Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)|
Tuesday 1 July 2003
Q280 Mr Challen: Are we in a situation
where we could try and nip this problem in the bud and do something
Mr Darling: The whole point of
the White Paper is to set out what the Government's policy is.
Despite the temptation you are putting in front of me you are
not going to get an answer, which I cannot give you at the moment,
because it would not do justice to the various people that spent
a lot of time, a lot of effort and probably a lot of money making
their representations known to us.
Chairman: We will to break for the division.
The Committee suspended from 1.10 pm to
1.18 pm for a division in the House
Chairman: Welcome back, can we start
Q281 Mr Ainsworth: Secretary of State,
as you may know my constituency is particularly affected by Gatwick,
can I begin with a small plea, a lot of my constituents have only
woken up to the fact that the consultation exercise closed yesterday
and I am still receiving a lot of letters, will you take them
for a few more days?
Mr Darling: That is no problem,
the sooner the better.
Q282 Mr Ainsworth: I appreciate that.
I appreciate you cannot go on forever. Thank you for that. You
said several times this morning that one of the points of consultation
is to establish whether we need new capacity. Is there a chance
that the answer to that will be no?
Mr Darling: There could be a possibility
people could say, no we have plenty of space. I did say last year,
and I said this quite deliberately, I did not think nothing was
Q283 Mr Ainsworth: You are not actually
consulting on whether or not to have any extra capacity?
Mr Darling: It is a perfectly
stateable case for people to say, "well, okay, some of the
airports are congested do not do anything". I do not know
if anybody has said that in consultation but I imagine they would
say it. The point I made last summer, and I repeat today, is even
if you take conservative growth levels and if you look at airports
like Heathrow todayHeathrow is full really all the time,
as anybody who uses it will knowthe question is, do you
need additional capacity? Are there other things you can do? If
you need additional capacity where should you put it? If you are
having a genuine consultation then it is open to people to argue
for doing nothing, although, as I said, looking at what I said
last summer there are some difficulties in that approach, ranging
from building four runways at a particular airport. Of course
there are a range of options.
Q284 Mr Ainsworth: Doing nothing
is not one of them. You are quite clear about that.
Mr Darling: I said last summer
given the pressures that I could see just saying, okay this is
not a problem we have to deal with it seems to me to be an unrealistic
option. Put it this way, I do not want to be responsible for creating
a situation that we now have with road and rail where successive
governments, for one reason or another, either put off decisions
or did not put enough money into the system. We now have to spend
an inordinate amount of money to catch up on the railways, for
example as you have seen in the last couple of days. In relation
to airport capacity I believe no matter how difficult these decisions
are we have a duty to plan ahead. Exactly how much we need to
cater for or how much we should cater for that is the whole point
of having the consultation. Those are the issues I shall be considering
over the next few months.
Q285 Mr Ainsworth: Take roads; the
policy there is to move towards decoupling growth in the economy
as a whole. Is that correct?
Mr Darling: What has happened
in the last three years, or so, is the growth in car ownership
is slowing down in relation to the growth in the economy and the
two are quite closely related. I suppose there comes a point with
cars where there is a limit to the amount of cars any one household
Q286 Mr Ainsworth: Yes, but surely
there is a limit to the number of holidays that people can take?
75% of air travel is leisure based, it has grown phenomenally
in recent years. When you look at growth projection are you assuming
that people are going to take more and more time off work to travel?
Mr Darling: To some extent they
will. Again I come back to the central point, the whole point
in publishing a whole range of figures was to get people's views
as to what they thought was realistic and what they thought was
not. You will know from people you know that the traditional model
in this country where most people took one holiday a year is changing,
people go away for weekend breaks and part of the low cost airlines
success is taken by people at off-peak times from airports that
it was not possible to fly from. Obviously one of the things we
have to take a judgment on is, is the growth that we project realistic
or not? Are people going to carry on flying more and more? I said
last year when I made the statement, in the last year or so half
the population flew at least once. Is that going to increase in
the future? The whole point of the consultation is to look at
that. Once we have answered that question we then say, okay given
the set of figures that then result what capacity do you need?
Do you need more in the South East? Do you need more in other
parts of the country? Do you need a combination of them? What
is the answer?
Q287 Mr Ainsworth: Do you think it
is reasonable to use fiscal measures to try and manage demand
and to achieve environmental outcomes?
Mr Darling: As you know, in relation
to the consultation we are looking at a variety of ways, of which
fiscal is just one, they are set out in the document. As I say,
that is one of the things we are looking at.
Q288 Mr Ainsworth: I am thinking
of the landfill tax, which is a tax that was introduced at a modest
level and it has not been found to be achieving the environmental
objective that people wanted and the Government promised to increase
it very substantially, well ahead of inflation. Why are you not
prepared to adopt this approach when looking at aviation, particularly
in the light of the damage it does to the environment?
Mr Darling: We are consulting.
There is a whole range of things that are being put to us and
we will need to consider them. Until I publish the White Paper
at the end of this year I am not going to set out what we propose
to do. By definition we have not decided what we are going to
do. For the sake of completeness there is a point on VAT, we had
a manifesto commitment not to put VAT on public transport and
we will stick to that.
Q289 Mr Ainsworth: You said something
curious earlier, that the demand for air travel would continue
to grow as more people are becoming better off. Is the fact that
they are becoming better off not a good reason for putting prices
up rather than forcing them down?
Mr Darling: I note your enthusiasm
for putting up taxes.
Q290 Mr Ainsworth: If everybody is
better off they can afford to pay more. This whole discussion
has to be seen in the context of the very serious damage aviation
is doing and will continue to do to the environment, particularly
Mr Darling: What I said in reply
to an earlier question is there is a range of options available
to us. The overriding objective must be to try and reduce the
harmful emissions that are caused as a result of air travel. There
are a number of ways you can do that, by the control of emissions
in trading schemes, and so on. I say, yet again, the Government
has not reached a conclusion as to what the best way forward is,
we will have done so by the time we publish the White Paper, then
you will be able to see what the Government's considered view
Q291 Mr Ainsworth: Is the truth of
the matter that underlying the consultation is the assumption
that aviation growth is a good thing and the environment comes
second and are you still working on a predict and provide basis?
Mr Darling: No, it is certainly
not predict and provide. Even after we published the White Paper
the decision as to whether or not there is any new airport capacity
actually built will be one taken by the private companies that
own Britain's airportsapart from Manchester, which is a
public company. For the most part the airports are owned by private
companies and they are not going to build runways on spec, the
planning process is extremely expensive, so the idea that somehow
we are going to say, well let us have a whole number of runways
just in case is nonsense. There is no predict and provide at all.
Mr Ainsworth: Thank you.
Q292 Mr Savidge: At the risk of sounding
parochial can I ask you a couple of questions that perhaps impinge
on your responsibility as Secretary of State for Scotland and
our shared constituency concerns as Eastern Scotland MPs. I notice
that yesterday Mr Dan Hodges, the Director of the Freedom to Fly
lobby group claimed that the effect of not building another runway
at Heathrow would be to hit domestic services, and he mentioned
services such as the main connections between London and Scotland,
do you believe that is a valid point or not?
Mr Darling: I make a general point
that campaigners on both sides will make claims which are designed
to back up whatever proposition they happen to be advancing. Our
job is to look at these and ask ourselves what effect it will
have. I think self-evidently if you have capacity constraints
at any airport two things can happen, one is charges can go up
because if you have a scarce resource you can charge more for
it and also airlines using it will obviously try and get their
more profitable flights into it. If you can make more money on
one destination than another and you only have one slot then you
put your more profitable airplane in there. If we did have a situation
where there was severe demand restraint at Heathrow or the London
airports then something has to give. Whether or not it would affect
destinations like Edinburgh or Aberdeen we do not know. However,
this is one reason why we are consulting, we need to look at what
would actually happen if we decided to do nothing or, you know,
go for some further expansion. It must be the case that if we
have scarce resource and demand keeps rising there has to be a
consequence of that, what precisely that consequence is depends
on a number of factors.
Q293 Mr Savidge: Obviously the main
environmentally friendly alternative to flying on such routes
would be the train, how far does it concern you that the Strategic
Rail Authority are currently talking about postponing any improvements
to the East Coast Mainline between London and Edinburgh and indeed
left Edinburgh to Aberdeen completely off the map the last time
they printed a map of the East Coast Mainline? Would it be that
might be the alternative in relation to something like Eurostar,
which has in fact diverted a lot of passengers on the London to
Brussels or London to Paris routes? Would that not be an alternative
that possibly should be environmentally encouraged?
Mr Darling: Absolutely. We are
spending £9 billion on upgrading the West Coast Mainline
and that will mean that from the end of next year the fastest
train between London and Manchester will be two hours. If you
can get from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston in two hours
it makes no sense, other than for the most obsessive flyer, to
go out to Manchester Airport, fly down on the shuttle to Heathrow
and come back in. That is a very good alternative. By 2006-07
you will have an hour off the Glasgow run. If you can get from
Glasgow to London in four and a quarter hours and you take into
account travel time that is a very good alternative. In relation
to the East Coast at the moment the reliability is gradually improving.
Many people who use the GNER East Coast Mainline in preference
to air travel do so because they can do more work and also that
company is quite imaginative in offering quite good deals, rather
like the low cost airlines, to fill up the train. That is something
that we want to encourage. On your Edinburgh to Aberdeen point,
you can rest assured that as I lived in Aberdeen for four very
happy years in the 70s I will make sure that the track is most
certainly not left off any map in the future.
Q294 Sue Doughty: I would like to
return to the whole business about pricing and subsidy. We have
been talking to you about this £9 billion subsidy through
lack of taxation on the aircraft industry. I am still having difficulty
in understanding why aviation, one of the most polluting forms
of transport, is being treated differently to other forms of transport?
Why should it not be taxed to earn revenue? You are making this
claim that we would not want to see it, I really want to hear
from you why it should not be taxed?
Mr Darling: I said to you that
we are considering a whole range of options and I've said on many
occasions now that you will not get the Government's concluded
views for some time yet. I think "subsidy" is the wrong
way of describing it, subsidy is misleading. Airlines have been
taxed in accordance with international agreements now for the
last 50 years. I have made the point in the consultation document
and here today that we think the polluter should pay. In relation
to air travel I think it is important if we are going to change
the regime it has to be done on an international basis. If we
did that unilateralary what we would be doing is putting our airlinesand
it would be our ones because we would not be able to catch airlines
that fly into our country to go elsewhereat a huge disadvantage.
That does not seem to me to be a terribly good policy to advocate.
Obviously in relation to controlling emissions and reducing them
that is something that we want to pursue, we have been quite explicit
about it. In Kyoto at the end it was quite explicit that people
should be doing that. For historical reasons the taxation of airlines
has been dealt with internationally and that is why we are in
the position that we are in.
Q295 Sue Doughty: It is very worrying
that we can subsidise buses and trains and you can get an elderly
person to the shops but we are running scared of what is going
to happen to the holiday-maker. My suggestion is that while it
is nice to get a cheap holiday on the Riviera it is rather more
important to allow people to get round this country in a reasonable
way, we do have fairly high travel costs.
Mr Darling: We do subsidise. We
do write cheques to the railways and the buses, you are right
about that, the system in relation to airlines is different. These
are all issues. I said to you the Government's objective is to
cut down on harmful emissions. I have doubts about a policy that
is explicitly constructed round the idea that you drive people
off airplanes and you say, "you cannot travel". You
can take a judgment about that. Maybe in Guildford that is a jolly
popular policy, "MP says that you cannot travel".
Q296 Sue Doughty: This is a real
distortion of what this Committee is trying to do. We are talking
about people putting up with miserable travel situations, misery
on the road, rail and bus travel. I think it is a sense of proportion
and where the priorities lay. Nobody said commuters are entitled
to a much better deal than they are getting, my constituents would
like to see a much better deal on commuting, yet you are trivialising
our view about air travel. Of course we take this seriously. What
we are suggesting is that we ought to look at the price. This
is what worries me, every time you come back you suggest that
this Committee does not want people to take holidays, of course
we do, but we want to take a common sense view of the whole thing.
Mr Darling: I agree we need to
take a common sense view of these things. All I am saying to you
is that we are not having an abstract discussion here. If, and
I am not saying you are advocating this, it was your policy that
we should put £70 on every fare or £100 do not let us
pretend it does not have some sort of impact. If it does not have
an impact there is no point in doing it. I do not think you can
say it would not disadvantage our constituents. I just said to
you that I think a policy that is predicated about driving a significant
number of people off the airways has certain difficulties. I do
think, and I've said this time and time again this afternoon,
that we do need to make sure that we look at options that might
be available to us to ensure that we control the harmful emissions
that no doubt air travel is responsible for.
Q297 Mr Wright: Secretary of State,
how do you respond to this interesting idea that was floated recently
by one of the chief executives of the budget airlines that potentially
airports could be paying him to fly his planes into airports and
people could be flying for free? Of course it is all about football
and shopping more than about controlling transport. What is your
reaction to that? That seems ridiculous in terms of the impact
of aviation. Clearly it is not happening at the moment but in
his comments there was a trend
Mr Darling: He says lots of things
Q298 Mr Wright: He does, yes.
Mr Darling: It is called a negotiating
ploy. I made the point earlier that airports will need income
to invest. A point was made to me graphically by one airport,
I will not say which it is, where they were offering to do up
a part of airport and I think it was this particular airline which
said, "if you do that we will clear off because we are not
paying the cost of it". That will give you an example of
how air travel has to be sustainable, and whether it is sustainable
on footfall alone I do not know.
Q299 Mr Wright: It does not sound
like the polluter is the payer.
Mr Darling: I do not think he
was addressing himself to the question of pollution, I suspect
he was addressing himself to how to get the best deal for his
airline. In relation to pollution and at the risk of repeating
myself the whole point of consultation and the whole point of
the economic instruments is to get people's views so that we can
formulate a view later this year.