HC Deb 04 March 2003 vol 400 cc665-7
7. Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

If he will make a statement on his policy on reducing the use of aviation fuel. [100183]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

As the consultation document made clear last summer, the Government's policy is that the airline industry should meet the costs of its environmental impact and, as part of that objective, it should maximise fuel efficiency.

Mr. Thomas

Is it not the truth that the Government's policy on aviation fuel is all over the shop? The Secretary of State rejected the report from the royal commission on environmental pollution, yet the White Paper on energy says that we must reduce the use of aviation fuel and meet the external costs on the environment of aviation use. If 15 per cent. of global warming by 2050 will be created by aviation use, as predicted by the international panel on climate change, what will the Government do to address that real disaster in the making? Is there not a lesson to be learned from road charging?

Mr. Darling

On aviation, the Government made it clear last summer, when we published the consultation document on airport capacity, that the airline industry should meet the costs of the environmental impact that it causes. The hon. Gentleman must realise that most agreements on the taxation of aviation fuel, for example, are international agreements. It is not open to this country to take unilateral action. Indeed, that would not be effective at all. I know that he is a Welsh nationalist, but surely even he must realise that we have obligations outside our borders. We have made it clear time and time again that the industry needs to meet its environmental costs, and we will shortly be publishing a consultation document to explore how it can better do that while we have regard to our international obligations.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Now that congestion charging in London has been successful, will the Government consider being as bold as the Mayor and advocate the extension of congestion charging—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The question should be about aviation fuel.

Norman Baker (Lewes)

If the Minister wants the airline industry to meet its costs environmentally in terms of aviation fuel, will he support an EU-wide tax on aviation fuel if it is not possible to secure international agreement? Otherwise, carbon dioxide emissions will double between 1990 and 2010 and a predict and provide policy will disfigure our countryside.

Mr. Darling

There are two points in relation to that. First, on reductions in air fares, even additional taxation would not put air fares back up to where they were. Many of the cost reductions have resulted from the low-cost airlines and others stripping out the costs of their operation. The policy that the hon. Gentleman advocates would not have the effect that he wants.

Secondly, a Europe-wide taxation regime might help in some respects, and it is worth considering, but it would not resolve the problem that would arise in relation to longer-distance flights or aircraft that are capable of flying outside the European Union, loading up with cheaper fuel, then coming back in. That might exacerbate the situation. I would say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), that the problem relates particularly to taxation and needs to be resolved as part of an international agreement. Other measures can be taken to improve aircraft engine technology to make engines more efficient and to reduce noise. There have been significant improvements over the past 30 years, and I have no doubt that more will follow. These are all matters that the Government will shortly consider and consult on. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that this is by its nature a highly international business, and it is not as easy as the hon. Gentleman seems to think to resolve the matter, even within Europe.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The Secretary of State, together with you, Mr. Speaker, and the rest of us regulars on the Edinburgh and Glasgow routes, will have developed a pretty good nodding acquaintance with every cubic metre of the upper atmosphere above Watford, which is pretty expensive in fuel terms. Is part of the problem the shortage of air traffic controllers, and would there be less hanging around over Watford if there were more skilled air traffic controllers?

Mr. Darling

Like my hon. Friend, I, too, have a nodding acquaintance with every inch of sky between Edinburgh and London. He makes a fair point. There are fewer air traffic controllers than there should be, but their numbers are increasing. National Air Traffic Services has plans to recruit more air traffic controllers, which will result in less delay around Heathrow and other airports. I looked at the figures over the weekend, and it is encouraging that delays attributable to air traffic control are decreasing, but an awful lot more needs to be done.