§ 11 am
§ Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East)
I should like to express my thanks to Madam Speaker, on behalf of the residents not only of Coventry but of Warwickshire, for this debate. I thank the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for their support in arranging the debate. I also thank my colleagues from Warwickshire and Coventry and from Bedworth, and my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner).
I particularly thank the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) as over the past couple of years, even before the crash, he and I have tried to introduce legislation in the form of regulations to deal with small airports. I am appreciate all my colleagues' assistance. So far as possible, we have sought to take a bipartisan approach to the air crash as we see no need for it to become a party political issue, although it is certainly a political issue with a small "p".
The crash caused tremendous grief to the residents of the Willenhall area and, indeed, to the citizens of Coventry and of Warwickshire. It was a traumatic experience for them. Anyone who visited the scene of the crash on that day, as I did, could not help but be astounded—it was a miracle—that the aircraft did not land on the houses. I understand from the report that the aircraft clipped the roof of one house and came down about 100 yards away. Had it come down on the houses, it would have been a great catastrophe and no doubt the Government would have rushed legislation through the House to deal with it.
I see the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), on the Government Front Bench. As he knows, there have been a number of meetings. However, my colleagues and I would like to know when the Government will find the time to introduce regulations, based on their own proposals, so that we can debate and amend them and pass them through the House. It is vital that he answers that question today. My colleagues and I cannot keep on going back to residents—I have been to three public meetings—and telling them that it is a matter of finding parliamentary time. The Minister must come clean and tell us whether it is really just a question of parliamentary time or whether the Government do not have the will to regulate on the basis of their own report.
We must discuss the Coventry air crash of December 1994 and the report into that tragedy that was published on 10 January this year. In this debate, I wish to accomplish three main aims. First, as the title of this debate suggests, I intend briefly to discuss the events of 21 December 1994—the crash that left five people dead. That was, in itself, a tragedy. Secondly, I shall highlight the air accident investigation branch's report into the crash, and the implications of that report for future action. Finally, I shall raise the important issue of airport safety—an issue that I have been raising for two years, and the reason for this Adjournment debate—and discuss the impact of the crash and the subsequent report. It would be a mistake not to highlight the issue of air safety.
The crash in Willenhall, Coventry occurred at 9.52 am on 21 December 1994 and left three crew members and two handlers dead and a community in shock. The aircraft involved was a Boeing 737, owned and operated by Air 948 Algerie and leased by Phoenix Aviation to conduct a series of live animal export flights from the United Kingdom to airports in France and the Netherlands. I should add that, as a result of those flights, a young lady from my constituency, Jill Phipps, was killed when standing up for what she believed was right. We should not forget her; she was another casualty.
I shall discuss the reasons for the crash later in my speech when I discuss the report, but it is important to stress that the disaster could easily have been a catastrophe. I do not wish to diminish the seriousness of the events that occurred, but if the aircraft had been just a few feet lower it would have landed on a densely populated housing estate in Willenhall, causing severe loss of life. Nevertheless, the crash was a dramatic episode in my constituency, which had a profound effect on residents not only in Willenhall but also in Baginton and throughout Coventry.
Anyone who visited the crash scene that day or shortly afterwards would have been moved by the residents' reaction and awestricken by the response of the emergency services, whose reaction and work throughout the disaster deserves the highest commendation: neither I nor the residents could find fault with their efforts, and I am sure that all hon. Members present in the Chamber will concur with that sentiment.
The huge emotional impact made by the crash on the residents of Willenhall has not subsided with time. I recently attended a residents' meeting to debate the crash and the report with residents and local councillors. Throughout that well attended meeting, a depth of feeling was demonstrated which made it obvious to me that the crash has been very much in the minds of the people of Willenhall.
The implications of the report were debated at the meeting. The report was conducted by the AAIB in accordance with the 1989 civil aviation regulations, submitted to the Secretary of State for Transport on 7 December 1995, and made public on 10 January 1996. It reached a number of conclusions and made several important recommendations, ranging from the reasons for the crash to suggestions for future action. It is constructive to highlight the key recommendation, as that will contribute to the debate.
The report's first conclusion was that the flight crew allowed the plane to descend lower than is recommended in the guidelines on approach to Coventry airport. Furthermore, the members of the crew were over-tired, because they had been on duty for too many hours. There was a lack of communication between the pilots, and their comprehension of English was limited. To compound the problem, some of the aircraft's navigational equipment was not compatible with devices in the control tower, and the crew would have seen an electric pylon too late to avoid it.
The plane's commander had received an inadequate weather warning and tried to land in foggy conditions. Air traffic control in Coventry had failed to give details of weather conditions and advice on landing visibility. Finally, the radar systems at Coventry airport could not determine the actual height of the plane. Ground staff could not have been aware that the aircraft had gone lower than recommended by guidelines and could not warn the crew and thus prevent the accident. That was coupled with the fact that a newly qualified weather watcher was on 949 duty in the air traffic services unit at the airport without adequate supervision. The lack of accurate information contributed to the crash.
Those are clearly important conclusions, and I urge the Minister to take note of them and to take some action. The people of Willenhall have been profoundly affected by the crash, and it is vital that the Minister should implement the recommendations if he is to restore public confidence. It is essential that the citizens of Coventry are assured, now that the report has been published, that it will be acted upon. To disregard it would not only limit future improvements in airport safety but deal a substantial blow to the confidence of the people who live near the airport at which the tragedy occurred. I acknowledge that, on publication of the report, the Minister announced in a press release that the issuing of permits to foreign aircraft was to be tightened. I await implementation of that announcement, but I must make it clear that that in itself does not go far enough.
Finally, I stress the need for the regulation of airport safety. Quite apart from the 1994 crash, this has been a theme that I and my colleagues have pursued consistently for the past two years, during which I have tabled a number of questions about problems at Coventry airport and had a number of meetings with various Ministers. I hope to meet the Minister for Aviation and Shipping with my colleagues next month when we have sorted out a date.
In March 1995, I travelled to Brussels to meet the European Transport Commissioner, Neil Kinnock, who said that regulation of small airports was needed and that he would be very interested in the results of the report. I have sent him a copy and await his comments.
In July last year, the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth and I led a delegation of Coventry Members of Parliament to meet the Minister for Aviation and Shipping to raise the concerns of residents of the city of Coventry. One important issue raised at that meeting was the Government's own 1993 proposals for the regulation of small airports. The Minister assured us that he was very much in favour of his own proposals, which I shall outline, but said that he was not responsible for their introduction. Like other Ministers, he claimed that there was insufficient parliamentary time available to discuss them. Now that the report on the crash, which contains clear recommendations, has been published, there can be little excuse for not making the time to discuss such an important issue.
The proposals are that the Department should commission and consult on guidance to create a national network to assist the preparation of noise amelioration schemes; that the Department should encourage aerodromes to review existing noise amelioration measures and their enforcement and arrangements for local accountability; and that the Department should open discussions with the British Airports Authority and local consultative committees about making Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports more responsible and locally accountable for their noise control measures. Why cannot we do the same for airports such as that at Bagington just outside Coventry?
Other sections of the proposals include new enabling powers for aerodromes to establish and enforce noise control arrangements, including ground noise. Designated aerodromes should prepare noise amelioration schemes, 950 consult locally and agree with the lead local authority what is to be established. Where disputes arise, the Secretary of State would have the power to settle them.
Those are important proposals and, although far from exhaustive, could make a real difference to people living near small airports such as that at Coventry. I urge the Government to find time to debate them and, if the House so wishes, to implement them.
I hope that I have shown that the crash and the report resulting from the tragedy should prompt the Government to implement not only the report's recommendations but the proposals for the regulation of small airports produced by the Government themselves in 1993.
§ Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)
The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) should be congratulated on raising such an important matter. As he said, many of us—notably, he, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), in whose constituency the airport is situated, and I—have become increasingly concerned, but have not had a very satisfactory response from the authorities.
The worrying aspect of the situation that the hon. Gentleman described is illustrated by the deficiencies of the doomed aircraft and its control. As I understand it, some essential safety elements were lacking.
I have known Coventry airport since I have represented Warwick and Leamington. Indeed, it was in my constituency until the boundary commissioners decreed some years ago that it should be located in the patch represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth. To use a sporting analogy, the airport resembles a third division or non league football ground suddenly taken over by Manchester United and run with all the corresponding panoply.
Coventry airport is small, but it is nevertheless among the top three or four in terms of the movement of freight. That may seem unbelievable, but freight movement is constant, and it is likely to increase. The Coventry Evening Telegraph of 16 January said:Freight business that would increase the number of bigger planes using Coventry Airport is being sought in an attempt to turn losses into profit.AM & I, the private firm now running the city council-owned airport want to maximise the volume of cargo dealt with in each flight at Bagington.It would mean fewer small aircraft and an increase in large jets, including Airbuses and Boeing 737 and 727 aircraft. There is unlikely to be any significant overall increase in the number of planes landing and taking off.I beg to doubt whether all that is true and, in any event, the question of noise must also be considered.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East will agree that the salient point is that the airport was not built for such operations. Clearly, safety is critical at any airport. I live near Coventry airport, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, and I see the planes flying in fairly low. I remember that at the time of the accident, which the hon. Gentleman described so graphically, people were already complaining about the noise and saying that there was an accident waiting to happen. When it did happen, it caused 951 pandemonium in Warwick district council offices—I was there at a meeting. People there said that they had always felt that something of the kind could occur.
The noise generated, especially at night, causes distress and irritation to my constituents in the Leamington Spa area and the surrounding villages. In terms of air travel, a distance of 30 or 40 miles is nothing and is accomplished in a few minutes, but the effects are widespread on the ground. Last year we had a very good summer and noise carried even further than usual. People were unable to have their windows open during the hottest period. I, too, noticed the effects, but this is not a special plea. I do not live on one of the main arrival or departure paths, but I see and hear the planes and I am all too well aware of the extent to which my constituents are troubled by it.
The onus lies firmly on the council. I approach the matter in a non-political way, and my approach would be the same even if the council were not of a different political complexion from my own. The council says that it needs to consider the generation of jobs and income for the people of Coventry. That is a laudable aim, but we also have to consider the environmental needs and safety of individuals who live in the area. In the three constituencies alone that I have mentioned—those of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth and myself—so many people are affected by noise from the airport that environmental and safety considerations overpower arguments about jobs and expansion.
I, too, have been part of deputations to the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, but we got short change from him. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), is a very fair-minded man and may perhaps take a rather different approach. The problem will not go away. I appreciate the difficulties as international airports are governed differently, but we want new regulations for small airports in this country. We also want higher standards on aircraft noise generated from them.
I have the greatest pleasure in fully supporting the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East.
Mr. Bill Older (Nuneaton)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) on being fortunate in securing the debate. Although my constituency might seem a fair way from Coventry airport, my constituents in Binley Woods are very much affected by the activity at Baginton airport. I keep referring to Baginton airport because, to many people who have lived in the area for many years, that is how it is known.
Baginton, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), used to be a small village—indeed, it still is. Coventry airport was a small airport at Baginton village. Activity there has since grown out of all proportion. I receive many letters from residents of Binley Woods who complain bitterly that their sleep is broken in the middle of the night by loud aircraft landing at Baginton airport. If it happened on a regular basis, one could adjust one's sleeping pattern and forget about it, but it does not. The noise is spasmodic and occurs five and sometimes six nights a week.
952 It is time that the Minister considered the conclusions announced in 1993 on how airports such as Baginton can be controlled properly. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East has been extremely diligent, as have all Members who represent Warwickshire and Coventry, in meeting the Minister, but, as my hon. Friend said, we can only do that for so long. Firm action needs to be taken to regulate the airport.
There is a lack of transparency in the complaints procedure and a lack of action as a result of them. Some of my constituents who live in Binley Woods regularly telephone the airport to complain, citing exact times of the aircraft noise, yet they are—virtually—fobbed off. They are told, "It is nothing to do with us. It is to do with the Civil Aviation Authority". Yet when they telephone the CAA, it says that the problem is nothing to do with it either. There is a lack of accountability.
I do not want to speak about the crash because my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East portrayed it well. I agree with the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) that the crash was waiting to happen. I must impress on the Minister that if that airport is not specifically regulated, further crashes could happen. Indeed, although noise is a problem, the big fear in people's minds is that further crashes—heaven forbid—are waiting to happen. Urgent action should be taken to regulate the airport correctly to ensure as far as possible that another crash will not happen. Otherwise, the circumstances will remain exactly the same as those before the crash in 1994. There is also a lack of noise regulation. Aircraft noise was specifically removed from the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and that should be redressed.
I want to extend the analogy drawn by the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington between non-league and first division sides. Nuneaton happens to have a fairly good non-league side; Nuneaton Borough is excellent. He mentioned Manchester United—I have no arguments against them—who are excellent and first class. The problem is that the aircraft that use Baginton airport are not excellent and first class. Older, noisier aircraft tend to use regional, very small airports such as Baginton, which increases the problem. To most people, regional airports are airports such as Birmingham. The amount of freight traffic landing at the small village airport in Baginton gives it a regional status, so there must be some enactment and enforcement of procedures to ensure that the airport is properly regulated.
The control of aircraft noise has been discussed since 1991, when the consultation paper on the subject was issued. Conclusions to it were announced in March 1993. My constituents who live in Binley Woods and I want to know why, after all that time, no regulations have been put in place to enable people who are affected by airports to voice their opinions and concerns, and why they have not been promised the safety that they surely deserve.
§ Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) on his success in arranging the debate, the way in which he delivered his speech and the amount of homework that he had clearly done. His speech was comprehensive and included enormous detail. It is a fairly short debate and therefore, of necessity, my speech will be fairly brief.
953 Coventry airport, as has been said, is in my constituency. It originated before the second world war. Since the airport was built, many houses in its general vicinity have been constructed—some very much closer to the airport than others. For example, Oak Close in Baginton was built immediately adjacent to the perimeter fence. One cannot get any closer to the airport. I invite the House to consider and reflect on the implications of that proximity.
Planning permission was given and building took place because Coventry airport at that time was a small airport, catering for small, light aircraft, which predominantly used the airfield during daylight hours and were not especially noisy or offensive. Some hon. Members might argue that houses in Willenhall in the constituency of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, in Binley Woods in the constituency of the hon. Member for Nuneaton, and in Baginton in my constituency should not have been built, and perhaps they are right. The debate on the Coventry air crash should, however, starts from where we are today and not from where we would like to be.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) that much responsibility for the increased use of the airport must lie with Coventry city council, which has long been directly responsible for the airport and its management. It has deliberately sought more business and more flights to offset the substantial losses of the airport. That position has continued under new management.
On 25 January 1995, Paul Dale, the political editor of the Coventry Evening Telegraph, one of our excellent local newspapers, said:The city council's aim has been to turn the airport from a £1 million loss-making white elephant into a profitable outfit. The fact that Baginton is now the sixth busiest freight airport in the country is viewed with some pride at the council house.I must say that distance lends enchantment. I well understand that that may be good news for Coventry council and Coventry ratepayers, but it is bad news for my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Nuneaton and my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington. The noise and nuisance of those flights are considerable.
I come now to a point rightly touched on earlier by hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East. He drew attention to the fact that more flights naturally increase the risk of accident, particularly in a congested and built-up urban area. Here, for the benefit of hon. Members, I should say that the airfield is on the eastern periphery of Coventry, surrounded by a number of villages. It is now badly sited, which, unfortunately, is placing many people at risk.
During the past few years, the character of Coventry airport has changed substantially—the very point made by the Coventry Evening Telegraph in the passage that I have just quoted. It is now predominantly a freight airfield. The aircraft which crashed on 21 December 1994 in the constituency of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East at, as he said, a cost of some life, was a Boeing 737 owned by Air Algerie. It was due to land at the airport, collect freight—in this case, calves—and fly out. It would appear that the equipment in the aircraft was not entirely compatible with ground equipment at Coventry airport, a contributory factor to the accident.
The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, in his admirable speech, touched on the report that was produced by the air accident investigation branch on 10 954 January. He went into it in some detail, so I shall not go over the ground that he covered. However, the whole issue is a genuinely important matter and a source of real worry to my constituents living in the villages of Baginton and Stoneleigh which are close to the airfield. They do not want any aircraft from any airline flying with equipment which is not entirely compatible with the equipment that is used at Coventry airfield, and I entirely agree with them.
Already my constituents and those of other hon. Members have much to complain about. The noise and nuisance from aircraft landing and taking off is intrusive. Better and stronger controls are required to safeguard the environment of those living and working close to airports. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, I am not opposed to jobs or progress, but those laudable objectives have to be set against the danger and nuisance caused by night flights. They must be set against the disturbed nights and general inconvenience that they cause to the many thousands of people living near to the airfield who cannot escape the substantial noise intrusion caused by aircraft landing and taking off.
I have visited the airport on several occasions, one of which was fairly late in the evening with members of Baginton parish council. I could not only hear the noise of the aircraft and the substantial ground noise that is created, but smell and almost taste the fumes of the kerosene used by the aircraft. It was singularly unpleasant. There are few bonuses for anyone living close to an airport.
The crash has far-reaching implications, not simply for Coventry airport. Clearly, we must prevent anything similar from happening in the future. It may be helpful for the House to know that, on Wednesday 12 July 1995, I, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington and the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, the author of the debate, met the Minister for Aviation and Shipping who is in another place. At that meeting, all three of us stressed two separate issues. The first and most important was aviation safety. No one wants a repeat of that terrible December day in 1994. The second was the noise and nuisance caused to so many people by the operation of the airport itself.
I have had meetings with Warwick district council, in whose area the airport is situated, and I have met Baginton parish council and, like other hon. Members, many residents who all say that the nuisance is growing and at a substantial rate. They all naturally ask what action might be taken to mitigate the problems that are being caused by Coventry airport.
A solution may be contained in the Department of Transport document entitled "Review of aircraft noise legislation—announcement of conclusions". Again, that was a point made by the hon. Member for Nuneaton. The main points of that document are to commission and to consult on guidance designed to produce a national framework for noise amelioration schemes. The Department should also undertake to encourage airfields to review any noise amelioration measures and their enforcement, and to make much greater arrangements for local accountability. Hon. Members whose constituencies surround the airport clearly understand the need for real local accountability to come back into the equation—a point that is not sufficiently addressed in the present arrangements.
955 The same document says that there should be a new enabling power for aerodromes to establish and enforce noise control arrangements, including those for ground noise—in itself an important point. Additionally, the Secretary of State should have a call-in power so that he can approve schemes. A number of other measures are suggested in that admirable document which would do a great deal to enhance and improve the quality of life of those who live not just around Coventry airport but around other airports up and down the land.
However, I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister, who is listening carefully to the debate, that such measures are no use in a simple report. They should be enshrined in legislation—the very point made so well by the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East. I believe that I have the support of all hon. Members present when I say that we want the Department of Transport speedily to enact a Bill giving greater powers to local authorities and the Secretary of State which will ensure a greater measure of control over local airfields such as Coventry.
§ Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) for securing this debate and for the tireless way in which he has doggedly pursued this issue since the day of the air crash at Coventry. Since that tragic day in Coventry, he has applied pressure in every circumstance that one can imagine: he has met the local authority, Ministers and local residents. I hope that he will continue those efforts until we are rewarded with better regulation in Coventry.
I share an office with my hon. Friend in Coventry, and we were there on the morning of the air crash. People had to be in Coventry—which is a reasonable-sized city—to understand the impact of what happened that morning. My hon. Friend and I were working in the office and we heard sirens outside. We did not know what had gone on—whether there had been a terrorist bomb, whether a gas main had leaked or whether the canal had burst its banks. It was then announced on the radio that there had been an air crash. My hon. Friend immediately went to the crash site. The people of Coventry were in a state of shock, and heaven knows how the people of Willenhall were feeling.
Many people had said that there was an accident waiting to happen at Coventry. The plane that crashed was involved in the export of live animals to the continent, following the ferry companies' ban on that trade and the inability of people to export live animals through the ports. We knew that cowboys would be attracted to that trade—they were cashing in on a short-term profit opportunity to transport live animals out of the country by air.
There is no long-term future in such an operation—everyone knows that, so everyone knows what sort of an operation would fill the gap. Local people were concerned about the safety regulations, the aircraft that were being used and the nature of the company that was running the operation out of Coventry airport. The local authority was in a dilemma because the operator was threatening it with legal action if it did anything to prevent his trade.
Lord Goschen has told my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East that the problem is parliamentary time. Does any hon. Member believe that there is a 956 problem with parliamentary time? We have heard the Queen's Speech and we know its content—or lack of content. Parliamentary time is not at a premium this year, nor was it last year. It is a smokescreen for anyone to suggest to hon. Members who represent Coventry and Warwickshire that the problem is parliamentary time.
I do not want to bring party politics into this issue, but I ask the Minister whether the problem is not tied up with the paranoia in sections of the Government about regulation of any part of the economy and with improving or increasing the powers and abilities of local authorities to respond to circumstances such as this. If the only excuse that we are being given is lack of parliamentary time, I suspect that there must be another reason why we are not acting to regulate small and medium-sized airports properly. Perhaps we will get a response from the Minister on that issue.
The local authority was in a dilemma. Phoenix Aviation, the operator of this enterprise, was threatening court action if the local authority did anything to restrain its trade. There were demonstrations outside the airport and this operation left an awful lot to be desired in relation to health and safety at work and safety in the air. The company threatened to take the local authority to court if it took action.
Six people died because of Phoenix Aviation's activities in Coventry, including one demonstrator who fell under a lorry at the gates of Coventry airport and five people in the air crash. I have visited the site—I did not go with my hon. Friend on the morning of the crash; it was his constituency, and it was right that he should be involved at that time—and there would have been mass slaughter in Willenhall if that plane had been on a slightly different path. The plane clipped a pylon, turned upside down in the air, clipped the side of a house and then, mercifully, crashed into woodland at the side of the housing estate.
The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) asked whether those houses should have been built—they were built in the mid-1950s and the nature of the airport has changed over that time. When the housing estate was built at Willenhall the airport was a Sunday flying school.
§ Mr. Pawsey
In the days when much of this development took place, the airfield catered for small, light aircraft. A fundamental change in the role of the airport has occurred over recent years, and that is causing so much worry to those of us who have constituencies around it.
§ Mr. Ainsworth
I shall refer briefly to the change in the nature of the airport, the problems that have arisen as a result of that and the council's policies towards it. The airport has been a controversial issue within the local authority for a number of years—some people have been staunch supporters of its continuation and others have been totally opposed to it. A few years ago, we thought that we might be able to close the airport and build a car factory on the site—I do not think I am giving away any secrets—but that deal fell through.
In my view, the local authority sometimes exaggerates the economic importance of the airport. I have talked to local business leaders, most of whom believe that Coventry airport brings very little economic advantage to 957 the city. The airport is only 10 or 12 miles from Birmingham, and because of the nature of freight these days, there are not a lot of jobs involved with it, although there are people who depend on it for their livelihoods. The local authority should bear it in mind—and review its policies accordingly—that an alternative to the continuation of Coventry airport is other economic development.
I have some difficulties with the local authority's powers over the airport. If we are going to put responsibilities on councils, we need to give them power to take action so that we can hold them accountable.
There is a desperate need for regulation that will prevent such an accident from occurring in the future, or at least minimise its likelihood. The British people know and understand certain aspects of the life that goes on around them.
For example, they understand why new regulations are being introduced to control the number of hours that lorry drivers are allowed to drive. They were amazed by this report when it revealed that in the 1990s people were allowed to fly excessive hours; people were in charge of an aircraft when their command of the English language left a lot to be desired; and people were able to operate an aircraft into and out of an airport when their instrumentation was incompatible with the instrumentation available at the airport.
People in Coventry and throughout the length and breadth of the country find it incredible that such things are allowed to happen. The central demand that arises from this debate must be that the Minister should look with some urgency at the regulations that have allowed this to happen. They must be brought up to date to ensure that the air space around our towns and cities is operated in a modern and safe manner so that we are not imposing a massive danger on people in the future.
Lord Goschen, the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, said that the main issue was parliamentary time. I have already said that I cannot believe that. If it is not about a dogmatic desire to deregulate in every area of our public life or a strange fear of giving local authorities any powers, the Government must take some action and take it now, without further delay.
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)
This has been an important debate. It is a particularly appropriate subject for the longer Adjournment debates that have been introduced in the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) on initiating the debate and on the tenacity with which he has pursued the issue over a long period. It must be a source of satisfaction to him to raise the subject on the Floor of the House and to find such consensus on the need for prompt action from the Government. We will listen to the Minister with great interest.
This is a good example of someone saying what he has to say in a relatively brief speech so as to enable others to participate. As a result, we have heard a range of excellent speeches from both sides of the House, displaying a remarkable degree of agreement on the causes of the problem and the need for a Government response. The onus will be on the Minister to provide that response.
The debate has taken place on several tiers. First, there was the immediate tragedy and the clear consensus that it was an accident waiting to happen. There were also the 958 particular circumstances at Coventry airport. There does not seem to be much disagreement within the House that, for a long time, the arrangements there have left much to be desired.
On that score, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) said that it was a matter for the local authority. Clearly, the local authority has played a prime role as the owner of the airport and has pursued the policies that have been described in order to attract extra business. However, such action creates a potential conflict of interest between ownership and self-regulation. Therefore, it cannot be a matter only for the local authority.
Local authorities, irrespective of political complexion, need to be controlled when commercial interests are involved. It must be a matter for regulation. Our prime concern is that it has taken so long to put in place a regulatory regime that takes the onus off the local authority. If one is not allowed to do certain things, one cannot do them. If one is allowed by law to operate in a certain way, when commercial interests are involved, the limits are often pushed to a point at which they conflict with other legitimate interests.
The overwhelming view of the House is that the Minister should tell us that regulatory measures will be put in place to constrict the activities of the operator at Coventry airport and other operators throughout the country. I agree strongly with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) that it is laughable to say that such measures cannot be put in place because of a lack of parliamentary time. As everybody knows, the business of the House is being spun out on a weekly basis to try to find something to do in the pre-election period. The idea that there is no time to legislate on a matter that involves safety and appears to command a remarkable degree of consensus is wrong. It is wide open for the Government to legislate and to build on the consensus.
§ Mr. Pawsey
Do I understand from what the hon. Gentleman said that he would support the introduction of legislation based on the Department of Transport's "Review of aircraft noise legislation—announcement of conclusions"? I agree that we should find time to introduce the legislation, but I do not agree with his statement about spinning out time in the run-up to a general election. I thought that that was gilding the lily a bit.
§ Mr. Wilson
Far be it from me to disturb even mildly the spirit of consensus that has prevailed for all of 55 minutes.
The point is that, if there were a will to legislate, there would be time to do so. Obviously, the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) would not expect me to give any specific commitments when we have not seen any legislation, but it is clear from what has been said this morning and from what I hope will be said by the Minister, that there is general agreement on the need for legislative action. If I was being non-consensual, I would throw the question back and ask why there is a consultation paper dated August 1991 on aircraft noise legislation and a review of aircraft legislation dated March 1993, yet we still have no legislation before the House.
The debate has raised wider issues which cause me great concern. They relate to the regulation of international aviation and the way in which it impinges 959 on our country. The list of conclusions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East includes national and international issues as well as those specific to Coventry. The crew allowed the plane to go too low, so there was a question of competence. The crew were over-tired, and there are enormous issues involved in that. There was a lack of communication between pilots, and the pilot involved spoke little English, which is the international language of aviation. There was inappropriate navigational equipment and there were inadequate weather warnings from Coventry.
Some of those issues are specific to Coventry and to the particular incident, but others fit into a far wider framework. We must look to the Minister to say what will be done at Coventry and to talk about the national regulatory issue. The Government must press hard in international forums to ensure that the potential for such abuse is extinguished.
I find strong parallels between what has been described here and the way in which the maritime industry has moved in recent years. As it happens, I was at a lunch yesterday addressed by the chief executive of Singapore Airlines. Quite independently of this debate, his description of competitive trends in international aviation made me think in the same way as this debate. He was talking about hiring foreign flag crews in aviation. That conjures up images of the factors that contributed to the decline of merchant shipping in this country and to a sharp reduction in safety standards. He said that it was because of the growth of commercial pressures and competition. However, we have to ensure that there is an international order in aviation that draws a high bottom line and precludes the possibility of cost cutting through a reduction in safety measures.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Steve Norris)
§ Mr. Wilson
I see that the Minister agrees with that point.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East said, people find it incredible that in this day and age, quite legally, substandard aeroplanes can fly into Coventry, or any other British airport, with pilots who do not speak English and who cannot properly communicate. Our concern goes far beyond the specific tragedy. We need an urgent and strong reaction from the Government to counter such problems, because a similar tragedy could happen at any airport that is used by aircraft in which the same conditions prevail.
It is always attractive to think that good can come out of tragedy. It would be satisfying to my hon. Friends, to Conservative Members who have spoken in the debate and to those who have been bereaved by the tragedy and who have suffered such trauma if, as a result of the lessons that have come to the surface following the Coventry air crash, steps were taken that were specific to Coventry, the Government showed urgency in introducing noise regulations to alleviate the burden of those living in proximity to over-used airfields and alarm bells rang about the potential for disaster on a much wider scale unless we accept that there is a real threat from a reduction in acceptable safety standards in the operation and crewing of aircraft. On all those fronts, we shall listen with interest to the Minister.
§ 12.1 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Steve Norris)
I shall pick up the invitation given by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson). I believe that he is right to say that this is a useful opportunity to review some of the circumstances surrounding the accident, both in the specific context of Coventry and in the wider context of the issues he raises about the control of international aviation. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) on securing this debate. He is an assiduous Member of Parliament, and he has prosecuted the interests of his constituents with his customary assiduity. I very much welcome the general thrust of the contributions from the hon. Members for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) and for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) and for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith).
It is clear from all six speeches that we are, essentially, dealing with two major issues: first, the circumstances surrounding the crash of the aircraft at Coventry and the issues that flow from that, which were rightly identified by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North; and, secondly, the general issue of the location and status of the airport and its subsequent development, and the developments in the law and in the powers available to various authorities to deal with the development of Coventry airport and other similar airports.
I share the desire of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East that I should restate my Department's sympathy for those bereaved as a result of the tragic accident. My noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping wishes specifically to join in that expression of sympathy. I fully understand the anxiety of many of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who live close to Coventry airport. I hope that we can allay some of those concerns by going through the action that my Department has taken to ensure that foreign aircraft that fly to the United Kingdom are safe and by reiterating our determination that foreign aircraft should operate to an acceptable level.
It may be helpful for me to say a little about the safety system under which international aviation operates. International civil aviation, since the second world war, has operated on the basis that all states join the International Civil Aviation Organisation—ICAO—and, as signatories to it, accept and comply with the annexes to the Chicago convention, which establishes a number of minimum standards for the safe operation of aircraft. The system of mutual interdependence is reinforced by specific articles in the convention, including an obligation that states will accept certificates and licences provided by another state.
In practice, that system is the only sensible way in which to establish standards on a worldwide basis. Without that system, every state would need to check every foreign aircraft entering its territory against its own national standards, although it would, presumably, be obliged to allow the aircraft to land. It might be possible to detain the aircraft and to prevent it from flying off, but it would not be practical simply to have national legislation that imposed standards on aircraft coming in unseen to any nation state. The obligation has to be to have an international agreement which requires all signatories to the ICAO convention to reach an acceptable standard.
961 We firmly believe that the ICAO system provides the only practical basis for organising safety on a worldwide basis. In a moment, I shall refer to the detailed ways in which the present arrangements are being improved. The Government have taken a number of measures following the Coventry crash.
§ Mr. Wilson
May I again draw the maritime parallel? What the Minister has described was, until quite recently, the Government's view of how to handle the safety of ships coming into British ports. There was then a significant and welcome policy change as a result of which the level of inspection in British ports was greatly increased, with dramatic results. The inspection established the high proportion of foreign flag vessels in particular that were seriously substandard. There must be a parallel to that which does not conflict with the general formula that the Minister has set out. It would be widely welcomed if we knew that we had an inspectorate that was liable to turn up at Coventry airport, or any other airport, and say, "Right, we are holding this plane until we have checked every nut, bolt and crew qualification."
§ Mr. Norris
It is perfectly fair for the hon. Gentleman to draw that analogy. He knows that, in maritime terms, there are two issues. One is that an individual port state can take action to improve maritime safety. The other is that it is, none the less, necessary to seek, through the International Maritime Organisation, a general increase in safety standards. The hon. Gentleman knows that the greatest truism in marine safety is that flag state control is infinitely superior to port state control.
The aviation equivalent is that, although it is important to have appropriate safety checks in this country to deal with aircraft, from whichever country they arrive, to ensure that their safety is adequate, we also need—this is recognised throughout the world and is underpinned by the point the hon. Gentleman correctly made about the proliferation of airlines throughout the world, whether from the former Soviet Union, from Africa or elsewhere—a basic, high standard of safety, operated worldwide by nation states that allow aircraft to be registered by them and then to take to the air.
§ Mr. Wilson
I want to pursue that last point, because the Minister attributed to me a view that I do not hold. I am sure that 90 per cent. of flag states control their shipping more effectively than port state control can. However, we both know that there are flag states with disastrous records which have no interest in controlling their shipping, but see it purely as a commercial operation—I refer to the flags of convenience states. By the same token, if there is a possibility that there are countries that register aeroplanes, but do not carry out proper controls, port state controls become much more effective.
§ Mr. Norris
In all honesty, there is not much between the hon. Gentleman and me on this matter. He makes a fair point. The parallel is that no one has an interest in allowing airlines to operate substandard aircraft from countries whose standards are perhaps not as good as those operated in the United Kingdom, but my point is none the less valid and extremely important. It is necessary, despite its imperfection, to have an international system that requires standards from its members and enforces those standards to whatever degree 962 possible while ensuring that domestic legislation allows for effective safety monitoring. The parallel between marine and aviation safety is fair, at least on that point.
At present, we fully reflect our ICAO obligations. With the exception of European economic area aircraft performing intra-EEA flights, which do not need a permit, all other aircraft wishing to perform a public transport to or from the UK must obtain a permit from my Department. Before that permit is granted, we must be satisfied on a number of points.
§ Mr. Norris
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I would rather make some progress.
The key points are: first, has the airline been approved by its authorities as being competent to operate the type of flight concerned? Secondly, has the aircraft been certified as airworthy by the aeronautical authority of the country of registration? Thirdly, does the airline have adequate insurance? Confirmation of those points is normally obtained by the airline submitting appropriate documentation. If we have any doubts about safety standards, we do not issue a permit until those doubts have been resolved. That may mean that we have to consult the aeronautical authorities in the country concerned, asking the Civil Aviation Authority to conduct a physical inspection of the aircraft or to visit the country concerned and to clarify safety oversight procedures.
For example, in this case, in view of local concern about cargo charter flights operated by foreign airlines, we decided to ask the CAA to inspect any aircraft wishing to perform similar flights from Coventry airport. Aircraft operated by Nigerian and Russian airlines were inspected. In both cases, the CAA identified breaches of ICAO safety standards. As a result, we deferred consideration of the permit applications while we took up the matter with the Nigerian and Russian authorities.
In the event, the Nigerian airline subsequently withdrew its application to operate from Coventry. In the case of the Russian airlines, permits were granted, but only after the faults identified by the CAA had been rectified and the CAA had re-inspected the aircraft to confirm airworthiness standards. During the past year, the CAA has undertaken a number of inspections of foreign aircraft at our request. In two cases, aircraft from Tajikistan and Sweden were detained on safety grounds.
Turning to the circumstances of this unfortunate accident, may I deal first with the unauthorised nature of the flights. Although an application for the flight had been received from Phoenix Aviation, the UK charterer, at the time of the flight, no permit had been issued. We had not been satisfied that all our documentary requirements had been met and were waiting for Phoenix Aviation to provide the outstanding documents on behalf of the airline. In particular, we were seeking to clarify the leasing arrangements.
Although an Air Algerie aircraft was to be used, it was to be wet-leased—Air Algerie would provide both aircraft and flight crew—by a Ghanaian airline known as Race Cargo. That meant that checks had to be made with the Ghanaian authorities to ensure that Race Cargo was certified to use the Air Algerie aircraft and that Air Algerie's insurance arrangements covered the type of 963 flights concerned. I stress that responsibility for the safety of the aircraft rests with Air Algerie rather than with Phoenix Aviation or any of the other parties involved.
As the operation of flights from Coventry by Air Algerie had not been authorised, any flights operated were in breach of the air navigation order. Therefore, with the assistance of the CAA, we conducted an inquiry into the circumstances of the flights to consider whether any prosecution action should be initiated. However, Phoenix Aviation was placed into voluntary liquidation before any charges could be laid.
The inquiry revealed that a number of flights had operated without the Department's knowledge. It was clear, therefore, that existing procedures for monitoring permits should be reviewed. Under the existing system, copies of all the permits issued to foreign airlines are sent to the relevant UK airport to be used by the foreign airline. If an airport authority had doubts about whether an airline had been granted a permit, it was expected that that authority would contact my Department to clarify the position. This case clearly suggested that that system might not be working as effectively as it should. We are therefore consulting the Aerodrome Operators Association, which represents UK airports, to consider whether the existing liaison arrangements between it and the Department can be improved.
It is clear from the findings of the accident report recently published by the air accident investigation branch that this unfortunate accident resulted essentially from human error. In its thorough report, the AAIB has considered all relevant factors, including the condition of the aircraft. In its view, first, the aircraft had been maintained and was serviceable with no significant defects; secondly, there was no evidence to suggest that the aircraft experienced any systems failure or malfunctions that would have caused the collision with the pylon; thirdly, the estimated weight and loading of the aircraft were within normal limits at the time of the accident; and, fourthly, there was sufficient fuel on board to divert if necessary.
There has been some suggestion—it has been mentioned in the debate today—that the aircraft's inability to receive the Coventry instrument landing system may have been a contributory factor to the accident as it meant that the crew were unable to perform what is known as a precision-approach landing. I am advised that the approach performed by the crew—a non-precision approach—was consistent with the approach procedure set out in the aircraft's operating manual.
On whether aircraft in the UK are required to have ILS equipment compatible with the equipment at Coventry airport, the use of the ILS is just one of a number of acceptable methods for landing in conditions of poor visibility. UK aircraft are required to carry varying levels of radio and radio navigation equipment according to the circumstances of the flights that they are undertaking.
In this case, the AAIB report noted that the crew failed to comply with the operating procedures for non-precision approaches set out in the aircraft's manual and that the aircraft was allowed to descend below the normal approach glidepath. The AAIB also considers that the performance of the flight crew was impaired by the effects 964 of tiredness resulting from the change from day duty to night duty, which was extended to just over 10 hours because of unforeseen circumstances.
There is no international common standard for crew flight time limitations, although the European Joint Aviation Authorities is in the process of agreeing on harmonised FTL requirements. Every state has the option of determining its own standards in this sector. The Algerian FTL for night duties allows for a maximum duty period of seven hours 45 minutes on four sectors. That scheme is more restrictive than that allowed for pilots in the UK.
In this case, the Algerian crew had been on duty for more than two hours in excess of the normal limit laid down by the Algerian authorities, but there is provision in the FTL scheme for duty hours to be exceeded under exceptional circumstances such as a weather diversion. That is in the nature of operating aircraft internationally. The aircraft had been diverted from Coventry because of visibility conditions and landed at East Midlands airport. Once advised of improved weather conditions at Coventry, the aircraft took off from East Midlands and made a second unsuccessful attempt to land at Coventry. It would appear, therefore, that the Algerian crew were operating in accordance with their FTL scheme, although there is no question but that they had been on duty for about 10 hours.
The AAIB makes a number of recommendations. One of them, specifically directed at the Department, calls for a review in permit procedures. My noble Friend the Minster for Aviation and Shipping announced on 10 January that the Department had already acted to amend its procedures for the approval of the operation of wet-leased aircraft by foreign airlines. Those amended procedures now require the provision of a statement from the applicant airline as to which airline's operations and flight manuals will be applicable for the proposed flight. That change will clarify permit responsibilities as regards future applications involving the use of wet-leased aircraft.
On the general issue of safety, my Department has been reviewing how best to monitor the safety standards of foreign aircraft operating to the United Kingdom. I referred earlier to the ICAO system for establishing international standards. The fact that there has been generally good aviation safety is a tribute to the effectiveness of that system so far, but concerns have rightly been expressed about whether these standards are being uniformly applied. We have therefore decided to introduce a number of new measures designed to increase the safety oversight of safety standards of foreign aircraft operating to the UK. Details of those new measures were announced on 10 January by my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping.
The measures will include increased surveillance of foreign aircraft operating to the UK, as the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North suggested. My Department will ask the CAA to undertake more inspections of foreign registered aircraft when there is doubt as to whether international safety standards established by the ICAO are being observed.
We shall also assist the ICAO in the implementation of its own system to monitor member states' adherence to the ICAO safety standards. This follows extensive lobbying by the UK Government to persuade fellow member states that ICAO needed some form of monitoring programme to 965 ensure that its standards were being observed. Starting next month, teams including experts from the CAA will be visiting ICAO member states to assess whether ICAO safety standards are being observed.
The Government believe it essential for all countries to ensure that they fulfil their obligations under the Chicago convention and ensure the safety of all aircraft for which they are responsible. It is the responsibility of all states to maintain vigorous oversight of all aircraft that they license and certify. As for the UK, foreign aircraft are now subject to increased surveillance; and if doubts emerge about the safety standards of particular aircraft, we shall not hesitate to take action to ensure that international safety standards are observed.
§ Mr. Robert Ainsworth
Am I right in understanding the Minister to say that the Government are refusing to improve the regulations as they apply in the United Kingdom, or to make them stricter than the minimum international regulations? Is the Minister proposing merely to improve the surveillance of those international regulations? The people of Coventry want to know whether the Government are prepared to take action to improve the regulations as they apply to the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Norris
The hon. Gentleman will serve his constituents best by properly reflecting the position that I have just outlined. The ICAO safety standards are acceptably high. If properly observed and maintained, they allow for the perfectly safe operation of international aircraft. The British Government have always maintained such safety standards. The thrust of my remarks and of those by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North is that some member states do not comply as thoroughly as they should with the ICAO conditions. It is important, therefore, to carry out more inspections on the ground of these aircraft—that is what the Opposition spokesman called for—and to target those inspections on airlines that may be identified as not operating to the correct standards.
The citizens of Coventry may take considerable reassurance from the speed and urgency with which the British Government introduced the new regulations following this incident. They should also be encouraged by the speed and assiduity with which the Government were prepared to react to an event that exposed some of the inadequacies of the present reporting arrangements.
Another important element in this debate, raised by several hon. Members, concerned the extent to which Coventry airport has changed over time. I would not dream of contradicting them; after all, hon. Members who are local to the area see what happens there every day and every week. Coventry now ranks as the sixth largest freight airport in the UK. Its freight tonnage rose from 700 in 1990 to 28,900 in 1994. This expansion of freight activity has doubtless been responsible for a considerable improvement in the local economy.
I fear I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East, who suggested that the airport had brought very little to Coventry—if I quote him correctly. Instead, I agree with my hon. Friends who have said that everyone recognises that airports are two-headed beasts: they bring considerable benefits to local economies, which is why they are sought after by many towns and cities, and why improving them plays a prominent part 966 in the plans of many Labour local authorities and local authorities of all complexions; but they have a significant environmental impact, which is why it is necessary to institute a proper regime of control.
We have consulted on, and published, our proposals for new aircraft noise legislation, and we believe that they are the right way forward. They are quite separate from planning legislation and are not intended to deal with planning issues. In theory, it would be perfectly possible for the local authority to alter the planning consent that the airport currently enjoys and within which it operates, but to do so would be unprecedented, not least because it would almost certainly require substantial amounts of compensation to be paid out—an inevitable part of the planning system.
Our proposals, on the other hand, are designed to strengthen the local accountability of aerodromes and to encourage the development of best practice and of measures to reduce disturbance caused by activities allowed under current planning permission.
The operator at the airport has established an airport consultative committee which meets regularly. It is not my place to comment on the efficacy or otherwise of the arrangements—except to say that at the heart of the Government's proposals are enabling provisions to underpin the voluntary measures taken by aerodrome operators. They would be backed by reserve powers to designate an aerodrome if voluntary measures are shown not to be effective.
We remain firmly of the view that this is the right way forward. Work on producing national guidance is currently in hand. I should make it clear that we do not believe it appropriate for central Government to play a role in determining what is best for the circumstances at each aerodrome, of whatever size. As the hon. Member for Nuneaton suggested, the airport was originally very small. There are many similar airports throughout the country, and it would not be right for central Government to override the legitimate interests of local communities, which should be the arbiters of what might constitute the right operating regimes. We lack the local knowledge to undertake the task, and it would be wrong to do it.
§ Mr. Wilson
I am slightly disturbed by that rather broad statement of principle. There must obviously be local discretion as regards detailed operations, but is the Minister suggesting that any commercial operator or entrepreneurial local authority can turn an airstrip into a major cargo airport, and that it is not the business of the Government to offer any form of protection to people living in neighbouring areas? If so, that is a dangerous principle.
§ Mr. Norris
It would be if it was the one that I was articulating, but it is not. I repeat that the proposals suggest that we would back, by reserve powers to designate an aerodrome, the voluntary measures that we believe are, in the first instance, the right way forward. That arrangement allows for maximum local input. The hon. Gentleman is right that it would be necessary to ensure that if arrangements for, say, local consultation were blatantly inadequate, statutory underpinning would be necessary. That principle is not disputed by any hon. Member.
Contrary to what was suggested by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East, parliamentary time is at a premium. While it has not been possible to incorporate the legislation in the current Session, we remain committed to its introduction as soon as the parliamentary timetable allows.