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Leaving the EU: Devaluing the brand will damage tourism to the UK

Leaving the EU: UK Tourism (12th October 2016)

Kevin Brennan MP: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate Nigel Huddleston on securing this important debate, and I thank every hon. Member who has contributed. Some excellent points have been made by the hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie), for Wells (James Heappey), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson), for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) and for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), and by the SNP spokesman, John Nicolson.

It says something about the significant ramifications of Brexit that we are debating its impact on tourism. One would not normally think a constitutional referendum would lead to us debating the future of the UK tourism industry, so it is quite a surprise that it has come to this, but it shows how important the Brexit vote is to the future of the industry.

As has been pointed out, there has actually been a short-term boost to the tourism industry since the Brexit referendum. Despite the weather over the past few months, tourism in the UK has gone up; visitor numbers from outside the UK have risen since June 23. This July saw a 1% increase compared with the same period last year, while the number of staycations—visitors from inside the UK—has also risen since June. That is important. As hon. Members have said, tourism is an important industry that accounts for 9% of the UK’s employment.

The principal reason for that increase in tourist numbers in recent months is the weakness of the pound, which has been caused by both the impact of the Brexit vote itself and, I am afraid, by the Government’s mishandling of the aftermath of the vote. With each faltering step in their handling of Brexit, the pound has devalued further. Yesterday, its value against the US dollar dropped to below $1.23. On UK visitors who are going to Europe on holiday, one of our colleagues was in Venice recently taking a hard-earned short break away from his constituency, and he told me he was getting parity when exchanging the pound for the euro while he was there.

Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Kevin Brennan: I will in a moment. What is not clear—perhaps the hon. Gentleman can clear this up for me—is whether the Government want a weaker pound.

Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay: If we want to talk about how things went over the summer, I must say it was a real spectacle to observe the hon. Gentleman’s own party.

I was actually going to be slightly more positive and constructive and say that one reason why people see places such as Torbay as great places to come to is that we are a safe and welcoming country and do not have some of the issues that exist in other nations.

Kevin Brennan: I will come on to that, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that changing the subject because he has a weak argument is not always the most powerful way to make his point. We are talking about tourism and the tourism industry. I praise Torbay—I spent many happy weeks enjoying holidays there as a child and a young man, and it is a wonderful destination.

My question is this: is the new weak pound—trading at parity with the euro in recent days, as I said—now the Government’s economic policy? Following Brexit, are the Conservatives now the party of devaluation? Surely not, because I thought stable, sound money and a strong, stable pound, with the discipline that brings to productivity, was one of the central principles of a Conservative Government. Apparently not. Hon. Members will have heard at Scotland Office questions today—I am sure they were all there—the Secretary of State for Scotland bragging about record numbers of people coming to this year’s Edinburgh Festival as a result of being attracted by the weak pound. Perhaps the Minister will confirm at the end of the debate that a weak pound is Government policy.

The effect on the pound is not the only impact of Brexit. Until the Government decide how freedom of movement is going to be reformed when we leave the EU, and how and whether those measures—[Interruption.] Kevin Foster is free to intervene again if he wants to, rather than chuntering on from a sedentary position. Until the Government decide how and whether those measures will affect tourist entry into the UK, Britain’s accessibility as a tourist destination carries a lingering question mark, given that 73% of foreign visitors to the UK in 2015 were from Europe. Any uncertainty of that kind left unaddressed is extremely unhelpful. That point has been made by Conservative Members, though perhaps not in the way I would have made it.

Another concerning issue that has been mentioned is the importance of EU workers to the tourism sector. As has been said, tourism-related industries account for 9% of UK employment, and quite a high proportion of those workers are non-UK citizens, particularly in London. The Association of British Travel Agents and Deloitte published a report prior to the referendum outlining the potential consequences of Brexit on tourism, which stated that limits to the sector’s ability to employ people from outside the UK could lead to real difficulties in filling roles. It also found:

“Restrictions on employing EU nationals might thus exacerbate existing skills shortages. Ultimately this could have a detrimental effect on the sectors’  ability to serve consumers at the standard they expect.”

James Heappey Conservative, Wells: I agree with the shadow Minister. One of the advantages of the EU migrant workforce has been to provide a range of linguistic skills in a lot of our hotels and conference venues. If we are going to lose that, we could really do with some better language training in schools to replace it.

Kevin Brennan: I hope we are not going to lose it. I think we can have both, and that ought to be our aim going forward. I do not think the hon. Gentleman intended to say in any way that those people should be sent home and that we should, over a period of time, train their replacements. Of course we should improve language skills in our schools, and of course we should get more UK citizens to fill jobs in the tourism industry, but it is equally important that we do not suggest that we do not welcome diversity in our tourism industry in this country.

One problem is that some of the Government’s post-Brexit messaging is potentially damaging to Britain’s blue chip brand. At the Conservative party conference we saw the Home Secretary seriously announce, at least in the headlines, a misguided policy of publicly listing foreign workers. The Government have subsequently clumsily withdrawn that, but we have seen all this before. I have seen this movie many times over: at the Conservative party conference, Ministers announce right-wing policies that deliver plenty of tabloid headlines and claps in the conference hall, but then inevitably row back from that extreme position in subsequent days. The problem is that their message is heard, not just in Britain but overseas.

I am afraid that xenophobic sentiment, at the service of inflamed rhetoric to generate a lurid headline, keep the tabloid editors happy and send out a dog whistle to the right, is an ugly thing. Shame on the Home Secretary for risking Britain’s reputation abroad for hospitality and tolerance for a few moments of glory on the front pages of the redtops. That sort of behaviour not only damages Britain’s brand abroad but ultimately short-changes the British public. In the long run, British tourism will thrive not on the attractiveness of our weather but on the attractiveness of our welcome. It will thrive not because Britain is cheap because of the weak pound, but because Britain is rich in culture, heritage and hospitality. British tourism will flourish not by shrinking to little England slogans but by confidently projecting a greater Britain with a warm and open welcome to visitors to all of its parts—to Wales, to Northern Ireland, to Scotland and to England—often through the gateway of one of the world’s most diverse cities, London.

Coming from Cardiff, I should mention before I finish that the Champions League final will take place there next year, and we hope that the road to Cardiff will lead to many visitors coming from overseas. UK tourism needs greater clarity from the Government on Brexit and clearer messaging that we are open and welcoming to the world, and that we want people from across the world to come here to enjoy our heritage, our countryside, our modern cities and sometimes even our weather, but most of all to feel that they are welcome. Devaluing the pound may work to the tourism sector’s advantage for now, but devaluing our brand as a country will do the opposite. If that continues, it will cause lasting damage to our reputation and to our vital tourism industry.

Local Canton business on firm footing for the future

Cardiff West MP, Kevin Brennan, recently visited a local business in Canton that specialises in the provision of orthotic services and the manufacture of made to measure orthoses.

Daceys Ltd have helped people suffering from diabetics, rheumatology, paediatrics and sports injuries with specially fitted orthotics.

They also supply a number of sport stars with orthotic insoles to help with their sporting performance.

"I was delighted to visit Daceys and find out more about the work they carry out and how they've helped so many people," said Kevin.

"It was interesting to hear their plans for their future and hopefully they will continue to provide a valuable service to people in Wales for a long time to come."

You can find out more about Daceys by visiting their website here.

UK Government’s education policies are about giving power to the elite

Be it the new grammars, or forcing independent schools to get involved with the state sector, Theresa May seems hell-bent on a new educational elitism, writes one former Labour education minister
Theresa May wants the public to believe three things: that her education policies mean more good school places, that they offer greater choice and control for parents, and that they will benefit those families who are just managing to get by. In reality, her solutions are superficial, undemocratic, and wasteful.

When it comes to grammar schools, the most hotly debated of the proposals, the evidence is against the prime minister. No matter how often she chants slogans at the despatch box about helping those from lower income backgrounds, evidence shows that grammar schools spend public funds on the privileged few.

Less attention has been drawn to the other proposals, specifically those relating to independent schools. According to these new policies, independent schools will need to do more to keep their charitable status, and the tax break that entails. The largest and best funded will have to either take in a proportion of students from low income households, or ensure the success of sponsored academies or a new free school. Smaller, less wealthy independent schools will be expected to cooperate with state schools through partnerships and resource sharing.

All of this amounts to little more than worthy window dressing around the expansion of selection at age 11.

There are a number of reasons why the prime minister’s promises are empty.

According to the Independent School Council, the body that represents most UK independent schools, 5,629 students received full means-tested bursaries or scholarships to ISC schools in 2016. This means that if the government demanded that independent schools double the number of students receiving full means-tested funding, and that every ISC school did so, the result of this policy would be a private school place for roughly an extra 0.066 per cent of England’s pupil population. Some students may receive non-means-tested funding, but this even rarer and often lower in value. So much for education for the many.

And in fact, the number would likely be even smaller. First, the 5,629 figure includes Wales and Scotland, while the government’s policies would only apply to England. Second, only the largest and wealthiest schools will be asked to fund more pupils, and even they can choose another option. This proposal generates a cheap headline to divert attention away from the bigger problems in our education system, such as teacher recruitment and the long tail of underachievement.

Furthermore, these proposals take choice and control away from parents.

If the larger, wealthier independent schools prefer, they can opt to manage a free school or sponsor an academy rather than offer more bursaries. The independent schools would not be required to offer any funding to the school, only to be responsible for “ensuring its success” in becoming ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ within a certain number of years. The cost of establishing any new free schools would be covered by the government, both capital and revenue.

Not only is this policy painfully vague, as is this prime minister’s wont, containing no details of the independent schools’ precise responsibilities, it is also a further move towards an undemocratic education system in England. Unlike independent schools, local authorities are democratically accountable. This policy doesn’t give parents more choice or control; it gives power over schools away to the very few, at the very top, without even detailing their responsibilities.

Ministerial and parliamentary time and resources are expensive, as is establishing new schools. Funding a superficial and undemocratic side-show will not benefit families who are just managing to get by.  Roughly 7 per cent of children in England are currently privately educated. The other 93 per cent are not best served by offering scholarships to a tiny extra percentage of children, or by taking away their parents’ control over schools.

This inefficient policy is not a one off – the same goes for grammar schools too. A recent study from the Education Policy Institute states: “additional grammar schools are not a good intervention for raising average school standards”. Indeed, the EPI expresses concern that grammar school expansion would increase the aggregate attainment gap between wealthy and less wealthy children. This is far from the message of social mobility Theresa May would have us believe.

These proposals are based on outdated Tory ideology rather than expert evidence. Taxpayers’ money should be spent on reducing class sizes, improving teaching and leadership, and developing our national curriculum. We need better resources and equipment in our classrooms. We need to be recruiting, training, and retaining qualified teachers.

The one positive thing that can be said about this initiative, is that it draws into clear relief the difference between Labour and Tory approaches to education. We want every child to get a great education, whatever their background, and wherever they live. The Tories’ ambition extends no further than giving a great education to a selected few. Adding a handful to that selected few changes nothing, and ignores the real challenges in creating a better education system. Systemic change may be harder and more complicated, but it also benefits more people, more directly.

Education policy should aim to improve all schools, not sponsor a few; our children need great teaching, not headline-grabbing tokenism.

Help and advice available at Hafal's Big Carers' Tea Break in St Fagans

Kevin Brennan MP and Mark Drakeford AM recently attended Hafal's Big Carers' Tea Break in St Fagans where they met and spoke with carers from across Cardiff.

There were also partner organisations at the event to offer help and support on carers' assessments and provide up-to-date information on benefits, treatments and local services.

"It was great to meet carers from all across Cardiff and discuss the issues and problems they face in their roles as carers," said Mr Brennan.

"Events like the Big Carers' Tea Break are important for carers to meet other carers and organisations who can offer help and advice.

"Hafal's a fantastic charity which offers important support for people who suffer from mental illness and their carers."

The carer-led campaign is supported by Welsh mental health charity Hafal in partnership with Bipolar UK, Diverse Cymru, Carers Wales and Crossroads Mid & West Wales.

Protesting with Women Against State Pension Inequality in Cardiff

Mr Brennan recently joined Women Against State Pension Inequality's march to the Welsh Office in Cardiff to raise concerns that a number of women in Cardiff West are being treated unfairly by the UK Government's decision to increase women's pension age quicker than promised.

The 1995 Tory Government Pension Act first introduced plans to increase the age of retirement for women, but the current Tory Government has decided to implement this change quicker than 2011 Pension Act promised.

"The way the current Tory Government has introduced this far sooner than the 2011 Pension Act promised has been unfair and heartless," said Mr Brennan.

"It has meant many women have had no time to make alternative plans and their retirement plans have been shattered with devastating consequences.

"I have spoken to and received correspondence from a number of female constituents who are deeply upset and angry at the way this has been implemented.

"I was therefore happy to join this protest march and continue to campaign on their behalf for a fairer and less severe way of introducing this policy such as a 'bridging' pension to help those women effected until they reach 65."

A Squad system for the Lords

The publication of Boundary Commission Proposals for the next election has sparked a lively debate. Inevitably, there is a very close interest in this matter from MPs themselves, some of whom find that the new proposals cut up their beloved constituency into several pieces.

Every Boundary Review is certain to upset somebody, but this one is particularly difficult because of the arbitrary decision of the previous Coalition Government to simultaneously and arbitrarily cut the size of the House of Commons.

There is a further element in that a new rule has been introduced to make each Parliamentary constituency contain a closer number of registered voters. Although this sounds superficially fair, the way that the Government has gone about it has meant that two million registered voters are not even counted for the purpose of drawing up the boundaries. On the Labour side, we believe that this has been deliberately done to diminish our electoral fortunes.

It will be difficult to reverse this part of what the Government is doing, but there is a growing concern, across all Parties, about the reduction in the number of elected MPs from 650 to 600.

This was initially proposed by David Cameron as an austerity measure to reduce the ‘cost of politics’. Circumstances have changed radically in such a way that I believe this proposal no longer commands majority support in the House of Commons. There are a number of reasons for this.

1) The Government is reducing the number of elected MPs whilst adding to the number of unelected Peers, exploding the argument that this is about reducing the ‘cost of politics’. What it is doing in practice is reducing the level of democratic accountability in our political system.

2) As a result of the Brexit referendum, and on the assumption that Brexit really does mean Brexit, the UK will no longer have elected MEPs. So the cost of politics is being reduced at a European level and there will be fewer elected politicians in any case.

3) All of the issues that came under the competence of MEPs and the European Union will transfer to Parliament, but will have to be handled by fewer MPs than pre-Brexit. It was already acknowledged that the level of scrutiny of issues dealt with in Europe needed to improve even before full competence for those issues is returned to the British Parliament.

4) The Government has not proposed any corresponding reduction in Ministers. The number of MPs is being reduced by 50, but Britain’s bloated payroll vote in Parliament means that over a fifth of MPs are compelled to support collective responsibility and vote with the Government. This already high percentage will be increased by the reduction in the number of elected members. Many backbench colleagues on the Conservative side are extremely unhappy about this prospect and its implications for the effectiveness of Parliamentary scrutiny of a powerful executive.

So what is to be done?

The Government could solve this whilst keeping its equalisation of constituencies reform but working much harder to ensure everyone is on the register and then moving towards automatic registration of voters as soon as that is technically achievable.

For all the reasons outlined above however, it should abandon plans to cut the number of elected members and instruct the Boundary Commission to redraw their proposals based on 650 rather than 600 seats.

Lords reform is notoriously difficult, not least because the Commons is split three ways across Party lines on this matter. There are those like me who would like to see an elected Second Chamber with clearly laid-out, limited powers. There are others who believe an elected Chamber would inevitably become too powerful and challenge the authority of the House of Commons, and feel it is best left pretty much as an appointed House. And then there are the abolitionists.

On the principle that we should never let perfection become the enemy of the good, and that politics is the art of the possible, it seems to me that only an imaginative initiative could deal with the problem of the bloated size of the House of Peers.

I have suggested in the Commons that a lesson could be taken from sport. We could introduce a squad system in the House of Lords, capping the number of active Peers at any one time to say, 500. Initially, the numbers would be allocated in proportion to the current make-up of the Lords. Each Party group and the Crossbenchers would, from amongst themselves, nominate which Peers were actively members of their squad, and entitled to speak and vote.

This is in effect what already happens with hereditary peers who are limited to 93, although ideally they would be abolished in this reform.

Peers not selected could retain their titles, and even have lunch in the Lords if they so wished, but would not be entitled to an attendance allowance or access to the other political trappings of a Peerage.

In other words, Peers would be brought onto the bench, rather than off the bench, as happens in the sporting world. There is no reason why Party groups could not be free to bring onto the bench a Peer with a particular expertise provided they substituted another Peer out of the squad.

It might even become an annual political event when the squads were announced, just like the hullaballoo around the announcement of the Ryder Cup squad or the British and Irish Lions: perhaps not.

Whatever the solution, the current growth in the size of the Lords is unsustainable, and the proposals the cut the number of elected MPs is constitutionally dangerous. At some point soon, the Commons, I am sure, find a way to express its view in a vote. The Government would be better to pre-empt that defeat by abandoning their cull of elected Members.

What Next: Grammar Hospitals?

Imagine a hospital where patients have to take a fitness test in order to qualify for treatment.

At the Grammar Hospital for the healthier, only those with next to nothing wrong would be accepted for treatment. Patients would have to be able to run 10 miles to be eligible for an MRI, to comfortably deadlift to be offered dialysis. You’d have to be fighting fit to get an IV drip. An existing diagnosis? They’d show you the door.

Such a hospital would be able to brag about its great outcomes and people would be keen to be treated there. You’d almost certainly be discharged in good health; back to your old self again. Not even Jeremy Hunt could conjure up a scary weekend death-rate statistic. There would be little chance of infection in the waiting room either because nobody’s ill, although you might catch a serious case of smug.

And it would probably be a pleasant place to work for those who are medically trained. There would be little need for surgery so scrubs would stay nice and clean, and no need to work the night shift since most patients could go home. This would leave both doctors and patients refreshed enough to spend their days congratulating each other on their miraculous recoveries and medical skills respectively.

And of course Tory Ministers would wax lyrical on the success of their ‘Healing for the Healthy’ initiative and of the quality of service they and their families receive at their local grammar hospital branch. Good outcomes, high efficiency, low operating costs.

Meanwhile at the local Secondary Modern hospital, staff would be working valiantly to treat the rest of the population, but the outcomes would never match those of the Grammar Hospitals.

Of course in reality, no one would propose that a public-service based on the principles of fair access for all should function like this, would they?

Affordable homes to be available next year at Ely Paper Mill

Kevin Brennan MP recently visited the Ely Paper Mill site to see how the development of 800 houses was coming along and was pleased to learn the first houses will be occupied sometime next year.

The £100 million development is one of Wales' biggest redevelopment programmes with half of the houses being built set to be affordable homes.

"It's great to hear that some people will already be living in completed houses by the end of next year," said Mr Brennan.

"I have been calling for more affordable housing to be built in the West of the city for sometime and it's pleasing to see it coming to fruition.

"I've been told that most of the infrastructure will be in place by the end of 2016 with 102 houses being available to rent by the end of 2017.

"When completed there will be a total of 442 houses available for rent with 75 of these being for social housing and 325 available at a discounted rent price.

"I will continue to closely monitor the development and look forward to seeing some new afforable housing in Cardiff West."