Caribbean mobilises silent army against travel tax

For years now there has been talk about the manner in which the Caribbean might mobilise its sizeable silent army, the diaspora.

Although present in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, the region's people overseas have for the most part remained unmoved, leaderless, and without an issue around which they could genuinely coalesce.

However, in the last week, the Caribbean has in a coordinated way begun to encourage its diaspora to act on an issue that touches not just the viability of the whole Caribbean economy, but also the pocket books of the three generations of Caribbean people who live in the UK.

At issue is airport passenger duty (APD), an allegedly green measure aimed at taxing aviation's carbon emissions.

UK duty

This is a duty that the UK currently imposes on all passengers departing from UK airports.

In the case of the Caribbean and all non-European destinationst is at present set at £40 (US$62) on an economy or coach ticket.

The tax was designed to account for aviation's impact on the environment, but to date, no one can show how the £2 billion (US$3.1 billion) that is collected is being used to this end.

Last November, the UK made known that it planned, in the context of its annual budget, a number of significant changes by introducing distance-related banding.

For the Caribbean, they proposed that anyone travelling in coach from the UK would pay 25 per cent more - US$112 or £50 - from November 1, 2009; and 87 per cent more - US$117 or £75 - from November 1, 2010.

Higher rates apply in premium economy, club and first-class travel.

Extraordinarily, the tax is to be levied in a manner that is discriminatory 'for reasons of administrative ease' and will give preference to the United States over the Caribbean by determining that all of the US (even Hawaii) is 'closer' to London than all of the Caribbean.

Ticket-price increase

Not only will this place the Caribbean at a disadvantage over destinations, such as Florida, but will also result in ticket prices for the Caribbean diaspora in Britain increasing significantly, making the frequent travel by family and friends hugely more expensive.

In response, heads of government and ministers from Barbados, Jamaica, St Lucia, Antigua, St Kitts, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, wrote earlier in the year to their British counterparts indicating the economic and personal damage the measure would cause.

Barbados' Prime Minister, David Thompson, further made known his concerns while in London in April, and Caribbean diplomats have also made representations, as interestingly, have some British ministers whose departments are well disposed to the region.

However, up to now, the Caribbean has either been nervous of, or neglectful of mobilising its diaspora in the United Kingdom.

In the last week this changed.

Jamaican Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, and his tourism minister, Edmund Bartlett, have been present in London with a team from the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) and the Caribbean Hotels and Tourism Association highlighting a CTO-led regional campaign to make sure that the Caribbean's voice is heard in a domestic political context by the UK government.

During his visit, Golding met with key groups of parliamentarians to make known his government's concerns and to remind them that Jamaica and other Caribbean nations have significant numbers in its diaspora who have a vote in the United Kingdom.

Media-awareness campaign

Beyond that, other members of the group met with representatives from the diaspora and reached out through a media-awareness campaign, at the start of a process that is intended to gather pace over the coming weeks.

To understand the importance of this, one has to know that by May of 2010, Britain will have a general election, which under the West-minster model, will revolve around 60 or less, marginal seats.

Research shows that in 40 of these, the number of individuals self-declared as being of Caribbean origin exceeds the majority of the sitting member.

It, therefore, takes little imagination to see that real political leverage exists, at least for mitigation of APD, so that the Caribbean is placed in the lower tax band than that the US occupies.

As Golding observed during his visit, it is an issue that touches what matters to the community in the UK.

Time is very short. The bill containing the APD banding is close to completing its committee stage and will return to the floor of the House of Commons on July 7-8 - the last time that any amendment can be made.

Helpfully, the Caribbean cause has begun to find traction through the support of Britain's Conservative Party, an interesting development given that the Caribbean diaspora in Britain has traditionally supported the ruling Labour Party that introduced the measure.

During the committee stage, the shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Greg Hands, spoke up at length for the region

Family holiday

"A family of four," he said in part, "will pay £300 in APD from November 2010 for a return flight to the Caribbean, which is a lot of money for a family holiday. Caribbean governments have reacted furiously to that proposal. I happen to know that because ... around 10 per cent of my constituents are of Caribbean origin."

In response, Angela Eagle, the then exchequer secretary, speaking for the government, somewhat lamely admitted that the banding structure was "rough and ready" and claimed to be "listening to representations". But surprisingly, for a government already in trouble with its electorate she said: 'This is the system and we have to live with it and the way in which it works."

A unified approach

Achieving any amendment will not be easy. However, as a direct result of the Jamaican prime minister's visit, CTO's campaign and a unified approach on the part of the Caribbean tourism industry, British members of Parliament with significant numbers of the Caribbean community in their constituencies have agreed to table, on an all-party basis, an amendment to re-band the Caribbean.

Much still remains to be done.

To achieve a positive outcome will require APD banding to be recognised as an electoral issue, and for the diaspora, with the support of Caribbean governments, to recognise that here is the first real issue of significance around which the Caribbean peoples in Britain can be mobilised to win.

David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council. Email: david.jessop@caribbean-council.org

Go back | Date: 21 Jun 2009
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