It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank Chris Grayling for securing this important and timely debate. I also thank the Unite and GMB unions for campaigning so passionately and effectively on the issue, since the covid pandemic began, to safeguard the future of all those working in the aviation sector. As many colleagues have said, the livelihoods of 230,000 people employed in the sector—the third largest in the world and the biggest in Europe—are threatened. To challenge, slightly, something that was said by Huw Merriman, who chairs the Transport Committee of which I am a member, the sector actually contributes £28 billion to the economy.
That is why it is astounding that eight months since the Chancellor stood at the Dispatch Box and promised a financial support package for the aviation sector, that has yet to be delivered in a substantive way. In that time we have had wave after wave of redundancies, despite the furlough scheme, and one airport operator even described that as little more than a drop in the ocean in relation to fixed costs. The Government’s failure to provide the rescue package has meant such disgraces as the 13,000 redundancies at British Airways, and the firing and rehiring—things that are totally out of step with British values and the way our companies should behave. That is why the Transport Committee report damningly branded British Airways a “national disgrace” for its behaviour. The Committee Chair spoke of standards falling “well below” those expected of an employer.
It is simply unacceptable that the Government have not stepped in to do more to drive this level of change. For the Government to stand by when companies take advantage of these situations is deeply frustrating, because we know that there are options on the table that could be taken, such as prioritising loans or taking stakes in companies. Businesses that receive such support should then be prohibited from paying dividends, undertaking share buybacks or making capital contributions—potentially, even executive pay could be capped. We need to show that the needs of ordinary British workers are the priority for this Government and our country.
There are many examples from around the world of Governments backing the aviation industry. The US injected $45 billion into the sector. Another good example is France, where Macron’s Government unveiled a series of historic rescue packages but also put in place important mechanisms to tie parts of those packages to very clear decisions that airline bosses had to make to bring forward plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, to transform the fleet and to treat their staff, including their long-term employees, far better. By the way, it is vital that such efforts to tackle climate change are not lost while all the focus is on retaining jobs.
Consideration should be given to publicly financing smaller airports—there are many near me, such as City airport—and air traffic control, as well as specific routes within the UK’s aviation sector. Time is running out, and the Government really must act now.