HC Deb 20 June 1990 vol 174 cc1047-56

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 4, line 5, after "if" insert "without reasonable excuse".

11.40 pm
The Minister for Aviation and Shipping (Mr.Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

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

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

With this, it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 2, 14, 17 to 19, 23, 36 to 38.

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Do I understand that the Minister is seeking the leave of the House to move amendments Nos. 1 to 38 collectively?

Madam Deputy Speaker

No. The Minister is moving Lords amendment No. 1 and, by the leave of the House, speaking to the amendments on the Amendment Paper.

Mr. Redmond

I am in order, because some of the amendments do not go far enough. May we vote against the amendments that do not go far enough?

Madam Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may divide the House on any Lords amendment he wishes. Some may go too far, some not far enough; it is entirely up to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. McLoughlin

The amendments provide for the defence of reasonable excuse for continuing failure to comply with a direction or with an enforcement notice after initial conviction for failure to comply. A person charged with failing to comply with a direction or enforcement notice can call on the defence of reasonable excuse. It therefore seems logical that a reasonable excuse defence in respect of continuing offences should be available. A person may have reasonable excuse for continuing not to comply with a direction or enforcement notice even though he had no excuse at the time when he first failed to comply. An example of that is where an aerodrome manager is convicted of not operating an automatic pass reading system. When charged subsequently with continued failure to comply he could possibly cite as a reasonable excuse defence the inability of the manufacturer to produce equipment without which he could not comply with the direction.

The amendment received support in the other place and I urge the House to support it.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

As the Minister said, the matter was debated extensively in the other place and in Committee. It appeared to Labour Members to be only reasonable that these words should be added and we agree wholeheartedly with the explanation given by the Minister.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I am not absolutely sure that I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), particularly given the illustration that the Minister gave the House. He said it is a reasonable excuse for an airport manager to say that some piece of essential equipment was not working. If that were so, it might be his duty to cancel all flights until the safety of the passengers and aircraft were guaranteed.

I support the initiative taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond). Why must the words "with reasonable excuse" be inserted in the Bill? The House did not see fit to include those words in other legislation of equal importance. I had understood that the courts would decide whether an excuse was reasonable, and that the words would not necessarily be required to be inserted in the statute.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

During a recent dispute involving aircraft engineers, British Airways management allowed the use of smaller-than-usual bolts around the window fixing on a BAC 111, which led to a weakening of the window. The management could cite "industrial relations difficulties" as a reasonable excuse, which would not be acceptable. There was nearly a tragic end to the story. The bolts were supplied from Heathrow, although the window was fitted in Birmingham.

11.45 pm
Mr. Hardy

That is a very good illustration of the problem. It is right for such matters to be brought to the House's attention.

Mr. Snape

I am, as ever, reluctant to intervene in such a fascinating diversion from the Bill, but I must tell my hon. Friend that, after a fairly extensive debate in Committee, I fear that not even he—with his characteristic ingenuity—can convince me that the security duties at any airport in the United Kingdom include checking the windscreens of airliners. Perhaps he—or my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who has an even more distinguished record in regard to revealing such cases—can convince me after all, but, with the best will in the world, I cannot see the relevance of that example.

Mr. Hardy

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the sterling record of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) in the whole sphere of security. I spent part of the morning meeting members of the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, whose current experience—as the Minister will be well aware—does not convince me that the Government are particularly committed to the cause of safety. If my hon. Friend is right, and they are concerned about safety at airports, I can only regret that that deep concern does not extend further. But I do not want to strain your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. This not in the Bill.

Mr. Hardy

Indeed, it is not; I was merely making a passing reference.

Mr. Cryer

During industrial disputes, all sorts of reasons can be adduced. Although there is no direct connection, the fact that the Bill is connected with security would not prevent the actions of security men from being invoked as being perfectly proper—even if, during an industrial dispute, there was no reasonable excuse for those actions.

Mr. Hardy

I am glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend. Although I have no wish to detain the House, I shall give way again—to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley.

Mr. Redmond

The question of security could arise in relation to the maintenance of spare parts. As the recent incident involving the aircraft window demonstrates, aircraft work to fine tolerances. Let us suppose that someone gained access to the stores where material and spare parts are kept, and deliberately changed the bolts around. Every fitter assumes that the dimensions of a bolt—five-eights of an inch, for instance—are as they should be, and therefore will not bother to measure it.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. We have had a nice tour, but I think that the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) should now return to the amendment.

Mr. Hardy

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley is relevant—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. It is not.

Mr. Hardy

We are talking about the phrase "without reasonable excuse". If someone interferes with the stores and the wrong screw, nut, bolt or attachment is used, many people could be maimed or killed; however, it could provide someone with an excuse which is not acceptable and which does not apply under a vast proportion of the laws of the land.

I cannot understand why the Government are prepared to take a relaxed view by seeking to maintain the view adopted in the other place that the words "without reasonable excuse" can be added to the Bill. I am amazed that the Government should want to allow such superfluity to be part of the legislation.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

My hon. Friend is getting to a serious point. The inquiries into the recent near crash of the British Airways plane, when the wrong bolts were inserted in the window fittings, may reveal that the matter comes within the parameters of security. Clearly the fitting of the wrong bolts resulted in the screen blowing out and serious injury to the pilot and could have caused serious injury to many passengers.

Mr. Hardy

This is a serious matter. It was a serious matter for the pilot and it could have been serious for a large number of passengers. It is not a matter which we should treat lightly or about which we should make frivolous speeches. I do not wish to detain the House long.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Hardy

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that we are being frivolous in referring to these matters, he should have another think. We are not detaining the House long. I asked the Minister why these words should be added to the Bill when they are not added to many pieces of statute which may be of equal or greater importance. I am sure that the House would be grateful if the Minister could give the reasons, without again quoting the example which destroyed his case and which led me to join the debate rather than simply vote with my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. If the hon. Gentleman cannot offer a convincing and better reason, I suggest that my hon. Friend should maintain his determination to divide the House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

My hon. Friends have raised the issue of safety, linked to security, because of a fair argument. Recently, British Airways decided to impose a 12-hour shift. In doing so, it was endangering not only safety but security. Anyone would understand that, once the decision was made to tell the 7,000 workers that they had to work 12 hours, their output would not be the same as it would be over six, seven or eight hours.

This matter brings into focus what the amendment is about. The Government are saying that not only can British Airways impose a 12-hour shift but they will give it the opportunity to say that it has a reasonable excuse. Let us not beat about the bush on this matter. Can anyone say that the two aspects are not interrelated? My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) should make a much longer explanation because he has not convinced me.

Mr. Snape

I realise that convincing my hon. Friend of anything, particularly at 11.53 in the evening, is no easy task—

Mr. Skinner

I do not go in the bar—you do.

Hon. Members


Mr. Snape

I think that I can treat that remark by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) with the contempt that it deserves.

Mr. Skinner

That is what "late at night" means.

Madam Deputy Speaker


Mr. Snape

All I am saying to my hon. Friend, if I can retain his attention for a few more seconds before he goes out to wherever he is going, is that during the debates in Committee and in another place, these amendments referred purely to those matters that directly impinge on airport security. I admire my hon. Friend's ingenuity in raising these matters, but they do not arise directly out of our debates, or those in another place.

Mr. Skinner

But they do arise, because some people may not be wide awake after 12 hours, or at 11.53 pm. But I am. British Airways' decision to impose a 12-hour shift brings more clearly into focus what the Bill is about. Therefore, it is right to ask questions about the imposition of 12-hour shifts, which have a bearing on security. The management at Heathrow, doing somebody else's job, had to send the bolts to Birmingham. Management was trying to do the job of 7,000 people, so safety and security at Heathrow were jeopardised. The wrong bolts were sent to Birmingham and fitted to the windscreen. Somebody nearly lost his life when the windscreen blew out. The Minister must explain why it is necessary to give the power in the amendment—that of "without reasonable excuse"—when management is prepared, without reasonable excuse, to trample on the rights and conditions of workers at Heathrow and elsewhere. It is bound to affect safety and security.

We are right to draw the matter to the Minister's attention. We do not want Ministers to stand at the Dispatch Box when the next industrial dispute arises and say that people should work a 12-hour shift at Heathrow, thereby putting people's lives at risk, or that management should be allowed to do the jobs of 7,000 engineers.

Mr. Redmond

My hon. Friend referred to the Government's double standards. They claim that the amendment will improve safety. However, the Leader of the House said that the industrial dispute to which my hon. Friend referred had not put anyone in danger. We all know of the near-tragic consequences of the Government's indifference, due to their support of and collaboration with the management of British Airways.

Mr. Skinner

Let us suppose that in the event of another industrial dispute—British Airways doing what it did the other week, with a few hundred management staff carrying out the work of 7,000 engineers—some of the management staff are connected with security. If they do the engineers' job in order to break the strike, what will happen to security? The Minister must answer that question. Is he prepared to say that in those circumstances the defence of "without reasonable excuse" will not apply? British Airways' arrogant management might be prepared to do the same again. It should not be allowed to refer to the words "without reasonable excuse" and get away with what is literally murder.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

My hon. Friend is making a valid and important point. Can he interpret the words, "reasonable excuse" as they relate to strike breaking? Is he suggesting that those words would be intepreted by a judge to mean that if management became involved in strike breaking that would represent a reasonable excuse? Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an industrial relations matter that should not be dealt with in such a Bill?

Mr. Skinner

Of course I do. That is why the Government put it in. It would allow the management of British Airways or any other company to say, "We did not really want an incident involving security to occur, but we had reasonable excuse."

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have given the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) a long run now. I refer him to the clause that we are discussing which deals with the extension of power to require promotion of searches. I am sure that with his ingenuity he can return to the amendments before us.

12 midnight

Mr. Skinner

It is not a matter of needing ingenuity. I am trying to explain that in the event of an industrial dispute, if the management does what it did the other week, it can say to those working in security who are engaged in searches, "We are short of people here. We have 7,000 people on strike because we have tried to impose a 12-hour day. We have 400 management trying to do the jobs of those engineers, so we are asking you security people to come off your jobs, forget your searches and get involved in strike breaking." If the management can do that in one respect, as it did the other week, it can do it in another respect.

The amendment gives the nod and the wink to the judges so that in the event of an incident occurring the management would be able to say, "We had a reasonable excuse because we had to transfer security workers to do the engineers' work." That is what could happen in those circumstances. That is why we need an assurance from the Minister that those words would not apply in the event of an industrial dispute.

Mr. Redmond

It is becoming quite clear that we need to examine the amendment in a little more depth. We are all aware that when Bills are considered in Committee the Government will tolerate only a certain amount of discussion before they impose a guillotine. I listened intently to what the Minister said when he moved the amendment, but it was the usual civil service legal gobbledegook. The examples and explanations that he gave did not fill me with any confidence.

The amendment is crucial to the Bill and needs to be examined closely. I am concerned about the safety of my constituents. There is no doubt that security has been lax at our aerodromes through which people travel all over the world.

I take great objection to the argument relating to a "reasonable excuse". It gives management a blank cheque and enables managers to commit any misdemeanour or laxity in their duties and endanger security. A manager would be able to say to himself, "I shall not do it all. I shall not bother with my inspection. I shall get back to my tower and scan round the airport" because 12-hour shifts make people tired.

It is dangerous for the manager to do his job knowing that he can fall back on the "reasonable excuse". If workers do not do their jobs properly, they cannot fall back on a "reasonable excuse"; it is their problem. The management can pass the buck down the chain of command, but it stops at the poor lad on the shop floor when it could well be that the management is at fault. Over the years I have met many managers; there have been good managers and bad ones. I would not tolerate bad management and I hope that the Minister would not tolerate it either. He should remove the blank cheque—the reasonable excuse—provision in the amendment. We must make management accountable.

Much legislation since 1979 has made workers and trade unions accountable for what happens within their structure. Now, because of major accidents that have occurred for a variety of reasons, including terrorism and negligence, the Government are trying to improve security through this Bill. They have taken a tiny step instead of a gigantic leap. If they had taken a gigantic leap, this amendment, all the other amendments and the Bill itself would have fallen flat on the floor.

I shall gladly give way to the Minister if he wants to respond to me. I am not willing to accept an amendment that gives bad or slack management the opportunity to slip through the net. Management should be as accountable as anyone else and that applies to managers and blue collar workers. Even at this late stage, I hope that the Minister will consider what we have said tonight.

The Minister spoke for only about 60 seconds about the important matter of security. That was not good enough. He should give a detailed explanation of why the amendment should be passed. I care about my constituents and I will not tolerate the blank cheque approach and the Government's reasonable excuse provision. No civilised society would accept such a blank cheque on security. When the folly of the amendment becomes apparent the Opposition will be pressing for statements on incidents that will arise as a result of the reasonable excuse provision.

No doubt the Government will fetch out the troops to ensure that the amendment is passed, but the Minister should study seriously whether we are making any progress as a result of the amendment. The people who travel from or to British airports have a right to expect first-class security. They will not get that with the amendment, because it gives management, which is supposed to supervise and ensure that regulations and legislation such as this measure are carried out, a blank cheque. It is unacceptable for the House to pass a lowering of standards.

The reasonable excuse defence lets the management and the Government off the hook. If an incident occurred and the management invoked the reasonable excuse provision the Government would behave like Pontius Pilate. They would say that the Opposition accepted the situation that gave management a reasonable excuse. The management is there to manage according to the law.

The Minister cannot claim that the worker at the bottom of the ladder must accept every tiny piece of legislation that passes through the House. The worker is accountable and can be sacked or hauled before the courts for breaching the laws of this land. It will be a case of one law operating for the lad at the bottom and another for the people at the top. We should not have double standards. We should treat everyone the same. If the "reasonable excuse" provision is included, it gives the impression—

Mr. Cohen

I should like to hear my hon. Friend's interpretation of the phrase "reasonable excuse". As a result of the Government's high interest rate policy, for example, many people may not have the money to go on trips and to fly and there might not be enough bums on seats. In those circumstances, the aircraft company might not be making enough profit and might therefore cut the numbers of staff who do the security searches. Does my hon. Friend think that those not unlikely circumstances come within the "reasonable excuse" get-out?

Mr. Redmond

I am conscious of what you said previously, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend makes a good point. The first duty of any company is to ensure that a dividend is paid to the shareholders. Regrettably, in the past, industry has been allowed to decline and there has not been any investment. My hon. Friend's point is therefore valid because if people are frightened to use those airports and aeroplanes, financial factors begin to come into play. One of the first things that a company will do is to get shot of some staff at the bottom end to save wages. To save money, managements always say, "Let's get rid of some of the lads at the bottom." Of course, that also means that management salaries can increase as a result of that cost-efficiency exercise.

Regrettably, history shows many examples of managements refusing to invest in safety—safety comes a very poor second to profit. However, because of legislation that the House is about to pass—I am certain that the Government will not withdraw the Lords amendment—there are added implications for the future. I hope that the Minister will give a more detailed explanation of the other amendments that we are to consider and the Government's view of them. I did not serve on the Standing Committee and should like an explanation now. Perhaps if we received that, we could avoid a number of Divisions tonight, although we shall certainly seek to divide the House on this amendment.

Mr. Harry Barnes Derbyshire, North-East)

I wish to make two brief points only. First, the "without reasonable excuse" provision appears in this bunch of amendments no fewer than 10 times. The Bill is therefore shot through with it. However—this is my second point—it has already appeared earlier in the Bill and is of particular significance to the first amendment. It is possible that in court the "reasonable excuse" defence could be used in connection with the offences that are referred to in this clause. On summary conviction, someone could therefore be fined, in accordance with the provisions of clause 2(3). However, subsection (4) to which Lords amendment No. 1 relates, which seeks to add the "without reasonable excuse" provision, deals with further offences. That means that a person could have been convicted by a court despite using the defence that there was a "reasonable excuse" for what had been done. But that has been overturned. Following conviction, however, the same defence is available for similar occurrences. That enables excuses to be built upon excuses. There would be a serious problem where there was found to be danger, someone was convicted and the offence was repeated. These considerations apply to 10 amendments that extend throughout the Bill. As I have said, the excuse can be built upon and multiplied. This worries my hon. Friends and I a great deal.

2.15 am
Mr. McLoughlin

I find it deplorable that Opposition Members seek to link a tragic accident that is under investigation by the air accident investigation branch with a lack of care by the management about its staff and the way in which it operates. I find that approach deplorable but not surprising, because of some of the quarters that have adopted it. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the accident as it is under investigation. Anyone with close links with the aviation industry would not contemplate that management would put crew—its employees—and passengers at risk at any stage. Any suggestion to the contrary is deplorable and I dissociate myself from it. I am sure that when Opposition spokesmen think about it they will take the same view as I do.

It is ludicrous that an attempt is being made to circumvent enforcement notice legislation. I must give some praise to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) for drawing attention to current legislative provisions. It would be nonsensical for such provisions not to apply in later parts of the Bill.

At the beginning of the debate I gave the example of an aerodrome manager who is convicted of not operating an automatic reading system. If his defence is that manufacturers were unable to produce the piece of equipment that he required, I think that that would be a reasonable excuse. It is not for me, however, to say what is a reasonable excuse. That is a matter for the courts to decide once a charge is brought against an operator for failing to comply with a direction. The courts could decide that there was a reasonable excuse even if it did not apply to statute law.

I am surprised by some of the comments that have been made this evening. Until our consideration of Lords amendments there was agreement throughout the Chamber about the nature of the Bill. The House did not divide on Second Reading. Until this evening there has been a reasonable approach and agreement between both sides of the House. The Bill is vital and I deplore the way in which some hon. Members are trying to sabotage it at this late stage of its consideration.

Question put, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 111, Noes 23.

Division No. 244] [12.18 am
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Irvine, Michael
Amess, David Jack, Michael
Amos, Alan Jackson, Robert
Arbuthnot, James Janman, Tim
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Ashby, David King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Batiste, Spencer Lightbown, David
Beith, A. J. Lilley, Peter
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Livsey, Richard
Boswell, Tim Luce, Rt Hon Richard
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n) Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Bowis, John McLoughlin, Patrick
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Mates, Michael
Brazier, Julian Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Bright, Graham Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Mitchell, Sir David
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Monro, Sir Hector
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Moss, Malcolm
Burns, Simon Neubert, Michael
Burt, Alistair Nicholls, Patrick
Butterfill, John Norris, Steve
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g) Page, Richard
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Paice, James
Carrington, Matthew Patnick, Irvine
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Porter, David (Waveney)
Chapman, Sydney Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Chope, Christopher Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Sackville, Hon Tom
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Shaw, David (Dover)
Day, Stephen Shelton, Sir William
Devlin, Tim Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Dover, Den Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Durant, Tony Summerson, Hugo
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Favell, Tony Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Fearn, Ronald Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Fishburn, John Dudley Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Forth, Eric Thurnham, Peter
Franks, Cecil Twinn, Dr Ian
Freeman, Roger Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Garel-Jones, Tristan Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Gill, Christopher Wallace, James
Goodlad, Alastair Waller, Gary
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Gregory, Conal Watts, John
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Wells, Bowen
Ground, Patrick Wheeler, Sir John
Hague, William Widdecombe, Ann
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Wigley, Dafydd
Hanley, Jeremy Wilkinson, John
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Harris, David Tellers for the Ayes:
Hayward, Robert Mr. Timothy Wood and Mr. John M. Taylor.
Hind, Kenneth
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Ashton, Joe Meale, Alan
Buckley, George J. Nellist, Dave
Canavan, Dennis Patchett, Terry
Cohen, Harry Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Cryer, Bob Redmond, Martin
Dunnachie, Jimmy Skinner, Dennis
Fyfe, Maria Vaz, Keith
Hardy, Peter Wareing, Robert N.
Haynes, Frank Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Hood, Jimmy
Illsley, Eric Tellers for the Noes:
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W) Mr. Harry Barnes and Mr. Jeremy Corbyn.
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Mahon, Mrs Alice

Question accordingly agreed to.

12.30 am
Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister declared that for the House to scrutinise Lords amendments was sabotage. He claimed that there was agreement between the two sides of the House over the Bill in this place. Surely we cannot be accused of any such behaviour, when we are deeply concerned about safety and security at airports at all times. We are dealing with Lords amendments, and it is part of our duty to scrutinise them and to express our views on them. To regard that as sabotage is an outrageous attack on our democratic procedures.

Madam Deputy Speaker

That is hardly a point of order for me. As the hon. Member knows, every right hon. and hon. Member in the House is responsible for his or her comments.

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