HC Deb 27 January 1986 vol 90 cc736-40

Ordered, That, at this day's sitting, the Airports Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

Mr. Parris

There should be some method whereby the British Airports Authority could be compensated when, against its will, something that would not be in its commercial interest is forced upon it by the Government.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill includes the directions to be given by the Secretary of State in relation to facilities that he believes should be made available to passengers? That could involve the British Airports Authority in extremely onerous tasks and expense, for which it would have no redress.

Mr. Parris

That is contained in clause 58. As my hon. Friend has raised the matter, there is no need for me to repeat the point. However, in clause 27(b) (2)(c) the Secretary of State can make directions when he believes it is necessary to facilitate the discharge of any international obligation. I am not sure who defines an international obligation, whether it has a strictly legal meaning or whether the Foreign Office can say what it believes the international obligation to be. I hope that that point will be teased out further in Committee.

Clause 39 is also worrying. It provides for the regular review every five years by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission of surprisingly detailed aspects of management of the BAA. We are not surprised to hear that landing charges will be subject to review, but I was surprised to read in subsection 2(2)(ii) that it applies to other activities of the BAA. The revenues and costs of those activities are taken into account by the authority in fixing charges. Given that landing charges make up a part of the total revenue of the authority I would have supposed that anything that costs the authority money or brings it revenue can be said to contribute towards the fixing of landing charges. The clause gives the Monopolies and Mergers Commission considerable powers to monitor and oversee the authority, which is inconsistent with the need to allow the BAA to manage.

I have no doubt that the Treasury will complain that that practice will reduce the asking price that the Government can quote for the authority, because it implies strict control of profits. However, I do not complain about that, because that is not the purpose of selling the British Airports Authority. The clause interferes with the freedom of the management to manage. The Office of Fair Trading. which can consider such matters, would have been sufficient to do the job.

There has been much discussion about whether local. authorities should be forced to "company-ise" their airports. Will the Minister consider the case where a local. authority is prepared to franchise the management of its airport and put the management out to tender so that a private company can manage the airport? In such a case there might be no need to oblige the airport to adopt the company structure, because it is franchising the airport to another company with a profitable company structure. That should not be written into the Bill, but I would appreciate my right hon. Friend's thoughts on the matter at a later stage.

One argument against the Bill is that Britain is the first country to think of doing this. It was one of the first countries to develop flying machines and the first to develop a commercial jet aeroplane. The claims for this Bill are much more modest than the advances recognised by those two inventions, but it has its merits and the fact that Britain was the first to recognise them is a cause for pride rather than shame.

10.5 pm

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

If a Ridleyism was defined as locking oneself into an ideological trap and then writing a Bill with so many escape routes as to provoke the anger even of one's hon. Friends, this Bill is full of Ridleyisms. The Secretary of State has listened to a series of hon. Members telling him that, although they support the overall principle, they have many doubts about individual clauses and the Bill's implementation. In his opening speech, the Secretary of State failed completely to give satisfactory reasons for the inclusion of those ideological hiccups.

However, it is not my brief to cover up for the Secretary of State. The Bill is shot through with nonsense. Indeed, many of its provisions are not only nonsense but would actively damage our airport system. What do we make of a Secretary of State who, in response to a question from one of his hon. Friends as to whether local authority airports would be at a competitive disadvantage were they not privatised, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Yes, but it is for the local authorities to do something about it."?

The Secretary of State should not need reminding of the fact that he is charged with the nation's airport policy, and if he believes that those airports would be better if they were privatised, he should tell the House the truth, and tell us when he intends to privatise them, since the provisions of the Bill give him the power and the ability to do so. Although he became a little upset by the earlier suggestion that the power to privatise was explicit in the Bill, he cannot deny that the power is already implictly defined in many clauses.

Although the Bill has caused great anguish in Manchester, it causes anxiety to many other local authority airports. In recent months in Manchester, the dirty tricks brigade, working from Conservative party head office downwards, has put heavy pressure on local councillors and attempted to sabotage agreements that were nearly reached in the Greater Manchester area. We saw the unedifying spectacle of the Conservative leader of Trafford borough council, who had proposed a plc structure for Manchester airport, being reprimanded by some ideological backwoodsmen and put under great pressure from local Members of Parliament, thus forcing him to break his word, given with the agreement of his group on the council, that a plc would be set up.

Interestingly, the Conservative groups in most of the districts of Greater Manchester were happy with the agreement. There was no split among the bulk of greater Manchester authorities, but one highly ideological group in one area managed to sabotage an agreement that would have been in the interests of the entire area. The Secretary of State, who encouraged that—I am fully aware of the exchanges between his Department and the local authorities—now takes to himself powers under clauses 14 and 20 to strangle a local authority airport if its performance does not conform to his desires. He could strangle it very easily under clause 14 should that local authority not come forward with a company structure that suits the demands of the Secretary of State.

The Bill would allow the Secretary of State to impose an insistence that shares be sold off, that in effect the company should be privatised. Do I detect a sign of life? Is the Secretary of State shaking his head at that? Does he want to argue this point on clause 14 about whether or not he has such powers? If he could give us a reply to that, it would be reassuring to the people in areas with local authority airports.

What is more sinister and worrying is that the Secretary of State has taken powers under clause 20 to guarantee that local authority airports will not have access to the capital market. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) when I questioned him about this, seemed to be either indifferent or not aware that that was the case. The hon. Gentleman dismissed the point by saying, "This is how local authorities always operate." If Manchester airport is to develop, it must have access(to finance on an equivalent basis to other airports.

If this Conservative Government of ours are adamant that competition is the right way to go, why do they not allow Manchester airport to compete on equal terms? If the Government are insistent upon the efficiency of free market mechanisms, why do they not allow the free market financiers to decide whether investment in Manchester airport would be efficient or not? Surely that is the test, the attitude of would-be investors, and not an insistence by the Secretary of State to truncate development with what can only be one aim in mind—to force privatisation on local authorities, of whatever political complexion, which will be reluctant to have it.

The right hon. Gentleman knows Greater Manchester will be reluctant, and particularly the city of Manchester, because it took the risk and played the entrepreneurial role. We hear a lot of talk about that on the Government side. Manchester did that, and the Government are now saying that Manchester airport and the authority will not be allowed to take advantage of the profits that their risk in the past have brought to fruition. That is the dishonesty about the whole operation. It is dishonest because the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends do not believe this nonsense about a wider share of ownership for all the people, because we already have that share. We already own the asset of Manchester airport through our capacity as ratepayers. He and his hon. Friends want rich pickings for their rich friends and nothing for the rest of us.

Mr. Cash

Will the hon. Gentleman admit that the matter at issue here is prosperity for the consumer in relation to airport policy? Everything he says is based on a Socialist doctrine, but what matters to the consumer is the value he gets for his money. This Bill provides an opportunity for people at local authority and airports authority level to get something that represents value for money.

Mr. Lloyd

That is an interesting idea, but it is not in keeping with what the Secretary of State has said. He said that the interests of the company should take precedence over the interests of councils. There was no mention there of the consumer or the regional interests. If the hon. Gentleman is interested in the needs of our airports, he should bear in mind that an airport is increasingly a vital part of our national economy and should not be divided for the advantage of individual consumers.

The single-minded doctrinaire approach of Government Members is fundamentally damaging to the future of an airports policy. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about the interests of the consumer perhaps he could explain why the Secretary of State proposes to sell off as a monopoly the British Airports Authority, which many hon. Gentlemen opposite have complained about. In many senses they have complained rightly, because there are inherent dangers for the consumer in that sort of structure.

Mr. Cash

The laws of competition apply equally to an airports policy as they apply to anything else, and that is as a result of the treaty of Rome. If the hon. Gentleman does not know that, he has not studied the Bill or its implications.

Mr. Lloyd

If we had a system in which competition was incapable of working, the hon. Gentleman would still wish to pursue his ideological claptrap in such a way as to prove that it is a completely imperfect situation for all concerned. That surely is the case.

I move on, conveniently prompted by the hon. Gentlman, to the BAA.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

My hon. Friend should bear in mind that when an intervention comes his way which is a pearl in its own setting, he should be able to reply to the word "competition" by asking who the competitor is to BAA. It will be a private monopoly. We have not yet heard whether any competitor exists.

Mr. Lloyd

If I had the experience of my hon. Friend, I am sure that I would have answered the intervention in that way. However, whoever replies to the hon. Gentleman is still replying to an argument shot through with nonsense and many ideological non sequiturs.

Mr. Litherland

Will my hon. Friend advise the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) of the initiative of our forefathers in bringing about the airport, the ship canal, the clean air legislation and the water authority? Where will such initiatives come from when enterprises are likely to be privatised at a later date by Conservatives?

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend is right. Such legislation is not only galling but disgusting. No recognition is given to our entrepreneurial ability and to those who took the risks and provided the risk capital. Conservative Members are not interested in that side of the theories. They are simply interested in the snouts in the trough, the rich pickings for their rich friends, and, no doubt, the rich pickings for some of the hon. Members who take part in our debates. That is what the public in Manchester and many other places will recognise.

The position of the BAA has already been strongly criticised by Conservative Members. Some have justified the system of cross-subsidisation under which Stansted will be allowed to continue as a necessary initial investment. That is an interesting idea, but it shows that, however little that airport is needed at present, however that issue was thought to have been resolved in the House a year ago, all that will now be ripped up by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has now sabotaged all the assurances that people thought had been given in the early debates on Stansted, and which we thought we had on the possibility of the development of regional airports, whether in Scotland or the north of England. The Secretary of State says that he will reply on transparency to prevent cross-subsidisation. He kids nobody but himself if he really belives that.

Perhaps the final and most ridiculous ideological non sequitur in the Bill is that the Secretary of State—who claims, but timidly, to be an apostle of the free market —arrogates to himself such tremendous powers in the Bill that almost any aspect of airport policy can be overriden by the diktat of the Secretary of State. That is the Government revealed in their true colours. The Government mouth the language, and sometimes practise the obscenities, of private entreprise and the free market economy, but when it comes to the final reality they grab themselves powers more dictatorial than those possessed by many Governments of nations which we would describe as centralist and which are not prepared to let local initiative thrive. Those powers kill and attempt to snuff local initiatives and the achievements of local government and have not been replaced by a more democratic private sector, even if that were philosophically possible. That has been replaced by the diktat of the Secretary of State.

The fact that many Conservative Members who represent or claim to represent contituencies in the northwest of England will tonight march through the Lobby in support of the Secretary of State will not go unremarked in their area when they betray the investment of their communities over many years.

Forward to