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Finance Bill (2) – Air Passenger Duty

Jonathan Edwards: Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Bone. It is an honour to serve under the chairmanship of the best slow left-arm bowler in the Westminster cricket team.

It is with pleasure that I rise to support new clause 2 and new schedule 1, and I will be pushing for a vote at the appropriate time. The UK Government commission on devolution in Wales, headed by Paul Silk, published the first phase of its report in November 2012, which concentrated solely on fiscal powers. Some 18 months later we are still waiting for an essential part of the cross-party Silk commission recommendations to come to fruition: the devolution of responsibility for long-haul air passenger duty. The original cross-party report recommended that responsibility for APD be transferred to Wales at the earliest opportunity and that the Finance Bill was the appropriate vehicle for doing that. The commission had the 2013 Finance Bill in mind, following the precedent set during the 2012 Finance Bill when APD was devolved to Northern Ireland.

It therefore comes as no surprise that I am here yet again attempting to transfer APD to Wales, as was agreed by all the parties in the commission. I will seek to divide the House and to hold other parties to what their representatives on the commission said and, perhaps more importantly, what their representatives in the National Assembly say back in Wales. I would of course be ecstatic if by some divine intervention their masters here in London listened to them for once and voted in favour of the policies they advocate—I do not hold my breath in much hope.

I will go on to speak about the discrepancies between what the Unionist parties say in Wales and how they vote here on devolving APD. First, let me inform the House a little about the background to the UK Government commission’s recommendation to devolve APD as part of a comprehensive package of financial powers and about the stage we are at now. In short, the cross-party Silk commission recommended that powers over stamp duty land tax, the aggregates levy, long-haul APD, landfill tax and business rates be devolved in their entirety. It also advocated a sharing arrangement for income tax, with Wales having the ability to vary each individual income tax band and rate.

After having been made to wait for more than a year by the London Government to grace us with a response to the commission which they themselves set up, we find ourselves already having debated the Second Reading of the Wales Bill in this Chamber. We expect it to be confirmed tomorrow morning that the whole House will return to consider the Committee stage of that Bill after the Easter recess. Yet the Wales Bill has some glaring omissions. It seems like a long time ago now when, last autumn, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister swept into the Senedd building in Cardiff, to flashing camera lights and an adoring paparazzi, in order to announce new financial powers for Wales. Very few questioned what exactly was being proposed. Only later did it emerge that the Westminster Government were prepared to accept the cross-party commission recommendations only in part and that they would be ignoring some. That is despite the fact that they had representation on the commission in the form of a commissioner representing the Conservative party and a commissioner representing the Liberal Democrats.

In essence, the Government have cherry-picked the commission’s recommendations, even though they were agreed on as a comprehensive package of reforms. It is therefore greatly disappointing that the Westminster Government have decided to ignore the will of the people of Wales, who believe that Wales should have greater power over its own affairs, according to successive polls, not least the ones conducted by the commission while it gathered evidence as part of its reports. Those polls represent some of the most detailed research undertaken on attitudes towards devolution since we first had our own devolved legislature in 1999.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): Is all that not doubly disappointing given that our representative on the Silk commission was prepared to compromise in order to get a unanimous report? We gave ground and support to the recommendations of the Silk commission, but the Government are cherry-picking.

Jonathan Edwards: My hon. Friend makes a very important point and of course he is right. As I will go on to say, the Silk commission was a huge compromise for Plaid Cymru, yet we find ourselves the only party represented here in Westminster, and the only party represented in the National Assembly in Cardiff, trying to preserve the integrity of the Silk commission. That is a vital point which the people of Wales will realise in good time.

The devolution of air passenger duty was an important element of the package recommended by the Silk commission. It was therefore a slap in the face for Wales when it was omitted from the Wales Bill, which is currently progressing through this House. Both my colleagues and I have spoken several times about that Bill so I will not go into it too much further save to say that my party and I have been dismayed by the attempts of both the Government and the Labour party to put narrow party self interest ahead of the Welsh national interest and to lay down road blocks in terms of the Silk commission.

The Government have sought to water down the financial powers recommended by the commission by constraining them through a lockstep.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I note the hon. Gentleman’s points about the Silk commission and about how the principal parties reneged on it. That also happened in Scotland with the Calman commission, which was set up by the Conservatives, Liberals and the friends of Labour, who then reneged on the Calman proposal to devolve ADP to Scotland.

Jonathan Edwards: That is an interesting point. I am sure that the people of Scotland are watching these developments intently, as they will be voting in a referendum on independence in September. The issue is, can they trust anything that the no campaign says in advance of that referendum? I am sure that that will become a growing theme as we approach the closing stages. I wish the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues well in the forthcoming months.

As I was saying, the Government have sought to water down the financial powers recommended by the commission by constraining them through a lockstep, essentially making it impossible to vary income tax in Wales. Meanwhile, the Labour party says that it will block any income tax powers via its Government in Cardiff unless the Barnett formula—the way in which Wales is funded—is reformed. That is despite having 13 years to do so while it was in government.

Labour also now supports the lockstep principle, despite the protestations of the First Minister. There is of course the added twist that the bands can only be moved upwards, which is why I have labelled Labour’s policy “lockstep plus”.

Needless to say, the agreement that was the Silk commission’s recommendations fell far short of what Plaid Cymru was advocating as a party, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) alluded earlier. We wanted a more comprehensive list of job-creating and economy-boosting powers including VAT, corporation tax, resource taxes and capital gains tax. However, in the interests of compromise, we settled on the final recommendations.

The Silk commission argued that should corporation tax be devolved to Northern Ireland, Wales should not be left behind. I follow with interest the unanimous support in Northern Ireland, among all parties, pressure groups and interest groups, for the devolution of corporation tax—[Interruption.] Exactly, that is a very interesting point: the Unionists in Northern Ireland want corporation tax and a whole range of job-creating powers for their devolved Government, yet we have unionists representing Welsh constituencies trying to block any move towards further powers for our country.

The Silk commission argued that should corporation tax be devolved to Northern Ireland, Wales should not be left behind. The fiscal powers recommended by Paul Silk and his team in the commission’s report are still desperately needed for the sake of the Welsh economy. The ability to vary some taxes and to borrow for investment would enable us in Wales better to deliver job-creating and economy-boosting measures and policies to help turnaround the continuing bad performance of the economy.

It was also interesting to hear the Secretary of State sing the praises of the lockstep income tax provision of the Wales Bill in a TV interview. He said that it could be used to vary rates and would put Wales at a competitive advantage, but that the devolution of long-haul air passenger duty would put Bristol airport at a competitive disadvantage. That incoherence shows that the cherry-picking of the Silk recommendations falls apart unless they are introduced as a comprehensive and whole package.

Long-haul APD was devolved to Northern Ireland in last year’s Finance Bill, and the Silk commission has recommended the devolution of long-haul APD to Wales. It is clear therefore that today’s debate is the appropriate legislative vehicle to move this issue forward. Although I failed to do so last year, I live in hope that I might succeed today, but given that all the Labour MPs have disappeared home—AWOL again when the interests of Wales are under discussion—I am not holding my breath.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I have a lot of sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman is putting forward. He has mentioned Northern Ireland in relation to corporation tax and APD. Does he recognise though that one big argument in relation to Northern Ireland is the fact that we have a neighbour to our south, another EU member state, which competes directly with Northern Ireland? We also have a land border, and the corporation tax and APD rates down south are much less than they are in Northern Ireland, so there is a unique case in Northern Ireland—but I am not for one minute setting aside the merits of his case

Jonathan Edwards: As usual, the right hon. Gentleman makes a reasoned argument. Northern Ireland has a land border with the Republic, of course, but we would argue that we have a sea border. I normally find myself making the case for equality with Scotland in this place, but in this instance I am calling for equality with Northern Ireland. What is good enough for Northern Ireland is certainly good enough for Wales.

Just over a year ago, the Labour Welsh Government acquired the national airport of Wales, located just outside Cardiff near Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan. The ability to attract long-haul flights to the airport would significantly improve its competitiveness. It has more than 1.5 million people within its catchment area, and long-haul flights could attract people from even further afield given that that is the only airport in Wales or the west of England with a runway large enough to accommodate transatlantic aircraft. The development of the airport could act as a spur to growth in the south Wales economy, bringing in greater foreign direct investment through better business links, which would in turn bring jobs and growth. Quite frankly, I am amazed that the Labour party has not proposed its own amendment to the Finance Bill and that only goes to show that the First Minister has absolutely no influence over his bosses down here in London or, at least, over Labour MPs based in Wales.

In response to the UK Government’s proposals for the Wales Bill last November, the Labour First Minister said that he was “disappointed” that air passenger duty on long-haul flights would not be devolved. I am not surprised, given that his Government had brought the airport under public ownership only a year earlier. In a lecture at the London School of Economics, the First Minister said:

“Air passenger duty is another tax that should, in my view be devolved. While London struggles with where to build additional airport capacity, we in Wales face a very different problem. Our national airport in Cardiff has not enjoyed the growth in passenger numbers and destinations that we need to help drive economic growth. Devolution of air passenger duty would give us a useful tool to incentivise the growth of Cardiff airport and other smaller facilities, such as Anglesey in north Wales. APD has already been devolved to Northern Ireland for long-haul flights; at a minimum, I believe Wales should have parity.”

The First Minister makes my case for me, but where are his MPs? Where are they? It is just a shame that he could not get his MPs to the Committee to vote when he has the opportunity to do what he keeps preaching to the people of Wales in the Western Mail and on the BBC.
MPs representing Welsh constituencies who fail to vote in favour of devolving air passenger duty do not only ignore the economic needs of Wales, the First Minister of Wales and the overwhelming majority of Welsh public opinion.

Mr MacNeil: I am intrigued by the behaviour of Welsh Labour MPs. Does the hon. Gentleman think that Welsh Labour MPs hold their First Minister, Mr Carwyn Jones, in contempt deliberately or accidentally?

Jonathan Edwards: The key point is that if the First Minister cannot persuade his own MPs and those on his own Front Bench in Westminster to propose policies that he is promising to the people of Wales, why should the people of Wales listen to a single word he says to them in the media? It is a test of his credibility and authority and, based on tonight’s and last year’s evidence, I would argue that the First Minister has no credibility or authority whatsoever.

Hywel Williams: Does my hon. Friend agree that the First Minister has form on this matter? He will recall that we proposed a new clause to the Water Bill to implement the Labour Administration in Cardiff’s policy on borders and the control of water. Of course, the Labour Benches were entirely empty and, as he has mentioned, Labour failed to vote on that matter, too. Labour is entirely bogus.

Jonathan Edwards: Once again, I am grateful for that intervention. That is one in a long list of political issues on which the First Minister and his Cabinet members say one thing in Cardiff while Welsh Labour MPs operate completely differently down here. The proof of the pudding will, of course, be the Westminster Labour party manifesto. We will see what influence the First Minister has over that, but the manner in which he has been completely bullied by the shadow Secretary of State, who now supports a lockstep on income tax powers, seems to show that the balance of power is quite firmly here in London.

Bob Stewart: The hon. Gentleman has referred to Cardiff airport. Is there another airport in Wales to which air passenger duty applies?

Jonathan Edwards: Cardiff is the only international airport. We are talking about APD relief on long-haul flights, and it would apply primarily to Cardiff, but I imagine that the Welsh Government would have ambitions to redevelop other airports in Wales—[Interruption.] If they had the ambition, they would want to improve those airports.

As I was saying, public opinion clearly supports the devolution of the tax to Wales. Only yesterday, the Western Mail published the results of a survey that showed that 78% of respondents supported the devolution of APD. On this, as with so many other issues, the powers that be in Westminster are at odds with what the people of Wales demand. In response to that poll, the Welsh Labour Government said:
“We will continue to put forward the strong case for it”—

APD—
“to be devolved in the hope the UK Government will eventually listen to us and the overwhelming majority of the Welsh public who support this move, as reflected in this poll”.

A day after the poll, we have an opportunity in the Finance Bill to achieve that objective, but where is the Labour party?
I am glad that, since Cardiff airport has been brought into public ownership, new management has driven up passenger numbers by 9%. That is a crucial point—the national airport of Wales is publicly owned. I agree with that, as the airport is an essential part of Welsh national infrastructure, but Labour MPs from Wales are not here to ensure that something that is publicly owned by the people of Wales has the best chance of succeeding in the long term.

The devolution of APD could help to ensure the long-term future of the airport and draw passengers away from congested airports in the south-east of England—something I am sure many MPs and their constituents in and around the south-east of England would welcome. I therefore look forward, perhaps somewhat over-excitedly, to some of those MPs joining us in the Aye Lobby. I am similarly amazed that the Secretary of State for Wales is not pushing for the devolution of APD at the highest level, as it would provide us with the ability to develop the Welsh economy, which should be one of his core objectives.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) is not in his usual place, which is slightly strange, considering that the airport is in his constituency. The livelihood of many of his constituents depends on the vitality of the airport, as well as the aircraft engineering industry that has grown around it, and they will be dismayed to learn that their MP does not support measures that could give the airport a competitive advantage. I should like to make reference in passing to the difficulties that engineering companies operating from the St Athan airbase, which is close to the international airport, face as a result of the management of that airfield by the Ministry of Defence.

The new clause effectively seeks to give Wales an essential tool to support and provide jobs locally in south Wales and the wider Welsh economy. The financial powers recommended by the Commission on Devolution in Wales are needed as soon as possible as a spur to jobs and growth in Wales. The Westminster Government, in the Wales Bill, have cherry-picked the recommendations and omitted the devolution of APD as well as other proposals. The powers included in the Bill may not be implemented until well into the second half of the decade, provided that no more roadblocks are put in place by other parties. Every month that passes without the devolution of those powers, the Welsh economy languishes even longer at the bottom of the economic league table of the nations and regions of the UK, with job and economic prospects diminished, hopes and dreams dashed, and lives stalled.

Plaid Cymru has made jobs and the economy its absolute priority, which is why we have again tabled an amendment on air passenger duty. We want to create a modern and prosperous Wales and, unlike our political opponents, we have little faith in London government of whatever colour achieving that ambition. That is why we want Wales to have the tools to get on with the job without delay. Diolch yn fawr.

In closing the debate, Jonathan Edwards said:

Jonathan Edwards: We have had an informed and very interesting debate. We have also had an incredible revelation, which I hope the Welsh media will pick up tomorrow. Let me make it clear for the benefit of Labour Front Benchers that Carwyn Jones is the Labour First Minister of Wales.

We heard excellent speeches from the hon. Members for Crawley (Henry Smith) and for Macclesfield (David Rutley), a typically passionate speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), speeches from both Front Benches, and many good interventions.

The people of Wales own—via the Welsh Government—our national airport, which is a key piece of our national infrastructure, and we need to control air passenger duty if we are to maximise the potential of that asset. This is primarily an issue of jobs and growth, but it is also an issue of gross hypocrisy, given that parties operating in a devolved context say one thing in Wales and something completely different here in Westminster. The Labour First Minister of Wales says that this is an economic priority for his Administration, but he cannot persuade his own bosses here in London, or Labour Members of Parliament based in Wales. This is therefore an issue of the First Minister’s credibility and authority. If he cannot convince his own side, why should anyone in Wales take anything that he says seriously, and how can he possibly engage in detailed negotiations with the United Kingdom Government on these very fine and important fiscal matters?

It is necessary for us to divide the Committee so that the people of Wales can see the truth for themselves, and I therefore wish to press new clause 2 to a Division.