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Airports: Heathrow Third Runway

Volume 773: debated on Monday 23 May 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what estimates they have made of the impact of the alternative outcomes of the European referendum on a decision to build a third runway at Heathrow airport.

My Lords, the outcome of the EU referendum for particular sectors, including the UK’s aviation sector, would depend on the relationship agreed between the EU and the UK if there was a vote to leave. This would have to be negotiated using the detailed processes set out in the EU treaty. It is the Government’s position that the UK will be stronger, safer and better off in a reformed EU. The Government have already accepted the case for airport expansion in the south-east and we are continuing to consider the three shortlisted options.

My Lords, I am not quite sure what that means, but it was a difficult Question. I have enormous respect for my noble friend. Does he think that if we left the EU the growth of air traffic would be so great that, with British businessmen going around the world creating new markets, it is questionable that building just a single new runway would be sufficient?

I ask him further whether today’s Treasury forecast is not just the latest in a long line of famous people producing similar forecasts. I once earned my living out of econometric forecasting, and I am ashamed because it is somewhere between sophisticated guesswork and mendacity.

I thank my noble friend for his persistence on this issue. He talked of more than one runway, and I am reminded of the words in “Oliver Twist”, “You want more?”. Nevertheless, we await the final decision. As I have said to the House on a number of occasions, we are moving forward on the recommendations of the Davies commission, and we will conclude further work in this respect by the summer.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that mischief-making about the referendum, such as we have just heard from the Benches opposite, is irrelevant to the situation? The European Union, through the single skies policy, is developing a network of air corridors over Europe that will simplify flying, reduce pollution and bring all sorts of benefits to the aviation industry.

What is important when it comes to the EU referendum is that we deal with the facts, which should be presented by those on both sides of the argument to allow the good people of our country to make that decision. It is not just an important decision for this generation but perhaps one of the most important lifetime decisions that people will make. On the issue of EU skies, and indeed referring back to the initial point made by my noble friend, the UK is an important hub in the international aviation sector and will remain so as we move forward.

My Lords, would the Minister surmise that in the scenario put forward by the noble Lord who asked the Question, all those people flying out of Heathrow would be on a one-way ticket?

I speak as a Minister for Her Majesty’s Government, and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Spicer can speak for himself. With regard to the importance of the decision on south-east expansion, I think we all agree that it is important that we move forward on this decision. As I have said before, the Davies commission has made a number of recommendations and the Government are considering the important environmental issues, which I believe are considerations to be taken into account before a final decision is made.

My Lords, I remind the House that I had some experience for many years as an airline pilot before the days of the European Union. Good gracious, there were international air routes, governed by ICAO, all over the world, including across Europe, and it is ICAO that still does that now. It is no good the noble Lord shaking his head; he is merely displaying his ignorance to greater effect.

Of course, my noble friend has expertise on this; we heard about one-way flights, but as one can see there was certainly a two-way flight when my noble friend was an airline pilot, because he has returned and contributed again today. He makes an important point: ICAO is an important part of ensuring the international development of aviation and dealing with our current security issues.

Can the Minister confirm that, in or out of the EU, we will need a hub airport fit for purpose? Can he tell us how soon after 23 June he will make that decision?

To answer the noble Lord’s first question: yes, I agree with him. As I have said before from this Dispatch Box, the referendum will take place on 23 June, and we will conclude further work on the airports decision by the summer.

My Lords, on the subject of one-way tickets, what is the Government’s view on airline bosses, such as Ryanair’s, offering discounted tickets for people to come and vote, and how does that relate to the Representation of the People Act? Did we not stop all that kind of thing in the 19th century?

I will not challenge my noble friend’s knowledge of history in this respect. On the referendum, the important thing is that the Government have been clear that all those who are entitled to vote on this important issue of our membership of the European Union should be given the right to do just that.

My Lords, the noble Lord has twice said that the decision will be made “in the summer”. As these negotiations have been going on for so long, could he kindly tell the House which summer he means?

My Lords, irrespective of views on the third runway—personally, I favour it, for Britain’s sake—is it not significant that our major airlines, in particular Ryanair, to which reference has been made, as well as easyJet and others, favour Britain staying in the European Union, with all the benefits and advantages that that has brought, such as low-cost fares and easy passage to destinations in Europe, which millions of British people visit over the holidays? Why are they in favour of this while only a minority of European critics oppose it?

I agree with the noble Lord. Many business leaders have spoken in favour of our continued membership of the European Union, and as I have said before it is certainly the Government’s position that the UK will remain stronger, safer and better off by continuing its membership of the European Union.

Given the passage of time since the research was done, is my noble friend aware that the case for the London airport at Heathrow becomes ever stronger, particularly because of developments in air traffic control and aircraft, which are now more cost-efficient, and the use of synthetic fuels?

My noble friend talks to the development of fuels and aircraft, and he is of course correct in that respect. As regards the decision, the case has been made and the principle has been accepted by this Government that we need expansion of airport capacity in the south-east, and we will move forward on that decision later this year.