A story in last night’s London Evening Standard under the headline “Travel firms challenged over high prices in school holidays” was worthy of careful reading.
On the face of it it was the latest in a long line of valid complaints about the way holiday prices are higher during the period of the year when holidays are in greatest demand.
This issue is nothing new and has kept consumer watchdogs and television programmes busy over the years debating whether travel firms are unfairly profiteering.
But the Standard story about Harrow West MP Gareth Thomas planning to become the latest champion for the beleaguered consumer by tabling a parliamentary question merited closer scrutiny.
The story about an Ofsted report highlighting high levels of absenteeism at Norbury School in Thomas’ constituency did not, in fact, appear to place the majority of the blame for this on absent without leave holidaymakers.
The head teacher of the school was quoted as saying: “The majority of families [of pupils at the school] have their extended family overseas. If relatives are ill they have to go, and it takes weeks. They also take holidays during term because it’s more expensive to go during school holidays.”
The Ofsted report itself said that each year a number of pupils are absent “because of very difficult family circumstances”.
But, rather than seeking to find answers about what from the newspaper report is clear is the main issue – the multi-cultural nature of the school’s intake – the local MP decides it’s all the fault of holiday companies.
Thomas himself is quoted as saying “the key issue I will run with is the higher prices in holiday time”.
I suppose we shouldn’t blame Thomas for jumping on this particular bandwagon.
When you are an MP looking to make yourself popular with the electorate why get yourself involved with an intractable cultural problem when you can point the finger of blame at profit making enterprises.
This is a particularly tempting stance to take at the moment four years into a deep economic downturn and with the spotlight turned on any big businesses appearing to be profiting unfairly.
But Thomas’ investigations into the travel industry will, no doubt, lead him to understand that travel companies need to make money during the summer in order to survive.
Even the largest aren’t able to ensure they are profitable throughout the entire year, as we saw in November last year when Thomas Cook needed an emergency bank loan to get it through the winter.
Yes, you might argue, the travel industry has brought this on itself with its discounting culture, but it is precisely the resultant lower prices of this competitive zeal that means there is a now wide sense of entitlement to an annual summer holiday among UK consumers.
Without that this wouldn’t be such a hot political potato.
Unless the government is prepared to subsidise holiday firms it’s extremely unlikely they will be willing to forgo some of their not spectacular profits for the good of the nation.
And, let’s not forget, the only reason there is a spike in demand during the British summer is that everyone is on holiday at exactly the same time.
Could the answer to this problem rest with the government rather than yet another cheap shot at an industry that appears to have few friends in the corridors of power prepared to champion its cause.
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