Labour’s devo commission undermined on day one

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   By a Newsnet reporter

As Scottish Labour gather in Inverness for their spring conference, their MPs at Westminster have landed an embarrassing blow on their leader Johann Lamont by abstaining on an SNP amendment on the unpopular and damaging Air Passenger Duty (APD) which would have seen APD devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

Labour have also failed to support the SNP in voting to scrap the hike completely, which bosses of Scotland’s three main airports- Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen- fear could lose as many as two million customers over the next three years.

Speaking to STV news in March, Sarah Campbell, communications manager for Aberdeen International Airport,said that “around two million passengers in Scotland could be lost by 2016”.

She added:

“This has an effect on tourism, on employment, on a whole range of issues. If the Government scrapped APD, it would have a huge boost to passengers and the whole industry. At least we would ask that the Treasury conducts its own study into the benefits.”

Labour’s commitment to devolving air passenger duty to Scotland was one of the promises unveiled by the party on the very day that Labour’s Westminster MPs failed to back the SNP motion to scrap the planned tax increase. 

The SNP have accused Labour’s devolution plans of failing at the first hurdle, and say that the refusal of MPs to back scrapping the tax rise shows that Labour’s Westminster contingent are not listening to their own party’s promises to enhance devolution.

Labour’s Westminster MPs reacted negatively to the proposals put forward by the Devolution Commission set up last year by Holyrood leader Johann Lamont, with one MP privately describing the plan as “barking”.  Labour MPs complained that the policy was being introduced without any consulation with shadow chancellor Ed Balls.

Some MPs had threatened to boycott the party’s Scottish spring conference in Inverness this weekend due to their dislike of Labour’s modest proposals to enhance devolution, which include the transfer of all income tax and air passenger duty to the Scottish Parliament.

Despite the policy, the promise was hedged around with caveats.  Labour has said that it will not go ahead with any promise to increase Holyrood’s powers over taxation if this results in a reduction in the number of Westminster MPs from Scotland, or the scrapping of the Barnett Formula. 

Westminster Labour has a standing policy of refusing to back any motion presented by the SNP even if it is a policy which Labour agrees with.  The policy was dubbed the “Bain Principle” after Glasgow North East MP Willie Bain admitted that Labour’s abstention on a vote proposed by the SNP last year against a Tory tax-cut for millionaires was due to  “a long-standing Parliamentary Labour Party convention that we do not support SNP motions”.  

SNP Transport spokesperson, Angus MacNeil MP commented:

“Labour missed a chance to support their leader’s devolution commission by moving to devolve APD. They failed at the first hurdle.

“Whatever divisions and problems there are between the leader of the Scottish Labour party and her MPs at Westminster they should not take it out on Scottish travellers, businesses and the tourism industry.

“We know that Johann Lamont wants to devolve it – as it has been to Northern Ireland – so why did her MPs not follow her wishes? Airlines , airports and representatives of businesses all over Scotland have voiced their concern on the recent budget hike in APD – the ‘poll tax of the skies’ – but Scottish Labour MPs aren’t listening to them, or it would seem their leader.

“We have seen encouraging figures this week about Scottish employment and growth –because of Scottish Government policies – but only with the full powers of independence can we get rid of Westminster’s punitive taxes. This week Scottish Labour has made that case even stronger.”