Comment: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Tourism Alliance director Kurt Janson outlines the wide-reaching ramifications of constant high ministerial churn.

The latest government reshuffle sees Michael Ellis replace John Glen as minister for arts, heritage and tourism, with John Glen returning to the Treasury as economic secretary as well as minister for London.

If you never met John Glen, or didn’t know he was the tourism minister, there is a good reason for that. He was only in office for 209 days.

Even more worrying is that if you calculate the length of his tenure in terms of when parliament was sitting – excluding days when parliament is in recess – then he was in position for just 90 days.

It gets worse, if you exclude the weekends during this period, then he was working for 64 days. And finally, if you assume that he split his time at work equally between his three areas of responsibility, then he was working on tourism issues for just over 21 days.

I accept that these calculations are very unfair to John Glen – ministers undertake work during parliamentary recesses, over the weekends and often late into the night. However, they do highlight the ongoing problem of high ministerial churn.

New arrival

With the arrival of Michael Ellis, the UK tourism industry will have had 10 tourism ministers in the last 10 years. There is a great pub game in trying to list all 10 (clue, one minister even held the position twice during this period).

This high level of churn presents the tourism industry with number of difficulties. First, it takes a significant period for a new minister to get up-to-speed with the issues impacting sectors for which they are responsible.

This is a particular problem for tourism because the sector is very diverse, comprising a wide range of distinct industries each with their own specific issues.

The second problem is that it takes considerable time from trade associations and businesses to develop a strong working relationship with a new minister and, again, this is exacerbated for tourism as the diversity of the businesses it comprises means it takes longer for those relationships to develop.

Weak policy

And finally, there is the problem that government policy on tourism is weak. Everyone, including incoming ministers, knows what government policy is for sectors such as health, education and taxation and immigration. This makes for an easy transition when a new minister is appointed as the policy simply continues.

With tourism, government policy is weaker so there is much more scope for incoming ministers to take a personal approach to policy, meaning that it also takes a while for the industry to understand the approach of the new minister and what they are wanting to achieve.

The net result of all these problems is that a high churn rates means that tourism ministers have only really got to grips with their brief, developed a good relationship with the sector and made their approach known when they are moved on and the whole process must start again.

This wastes the time and resources of both government and the industry and, ultimately, is detrimental to the UK economy.

Yet, the tourism industry shouldn’t feel victimised by this – research by Demos in 2009 showed that, even then, in what could be described as more stable times, the average tenure of a minister was only 1.3 years.

Brexit complications

The big point here is that this level of churn, while detrimental to the industry in normal times, is even more damaging when the UK is exiting the European Union and negotiations are beginning that will define the UK tourism industry’s relationship with the source market that provides 66% of visitors to the UK who provide over £10bn in export earnings.

We need to have a minister in place that understands the myriad of issues facing the sector, from the complexities of aviation agreements through to sourcing skilled workers for hotels; someone who is able to work closely with the industry on finding solutions and is able to clearly articulate these solutions to the Brexit negotiation team.

We also need a minister who has the knowledge and ability to implement the resultant agreements smoothly through the transition phase so that the disruption to businesses and customers is kept to an absolute minimum.

This means no more reshuffling until the end of this government so everyone can concentrate on the issue at hand.