HC Deb 20 December 1984 vol 70 cc561-8 3.58 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement about the Civil Aviation Bill.

The House gave the Bill a Second Reading on 21 November, by a majority of 78, and committed it to Standing Committee F for consideration. However, on two separate occasions, Tuesday 11 December and Tuesday 18 December, the Committee voted against the sittings motion.

The Bill is required whatever decisions are taken in relation to the inspector's report on Stansted and terminal 5. The Government will need the powers in the Bill if at any time it is decided to impose a limit on air transport movements at any British Airports Authority airport for environmental reasons. Equally it will need the powers, even if the environmental limit at Heathrow were not imposed, because both Heathrow and Gatwick are rapidly approaching the point when demand for runway space will exceed the physical capacity for extended periods of the day.

Proceeding with the Bill would not therefore have prejudiced the decision that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I will have to take on the inspector's report. Nevertheless, the Government suggest that further consideration of the Bill be postponed until that decision has been taken.

I note that the Chairman has reconvened the Committee for 12 February. I must make it clear to the House that it is very likely that no decision on Stansted/T5 will be possible by then. We shall therefore in due course seek to arrange through the usual channels with the Chairman when the Committee shall meet again.

I hope that this procedure will be in accordance with the wishes of the House.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that with a little common sense on his part this problem would not have occurred? Will he accept that it is entirely due to his own arrogance that this unique public humiliation is taking place this afternoon? How can he say that demand for runway space will exceed the physical capacity when the chairman of the Heathrow scheduling committee and the British Airports Authority have both indicated that the true physical capacity of Heathrow is greatly in excess of the present ATM limit? If there is such a problem, why on earth is the right hon. Gentleman refusing international flights into Manchester, to give one example?

When does the Secretary of State anticipate the announcement regarding Stansted and terminal 5? Is it the Government's intention to hold a debate in the new year on United Kingdom aviation and airports policy? I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the Government should follow the example of the last Labour Government and publish a White Paper embracing both airports and aviation so that we can see what their national policy is, if they have one.

Will the announcement today further delay the privatisation of British Airways? If so, does the right hon. Gentleman anticipate a painful interview when the Prime Minister returns? The long distance praise from Peking which appeared on his behalf in this morning's newspapers might in some circles be likened to the vote of confidence received by the average football league manager shortly before the axe descends on his neck.

Mr. Ridley

It is usual for the Government, when a Bill has received a sizeable majority on Second Reading, to proceed to take the Bill through Committee. I have never before heard anyone suggest that it is arrogant to frustrate the will of the majority of the House. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that again he has got it wrong. It is not only a question of annual capacity into Heathrow and Gatwick; it is a question of capacity at certain times of the day and certain times of the year. Without these powers, congestion will occur.

I cannot possibly forecast or guess when my right hon. Friend and I will be in a position to give a decision on the inspector's report into Stansted and terminal 5. Also, any example from the last Labour Government will certainly be eschewed by this Government as being a dangerous precedent to follow. Furthermore, it is of no relevance to talk of the future of British Airways on this statement.

Sir Humphrey Atkins (Spelthorne)

Does my right hon. Friend recollect that it is almost exactly five years since his precedessor with responsibility for these matters, Sir John Nott, together with the then Secretary of State for the Environment, now the Secretary of State for Defence, issued a statement confirming that the Government intended to impose a limit of 275,000 air traffic movements at Heathrow? The statement was well received by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Londoners and others affected by Heathrow who are looking to him to honour the Conservative Government's promise.

Mr. Ridley

My right hon. Friend is completely correct. The Government have attempted to honour that promise by introducing a Bill and by taking it to Committee. Those who have frustrated the progress in Committee are those whom he must blame if it proves impossible to get the legislative powers to implement that limit. To boot, I have been called arrogant by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) for attempting to do that. Will he at least tell his constituents where the blame might lie?

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I came to the House this afternoon to praise him for the statement which I understood he was to make? Does he recognise that he is in danger of risking a certain amount of exasperation among his colleagues if he persists in believing that there is no connection between the contents of the Bill and the decision on airports policy? Does he further recognise that he will exasperate hon. Members if he does not realise that he must not pick and choose between the pledges that he honours?

Mr. Ridley

I think that on this matter praise from my hon. Friend could prejudice my quasi-judicial role in relation to the inquiry. If the Government did not proceed with the Bill, they would appear to be accepting one part of the inspector's recommendations, which might prejudice our position.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

As the Secretary of State has missed the plane, will he give the House an assurance that he will miss the bus and bury his plans to abolish public bus services and most of the concessionary fares?

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

I thank my right hon. Friend for persevering with help for the environment of those who live around Heathrow, but may I remind him that in the terminal 4 inquiry the inspector recommended a maximum of 260,000 ATMs as the limit of what the environment could take? Furthermore, does not my right hon. Friend find it remarkable that, although the Liberal party claims to care about the environment, the Liberal representative on the Committee, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), helped to defeat the sittings motion?

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend is right, and he is absolutely correct to say that the Liberal party does not show the consistency in these matters of which I am accused, although such consistency seems to me correct.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Will the Secretary of State accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) clearly shares the views of many Conservative Members—views of which the Secretary of State was clearly not aware? He needs time over the recess to digest the content not only of the report but of the views of his own party. Only when that has been done and there has been a debate on Stansted and on putting airports into the regions, where they and the jobs are needed, will the House be in a fit state to consider the Bill again, either in Committee or on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Ridley

Yes, but it will be of considerable comfort to my hon. Friends whose constituencies are situated around Heathrow to be able to point out that the Liberal party is not in favour of protecting their environment but has voted against proceeding with the Bill which would have had that effect, and that the Liberal party is more interested in frustrating the majority of the House than in protecting that environment.

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

May I thank and congratulate my right hon. Friend on making this decision. It will enable us to consider all questions relating to airports in a saner and more realistic way.

Mr. Ridley

I thank my hon. Friend and express the pious hope that when the Government finally bring forward across-the-board proposals for airports he will express that same support.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The Secretary of State has made it clear that the problem is about peak air traffic movements. Will he tell the House why the Government are making plans to deal with peak air problems and not with continuous and urgent problems for public expenditure on housing and health?

Mr. Ridley

The Bill under discussion has no implications for public expenditure. Also, it is not only an airport peak problem. The powers in the Bill would enable the Government to impose the environmental limit on Heathrow, as is the pledge given by predecessors in my office and which the people living around Heathrow expect the Government to give.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

We on the Standing Committee are certainly keen that my right hon. Friend's quasi-judicial position should in no way be prejudiced but would it not have been better had he come to the House and said unequivocally that he intended to withdraw the Bill in its entirety until he had decided on an airports policy? Any fudging of the air transport movements limit question is impossible as in paragraph 1A of the report the inspector says that the 275,000 limit is unjustifiable on environmental grounds because the noise criteria will no longer apply as from next year there will be new noise regulations and quieter engines. Furthermore, the air traffic control considerations will not apply — the scheduling committee itself gave that evidence to the Transport Committee. Will not my right hon. Friend listen to the advice of British Airways, which also says that the limit is entirely unjustifiable?

Mr. Ridley

Surely the boot is on the other foot. Would not my hon. Friend be prepared to listen to the other side of the case that he has just put and to the reasons why to have proceeded with the Bill would not have had the effect that he fears and would certainly not have prejudiced the decision on Stansted? Instead of being prepared to listen to those arguments, he preferred to vote in favour of the debate being terminated. Does that mean that he does not have quite the faith in his own arguments that he suggests?

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

Given that the Secretary of State has had to bow to the democratic process brought about by his hon. Friends and by my hon. Friends and has had to accept the need for a proper review of airports policy and a debate on the Floor of the House, will he also guarantee that the democratic process will be maintained and that there will be a vote in the House on a motion on Stansted and that he will agree to be bound by that decision?

Mr. Ridley

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is listening to this interchange of views, has made it clear that there will be a debate on the Stansted terminal 5 issue. I am sure that I am right to leave the form and nature of that debate to him.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it would be entirely wrong to allow the opinions of the planning inspector, who is no more than an adviser and whose report differed from that of the previous inspector who reported on the fourth terminal, to override the clear commitments of the Government to millions of people living around Heathrow?

Mr. Ridley

I agree that it is difficult when two distinguished inspectors reach entirely opposite views on the matter, but the Government have tried to secure the legislation that is necessary to impose such a limit and, as my hon. Friend knows only too well, we could not have tried harder. If we do not succeed, he will know precisely who is to blame. May I make it clear that it was not only three of my hon. Friends but a large number of Opposition Members—[HON. MEMBERS: "All of us."] All of them. That is why my hon. Friend's constituents may have difficulty in the future.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

May I say as a member of the Committee how glad I am to see the Secretary of State relieved of his considerable embarrassment and let off the hook? To see him squirm during two separate sittings was an extremely uncomfortable experience for hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to look at the substantial claims of the regions. Some of us view the Bill and the Stansted report as a further attempt to hijack resources from the south-east of England when vast regions in Britain are suffering from very substantial unemployment. Decentralisation of air services would lead to substantial employment at airports in the regions which could do with the substantial investment that the Government clearly intend to put into Stansted and possibly into a fifth terminal at Heathrow.

As someone who has spent five years going twice a week to and from Heathrow when I live only 10 minutes from an airport, may I say that it is high time that we made use of the substantial resources that already exist at, for instance, Cardiff airport?

Mr. Ridley

Nothing would please me more than to see greater expansion and prosperity in all of Britain's regional airports. I have some good news for the hon. Lady: considerable extra investment for Cardiff airport has been approved this afternoon. That makes it harder for me to understand why the hon. Lady is not in favour of discussing a Bill which would have limited the number of flights into Heathrow. Without such a limit, presumably more flights will go into Heathrow and fewer into Cardiff.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall endeavour to call the hon. Members who have been standing, because I know that this is an important matter for their constituencies and for themselves, but I think that we should move on at half-past four.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

In considering his decision on the Eyre report, will my right hon. Friend take fully into account the increase in aircraft size? If he does, he will appreciate that it is terminal capacity at Heathrow that will be the problem in the 1990s and beyond and not runway capacity. Will he acknowledge that the decision—I hope that he can give us a better idea of when it is likely to be made—will have a profound effect on the date on which we can sell the shares in British Airways to the general public?

Mr. Ridley

I cannot comment on the contents of the inspector's report, as that would be to prejudge our decision, nor can I tell my hon. Friend when it is likely that my right hon. Friend and I will be in a position to make that decision. That would be pure speculation. But I repeat that none of the matters that the House has been discussing this afternoon is remotely connected with the privatisation of British Airways.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

As one of the members of the Committee which delayed the Committee proceedings on the Bill, I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the fact that I was one of the many who supported the principle of the Bill and still do. I have never accepted that to give my right hon. Friend the powers necessarily meant that the 275,000 limit or other matters were cast in stone. We in this House must accept that we have a responsibility to view carefully and fully all matters that are relevant to the Bills that we are working on, and in this case it was nonsense to believe that we could not study, at least in some depth, the report on Stansted before we went into Committee. I believe that when the Committee reconvenes it will be much better equipped to argue fully the amendments already tabled and many others. Then we shall see Parliament working at its best.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking the sensible position that, after having a chance to study the inspector's report, it would have been wise to proceed to debate the Bill, because so many of the questions which have been raised this afternoon and outside the House could well have been addressed in the debate on the substance of the Bill.

Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

In the spirit of the season, may I thank the Secretary of State for saying this afternoon that the Bill will at least be postponed? When the debate on Stansted does take place, will he, first, identify the date on which the pledge on Heathrow which has been referred to was first given to this House rather than referred to outside and, secondly, will he agree that we should have a free vote on the issue of Stansted?

Mr. Ridley

I cannot without notice give the exact date when my predecessor, Sir John Nott, gave the pledge, but I point out to my hon. Friend that a pledge, whether given inside or outside the House, is interpreted as a pledge by the world at large, and little distinction is made. A pledge is dependent upon the person who utters it rather than the place where it is uttered. My hon. Friend's second point about a free vote is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his usual wisdom in withdrawing the Bill at this stage? However, I am sure that I am not alone in being considerably alarmed that he persists in the view that there has to be a limit at Heathrow. Will my right hon. Friend agree that he is a supporter of the market and that the market determines these things, and that the airlines themselves are the best judges of whether Heathrow should be expanded? Will he assure the House that he will not repeat the remark that he made on BBC Radio 4 the other night to the effect that, without these powers, there will be chaos at Heathrow next summer, because that will manifestly not be the case and it will not help the debate?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, but Heathrow is within 10 per cent. of its total physical capacity. At certain times of the day in the busy season there is already a conflict between different aeroplanes which wish to land at the same time. For safety reasons, if for no other, the time will soon come when there must be some form of control. As no powers exist for that, we must proceed to take them sooner or later.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement seems to be a rational way forward? Will he bear in mind that a great many people in the south and east midlands are very much in favour of Stansted and hope that he will make an early decision in favour of it?

Mr. Ridley

I must not say anything in response to my hon. Friend's kind words that would suggest that I had any preconceived ideas about the decision on the inspector's report.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents, together with many other constituents who live in the vicinity of Heathrow, will congratulate him on his strong stand—

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

He has just lost.

Dr. Glyn

Not yet — in confirming what the Government have promised on numerous occasions, and as recently as 1984?

Mr. Ridley

The derision and mirth with which the Opposition seem to greet the news that those living around Heathrow may have to suffer increased noise and disturbance show an absolutely cynical disregard both for the Government's pledges and for the interests of 500,000 people, some of whom my hon. Friend represents.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

I deeply regret the need to delay the progress of the Civil Aviation Bill and I welcome the Secretary of State's constructive and measured statement, but will he confirm that the pledge given to the country in 1979 by his predecessor was given on the basis of noise nuisance and the damage to the environment? If so, will he please tell the British Airports Authority that he will not tolerate its proposal for an increase in landing charges of 244 per cent. for the quietest private domestic scheduled airlines, and the removal of all charges entirely for the noisiest international jets?

Mr. Ridley

I cannot tell the British Airports Authority anything unless Parliament grants me the relevant powers to do so.

Mr. Steen

My right hon. Friend has them.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

May I welcome the fact that the reintroduction of the Civil Aviation Bill will not occur until after debate and decision on the Stansted report? May I also express the hope that that will ensure time for thorough, fruitful and rational discussion of the Bill's implications for the small airlines, the south-east and the regional airlines?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said today, though I was not quite so grateful last Tuesday. I hope that it will be possible to have thorough, fruitful and rational discussions on these issues, although I slightly regret that we could not have them on the Bill, which would have been an excellent vehicle for that purpose.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that much further delay in this matter is likely to lead to the establishment of the third London airport and the business that it attracts not at Stansted or Manchester, but at Schiphol?

Mr. Ridley

I fear that my hon. Friend is talking of a real possibility. That is why I hope that when we return to our discussions on the Bill we shall do so in the context of an airports policy which will allow the House to permit the Bill to make progress.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

I thank my right hon. Friend for taking today the judicious decision that he has announced to the House. In pursuit of that judicious decision, and in the obvious desire for a rational discussion on airports policy, will he persuade the Leader of the House that there should be a debate on a substantive motion relating to the Stansted report before the Committee stage of the Bill is resumed?

Mr. Ridley

Grateful as I am to my hon. Friend, that must be a question for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. We will certainly wish to hear everything that the House has to say. As my hon. Friend knows, we will not be able to contribute matters of substance to the debate because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and myself will in the end have to make the ultimate decision, and we must not prejudice that decision.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Will my right hon. Friend give me guidance as to what I should say to the representatives of Humberside airport when I meet them if the Bill eventually reaches the statute book in its present form? Can I give them the assurance that flights from Humberside to Heathrow will continue?

Mr. Ridley

Yes; I think that there would be no difficulty in my hon. Friend doing so. I should have liked to have had the opportunity of giving many such reassurances, had we been able to proceed with the debate on the Bill.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

Will my right hon. Friend remember that many millions of people live within a short travelling distance of Manchester airport and that they would welcome an opportunity to debate how that most profitable airport should be allowed to develop free of all restrictions?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government have repeatedly made it clear that they would like to see everything possible done to allow all the regional airports, including Manchester, to expand their traffic and to grow. However, I hardly think that that question arises on the Bill.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn Hatfield)

As one who is opposed to the expansion of Stansted as London's third airport, may I ask my right hon. Friend to give to my constituents a pledge that we shall have debates both before and after the Government decision?

Mr. Ridley

I am not able, or willing, to prejudice the position of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. He has listened to every word that has been said today and will, I am sure, take note of them.