HC Deb 02 July 1986 vol 100 cc1109-16

Lords amendment: No. 11, in page 22, line 11, leave out from "security" to end of line 13 and insert— (2A) The Secretary of State may give to the appropriate person in relation to any airport a direction requiring that person (according to the circumstances of the case)—

  1. (a) to do, or not to do, in connection with any operational activities relating to the airport a particular thing specified in the direction, or
  2. (b) to secure that a particular thing specified in the direction is done or not done in connection with any such activities,
if the Secretary of State considers it necessary or expedient to give such a direction in order to discharge or facilitate the discharge of any international obligation of the United Kingdom. (2B) In subsection (2A)— the appropriate person", in relation to an airport, means—
  1. (a) the airport operator; or
  2. (b) an associated company of the airport operator; and
operational activities", in relation to an airport, means any activities—
  1. (a) which are carried out on wholly or mainly for the benefit of users of the airport, or
  2. (b) the revenues from which are wholly or mainly attributable to payments by such users;
but the Secretary of State may by order make such modifications of the definition of "operational activities" as he thinks necessary or expedient having regard To any international obligation of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Michael Spicer

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 12 to 14, 18, 19, 22, 23, 27 to 38, 48, 72, 82, 84, 86, 87 and 92.

Mr. Spicer

There is a long list of amendments. I shall not go through them all in detail. However, there are one or two points which I think that the House would want me to make. I shall do so as briefly as I can. This apparently complex set of amendments deals with two related circumstances where an airport operator might not carry out airport-related activities himself—for instance, if an associated company carried on commercial activities, or if an intermediary company granted concessions for airport-related activities.

Amendments 11 to 14 deal with the first strand of the associated company problem — how to secure the discharge of the United Kingdom's international obligations in circumstances where an operator does not control the whole of an airport's business. If, for good commercial reasons, a decision were taken in future that the airport operator should manage only the aeronautical side of the business while a separate associated company managed the commercial side, a power of direction over just the airport operator could be insufficient to secure the discharge of the United Kingdom's international obligations. It would clearly be wrong for an airport group to receive all the benefits of those commercial activities without also being bound by the obligations that go with the business of running an international office. It would be equally wrong for the power of direction to be deficient. Amendment No. 11, therefore, extends the power of direction to an airport operator's associated company.

Amendment No. 11 also defines power with respect to "operational activities". They are defined to encompass the whole of the airport-related business, since there is no justification for allowing the power of direction to extend to activities which may be totally unconnected with the business of running an airport. Because our international obligations might change in the future, the definition is amenable by order, subject to negative resolution of both Houses of Parliament. This means that the power of direction will be extendable as far as our international obligations require, whatever may happen in the future.

The second strand of associated company problems relates to economic regulation. Since regulation is targeted on the airport operator, the same problem could arise in that an associated company could not be regulated under the terms of the Bill. It is clearly not right that an airport group could enjoy the financial benefits of commercial activities from a monopoly position without also being subject to the regulatory safeguards provided for in part IV. Amendment No. 92 closes that loophole by allowing the CAA to impose conditions direct on an associated company.

Amendments Nos. 18, 22, 23 and 32 to 35 introduce the more clear and precise phrase "operational activities" to all the clauses in part IV which refer to the whole airport-related business. Amendments Nos. 72, 84 and 86 allow clauses 28 and 38 to be extended to the Channel Islands and overseas territories by Order in Council.

Amendments Nos. 19, 27 to 31 and 36 are designed to deal with circumstances where the airport operator does not himself grant franchises or concessions to others to carry out operational activities but interposes an intermediary — for instance, a company specialising in franchising to do so on his behalf. In such a case, it would not be possible, under the Bill as it stands, to impose conditions on an airport operator to remedy the adverse effects of any monopoly abuse at the end of a chain of franchises. These amendments close that loophole.

I draw the attention of the House in particular to amendments Nos. 37 and 38 which fulfil a commitment made by the Government on Report in this House to meet the concerns of several hon. Members—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) — about the protection against monopoly abuse offered by the Bill to concessionaires at airports. The amendments provide that, where the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is investigating a matter which relates to the granting of concessions, then, in addition to the objectives in clause 31—which include furthering the reasonable interests of airport users — it should have regard also to the furtherance of the reasonable interests of concessionnaires. We believe that this provides the right degree of guidance to the MMC at the point it needs it without keeping the balance on its objectivity in one direction. We made that commitment and we have now honoured it.

I commend all these rather technical amendments to the House.

Mr. Robert Hughes

As the Under-Secretary of State said in his peroration, a series of technical amendments are included in this group. I must admit that I was slightly confused when we jumped from national security and relations with a territory outside the United Kingdom to franchise holders at airports, all under one group of amendments. That is not, of course, any criticism of the choice of amendments.

I was slightly worried by the introduction of the Under-Secretary of State when he said that there might be two separate companies—one operating the commercial side of the business and the other operating the aeronautical side. We have always been worried, with the proposed privatisation of the British Airports Authority, that something like this would happen. It is clear that the most lucrative part of the BAA's business is not the aeronautical side but the franchises and commercial activities. It has always been our concern that the commercial activities might be milked off in some sort of asset-stripping arrangements but that is a fairly general point.

I want specifically to raise the issue of security with the Minister because I certainly do not object to anything the Secretary of State might do to try to protect national security in time of war. I do not think that there is any quarrel on either side of the House about that. However, I think that the clause is a rather cumbersome way of going about it. I would have thought that in time of war in the interest of national security there was probably adequate existing legislation without this great long cumbersome clause now amended in the Bill.

10.30 pm

I wonder what representations the Minister has had recently from, for example, the airports or the airlines, about the cost of security at our airports, which is growing as each week and month goes by. I do not think that we object to the fact that security is increasing in cost. Clearly modern technological changes will require better security equipment and certainly, so long as there is a security threat, we must have the necessary equipment and training. We do know that the new equipment will be extremely expensive. I hope that the Minister will look at that and discuss fully with the British Airports Authority and the relevant airlines how security might be improved and paid for. I am not asking him this evening for a commitment about who pays for security or anything like that. However, I hope that he will give an undertaking that he will discuss, or perhaps continue discussions, on what is a growing problem in terms of security and cost.

I wonder whether the Minister saw "Panorama" on Monday night. I did not see it myself but I know that it was a very worrying programme. I know that in a written answer the Minister has said that he is stepping up training and I am glad to hear that. However, basically I am concerned at the fact that the programme put a security man through a series of tests and he managed to pick out from a number of items of baggage all the things that had been planted for him to find except three. It so happened that the three he missed were suitcases containing plastic explosive. Clearly, it must be a matter of serious concern to see that we have the equipment to find that out.

My concern, in addition to security, is that if any part of that programme is shown in the United States it will do nothing to help the tourist trade and airline traffic, which as we know, is severely down from the United States. If people feel that there might be deficiencies in our security arrangements it will certainly not help to persuade people that there is no danger in coming to this country. I wonder whether the Minister might say something about that.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

It is right that security is tremendously important and we must ensure that our security is the best we can manage. However, would the hon. Member agree that the new arrangements that the British Airports Authority has introduced in terminal I are discouraging tourists from travelling on domestic services because of the delays that are taking place? They are causing such disruption to the airlines that planes are going without the passengers? Would he agree that the British Airports Authority must find a better way of speeding passengers through? There are four machines in terminal 1, but only one or two are ever working? Surely something should be done there.

Mr. Hughes

I was not going to mention that, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised it. I have made my own representations to the British Airports Authority because the new arrangements are appalling for the passengers. There is now a nice little notice up saying that the authority is sorry it is taking a long time but it is recruiting more staff, please bear with it. I object to the change in the security arrangements. Previously, if one was flying the shuttle the security was done at the shuttle. If one was on British Midland, there were separate security arrangements. If one was on an internal domestic flight, there was a hank of two machines that one used to go through. That seemed to work quite well.

I have no doubt that the British Airports Authority has its reasons for having shifted the security system up front so that everybody goes through the same system. But on several occasions when I have been to Heathrow, I have found only two machines working at peak hours. One Friday evening, the queue was not just two deep, but eight or 10 deep, from the security point right back through the whole of terminal 1 to where people go for the European services. It was absolutely appalling. There was no warning.

Luckily, I did not have any baggage with me that evening. Perhaps I should not admit it, but I queue-jumped. I walked right past the queue, and through the individual machine. Heathrow has had its problems. They have not yet been satisfactorily resolved, but I hope that they soon will be. I do not blame the people there for trying to make the best security arrangements. Part of the problem is that they have started to do much more individual bag-searching. That is right.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Does not the hon. Gentleman feel, as a regular traveller like myself, because we have to go up and down every week, that the people at Heathrow have put the machines in the wrong place? Passengers do not know which aircraft is taking off from which gate at what time. That information is shown on the board before one reaches the security system, and the passengers have to wait to reach it before they go through security. That causes part of the bottleneck. That has been my experience—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is not in order to have a long discussion about the arrangements at Heathrow on this group of amendments. I hope that we shall direct our attention more narrowly to them.

Mr. Hughes

I do not want to go further down the road of discussing where the information is, and so on. That is going into far too much detail than the amendments warrant.

Under the amendment, the Secretary of State takes the power to direct the airport authorities to make various arrangements for national security. I agree that national security covers the security of all passengers who fly out. It is right that there should be some discussion of it.

I hope that the Minister will have something to say which is not of a palliative nature, to the effect that everything is all right. One of the things that may have provoked some of the queries about airport security is that the hon. Gentleman has sometimes put on too bland a profile about how good security was. We have to get the balance right. I hope that if the Minister saw "Panorama", he will say whether there is anything in that programme that might be of assistance to him, and whether he will do something about it under the clause.

Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

I am at least as confused as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) as to the impact of this group of amendments. I am not even sure that this is the correct place in which to make the single point upon which I would welcome a reply from my hon. Friend the Minister.

My hon. Friend will recall that in Committee and on Report, amendments were moved to try to make it a requirement on the part of the privatised British Airports Authority to discuss with the airlines, as the principal users of the airports, the basis upon which the facilities that the BAA will continue to have to provide will be provided. In another place, Lord Kinnoull moved an amendment to require such consultation to be provided. In response to Lord Caithness's suggestion that the amendment be withdrawn to allow discussions to take place to see whether a reasonable compromise could be achieved outside the Bill, I understand that the amendment was withdrawn.

Have such discussions taken place? If so, is it likely that the Bill will require those consultations to proceed, as all the British airlines would prefer? Or as we reach the end of the parliamentary passage of the Bill, are we forced to hope that the British Airports Authority will, out of the goodness of its heart, decide that it is in its interests to have such discussions before providing, or failing to provide, facilities which the airlines consider to be essential?

Like the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North, I was unable to see the "Panorama" programme, but I have no doubt from reading press reports that it raised serious matters to which we are duty bound to pay attention. However, does my hon. Friend agree that, although it might have made splendid television, it might have been in the interests of many passengers, who might become nervous in the extreme at the prospect of travelling as we enter the peak of the summer season, if "Panorama" and the BBC had made further inquiries as to whether other activities were taking place to which they could not be made privy? That might have presented a more balanced programme. I am not in favour of censorship on such matters, but I get the impression from what I hear of the programme that much concern has been caused. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in all the circumstances, the BBC might have done a better service to the travelling public and to the tourism and aviation industries if it had presented the position in a more balanced way?

Mr. Stephen Ross

As a member of the Select Committee on Transport, I welcome amendment No. 11. The Minister is worried about: security at airports, and he will know that a report from the Select Committee on security at airports, especially at Heathrow is either on his desk or about to reach him. I assure the House that we have considered the matter in great detail and that our report will be worth while. For the moment, we are reporting only to the Minister. The report will be published later.

I welcome the line that the Minister has taken on the amendment. I hope that the Select Committee's recommendations will find a niche in his views about the current position, which is not as satisfactory as it should be. There is no point in hiding the fact from the general public. I did not see the "Panorama" programme, but I have no doubt that it was overdone. I feel sorry for the BAA and the airlines, which must try to resolve problems that are almost unbearable. They cannot be dealt with to everyone's satisfaction. I have just returned from Istanbul, and I can report that the security at Istanbul airport is magnificent.

Mr. Steen

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the British Airports Authority does everything that it can to ensure safety at its airports. Does he agree that there is no limit to the amount of money that could be spent? But it is not the BAA's money, it is the airlines' money. Does he agree that if there must be increased security, its cost should not fall only on the airlines that fly from that terminal and that the Government should take some responsibility for that expenditure?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This has nothing to do with the amendments that are before the House.

Mr. Ross

If the hon. Gentleman is patient, he might discover that that is one recommendation of the Select Committee.

Mr. Michael Spicer

Before I deal with the points made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) may I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) that two points were implied in what he said. First, on the specific point of consultation, we shall issue an order when the relevant part of the Act comes into effect. If the thrust of my hon. Friend's questions was directed to mechanisms, capacity and consultation, these are matters that we shall discuss when we come to Lords amendments Nos. 58 and 88. I appreciate the difficulty of wading through this group of amendments while considering what it is all about.

10.45 pm

I say to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) that I respect the work that the Select Committee on Transport is doing on this subject. Its very existence and the thoroughness with which it has gone about its work have had beneficial effects. The Select Committee is acting in the best interests of all concerned. Much of its work has been unsung and has been done in privacy. That is in contrast to the way in which the Panorama programme approached the matter. To take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North, I suspect that that programme has made life more difficult for the British tourist industry and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to respond to his comments. I remind the House that the powers of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State over security in this context come under 1982 legislation and will not come under the parts of the Bill that deal with national security and security in exceptional circumstances.

It is right that a balance has to be struck. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) said, the security record of our airports is fantastic. It appears that Americans have been put off from coming to Britain from time to time, and over the past five years there have been 32 hijacks of aircraft originating from United States airports and four bomb attacks. In Britain, the comparable figure is zero.

Mr. Steen

I think that the House will want to pay tribute to the remarkable dedication of the staff at Heathrow and other airports in Britain who concern themselves with safety. As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, they have done a remarkable job. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should involve the airlines as well as the British Airports Authority in trying to find solutions to problems? When privatised, the authority should bring in the consumer in finding solutions. We should pay tribute to the sterling work that has been done.

Mr. Spicer


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Minister is leading the debate into a wide general discussion of airport security, which is out of order and unhelpful. I hope that he will set an example and address himself specifically to the amendments that are before the House.

Mr. Spicer

I hope that you will allow me to respond briefly to the debate which has taken place, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I tell my hon. Friend that responsibility lies with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. A committee that is comprised of the airlines advises on security.

British airports have a superb security record, but it is right that we should not be complacent. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North is right to press us on these matters and I think that I have responded satisfactorily to his remarks. The Government have taken a number of actions and if I were to refer to them in detail, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would rightly call me to order. We are with the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North in recognising the need for training and the provision of the best equipment and the necessary resources.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

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