[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Ninth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2014-15, on Smaller Airports, HC 713, and the Government response, HC 350.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered air passenger duty and regional airports.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am delighted to have secured this important debate, and I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), who has been a champion of regional aviation and has campaigned on many of the issues that I hope to touch on in the debate.
Along with many hon. Members present, I have a regional airport on the edge of my constituency—in my case, Birmingham airport. I will set out the importance of my regional airport to the west midlands and to the wider UK economy, before moving on to the specifics of air passenger duty.
Birmingham airport is the second largest regional airport in England and the third largest regional airport in the UK. York Aviation has calculated that in 2014 the airport’s total economic impact in the west midlands was worth about £1.1 billion. The airport supports about 25,000 jobs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree with me that Birmingham international airport is a fantastic airport and, when High Speed 2 is built, some people in London will be able to get to Birmingham quicker than they would be able to get to Gatwick or Heathrow?
My hon. Friend is a strong champion of regional aviation, and many of her constituents in Redditch not only use Birmingham airport and enjoy its facilities but work there.
As I was saying, York Aviation calculated that some 25,000 jobs rely on the airport, which puts it in a similar bracket to developments such as HS2 in driving the regional economy. Passenger numbers at Birmingham airport have grown by 13% over the past five years and in 2014 alone it handled more than 9.7 million passengers, including a 7.2% growth in long haul. Nevertheless, the airport is running well below capacity. It could conceivably accommodate up to 36 million passengers, rather than just under 10 million.
The potential for Birmingham airport, and I am sure for many other hon. Members’ airports, to impact positively on the UK economy is considerable. Genuinely, we have only scratched the surface of what we can achieve. While we take seemingly forever to debate a new runway at Heathrow, jobs and direct investment in the regions are going begging.
The west midlands is in receipt of over a quarter of all foreign direct investment entering the UK and leads the UK in terms of export growth. It is the only part of our country with a positive visible trade balance with the European Union, seeing overall growth of 100% between 2009 and 2014. Birmingham airport is central to that—but more growth and jobs could be had. A major stumbling block is the air passenger duty regime.
Regional airports are at a disadvantage, as rates of APD are calculated on the destination of the flight and the class of travel that a passenger is in. This fee is the same whether someone flies from Heathrow, Birmingham or any other English or Welsh airport: for flights within the European open skies area, the fee is £13 in standard or £26 in a higher class, but jumps dramatically for flights outside that area, to £71 in standard class or £142 in a higher class. APD in the UK is considerably higher than in our neighbouring competitor economies: in Germany, it is £5.70 in the European open skies area and £32 for the rest of the world in standard class; and in France it is cheaper still, at £3.90 in the European open skies area and £8.90 for the rest of the world in standard.
An Airport Operators Association survey found that the APD has had a direct effect on passenger numbers and routes. Bristol airport reportedly said that several domestic services were scrapped as a result. Routes between Southampton, Leeds-Bradford, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Brussels airports had been “adversely affected” by the tax.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. What he is alluding to is all the more pertinent in relation to Belfast City airport and the international airport in Northern Ireland because we share a land border with the Irish Republic, so a few miles down the road Dublin airport does not apply such taxes. We have severe taxes—air passenger duty—in Northern Ireland, so there is a double whammy for us. I support what he is saying and I urge the Government to take seriously the impact of this iniquitous tax on small, regional airports and peripheral areas of the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman highlights an issue to do not only with his own airport but the wider UK aviation industry. Both Derry airport—also in Northern Ireland—and Cambridge airport in England claim that they are being prevented from expanding their services by APD. My argument is that the hub status of the major London airports, in particular Heathrow, allows them more easily to absorb the shock of air passenger duty, but that is not the case for some of the regional airports.
There have of course been successes in attracting new long-haul routes to Birmingham, for example. We have Air India now flying its routes to Delhi and Amritsar daily; American Airlines has begun daily flights to JFK, alongside the daily flight to Newark—that is not Nottinghamshire; Emirates has launched a third daily flight to Dubai; and this summer Hainan Airlines operated 34 twice-weekly flights between Birmingham and Beijing.
As was made clear to me in my recent meetings with the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, which owns Birmingham airport and is a responsible trustee, my local airport would love to have a regular direct flight between the UK and China week in, week out, rather than only for the summer, and it is a real failing that in the week in which the Chinese President is visiting we do not have a regular scheduled flight between the UK’s second city and Beijing. We cannot separate the issue of APD and devolution, which is a central plank of the Government’s approach to reforming and reinvigorating the UK economy.
It is hugely important that the fruits of growth that come from devolution extend to our connectivity as well. That must include greater use of our regional airports for short and long-haul flights.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. We have a strange situation in Wales. The Welsh Government own our own national airport, but the UK Government will not devolve APD to them so that they may utilise their asset. Does he agree that that is a slightly strange situation?
Before my hon. Friend continues, and on the very day that the Chinese President visits our Parliament, may I follow his train of thought about the importance of connectivity with China? My hon. Friend might recall that the President’s predecessor stopped first at Stratford-upon-Avon before coming to London, so the appetite for tourism to the west midlands is real and strong, and greater connectivity through Birmingham would enhance it.
Greater connectivity throughout the United Kingdom—in all the regions and devolved Administrations—would enhance not only tourism, but business and trade. I will come on to those points shortly.
Powers over APD are being considered for Wales, and that might have a knock-on effect for English airports such as Bristol and Liverpool. More seriously for my local airport, Birmingham, the new Manchester devolution deal might see that city gain the power to cut APD for its own airport, which could lure scheduled and package-holiday flights away from Birmingham. Clearly, if we are not to be placed at a disadvantage by rival areas, we need Birmingham airport to be able to compete fairly. However, I do not want my speech or this debate to be exercises in grievances or fiscal wishful thinking.
Despite the best efforts of this Government, we face a difficult fiscal environment. While we are still trying to clamber back from the recession and endemic overspending by Labour, any suggestions should at least be revenue neutral for the medium term.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In his few months in Parliament he has become a worthy campaigner on behalf of Solihull and the west midlands. Might the answer to the question of APD be a UK-wide reduction or abolition of the tax, the highest such charged in the world, apart from in Chad? A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report suggested that the amount of economic growth that Birmingham and other places, such as London and the south-east, would generate from the abolition of the tax is greater than the amount brought into the Exchequer.
My hon. Friend makes some valid points. I had no idea that we were second only to Chad when it came to air passenger duty; that is certainly new to me. I hope to address some of the issues he raised.
At a time when we are trying to clamber back from financial difficulty, revenue neutrality is something that we need to put, as much as we can, in our proposals. There is justifiable concern in the west midlands and other regions about their airports’ ability to compete with devolved areas. While devolution is a bottom-up process, the Treasury could heavily encourage the devolution of APD to combined authorities or devolved areas as soon as practicable.
What practical things can be done by the Government right now? I would suggest an APD holiday on new routes. Birmingham airport is in discussions with Hainan Airlines for a regular, scheduled service, following two summers of charter services. An APD holiday could aid that. That would provide a direct link for the UK’s second city to the powerhouse of China and further assist the west midlands’ current trade surplus with China. It would also help foreign direct investment just as with the new Gentling resort close to Birmingham airport.
Regional airports, the wider economy and future tax take would benefit from an APD holiday. While Birmingham airport and others want a general cut in APD, which is unlikely in the short term given the financial circumstances, it would accept any measures to reduce that tax. It estimates that a cut in APD on non-congested airports would boost passenger numbers by about 2.9 million in just a decade. All increases in passengers will bring goods, services and jobs.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. I am sure he agrees with the findings of the Select Committee on Transport, which said earlier this year that small, regional airports had been held back because of air passenger duty, which was affecting jobs and the skills base coming in. As the likes of Belfast City airport and the international airport in Northern Ireland are confident that passenger numbers would grow substantially if APD were removed, that should be an incentive to bring more people in.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I note that the Transport Committee wanted to attach a report to the debate, which I was happy to agree to.
The hon. Gentleman made it clear that all increases in passengers will bring goods, services and jobs to an area, all of which will return money to the Exchequer through other taxes. These measures will go some way towards reversing the scandal under Labour that the UK did more trade with Ireland than with Brazil, Russia, India and China combined. The Prime Minister, through trade missions, and the Government, more generally assisting in trade with the emerging and fast-growing markets, are tackling that problem. However, there is still the issue of connecting our regions, and the country more generally, with the large and frankly now emerged, rather than emerging, economies of the world.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing the debate. My constituency contains Prestwick airport, and when I moved there in the mid-’90s we were connected to almost every decent city in Europe. My husband is German, so we batted backwards and forwards from there quite regularly. We still had flights to Canada and a thriving tourist industry. In particular, we had central Europeans and Scandinavians coming to play golf—Ayrshire is a golf centre. We have a beautiful coastline and it is the country of Robert Burns.
After APD came in, we started to get fewer and fewer flights. When I visited the airport after being elected, it was like the Mary Celeste; there are about six flights a day that basically go only to Spain and Italy, purely for tourism, and there are no business flights. We are not even connected to London—I have to spend an hour on the road to get to Glasgow to fly down. That is absolutely killing our tourism industry.
Hotel and guest house owners were learning Swedish because we had so much golf traffic coming in, but we have become expensive in comparison with other places. We have heard about the decision to give Heathrow a third runway because it is overcrowded, but an awful lot of us have to go through Heathrow when we do not really want to be there; we are trying to go somewhere else.
There could be a differential. Air passenger duty might be used to try to control the pressure in London, but it is killing regional airports. All we have are a few flights out of Prestwick, with people going to Spain or Italy for a couple of weeks. What is important to my constituency is flights in. We need to make it an attractive place for people to come on holiday, spend a few weeks playing golf, sailing and whatever else, and leave their money in our economy.
Edinburgh airport produced a report on what the impact on Scotland would be if APD were reduced. We hope that it will be devolved, but that will take time; in the meantime, Prestwick airport gets more and more vulnerable. The report showed that although Glasgow and Edinburgh airports would get an initial boost, from 2017 onwards one of the biggest gainers would be Prestwick.
We have a fantastic airport, which is usually weather-clear because of its situation. It has a huge runway. We used to have people—including Elvis—flying in from America and Canada, but now the airport sits there one step up from being mothballed. We are not even in the position that the hon. Member for Solihull described. The airport was going to be shut down two years ago by its owners, Infratil from New Zealand, so the Scottish Government bought it to protect it.
We need to get the airport growing. It will not sit there forever unless we can get trade going. An airport gains from trade regardless of the direction, but the area it sits in benefits in particular when the traffic is coming in.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I will keep my remarks short because I know that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to contribute. Blackpool airport is in my constituency. Sadly, it is one of the airports, along with Plymouth and Manston, that has closed in recent years.
At its peak several years ago, Blackpool enjoyed more than 600,000 passengers per annum. It had Ryanair and Jet2 flights to Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man. The decision to close the airport last year was a devastating blow to the local economy. Not only was there an impact on people’s ability to fly out of Blackpool to holiday resorts; it also sent out a message that the wider tourist economy was not fully open for business. With Blackpool and the Fylde coast, we, too, have world-class golf courses such as Royal Lytham and St Annes, so the facility of an airport is important. When the Open was on, for example, a large number of private and corporate jets used that facility, which brought in high spenders to access our golf courses.
We have talked about many things that could be done to help the small, regional airports. One that seems glaringly obvious is some flexibility on air passenger duty. I am aware that the Government have looked at that in relation to Northern Ireland, to introduce some fairness on long-haul flights, and that powers are to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. That is quite right, because it is an important economic tool—[Interruption.] I could not hear what my friends from the Scottish National party were saying, but it is important that that power is used to try to generate and stimulate flights.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good case for Blackpool airport, which I have flown out of. We have heard cases for Birmingham, Prestwick and Belfast, and I could make a very similar one for Manchester; a case could be made for Bristol and Newcastle and for the large London airports. Is this not simply a bad tax? Every regional economy, along with the Exchequer, would benefit if it was abolished.
It is certainly a very unpopular tax, as we would discover if we asked any of our constituents when they booked flights and saw what they were paying in air passenger transport duty or if we spoke to any business person who had to take regular long-haul flights; the tax would be a huge cost to their business.
When we move to a situation where Scotland has power over its air passenger transport duty and may decide to abolish it altogether, there will be a market distortion, particularly in the north of England. Although that is welcome for Scotland, those of us with regional airports in our constituencies are deeply concerned that it could see the migration of the few flights left from some small airports, with the necessary knock-on loss of those regional airports to our economies. I urge the Treasury to put a plan in place so that airports—those in the north of England in particular—are not disadvantaged when Scotland is able to exercise those tax-varying powers.
It also seems odd, when we are trying to shift traffic away from the over-congested runways of the south-east, that we are not using every tool in our box to try to get some of those flights into the midlands, the south-west, Scotland and the north of England. There are so many people whose journeys do not originate in the south-east but who migrate their journeys because that is where the flight connectivity is. Again, I ask the Treasury to work with the Department for Transport to see whether we could implement some mechanisms to vary air passenger transport duty to try to stimulate alternatives outside the over-congested runways of the south-east.
I conclude with a plea for Blackpool and the small regional airports that are hanging by a thread. Blackpool reopened several months ago, but there are flights only to Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. Small regional airports such as Blackpool need all the help they can get. At a time when aviation is booming, it would be a real travesty if they were to lose their place as part of our national transport infrastructure.
It is a pleasure to speak on this matter, and I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing the debate. As the hon. Gentleman and others, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), have said, air passenger duty is a very important issue for us in Northern Ireland. Air passenger duty can be a positive means of raising revenue but can also be an obstacle to growth. If changes are not brought in it will be a problem for us in Northern Ireland.
Members are no doubt aware that our airports are in direct competition with those in the Republic of Ireland, so I am pleased to speak on this issue and to make a plea for Belfast City airport, for Belfast Aldergrove airport and for Londonderry airport. With air passenger duty set to be halved in Scotland, this debate is timely and will, I hope, ignite a national conversation on the issue, regardless of which side of the debate people are on. Given the potential for Scotland to reduce APD—and perhaps Wales as well—we have to look at the issue across the whole of the United Kingdom.
As I have said, it is now certain that the duty will be at least halved in Scotland, and the Scottish First Minister has indicated her preference for its eventual abolition. As that is the intention, we must be ready and able to respond. With signs that Wales could soon follow suit, the disparity in APD across the UK is likely to push regional airports in England and Northern Ireland further towards supporting the abolition of the duty.
Data from the Civil Aviation Authority show that the numbers of terminal passengers—that is, passengers joining or leaving aircraft at the reporting airport—were the equal highest ever, at around 240 million a year; again, those figures indicate how important this issue is. It is clear that despite air passenger duty, demand has not decreased but in fact increased, suggesting that people will want to fly regardless of APD. However, the increase in traffic has not been evenly spread, and as the hon. Gentleman and others have said, regional airports are losing out—airports outside London, in Wales, in Scotland and, in particular, in Northern Ireland. That is why those airports are making a case for at least some reduction in air passenger duty, with Wales and Scotland already on course to deliver, and why this debate is important to me: as MP for Strangford, as I see Belfast City airport as the airport for the people of my constituency.
As well as regional disadvantages, APD is at risk of creating a socioeconomic divide, where those with the ability to pay can enjoy the benefits of air travel when and where they want, while those without it are left using other, less appropriate means of transport. Air passenger duty raises approximately £3 billion a year in tax revenue, year on year, for the United Kingdom but, as I said, despite its introduction, demand has risen rather than fallen. Although APD is a form of revenue raising it has failed in its aim of reducing demand and carbon demand. If something is broken—and in this case, it is—let us fix it. It is clear that APD does not work for regional airports across the whole of the United Kingdom.
We could point to the revenue the duty raises as a justification for continuing with it, but there is evidence that we would be better off without it, not just with regard to regional airports or people from lower socioeconomic groups, but with regard to the economy as a whole. The figures have already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), and point to the benefits of the abolition of air passenger duty to regional airports, not least those across the water in Northern Ireland. That is a keen concern for me and my party colleagues.
The benefits of abolishing air passenger duty would be seen across the entire United Kingdom. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, abolishing the duty would see the UK economy grow by a staggering 0.5% in the first fiscal year alone. Crucially, the UK Treasury would see an extra £570 million in tax receipts in the first year after abolition resulting from increased demand for air travel, as well as any additional tax receipts from trade linked to air travel.
The figures are clear and cannot be argued with. They indicate the need for a change. That change would benefit the Treasury and everyone across the United Kingdom, so it seems very much to be a win-win situation. Increased activity in the sector would mean an increase in jobs and economic success and security for our constituents. Our party is on the record as supporting the third runway at Heathrow—we said that in the Chamber last night—and are keen to see it go forward, as we see connectivity with the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a plus. That is the good news. We also need a reduction in air passenger duty, because if action is taken it is clear that we will all benefit.
In Northern Ireland we know all too well how much air passenger duty influences airlines’ decisions about doing business. We compete directly with the Republic of Ireland in this sector and need only to look at what happened when air passenger duty was abolished in the Irish Republic. The figures are interesting: Dublin airport increased its number of passengers from the north of the border—my constituents, those of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and of other Northern Ireland MPs. That is proof, if ever proof were needed, that APD is an obstacle to business, growth and prosperity and security for our people.
It is time we took heed of the facts—the revenue that could be generated by abolishing APD, as well as what abolition has done for the Republic of Ireland and how that has hurt us in Northern Ireland, in particular. Let us set the potential of the air travel industry free, and we can spread the prosperity from that industry fairly across the United Kingdom so that we all gain.
I wish to make a short contribution to this debate, as Birmingham airport is in my constituency and is a very significant employer. It is an intriguing example, as it is an airport that has extended its runway without major public opposition, to the great surprise of the Prime Minister, who asked on a visit, “How did you achieve that?” The straight answer is that for a long time the airport has had a good working relationship with the surrounding community. The surrounding community therefore have quite strong views about air passenger duty, like many hon. Members present, and I share their concern.
A tax should be there to nudge behaviour. The question is, does air passenger duty really do the job it originally set out to do? From hon. Members’ contributions, it is clear that one impact of air passenger duty is the reduction of services and even the closure of some regional airports, with devastating consequences for the regional economic activity that previously focused around them. We are right to encourage the Chancellor to deliver on his pledge in February this year to review the potential options to support regional airports, which I imagine include reducing the impact of air passenger duty. I would like to underline how important that is for Birmingham airport.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing the debate. As he explained, Birmingham is a significantly underutilised airport. The runway is now the same length as Gatwick’s, yet it takes a third of the passengers that Gatwick takes. I am sure my constituents will be a little alarmed by my hon. Friend’s referring to the 36 million passengers who could theoretically flow through Birmingham airport. That will cause a little consternation at both ends of the flightpath in my constituency. A bit more realistically, with more competitive pricing of this tax or, indeed, its abolition, passenger throughput would increase. The range of airlines locating themselves in Birmingham would increase, which would create jobs.
The significance of this in Birmingham is, as has been touched on, the linking up of transport policy. Mainstream parties of all persuasions have agreed that we should construct a high-speed line from London through Birmingham to Manchester that stops at Birmingham airport. Not many of our country’s airports are located on a main line: Heathrow is not; Gatwick is not on a main north-south line; and Stansted is not. One of Birmingham airport’s unique selling points is its centrality and the fact that people can step off the aircraft on to a mainline railway route at present. Once HS2 is built, the journey from Birmingham international airport to Euston will take 31 minutes. Having taken nearly one hour and 40 minutes to get in from Luton just the other day, I would welcome a 31-minute transfer time from an international airport to London.
Air passenger duty has had unintended consequences, with closures of and reductions in services, but taxes are designed to drive our transport choices. As far as the west midlands is concerned, if one objective is to turn people away from aviation towards alternative forms of transport, the problem is that there is no spare capacity on the railway line, which is why a high-speed line is being constructed. If hon. Members have had the pleasure of driving up and down the M42 recently, they may have noticed the roads are pretty congested.
Indeed, because there is no spare capacity on the railway network, at a time when the west midlands’ manufacturing industries are undergoing a renaissance, their goods are all having to go by road. Our economic recovery can regularly be seen going up and down the M40, as 17 transporter loads of Jaguar Land Rover cars leave the factory and make their way to Southampton. This tax needs to be examined from the viewpoint of whether it is nudging behaviour as it was intended to. If not, and if it is having unintended consequences, there is a strong case for the review to be completed as soon as possible.
This comes at a time when the Government are seriously committed to devolving power. Hon. Members from Scotland have already benefited from significant devolution, and there is more of that to come, but this is a comparatively new development for the regions of England. Variation in air passenger duty would be entirely in step with the logic of returning powers to the regions, so that they can then seriously examine whether such a tax is desirable, whether it would achieve the region’s aims and whether the region still wishes to collect it at the original rate.
Now is absolutely the right time to have this debate. This is significant for our nation’s future transport choices, wherever airports are located. There is a significant underutilisation of some transport assets, as well as a significant overutilisation of others, and air passenger duty does not seem to be doing much to address that problem.
I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing the debate. Belfast international airport is in my constituency. It employs some 4,000 people—a huge number, given the Northern Irish economy—and helps some 200 businesses nearby. It is phenomenally important, just as Belfast city airport is, which is only 20 minutes away, and Londonderry, an hour away. As we have heard, Northern Ireland needs its connections, especially by air, because everything else is slow. While other hon. Members have the benefit of rail and roads in their constituencies, if we take them it is either through Scotland and down, or through Dublin and across. It is long-distance, so the only way to do things economically and quickly is to fly. Air travel is therefore vital to us.
Figures that I was given a year ago show that 47% of passengers going to Dublin airport are from Northern Ireland. I was recently told that the figure is now 52%, so we are draining our population, who are disappearing to travel because of three things: air passenger duty, good roads in Ireland that mean people can get to the airport quickly, and the fact that they are going to a hub that takes them to the rest of the world. The other alternatives include Manchester and Birmingham. Air passenger duty, therefore, is one of the three things that we are really asking the Government to tackle and remove. The point was well made by others about the impact on the less well-off who want to travel. We are adding more than £100 to the travel costs of a family of four. That is sometimes more than the ticket itself, if they have booked early enough. We need to review this.
I am nervous hearing hon. Members talk about different levels of air passenger duty in different parts of the United Kingdom, just as I am nervous about all the matters that break up the Union. Although we want the freedom to travel, we have to be very careful, or all we will end up doing is stealing our own labour forces from one another.
No. I like the fact of corporation tax. I have just said that we have to be careful, so I am being careful on that matter. We need to find the right balances that work between us. That is why I want to see an all-party group on the Union, so that we can talk through these ideas.
Tourism in Northern Ireland is run by Tourism Ireland, which runs it all from an all-Ireland basis, focusing only on tourism in Northern Ireland. So if Ireland decides as part of its rail policy to put in a direct line from Dublin to its airport, making it easier to get there, that is not part of the tourism policy that we have a say in, and it further damages our economic chances. I am told that, as a result of the block grant in Northern Ireland, if we lost air passenger duty and had to pay for it there would be a staggering cost of £55 million. I would love to know the details behind that. Yet I am also told that Belfast international airport thinks that if we got rid of air passenger duty, it could bring in 5,000 jobs and some £5 million. That should open up the whole economy to working better, which is what we want to see.
I want to mention one rather dour side of this: our way out of the troubles in Northern Ireland in the past was a thriving economy, with people travelling the world and seeing how other things work. We want everyone to travel. We want them to come home and to bring back ideas. Air passenger duty is severely damaging us, and we therefore want to see it removed. Even if it is removed in stages, can we at least start to look at that? We want to see Northern Ireland open for business, just as we want to see the United Kingdom open for business.
Thank you, Sir David, for letting me speak even though I had not put in a submission to do so. I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for bringing this issue forward for debate.
We have had some excellent contributions. I will be relatively brief. First, I want to pick up on the contribution by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), who made some excellent points, particularly about APD’s original purpose of changing behaviour and, arguably, getting people to use other forms of transport. Under all Governments of all hues, when a tax is applied, it becomes a revenue stream. It then goes into the big, black hole of revenue and is not used for the purpose it was intended for. There has not therefore been the intended investment in other forms of transport, which would allow greater connectivity.
As we know, APD has had unintended consequences. We have heard from hon. Members about different regional airports that have suffered badly because of APD—none more so than my regional airport, Prestwick, which my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) discussed. We have heard it argued that taking away APD can create jobs and additional revenue. At Prestwick, APD has cost jobs and cut tourism, so it has clearly cost the Government money. It stands to reason that taking away APD can reverse that harsh reality.
Another issue, which has not been touched on quite as much, is that passengers using regional airports often have to go via the main London airports. They then suffer a double whammy in terms of APD. A family of four from the States—they could be tourists or expats who want to visit family—would have to pay four times £71 in APD for each flight, or about £560 for the round trip. If they took a further flight to a regional airport, they would then have to pay four times £13 each way, so the APD would be more than £600. It is no surprise that that is off-putting and has caused a decline in passenger numbers.
That is why there should be a reduction in APD. I welcome the fact that responsibility for the issue will be devolved to Scotland, and I welcome the Scottish Government’s plans to reduce the duty. If it is reduced, it will give our regional airports a chance to create their own routes, which will then generate competition with, say, the London airports. If we can get away from having to do the double hat on APD—with people flying from one airport to another and then onwards, as I have just outlined—that would give us a better chance of opening up new routes and new connectivity.
For me, that is the nub of the issue on APD: it is off-putting in the first place, and it is doubly off-putting if people have to make another flight from a regional airport. I therefore welcome the Scottish Government’s plans. We have had excellent contributions today, and I hope the Government will take note of them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing this important debate. As the SNP spokesperson on transport, I obviously take a keen interest in this issue.
The hon. Gentleman described the positive impact regional airports can have on the economy—jobs, direct investment and the growth that stimulates further jobs down the line. Members around the Chamber have talked with common purpose about supporting regional airports and those who have to travel from the periphery.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said that regional airports are being held back by APD, but I would suggest that this goes even further: they are also being held back by a lack of flexibility in policy on route development and route protection. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) said that devolving the relevant powers would make a difference, and I think they will when they come on stream for Scotland. That is mainly because Scotland’s regional airports will not get the benefit of High Speed 2. Even if HS2 does come to Scotland, they will not see a difference.
Absolutely. We would be delighted to see HS2 reach Scotland; indeed, we have always said it should start in Scotland and be developed southwards.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) mentioned the impact that the development of regional airports has on tourism. Nowhere is that more true than in her constituency, but it is now an expensive destination because of the policy we have had. As we heard, Elvis left the building, and he was not encouraged to come back subsequently—regrettably, he cannot do so now.
The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) talked about APD’s effect on Blackpool airport. He said that the airport needs support, but that it has been left in a precarious position over the years. That is very similar to the position in Inverness and Dundee, so I have a great feeling of common purpose with him. We must make sure that routes are not dropped just because there is a more profitable option elsewhere. These routes are important lifelines for the communities they serve.
We have heard about the proposals for the reduction and abolition of APD in Scotland. I am pleased to say that those are yet another good idea from the SNP Government, and they seem to have gained quite a lot of support around the room. They make sense, and it is important that we go ahead with them.
As the MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, I understand the impact of APD. Regional airports such as Inverness and Dundee have long suffered the inequity of APD, but they are not alone, because other airports suffer too, and Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen are not well served by APD either. As we have heard, Prestwick could very much benefit from the proposed change. Air connectivity is vital to the local economy, and I am pleased that it will be—in fact, I am impatient for it to be—in the Scottish Government’s hands.
The UK introduced APD in 1994 to raise revenue from the aviation industry, anticipating that it would have environmental benefits through its effect on air traffic volumes. When it was introduced, it took the form of a flat £5 charge on flights in the UK and a £10 charge on other flights. It has been changed many times over the years. It was doubled in 1996, lowered in 2000, frozen between 2001 and 2007 and doubled from February 2007. It was then changed under the Labour Government in 2008 and the coalition Government in 2010. In 2013, it was increased, and the Chancellor made further changes in 2014 and 2015. This APD hokey cokey, married with the here today, gone tomorrow effect on routes and regional airports, has done nothing to help regional economies in places such as Inverness and Dundee or in the other constituencies represented by Members around the Chamber.
I point to those changes because, throughout all these years, successive Governments have failed to support regional airports. My constituents have suffered under the current approach. In addition to devolving APD powers as quickly as possible, we need public service obligations on routes to regional airports, as well as guarantees on those routes. We also need more flexibility on route development.
By 2016, £210 million less per annum will be spent in Scotland by inbound visitors than would have been the case if APD had not risen since 2007. That is a staggering figure. When power is transferred, the Scottish Government are committed to reducing APD by 50% by the end of the next Parliament, with a view to eventually abolishing the tax when public finances allow. Their plans to abolish APD have been welcomed by the British Air Transport Association, Aberdeen and Glasgow airports, VisitScotland and the Scottish Chambers of Commerce.
Sophie Dekkers, the UK director for easyJet—Scotland’s largest airline—has said:
“When APD is halved passengers in Scotland will quickly feel the benefit, with easyJet and other airlines adding more services to existing destinations and launching flights to new destinations from Scotland.”
Again, that would be welcome news for my constituents, who have long suffered the effect of here today, gone tomorrow flights.
In the scenario that the hon. Gentleman has outlined, if Scotland were to abolish APD, and given that the Republic has already done it, Northern Ireland would be the meat in the sandwich. It is important that Northern Ireland as well as Scotland gets to do it. Does he agree?
I absolutely agree, and support the devolution of powers to the nations of the UK in that way.
A consultation on a Scottish replacement to APD has been launched by the Scottish Government. It will give the people of Scotland and other interested parties the opportunity to provide their views—public views—on the design and structure of a Scottish APD. A Scottish APD stakeholder forum has also been established to help provide expert policy input in the preparation of policy proposals for Scottish APD, involving the air transport industry, environmental groups and tax practitioners and advisers. Devolution of APD to the Scottish Parliament will provide an opportunity to design a replacement tax that better supports our objective to improve connectivity to Scottish airports, generating new direct routes and increasing inbound tourism.
Reducing APD will have a positive impact on passengers, business costs and connectivity. However, as I have said, our support for regional airports should not end there. We need to make sure that the UK Government will do more to support regional airports, with a review of the current public service obligation regimes. The current criterion is too narrow and limits opportunities for regional airports.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, especially since this is my first speech as shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. I am pleased to be working with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury today; no doubt we will spar together on other occasions. I offer my thanks and congratulations to the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing an important debate on a topic that is of concern to me not only in my capacity as shadow Exchequer Secretary, but because my constituency will be affected.
I thank the hon. Members who spoke in the debate. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) gave a passionate account of the impact that air passenger duty has on her local airport, Prestwick. The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) spoke about the plight of Blackpool airport, especially in the light of its closure not so long ago and its struggle to get back on its feet. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) rightly questioned the future viability of APD generally. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some important points about how Belfast has suffered in its competition with Dublin airport. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) highlighted the fact that the time for debate is now: it is an important issue and we need to get a grip on it quickly. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) made some fantastic points relating to Northern Ireland, and there were also fantastic contributions from the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry).
Air passenger duty was highlighted in recommendations by the Smith commission. I reiterate my party’s support for the implementation of the commission’s recommendations as set out in the Scotland Bill. Inevitably, that will have consequences, but that should not undermine the principle of devolution for Scotland, and indeed Wales and Northern Ireland. That said, we cannot escape the fact that the Scottish Government’s anticipated reduction of air passenger duty by 50% in the next five years and their intention to abolish it altogether when finances allow are predicted to have a significant effect on regional airports in England, especially those close to the border. HMRC research conducted in 2012 suggested that the number of passengers using Newcastle airport would decline by 10% the short term, and that Manchester, the closest airport to my constituency, would lose almost 5%.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton, whose constituency neighbours mine, cited evidence in a previous debate on this issue that if one easyJet and one Ryanair flight were moved from Manchester to Glasgow, the Treasury would lose £2.9 million and 450 jobs would be lost in Manchester. That is of course a forecast, but we can already see the effects of variable rates of air passenger duty by examining the situation in Northern Ireland. Belfast International has suggested that it loses between 570,000 and 1.5 million passengers a year to Dublin airport, where no APD is levied. Dublin airport has run a marketing campaign specifically targeted at attracting Northern Ireland passengers, and in 2013 the number of passengers from Northern Ireland using Dublin airport increased by 12%. With the possibility of powers to determine APD rates being devolved to Wales in due course, the issue is set to have an impact not only on airports in the north of England, but on those in the south-west.
As the hon. Lady has mentioned my beloved homeland, will she confirm that it is now the policy of the Labour party to support the devolution of APD to Wales? Previously—I appreciate that it was before the hon. Lady was elected to the House—the Labour party abstained on such votes on Finance Bills. I should be grateful for clarification, because that would be quite a shift in her party’s policy.
I shall come on to my party’s position in due course.
I was saying that the possibility of powers to determine APD being devolved to Wales could lead to an impact on airports in the north of England and the south-west. York Aviation has predicted that, with Cardiff airport no longer subject to air passenger duty, Bristol airport would lose 440,000 passengers, up to 33 routes, 1,500 jobs and more than £800 million from local GDP. That concern has been cemented by a warning from Ryanair’s commercial chief that the company could double its profits per passenger by flying from Cardiff instead, should APD rates be set to zero there. It is therefore clear that the devolution of powers to set air passenger duty will have a profound effect on England’s regional airports, so I am glad that the Conservatives heeded the advice of my colleagues the then shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) when they wrote to the Government in September last year, calling on the Treasury to start work on a mechanism to prevent English regional airports from being disadvantaged by devolution to Scotland or anywhere else.
I welcome the Government’s publication of a discussion paper outlining three possible options for tackling the issues affecting our regional airports. I have a few specific concerns about the consultation, on which I am sure the Minister will be able to put me at ease, but first I ask the Minister for an update on the progress of the consultation as a whole. It is my understanding that the closing date for submissions was 8 September, but as yet there has been no published evidence and no conclusions from the Government. Will the Minister say when the Government’s response will be published? More specifically, one solution discussed in the paper is to devolve the power to set rates of air passenger duty to local or combined authorities, either partially or fully. That seems to have implications for our compliance with EU state aid rules. The Labour party supports reform of the EU state aid rules, which would be a much better subject for renegotiation that those chosen by the Prime Minister. None the less, the current rules will apply.
One problem is that the Government cannot vary national tax rates in a way that is more favourable to specific regions. For that reason funding for the relevant local authority would be reduced by the full value of air passenger duty receipts in that area. HMRC research indicates that full devolution to a local authority containing one medium-sized airport would require a staggering reduction in funding of £45 million a year. The point of devolving the powers is to allow regional airports to avoid undercutting by rivals. Can the Minister confirm that under that option a local authority that took that course would receive no extra funding from central Government and would have to deal with a cut of £45 million? He will understand our concern that even the devolution package the Chancellor proposes will not contain much in the way of revenue-raising powers, nor anything like the scope that the devolved Administrations have to make savings elsewhere. Also, does he share my concern that if local authorities are able to set their own levels of APD, it will start a race to the bottom, which, taken to its logical conclusion, would result in an overall loss to the Treasury of £3.2 billion?
The hon. Lady talks about a race to the bottom and says that different regional airports cutting APD could result in a net decrease overall. Does that not run contrary to the argument I have just been making, which is that cutting APD increases passenger numbers, jobs and revenue? Does she therefore agree that her argument could be flawed?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. Hopefully, when the Minister responds about the progress of the report, he will be able to shed some light on those issues specifically.
The third option outlined in the discussion paper is to provide aid to regional airports that will be particularly affected by the devolution of APD, but I am particularly concerned that that would do little to neutralise the effects at the airports that will feel the greatest impact. Airports such as Manchester and Newcastle would be too large to be eligible for such aid under the proposal, so the measure would be ineffective in tackling the problem where doing so will have the biggest impact. Furthermore, providing direct aid has an obvious fiscal implication for the Exchequer, so it would be helpful to clarify whether that would be provided by the Treasury or would again involve corresponding cuts to other local authority funding.
Finally, it would be helpful if the Minister touched on the environmental implications of air passenger duty generally. I have had a number of queries regarding that, particularly from my own constituents. Aviation is, of course, covered by the EU emissions trading scheme, and we anticipate that the fifth carbon budget will address the sector later this year, but it would be helpful if he were to outline how the proposals under consideration will interact with our obligation to decarbonise, especially if we are moving towards little or no APD, and how a devolved settlement will work alongside nationally set targets.
In conclusion, there is a degree of consensus that this matter must be addressed urgently, and we welcome both the Government’s consultation and today’s debate. There are a number of points on which we would welcome further clarification, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Sir David, it is a very great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing the debate and setting out his case so well. Indeed, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) and the hon. Members for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey). I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles on her appointment as shadow Exchequer Secretary—I speak as a former shadow Exchequer Secretary—and am delighted to welcome her to the Front Bench.
The Government have a long-term economic plan to rebalance growth across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom, strengthening our economy as a whole. That includes the commitment to a major transfer of power to our great cities, counties and nations so that local people can take more control of the decisions that affect them.
As part of that plan, the Government are delivering the Smith agreement for Scotland and will devolve air passenger duty to the Scottish Parliament. In accordance with the St David’s day package, the Government are also considering the case and options for devolving air passenger duty to Wales. In England, the Government are creating a northern powerhouse by pushing ahead to deliver a package of devolved powers to major northern cities and investing in transport and infrastructure. In the north-east, for example, the Government are in good discussions about the potential to devolve further powers and responsibilities to the regions.
I am sure that the Minister would appreciate the sensitivity of this issue for west midlands MPs. If he is not going to mention the fact that the Government are in negotiation with the west midlands local authorities about the creation of a midlands powerhouse, we will be a bit disappointed.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, particularly in the context of a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, to refer to the progress that we want to make in the west midlands, which is very much a priority area as well. I was going to touch on that. The case for the midlands engine set out today by my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is important.
I turn to English regional airports; I know they have expressed concerns that air passenger duty devolution will impact negatively on their business. The Government appreciate those concerns. Regional airports play an important role as local employers and enable the transport of people and products nationally and internationally. That improves connectivity, increases trade and helps to create new jobs. Consequently, the Government are undertaking a review of how to support regional airports in respect of such impacts. That is why the Prime Minister stated earlier this year:
“We are not going to accept a situation where there’s unfair tax competition…We will do what’s necessary to make sure that England’s regional airports can succeed.”
Does the Minister agree with the points made around the Chamber earlier about the fact that, whether someone is in a regional airport in Scotland or England, the economic growth that can be generated by changing the tax regime to encourage trade will enable all the regions to become more successful? They are not necessarily a threat to each other.
The Government have made significant progress on the devolution of taxes generally. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the announcement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the retention of business rates, for example. I know that business rates are already devolved in Scotland, but allowing English local authorities to retain business rates is an example whereby through aligning incentives, as it were, we can create the conditions for economic growth in every part of the United Kingdom.
I will deal with the specific points on APD in a moment, but first let me address the issue of the regional airports review, because, as part of that review, the Government published a discussion paper at the summer Budget this year. The paper explored three potential options for supporting regional airports affected by devolution: the first was devolving APD to regions within England; the second was varying APD rates within England; and the third was providing aid to regional airports.
The paper explored how the options could work and highlighted key points for consideration. The period for feedback on the options is now closed. We received a large number of responses and would like to thank all interested parties for their valuable responses to that consultation. We are carefully considering the views and evidence that we have received. We appreciate that the aviation industry values stability and certainty in the UK tax system and we will respond to the views expressed on the options in the discussion paper in due course. The response will set out how the Government wish to take the matter forward.
The Government have devolved APD to Northern Ireland and Scotland. The draft Wales Bill, published today, is glaring in its omission of any mention of APD being devolved to Wales. Is there a reason why the Government are rolling back on devolving APD to Wales?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the remarks that I made a few moments ago. In accordance with the St David’s day package, we are considering the case and options for devolving air passenger duty to Wales. That consideration is ongoing. Once a conclusion has been reached, I am sure that he will be looking very closely at our response.
If I may, I will respond to some points that have been made in this afternoon’s debate. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) raised the issue of whether APD is a good tax or whether we should just scrap it. It is worth bearing in mind that it raises £3.2 billion each year, which is an important part of the Government’s overall revenues. We consider that APD is a fair and efficient tax that ensures that the aviation sector contributes to the public finances. The amount of tax paid by people who can afford business class travel or luxury jets is much more than that paid by a passenger going to the same destination in economy class.
In recent years, we have reduced long-haul rates of APD and frozen short-haul rates for five years, and we are exempting children. APD is the main way in which the aviation sector is taxed. International treaty agreement means that there is no tax on international aviation fuel and no VAT on international flights. Unlike many countries, the UK does not charge VAT on domestic flights. It is also worth pointing out that the aviation sector is performing strongly. Passenger numbers grew by 4% in 2014 compared with 2013.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) referred in an intervention to a PwC report arguing that abolishing APD would boost GDP, create jobs and pay for itself. We do not agree with the assumptions behind the 2013 and 2015 PwC reports on APD. Our view remains that abolition would have a limited effect on GDP and cause a net loss of tax receipts. As I said, APD makes a contribution towards the public finances. Abolishing it would put pressure on the Government to increase less efficient and more regressive taxes.
The Minister makes the point that APD is one way of taxing the aviation industry and he thinks that it is a fair tax, but will he acknowledge that the UK charges a much higher rate? The UK’s short-haul rate in economy is more than double the EU average; in terms of the medium-haul rate, the UK charges €90, whereas the EU average is €24. The UK is aggressively taxing the aviation industry, and that is what the whole thrust of the debate is about. The Government may want to tax the aviation industry, but we are arguing that our industry is heavily over-taxed compared with those in other countries.
Our rates are higher than those in many other countries; I am not disputing that. I am arguing that we are not convinced that abolition of APD would pay for itself. Presumably the Scottish Government are also not convinced, because they have not brought forward proposals to abolish APD. It may be an aspiration for the long term—when finances allow—but that does suggest that there would be a loss of revenue.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire referred to the experience of Prestwick airport and the effect on tourism—a perfectly legitimate point to raise. As I said, we accept that APD rates are high on an international comparison. However, we think that APD is a very small component of a tourist’s overall spending on a trip to the UK. Some analysis done by Treasury officials over the summer suggests that depending on how long a long-haul passenger stays in the UK, APD probably makes up less than 2% of total spending on travel, hotels and subsistence, so although I accept the point, we have to put it into the context of the wider costs that may apply.
I am listening to the Minister’s comments about the effect on Prestwick airport. Does he accept that Prestwick, along with other regional airports whose local economies rely heavily on tourism, would be affected exponentially by additional costs for passengers? The Scottish Government’s approach—to reduce immediately and then remove APD—is likely to serve those economies better than taking no approach at all.
What I will say—this is the case for devolution; I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I might agree on this—is that we shall see. We have the chance to see whether that approach has an impact on tourism levels in that area. We will be able to see that from the evidence that emerges, and that could help to inform future decisions. We have that flexibility, and the Scottish Government are able to exercise the policy that they think fit for Scotland.
Do we not have an example available to us in the Republic of Ireland? It got rid of its tax and certainly has reported a massive upsurge in tourism. The point is that when someone is looking at choices of where to go, they do not think about the money that they will spend having a meal out; they are looking at how much it costs to get there and how much the hotels are. The issue is what they see on the internet up front. We are a tourist area, as the Republic of Ireland is, so we would get a similar benefit.
The hon. Lady refers to the increase in tourism in the Republic of Ireland, but according to the last numbers that I saw, the percentage increase was not very different from that for tourism in Northern Ireland. That suggests that APD perhaps is not that significant a factor in bringing tourists to a particular area. In the context of Scotland, however, no doubt the hon. Lady will be keeping a close eye on the impact of the APD changes on the tourism industry in her area, as indeed will the UK Government.
While I am on the subject of Northern Ireland, I shall pick up the points raised by the hon. Member for South Antrim and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). We do recognise that Northern Ireland is the only part of the country with a land border with another country that has a lower rate or no rate of APD. Many Northern Ireland passengers drive to Dublin to catch flights; I acknowledge that. APD is not the only reason why Northern Ireland passengers travel to Dublin for flights, but I accept that it could well be an important factor.
We have already devolved direct long-haul APD to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has now set long-haul rates at zero, effective from 2013. We have not had a request from the Northern Ireland Executive, as far as I am aware, for full devolution of short-haul APD. Obviously, we would have to consider any such request if it was made, but the principles set out by the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles do apply when it comes to devolution within a member state of the EU. The funding would have to be found locally, so any cost from forgone APD would have to be taken, as it were, from the Northern Irish block grant. The same principle applies in relation to corporation tax and devolution.
Some people have suggested that the way forward might be to offer an APD holiday, under which new routes could benefit from no APD liability for the first few years of their operation. We recognise that that kind of approach might encourage operators to open new routes—routes that currently do not exist. However, the Government also have a number of obligations to be fair and transparent in how we levy taxes. We would probably have to offer any tax holiday policy to all airports, rather than focusing on regional or underused airports.
The result of such a policy would be that some operators of flights to certain destinations would pay less tax than others that served the same destinations. Existing operators would be placed at a considerable commercial disadvantage. It would clearly be nonsense if two different flights from the same departure airport to the same destination airport were charged different levels of tax. The operator of the more expensive flight would, we suspect, mount a legal challenge against any discrimination, which they might win. There is also the potential for airlines to game any APD holiday. For example, the operator of an existing Manchester-Dusseldorf route might easily switch to Liverpool and/or Cologne to lessen its tax bill, which would offer no advantages to the UK.
The Minister has just mentioned that an operator might switch from, for example, Liverpool to Frankfurt to take advantage of an APD holiday. Surely, they could do that already, because the APD rates are far higher in this country than they are in our competitor economies.
If there was a dramatically different regime for new routes to and from the UK versus existing ones, there is a risk that there could be a certain gaming of the system. In order to qualify for a lower rate of APD, an operator might attempt to make a relatively minor change to a route, such as flying to a different German airport close to the original one, and thereby replace an existing route with a new one. That would do little to improve the use of, say, Birmingham International airport, as my hon. Friend seeks to do—given the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, it might be unwise to try to increase the number of users to 36 million—and we would merely see a lot of churn, rather than the increase that my hon. Friend would like. On that and related ideas, we are considering all responses from interested parties to our consultation, and we will respond in due course.
I am grateful to the Minister for being generous with his time. I believe that he is talking quite a lot of sense on the difficulties with APD holidays, but does he agree that what we need is flexibility over route development? In other words, we need not only starter routes but more frequency on those routes. Indeed, perhaps we need public service obligations to guarantee those routes, which would allow them to bed in, to become established and to reach critical mass.
The hon. Gentleman, who is his party’s Front-Bench spokesman on transport matters, raises an important point, but I question whether APD is the correct way of achieving the objective that he seeks. In the context of APD, there are some challenges, and the gaming of the system is one risk.
Having welcomed the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, I must point out that her shadow Treasury colleague the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris), the shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury, told the House on 29 June:
“I would increase the rate of APD.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1275.]
To be fair, that was before he was appointed to the shadow Front-Bench team. I do not know whether that is the Labour party’s position. I will leave that question hanging.
The message that we are getting, and it is one that the Treasury often has to give, is that relieving the tax would generate a return for the Treasury through increased economic activity. That is the argument that everybody always uses for tax reduction. None the less, will the Minister be clear with us about the timetable for the review of the options to help regional airports, since it was announced in February?
My right hon. Friend anticipates the response that I would generally make, as Treasury Ministers are required to do fairly regularly, regarding requests for tax reductions or spending increases. I cannot add to what I have previously said about the review. We will respond in due course. This is a detailed and complex area. One thing that has emerged from the debate is the fact that there are complexities, and that unintended consequences can result from pursuing certain policies, so we wish to consider the evidence carefully. We are in the process of doing so, and we will respond in due course to the points raised in the consultation. A number of options have been set out this afternoon and, although the consultation is closed, we will want to look closely at the contributions to the debate to develop our thinking on the matter.
I refer the Minister back to his comment about my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) mentioning in a previous debate that he would be in favour of increasing APD. As has been highlighted by many of the contributions today, we are now working in a different economic landscape in light of the fact that control over APD has been devolved to Scotland. We need to assess the economic impact of APD across the regions, because the playing field is not level. I hope that the Minister will heed my comments in that regard.
I certainly understand the point that the hon. Lady is making. To be fair, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West made his remarks in June, and I appreciate that that was before he was on the Front Bench. It is a bad habit of Government Front Benchers to point out remarks made by Opposition Front Benchers before they were appointed to the Front Bench, or even selected to be on the Front Bench.
We have recognised the potential impacts of APD devolution, and we are conducting a review to make sure that other cities and regions do not lose out. We are listening to interested parties and we will set out the Government’s next steps in due course. The Government have a long-term economic plan for the great nations and regions of this country, which clearly includes the west midlands. The Government are giving local people more control over the decisions that affect them and strengthening the UK economy as a whole.
Thank you for your chairmanship of this debate, Sir David. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions and the Minister for his reply. I was particularly impressed, not for the first time, by the contribution of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). I looked wistfully out of the window when she mentioned golf on this beautiful sunny day, and I look forward to having a round in her constituency at some point. When she mentioned Prestwick airport and Elvis, I was reminded of the famous story about Elvis creating perhaps the biggest PR gaffe of the century when he was interviewed by reporters on his one and only trip to the UK. Having landed at Prestwick airport, he came out of the plane and said that it was absolutely delightful to be in England. That, obviously, did not go down very well.
The hon. Lady spoke passionately about Prestwick and the problems that it has encountered in recent years. The Scottish Government have plans to reduce APD by 50%, and I watch with real interest to see what the economic effects will be; I imagine that they will be more considerable than our Treasury takes account of. In many other hon. Members’ constituencies, there is not the same opportunity for devolution. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) said that his airport was hanging by a thread and faced the potential of greater competition from Scotland post the 50% cut in APD.
Some of the most telling contributions were made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan). They said that the disparity in APD rates in Northern Ireland and the Republic is creating further social and economic divides when it comes to travel, and that, frankly, they feel as though the system is broken and it is time to fix it. I believe that many hon. Members would agree with that theme.
My neighbour and right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) spoke about the necessity of approaching transport in a joined-up fashion and the potential that HS2 will bring. The problem is that currently, we feel as though airport duty, the idea of which is effectively to price people out of planes—