Kelly Tolhurst – 2020 Speech on Manchester Airport

Below is the text of the speech made by Kelly Tolhurst, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in the House of Commons on 2 July 2020.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this debate about Manchester airport and the local economy, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) for his contribution. I know that the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) has a keen interest in Manchester airport but is unable to speak in the debate. I have listened carefully to the points that the hon. Member for Stockport has made and will endeavour to address as many of them as I am able to.

As Members across the House will be well aware, these are incredibly challenging times for the aviation sector. Covid-19 has presented unprecedented difficulties for the industry, but we must not forget that the aviation and aerospace industry is a British success story. Before the impact of covid-19, the UK aviation sector contributed at least £22 billion to the UK economy each year and directly supported around 230,000 jobs spread across the UK. Around 12% of those jobs are in the north-west, so I am mindful of the impact that covid-19 is having on communities across the region.

Aviation is one of the sectors worst affected by covid-19, and areas such as Manchester, with its large airport and supply chain, are particularly affected. Having held regular discussions with the whole sector since the pandemic began, I met again with senior management from Manchester airport earlier this week. I want to thank them for their constructive engagement throughout this period, as we continue to work collaboratively with the sector to ensure its recovery. I was very encouraged, as I am sure the hon. Member for Stockport was, to hear this week that Manchester airport plans to reopen terminal 2 from 15 July, following the opening of terminal 3 this week. I know that we still have a long way to go, but this shows the beginning of the sector’s recovery, as flights once again take to the skies.

The restart comes on the back of the unprecedented package of measures that the Chancellor put in place to protect the economy and jobs. The hon. Member spoke ​about support for this particular sector, and I am afraid that this is where we disagree. The support provided was unprecedented and has enabled airlines, airports and ground handlers to benefit from a significant amount of taxpayer support during the most critical time. It did not end there. The Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Transport were incredibly clear that any business needing further support, having exhausted all the economic measures that were put in place, will have the ability to talk to us about further support. We stand ready to speak to any business that is in that situation and has used all that support.

Mr William Wragg (Hazel Grove) (Con)

I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for arriving late, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing the debate. Have there been any approaches from the likes of Manchester airport to take the Minister up on the offer that she appears to be making?

Kelly Tolhurst

Obviously, commercial discussions are not for discussion in the Chamber, but I reassure my hon. Friend that I am in regular communication with all the airports in the United Kingdom, and officials in the Department are in weekly contact with them.

The measures put in place include the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility, which provides funding to businesses to pay wages and suppliers; the coronavirus job retention scheme, which helps firms to keep people in employment by allowing businesses to put workers on temporary leave; and the business interruption loan scheme. All those measures have been designed to ensure that companies of any size receive the help they need to get through this difficult time, including airports, airlines and the wider supply chain.

Beyond that package, many firms are getting support from established market mechanisms such as existing shareholders—the hon. Member for Stockport mentioned the support that has been provided by local authorities—and bank lending and commercial finance. We have been looking at other flexibilities to give the sector. The Civil Aviation Authority is working with airlines, airports and ground handlers to provide flexibility within the regulatory framework to help them manage the impacts of covid. We also welcome the response by the European Commission, which relaxed the 80:20 rule on slots, and we continue to engage with organisations across the sector on that issue. Nevertheless, I would not want to underestimate the challenges to the sector and to airports such as Manchester, because despite the measures that we have put in place to protect the economy, there remain serious challenges for the aviation sector.

I want to turn to the announcements of redundancies by a number of companies, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. As he said, these are distressing announcements for employees and their families. While they are commercial decisions, they are decisions that I profoundly regret as Aviation Minister. Redundancies are not something that should be considered lightly, and if organisations find themselves having to consider these measures, I hope that they will do so sensitively. I hope that they will take into account the dedication and professionalism that their employees have shown, and that they will act within and, where possible, beyond the requirements and the spirit of all relevant legislation.​

The hon. Member for Stockport and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South mentioned British Airways in particular. I have spoken directly to BA and to the IAG chief executive, Willie Walsh, to discuss the organisation’s plans and its engagement with staff and union representations. I have offered to support these engagement efforts where possible, and where it is appropriate to do so. I am also in regular communication with the unions that are particularly affected by those redundancies. I encourage BA and the unions to engage constructively with each other, and to strive to provide employees with as much certainty as possible during this challenging time.

I would now like to turn to the sector’s restart and the next stage of our plan to help it to recover. We need aviation. It is vital to our future as a global trading nation and plays a critical role in local economies, whether in Manchester or elsewhere. We have established the restart and recovery team, with an expert steering group to ensure a truly collaborative approach between Government and industry. Last month, we published the aviation health guidance for operators, as well as the safer air travel guidance for passengers. This forms a vital first pillar as we seek to ensure that our aviation sector returns to its full strength as soon as possible.

Andy Carter

The Minister has mentioned the Manchester economy, but does she agree that Manchester airport affects not just the Manchester economy but the north-west economy—particularly Warrington, Cheshire and across to Merseyside? The size of Manchester airport means that it is a much bigger operation and affects much more than just the Manchester economy.

Kelly Tolhurst

My hon. Friend is correct. Major infrastructure such as airports always have a wider impact than the activity that they directly partake in. The success of Manchester airport has been a big contributor to the wider local economy and the supply chain, and that is something that we are very mindful of within the Department for Transport. We are working with our colleagues across Government to ensure that we understand the full impact of the difficulties within the aviation sector.

I would like to point out that the Manchester Airports Group—MAG—and Manchester airport were among the leading members of the expert steering group working with us to devise that health and passenger guidance, and I thank them very much for that. We have built on progress, and on Monday we announced that the Government would shortly begin to ease the health measures at UK borders, allowing passengers to be exempt from self-isolation requirements in certain circumstances on arrival in the UK. The joint biosecurity centre, in close consultation with public health and the chief medical officer, has developed a categorisation of countries and territories that present a lower risk, so that passengers entering the UK from those places will not require 14 days of self-isolation. This has been informed by factors including the level of covid within a country, the number of new cases and the expected trajectory in the coming weeks. Further details, including a full list of those countries from which arriving passengers will be exempt from self-isolation, will be announced shortly.​

Throughout this process, public safety has been at the heart of our decision making. We have worked closely with health and policy experts from across Government to ensure that the steps we are taking are gradual and minimise the risk of new covid-19 cases, while helping to open up our travel and tourism sectors. We want the aviation sector to return to normal operations as soon as possible. However, even with this week’s announcements, there is a great deal of uncertainty around how long this will take, given the truly international nature of the sector. We want to ensure a safe customer journey in the UK and abroad. We also want aviation to be as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible. The aviation sector must be a green one that creates high-quality, high-skilled jobs.

Navendu Mishra

Will the Minister commit to looking at the proposals put forward by the French Government to support the sector, and the conditions that they have introduced with regard to using cleaner fuel, reducing emissions and supporting the wider economy with a sectoral package?

Kelly Tolhurst

The hon. Gentleman will have heard, and maybe seen, the Secretary of State announce last week the formulation of the Jet Zero Council, which has been supported by the industry and will bring together the Government with aviation and environmental groups to make net-zero-emissions flights possible. I have spoken with Manchester airport and others across the industry this week, and there is a real determination from the sector to make this a vital pillar of the recovery. We have an industry that wants to deliver on this agenda and are working with the industry, with or without that bespoke support. It is important that we understand the profound impact that covid-19 will have on the way that people’s lives, work and travel will change. It is clearly sensible that our plans to reduce emissions understand that and take it into account.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Manchester airport is the only British airport other than Heathrow to operate two full-length parallel runways. It handled its first scheduled flight in 1938—a KLM Douglas DC-2 to Amsterdam—and in 2010 it became the first airport of its size in the world to have a daily A380 service. As Aviation Minister, I have been given the opportunity by this debate to address concerns. I am mindful of and take on board the concerns he raised around slots, the green recovery and the particular strain that local authorities may feel as a result of supporting their local airports.

As I have highlighted to the hon. Gentleman, the Department for Transport is committed to staying close to our airports and working with them in the best way possible. We are all aware of the scale of the challenge facing the aviation sector and the economy as a result of covid. The efforts that we are making in partnership with the sector are intended to ensure that UK aviation can recover, and that airports such as Manchester and the communities they serve can recover and prosper in the future, just as they have done in the past.