continue to underperform world and European growth averages. Underfunding of overseas marketing, a lack of Government leadership, and decreasing competitiveness are now having a real impact on tourism's bottom line," said Travelodge boss Grant Hearn last year. "Failing to give the necessary support to UK tourism during a challenging period for the industry", reported a Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport in July. There's plenty of people willing to line up to condemn the current Government's approach to the tourism industry, and perhaps good reason for the disquiet in some cases. So, on the arrival of a new politician in the Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism post, we asked you, the Caterer reader, to put the questions. We've selected the best of them to put the new minister on the spot.

Q Will the Government implement a system of policing what is happening between banks and small businesses to avoid many more being forced into unnecessary receivership and further growth in unemployment?
Harry Murray, managing director, Lucknam Park

A In these difficult economic times cash flow and access to finance are more crucial than ever for small businesses. That is why the Government has introduced a number of schemes to help them obtain credit. These include guarantees to support up to £20b of short-term bank lending for working capital guarantees to secure up to £1.3b of longer-term loans to smaller businesses and a new £75m Capital for Enterprise fund to invest in small businesses in need of equity.

The Government has also established a Small Business Finance Forum to bring banks and small business organisations together to discuss issues around the availability of credit. It has also secured agreement from the banks to supply data on bank lending to small and medium-sized enterprises to an independent monitoring panel.

Q If the Government can give £500b to the banks and £3.5b to the car industry, why can't they give an extra £25m to promote VisitBritain, which would be an investment in the future and give them a far better return?
Harry Murray, managing director, Lucknam Park

A All Governments, like all businesses, have to prioritise. That is why we have had to put money into high-risk areas like the banks. If we had not done this, we would not have a financial system at all, and even more businesses and jobs would be at risk today. The tourism industry, thanks to the current exchange rate and the cut in VAT, is not a high-risk area, although we do understand that there are people and businesses suffering. That is why the Government has committed £130m over the next three years to VisitBritain and Visit England and why it is investing £500m in skills for the sector. The Government also invests, both regionally and nationally, in the products that tourists consume - like free museums and galleries the hosting of a whole decade of major sporting events and the maintenance of the heritage which gives us such a real competitive advantage. In future, we will be looking at all of these in order to make connections that add value across the whole spectrum of the tourism sector.

Q With the dollar and euro being so advantageous at the moment for tourism, how does the minister intend to capitalise on the situation and be a lead player in turning around the credit-crunch year of 2009?
Paul Heathcote, owner, Heathcote Restaurants

A Favourable exchange rates combined with the reduction in VAT have made the UK a more affordable option for foreign visitors. That is why, to highlight this fact, VisitBritain and Visit England launched a £6.5m "Value for Money" marketing campaign at the Liverpool Tourism Summit in January. But, if we want the visitors attracted by this campaign to return to our shores, we must make sure that our welcome and our service makes their experience so memorable that they want to come back for more.

Q Does the Government recognise that the tourism industry is key to the UK economy in the future, and - apart from the Olympics - in what ways is it putting tangible support behind the sector at a difficult time?
Melvin Gold, owner, Melvin Gold Consulting

A Tourism is the UK's fifth-largest industry, and a recent study by Deloitte said that its indirect contribution amounts to 8.2% of the country's gross domestic product annually. The Government, as recent remarks by the chancellor of the exchequer and the prime minister's attendance at the Liverpool Tourism Summit show, is keenly aware of its importance. Tangible support comes in a multitude of ways, from our investment in heritage, the arts and regeneration both regionally and nationally, free admittance to galleries and museums, and skills enhancement and marketing support.

Q What does the minister propose in terms of educating and training for the hotel industry in the wake of the comments from VisitBritain recently? The majority of the industry is made up of small family-owned or owner-run enterprises, which do not have the access or financial resources to improve significantly.
Max Lawrence, Inspire Hospitality

A In the hospitality industry a smile, a few words of greeting and a helpful manner go a long way to improving welcome. The Government is determined to ensure that businesses, however small, have the money they need for basic and advanced training for their staff. I am pleased with the progress made on securing funding for sector-specific customer service qualifications on the development of the UK's Skills Passport and on the establishment of the National Skills Academy for Hospitality. The Government is also investing £350m in a new training package to help small businesses weather the current downturn by enhancing the skills of their workers. Details of this can be accessed at www.traintogain.gov.uk.

Q
Ken Kelling, communications director, Visit London

A In March 2008 the DCMS told the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, that we were considering diverting this grant, which amounts to £1.9m annually. This money will be used by VisitBritain in 2009-10 and 2010â€'11 in order to spread its benefits more evenly across the whole country. It is a diversion of funds from one pot to another, not a cut in central Government support for the tourism industry as a whole.

Q How will all the ethnicity and the great modern British culture be integrated into the Olympic offering to the world? McDonald's and Coke are the biggest sponsors, but I am concerned that small operators like us will be left behind.
Cyrus Todiwala, chef-proprietor, Café Spice Namasté

A Food is an important part of British culture, and the London Olympic and Paralympic Games are a fantastic opportunity to share our culinary traditions with the rest of the world. After all, eating is one of the greatest expressions of hospitality. Over two-thirds of the 860 businesses that have won contracts to supply the Olympic Delivery Authority are small or medium-sized ones, and this shows just how important they will be to the success of 2012.

Q Considering the workforce required for the UK's tourism industry, when will we be seeing such subjects as "customer service" or "hospitality" on the GCSE curriculum? I feel these would be more beneficial to our economy than other subjects currently taught.
Dominic Hughes, manager, Strattons hotel

A Although customer service and hospitality are not recognised GCSE subjects, I am glad to say that Diplomas in Hospitality, Travel and Tourism are now seen as a viable alternative to GCSEs and A levels and that, from September 2009, they will be on the school curriculum. There will also be the new National Skills Academy for Hospitality to set the benchmark for excellence in this field. But, even where there are no hospitality-specific subjects available, there are plenty of relevant ones around, like home economics and languages. Students can also improve their communication skills with English and theatre studies, or their numeracy and analytical skills with maths and science.

Q Do you see your role as that of a champion for the tourist industry in Britain and, if so, will you do all in your power to prevent your colleagues in other departments from devising new laws that, however well-meant, threaten the profitability or survival of hotel and restaurant businesses?
Peter Hancock, chief executive, Pride of Britain Hotels

A In my first week in office I emphasised the fact that I saw my role as a champion of the tourism industry. As such, I have decided to revive the Inter-Ministerial Tourism Group to co-ordinate the Government's response to our very large and varied sector.

Q When and where did the minister last take a holiday in the UK, and when and where does she next plan to take a holiday in the UK?
Sally Shalam, freelance journalist, author of the Guardian's Check-in column

A Thanks to my husband's interest in cathedrals, the holidays we take in the UK tend to be in cities like Gloucester, York and Lincoln. We spent time in the last in the autumn. We are also Shakespeare enthusiasts and stay in Stratford-upon-Avon at least once every year. Every so often I persuade my husband to accompany me to one of our many great health farms, but what he really loves is going to Scotland, and we spent our honeymoon in Fort William. We go back there occasionally on major anniversaries. We are planning a walking holiday in England at Whitsun but are still arguing over the exact location. I want somewhere flat and peaceful, but he favours a more hilly and challenging venue!

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