Air Passenger Duty — [Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 10:23 am on 10th July 2018.

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Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury) 10:23 am, 10th July 2018

I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. I am very sorry about that. He will perhaps be even more perplexed when I mention that, rather than pound pinching, my family talked about looking after the pennies and the pounds looking after themselves. Perhaps that reveals a psychological difference between lowland and Ulster Scots. Of course, we need to look after the pennies and the pounds—that is the whole point. We need to trace exactly the impact of APD.

Studies suggest that the evidence about APD’s impact on passenger numbers is mixed. As many Members said, such a duty is unusual in the international context, but the number of passengers using UK airports has increased by 15%—a substantial increase—in the past five years. Of course, APD needs to be considered in the context of there being no tax on aviation fuel and no VAT on domestic or international flights. There are also different levels of APD for different kinds of flights, and exemptions for children were introduced in 2015 and extended in March 2016.

I will focus on four issues: the long-term viability of APD, regional competitiveness, the unequal impact of APD on different groups of Britons, and environmental issues. From a revenue point of view, there are clearly significant concerns about APD’s long-term viability. The Government have moved to provide industry with earlier notice of APD changes. The rates for next year were announced last autumn. That is surely positive for industry but, as I mentioned, we have had no indication of the Government’s view of the long-term trajectory of the tax, particularly in the context of the race to the bottom occasioned by internal competition in the UK. The tenor of this debate demonstrates that the starting gun has been fired on that race—it has begun, and we need to know the Government’s response.

We must view increases or reductions in APD in the context of taxation generally across income levels. It is notable that, given the increasing popularity and accessibility of air travel, many more people pay APD. As my hon. Friend Mary Glindon said, many more people enjoy hard-earned holidays abroad, and there are also people who need to travel abroad for family or work reasons.

Equally, APD is far less significant for household incomes than VAT, another transaction-based tax, which Members touched on. We would be in a different situation if the potentially regressive impacts of consumption taxes as a whole were cancelled out by progressive income taxes, for example, but of course the Government reduced the top rate of income tax. The latest Office for National Statistics figures suggest that overall, unusually in Britain’s history—at least in recent times—people in the least well-off decile pay a greater proportion of their income in tax than those in the most well-off decile. That is a peculiar situation.

Another concern we must note is about APD’s impact on regional competitiveness, which has been a focus of the debate and was perhaps its motivation. As we have discussed, APD levels were devolved to the Scottish Government in the Scotland Act 2016 and initial suggestions were that it would be halved and then potentially removed altogether.

We have discussed at length changes mooted in Northern Ireland, where there has been a call for evidence. We got useful detail about the operation of that from the hon. Member for Belfast East. As I understand it, the Government stated in February 2015 that they would also consider the case for devolving APD to the Welsh Assembly. We have therefore seen much change in relation to this duty.

All those changes naturally raise questions for airports contiguous to other airports not subject to the same APD levels, whether they are contiguous to Scotland or to the Republic of Ireland. We heard interesting thoughts on that from Nigel Dodds and the hon. Members for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). Of course, Jim Shannon —I have got it right this time—gave us a typically passionate and inclusive speech and a glimmer of his holiday plans. I hope they are more sedate and relaxing than those of John Howell, whose itinerary of recent movements sent my head into a bit of a spin.

We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside, who pointed out research suggesting that the duty has a significant impact on people living in her area. She is always a doughty supporter of their interests.

The Treasury published a discussion paper on options to support English regional airports in July 2015, but it is difficult to find out what concrete steps have occurred since then. Furthermore, the Government have said they will look at the matter once legislation concerning state aid changes is produced. An indication from the Minister of the Government’s thinking on that would be helpful; it is particularly important, given the points made by Drew Hendry about the situation for the highlands and islands.

There is often confusion in this place, though certainly not on the hon. Gentleman’s part, about the impact of EU state aid provisions in general. Of course, they prevent the provision of arbitrary support, but, as he suggested, low levels of population could be a feasible basis for such an exemption.