[Relevant documents: An air transport strategy for Northern Ireland, First Report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, HC 76, and the Government response, Session 2012-13, HC 960.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Greg Hands.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Amess. I thank the Liaison Committee for nominating this important debate, and the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), for attending. I know that he had a busy night last night, not necessarily helped by some who are in the Chamber today. I welcome him.
This debate comes on the back of the first report of 2012-13 by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which we published last November. I am grateful to all Committee members for the work that they carried out on this detailed inquiry, and to our officials, who are a bit thin on the ground today, although I am sure—at least, I hope—that quality will make up for the lack of quantity.
I am grateful to the many witnesses whom we interviewed during the course of our inquiry into the air transport strategy for Northern Ireland. We talked to representatives of the airports, the CBI, the airline companies, travel companies, the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, unions, the UK Border Agency, Ministers, the Federation of Small Businesses and others.
Since the Committee was re-formed after the last general election, we have concentrated on trying our best to move towards a rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy. We know that Northern Ireland has become somewhat over-dependent on the public sector, and we are well aware of the reasons why. There is a large deficit in the amount of Government spending in Northern Ireland relative to the amount of tax raised there. The same is true in Scotland and Wales, of course, but it is more pronounced in Northern Ireland. Wages are also lower in Northern Ireland, and there is great concern about people who perhaps do not feel that they have had the full benefits of the peace process. We as a Committee have considered security issues from time to time, of course, and we will do so again, but we are doing our best to encourage and work with the Government and make proposals about how we might rebalance the economy in Northern Ireland. It is obviously worth doing for its own sake, so that people in the Province can enjoy greater prosperity, but we also see it as a way to cement the relative peace achieved over the past 15 years or so.
Our first inquiry after the last general election was on the level of corporation tax. We recommended that the issue be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly so that it could set a rate that would be more competitive with the current tax rate in the Republic of Ireland. Corporation tax in the UK is 23%, but only 12.5% in the Republic. Although the Committee was certainly not unanimous on that proposal, we felt that it would help the economy in Northern Ireland move towards where we want it to be. We are debating aviation policy, not corporation tax, but I will talk about tax a little later.
I must stress the importance of air travel to Northern Ireland. It is an island off an island—a beautiful place, but nevertheless slightly remote. The only way that people there can travel reasonably quickly and efficiently either to the mainland or to the continent is by air. The sea crossing is lovely, but it is quite slow. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the Minister is thinking of extending High Speed 2 to Northern Ireland, but I am sure that it would be welcome if he did. However, as at the moment there are no plans to do so, we must stress how important air travel is to people in Northern Ireland for social, family and business reasons.
Some Committee members suggested that it might be helpful for Ministers, particularly Ministers for Transport, to make the journey to Belfast from London or Southampton via the only real way other than flying, and to tell us all how long it takes, how much it costs and how it could possibly help improve business connectivity for that to be the only way by which a person can travel. It might be helpful for the Minister to make that trip so that he can experience it for himself. I had to make it once. It takes a very long time.
I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention. I am sure that the Minister travels to Northern Ireland regularly, but it sounds like an invitation for him to do so in a different way.
When the Minister gets there, he will see that the rail links in Northern Ireland are not what we might want either, particularly between City of Derry airport and Belfast. I will come to that issue in a minute. It is a long and sometimes difficult journey. Northern Ireland Members sometimes have to leave Parliament early in the day—not in the morning, of course, but not too late in the afternoon—if they want to get back that evening, which may explain why they are sometimes unable to take part in debates such as this.
The background is that we have three airports in Northern Ireland: Belfast International, sometimes known as Aldergrove; Belfast City, nowadays named George Best Belfast City airport after the great footballer; and, of course, City of Derry airport. Belfast International airport has about 4 million passengers a year, Belfast City airport 2.4 million and City of Derry 400,000. When we compare that with Dublin, which has 90 million passengers a year, we see a big difference between the two, but Belfast International airport is busy and fulfils a completely different role from Belfast City airport. Both are important. City of Derry airport could probably be used more, especially this year, when Londonderry is the city of culture.
In terms of connectivity, it is extremely important that we retain capacity in the south-east of England, because many people fly from Belfast to London and then on to other cities in the world. There is some concern about the speed with which we are moving in that direction. The Committee expressed frustration about how long it is taking for the Government to decide whether we are to have, for example, a further runway at Heathrow, Boris island or something else. It is of some concern to the Committee that the Government seem to have ruled out a third runway at Heathrow before commissioning the Davies report.
If it is helpful to my hon. Friend, the Government’s policy, in the manifestos of both the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats, is that there will be no third runway at Heathrow during the lifetime of this Parliament. For the way forward beyond 2015, we have set up the Davies review, an independent commission, to consider what we should do to move forward on capacity in the south-east of England.
That is extremely helpful, given that we have less than two years to go in this Parliament before the third runway is a possibility. I cannot speak for the Committee on that—we did not express a view whether there should be a third runway at Heathrow—but we did say that we are concerned about how long it is taking. The Government’s response to our report said, reasonably, that they do not want to rush matters; they want to consider the issue in depth and detail, and to get it right. I fully understand that, but we feel that we are losing out to Dublin, Paris and Schiphol due to the delay.
It is important to Northern Ireland that we secure the routes from Belfast to London airports. A while ago, British Airways—or the International Airlines Group, to be more correct—took over BMI, and there was some concern about whether the route would be discontinued. We interviewed Willie Walsh of International Airlines Group, who was helpful to the Committee and stressed the importance of that route to British Airways. We are concerned that the long-haul routes appear to be more profitable for some airline companies. He said that BA was not in a position, necessarily, to buy an awful lot more planes that could fly long-haul, so the route from Belfast was valuable to it. That is a slightly negative way of getting to the position that we wanted to get to, and we must stress the particular importance to the people in Northern Ireland, and to its economy, of the routes from Belfast to London.
Recently, we had a bit of a scare when Flybe announced that it was ending flights from Belfast City airport to Gatwick, although it ended a number of flights to Gatwick, not just from Belfast. The good news is that EasyJet has taken over and assures us that that route is important for it. All these things are worrying and are a problem for people in Northern Ireland, because air transportation is so important to them.
Linked to the issues I have mentioned are the slots, particularly at Heathrow, which is under such enormous pressure. We want to move the situation on as quickly as we can. We discussed the possibility of ring-fencing certain slots, particularly at Heathrow, but as the Government correctly responded, it is difficult to do that under EU law and tends to distort competition and the free market. As an avowed free-marketeer, I have some difficulty with that. The slots are probably best secured by creating extra capacity in the south-east, and we are in a vicious circle in that respect.
I now return to tax: air passenger duty. A while ago it became obvious to the Committee that Continental Airlines, now operating under United Airlines—the only company flying from Belfast directly to Newark in the United States—was seriously considering ending its only flight, because of the high level of long-haul air passenger duty. We have since had discussions with that airline in the United States. It was a close-run thing. It was seriously considering ending that flight, because it did not feel that it could pass on the air passenger duty to the customers, owing to the proximity of Dublin. Four people travelling from Belfast to Newark would pay £260 in tax, whereas from Dublin I think the charge is €3 each, and there was talk of abolishing that. Because of the possibility of a short journey elsewhere, Belfast was in danger of losing out.
We did a quick report and put an awful lot of pressure on the Government to do something about this. To be fair to the Treasury, the Department for Transport and the Northern Ireland Office—I do not know exactly who took the decision; I suspect it was the Treasury—
The Treasury is all-powerful. The level of air passenger duty was reduced to that for short-haul flights, and the Government have since devolved decisions on air passenger duty to the Assembly, so it can decide how it wants to play it. That reduction saved that route. I pay tribute in particular to the Select Committee members from Northern Ireland, who put pressure on me as Chairman, allowing me to put pressure on the Government. We saved that route, but it was a close-run thing that demonstrates how important—how big an issue—air passenger duty is.
Okay, we saved that route and that is important, given the relationship with America, but 98.5%—the vast majority—of Northern Ireland passengers take short-haul flights. Many witnesses cited air passenger duty as a major problem and a major cost, particularly for people who travel an awful lot.
I have made mild criticism of the Government so far. They inherited a massive deficit from the previous Government and, as we saw yesterday, it is difficult to cut taxes at this moment. We fully understand that. However, I stress to the Minister—although we are glad that the Transport Minister is present, and we know that three Ministers cannot be here, we could have done with a Treasury and a Northern Ireland Minister here, too—that air passenger duty is important. I hope that he takes that message back to the Treasury, to see what can be done to lower this burden on the people of Northern Ireland.
The Committee also considered visas and tourism, which is important to Northern Ireland and, indeed, to the Republic of Ireland. Of course, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are not in Schengen, but in what is known as the common travel area. Although that is helpful, people coming from other countries to Ireland—it is a bit more complicated than this—may need a further visa to get into the United Kingdom, and vice versa.
Again, the Government agreed with our recommendation and are already acting to have discussions with the Government of the Republic of Ireland, to see if this situation can be made simpler. Obviously, there has to be a uniform security policy surrounding the common travel area, if we go down that route, but we encourage the Government in that regard. Of course, the island of Ireland is promoted as one destination in respect of tourism. There is nothing wrong with that, even for Unionists like me. It is sensible. However, we feel that there can be more simplicity with regard to travelling to both the UK and Ireland.
I thank the Committee for all its hard work in compiling this report. I hope that I have stressed the importance of rebalancing the economy in Northern Ireland and of the role that air transport plays in that.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Amess, and I am pleased to be able to say a few words. My colleague from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), wants to make a contribution, too. I thank our Chairman, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for putting the case so well and mentioning why our Committee felt that this is an important issue: the links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, which are crucial, and particularly air passenger duty.
We need to thank the Government for listening to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and to the lobbying—all legitimate lobbying, I will add—that went on for a long time and getting the air passenger duty changed on the international flight from Belfast to Newark. That was crucial, because there was no doubt that people were travelling by car down to Dublin, even though it made the journey slightly longer, as it worked out cheaper due to the reduction there. The Irish Government make an issue of making it much cheaper to fly internationally, particularly to America. That is important. I hope that we have made that link with United Airlines permanent and that we see it increase. We now need a direct flight from Belfast to Canada, where there is a huge diaspora of people from Northern Ireland. That would be welcome.
In addition to what was always an important issue, we raised the other pressing, day-to-day issue in our recommendation 7 on tax policy. Air passenger duty throughout the United Kingdom is far too high. It is the highest in Europe. Some people argue that it is good, from a green point of view, and others argue that it is needed because the Government need the money. A cost-benefit analysis has not been properly done to show how much the United Kingdom would benefit economically if we reduced and, in some parts of the UK, abolished air passenger duty altogether.
Northern Ireland is a special case, just as the highlands and islands have become a special case, but whenever we ask why the highlands and islands get a reduction on their flights but Northern Ireland cannot, we come up against something about which I have made my views known clearly over time: the European Union and regulations, which make doing something about that difficult. Well, given how the EU works at the moment, that certainly will not be easy to do, but if we had a Government who committed to arguing for it, it might happen.
I feel strongly that travelling by plane from Northern Ireland to London, Manchester, Scotland or anywhere else on the mainland of Great Britain is not a luxury. People do not wake up and think, “Great, I am going to be flying from Belfast to London tomorrow. Isn’t that wonderful? I don’t mind paying APD, because it is such a nice way to travel.” The reality is that flying is the only way people can realistically travel, particularly to southern England. Flying is now very expensive for students who want to come back home between studying, and the cost to business people is very big. A growing phenomenon in the current economic situation is that more and more people—mainly young men but women, too—are flying over on a Monday morning, working in the building industry near Stansted and flying back on the Thursday night or Friday, and APD is a big addition to the cost.
We should be arguing that Northern Ireland is a special case because it is different. We are part of the United Kingdom, but we have water around us, and we therefore need to be treated differently. There is an idea that we cannot do something about APD for Northern Ireland. The Government’s response states:
“APD makes an essential contribution towards helping the Government meet its deficit reduction plans.”
I do not want to go further than to say that, in the long run, we would end up with more money if APD were reduced, but, obviously, if we were to treat Northern Ireland differently, APD would have to be devolved. In that case, the Northern Ireland Executive would have to make up the money to fund the reduction, but the people of Northern Ireland could debate whether they feel that that is a priority. I think that there would be support for it.
The Government’s response further states that
“in order to protect the public finances and also to comply with EU State Aid rules. It would not be possible under EU law to have different rates of APD on intra-UK flights from GB to NI than on flights from UK to other EU destinations.”
I am sorry, but I am a British citizen. I am part of the United Kingdom, and I want my Government and my country to be able to decide where planes are going to fly, how much that will cost and what the tax should be, and I do not want to be restricted. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on the Front Bench does not necessarily agree, but I do not want the EU to decide policies that should be for us to decide. That is why I support the need for a referendum, the need for a debate in the country and the need for us to decide our future relationship with the EU. I will not digress further, Mr Amess, although I am sure that you might want me to do so.
It is just not good enough for us to say that we cannot allow Northern Ireland to be treated differently and specially because of the peculiar nature of its situation, not only because it has a land border with another country, but because of the water that lies between us. It is not good enough just to say, “We cannot do this because the EU will not let us.” I believe we should reconsider, and I support the “A Fair Tax on Flying” campaign, which in some very good reports has shown how we are losing out across the United Kingdom because of the APD tax. I hope that the Government are listening.
I am surprised that the Secretary of State for Transport, in answer to a question not too long ago, said that he does not have a view on APD. He was asked,
“what assessment has the Department made of the impact of air passenger duty on aviation?”
And he answered:
“I am not sure we have taken a view on it.”
I hope that the Minister will clarify the Secretary of State’s answer, because that could be good news. The Secretary of State is my constituent when he is in London, so I know that he is quite a good egg. I hope that his answer means that we have not finally made up our mind, and I hope that my party will consider the matter very clearly, so that we can have a strong view before the next election.
There are now no direct flights to Heathrow from Belfast International, which is an important airport. They have stopped because of the merger of British Airways and BMI, and Aer Lingus then going to Belfast City airport. There is a bit of one airport playing off the other by lowering the amount of money that it charges for a short time, and after a year or two, the other airport seems to offer something more and the airlines go back. We need to ensure that both airports, while they are there, serve the needs of everyone in Northern Ireland.
I want to speak up for easyJet, which has brought an amazing amount of opportunity for people in Northern Ireland. I fly easyJet all the time, more or less. I think easyJet is a great airline. For short flights from Belfast, easyJet is absolutely brilliant and usually on time. I am not being paid by easyJet; I really do think that. I get cross when people dismiss easyJet as one of those cheap airlines, because it has brought huge opportunities for people to travel not just from Belfast to the rest of the United Kingdom but all over Europe. The more that that happens, the more that we will see people going from Belfast to Amsterdam and then to America. That will not happen unless we grasp the nettle of APD.
This debate has been a good opportunity, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for his chairmanship of the Committee generally, and particularly for his interest in aviation and aviation policy. Such issues have consumed a lot of the Committee’s time, whether it is the aerospace industry, aviation strategy or APD, which reflects the importance of aviation to Northern Ireland’s economy.
As an island off an island, our peripherality can be countered only by having good, quick connections. The hon. Member for Vauxhall made the point well that those of us who have on occasion laboured by boat, train and car to make the same journey would not swap an hour-long flight for the alternative. We certainly could not do so if we were seriously going to do business in the House or anywhere else. As a form of business travel, flying is the only viable option for people from Northern Ireland to make contact with the south-east.
I recognise and welcome the Government’s analysis of the contribution and benefits of aviation to the UK economy. That is especially true in Northern Ireland, particularly in my constituency of Belfast East, where aerospace companies such as Bombardier and Thales directly employ many highly skilled workers. Their employment contributes to the rebalancing of the economy, which the hon. Member for Tewkesbury has said is a priority for the Committee and for the Northern Ireland Executive. I believe all of us who represent Northern Ireland want to see that happen. Aerospace is a particularly important marketplace for us to sustain growth.
The tourism industry, both inbound and outbound, relies heavily on aviation, as would be expected for an island economy. Due to the relatively small number of direct flights to other international destinations, our connectivity to other parts of the UK is crucial if we are to ensure our connectivity with international destinations. Such connectivity contributes heavily to UK economic activity, and passengers who pay APD on both parts of their journey are particularly affected.
APD has a detrimental effect on the continued development of a thriving tourism sector in Northern Ireland by placing a cost burden on business, not least because of our unique position of having a land border with another EU state, placing us in direct competition with a much lower-tax economy. We have to be cognisant of that when we make decisions, and I will elaborate on that later.
I will start by addressing connectivity to and through the UK hub airports, and I will then reflect on what the Committee says about connectivity to the airports within Northern Ireland. Airports are recognised as devolved but there may be things that the UK Government can do to encourage more work on connectivity within Northern Ireland.
The UK is one of the best-connected countries in the world, and the Government are right to state that the broader the range of destinations served and the higher the frequency of flights to and from those destinations, the better connected we will be. That is particularly crucial in the context of Northern Ireland. It is vital for us to get access to the south-east of England and, through the main hub airports, to the rest of the world. On connectivity to the south-east, the overall gross value added of Northern Ireland is only about 80% of the UK average. Successive Governments have nominally committed to a policy of regional convergence, but London and the south-east are still regarded—I argue, protected—as the main drivers of the UK economy. Only three UK regions are net contributors to the Treasury, and Northern Ireland is the most dependent of the remaining nine.
Clearly, an active regional policy by Government is necessary to promote a more even distribution of economic activity throughout the UK. In the interim, it is imperative to ensure that the regions have good access to London and the south-east to assist with economic competitiveness. Northern Ireland’s unique position means that aviation is essential to that connectivity. There are no other appropriate means of transport to access mainland UK or other onward destinations quickly and easily for business purposes. On onward connectivity, as we rebalance the Northern Ireland economy, it is vital that we encourage and support indigenous businesses to expand their exports, attract new foreign direct investment and so on. Ease of travel and the frequency and cost of flights are always factors in our ability to maximise potential. Direct access to the main hub airports in the south-east is vital.
I concur with the Chair when he said that the Committee was concerned about delays to do with the Heathrow issue, and I will elaborate on that. Demand for landing slots for international flights is placing pressure on national connections, which worries us, as one of the most affected regions. If Glasgow loses its landing slot, people at least have the option to step on a train, but if Belfast loses its landing slot, we are talking about a three-day hike, so the issue of our connectivity is much more serious. Future proposals need to be evaluated not in isolation, but in terms of the economic impact in Northern Ireland and other remote regions of the UK, because equitable access to London is crucial. The lack of a decision on an additional runway at Heathrow or of a new hub airport—I am fairly indifferent to which option is pursued—has an impact on landing slots, which is important for Northern Ireland passengers in two ways.
First, the focus of the airports on through passengers is intensifying, because of constrained capacity, and both Heathrow and Gatwick now levy charges on passengers who arrive in those airports as their final destination from other UK airports, which adds to the cost of travel. Such charges might be relatively small at the point of introduction, but they will have an effect, because, as the pressure increases, the charges will increase. Furthermore, we often find that charges will increase as people’s tolerance of them increases. The charge is applied to transit passengers, but Northern Ireland has few through carriers, so most people arrive there as a destination, then have to change flights completely—they are not technically transit passengers, so they end up having to pay the charge.
Secondly, as others have mentioned, the flight connections between Belfast and London, and their frequency, are placed at risk as the pressure for landing slots—at Heathrow in particular—grows; they are at risk of being replaced by more lucrative long-haul routes. The Chair of the Select Committee has already reflected on the evidence given by Willie Walsh of IAG, but his twin reasons for the continued need for regional flights were to feed the passenger capacity of onward internationals and because of a lack of a fleet of international jets ready to take on the extra slots. That was not an option therefore, certainly in the short term. The reality is that the frequency with which the airline would want to fly between Belfast and London would be based more on its onward connections than on the convenience of those who travel for business and other purposes.
We heard good evidence about the possible constraints from the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust, and so on. We heard that frequency is almost as important as capacity for flights between London and Belfast, so that people can have more flexible travel arrangements. As already mentioned, Members from Northern Ireland will often struggle still to be in the House for the close of business at the end of the day, because the last flights leave so early. Not to join the bandwagon, but easyJet is one of the latest flights to leave and one of the few to allow us, for example, to vote in the House on a Wednesday night and still get back to Northern Ireland on a Wednesday night. There is an issue about the routes and, although we understand about public service obligations, it may need to be looked at in future. Any threat might not be imminent, but if the matter of Heathrow and capacity in the south-east is not resolved as a matter of urgency, the pressure on slots for flights to Northern Ireland will continue to increase.
I hope that something will be done as a matter of urgency. Given that the need for resolution is of acute importance to Northern Ireland residents, I regret the apparent lack of urgency in the approach taken. I have read the Government response to our first recommendation, and I understand the need for an evidence base and the reference to the Airports Commission, but the response goes on to mention that any decision will be “highly contentious” and that the decisions have been under discussion since the early 1990s. I suspect that the contentious nature of the decisions has had more impact on the time frame than the lack of an evidence base. Most people in Northern Ireland feel that that has been more the guiding factor, rather than the difficulty of the decisions to do with the airport.
Connectivity to airports within Northern Ireland is also important. Those are largely devolved issues, which was reflected in the Government response to the report, but that context is important. We are pleased to see commitment to creating lower-carbon methods of reaching airports in Great Britain, which we hope will be encouraged in the devolved Administrations. The Northern Ireland Administration do not have a climate change action plan, unlike the rest of the UK: Scotland has its own plans, and England and Wales are covered by what happens in Westminster. Northern Ireland sits outside those arrangements, and some impetus to drive something through the Assembly would be good.
Northern Ireland will obviously not benefit directly from high-speed rail. In case the Minister does not already know, I voted in favour of high-speed rail, which I hope will make him slightly more sympathetic to my other points. Investment in public transport is good and wise investment, and I say that as someone who comes from an engineering background. High-speed rail will not directly benefit us, but in Northern Ireland, by contrast, all our airports are within one mile of an existing rail line, and yet none has a direct connection to that railway. Someone arriving at Belfast City airport terminal can see the railway, but cannot reach it directly; people have to leave the airport site and walk across a dual-carriageway bridge and through some streets to get there. Relatively modest investment by the Northern Ireland Executive, therefore, could enable connectivity between the rail network in Northern Ireland, limited though it is, and air travel. We want to see the Government and the Department for Regional Development in Northern Ireland work on developing such access to identify funding and other opportunities.
The lack of ease of access to Belfast International airport in particular remains a problem, and one that has received attention as a result of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s aviation inquiry. The road network serving the airport fails to meet the needs of Northern Ireland in pursuing inbound tourism and international investment as key drivers. We need to have an adequate and well-maintained road infrastructure to have onward connectivity within Northern Ireland and with the rest of the island, which is our main economic partner in terms of exports and other things. Improved infrastructure could attract more customers and international carriers to the International airport, improving our connectivity with the rest of the world. Road access to Belfast International is extremely poor in places, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall, who uses it regularly, is aware. Travelling from Belfast and after leaving the M2 motorway, one must proceed along seven miles of two-lane single carriageway, passing through a small town to reach the airport. The road is relatively straight and safe, but high traffic volumes during peak periods result in delays and an increased chance of accidents. No proposals or meaningful discussions have been forthcoming about upgrading the road. In our discussions with the devolved Administration, we have stressed that it should be examined.
First impressions are hugely important, and our public transport connectivity creates a generally poor impression, although we might have benefited slightly over G8—no one could actually get to Enniskillen, certainly by public transport, even had anyone wanted to go there to protest. It is something that needs to be addressed.
I next want to touch on air passenger duty, because we cannot discuss aviation strategy without looking at APD, which has a disproportionate effect on Northern Ireland passengers. The Committee spent considerable time discussing the issue, and some changes have happened, in respect of the International airport in particular, on the back of one of our previous reports. People frequently gave us evidence about the impact of APD. If we are to rebalance Northern Ireland’s economy, it will primarily be not by cutting the public sector, but by growing the private sector. In my view and that of a growing number of people, the APD regime is a significant obstacle to that. It is a commercial challenge to Northern Ireland businesses and conflicts directly with the positive measures that are being taken to boost tourism and related employment to encourage foreign direct investment and so on. It adds to the cost of indigenous businesses, particularly those seeking to grow their export markets.
The Committee received evidence from a large fish processor in Northern Ireland who exports to the far east, and finds APD a huge burden on his business. Being able to take his product to international markets and build relationships with those markets and clients is crucial for him in growing his export base. But in his evidence, Mr Rooney said that APD effectively consumes part of the budget he sets aside for travel, so the number of his mission journeys is limited by APD. If it did not exist, or were lower, he could travel more frequently to sell his products. He is very successful at getting them into the market when he has made those connections.
At best, APD adds to the cost base and, at worst, it could jeopardise connectivity between Northern Ireland and other UK and international markets, impeding our efforts. The levy was originally relatively affordable, but it has increased significantly, particularly on long-haul flights. Since 2007, the increases have been very steep—up to 260% for short-haul flights—and between 2008 and 2011 the number of passengers carried by Virgin Atlantic, for example, decreased by between 7% and 8%, but the amount of APD paid by its passengers increased by more than 45%.
Hon. Members will be aware that since I have been in Parliament I have raised the issue frequently—the Treasury would say relentlessly. I apologise that much of what I am saying today has been heard before, but until it is acknowledged and dealt with it bears repeating. I want to focus on what happens in Northern Ireland because of its uniqueness. It is an effective demonstration in microcosm of APD’s impact more widely throughout the UK.
When I have raised the issue with Treasury Ministers, I was scolded for not acknowledging the Government’s work on direct long-haul flights. I will not make that mistake again. I acknowledge that that was real progress, and I am glad the Government moved to devolve that and in the first instance to reduce it so that we retained the United Continental flight as our only long-haul direct route. Of the 600,000 passengers it carried in the last six years or so before the decision, 40% were inbound tourists and business visitors, so it was crucial to retain that connection to north America.
The route’s success is a tangible demonstration to others. The hon. Member for Vauxhall mentioned direct flights to Canada. We had those seasonally, but have since lost them. It would be good if they were restored, given the huge diaspora to Canada. It provides a good evidence base for other airlines to consider direct flights from Belfast. APD placed the direct flight in jeopardy simply because the rates are so much lower in Dublin, which is less than two hours away and, in contrast, has good road links. That is a challenge that we must face in developing our infrastructure.
I give credit to the Government for responding to the work of Northern Ireland MPs, the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Ministers, businesses and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s report on APD by reducing the levy on direct long-haul flights and for devolving the matter to the Assembly. That change was important and very welcome, but affects around 2% of Northern Ireland passengers. It does not help with the unfair burden on Northern Ireland of APD more generally; for example, on regional flights, or because of the double duty that is paid because our access to main UK hubs often requires separate flights due to the limited number of through carriers. We pay short-haul to get to London and we pay long-haul to go from London. If we had a through carrier, we would simply pay long-haul, even if we stopped in London, but because we do not have seamless ticketing, we end up paying more and that should be looked at from the perspective of fairness.
The case for reviewing APD is strong throughout the UK. For island nations, connectivity and aviation are crucial. The situation is more acute in Northern Ireland because we have a land border with another EU member state and the price-sensitive advantage in the Republic of Ireland has directly affected Northern Ireland. It was initially a bigger issue with international long-haul flights because the extra time needed to get to the airport made it worth while, but when flying on even a moderate flight of, for example, four hours it is almost as quick for many people to go to Dublin as to International airport or elsewhere to pick up their flight. The savings may make it sensible financially to make that slightly longer journey, and that will be an increasing challenge.
APD also affects tourism because it reduces the cost for people flying into Dublin, and when they do so as inbound tourists it is very difficult to get them to cross the border to spend time and stay overnight in Northern Ireland. We are trying to grow our tourism, and the tourism offer has improved dramatically in recent years, but it is still difficult to get people who have flown into another jurisdiction to come north and spend time in Northern Ireland, which is what I really want them to do. Getting people to Belfast in the first place is hugely important.
When APD was first introduced, it was a means of taxing aviation to try to reflect the environmental impact. I have no objection to aviation paying its fair share in that regard. It is important that it does and that tax takes account of issues such as climate change and seeks to effect behavioural change. However, there is no realistic alternative in this case so it has become punitive for travellers.
I recognise the importance of addressing the deficit and do not dismiss it in the slightest, but international evidence suggests that tax on aviation is such a constraint on other revenue that it outweighs the benefits economically. The hon. Member for Vauxhall referred to that. The Irish Government committed to abolishing the tax equivalent of APD because it viewed it as a barrier to growth and tourism, despite it being set at €3. Most significantly, the tax in band B of APD covers flights of 2,000-4,000 miles at around £60 and £120 for economy and business-class passengers respectively. Comparing that with the zero charges that the Irish Republic is introducing shows the difference that it can make to the cost of a flight.
A PricewaterhouseCoopers study earlier this year indicated that significant economic benefits could be reaped from the abolition of APD. It estimated that APD would boost GDP by 0.46% in the first year, and amount to about £16 billion in the first three years and create almost 60,000 jobs in the UK in the long term. One of the most interesting facts in the report was that the abolition of APD would pay for itself because the increased revenue from income tax, VAT and higher employment and business growth would outweigh its loss. That is without the peripheral benefits, including more tourists coming to the UK and airlines expanding their networks within the UK. It suggests that in the first two years, the Government would gain increased revenue of about £500 million and about £250 million each year thereafter until 2020.
That study builds on previous studies by Oxford Economics, which suggested that abolishing APD would raise gross value added by between £1.8 billion and £2.9 billion because of the boost in the aviation and tourism sectors from increased passenger numbers, and would create 40,000 to 60,000 new jobs. The extra income available for consumers from lower airline ticket prices would also provide a stimulus to consumer spending, so additional spin-offs were predicted. To date, the Government have not accepted those studies so the answer is for the Treasury to commission its own independent cost-benefit analysis, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall suggested, to look at the impact of APD in the light of research.
I will not try to draw the Minister too far. I have frequently tried to do so in correspondence, and he has resisted effectively. I am sure he will do so again today, and I respect his deference to the Treasury, but I hope that he will take the opportunity to reflect on the fact that for most of us APD has been by far the biggest issue in aviation and connectivity, and pass that on to the Treasury.
I want to raise one more issue: the impact on the environment and people of having an airport nearby, particularly the impact of noise. I welcome the recognition of the need for a fair balance between the negative impacts of noise and the economic benefits of flights, but I am concerned that the main mechanisms for addressing those issues seem to be about engagement between airports and local communities. That is extremely valuable in building relationships and aiding understanding, but it does not necessarily improve the situation.
We would like to see independent monitoring of noise contours, with an independent body able to make decisions on how aircraft noise should be controlled in highly populated areas. The introduction of an independent body would increase public confidence and ensure that the existing noise monitoring undertaken by airports has a degree of independence, which it is currently not perceived to have. That would also provide a more robust approach and give additional transparency, as those who are making the decisions about monitoring and about the frequency and timing of aircraft movements would be removed from having commercial interests in the decisions.
The mapping and monitoring of noise exposure at designated airports is very helpful, but it should be considered for extension to airports with any significant neighbouring residential population, so that anyone living with aircraft noise is aware of the impact on their health. In particular, when there are schools nearby, that needs to be carefully considered. In my constituency, the George Best Belfast City airport is a hugely important economic driver: it is a good employer, employing more than 1,000 people, both directly and indirectly, and it creates jobs and opportunities for the city of Belfast. There is no doubt about that, but those who live close to the airport, under the flight path, find it difficult to deal with the effects. There are issues relating to how those effects, and the environmental impact, are monitored at a UK level, and it would be helpful for us to consider those in light of evidence that the Committee received. I thank the Minister for his attention to what we have said, and I look forward to hearing his response.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Amess, and it is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). She made reference to most of the report’s key points, which I will also refer to when I comment on the report, and she raised several other issues that I hope to cover. I thank the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for the report and for his explanation of it: it is clearly a work of some significance. It is a good to see the Minister in his place to respond to the debate, and I hope not to be too long in my contribution, because responding to the points that have been made is clearly a matter for the Government.
I want to make two non-financial declarations, Mr Amess. First, I have family in Belfast, not too far from the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast East, in Holywood. Secondly, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) that I sailed from Southampton to Belfast last year to help celebrate the opening of the Titanic Belfast museum, which is a must for anyone interested in British history, British shipping or British tourism. Going to see it was a great opportunity that my wife and I took.
My hon. Friend, along with the hon. Member for Belfast East and the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, made some powerful points on air passenger duty, and I will come back to those in due course. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall also commented on links to north America and particularly, potential new links to Canada, which the hon. Member for Belfast East also referred to. I am sure that the Minister will come back to those links in due course.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall asked for the Opposition’s view on APD. I know that the Minister would say the same thing as I would; it is a Treasury matter. However, I have had meetings with shadow Treasury Ministers, and the official Opposition policy is that we have given a commitment to undertake a review of APD, because there is an understanding—I am sure with the Government as well, because of the comments that they have been making—of the impact that APD is having on tourism, industry and connectivity. The hon. Member for Belfast East made significant comments on the Oxford Economics report, the PricewaterhouseCoopers report and what APD is doing, as well as whether it should be rebalanced and whether that could provide a greater incentive for the UK economy to grow. I have no doubt that colleagues in the shadow Treasury team are keen to look at those issues.
The hon. Lady made some points reinforcing the report’s recommendations, and I will try to refer to what she said briefly in my review of the recommendations. One thing that I will say is that from my time as aviation Minister, between 2007 and 2009, I know that the vast majority of airports take the issue of noise very seriously. We tried to reinforce the provisions, and the coalition has tried to reinforce the protection for communities around airports. My understanding is that the expansion of the airports in Paris, which we envy, because they have a greater capacity than we have, was partly dealt with by the appointment of a noise regulator for aviation in Paris, which provided the independence that the hon. Lady is asking for. This is about reassuring the public that somebody—whether the Government, an economic regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, or whoever—is looking at the noise footprint and can ensure that it is within the contours; that all the arrangements, whether compensation, double-glazing or air-conditioning, that are in place for most airports are monitored appropriately; and that the matter is being dealt with efficiently.
On the report, the key question relates to recommendation 1 on connectivity. The Government, as I am sure the Minister will tell us, have set up the Davies commission, which is looking at capacity and connectivity. He knows that we think that it was a great idea and that we suggested it 12 months before they did it, but the fact that they got round to it is to their credit. We fully support it, and Labour’s position is that we will wait to see the outcome of the commission and its recommendations.
The only potential recommendation that we have firmly set ourselves against is if the commission comes out in favour of an estuary airport. I cannot imagine that it will, but that is one recommendation that we will not take forward. However, we will look at anything else that Davies comes out with, as the Conservative party has also said. I think that the Liberal Democrats are in a different place altogether on aviation. I am not clear exactly how they view aviation, given how important it is as an economic tool, which everyone who has spoken in the debate so far has recognised.
For the avoidance of doubt, we have said that we will look at whatever the Davies commission proposes, with the exception of a potential recommendation to build an estuary airport. We said that if that is a recommendation, we are sorry, but we are not persuaded at all by the evidence that that is the way to move aviation forward as an economic tool for UK plc. However, we will look at point-to-point, additional runways at Gatwick or Stansted, or a new hub airport—whatever the Davies commission comes up with, we will look at, but an estuary airport, from our point of view, is off the table.
Anecdotally, a range of events have been organised by a variety of different organisations, industry bodies, think-tanks and so on. The best story that I have heard from many such meetings was a question-and-answer session that included, on the top table, the chief executive of Schiphol airport. When he was asked what he thinks the answer to the UK’s aviation policy should be, his response was, “It’s not for me to say, but the recommendation I would give is that you should take your time and think about it long and hard.” The longer we take to make a decision, the more Schiphol is growing, day by day, week by week, and month by month.
As the hon. Member for Belfast East and my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall said, Schiphol advertises itself these days as the UK hub airport. It serves more than 20 British cities, while Heathrow only serves seven. Therefore, the connectivity from our regions is dwindling, and as slots from Heathrow become more precious and more airlines want to get in, that squeezes the ability for our regions and for Northern Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere to get in. Capacity is a big issue, and the connectivity points made in recommendation 1 are therefore significant.
On recommendation 2, we note the Government response. Naturally, I consulted my colleagues in the shadow Northern Ireland team and, if I may, I shall quote the points that they made to me. They said:
“The main political issue is Air Passenger Duty.”
They are aware of the
“keen debate on this around regional airports in the UK, particularly re Scotland.”
They say that their line to date, cleared with the shadow Treasury team, is that
“there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland. It is the only part of the UK that has a land border with another EU member state, which has lower rates of APD. Belfast City airport and Belfast International airport both compete with Dublin…on attracting airlines, routes and passengers. Conversely, it relies on…air transport for a link to the rest of the UK.
The government has removed”—
congratulations to the Government—
“APD on the long-haul New York flight from Belfast International airport, which we supported.”
That move is obviously well supported also in the Select Committee and by colleagues from Northern Ireland.
My colleagues in the shadow Northern Ireland team go on to say:
“We are sympathetic to the argument for reducing APD on all routes from Northern Ireland but would need to examine it fully, including the impact lowering the rate would have on the block grant. There are other options including looking at ‘protected routes’ that already exist in the UK for the air link to the Scottish islands, for example. Belfast-London Heathrow would be the obvious one for this.”
I cannot imagine that the Minister will say very much different.
On recommendations 3, 4 and 5, the Government response says that they concern devolved matters, and clearly that is the case. With regard to recommendations 6 and 7, I think that I covered the relevant points in my comments on APD. Recommendations 8 and 9 concern a key issue, and obviously the Government say so in their response. That matter is very much part of this debate.
On recommendations 10 and 11, we are told:
“The Government notes the comments on these areas”,
which I think is a very erudite thing to do.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, this is an important report. I am pleased to be here to contribute to the debate. I thank hon. Members for their comments and the Chairman and his Committee for producing the report. Like them, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and the Select Committee that he chairs for giving us the opportunity to debate this report today. This has been an interesting, if sparsely attended, debate.
We continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on this important issue, because, as hon. Members will appreciate, air transport policy remains largely a reserved issue. However, as the recommendations from the Committee and the Government response show, a number of issues are devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive. As I said, that is reflected by the British Government’s response to the Committee’s recommendations. Things such as surface access to airports and matters pertaining to land-use planning are within the gift of the Northern Ireland Executive. Aircraft noise was mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). Those are all matters for the Northern Ireland Executive, so I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I refrain from discussing them in detail, simply because it is not my door they should be knocking at, but that of the Northern Ireland Executive.
Could I ask for clarification on something? We were told by the City of Derry airport that UK guidelines are that
“railway access to airport terminals can only be justified when passenger numbers reach 10 million per annum.”
Does the Minister know—perhaps he can write to me if he needs to find out—whether that is a devolved or a reserved matter?
I hope that I can give some reassurance to my hon. Friend. That is a devolved matter, but what I will do, in the spirit of co-operation and friendliness, is write to him with the precise details to explain why it is and what the best way forward is for him and his Committee.
That is fine; the hon. Lady is fine. I just thought for one ghastly moment that I had walked into a huge hole, so I am relieved that it was not me—not guilty, guv.
I welcome the fact that there is broad agreement—indeed, unanimity—on the importance of maintaining the UK’s position as a leading global aviation hub. The Government believe it to be vital to the Northern Ireland and wider UK economy. It is important to remember that the UK continues to have excellent aviation connectivity, both on a point-to-point basis and through the London hub. The five airports serving London offer at least weekly direct services to more than 360 destinations worldwide, which is more than Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam Schiphol. We have the third largest aviation network in the world after the United States and China.
Northern Ireland is increasingly well connected both to the rest of the UK and to the wider world. In 2012, Northern Ireland airports operated services to 23 domestic UK destinations on 36 routes, to 17 EU-27 destinations on 19 routes, to three other European destinations and, as we have heard from a number of hon. Members, to one north American destination.
I will try to restrict my interventions, but I thought that as the Minister had mentioned the increase, it might be worth pointing out, as I have been a user of it and you are our Chairman, Mr Amess, that the new easyJet route from Southend to Belfast is very popular.
I am particularly grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning that. She is absolutely right to do so. I am grateful not only because I am a Member from God’s own county, where Southend airport is, but because only in the last few weeks I have had the pleasure of visiting Southend airport and being able to find out for myself the increasing and expanding services that Southend airport is providing both to Northern Ireland and to other destinations in Europe. I think that it has the accolade of being called London’s fifth airport. No doubt, Mr Amess, you will correct me if I am wrong.
The Government believe that Northern Ireland is well placed to continue to grow the direct network as well as to enjoy vital connections through the UK and continental hubs. The Government recognise that, like elsewhere, the airports in Northern Ireland make a vital contribution to its economy. However, unlike in other parts of the UK, aviation plays a unique role in connecting Northern Ireland with the rest of the country. As such, aviation connectivity with the rest of the UK is extremely important to our national cohesion and will remain so.
We all know that the provision of commercial air services is subject to market forces. Ultimately, airlines operate in a competitive, commercial environment and it is for them to determine the routes that they operate and from which airports. It has been suggested that some form of intervention is necessary to protect air services between Northern Ireland and London from commercial market pressures. The hon. Member for Belfast East mentioned that. But air links to Northern Ireland remain commercially viable. Northern Ireland is well connected by air to London, with more than 18,000 flights a year between the two Belfast airports and the five main London airports. Those flights handled just over 1.9 million passengers in 2012. Over a third were between Belfast and Heathrow. That said, the Government fully support the efforts of the Northern Ireland Executive to develop the route network of Northern Ireland further.
Northern Ireland is also unique within the United Kingdom in that it shares a land border with another EU member state, as was mentioned by the hon. Members for Belfast East and for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). Although that brings many benefits, the Government are highly conscious of the greater competition that it creates when securing air services, especially long-haul services. As such, in the recent Northern Ireland economic pact, we confirmed that the Government and Executive will work together to consider with the US authorities and other interested stakeholders the feasibility of establishing US pre-clearance facilities at Belfast International airport. It is complex work, with practical and legal issues that need to be addressed, but given that such facilities are currently available at Dublin and Shannon airports, we hope that progress can be made quickly. I think that all hon. Members present today, and those beyond the Chamber, fully appreciate the importance of establishing such a service, if the discussions and negotiations between our countries can come to successful fruition.
I think that every hon. Member has mentioned air passenger duty in the debate. As hon. Members have been gracious enough to mention in their comments, the Government have already taken action to ensure that the Northern Ireland aviation sector remains competitive. In November 2011, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer reduced APD for passengers travelling on direct long-haul routes departing from airports in Northern Ireland. That move secured the continuation of the only current direct long-haul service operating from Northern Ireland. The Government have now gone further, as some hon. Members mentioned, and, reflecting the wishes of the Northern Ireland Executive, have devolved to Northern Ireland the power to set APD rates for long-haul flights departing Northern Ireland. The zero-APD rate for direct long-haul flights departing Northern Ireland, which took effect from 1 January 2013, puts Northern Ireland in a highly competitive position.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend and the hon. Members for Vauxhall and for Poplar and Limehouse, and to the hon. Member for Belfast East in particular, when they spoke about the ways in which they would like to move forward. As the hon. Member for Belfast East correctly anticipated, I will be consistent and my comments will reflect what I said to her in my correspondence: APD is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and it would be sensible for her to convey her views to the Treasury, so that it is aware of what she believes should happen. I will not detain hon. Members by going into detail on all the reasons for APD and why it is where it is at the moment, because that is well known. They can rest assured that we are aware of the views on and the reasons for APD and that the Treasury regularly monitors the situation carefully.
The hon. Lady is extremely charming and in many ways intellectually seductive. She too has been a Minister. There may be only four close honourable friends of mine sitting in the Chamber, but unfortunately the walls have ears. I have always found that it is extremely wise when one is a member of a governing Administration to be bound by collective responsibility, which I happen to believe in as well; one fully understands the merits of the cases that the Government put forward as their policy and one fully supports them. I hope that explains to the hon. Lady that what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor had to do was due to the unsatisfactory, if not catastrophic, economic situation we inherited in May 2010. We have had to take some tough and difficult decisions. He is right, because it is right that we address the problems of the debt and the deficit.
I shall move on to the probably more neutral subject of aviation policy frameworks. Overall, the Government want aviation to continue across the country. To that end, we continue to deliver: we have delivered the Civil Aviation Act 2012, to bring the regulatory framework up to date, and we are implementing the recommendations of the south-east task force. We have also acted to ensure that the Northern Ireland aviation sector remains competitive. We plan to create an economic climate that enables people to travel and to use aviation to conduct business and visit friends and family as easily and cost-effectively as possible. Many people in Northern Ireland are concerned, as those in the rest of the country are, about capacity, particularly capacity in London and south-east England. Although it is across the Irish sea from Northern Ireland, capacity there does, as hon. Members have said, have a knock-on effect on those who wish to fly long-haul from Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland to the rest of the world. They will frequently travel to London to meet their connections and then travel on or, as hon. Members have said, in some cases they go to Dublin.
The Government believe that maintaining the UK’s status as a leading global aviation hub is fundamental to our long-term international competitiveness. To make decisions, we need our evidence on the way forward to be as up to date as possible. Dealing with airport capacity, increasing the size of existing airports or creating new airports is highly controversial and arouses strong emotions. It is essential that we get it right, which is why I welcome the comments from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse on his party’s attitude to how we are moving forward, but I exclude from that welcome the comments he made about Boris island; I must be totally independent, so I do not want to comment on any option and compromise that independence.
The only difficulty we have with the Davies commission is the timetable the Government have given it to arrive at its conclusions, which is after the 2015 general election. Like Mayor Boris Johnson, the CBI and the aviation industry, we would much rather the deadline were brought forward to before the general election, so that parties have an opportunity to examine the recommendations and include them or otherwise in their manifestos, and people can have the opportunity to decide.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but perhaps I should let sleeping dogs lie; he kindly did not mention that topic in his comments. The time scale that has been given, with interim recommendations for the short term announced at the end of the year and a full-blown report with recommendations in the summer of 2015, is the right one. On a very complex, difficult and controversial subject, the commission must have the right amount of time to assess fully all the evidence and come to a proper decision, rather than rush it for an artificial, more short-term deadline. I fear that if it had had a shorter time scale, all those who did not like whatever recommendation the commission made, would accuse it of a botched job because it was a rushed job, because it did not have enough time.
Forgive me, Mr Amess, but I must comment that the Davies commission was appointed more than 12 months ago. It has a three-year job, but there is no way that it takes three years to arrive at conclusions on an issue such as aviation capacity in the south-east. There is so much evidence available. Three years is far too long. The timetable is a political stitch-up to get past the general election, because the issue is a deal breaker for the coalition. That is the reality in politics. I am not knocking it; it is just where we happen to be. The timetable could have been shorter and that would not have truncated the opportunity for a full, thorough and comprehensive examination of the issues by the commission.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I fundamentally disagree with him. The issues are extremely complex and difficult, and they have stumped successive previous Governments—we have been going around the houses for 30 or 40 years without a final conclusion. A timetable of just short of three years, to consider the recommendations for the short term and, hopefully, to find a proper and lasting solution for the long term, is the right time scale. With that, there can be no accusations that it is a botched job, or that it has been rushed because of an artificial deadline, and we will be able to get the right and relevant recommendation, which will secure our moving forward to keep our hub status and everything that flows from that. We will, hopefully, then be able to get cross-party consensus.
I think that all the political parties have behaved responsibly—sometimes uncharacteristically so, where British politics is concerned—in reaching consensus on high-speed rail, and when the Davies commission has reported, ideally we will be able to reach consensus on its recommendations. We will have to wait and see, but I think that the time scale is respectable and responsible, and provides the time for the work to be done without rushing it.
I hear what the Minister says, but the problem is that when the report comes out it will not be the end of the story. Everything then has to be negotiated, and then something has to be agreed, and built. So let us say that in 2015 a third runway at Heathrow is recommended. When does the Minister estimate it would be operational?
I am not going to fall into the trap of signing up to, “Let’s say it’s the third runway at Heathrow airport”. The Davies commission is totally independent and I, as a Minister in the Department for Transport, will not in any shape or form be tempted into that, even as an example, because it could be misconstrued—as I said earlier, walls have ears—and I certainly do not want to compromise the commission’s independence.
Nevertheless, I get my hon. Friend’s point about how long any major infrastructure improvement project in this country, however much support it has in the political arena, takes to go from the idea, and the acceptance of the idea, to laying down the first bricks and opening the first door for the service, or whatever it is. That is another issue and, speaking from a purely personal point of view, I think it has to be considered, but I do think that the right way forward is for an expert organisation that is divorced from party politics to consider the issue and come up with a solution. I hope that one can then get swift consensus among the political parties—or the major ones—so that we can move forward.
From the past 24 hours, my hon. Friend will appreciate that notwithstanding the fact that most issues in the House of Commons have some opposition, having broad consensus that one is doing the right thing makes some of the parliamentary processes easier, and avoids one political party being against another in a kind of guerrilla warfare, trying to slow down and thwart what might be in the national interest. That is why the decision made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to set up the Davies commission was the right one, and I look forward to the commission’s recommendations in the summer of 2015, so that we can seek to build political consensus and move forward. That is crucial, not only for Britain’s interests but for Northern Ireland’s as well.
This has been an important and interesting debate, and I welcome the fact that we have been able to discuss the valuable contributions made. As I said at the beginning, a number of the issues are devolved to Northern Ireland, and the Committee might well want to pursue them further with the Northern Ireland Executive.
Thank you, Mr Amess. This has, indeed, been an interesting debate, and we have covered all the relevant issues that are very important to Northern Ireland. I thank everyone who has spoken, and I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response.
I talked about competing with the Republic of Ireland or with Dublin. I should put on the record that as well as chairing the Select Committee, I co-chair the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, so I meant competition in a very friendly way. The Irish Government support reducing corporation tax to 12.5% in Northern Ireland, so I speak about such competition on the basis of co-operation.
It would be helpful if the Minister came back to me on my specific point about railway access to airport terminals, and we can take it from there.
I entirely agree with the points made, particularly by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), about EU interference on air passenger duty and landing slots. We should make our own decisions in this country, and perhaps we will be doing so by the end of 2017.
The Minister spoke about the reasons for APD, of which there are two: one is to raise tax and the other relates to green issues. On those green issues, if we over-tax our airlines, we will not reduce the number of flights or save the world; people will just fly from somewhere else. That is the point we have been trying to get across.
On the time scale, I have some sympathy with the Government, because airport capacity in the south-east should have been sorted out long ago by the previous Labour Government, but we need to speed up the process. I am concerned about how long it will take for the review, for action to be taken and then for building work to be completed. Northern Ireland might lose an awful lot of jobs while that is going on, and I am very concerned about that.
Let us say that the recommendation is made next year and that it is for a third runway. From a political point of view, if the Lib Dems do not like that, they can go into the election saying that they will not pursue that option, and we can go into it saying that we will. I do not see what is wrong with that. We will get to the point, before the next election, at which we disagree on several issues with the Lib Dems—and with the Labour party—and we will all go into the election putting forward our own views.
I would be nervous about going into the election and saying to the electorate, “I’m sorry, we have no policy.” This is a political point—you may rule me out of order in a minute, Mr Amess—but I would have a problem about going into the election and saying to my constituents, “I’m sorry, I don’t have a clue what we should do in the south-east.” I will not be doing that; I will be putting forward a very definite view. I want to impress on the Minister the importance of that point.
The debate has been very valuable: we have made our points to the Minister. I have known him for many years, and I know that he will go away, take those points on board and do his absolute utmost to help the people of Northern Ireland. It has been a privilege to lead this debate. As I have said, the very important thing to do in Northern Ireland is to rebalance the economy, and one way to help do so is by securing the aviation that enables people to travel not just to the mainland, but to the continent and to the growing markets that are emerging throughout the world.
Question put and agreed to.