I beg to move,
That this House recognises that the UK has the highest rate of air passenger duty (APD) in the world; believes that this is detrimental to attracting inward investment, encouraging exports, drawing more tourists to the UK and helping ordinary families to benefit from aviation; notes research carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers and others stating that abolishing APD would not only pay for itself but would be a permanent economic boost to the UK economy and create tens of thousands of jobs; further believes that the abolition of this tax would be of benefit to all regions of the UK; further notes that it is the intention of the Prime Minister to review green taxes; and calls on the Government, as part of that review, to give high priority to the abolition of air passenger duty.
May I offer you my congratulations on achieving your position, Madam Deputy Speaker? This is the first time I have spoken while you have been in the Chair.
I am pleased to say that the debate has received endorsement from the very highest level. During today’s Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister made it clear during his exchange with the Leader of the Opposition that it was his intention—and presumably therefore that of the Government—to “roll back…green regulations”. His office has also promised a review of green taxes.
I also welcome that statement by the Prime Minister. However, air passenger duty should not be confused with green taxes. It is a tax that costs the economy more than it brings into the Exchequer, so it is important that we concentrate on that as well.
I will come to that in a moment, but we must make it clear that APD started off as a green tax and that it is still regarded by many as a tax that is meant to cut down emissions from the aviation industry. Like many other taxes that started off as green taxes, it is highly damaging to the economy.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s views, I expect that I will agree with most of what he says, but he is wrong on that point. I went back to Hansard and checked what the Government said at the time of the introduction of APD. It was not introduced as a green tax. It has been stolen by the green movement, but it was introduced because the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, thought that aviation was under-taxed, even though that was not the case. I agree with most of the hon. Gentleman’s points, but the tax was not introduced as a green tax.
I am not going to go back into the history of Hansard to dispute that point. However, whether the tax has been hijacked, or whether it was originally intended to be a green tax, it is still cited today as one of those taxes that we need to hold on to if we are to cut our carbon emissions.
There is, of course, general concern about electricity prices, the cost of air travel and a whole range of issues affecting the UK economy. The previous Government were, of course, the same on green issues as the present Government, but the zeal of UK Governments to deal with such issues is not found in other parts of the world or of Europe, and that places us at a disadvantage. We have to stop this King Canute attitude to climate change whereby the UK Government think that they can somehow use fiscal powers to affect what is happening to the climate across the world, although they are damaging our own economy at the same time.
A label has been attached to the hon. Gentleman—quite unfairly, I am sure—to the effect that he is a climate change denier. I cannot believe for one moment that that could be true. Would he like to take the opportunity to put on record the fact that he actually believes that there is climate change?
Only a fool would deny that there is climate change. The world’s climate has been changing ever since the world was in existence. The question is what is the cause of that climate change, and what impact might the fiscal measures introduced by the House have on it.
On measures to address climate change, does the hon. Gentleman agree that air passenger duty has led to passenger change? Instead of flying from UK domestic airports, people are going to Schiphol, Paris, Frankfurt and Madrid for their long-haul flights, which means that the UK just loses out.
We in Northern Ireland, of course, feel that much more than anyone else because we share a land boundary with another country and are just 100 miles away from what is now a major international airport at which there is no air passenger duty. That places airports in Northern Ireland at a grave disadvantage.
I will glide over the hon. Gentleman’s advertising of Dublin airport. Is not his main point that this has nothing to do with climate, as it is really about demand management at Heathrow, where there is not enough capacity to deal with demand? That demand-management tool then damages other airports in Scotland, Northern Ireland or wherever.
I do not know whether it is about demand management at Heathrow, but I do know that there has been an impact not only on the pattern of where and how people fly but, much more importantly, on economic growth in the United Kingdom and on the connectivity that many of the regions need if they are to develop markets elsewhere in the world.
Let us look at the facts. Since air passenger duty was introduced, it has increased by 160% for short-haul flights and by 225% for long-haul flights. The tax brings £2.8 billion into the Exchequer, and that is expected to rise to £3.8 billion by 2016-17. If we make a comparison with other EU countries, we can see where the problem lies. Many EU countries do not have any APD, while some introduced it but abandoned it because of its impact. The countries that have retained it have done so at a lower level than here in the United Kingdom. I shall not bore the House with all the percentages, but others might want to cite them to demonstrate the impact on airports in their areas.
I do not want to be parochial, although other Northern Ireland Members may wish to spell this out in much greater detail, but it would be remiss of me not to point out that air passenger duty has a significant impact on the economy in places such as Northern Ireland. We cannot transfer between air and train travel, so the only option for people who wish to travel to places outside Northern Ireland, whether in Great Britain or elsewhere, is to travel by aeroplane, and hence to pay the duty. The Irish Government abolished air passenger duty in the Republic, with which we share a land boundary, because they recognised the importance of air connectivity to the general well-being and growth of the economy, the promotion of jobs, the attraction of inward investment, and a range of other economic benefits.
Is not a typical example of the benefits of zero air passenger duty provided by the Dutch Government who, having abolished it in 2010, discovered that £1.3 billion had been lost to infrastructure and the economy since its introduction?
The Dutch Government were not the only Government to change their mind in that regard.
It would be churlish of me not to accept the role played by Ministers—especially the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, who is in the Chamber, and the former Minister of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire)—who listened to what was said by Northern Ireland Members about long-haul flights and, in particular, one long-haul flight to north America that connects us to a major investment market. We have managed to attract a great deal of inward investment from that place, but the main fear expressed by the Northern Ireland Executive was that the loss of that route—which was likely to go because of the air passenger duty issue—would lead to the loss of an important economic lever in the investment package of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
Notwithstanding what has been said about this not being a listening Government, on that issue the Government did listen and act. As a result, we have retained the long-haul flight to north America, which is still paying dividends in terms of connectivity and investment. The industry Minister has announced a number of investments from north America in the last few months, and I have no doubt that part of that success is due to the ease with which managers from New York and Boston, for example, could fly into Northern Ireland for meetings with the firms that they had set up there.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the leadership that he provided in discussing these issues as Northern Ireland’s Finance Minister. Does he agree that what Northern Ireland really needs—apart from a solution to the APD problem—is a proper air strategy that takes account of the role of each of our airports and enables us to adopt a joined-up approach?
I think that that applies to the United Kingdom as a whole. The debate about whether Heathrow should be expanded or whether there should be an alternative to Heathrow is relevant to regional airports in not just Northern Ireland, but other parts of the United Kingdom, to which I am sure other Members will refer.
The hon. Gentleman rightly emphasises the importance of protecting the existing route between Northern Ireland and north America, but does he agree that APD is also preventing new routes from opening up? May I offer an example from Manchester airport in my constituency? AirAsia X was looking to open a new route from Kuala Lumpur and was considering Manchester as the destination, but it dropped the plan in favour of Paris Orly simply because of APD.
That is one of the reasons why the Northern Ireland Executive sought the devolution of long-haul APD. We pay the price for that, as the lost revenue has to come out of the block grant for Northern Ireland, but despite that, it was important because of the freedom that it gave us to look for new long-haul routes, which would be good for the economy. I have heard time and again from regions in England and Scotland that industry leaders believe it is important to try to get new long-haul routes for connectivity in terms of selling exports, getting inward investment and making business connections, but that is being held back because of the high level of APD for long-haul flights.
I have listened with great interest to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the effects of APD on Northern Ireland and the complexities of the issue. Is he aware that it is also a tremendous issue in the Caribbean? Because of the arbitrary way in which it has been zoned, people pay more APD to go to the Caribbean than to go to north America. Does not all this point to the need for a holistic look at APD and its effects on not only the economy of Northern Ireland, but traditional allies of Britain in the Caribbean?
I do not want to get into the complexities of how APD is calculated, but anyone with just a basic knowledge of geography knows that the Caribbean is closer than California, yet California is regarded as closer in terms of calculating APD. Even here there are anomalies that have regional impacts.
Have the Northern Irish been able to forge any solidarity with the small nations in the Caribbean that are suffering in this way? The hon. Gentleman will recognise that there are many British citizens of Caribbean background and, as they are certainly not the country’s richest citizens, many of them cannot afford, as a family of four, £332 extra in APD to fly back to the Caribbean on a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Although this tax is regarded by some as a tax on the rich and therefore a progressive tax, it is not: it is a flat-rate tax and therefore it is a regressive tax. Many of those who are hit are travelling on holidays or to see their families, and they save up for that even though many of them are on low incomes. Indeed, 45% of those who are hit by it would be regarded as being on medium or below-medium incomes, yet they pay the same tax as those earning more than £80,000. Leaving aside the impact on growth, on exports and on industry, the regressive nature of the tax makes it an unfair tax, and that is another reason this issue needs to be looked at.
Bearing in mind the huge revenue APD currently yields for the Government and the fact that passenger demand is rising, it would be quite a good idea to concentrate on some of the anomalies in the structure of the tax at present. That might be the weakest point of the shell around the argument—the perverse way it impacts in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Gentleman has persuasively been saying, in the Caribbean and, indeed, in other parts of the Commonwealth.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. One of the reasons why we in Northern Ireland sought devolution of the long-haul tax is that we could not have afforded to have all our passenger duty devolved, with the impact that that would have had on the block grant. Nevertheless, chipping away at APD as the right hon. Gentleman describes is important.
I will come later to the revenue that the Government currently make from APD, as I am sure that is the point that the Minister will make. It is one thing to rant about the unfairness and inequity of air passenger duty, but where will the Government get the money from otherwise?
Does not all that the hon. Gentleman is highlighting show the mindset of the zero sum game? There is no concept that, if APD were devolved, that would cause growth in the economy and the Government doing that would be rewarded. All that happens is that devolved Governments are penalised, while another Department in London gets the extra revenue in the economy.
I have dealt with the issue in Northern Ireland, so I shall deal with that as a general issue for the United Kingdom economy as a whole. Let us look at the Government’s present objectives. We wish to achieve economic growth. We have heard the Chancellor on many occasions in the House argue that growth cannot be achieved simply by injecting more public funds into the economy, although some of us would query whether a particular type of injection, especially in infrastructure, would not have benefits.
Leaving that aside, the Government’s main thrust is that, if industry in the United Kingdom became more productive and more export-oriented and sold goods abroad, we would be able to achieve economic growth. Yet if there is one tax militating against export-oriented growth, it is this tax. Businesses currently pay about £500 million per year in air passenger duty. That, according to all the reports that have been done, influences the willingness and the ability of businesses to go overseas to look for suppliers, markets, investment and opportunities, and the frequency with which they do so. Therefore, air passenger duty has a deflationary effect and reduces the incentive for businesses to do what the Government want them to do. It therefore impacts on the ability of firms to increase their markets, increase their productivity and bring in investment, which can create further competition and help to increase the health of the economy.
The hon. Gentleman raises some interesting points, but I am puzzled about one thing. If reducing APD increases flights, where will those planes land? We seem to have a shortage of capacity at present. If we were full because we were doing so well, what would happen?
The point was made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) that APD must be seen in the context of an overall strategy. However, as has been pointed out by a number of Members, there are airports other than Heathrow and Gatwick which are capable of taking long-haul flights. Having those direct long-haul flights or even short-haul flights to other destinations would help many regional economies significantly, and there is excess capacity there. We should not always think in terms of only the main hub airports when we are talking about the industry’s capacity.
Studies have been done on the impact of removing air passenger duty and a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers went to the Chancellor. All economic models can be challenged. As an economist, I used to tell youngsters when I was teaching them in school that the model is only as good as the assumptions put into it, and those may change before the model has been run for sufficient time. We always have to be careful about economic modelling, and I am sure that the Minister will make the same point. The model used by the consultants took cautious views about elasticity of demand for tourism and elasticity of fiscal changes. It used a model that is used by the Treasury to measure the impact of policy changes. When the Chancellor comes to the House with Budget policies and tells us that behavioural changes will lead to this or that, he uses exactly the same kind of models that were used in this report. The outcome was that to remove air passenger duty altogether would lead to GDP growth in the first year of 0.45%, and in the next two years of 0.3%. During those three years, £16 billion would be added to GDP and there would be 60,000 jobs, an increase in exports of 5% and an increase in inward investment of 6%.
When people asked me for money, I would ask where it was to come from. If they wanted me to spend money on this, I would ask where we would spend less. If they wanted taxes on business reduced, I would ask where we were to get the money from. There must always be a counterbalance, but the good thing about this proposal is that it is fiscally neutral. If anything, given its impact on exports, investment and growth, the £4 billion that would be lost by 2016-17 would be more than compensated for by the increase in tax revenues and the reduction in benefit payments. That is most unusual for any fiscal change. The reasons for it are, first, that the level of taxation is so high in the UK compared with elsewhere that there would be a positive impact. Secondly, there is the importance of transport. This is borne out not just by the model but by the Department for Transport. The importance of transport to the economy is such that there is a huge multiplier effect. Lastly, because of the connectivity that this gives to other markets, there would be a positive impact.
The coalition Government promised to look at a replacement for air passenger duty and said that the revenue raised—they did not say that more would be raised—would be used to offset income tax changes. If the Government changed the method of taxation for air travel, they did not see that money as going into the general pot, either to reduce borrowing or to facilitate spending on other Departments, but as something that would be given away anyway to taxpayers. Therefore, as for how we pay for it, all the work that has been done indicates that it should be revenue-neutral. However, I assume—perhaps I am just being naive—that if the Government had made a promise that the revenue from taxing air travel would be given in income taxes and that had been factored in already, they did not actually need it for their fiscal reduction plans anyway.
I was going to talk about the environmental concerns. Members might have gathered that the impact of CO2 emissions, or whatever other emissions there might be from air travel, on the world environment does not feature very high on my list of priorities. I am one of those who believe that there is a big orange globe up in the sky that has influenced the Earth’s climate for billions of years and will continue to do so and that the impact humans have on that is very limited. We should certainly not be strangling our economy in order to try to change the climate, especially when countries around the world that emit far more CO2 than we ever will, do not give two hoots about emissions, so anything we do strangles our economy and is likely to have very little impact anyway.
Another reason why I do not believe that we should spend too much time on the environmental concerns is that air passenger duty, as a number of Members have pointed out, is not a green tax anyway. In that case, I am sure that Members will not be using arguments about polar bears sinking to the bottom of the Arctic ocean, or whatever other emotive arguments and blackmail they might wish to use, during this debate. Actually, it also means that I do not even have to deal with the environmental concerns.
I was enjoying that part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. For the Assembly, how close did the abolition of APD in Northern Ireland come to being a viable way of encouraging investment? Was it anywhere near that, or was it way down the Assembly’s list of priorities?
It was very high on the Assembly’s list of priorities. We entered into the devolution of air passenger duty for long-haul flights not knowing what the final bill would be, but we did so in the knowledge that, regardless of what the bill would be, it was a very significant issue for the Northern Ireland economy—I can say that now because the bill has been settled, but if I had said it earlier Treasury Ministers might have thought, “Oh well, we can stick the arm in as far as we like.” It was one of our top priorities. Indeed, many people argued at the time that it was all about tourism, but it was not; it was essentially about the investment strategy that had been set out for Northern Ireland and the need for connectively with one of the main markets from which we attract inward investment. All the indications we had from investors show that ease of travel was very important, whether for their managers into Northern Ireland or for staff going to north America for training purposes or whatever, so for Belfast to have that connection was essential. For those reasons, the Northern Ireland Executive decided to seek the devolution of air passenger duty for long-haul flights.
I understand that completely, but can the hon. Gentleman explain why the Executive are not taking a similar view on short-haul flights and why it presumably thinks that there are better ways to encourage inward investment or tourism than at least partially reducing APD for flights from Northern Ireland?
It really comes back to the point made in an earlier intervention about chipping away at it and trying to use arguments to undermine the tax and its anomalies and to highlight its impact at the regional level. We took the view that it was most important that the long haul part of the tax should be devolved because we were about to lose Continental Airlines flights into Northern Ireland. That issue had immediate priority.
As the Executive have discussed again just this week, we believe that the problem is UK-wide. One of the reasons why this debate is important and why we did not frame it solely in terms of Northern Ireland is that we believe it is about a UK-wide issue. If there is to be change, it should be made here in Westminster rather than the full cost—anything up to £90 million—being borne solely by Northern Ireland. That would have a significant impact on the block grant.
I fully accept that, but does the hon. Gentleman not accept that Northern Ireland is special and different because there is a lot of sea between it and the rest of the UK? Those who cannot afford to fly have to take a long route. It might help if Ministers sometimes did not fly to Belfast, but took the route that many poorer people have to take because it is so much cheaper to go all the way up to Stranraer.
That is exactly right. The road or road-and-rail journey is also long and expensive.
To sum up, I trust that during this debate we will hear from Members about the impact that they have seen the tax having on the parts of the economy that they represent across the United Kingdom. Since there is to be a review of green taxes, semi-green taxes, pale green taxes, taxes that used to be green but are no longer, or whatever, and given that this issue should be revenue-neutral yet fit in with the Government strategy of export-led growth, I trust that APD will be given serious consideration in the review of fiscal policy.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a real pleasure to speak in this debate, particularly given that you are in the Chair. It does not seem that long ago that we were meeting on the Terrace and you were giving me advice on how to become a Member of Parliament—and now look at where we both are.
It is a pleasure to respond to the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). I thank him for raising the issues, which relate to the two greatest challenges facing the Government and Britain today—rebuilding the British economy and restoring the public finances. The House well knows the state of both challenges when the Government came into office. The economy was still reeling from the impact of the recent banking crisis and Britain had the largest fiscal deficit in our peacetime history.
The hon. Gentleman started talking about zealousness, particularly in respect of green taxes. I thought he was going to talk about zealousness in tackling the fiscal deficit, although I am not sure that I heard that from him. The Government have had to face up to those challenges and take tough choices. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor committed to tackling our budget deficit and getting our national debt under control. Fixing the public finances is vital to maintain confidence in Britain and the stability that is an essential condition of growth, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and recovery.
In recent months, the statistics on gross domestic product, employment, business investment and consumer confidence have all shown that our efforts are beginning to bear fruit. The process of recovery is, of course, far from complete, but, building on the stable foundations that the Government put in place, the economy is now healing. I am sure that the whole House welcomes the signs of recovery so far and looks forward to seeing them continue.
In particular, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the recent good economic news from Northern Ireland. This year, Northern Ireland’s exports have risen by 4% in the second quarter of the year and in September they rose at the fastest rate in nearly six years. September also saw the third consecutive month of growth in Northern Ireland’s GDP, with activity rising in the manufacturing, retail and services sectors. It also saw the third consecutive month of rising private sector employment, while total jobs have grown by more than 5,000 over the course of the year. That has kept unemployment in Northern Ireland well below the UK average and the fourth lowest of the 12 UK regions. Just as Northern Ireland makes a key contribution to the UK economy overall, growth and recovery in Northern Ireland are making a key contribution to the UK’s wider recovery.
Supporting strong transport links is a key part of building our economic recovery. The Government are therefore bringing forward record investment in transport infrastructure, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, to ensure the connectivity of all parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. That is why in this year’s spending review we announced a £20 million fund to improve air connectivity between London and the rest of the United Kingdom. Where the case is made for a public service obligation, the Government will use this fund to support regional air links. Northern Ireland will be able to bid for that support. This would build on existing support for the Northern Irish economy—for example, the additional £94 million of capital spending power for the Northern Ireland Executive announced in this year’s Budget and the action plan set out in the Northern Ireland economic pact published this June.
Ensuring sound public finances is indispensable to economic recovery. With forecast revenues of £2.9 billion in 2013-14, air passenger duty—APD—makes an essential contribution to the Government’s strategy for tackling the current budget deficit and getting debt under control.
I welcome the Minister to her post on the Treasury Front Bench. She will be aware that this time last year the Silk commission in Wales argued strongly that minor taxes such as airport duty should be devolved to the National Assembly and the Welsh Government with more or less immediate effect, to be implemented in the most recent Finance Bill. We are still waiting for the UK Government to respond to the first part of the Silk commission’s report. Is she able to enlighten us on when we are likely to have that response?
I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific date. All I can say is that Ministers are continuing to evaluate all this and ask for his patience for a little longer. I do appreciate that this matter is part of those discussions.
Despite these challenges, the Government have frozen APD in real terms since 2010, and since then APD rates have risen by only £1 for the vast majority of flights. Given the fiscal challenges we face, no responsible Government would simply relinquish nearly £3 billion of revenue.
The whole House understands the fiscal challenges, but given the particular problems that APD zoning is causing in the Caribbean, why are Treasury Ministers not prepared even to consider a change in the arrangements that would maintain their total tax take, as I appreciate they want to do, but be fairer to millions of people in the Caribbean and millions of people who live here, who are British voters, and who are having to pay this tax to go backwards and forwards?
First, I am not sure that all hon. Members do understand the fiscal challenges facing the Government, but I will assume that the hon. Lady does, very much so. I listened carefully to what she said about the Caribbean. I know that Ministers, including my predecessor, have engaged with representatives. I could be wrong, although I do not think the hon. Lady will be surprised if I said that I know more about air passenger duty today than I did this time last week, but I think that zoning for the Caribbean was introduced by the previous Government. All Ministers keep all taxes under review. However, I heard what she said, and we will listen to the representations that are made.
I, too, welcome the hon. Lady to her new position. What are these fiscal challenges that the Westminster Government face? The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), as Finance Minister in Northern Ireland, has to balance his books. The UK has not paid its way since 2001; in fact, in the past year it has borrowed £120 billion. There is a good argument that says that changing the management of APD will increase GDP and tax revenues. With that body of evidence behind it, is it not worth listening to the wise words on APD rather than ploughing on regardless?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I think that the fiscal challenges are very apparent. We still have a large debt and a deficit run up under the previous Government which this Government have said we need to tackle. Later in my speech I will talk about the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, the impact on GDP, and the assumptions that are made.
I welcome the Minister to her post. She is at least the sixth Minister whom my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and I have approached on this subject and I think she may have slightly misunderstood the point made by my hon. Friend, which is that it is possible to be fiscally neutral while also being fairer. Will she go away and consider issues related to the Caribbean in particular, although this does affect other countries as well? Before the last election, the then shadow Treasury Ministers were very eloquent in advocating per-plane taxes and readjusting banding so that many of my Caribbean constituents, as well as those of many of the other Members present, would not be disadvantaged. Will the Minister at least give an undertaking to look at the issue with a fresh pair of eyes?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am keeping a very fresh pair of eyes on all areas of my Treasury brief. I look forward to meeting him and the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) to discuss the issue further. We will certainly keep it under review.
As I have said, we must continue to work hard to reduce the deficit, so if we were to abolish APD, an alternative source for the revenue would need to be found. We never seem to hear any suggestions, but if we hear any today my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary will respond to them in his winding-up speech.
Some have argued that, in the case of APD, no such off-setting measures would be necessary and that abolishing the tax would pay for itself by increasing economic activity overall and thus receipts from other taxes. The motion cites the report by PricewaterhouseCoopers arguing exactly that. I will turn to the report shortly, but first let me address the general question of the impact of the tax system on the UK economy and the UK’s international competitiveness.
I welcome the Minister to her place and congratulate her on her new post.
May I suggest that one way in which the Government could make money out of this and increase productivity would be to incentivise the 50,000 Australians who visit Northern Ireland every year to fly through Heathrow and use that as their hub, instead of flying to Dublin before travelling up to Northern Ireland and then leaving via Dublin and spending their money there?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion and I will certainly think about it. My earlier remarks hinted at the existence of the Airports Commission, which will look at all the UK’s airports, the role they play for travellers and how we deal with those who come here by whichever means.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. As a Conservative, I believe in the lowest tax possible, but I also believe in running the economy as responsibly as possible, meaning that what we get in, we spend out. That was put out of kilter by the legacy of the previous Government. We have been very clear about the reason for APD and the role it plays. We cannot choose to ignore £3 billion when we have to deal with the deficit and legacy left to us by the previous Government, of which the right hon. Gentleman was at times a member.
This Government are making progress in making sure that we do pay our way. We also believe that people should keep as much as possible of the income they earn. I will come on to talk about household income and the impact APD has on it, but for now I want to address UK competitiveness.
When comparing different countries’ tax regimes, it is important to view the system as a whole. Comparisons between individual elements can be misleading, especially if companies’ decisions about where to invest are driven by the impact of the system as a whole, not its individual parts. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made clear many times, the Government are committed to ensuring that the UK has the most competitive tax system of all advanced economies. We want to have a tax regime that supports the attractiveness of all parts of the UK as places to invest in and that ensures that the whole of the UK is open for business.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her position. What she is saying about inward investment may or may not be true. As the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, if we reduced this tax, the Revenue would not lose any income. However, what she is saying cannot possibly apply to tourism. Tourists from all over the world are flying to Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol rather than to Heathrow because of air passenger duty, and certain routes are not coming to regional airports in this country because of air passenger duty. Routes such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, Delhi, Mumbai and Beijing could be coming into Manchester if we did not have air passenger duty.
I return to my original point, which is that if we were to abolish air passenger duty, as is called for in the motion, it would have to be replaced by something else to meet the Government’s commitment to put the nation’s finances on a sound footing and reduce the deficit. Although the hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, I have not heard from him—indeed, I have heard from only one hon. Member—a suggestion as to how that revenue could be replaced.
I will come on to talk about investment and the PWC report. The hon. Member for East Antrim will not be surprised to hear that the Government have some questions about the assumptions that are made in that report.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her new post. I accept that the Government cannot fully abolish air passenger duty, but will she consider a short holiday for new long-haul routes, especially at regional airports? For example, if there was a new route from East Midlands airport to India, it could be spared APD for the first three to five years to give it a chance to bed in and to become viable. That would have no immediate cost to the Exchequer, but it may well help to generate the growth that we need.
I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. Like him, I know East Midlands airport very well as an east midlands Member of Parliament. The difficulty with regional holidays or variations is that they must be quite substantial to change passenger behaviour. That takes us back to my original point that the £3 billion that is raised by APD is a significant contribution to the Exchequer when we are tackling the deficit.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her new position. She said that the changes would have to be significant to alter passenger behaviour. Is not the fact that we have the most expensive APD in the world changing passenger behaviour, because people are taking short-haul flights to Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle, Dublin or even Belfast in order to take longer-haul flights, saving several hundreds of pounds for their families?
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. The previous question was about regional variations within the United Kingdom. That is why I was talking about changing behaviour. As I said, this all goes back to my original point that air passenger duty raises £3 billion a year, which is a sum that cannot be ignored if we want to do what this Government were elected to do, which is to repair the nation’s finances. Obviously, my interest in this area is growing as every second of this debate passes.
The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time. I appreciate her difficulties because, as she says, she is a new pair of eyes on these issues. Will she meet an all-party delegation on behalf of regional airports to discuss these matters in more detail away from the heat of the Chamber?
I am always happy to meet hon. Members to discuss these matters. That sounds like an interesting idea. It might help me to learn more about these issues, as I am doing in this debate.
In order to make our tax system more competitive, we plan to reduce the rate of corporation tax to 20% from April 2015. At that point, the UK will have the joint lowest corporation tax rate in the G20 and by far the lowest rate in the G7. Increased rate relief on research and development, combined with the patent box, will make the UK one of the most attractive places to innovate. As a result, the latest KPMG annual survey of tax competitiveness rated the UK as the No. 1 most competitive tax regime internationally.
As well as supporting UK competitiveness, within the constraints of the need to repair the public finances, the Government are also supporting households to meet the cost of living. By April 2014 the Government will have increased the personal allowance to £10,000, which will take 2.7 million people out of income tax altogether. In Northern Ireland, since 2010 the rising personal allowance has already taken 75,000 people out of tax. In recognition of the impact of persistently high pump prices, the fuel duty increase that was planned for 1 September this year was cancelled, and the Chancellor has also announced his intention to cancel the September 2014 duty increase.
On aviation taxes, the House will recognise that the UK is one of only four EU countries that does not charge VAT on domestic flights. That stands in contrast to rates of VAT on those flights of 19% in Germany and 20% in the Netherlands. There is also no duty charged on the fuel used in international, and virtually all domestic, flights. Finally, as I have already said, despite the fiscal challenges, the Government have ensured that APD rates have been frozen in real terms since 2010, rising by just £1 for the vast majority of passengers since then. The Government therefore reject the suggestion that we have pushed taxes on aviation too high.
Let me turn to the report on APD published earlier this year by PricewaterhouseCoopers and to which today’s motion refers. The report claims that abolishing APD would give such a boost to the wider economy that it would make other tax receipts increase by enough to offset the loss of APD revenue—the £3 billion I referred to a moment ago. The report’s conclusions, however, are based on economic models that rely on a series of significant assumptions. In particular, the report makes a series of assumptions about the behavioural impact of scrapping APD—how much business air travel would increase by—and the resulting increase in overall UK productivity.
The Government have reviewed the report, its modelling and the underlying assumptions carefully. We do not agree with the assumptions needed to justify the claim that abolishing APD would be revenue neutral overall, and, in our view, abolishing APD would have a significantly smaller impact on UK economic activity than PWC has estimated. There would therefore be a smaller increase in other taxes than PWC predicted, with overall tax revenues falling as a result. We also note that under some of the less optimistic assumptions that PWC considered in its report, its models predicted a net loss of revenue in the longer term. As I have said, any revenue loss would either need to be made good by increased revenues from other sources, or would need to be compensated for by further reductions in public spending.
The Government dispute the claim by PWC that APD is a regressive tax—I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) is no longer in his place, as this goes to the heart of what he was talking about. PWC compared APD rates with average weekly household expenditure of different income groups, but its analysis took no account of the fact that not all households pay APD at all. A better measure of fairness would be to compare what households spend on APD, relative to their incomes. Using that measure, statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that lower-income households spend a lower proportion of their disposable income on APD than higher income households.
I am amazed at the way the Minister is trying to deal with this issue. Surely we only measure the impact of a tax on someone who consumes a service. The PWC report looked at various income groups and found that the tax fell far more heavily on those with lowest income levels—that is 45% of travellers— compared with those with the highest levels. We are already comparing travellers. Indeed, the tax represented 28% of their average weekly income. If that is not regressive, I do not know what is.
How would the Minister explain that to my Caribbean constituents, many of whom come from Jamaica or other Caribbean islands and have lived here for 40 or 50 years on low incomes? They now find themselves being excessively taxed in order to stay in contact with their family and friends in their home countries.
I do not know whether the hon. Lady has just arrived in this debate, but we have already discussed Caribbean issues [Interruption.] Well, I think I have dealt with that issue. [Interruption.] I am sorry—I had not appreciated that the hon. Lady was present, but there were questions on this matter from the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and the right hon. Member for Tottenham, and I have addressed the issue of the Caribbean. ONS statistics show that lower-income households spend a lower proportion of their disposable income on APD than higher-income households. In relation to the Caribbean, APD must adhere to international rules on aviation tax, specifically the Chicago convention. The capital city convention on APD ensures that our APD complies with those rules.
The hon. Member for East Antrim spoke of the impact of APD on Northern Ireland in the context of recently announced changes to the rate of air travel tax in the Republic of Ireland. I thank him for saying that this is a listening Government and for his recognition of the moves we have made in that regard. We recognise the position of Northern Ireland as the only part of the UK that shares a land border with another EU member state with a different rate of aviation tax, which is why we have devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly the power to set APD rates for direct long-haul flights. The Government and the Northern Ireland Executive recognise that decisions on further fiscal devolution of any taxes require careful consideration. We expect recommendations on further devolution to be put to the Government and Northern Ireland Executive by autumn 2014.
The debate highlights some of the most important issues facing Britain today, including repairing the public finances and bringing debt under control, thus ensuring the stability on which economic recovery depends. APD makes a vital contribution to the Government’s fiscal strategy—it would be irresponsible of us to abandon it—and forms part of the wider tax system that we are making into one of the most competitive in the world. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us the opportunity to debate those important issues, but I cannot agree with his proposal that the tax should be abolished.
Order. Before I call the shadow Minister, I point out to the House that nine hon. Members have indicated to me that they wish to catch my eye. In recognition of that fact, and of the time constraint we face, I will impose an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions, the first of which will follow the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell).
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I commend the Democratic Unionist party, and particularly the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), for bringing this timely issue before the House. He gave a thoughtful and considered introduction to the debate.
It is clear from the hon. Gentleman’s contribution that air passenger duty causes concern to many hon. Members on both sides of the House and their constituents. More than 100,000 people backed the petition of the fair tax on flying campaign, which resulted in a Backbench Business Committee debate in November 2012. Who can blame people for being concerned when they face a worsening cost-of-living crisis, with soaring energy bills, increasing child care costs, countless other demands on household budgets, and prices rising faster than wages in 39 out of the past 40 months since the Government came to power?
The fair tax on flying campaign is driven by a number of the UK’s leading travel organisations, including airports, trade associations and destinations. In my new role as shadow Economic Secretary to the Treasury, I look forward to engaging with those bodies and their concerns with my fresh eyes.
Given that APD is loathed and detested by our constituents throughout the United Kingdom, will the hon. Lady take this opportunity at the beginning of her contribution to commit any future Labour Government to the complete abolition of APD, and cheer us all up before we go home this evening, please?
It is interesting that the hon. Lady mentions cheering up—an ONS report out today says that Northern Ireland is one of the happiest places in the UK—but I appreciate that APD is a cause of unhappiness, as was clearly articulated by a number of hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for East Antrim. I will set out the Labour party’s position on the subject later, but I want to focus on the Government’s approach—[Interruption.] Given the Prime Minister’s performance today, one wonders who is running the country.
As I said, I will set out the Labour position, but it is interesting that Government Members are keen to deflect responsibility. It is important to reflect on what the Government have said to date on air passenger duty.
I would, however, first like to reflect on the contribution by the hon. Member for East Antrim, who made a well-thought-out speech, particularly on the 2013 PricewaterhouseCoopers report into the impact of APD. The report concluded that APD affects not just the travel and tourism sector, but the economy as a whole. PWC was commissioned by British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Ryanair and easyJet, and suggested that the abolition of APD could result in a 0.45% increase per year in GDP and the creation of almost 60,000 jobs between now and 2020. The Government dispute those figures, but I will return to them later in my speech.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind wishes. The companies commissioned the report, but it is for the Government to set out their position and their own findings. I would like to focus on the Government’s statistical analysis and assessment of APD. I know the value added to the north-east economy by Newcastle airport. I know how critical certainty and stability on issues such as APD are for the airport and the businesses that rely on it, and for the export-led recovery that the hon. Member for East Antrim referred to on a number of occasions. Newcastle airport alone supports 7,800 jobs across the north-east region, with 3,200 on site, and more than £250 million of UK exports were shipped through the airport in the last year—facts that speak for themselves. It is therefore little wonder that the Government’s dither and lack of direction has caused significant frustration for passengers, the travel and tourism sector, and the industry as a whole.
What have we heard so far from the Government on APD? The Conservative 2010 election manifesto pledged to:
“Reform Air Passenger Duty to encourage a switch to fuller and cleaner planes”.
The Liberal Democrats went further, suggesting that they would ensure that pollution was “properly taxed” by replacing the per-passenger APD with a per-plane duty and that air freight would be taxed for the first time. They also said that they would introduce an additional, higher rate of PPD on domestic flights if realistic, alternative and less-polluting travel was available.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next comment. It is important not to take a Liberal Democrat election manifesto at face value, but one might reasonably have expected to see some action from Ministers given that the coalition agreement promised that the Government would:
“reform the taxation of air travel by switching from a per-passenger to a per-plane duty.”
“ensure that a proportion of any increased revenues over time will be used to help fund increases in the personal allowance.”
The Chancellor then announced in the 2010 Budget that major changes to APD, including switching to a per-plane duty, would be subjected to public consultation, but nothing happened, and almost one year later, at Budget 2011, he announced that the Government would consult on simplifying the structure of APD. In between, the fair tax on flying campaign was launched not only to raise concerns about this issue, but to elicit a modicum of action or at least certainty or clarity from the Government. Budget 2011, however, saw the Chancellor U-turn on the coalition agreement pledge made less than 12 months earlier to switch to a per-plane duty, informing the House:
“we had hoped that we could replace the per passenger tax with a per plane tax. We have tried every possible option, but have reluctantly had to accept that all are currently illegal under international law. So we will work with others to try to get that law changed.”
Will the Minister update the House on how that work on changing the law is going?
At Budget 2011, the Chancellor went on to state:
“In the meantime, we are consulting today on how to improve the existing and rather arbitrary bands that appear to believe that the Caribbean is further away than California. We will also seek to bring private jets, which pay no duty at all, into the scope of taxation.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 963.]
The APD rate rise due in April 2011 was deferred to April 2012.
Not just yet, because I need to make some progress.
At the same time, we saw an 8% increase take effect, with APD rates thereafter rising in line with inflation. As announced at Budget 2010 and then again at Budget 2011, the Government did indeed consult on the structure of APD, in a consultation that covered several areas, including private jets, different tax bands, premium economy flights, flights from regional airports and the possible devolution of APD. The consultation paper raised the concern that the existing four-band structure was damaging UK competitiveness and contained several anomalies, such as the higher rate on Caribbean flights than on flights to destinations in the USA, about which several hon. Members have raised concerns.
The paper set out two options: returning to the pre-2009 structure of two tax bands and a different rate between two classes of travel; and combining the two higher bands for flights over 4,000 miles to create a three-band structure and retaining different rates between different classes of travel—an option, however, that would not have resolved the Caribbean concern. The consultation also raised the prospect of a lower rate of APD for flights from regional airports and the question of whether APD should remain a UK-wide tax or be devolved.
The Government spent the best part of a year apparently listening to interested parties that took considerable time and effort to respond in good faith to the consultation. And then what? For the whole of the UK, apart from announcing that APD would be extended to business flights, they did absolutely nothing. In their response to the consultation, they confirmed in December 2011 that they did not propose to make any changes to the tax’s banding structure, to how different classes of flight were taxed or to the application of APD to the regions. It is little wonder then that industry players described the consultation as
“a sham and a waste of taxpayers’ money”.
Of course, we saw action on Northern Ireland, following the July 2011 Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report, which urged the abolition of APD on flights to and from airports in Northern Ireland owing to the specific problem faced there—direct competition from airports in the Republic and its lower rates of APD. In order to maintain the transatlantic route from Belfast to Newark, the Chancellor announced in September 2011 that the APD rate on long-haul flights using airports in Northern Ireland would be cut, because Continental Airlines had, unsustainably, been paying the APD itself at a cost of some £3.2 million a year. Then, in the Finance Act 2012, APD on direct long-haul flights departing from Northern Ireland was devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which then abolished it on these flights from 1 January 2013.
Clearly, flights from Northern Ireland face specific challenges, as I have noted and as was set out clearly by the hon. Member for East Antrim. It is the only part of the UK that has a land border with another EU member state. George Best Belfast City airport and Belfast International both compete directly with Dublin in attracting airlines, routes and passengers. So the Opposition supported the Government’s move on APD in relation to long-haul flights and Northern Ireland. Given that Northern Ireland also largely relies on air transport for its link to the rest of the UK, we are sympathetic to the argument for reducing APD on all routes from Northern Ireland, but we would need to examine the impact of that in the round, including on the block grant, which the hon. Member for East Antrim acknowledged.
Other options are, of course, available. We could consider protected routes, which already exist in the UK—the air link to the Scottish islands being an example—with Belfast to Heathrow being suggested as the obvious choice. But the Government’s piecemeal approach to dealing with APD, an issue that affects the UK as a whole, is regrettable, particularly given the importance of long-term certainty on this issue for industry and the wider economy. Leaving aside the changes we have seen in Northern Ireland, it appears that the Government have simply given up on this issue altogether.
In May, the Select Committee on Transport published a number of proposals on APD as part of its wider inquiry into aviation strategy. Included in the recommendations were that: the Treasury should conduct and publish a fully costed study of the impact of APD on the UK economy; the Government should carry out an objective analysis of policies such as differential rates of APD; the Government should conduct a 12-month trial on an APD holiday for new services operating out of airports not in the south-east; and the Government should not further devolve APD at this stage, as it may have negative impacts, for example, in the north of England. Some of those recommendations stemmed from the February 2013 PricewaterhouseCoopers report, to which reference is made in the motion.
Ministers appear to have totally dismissed both reports, rejecting all the Select Committee’s recommendations apart from the one on devolution. They have stated:
“The Government disagrees with the findings of the PwC report. The Government believes that abolishing APD would have a smaller impact on GDP than the report implies and would cause a net loss of tax receipts. This reduction in receipts would need to be paid for through tax rises or spending cuts elsewhere, which would themselves have an economic impact.”
The response went on to state:
“The Government has no plans to undertake a review of the economic impact of APD at this point.”
So, the Government do not believe the findings of others about the economic impact of APD, but have no plans to verify them or otherwise undertake their own review.
There is no doubt that APD brings in a significant amount of funding to the Treasury, with a yield of £3 billion anticipated this year and next, as the Minister mentioned a good number of times. The matter does need to be considered in the round, but the Government’s unscientific approach to this issue seemed to be a cavalier one to take to economic growth, given that we have had three years of a flatlining economy.
The motion states:
“that it is the intention of the Prime Minister to review green taxes; and calls on the Government, as part of that review, to give high priority to the abolition of air passenger duty.”
In preparing my comments for today, I wondered whether this review actually existed, but the Prime Minister seems to have confirmed it at questions, because he is apparently waking up to the fact that struggling families need support and believes that this is the way forward. We then read, however, that this review has been kiboshed by the Liberal Democrats before it has even begun. Perhaps the Exchequer Secretary will shed some light on that issue, too, in his concluding comments.
In conclusion, despite various promises of action on this issue, we have seen anything but. The reforms in Northern Ireland addressed the very specific situation in that part of the UK, but this issue affects the whole of our country. After three years of a flatlining economy, and with households up and down the country in the midst of a cost of living crisis, the Government’s complete lack of direction on APD has been extremely unhelpful at a time when family purse strings have been tightened and businesses have been crying out for support. The lack of certainty on this issue from the Government simply risks investment decisions being delayed and future development being jeopardised, which, crucially, puts jobs at risk, too. This just is not good enough, but it is what we have come to expect.
I intervened during the speech made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) to ask what the Labour party’s policy on this issue actually was. The hon. Lady made a good speech, but she did not answer my question. She spoke for 17 minutes without providing any clarity on the Labour party’s position, and I remain unsure about the nature of her objections—if they are objections—to this tax.
It is important to review the tax’s history. It was introduced in 1994 by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), and at that time it was not a green tax. Like most taxes, it was brought in as a revenue-raising exercise and there was no mention whatever of its environmental impact. It was only under the previous Labour Government that the tax mutated into a green tax. It was doubled in 2007, and the banding was introduced in 2008. The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) have spoken of how their constituents who travel to the Caribbean are particularly affected by the banding, but we did not hear any mention that that banding was introduced by the Labour Government. It seems peculiar that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North has not mentioned that Government’s contribution to the development of the tax and nor has she set out the Labour party’s current position on it—that remains perfectly obscure.
We need to consider the deficit. As a free-market Conservative, I do not like taxation, and I yield to no one in my desire and enthusiasm to cut taxes and to stimulate the economy through reducing the burden of taxation to promote growth and enterprise, and to encourage risk-taking and other forms of business enterprise. However, I recognise that we have a deficit, and that deficit completely shapes the nature of our debates on taxation—[Interruption.] I sense an intervention coming on.
I was trying to resist the urge to intervene, but the deficit in the UK has been in existence since 2001. The UK has been in a fiscal black hole since then, which was seven years before the economic crisis; it has not been able to pay its way since that time.
The hon. Gentleman shows an admirable grasp of our recent economic history; he is absolutely right. From 2001 to today, we have consistently run a deficit. Conservative Members have always been struck by the fact that, although the economy was actually growing during the first six of those years, between 2001 and 2007, the Government of the time saw fit to run a deficit in every one of those years. The present Government inherited a deficit of £160 billion—12% of our gross domestic product—and the fact that it has now been reduced by a third represents a remarkable success. It now stands at somewhere between £110 billion and £115 billion, depending on how the figure is calculated. In the context of deficit reduction, any Government would be reluctant to abolish air passenger duty in a peremptory way, as it brings in more than £3 billion a year. We all recognise that the deficit is a real thing—it is an ongoing annual sum that we have to close—and the £3 billion a year raised by APD makes a real contribution to its reduction.
I fully understand all the supply-side arguments. I understand that, if we were to abolish the tax, we could perhaps reap economic rewards at some future date. However, those who promote reducing or abolishing it must tell us how they would replace that revenue from day one. Where would they find the £3 billion that APD currently brings in? Conservative Members are familiar with general tax-cutting arguments. One could argue for the abolition of most taxes on the basis that that would stimulate growth, and that the money would be recouped in the long run through increased tax revenues. However, we have to face the fact of a real deficit, which is something that Opposition Members never seem to acknowledge in their speeches.
I was entertained by the speech made by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who put forward in a typically trenchant way his views on green taxes, the environment and all the rest of it. I have often heard such arguments in the pub in Staines among my constituents and others, so I am familiar with them, but I shall not touch on green taxes, because what I am concerned about is the deficit.
If we were balancing our books and if we had succeeded a fiscally responsible Government, I would be among the first to say that this APD tax should be abolished. I would absolutely recognise the compelling argument that lowering taxes increases business enterprise. However, because we run a deficit, I feel that the £3 billion coming into the Exchequer is too high an amount simply to discard and forget about.
We need to look at the effects of such taxation on the aviation industry. I think it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) who made the point that although APD is quite high, the industry is expanding and more people are flying. From the Government’s point of view, as a revenue collector, the tax is not impeding the growth of the industry, so it would be irresponsible for them to forgo such tax revenue, especially given our record deficit.
Going forward to a time when we are balancing the books under the next Conservative Government, I will be at the forefront of those arguing to abolish APD. Earlier in this Parliament, I wrote and often said that while, in principle, the tax might not be the best thing, there are specific budgetary requirements and conditions of the moment that make APD essential.
We have to consider corporation tax and taxation generally in the round. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on her appointment as Economic Secretary. She cited the fact that our corporation tax rates are extremely competitive. The rate of 20% is among the lowest, if not the lowest, in the OECD. In that context, general taxation on companies and business has been reduced, and we are seeing flickerings of growth—we expect encouraging growth figures at the end of this week. In the round, we can therefore say that the Government’s policy is working. The deficit reduction is happening and growth is beginning to return to Britain. Now is not the time to slacken the deficit reduction plan, so I fully understand why APD is necessary: to further our principal aim of deficit reduction.
Order. The time limit will have to be reviewed, probably when the Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means takes over from me. I am not changing it at this moment, but contributions that are significantly shorter than eight minutes would enable all colleagues to get in, rather than some being excluded. I know that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) is a sensitive and considerate fellow who will wish to take account of my strictures on this matter.
Indeed you are right, Mr Speaker. To reciprocate your acknowledgement that I am a sensitive and caring fellow, I shall try to be as quick, brief and short as possible.
At the outset, I want to express a short apology because I might have to leave the Chamber to fulfil a previous engagement. If that happens, it is absolutely no comment on the debate, which has been riveting in the extreme. I am sure that those watching the monitors in their offices, as well as people at home, will be enjoying the debate and waiting for the next gripping instalment after mine.
Air passenger duty is one of the most damaging of the Westminster interventions in the Scottish economy. We should remember that, for the past 30 years, Scotland has on average paid more tax per person than the UK. This year, Scotland will pay 9.9% of all UK taxes, while it has only 8.4% of the total UK population. That is the situation without a tax system that is designed for Scotland’s needs.
Just about all those in Scotland who have been closely associated with the APD issue see the wisdom of devolving APD to Scotland. We know from our internal party points of view that the people who are better informed about the independence process in Scotland are those who are more likely to support it, so the Westminster Government need to understand that this policy supports arguments for independence. Of course, I welcome that, in a way, but the Government should bear in mind the downside: in the meantime, the policy is damaging Scotland’s economy, as well as the economies of other areas under centralised Westminster control. I am sure that an independent Scotland would run an air passenger duty regime if it were more in sympathy with Scotland’s needs.
As I suggested, we do not have taxes that are designed for Scotland, and if ever something crystallised that point, it is the issue of APD. Scotland is being fleeced by APD. It is estimated that, in each of the four years between 2012 and 2016, 2.1 million fewer passengers will go through Scottish airports as a result of it. APD is a demand-management tax. Heathrow and other London airports benefited from preferential treatment by successive UK Governments for decades because bilateral air agreements with a host of other countries stipulated that London airports must be used. That policy has come back to haunt those Governments. There is now a shortage of runways in the south-east of England, because the hub that was put in place cannot cope with the demand that was deliberately created, and the solution has been this congestion tax of the skies to slow traffic into Heathrow and other London airports.
In some ways, the Government’s demand-management tool has indeed been successful. The London airports are nearing full capacity, and APD has succeeded in controlling the pressing demand that has resulted from the lack of runways in London. However, London is losing passengers and commerce to other parts of the current United Kingdom, such as Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England. The solution is surely to devolve the policy and leave it in the hands of those who could manage it better because they are closer to the problem. Those who are distant from it advance all sorts of odd arguments, as we have heard today.
It would even benefit the Treasury if APD—the gatekeeper tax—were removed, because an increased number of people visiting the country would be likely to increase commerce. The Prime Minister has said that the UK has a lopsided economy—he is right—but will his Government act? Will they help by taking the one step for which a host of parties across the House have called? Will they right the wrong that was caused by lopsided international bilateral air agreements favouring one area of the UK by devolving APD and giving control of it to other areas? Unfortunately, they will not, but I am sure that those who are listening to the debate will understand why I argue for an independent Scotland, even if other Members in the Chamber may choose not to do so. I should add, in fairness, that there are a few Members here who do choose to, but they are keeping their heads down at the moment.
It need not be like this, however. Friends in Catalonia tell me that while Madrid may be notoriously intransigent and knuckle-headed on many issues—a sentiment that friends in Gibraltar would share—it has shown some sense in one respect, on which London should follow suit, by abolishing APD, or reducing it by 100%, on new routes. Barcelona alone has gained 37 new routes this year: to Islamabad and Karachi in Pakistan, Lebanon, Iceland, Kos in Greece, Bucharest, Kiev, Oslo, Helsinki, Luxembourg, Bergen, Pristina, Kristiansand and Hamburg, to name but a few. Such is the growth of Barcelona as a result of that more intelligent approach. Reductions in APD have been shown to benefit a number of other countries.
The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) advanced some tremendous arguments, to which the Treasury ought to listen. As a former Treasury Minister, he ran the Treasury in Northern Ireland by balancing the books. The UK Treasury does not balance its books and has not done so since 2001.
Prestwick, the Scottish airport that has been most affected by APD, lost 14% of its traffic in 2012, and just the other week it had to be nationalised by the Scottish Government because the alternatives were unfortunately unthinkable. The Scottish Government feel that Scotland is a high-quality aviation market. It has a record of establishing successive intercontinental air routes with high load factors, including business-class traffic. They believe that there is considerable potential for improving Scotland’s international air connections, but the UK Government’s punitive APD rates are seriously hampering that process. York Aviation has pointed out that APD rates have rocketed since 2007, with short-haul travellers being hit by a rise of about 160%. The price paid by a family of four travelling to Spain has increased from £20 to £52 since 2007, and the price that they would pay to travel to the United States has increased from £80 to £268—a shocking rise.
PricewaterhouseCoopers says that the reduction or abolition of APD could bring about immediate and permanent increases in UK GDP worth around £16 billion in the first three years alone, which backs up the point made by the hon. Member for East Antrim. Increased revenue from other taxes would more than compensate the Exchequer for the revenue forgone by the abolition of APD. Indeed, the dividend in the first year alone would be half a billion pounds.
Passengers are losing out as a result of opaque methods of ticketing. Fully flexible tickets mean that people get back the entire cost of the ticket and the taxes if they do not fly, but there is a question for those travelling on restricted tickets who would lose their ticket price, because they also seem to be losing the taxes they have paid. The penalties imposed by airlines seem exactly to match the amount of APD taxation, so I would like the Government to look into this opaque process.
What do these penal levels of APD mean for Scotland? York Aviation says that by 2016 Edinburgh airport would be losing 1 million passengers due to high APD rates each year for four years, while Glasgow would lose 700,000 a year and Aberdeen about 200,000 a year. That shows the economic damage that is being done to Scotland’s economy.
Disappointingly, we have seen no significant difference between Labour and the Conservatives today, so the message to Scots is, “Business as usual, regardless of who gets into office in Westminster.” That is why, on 18 September next year, we will vote for independence in Scotland.
I am afraid the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) made two incorrect observations at the start of his speech: that he would speak for much less time than the time limit, which was then eight minutes; and, secondly, that he was looking forward to hearing the gripping contribution following his speech. He had obviously not seen the speaking list. I cannot promise that my contribution will be either interesting or gripping, but it will at least be less than eight minutes now.
I congratulate the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who is not currently in her place, on her contribution. She is new to the role. I was, of course, waiting by my phone at reshuffle time hoping to be offered that post, but it was not to be. She did an excellent job at the Dispatch Box today. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on taking up her new position on the Opposition Front-Bench team, but I will just say that it would be nice if those on the Labour Benches showed a little contrition about how we got into the economic situation we are in when talking about the cost of living, and perhaps took some ownership of the problems they bequeathed to the country in 2010. We are delighted to be dealing with them and we are delighted to go on doing so, but we would sometimes like those who are guilty of having created them in the first place to accept some of the blame.
My view on APD has changed considerably since the fair tax on flying campaign of a few years ago. As there was a lot of terrible economic news at that time, not least to do with our massive deficit, it seemed to me and many other Members that to be asking, effectively, to make holidays less expensive was not the most appropriate thing to do.
My views have changed slightly over time, however. APD can easily be dismissed as a tax that can be avoided, and for some that is true, but for many businesses and individuals—particularly, as we have heard, in certain parts of the country, including Northern Ireland—it is a tax that cannot be avoided.
Since joining the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I have been growing concerned about the impact APD is having on our regional airports, especially after a meeting with representatives of Continental Airlines, who explained in great detail and depth the impact that it has had on the company. Heathrow will always be successful, but airports such as mine—Humberside airport—and Leeds Bradford, East Midlands and Doncaster airports have struggled, and continue to struggle, to find new routes as it is a lot cheaper to fly from Schiphol or Dublin.
When I was looking to book a holiday recently, I found it would have been cheaper for me to fly from Leeds or Manchester to Dublin and then connect on to the ongoing flight. That is counter-intuitive and, it would seem, a little perverse. Although I am no economist, it is clear to me that that is not good for our economy. It is time that we looked at the issue.
I accept that there is a take of £3 billion from air passenger duty. I have not had a chance to look through the methodology of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report or to analyse that in any great depth, but there is a solution to the problem of how to find £3 billion: it is called leaving the European Union. That might net us a bit more than £3 billion—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I knew I would get a cheer from hon. Members on the Democratic Unionist Benches, who have a sound view on the subject. I do understand that any reduction in APD would have an impact on the Treasury. That is why it is time for a proper review to establish the extent of that impact.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) reminded me that, when people made arguments about beer duty in the past, the response from the Treasury was always “This will cost us money. How will we make up the difference?” That has been turned on its head now, as we seem to have accepted that a cut in beer duty can bring in more money.
I remember air passenger duty being presented as a green tax. I know there has been some discussion about whether it is a green tax, a light green tax or a pale green tax. It certainly was presented as a green tax and many people have argued that it is such a tax, so I hope that it will be in the mix in any review, in line with the Prime Minister’s statements today about wanting to review green taxes and being honest about green taxes. It strikes me that we will not have a particularly honest debate with the public about APD or about energy bills unless we are prepared to open up the whole debate about green taxes and their impact not just on energy bills, but on our whole economy.
I represent an area with many carbon-intensive industries. We are still waiting to hear what is going to happen with the assistance for them. Green taxes are having a massive impact on them and an increasing number of people feel that the country is being hamstrung by those taxes. If we can throw APD into that discussion, all the better. People who use regional airports are most affected and in my area incomes are much lower than in other parts of the country, so APD has a disproportionate impact on the poorest parts of the country.
There is much that I agree with in the motion. I will not vote against it, but I have yet to decide whether I will support it. I call on the Minister to pay heed to the sensible comments that have been made by many Members in all parts of the House, particularly the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), whom I congratulate on his speech. It is time for a proper assessment of the impact of APD on our economy and on our citizens, and I hope the Minister will respond in those terms.
I shall address the issue on behalf of my Caribbean constituents, and report how angered and disappointed they are about the banding of Caribbean countries. Not only are my Caribbean constituents angry and disappointed, but so are their original home Governments at the way in which the banding impacts upon them and the development of their industries and tourism industries.
The Caribbean community in my constituency came to Mitcham and Morden in the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s. They did the jobs that nobody else wanted to do. They drove the buses, built the schools, dug the roads and worked in the hospitals, just as my own family who came from Ireland in the 1940s did. They never earned much but they worked hard. They looked after their families at home and in the Caribbean, and they contributed hugely to our community through youth facilities, churches and clubs for the elderly. They feel they have earned, and they have earned, their right to be here. They are proud of being British, they are proud of being Londoners, but they are also proud of the country that they came from.
Members of the Caribbean community work hard, and they save hard to go home every so often to see how their towns and cities are getting on and how their family and their friends are. Air passenger duty is a tax on their ability to do that. Whatever accounting company came up with whatever report, nobody can argue that for a Caribbean lady or gentleman in my constituency who lives on a pension and an occupational pension, APD does not disproportionately affect them in their efforts to stay close to their ageing families. It clearly does.
I am not arguing that APD should be scrapped; I am asking the Treasury to look at the banding. Nothing is set in stone; these are conversations that I and other Labour Members have had with Ministers of this Government and the previous Government. We are where we are because of the Chicago convention and the ticketing rules that exist for the airline industry. But it does not make sense to people in the Caribbean, or to me, that to go to Kingston, which is closer than Los Angeles, 25% more tax has to be paid. There is a way to look at the banding and to alter it, to recognise the contribution of those people, their families and communities, and to accept and respect the deep and long-standing connection that we have with those individual Caribbean countries and their Governments. They, like us, are going through hard times. They wish to develop their tourism industries in a price-sensitive market. Anything that we can do to help them out of respect for their communities’ work in our country and in our capital city would be gratefully received. It is not beyond the wit of the Government to do precisely that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing the debate. As usual, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who is no longer in his place, blames everything on the Westminster Government. I noticed that a number of right hon. and hon. Friends found that rather funny. But it is not funny to anyone who lives and breathes amongst the people who want to break up the UK. The people of Scotland want a serious Government with serious politicians, and that is what we are hoping for. I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view that in September next year people will vote for independence. I sincerely hope not.
Several hon. Members have referred to the devolution of APD, which I will keep an open mind on. If it proves to be to the benefit of the people of Scotland, fine, let us go ahead and devolve APD to the Scottish Parliament. But one question has to be answered, and perhaps the Minister will do so when he replies. If it is devolved, what proportion of money will come out of the block grant to pay for that? Someone, somewhere has to tell us exactly what that will cost. If APD is devolved and it is abolished, that money must come from the health service, education or somewhere else. It would be helpful, when we start blaming the Westminster Government for all our ills, if somebody from the separatist party told us where the money is going.
While I am on the subject of other countries, I have a document here that says clearly that in Malta APD was abolished in 2008, and one of the reason given was that it was
“Removed following legal challenge from the European Commission. Tax described as discriminatory.”
It would be helpful to know the reason for that. One aspect of APD that I find particularly discriminatory is that people in the north are being hammered twice. They have a double whammy if they travel through the London hub airports when going on to continental flights or flights to America. Even if there is no agreement to abolish APD, it would be helpful to abolish the double whammy.
Glasgow airport in my constituency contributes a great deal to the Scottish economy, including 5,000 jobs, but it pays more than £7.9 billion in tax. I am particularly annoyed that this will cost Scotland more than 2 million passengers and 5% of long-haul demand may be lost. Like a number of colleagues, I am finding that people in Scotland, particularly the holidaymakers and their families, are now going through Schiphol, Paris and elsewhere, which means that London and Gatwick are losing out. There is some impact on the London airports and it would be helpful if the Minister said how many people are involved.
APD also has an impact on Scotland’s tourism industry. Scotland has a lot to offer tourists. The Commonwealth games are coming to Glasgow in 2014, which many people from various parts of the world will attend. I am sure that they will not want to be affected by this tax either, and hopefully they will want to visit this country again. York Aviation estimates that 148,000 trips and £77 million in visit expenditure could be lost over the next three years and that by 2016 APD will cost the Scottish economy up to £210 million a year in lost tourism. One of the difficulties with this debate is that there is an awful lot of repetition, so I apologise to those in the Chamber and outside for using all these statistics, but unfortunately they have to be repeated. I take the view that the more we repeat something, the better the chance of achieving it.
This is about the whole United Kingdom, not just Scotland. Frontier Economics estimates that there will be around 3 million fewer trips each year to and from UK airports, that spending by overseas residents in the UK will fall by £475 million a year and that our GDP will be reduced by £2.6 billion a year, with the potential loss of 77,000 jobs. I do not think that this Government, or any Government, should contemplate the loss of such a significant number of jobs. A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers has shown that abolishing APD would boost the UK’s GDP by 0.46% in the first year, provide 60,000 extra jobs in the long term and increase revenues from income tax and VAT, with a net benefit of £500 million in the first year.
I make a plea to the coalition Government—unfortunately, the previous Government did not take appropriate action—to listen to what has been said on both sides of the House on the impact APD is having on the aviation industry and take appropriate steps to help our constituents.
I commend the motion standing in the name of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and welcome both the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who is no longer in her place, and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who is also no longer in her place, to their new roles.
I want to address air passenger duty in the context of the UK Government’s broader tourism and transport strategies. When it comes to tourism policy, it really is a tale of two Governments. Last week the Irish Government announced in their budget that they will be retaining a 9% rate of VAT for the tourism sector and entirely scrapping their air passenger tax. The UK Government, however, have presented us with the highest airport taxes in the world and raised VAT to 20%, with no dispensation for the tourism industry. Although I commend the Irish Government and hope that those measures bring more visitors across the island, this clearly puts businesses in the north of Ireland at a huge disadvantage. The UK Government urgently need to look at introducing similar measures, particularly in Northern Ireland, to enable our businesses to compete on a fair footing with businesses in the rest of Ireland. I hope that this debate will spur them on to do just that.
The rate of APD in the UK is the highest in the world and has risen by over 300% over the past five years. We in Northern Ireland are particularly vulnerable to that excessive duty owing to our reliance on air travel, which is dictated by our location, as has already been referred to in the debate. The rate is choking growth in the sector by having a severe impact on visitor numbers and is hurting our whole economy, especially those businesses that rely on exporting goods.
The motion refers to the recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which contends that lowering APD would be, at worst, budget neutral and would almost certainly boost growth and create jobs. Such evidence supports the measures taken by the Irish Government to get rid of their equivalent duty rate, and I find it hard to see why the UK Chancellor cannot respond with similar measures to support the UK economy—or at least, as suggested by the Transport Committee, commission research into the matter. Perhaps the Exchequer Secretary will deal with that issue in his response.
Obviously, the Chancellor would point to the devolution to the Assembly of long-haul APD, which was particularly welcome. However, domestic flights make up the vast bulk of flights out of Belfast International and Belfast City airports. There is also the slightly bizarre situation in which flights to London, Manchester and Glasgow are taxed at a higher rate than those to Newark, New Jersey.
Another point that should be emphasised is that the APD cut for long-haul flights was not some generous Treasury handout, but has to be paid out of the Northern Ireland block grant; as a former Minister for Finance, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) will know all about that. It was the decision of the Northern Ireland Executive to prioritise growth and tourist numbers by cutting the tax and we in Northern Ireland should be given a similar dispensation over the short-haul rate. Our geographical location makes us especially vulnerable to the pressures exerted by a high rate of APD, as someone going to or from Europe or further afield will often need to make two journeys.
We cannot ignore the wider context of our tourism industry. I have called here for a similar cut in VAT for businesses. Cutting both would mean much for tourism, which is one of Northern Ireland’s principal economic drivers, along with agriculture and fisheries; our manufacturing sector is now smaller. I have no doubt that the measure will involve assessing transport and infrastructure on a north-south basis in the island. That will require a maturity, on the part of all those who have spoken today, in harnessing the power that an all-island economy will release. For too long, our approach has been dominated by physical and psychological borders that do not exist in the mind of most people.
The Government talk a great deal about boosting the private sector in Northern Ireland and rebalancing the economy. One way to do that would be to lower APD on short-haul flights as well as lowering VAT on tourism.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and her colleague the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). I welcome the new Economic Secretary to the Front Bench; I have no doubt that she will be a huge asset to the Government and the House.
I declare a slight interest, as I have cousins in Northern Ireland and, in my prior career, I spent far too many hours on internal flights, particularly to Scotland. Like many, I have enjoyed city breaks with my family; I shall spare the House the details of our recent trip to Amsterdam.
The democratisation of air travel in recent years has been a force for good, opening up to millions of families opportunities previously denied them. Millions more people are enjoying the thrill and experience of easy air travel and all that it opens up. Air travel does, of course, have a high carbon footprint, but just as the air industry has achieved stunning breakthroughs in safety through the extraordinary application of private sector expertise, investment, innovation and science, I have no doubt that it will be a force in demonstrating potential for energy-efficient air travel as well.
My principal reason for speaking this afternoon is to discuss the business of air travel and the role of air travel in business and in the economic predicament faced by this country. We are rightly—I commend the Government for it—putting an emphasis on the rebalanced economy and unlocking the power of our regions and cities to drive a new model of innovation-led growth, and air travel is an important part of that.
However, let us turn to the charge sheet that the House is presented with this afternoon and the motion, which calls for air passenger duty to be scrapped. The first charge is that it is a green tax, but, as the hon. Member for East Antrim said, it was not introduced and justified on that basis. However, he explained that even if it were, that would be no reason for not getting rid of it. This country, the western world and the whole world face a challenge in increasing energy efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint. Although that would not be a reason for introducing APD, it is worth bearing it in mind that we need to send a signal that rail travel, car-sharing and other forms of energy-efficient transport are to be encouraged.
The second charge is that the tax is regressive. The data in the ONS publication “The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2011/12”, which I commend to colleagues, make it clear that it is not regressive; in fact, it is no more so than VAT. I think we would all love to get rid of that too—certainly colleagues in the House today would love it; we would like to get rid of most taxes—but we are not in a position where we can afford that luxury.
The third charge, interestingly, is that the tax is disproportionate. In fact, the Government have limited the rise in APD to inflation in the period 2010-11 to 2013-14, and in this year’s Budget they ensured that the rate will remain constant in real terms. This afternoon I looked online and found an air ticket to Berlin for £80, £13 of which is APD. That does not seem to be a prohibitive level of tax that will put people off.
Does my hon. Friend share my sentiment that it is good to be on the Benches of a Government who realise the need for tax competition? We realise the need for competitive corporation tax rates and income tax rates; surely APD is a tax and we need to be competitive on that too. We have the highest APD in Europe. Of the 27 countries in the European Union, only six charge APD, and the Republic of Ireland is going to reduce it to zero in April next year. Should my hon. Friend not bear it in mind that we need to compete?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He must have spotted my notes, because my very next point is that we need to view this in the wider context of business and tax competitiveness. I hugely welcome the fact that the Government have committed to reduce corporation tax from 28% to 23% and, in due course, to 20%, meaning we are constantly cited as one of the top three in the G8 on tax competitiveness, as stated in the 2012 KPMG global survey. That is a strong signal to global businesses that we are open for business, and it supports my hon. Friend’s point that we need to view this in the context of wider support for businesses and tax competitiveness.
The fourth charge is that the tax is bad for Northern Ireland. In this respect, I have some sympathy with the case made by colleagues from the Province. The fact that the Republic has cut APD creates a particularly difficult situation in Northern Ireland. The Minister said, encouragingly, that the Northern Ireland economy is not showing signs of suffering as a result, with very high growth and new jobs being created. That is a testament to the creativity and entrepreneurialism of the people of Northern Ireland. The changes made to the tax in November 2011, which reduced long-haul rates to the same as those for short-haul, and the devolution of the matter to the Assembly are important and welcome measures. However, I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that locally, given the situation in the Republic, there is a particular problem that the Government will need to look at.
The truth—an inconvenient truth, to borrow a phrase—consists of three points. As a generation, a Parliament and a Government, we face, and have to deal with, the most massive crisis in our public finances. We inherited from the previous Government £1.2 trillion of debt—£5,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. Debt interest alone is now the fourth biggest item of Government expenditure, and it is set to rise, if the coalition has not acted, to £76 billion a year in interest payments. We have a structural crisis in the public finances—in pensions, in welfare, in health and in debt interest.
Despite the very best efforts of the Government to contain the crisis and make sure that they do not trigger a downward spiral in public confidence in the economy, we still face a huge challenge to restore our public finances. We do not have money to spare. There is no such thing as a free tax cut; the closest thing is a tax cut on wealth creation. That is why I support the steps that the Treasury has taken on corporation tax to put in place a competitive tax environment for our businesses and why, in particular, I support a new deal for start-up businesses—the people who are at the coal face of creating new jobs. The truth is that APD is not a tax on business creation; it is a tax on air travel, which is not the same thing.
Finally, this tax raises £2.8 billion a year, and that figure is set to rise to £3.8 billion in 2016. That is a significant amount of money. Interestingly, it is nearly the same amount as that which the Government have given away in a fuel duty cut, which has caused huge reductions in income at the Exchequer and has a relatively low impact on people’s pockets. Abolishing APD would have a small impact on GDP and hard-working families, but it would lead to a major £4 billion cut in our deficit credibility. I hope Ministers resist it.
I congratulate the Economic Secretary, who is not in her place, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on their appointments to their new positions.
I am sure that every Member has been contacted about the issue of air passenger duty. A gentleman who is not from my constituency visits my office because he has no representation. His constituency Member is a Sinn Fein MP who does not contribute at Westminster, but who is part of a team who have drawn £600,000 in expenses from here. The gentleman, therefore, has to ask another MP, who happens to be me, to represent him at Westminster. Every time he books a flight he calls in to see me and asks when the Government are going to change their tactics and do the right thing on APD to the UK mainland.
It is clear that APD is hurting the individual in Northern Ireland, who is somewhat restricted in travelling to the mainland. I believe that we, along with some parts of Scotland, are feeling the pinch of the decision to keep this tax more than others. The Northern Ireland Assembly and my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) in particular, who was wearing his other hat as the Finance Minister at the time, abolished APD for long-haul flights out of Northern Ireland in order to secure business, ensure investment opportunities and secure existing flight routes. Clearly, my hon. Friend took some good steps.
There are many opportunities to base businesses in Northern Ireland, but what can be viewed as isolation from the UK is highlighted by the high cost of flights to and from the UK mainland. It is my belief that a reduction or abolition of APD would encourage more businesses to look at the potential for business expansion in many areas of Belfast and, indeed, my own constituency of Strangford, which has a highly educated and skilled work force in most areas and great links to the rest of the UK and Europe. We are asking for this issue to be considered again today not just for the benefit of our constituencies in Northern Ireland, but for the benefit of all constituencies across the whole of the United Kingdom.
When this debate was announced, I was, as always, bombarded with constructive e-mails and briefings from many different companies that have made their case well. British Airways says in its briefing:
“Abolishing APD would pay for itself by increasing revenues from other taxes such as Income Tax, VAT, and Corporation Tax. This benefit would amount to almost £0.5bn in the first year…APD is among the most distortive major taxes in the UK economy—more distortive than VAT, Income Tax, or Corporation Tax, and second only to Fuel Duty.”
That sticks in the craw of many of our constituents.
No matter how the Government try to play it or how deeply entrenched they sit in their revenue-raising mode, the fact is that our APD is much too high compared with those other countries that have it. In fact, the United Kingdom has the second highest air taxes and charges in the world, according to the World Economic Forum’s “The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013”, which is right up to date. Only Chad in central Africa is ranked above the UK—imagine being second to Chad—in the list of 140 countries based on their ticket taxes and airport charges. The report states that
“the United Kingdom continues to receive one of the poorest assessments for price competitiveness…in large part because it has the 2nd highest tax rate on tickets and airport charges worldwide.”
We are the silver medallists behind Chad.
European nations are cutting or abolishing their air passenger taxes. Of the 27 European Union nations, just six levy an air passenger tax, with Ireland agreeing to scrap its tax completely in 2014, having dropped it from €10 to €3 in 2011. The German Government froze air passenger tax in 2011 following the publication of a study undertaken on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Finance that found that the introduction of the tax at the beginning of 2011 had resulted in an estimated 2 million passengers changing their travelling behaviour, including an estimated 750,000 people who opted to fly from a non-German airport to avoid the tax. That demonstrates the very point that we have been trying to make throughout this debate: if we do away with air passenger duty, we will reap the benefits from those who choose to use airports in the United Kingdom as a result. The evidence from Germany and elsewhere proves that. In 2006-07, Denmark phased out its air passenger tax.
We all know that money does not grow on trees. We are realists. If it did grow on trees, I would be very well off because I have 3,000 trees. Unfortunately, it is not like that. No money grows on my trees or on anybody else’s trees. Although we do not need to follow every step that the rest of Europe takes, it is clear that there is a good financial reason why other countries are taking those steps. Our reasoning should follow the same lines.
The BA briefing statement said that the abolition of APD could result in an immediate increase in UK GDP, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim has said. The increase in GDP would be about £16 billion and there would be about 60,000 additional jobs. That would be a win-win for the Government and a net gain for the Exchequer.
As time has beaten me, I plead with the Government to look at the big picture and to consider the big changes that would come from the abolition of APD.
It is a huge honour to follow the lumberjack from Strangford.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) led the charge in putting this important case. He presented a compelling argument to the House. Indeed, he got us so far out in front of the Government that I do not think we will need to have a vote tonight. I congratulate him on the way he presented his case.
I cannot believe that this Government—a Government with whom I have a lot of sympathy in many areas—want to tax people more than any other Government in the world when it comes to air travel. That is astounding. It is sad to see my friends on the Government Benches trying to defend the indefensible. This is a pernicious, nasty little tax that affects transport, ordinary people and jobs, prevents UK businesses from exporting and expanding, and harms growth by stopping inbound tourism.
The tax affects ordinary citizens in the United Kingdom. If mum and dad in Northern Ireland want to take little Billy and Sarah to their nation’s capital, they will go on the internet and look at the cheap flights that they could take from Aldergrove airport or George Best Belfast City airport with easyJet, Aer Lingus, British Airways or any of the other airlines that operate out of Northern Ireland. If they book in advance, they will get tickets for the whole family for less than £100. Unfortunately, they would then have to write a cheque for £104 to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the privilege of flying from one part of the United Kingdom to their nation’s capital. That is wrong. It is ridiculous. As the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) argued, it is grossly unfair to the citizens of the United Kingdom. The Government have an opportunity to stop it and they should stop it.
Our competitors recognise that the tax is wrong. As my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) said in an early intervention, in 2009 the Netherlands followed Belgium in abolishing its equivalent of APD because although it raised the equivalent of £266 million in a year, the loss to the wider economy as a result of taxes from which the country did not benefit was almost £1 billion per year. The German Government have said that they will freeze their equivalent tax and the Minister of Transport has stated publicly that they want to abolish it. I believe that they will do so before the next German election.
I draw Members’ attention to the words of the chairman of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Howard Hastings, and a speech that he made in London on Monday evening. He is not known for being outspoken or as abrasive as my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim, but he said:
“It is daft at any level that there is a lower level of APD between Dublin and GB when compared to Belfast and GB”.
He also said it was daft—doubly daft—to create a system in which thousands of visitors who come to Northern Ireland each year are
“financially incentivised to come through Dublin, rather than through Heathrow—”
or Gatwick, and our nation’s capital. He went on:
“Our two airports are fighting to attract new routes, particularly from Continental Europe. Air passenger duty is a major stumbling block. Recently published evidence shows that the cross channel air capacity for Winter 2013 is 2.4% up on a year ago. But drill down a layer, and we see that the increase in capacity to the Republic is up 13,000 seats…or 10%”
If ever there was a compelling argument to remove something that is doubly daft from our tax system it is the argument that airport passenger duty must be scrapped, and it must be scrapped sooner rather than later.
I congratulate all Members who have taken part in the debate, and in winding-up on behalf of my colleagues I want to say that it has been an interesting discussion. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on the usual skilful and robust way in which he introduced the debate, and I thank him for sparing us his full views about green issues. His thought-provoking speech was certainly worthy of careful consideration, and I trust that those on the Treasury Bench listened to it carefully.
I welcome the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to her post, and as she said, we welcome the good economic news from Northern Ireland. I found it strange, however, that despite representing a party of low tax, she defended the highest APD anywhere in the world. I trust that when the Minister winds up the debate we will hear some different views.
I welcome the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), to her post, and thank her for her keen interest. I accept her point that APD is an issue that affects the whole country, not simply Northern Ireland. Our motion acknowledges that because we have spread it out, taking in the whole United Kingdom, rather than only Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) proclaimed his low-tax conservatism. Having done that, however, he went on to defend why we should have the highest taxation in Europe—it was amazing to have the hon. Gentleman draw that to our attention, because in reality United Kingdom taxpayers are being taxed silly. He mentioned bringing down corporation tax. I acknowledge what the Government have done on that, but perhaps he should also bear in mind that Northern Ireland has a land border with a country that has a corporation tax of 12.5%, which is far below anything that the Government have done. We in Northern Ireland have a double whammy of taxation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention.
I thank the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) for acknowledging the problems faced by regional airports—many hon. Members acknowledged that point in the debate. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) is right that statistics are worth repetition because they might get through to the Government, who must then answer to them.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) drew attention to the impact of the Irish Government on Northern Ireland. She was exactly right. It has been said that the UK Government cannot do what the Irish Government have done because of the deficit. However, I draw the House’s attention to the fact that the Irish Government have a greater deficit problem than the UK Government. The Irish Government nevertheless believe that removing APD was of greater value economically. The Minister should bear that in mind when he expounds why we should not abolish APD—he should not say that it is because we are dealing with the deficit. As I have told him, the Irish Government have a greater problem, yet they have announced the measure in their budget.
I am happy that the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) spared us the details of his trip to Amsterdam. Nevertheless, I hope he has learned something from the debate and will change his mind on any decision he makes later.
I share the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon): a lot of ordinary people come to my constituency office because they have no Sinn Fein representation in the House and we must represent them. That is a disgraceful situation, but it is a fact, and we must accept the reality. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) gave the House an interesting report of the statement by Mr Hastings. That, too, is worthy of our consideration.
It is clear from the debate that the civil aviation sector is one of the main pillars of economic growth in the UK, driving job creation and growth both at home and overseas, as well as providing air transport for goods and passengers. More than a third of world trade is delivered by air, and about half of international tourism is facilitated by air links. However, as hon. Members commented, UK passengers are taxed more for air travel than passengers anywhere in the world, with APD rates expected to rise again in line with inflation from 1 April 2014.
In March 2013, the UK was ranked by the World Economic Forum as the world’s least-competitive country in terms of taxes and charges levied on air passengers. The TaxPayers Alliance has described APD as
“an unwelcome burden on family holidays, a cost to business and redundant with the EU Emissions Trading System now being applied to aviation”,
and has called for APD to be phased out entirely.
Our vision for a strong and prosperous Britain can be achieved only with healthy and vibrant transport and economic development sectors. Air connectivity is the key to efficient trading and, as the UK economy continues to transform in the face of domestic and global change, it is essential that the aviation industry is given the certainty and incentive necessary to allow it to plan and invest for the long term. Time and again we are presented with the argument that APD has deterred airlines from opening new routes, especially in Northern Ireland, where robust air links are fundamental to underpinning our regional economy, and has compromised the ability of local businesses to attract new foreign direct investment.
The situation is similar in Scotland. Amanda McMillan, managing director of Glasgow airport, has stated:
“Due to the size of the market in Scotland, we will always find it difficult to attain and sustain new routes and this situation is compounded even further by APD which simply serves to artificially depress demand and dissuade airlines from basing aircraft here…Unless APD is reformed, people travelling to and from Scotland…will continue to face some of the highest levels of taxation in Europe which is clearly a disincentive to travel.”
In an evidence session to the Northern Ireland Assembly Finance and Personnel Committee on 18 September, the director of the City of Derry airport, Damien Tierney, described APD as one of the “big factors” influencing airline decision making. Low-cost carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair, which account for most of the Province’s air travel, are particularly influenced by APD.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. Throughout the debate, Government Members have acknowledged that APD is a way to deal with the deficit, so my right hon. Friend is spot on in identifying that this is another form of taxation on the people of the United Kingdom.
Belfast International airport has noted in similar terms that APD has been held up as a barrier to airlines that might otherwise have shown interest in operating services in Northern Ireland, thereby limiting market opportunity and creating competitive disadvantage for operators. A 2011 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, entitled “Helping Economic Take Off”, looked at Northern Ireland’s geographical location, which makes us unique in both a UK and EU context. We are the most westerly part of the European Union and the only region of the UK separated by water, yet we share a land frontier with another member state. We have to travel and we have to trade, and air connectivity is the essential springboard from which future economic growth will be launched. The report, however, found that the continued imposition of APD would serve as a significant deterrent to further investment by existing or new carriers in existing or new air routes.
Much has already been said in today’s debate about the Netherlands experience. The Dutch Government introduced an aviation tax in 2008 for passengers departing from Dutch airports. The Dutch air passenger duty proved controversial from the outset and decreasing passenger numbers, combined with the global economic crisis, led the Dutch Government to subsequently abolish it on 1 January 2010. Belgian plans for a ticket tax were not implemented for similar reasons and a Danish tax was withdrawn due to adverse economic impact. In January 2013, the German Government announced that they would freeze their air passenger tax, while the German Transport Minister has publicly stated that he would like the tax to be abolished completely. Will our Government not listen to what is happening across the rest of Europe? Surely those decisions are being made in the light of economic circumstances.
The decision announced in last week’s budget by the Irish Government—that air travel tax is to be removed from 1 April 2014—has once again thrown APD into sharp focus, particularly its potential impact on the aviation sector in Northern Ireland. Concern has already been expressed by the Consumer Council of Northern Ireland that demand for air services in Northern Ireland could face decline, as people head south of the border to avoid tariffs. As Belfast International airport, in my constituency, has commented:
“Any tax or regulation prevailing in Northern Ireland which makes our gateway less attractive than those across the border is entirely retrograde with regard to economic development”.
As recognised by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in its two previous reports, Northern Ireland suffers greatly from its shared land mass with the Irish Republic, where the abolition of air travel tax, along with low corporation tax, start-up incentives and marketing funds, will now make it even harder for Northern Ireland to compete for cheaper fares and new route development. Belfast International airport, which lies on the shores of Lough Neagh in my constituency, is the main international port of entry for the province and has proved itself to be an essential component of the local economy and regional growth, as well as being a strategic asset nationally.
In conclusion, I realise that time has run out and I want the Minister to have the opportunity to respond to the debate. I thank every right hon. and hon. Member for participating. I trust that the Government have listened to what has been said and will take away the motion and the thoughts of the House, rather than seek to divide it.
We have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate, given that it has focused on one particular tax, and I thank hon. Members for their contributions. We began with the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who delivered a wide-ranging speech in which he made it clear that APD did not constitute a green tax but that, even if it did, he would be against it. He was described by various hon. Members as “trenchant”, “outspoken” and even “abrasive”—and those were the comments from his hon. Friends. However, he set out a strong case on behalf of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the UK more widely. Interestingly, the motion applies to APD across the UK; it is not specifically a Northern Irish issue.
We heard from the new Economic Secretary—I add my words of welcome to the many warm words already offered—who has already demonstrated that she will be a formidable Treasury Minister. We then heard from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), whom I also congratulate on her move to the post of shadow Economic Secretary, although I am saddened that she is no longer the shadow Exchequer Secretary. I am pleased, however, that we have had the opportunity to debate again so soon, and I am sure that we have many happy hours together in Finance Bill Committees ahead of us. She was very critical of Government policy although, as her history of APD pointed out, the regime in place is largely the one that we inherited from the previous Government. Despite her criticisms, she did not give us any examples of what she would change, but we were grateful for her contribution none the less.
My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), who has a strong interest both in aviation and in lower taxes, made the point very strongly that we have to reduce the deficit. His injunction that we should not slacken on deficit reduction was sensible advice.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) raised Scottish concerns, citing criticism that APD rates had rocketed since 2007. I should point out that, since 2010, APD has risen in line with inflation—it has been frozen in real terms. That means, for example, that since 2010, the price of an economy ticket for a short-haul flight—such tickets apply to the majority of passenger flights—has risen from £12 to £13. It is worth pointing out that that is an increase of £1. He also raised concerns about the impact of APD on Scotland, but the most recent figures I have—for 2010-11—show that passenger numbers at Scottish airports grew by 5.5%, so they are not being slashed by any means.
Is the implication of the hon. Gentleman’s question that he managed to identify the position of Labour Front Benchers, because I could not particularly?
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) delivered a thoughtful speech in which he set out the evolution of his own thinking and made the case for regional airports. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) raised a point on behalf of her constituents who originally come from the Caribbean. Such a point was also made in interventions, so let me reiterate that APD must adhere to international rules on aviation tax—a point that she acknowledged—specifically the Chicago convention. The capital city convention in APD ensures that the duty complies with the rules. She asked why we could not reform the bands. We could move to having two bands, and we did examine that as part of the 2011 consultation, but no banding structure can be entirely free of anomalies, and a revenue-neutral move to two bands would require an increase in APD for about 90% of passengers, including those flying to Europe and the United States. We were not attracted to that approach.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) raised a point about Scotland, following on from the contribution by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar. He rightly said that there would be an implication if the tax were devolved to Scotland and then abolished, because the cost of that would have to be found from the block grant. We have not estimated what that would be, but such a decision would have consequences to comply with EU state aid rules. It is also worth pointing out that we would need to take into account any market distortions that would be created and that the cost would have to take into account any lost revenue for neighbouring English airports, for example. That is not an insignificant point.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) spoke about domestic flights. It is worth pointing out that several European countries put VAT on domestic flights, whereas the UK does not—the rate is 19% in Germany, 21% in the Netherlands and 27% in Hungary. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) made the point that we would like to get rid of most taxes, but we are not in a position to do so. He also highlighted the fact that rates have increased with inflation. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) argued that there would be a net gain for the Exchequer if APD were abolished, but we do not agree—I shall set out the reasons why in a moment.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) spoke against the tax and also hoped that we could all unite behind the motion. I am terribly sorry to say that I have to disappoint him on both fronts. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) summed up the debate, arguing that we should perhaps follow the example of the Republic of Ireland, which is not always an argument that I hear from him.
As I have made clear, APD makes a crucial contribution to tackling our fiscal challenges. The tax raises nearly £3 billion in annual revenue. Contrary to the claims of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which has been cited frequently, scrapping APD would not be costless; it would result in a significant loss to the Exchequer. Unless we were to give up on our fiscal goals—my hon. Friends have been absolutely right to highlight the need for us to maintain discipline on reducing the deficit—the lost revenue would therefore need to be found elsewhere, either by increasing other taxes or by further reducing our public spending. In the course of the debate, I have heard few realistic proposals as to how that could be done. Not only would scrapping APD create substantial costs to the Exchequer, but the benefits of such a step would be small compared with those of the policies that the Government have already put in place.
We are not persuaded by the case that has been put before us. We cannot take risks with the public finances, so we will not be supporting the motion.
The House proceeded to a Division.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I ask through the Chair whether any application has been made for a statement on the recent developments concerning the Arctic 30? I am sure that many of us will be pleased to hear tonight that the charges against them have been downgraded from piracy to hooliganism. Some are related to, or friends of, Members, and one is a constituent of the Prime Minister, as my right hon. Friend has said. Is there any chance of them now being granted bail, and what does the development mean in terms of the possibility of their being repatriated home to this country?
As the hon. Lady will know, that is not strictly a point of order. The matter of statements is something the Government themselves determine and I have no knowledge of that, but she has had the opportunity to raise her point in the Chamber and, importantly, to get her views on record. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench have taken note of what she said.