HC Deb 16 December 1999 vol 341 cc421-61

[Relevant documents: Fourteenth Report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1998-99, Aviation Safety, HC 275, and the Government's response thereto, Cm. 4539; and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions Annual Report 1999: The Government's Expenditure Plans 1999–2002, Cm. 4204.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a sum, not exceeding £511,039,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, for or towards defraying the charge for the year ending on 31st March 2001 for expenditure by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on support to nationalised industries; grants to Railtrack, British Rail, London Transport, Docklands Light Railway, DoA Ltd; MRPS grant; payments in respect of expenditure relating to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link; expenditure connected with the privatisation of British Rail Business; other consultancies; expenditure relating to Commission for Integrated Transport; capital expenditure by transport industries funded by EC grants; railway industry and National Freight Company pensions funds; National Freight Company travel concessions; rebate of fuel duty to bus operators; ports and shipping services; Royal Travel; miscellaneous services; civil aviation services; international aviation services; transport security; freight grants, and expenditure associated with the non rail privatisation programme.—[Mr. McNulty.] 1.55 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Aviation safety is not a subject that can ever be treated lightly. Since the creation of the aviation industry, this country has had an extremely good safety record. Britain has built up a worldwide reputation for understanding the needs and priorities involved in keeping passengers and pilots safe.

The Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs undertook a detailed investigation of aviation safety. We did not want to disturb the industry's good reputation, nor to encourage the public to believe that there had been obvious instances of backsliding from the standards that we have always maintained. However, it would be foolish to pretend that United Kingdom Governments have always had clear and coherent policies with regard to aviation. Indeed, one of the worries is that, for some years, the House of Commons has not been treated to clear guidelines about the future of the aviation industry.

The Select Committee set out to look closely at all aspects of the working of the safety regulations, in general aviation and in the commercial sector. We were very worried that changes that might be taking place in the near future might cause details of aspects that we considered essential to be, if not ignored, then at least overlooked.

The Committee submitted a very detailed and carefully researched report. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), will not misunderstand me when I say that I find the tone of the Government's response rather disappointing. That may reflect one of the problems raised in the report. We were concerned about what can only be described as the complacency of the aviation industry, and it is important to spell out exactly what we meant by that.

The Committee took a lot of information and evidence from all sectors of the industry. We were worried—there is no point in pretending otherwise—that the industry was not prepared to look too closely at its behaviour and its future, in case the public got the idea that a severe and real problem existed. We were careful to make it clear that it was not the Committee's aim or intention to put that idea in people's minds, as it did not accord with our experience.

However, we considered that the industry would be underestimating its own position if it gave the impression that it was content with the status quo and implied that, as everything was already perfect, there was no need for close examination of safety matters. I had hoped that Ministers would be prepared to read the report in a way that would enable them to take on board some of the difficulties that we discovered in our researches.

I want to put it on record that the Committee is satisfied that the United Kingdom is fortunate in having very professional pilots, engineers and—above all—air traffic control officers. The safety ethos is absolutely fundamental for those people, but the Committee is worried about relationships inside the industry. They may be a little too convivial. Close monitoring by Government institutions is essential and is in the best interests of the industry itself.

Some difficulties could be dealt with by the clear separation of the safety regulation group from the Civil Aviation Authority into an independent, free-standing operation, as the Select Committee recommends. At present, they operate closely and, obviously, the industry must co-operate on a day-to-day basis. Nevertheless, the Select Committee believes that it is essential that there should be a clear division between National Air Traffic Services and the CAA and that that division can be seen to be operating.

I should like to take up other points in the Government reply. Would my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary like to give me an answer to the question of virtual airlines? The Government seemed to say that, in the aviation industry, some people would wet lease aircraft and then be prepared to subcontract every aspect of the work, but that was not a real problem because there was not too much evidence that happens. Can my hon. Friend give the number of aircraft that are operated on behalf of United Kingdom airlines which are flying for hire and reward out of the UK, which are not on the UK register and which are subject to UK safety oversight or the flight operations inspectorate review? Those aircraft will carry British citizens, so we have a right to say to the Government that it is not good enough for them to say that they are not aware of anybody carrying out that particular operation, so it is not a problem. The operation of such aircraft is a virtual airline, even as defined by the Government, and it is tremendously important that we look closely at this. Air Foyle and Heavylift operate Russian-registered cargo aircraft. They are interesting examples of the sort of problem that concerns us.

Can the Minister advise us how many recommendations the air accidents investigation branch has made in the past 10 years and how many have been implemented or subject to an airworthiness notice by the CAA Airworthiness Requirement Board? How many of those relate to the outcome of the Manchester 737 accident? We ask these questions because we believe that they are relevant to the Committee's work. Can the Minister tell us whether the AAIB now has all the qualified staff and resources that it will need to meet the size of the task that it has in a developing and increasingly active industry?

The Minister will know that we raised the subject of helicopter inspection because we were concerned that it seemed that some inspectors might have several skills but not necessarily those connected with the helicopter industry. The Minister will know that helicopters are different aircraft with different needs and responsibilities. Would my hon. Friend accept an inspector with a public service vehicle licence being drafted into the railway system to operate as part of the railway inspectorate? I do not think that he would. Therefore, I should like to know that all those involved in helicopter operations inspection are qualified helicopter pilots with substantial helicopter operating experience. As my hon. Friend will know, unfortunately there have been a number of incidents which have raised considerable worries about what happens with helicopters, and the public need to be reassured.

We come now to our perennial friend, the enroute centre at Swanwick. Is the Minister really going to tell us that the centre will open during the winter of 2001–02? Will the specifications be exact? Will the centre be fully operational, and will it provide the necessary increase in capacity? The aviation industry has a greater rate of growth than almost any other in the country. It is shooting ahead, and will continue to do so. Given the pressures on air traffic controllers and air space, the functional systems will be crucial. Unless we can be sure that those systems will operate in the way that will best protect the interests of the general public, we will have some very real worries.

I want to ask about foreign aircraft inspections. Does the increase in the level of inspections include inspections of aircraft that are operated on behalf of United Kingdom airlines flying for hire and reward out of the UK which are not on our register and subject to UK safety oversight?

There are difficulties in relation to planes overflying the centre of our cities. I tabled some questions to the Minister, and expected to be told that cases of aircraft flying over central London on their way to Heathrow with one engine inoperable numbered one or two at most. I was stunned to find out that there had been 17 such cases. I hope that the Department is investigating this with some vigour and is not prepared to rest on the assumption that planes can fly safely with one engine. I am happy to know that a two-engine plane can fly with one engine, but if it is also running low on fuel, as has happened in some instances, many people in this capital city will say that that is not ideal.

There have also been instances of very large aircraft landing at Heathrow with almost empty tanks. I would like to think that those are isolated incidents but, if they are not, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me rather more than he did in his answer to my question. It is not good enough to say to the House of Commons, "It doesn't happen very often." The one time that it does go wrong, a number of lives may be at risk, and we may have good reason to regret that any aircraft was able to operate in such conditions over our capital city. I shall not second-guess aircraft commanders, who take the final decision on safety but there are very real worries. I hope that we shall be given information this afternoon that is more positive than hitherto.

We were concerned about the training of engineers in the aviation industry. Again, I am sorry to say that the reply was rather complacent. In the past, aircraft engineers were very specialised and were trained accordingly. Unfortunately, evidence to the Select Committee showed that we are losing a whole generation of engineers. Many of them are retiring and are not being replaced. We would like to know that the Government are confronting the situation and are not content simply to say that it is a matter for the industry. It will not be a matter for the industry if we suddenly find ourselves with operational difficulties. We should consider not only the training of aircraft engineers but how we can bring more people in to the industry and encourage them to maintain the high standards that we have had in the past.

The issue also has a knock-on effect on training people to fly. The United States, which has a very large industry, has the advantage of extremely good weather in many parts. It can encourage people from all over the globe to go there and receive aviation training; not only are the standards of training different from ours, but the cost is much lower. Since we have the expertise, I hope that we can come up with practical ways to lower costs for people who want to fly and to encourage them to remain within the UK.

I shall not go into detail on the aircraft cabin safety problems mentioned in our report. However, the Government responses continually tell us either that the Government are thinking about a particular difficulty or that, for one or another reason, they do not think a point of any importance. Cabin safety has been dismissed as capable of producing neither any new research nor any response. That seems cavalier and unimaginative. If there are problems with aircraft and air cabin safety, the Government should examine them, rather than saying that they have read what the Committee has said, but are not impressed and need not worry further.

The House of Commons entrusts Select Committees with the role of scrutinising industries sponsored by Whitehall Departments because the detailed examination of problems likely to arise is something that Select Committees do best. We are able to question Ministers, to raise detailed problems with those who give evidence and to call a wide cross-section of people before us, as we did when we compiled the report. On general aviation, commercial flying and helicopters, we considered all the difficulties that we foresaw, and we have attempted to produce a report that is not sensational, that does not seek a hysterical response but that demands serious answers.

We were disappointed with the quality of the Government's response. We felt that our work merited rather less complacency and rather more vigour. For the first time in many years, a Government have said that they will have a policy on aviation and produce a detailed document. They say that they will treat the industry with seriousness that it has not been given in the past. That is both essential and welcome, but there are matters for the Minister to consider in the interim.

We value the work being done in his Department, but the appendices to my Committee's report contain, at page 192, a simple graph from the Boeing company titled "We need to continuously improve aviation safety". That graph clearly shows the gap already opening up. We need to close it. We are therefore right to say to the Minister and everyone else involved that the industry may be very safe, but it must not be complacent or assume that no change is needed. The industry must create inspectorates that are seen to be independent and must address whether they have sufficient and properly trained staff. It must also address whether the independent safety authority will be properly funded, and it must do it now.

The Minister, like the rest of us, saw the public response to a savage train accident recently. We can tell those involved in it that accidents are rare—that, happily, they are not a common occurrence—but the public responded by telling the Government to take difficult safety decisions, and to do it now. The public did not want safety left to the commercial end of the industry. If that is true of railways, it is triply, quadruply, eternally true of the aviation industry. I hope that my hon. Friend can give us more heart today than he did in his response to my Committee.

2.15 pm
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

It is a great pleasure and privilege to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), as it is to serve behind her on the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. She and I do not always agree, but we enjoy our exchanges across the Committee Room table. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) to the Front Bench. His Back-Bench colleagues very much look forward to hearing what he has to say in an important, if slightly ill-attended, debate.

The debate is important because aviation in the United Kingdom is at present 100 per cent. safe. It was interesting to hear the hon. Lady raise the difference between perception and reality. We must say as clearly and frequently as we can that there is no lack of safety in the UK. The aeroplanes, pilots, airports and air traffic controllers display no slippage of safety. We probably have the safest air travel in the world, as several people who gave evidence to the Committee acknowledged.

None the less, two points must be made. Perception may differ from reality. As the hon. Lady said, that is certainly true of the railways. We must pay as much attention to ensuring that the travelling public know that travel is safe as we do to making it so. A good example of the difference between perception and reality is the Y2K problem. I understand from airlines that there has been a significant decline in air travel scheduled for the millennium evening and the next day. People are concerned about Y2K even though anyone who knows anything about it is convinced that there will be no danger of any kind to the travelling public on 1 January 2000.

Secondly, in saying how safe air transport is, one must leave no room for complacency. If some of the changes recommended in the report are not made, British aviation may not remain as safe as it is today. It is important that the Committee held its inquiry and produced a valuable report in which nearly every word is eminently sensible. Like the hon. Lady, I have large reservations about the quality of the Government's response, and I look forward to hearing the Minister explain the thin and disappointing nature of some of his responses.

I shall focus on two or three air safety issues rather than the generality of the report. As the hon. Lady said, air traffic has increased hugely during the past few years. Over the next 10 years, it is predicted to increase by 50 per cent. That prediction applies particularly in the south-east of England. When I worked at the former Department of the Environment, there was a constant cry of Rucatse—runway capacity in the south-east. The subject continually appeared in the Secretary of State's red box, and there were constant discussions about what we could do about runway capacity. That problem remains to be dealt with. We must find more capacity, or our high safety standards will, without question, be compromised.

A related matter to which the hon. Lady made little reference was the future of the National Air Traffic Services. Without a vibrant and successful NATS, our high standards may be compromised. Already, there are signs that overload on controllers has grown. The volume and complexity of traffic has increased overload to 49 incidents this year—double the number in the previous year. Overload is increasing, and if Swanwick is not in place in good time, that increase will continue.

It will interesting to hear what the Minister has to say about Swanwick. His predecessors offered dates for when Swanwick would be up and running, but these dates always slipped. The latest date given, I think, was April 2002, and it would be interesting to hear the Minister confirm that, although he would doubtless be putting his job on the line by doing so. He looks as if he may be about to intervene to confirm that date, or not.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Many of my predecessors were members of the Government whom he supported, and many of the problems at Swanwick arose during their time in office. I hope that he will bear that in mind when he deals with the problem, and that he will do so in a mature and responsible way.

Mr. Gray

I am grateful to the Minister for pointing that out. I try to do everything in a mature and responsible way, so I shall follow the precedent.

I acknowledge that the situation is as the Minister describes. When the project was launched, the completion date was set for 1990 or thereabouts, and it has gone back and back. That has happened under both Governments.

I always try to avoid party political splits and divisions on the Select Committee, as my colleagues across the Floor will doubtless agree, and try to address the issues in as broad a bipartisan way as we can. I prefer to leave out the party politics for the moment, although one or two of the topics that I shall cover later may contain a small element of party politics.

We need to know when Swanwick will be up and running, and what effect that will have on air safety in England. What will happen to NATS? The Government claim to have come up with some clever public-private partnership. The truth is that no one has the remotest idea of what it is or how it will work. It seems that 48 per cent. will be in the private sector, 5 per cent. with the workers and the balance with the Government.

Who will control the company? Who will run it? Who will have responsibility for employment matters? Who will take the risk if the company goes down? Who will benefit if the company makes a large profit? Who will make the decisions? All that is unclear. The Government display a split personality with regard to privatisation, as in the case of DERA—the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. They cannot decide whether to privatise it or not—apparently not, at present. On the future of London Underground, one moment the Government are doing complicated deals with Rai1track, and the next minute they are not, for reasons best known to themselves.

I am puzzled by the figures that the Government produced in the explanatory notes to the Transport Bill, which will receive its Second Reading on Monday. According to paragraph 233 on page 40, the partial sale of NATS

could raise in the region of £350 million. Of that, £300 million goes to pay off NATS's debts. That leaves a balance of £50 million. Of that £50 million, as I understand paragraph 233—if the Government are wrong again, perhaps the Minister will correct me—an astonishing £35 million goes to my former colleagues in the City of London in fees of one sort or another, apparently leaving a net figure of £15 million for the privatisation of NATS. If the Minister wants to correct that, I dare say he will. It will be interesting to know how much money the Treasury intends to net from the sale of NATS.

Mr. Mullin

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene again. He is probably aware—but perhaps he is not—that I and my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Transport attended the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee last week. We were grilled on that topic very ably, as one would expect from my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). The hon. Gentleman was not present, nor was any member of the Conservative party. That would have been the place to get the answers to some of his questions.

Mr. Gray

The Minister has not answered the point, but no doubt he will do so when he winds up. On that day, we had an Opposition day debate on transport in the Chamber, in which I spoke. I took the view that my duties in the Chamber overrode my duties to the Select Committee. If the Minister cares to consult Hansard for that day, he will discover that I made a reasonable speech on that occasion. That is the reason why we were not present in the Select Committee. An Opposition day debate in the Chamber seemed to be an occasion of some importance, although perhaps the Minister does not recognise that. [Interruption.] I asked him a direct question—

Aft Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The Minister does not have licence to shout across the Floor. He may not do that.

Mr. Gray

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The House will have noticed that I made a particular point about the net take from NATS. The Minister intervened, apparently to give me the answer, but all he could do was to make a cheap party political point about the fact that I was not present in the Select Committee because I was doing my duty in the Chamber. That is a strange way for a junior Minister to behave, but the House will have noted what he did.

Because of the way in which the risk transference may or may not occur in the proposed privatisation, my reading of the explanatory notes to the Transport Bill is that the net take to the Treasury will be £15 million. If that is an incorrect reading, the Minister may care to explain what will happen to the £300 million debt, who will take that debt on, how it will be transferred and what the net take to the Treasury will be.

All of us who are considering the privatisation of NATS will be interested to hear that. If the Treasury will achieve a large take and spend the money on something useful—in the transport sphere, I hope, as is claimed—perhaps that will encourage us to go along with the Government's rather muddled proposal. If, however, the Treasury take is only £15 million, we must ask why the Government propose to carry out the privatisation. I expect that some Labour Back Benchers may ask the same question.

The privatisation of NATS is the first issue on which the Government must be straightforward. The Minister will come up with the notion of the golden share. He will tell us how important the golden share is, that it means that the Government will not lose control of NATS, and that we can be certain that NATS will remain a British organisation. Will he tell the House what he makes of the European Commission's current challenge on the ownership of golden shares in other companies, particularly BAA?

Will the Government be able to have the golden share? Will they be able to guarantee that, for example, the French and German companies currently looking at NATS will not be allowed to take control of Britain's airspace? Before the general election, the Labour party went to great lengths to assure us that one thing that was not for sale was Britain's airspace. Like many of their other early pledges, that one seems to have gone down the tubes.

NATS is the first matter of concern to me. The second is Europe. There are various aspects worth examining. We wholly support the notion of co-operation with other European states on air traffic control. We would be mad if we did not. Of course we want to make certain that all 28 European countries that take part in Eurocontrol co-operate in controlling our airspace.

That is quite different from doing what is proposed if the European Union becomes part of Eurocontrol. That is not co-operation, but integration. It implies that a European body has integrated control of the airspaces. That means giving up BAA-NATS control of British airspace to a European organisation—a sort of federalism of the air. Many commentators on the proposal have said exactly that. One of them said that, if European countries have given up control of the land borders, they should also give up control of the air borders.

I am sorry to introduce a party political point, but the Conservative party firmly believes that we should keep our land borders and our air borders, not least because our standards of air traffic control are in many respects a great deal better than those of some of our European partners. Like any other such integration, the lowest common denominator will be the standard. There will be co-ordination across Europe at the lowest level of any European country. If there were such co-operation across Europe, there would unquestionably be a lowering of British standards.

A similar argument applies to the Joint Aviation Authority, which seeks to ensure uniform safety standards across the member states. At present, its decisions are not legally binding on the member states, although there is a suggestion that that may become the case. The House will be aware that the UK Flight Safety Committee gave evidence to the Select Committee and described the JAA as a camel train which is

as quick as the slowest camel in the train. That is quite a good description of the averaging down to the lowest common denominator that I described with regard to Eurocontrol. It is unfortunate that the UK's excellent record in aviation safety may be forced lower to fit in with that of our European partners.

My greatest concern relating to Europe involves the proposed European Aviation Safety Authority—EASA—which would operate using qualified majority voting. If that happened, debates such as this in the Palace of Westminster on the subject of air safety would no longer have any purpose. Parliament would no longer have its say over air safety across Europe. That would be handed over to a European organisation with qualified majority voting, and we might find ourselves, as we so often do in a European context, in a minority of one. I am happy to be in a minority of one so long as we have a veto. However, qualified majority voting would prevent us from vetoing our European partners' proposals.

The Select Committee considered that the UK aviation industries proud record might be undermined by full JAA membership and possibly by EASA, and recommended that the Government should clarify whether EASA would have legal powers to impose its proposed standards. It was disappointing that the Government's response to the report did not answer that point. I hope that, when the Minister replies today, he will say whether EASA will have such powers.

I have several concerns about non-European operators in the air. Responsibility for inspecting foreign-registered aircraft which land in the UK—ramp checks—lies with the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Only 59 ramp checks were carried out in 1997–98 and 63 in 1998–99. The Government have generously said that the number of ramp checks must be increased and that 200 foreign planes coming into the UK will be checked. Recently, planes landing at Heathrow were found to have insufficient fuel on board, and that is the sort of thing that would be found by a ramp check. However, set against the 1,762,820—nearly 2 million—air transport movements through Britain in 1998, those 200 ramp checks are wildly insufficient. That is a matter of great concern to my constituents in Wiltshire and even more so to people in the capital.

I wrote to the noble Lord Macdonald, who I understand is responsible for transport matters in the other place. It is sad that he cannot answer for transport matters in this place. It is odd that English transport should be controlled by a Scotsman in the other place. Incidentally, he is the fourth Scotsmen to deal with English transport matters—

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am rather amused that the hon. Gentleman, who occasionally tells us that he is a Scot, should find it so annoying that other Scots have positions of some importance.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that hon. Members will not start criticising the Scots.

Mr. Gray

You and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and other Scots who run this part of England, are none the less elected, in my case by the English and in your case by the Scots. Lord MacDonald is not elected at all and yet, curiously, is pontificating on English matters.

I raised a constituency case with the noble Lord concerning the safety standards of foreign carriers operating into the UK, and he said that civil airlines are required to comply with the "minimum safety standards". We are not asking foreign carriers to aim high and try to do as well as British carriers; we require foreign carriers to comply only with the absolute minimum. That is particularly worrying.

That matter was raised with me by my constituent, Mr. Stokes, of Hullavington. He quoted the worrying statistic that Ryanair, an Irish airline, currently landing in the UK, employs 18 Serbian pilots. It is curious that an Irish airline not governed by our high standards should employ Serbian pilots. That was apparently the case during the Kosovan war when we were at war with Serbia. None the less, we allowed Serbian pilots to land at our airports. That is bizarre and I hope that the Minister will tell us how that can happen and what can be done to prevent it from happening again, perhaps during an even more serious war in the future. The then Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), wrote to me stating:

there are no legal reasons why these pilots should not be employed in the UK. When we are at war with Serbia, Serbian pilots should be prevented from operating in the UK. If the Minister cannot answer my questions, perhaps he will consider changing the regulations so that such a situation does not arise again.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich referred to a number of matters to which the Minister should reply. One concerned the width of the aisle through the forward bulkhead in the Boeing 737. Coming from a vaguely military background, I have always been puzzled why, when soldiers travel by plane—by crab air, as the RAF is called in the Army—they always face the back of the plane because it is safest, yet civilians always face forward. Why is that?

It is important constantly to reiterate that British air travel has the highest standards in the world, and we must keep it that way. Sorting out the botched job of NATS involves a consideration of whether we are lowering standards by palling up with the Europeans on these matters, and a general consideration of what we can do with regard to runway capacity in the south-east. Such considerations are important if we are to continue to be seen as the safest air carriers in the world. My concern is that the Government's response to our carefully worded and thought through report does not satisfy us on that point. Many will listen to what the Minister says in his reply extremely carefully. The Government's response to the report did not give us such satisfaction, so I hope that the Minister will find it in his heart to do so today.

2.36 pm
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) dealt with some matters on which I want to concentrate. However, given the situation, of which he is aware, my speech may have a slightly different slant.

I was pleased to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said. With her usual penetrating insight, she focused attention on a significant area of the debate which the Minister must answer this afternoon. The UK has had an excellent aviation safety record to date, but we might have taken it for granted for too long, and public confidence may not be retained.

Hearing the Deputy Prime Minister's welcome statement this week that there is to be an additional £80 billion for transport, the public may wonder why, for only another £1 billion, air traffic control cannot be maintained in the public sector. I wonder whether the public have worked that formula out. We are talking in real terms of only a small amount of money being returned to the Government—a profit of some 7 per cent.—so it is strange that we should be moving down the uncertain road of this public-private partnership.

Like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I travel fairly regularly on the shuttle, and you will know that much frustration is caused by the delays at Heathrow on a Monday morning. That it why it is important that we should hear from the Minister this afternoon just when Swanwick will be up and running. More importantly, we need to know when Prestwick will be given the go ahead. Since I entered the House in 1992, there have been many uncertainties about the Prestwick building programme, so one way or the other we need to know when that programme will go ahead. Both sites must become operational at the earliest opportunity.

Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

Does my hon. Friend understand the frustrations of my constituents and the many employees at the Scottish centre at Prestwick about the continuing delays there which started when the previous Government questioned the two-centre strategy and then instituted a botched PFI project? Does he agree that the continuing delays are causing intense frustration and worry in Scotland?

Mr. Donohoe

Yes. My hon. Friend is a great champion of getting that building programme under way. As a neighbouring Member, I receive a great deal of representation from air traffic controllers at Prestwick. They are frustrated because the programme has not gone ahead and is not already in place. Given the amount of time that has elapsed between the announcement, with all its information about the future, it is amazing that, in 1999, as we move into a new millennium, not a single sod of soil has been cut on the site to enable the programme to go ahead.

Another comparison that is made with the proposed public-private partnership for National Air Traffic Services is the privatisation of British Airways and BAA.

Yet there is no comparison between British Airways, which competes with British Midland—and, dare I say it, Ryanair—and air traffic control, a service in which there cannot be competition. Let us hope that there is no competition; clearly, NATS should continue to be a monopoly. It is disgusting that we are considering taking it outside the public sector. My view is based on safety considerations and the public perception of those matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned the recent accident at Paddington in that context. The public should be accorded the respect that they deserve.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I endorse my hon. Friend's comments about the mind of the public. Their views are reflected in those of the pilots. On 13 of the past 14 occasions when I travelled between Edinburgh and London, I asked the pilots for their views on the proposals. Every one is unanimously behind the British Air Line Pilots Association and Mr. Chris Darke. They are worried about who is in control when they have to land at the busy airports of Heathrow and Gatwick.

Mr. Donohoe

As usual, my hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge. The Select Committee took evidence from BALPA and we are therefore aware of pilots' anxieties. As a regular traveller on the route that my hon. Friend mentioned, I have been lobbied by pilots on the same subject. However, there will be plenty of opportunities for us to discuss NATS in future. It is only one aspect of air safety, and I want to mention some of the other subjects that the admirable Select Committee report considered.

First, I want to consider establishing an over-arching transport safety authority. Lessons should be learned from accidents that happen in all industries, not only the one that we are considering. We are perhaps better placed to deal with the problems of the virtual airlines, which have already been mentioned. However, it is more important for the industry to have well-qualified and highly motivated staff. I am especially worried about staff shortages in the safety regulation group. I am pleased to note that extra payments will be made to flight operations inspectors. I ask the Government to show similar flexibility in other cases.

The Select Committee was especially worried about the potential shortage of pilots and other staff. A review of air traffic operations took place in 1993. If PPP were introduced, staff shortages, coupled with the new owners' efficiency savings, would be extremely worrying. We must ensure that that does not lead to a drop in standards; standards are everything for the aviation industry.

Previous speeches have covered other subjects, but I want to concentrate on the fact that pilots must maintain United Kingdom standards, and be supported to do that. We welcome the Government's position. The Chicago convention and further testing of the Joint Aviation Authority require further attention in future.

There must be a greater focus on adequate training facilities in the industry. I do not believe that we should leave that to the private sector. The Select Committee concentrated on that. The Government must monitor the provision of facilities and ensure that the industry pays for the necessary facilities to maintain the high quality of services.

The lack of aircraft maintenance engineers is worrying. As an engineer, I know the importance of maintaining planes and all equipment. Evidence to the Select Committee suggested a reduction in the number of maintenance engineers. We welcome the fact that the Government will establish a working group. However, working groups do not reach conclusions as quickly as they might, and the problem requires immediate attention. The Government must ensure that the industry fulfils its responsibilities on aircraft maintenance engineers and training in general.

We must emphasise the quality of air traffic regulation in this country compared with that in Europe. Some anxieties have been expressed about air traffic regulations but, rather than leading to United Kingdom standards dropping to those of some other countries in Europe, the regulations should ensure that standards are maintained and even improved.

Parts of the Government's response to the report have been disappointing. They need to sharpen their responses to the particular anxieties that have been expressed today. I hope that, this afternoon, we will receive some of the answers that we did not get when we presented the report to Ministers.

2.48 pm
Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Transport safety is important to the public, especially after the Paddington rail crash. The debate is especially timely in view of the recent publication of the Transport Bill, which provides for the partial privatisation of National Air Traffic Services. The Select Committee has considered that proposal in a separate report. Nevertheless, it would be absurd not to consider public-private partnership in the debate, and many hon. Members have referred to it at length. I shall also comment on it.

The Liberal Democrats remain opposed to selling off NATS. The Select Committee's report and the Government's response contains nothing that convinces us that we should believe otherwise. The report's recommendations reinforce our opinion. Recommendation (h) rightly points to the dangers of continuing delay to the new air traffic control centre at Swanwick. The most important requirement is to ensure that the new centre at Swanwick is made operational without further delay. The Government acknowledged that in their response to the Select Committee, in which they claim that they are committed to opening the new en route centre at Swanwick as soon as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made that point in a recent debate on transport safety.

In that debate, the Deputy Prime Minister rightly pointed out that there was already an overspend on the project and that Swanwick was more than three years late under the current system. That is entirely true, so it is all the more important to get on with making the centre operational, which is what NATS should be concentrating on.

Perhaps the Minister will tell me whether a major privatisation process and all the uncertainty that that entails will allow the management of NATS to concentrate, with no distractions, on getting Swanwick up and running at the earliest opportunity. It is worth pointing out that NATS, in a briefing today to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath, said that the whole debate, which has been going on since 1994, has been "very distracting and debilitating". Perhaps the Minister will say that it is having no impact on the delay to Swanwick, but that would contradict what NATS said in the briefing. He must confirm when Swanwick will be up and running. In the Government's response to the Select Committee report he said winter 2001–02 but, in response to my parliamentary question, he said spring 2002. The report and the answer were made at more or less the same time—there were perhaps a couple of weeks between them—so which is it?

The PPP for NATS is wrong at this time, although it is of course wrong in principle, and not only the Liberal Democrats are saying as much. There can be no doubt whatever that the overwhelming majority of staff are opposed to the proposal, as are the pilots, and 116 Labour Members signed an early-day motion in the previous Session confirming that they, too, were opposed or wanted other options to be considered.

What is not in doubt is the need for new infrastructure. As we know, demands on air services are growing and new technology is required. The issue is not whether new technology is needed, but how it should be funded. We have had ample opportunity in the past few weeks to debate the PPP for the tube. I do not intend to dwell on that, but it is clear from the Chancellor's recent pronouncements—one made as recently as yesterday—that his obsession with PPPs is driving this ill-conceived part-privatisation. He has ignored the alternative funding proposals made by us and many others.

Recommendation (g) of the report notes the nervousness of the general aviation or amateur flying community over the NATS sell-off. The Popular Flying Association is concerned that

if NATS becomes a company that has shareholders and which will seek to maximise its profits and pay a return to its shareholders, it will be seeking to find income from any source it can. The report further states:

The implications for safety would be that either General Aviation pilots would be compressed into a smaller area or General Aviation activities would be compressed into a smaller area, or General Aviation pilots would continue to use the same altitudes as previously, straying into the same airspace as commercial aircraft. There is concern from other sources.

Few people believe that privatisation, partial or otherwise, is a good idea. Happily, there are alternatives. The service does not need to be part-privatised. Another report by the Select Committee proposed alternatives, not least the successful Canadian model under which funding from private bonds has been found. We think that the Government should be considering that model. The safety of air travellers is paramount and for that reason I extend an offer of assistance to the Minister. If he chooses to abandon the PPP and opts instead for a public corporation model for NATS, he will receive the active support of Liberal Democrat Members in developing those proposals. We would help to facilitate the passage of any such plans through the House.

Mrs. Dunwoody

That is an offer we cannot refuse.

Mr. Brake

Exactly. I thank the hon. Lady for her sedentary intervention.

The Government's proposed PPP for NATS is the key concern in relation to aviation safety, but not the only one, and I shall raise a number of issues. I am particularly concerned about the implications of code sharing for safety standards and it raises issues similar to those that have already been mentioned in respect of virtual airlines. As the Minister will know, Delta Airlines had a code-sharing arrangement with Korean Airlines, which has been abrogated. I understand that the United States Department of Transportation is drafting safety guidelines that will apply to alliances between United States and foreign operators. Perhaps he will answer this question: when a UK airline enters a code-sharing arrangement with a foreign airline, what safety requirements are placed on the foreign operator and are the Government satisfied that the safety regulation group will be able to oversee such airlines to a sufficiently high standard?

Liberal Members believe that the Select Committee's recommendation that a safety regulation group should be incorporated into an independent transport safety authority requires detailed consideration. It could be a means of ensuring that best practice in one transport industry is adopted by another. I am conscious that the Minister will not want to pre-empt the Davis report findings, but can he give a commitment that the Government will tell the House how they intend to proceed as soon as they receive those findings? He might be in a position to make a statement on what progress may have been made by their review of transport safety matters.

As other hon. Members have said, if any issue warrants consideration at European level it is air safety. It is little comfort to British travellers that the British aviation industry has an excellent safety record. If they are landing in another country, our good standards may not ensure safe arrival at their destination. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will ensure that UK safety standards will not be compromised and that they will work positively with European partners to increase safety standards in Europe so that there is no dumbing down or lowest common denominator safety standard, a prospect referred to by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray)?

I represent a Greater London constituency so I have concerns about Heathrow airport. They have been referred to, particularly in relation to Malaysia Airlines aircraft landing when low on fuel. Our report recommends that the Government re-examine whether such aircraft should be allowed to approach Heathrow over central London. Their response was rather brief and seemed to suggest that they had not taken that recommendation on board. Can the Minister enlarge on their response and tell the House whether they have indeed re-examined the matter?

I am also a little perplexed by the Government's response to recommendation (1) of the report, which concerns foreign aircraft inspections. The report recommends a greater number of ramp checks—I note that they have taken that on board—and the introduction of random checks. The Committee stated that other European countries carry out such checks, but the Government responded by saying that the UK would contravene its Chicago convention obligations by introducing such a practice. On that specific and important point, perhaps the Minister will explain whether there is a contradiction and whether European countries are perhaps breaking their obligations.

Staff and training represent a further concern, and other hon. Members have referred to them. I want the Minister to respond to a specific question: will he today report to the House any interim findings of the interdepartmental working group, which was set up on 10 August, and can he give us a date for the delivery of the report?

The final concern to which I shall refer is the millennium, which is only a couple of weeks away. Will the Minister take perhaps the final opportunity to say whether the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions or Action 2000 will be issuing last-minute instructions to travellers that will perhaps list airlines about which there are no safety concerns whatever, as well as those about which there remain safety concerns over the millennium bug?

Safety worries relating to the aviation industry are very real, and are likely to increase. I have asked the Minister a number of specific questions; I hope that he will be able to respond to them today, or, failing that, that he will write to me in the near future. The key concern is still the part-privatisation of national air traffic services. I do not believe that there is any appetite for that in the House, in the aviation industry or in the country. The sooner the Government scrap it, the sooner the new Swanwick centre will be up and running, and the sooner we shall be able to build on our excellent safety record.

Finally, I must issue a challenge to the Minister. Can he put his hand on his heart and say that the Government are selling 51 per cent. of air traffic control because that will improve—not just maintain—safety standards?

Mr. Mullin


Mr. Brake

The Minister says that he can do that. In his answer to a parliamentary question from me, he listed the arguments for public-private partnership, but the need to improve safety did not feature. He has another opportunity now.

The Minister knows—as, I think, do his Back Benchers—that this is really about money. It is about a smash-and-grab raid by the Treasury. Whether the Chancellor will have £350 million or £15 million in his war chest in return for the sale of NATS, I do not believe that the Minister£either in the Government's response, or here today—will be able to demonstrate that the sale is needed because it is the only way of improving safety in air traffic control. The Government must abandon their plans to privatise air traffic control: that is the one transport U-turn that everyone would welcome.

3.2 pm

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

So far, all who have spoken have done two things. First, they have said how important and detailed the report is, and drawn attention to the time and trouble expended by the Committee and everyone else involved, including witnesses. Secondly, they have echoed a view expressed throughout the report, and stressed the high quality of the United Kingdom's aviation safety record. I do not think that that can be repeated too often.

As others have briefly pointed out, the background is an enormous growth in air traffic services. I am told that, in 1989, some 92 million passengers passed through British airports, and that 159 million did so in 1998. That represents an average annual growth of about 8 per cent.,

and none of the evidence received by our Committee suggests that the same rate of growth is unlikely to continue. In many respects, there is a good tale to tell—a tale of which we should be proud. As the report and its recommendations suggest, the challenge is this: how can we at least maintain our record, and, if possible, improve it?

I share the disappointment expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) about the Government's response to a report that issues the challenge to which I have referred, and makes detailed, well-researched, specific recommendations on how it can be met. I want to highlight three points made in the report. The first relates to the safety regulation group, which is part of the Civil Aviation Authority. The report draws attention to a particular aspect of the group's vital activities. Our evidence suggested that, in recent years, it had taken a "hands-on" approach to aviation safety. That means that airlines and operators produce their safety plans and safety operations, and the safety regulation group considers them to establish whether they are adequate.

It could, I suppose, be argued that the process has worked. By definition, we would not have such a good safety record if it had not. So what is the problem? First, it clearly represents a move towards a self-regulatory regime, and that is not the purpose for which the safety regulation group was originally established. Secondly, we should consider the enormous growth in the industry that has already taken place, and the enormous growth that will take place in the future. We should also consider anxieties that have been expressed about virtual airlines. I think I am right in saying that the evidence that we received from the safety regulation group suggested that it was difficult to monitor the activities and safety standards of virtual airlines, because of their fragmented nature.

Given those and many other problems, we must consider seriously whether the hands-off embryonic self-regulatory approach that the safety regulation group seems to have developed over recent years is one on which we can depend for the future. I would feel rather more comfortable if we could be assured that the Government would engage in discussions with the CAA and the safety regulation group to ensure that the right balance was achieved. I would like to be sure that, as the process continues, we shall not lose sight of the concept that the safety regulation group should set standards and make inspections to ensure that they are applied, rather than simply judging whether the operators' plans are adequate. 1 think it essential for my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider his response to the report's recommendation about the safety regulation group. I feel that it is complacent, and misses the important point that the report was trying to make.

I am also concerned about the relationship between the air accidents investigation branch, the CAA, the safety regulation group and the Government. By definition, the reports of the air accidents investigation branch follow accidents, some of which are tragic; they are therefore that much more important, in terms of the conclusions reached by the branch, and the action that it recommends the CAA and the Government to take to ensure that lessons are learned and such accidents do not occur again. The evidence we received suggested that recommendations made by the branch some years ago had still not been implemented.

We were worried about the cause of some tragic air accidents, including the infamous Boeing 737 accident, which resulted in many lost lives. Recommendations were made. I understand that there is still uncertainty about the cause and the recommendations; any recommendations that were made have not been implemented. There are other examples of that. Therefore, it is crucial that the issue of CAA involvement in air accidents investigation branch reports and recommendations, and the Government ensuring that the recommendations are acted on, is revisited urgently.

There is some merit in the CAA ensuring—as it does at the moment—that air accidents investigation branch recommendations and reports are made public, but the branch itself should perhaps publish its recommendations. In addition, as a matter of urgency, the Government should ensure that there is minimal delay in branch reports being made public and brought to the attention of Government, and that recommendations are implemented.

The final area to which I shall refer—in many ways, it is crucial to the debate about the future of air safety—is our relationship with European organisations, a matter that has been touched on by other hon. Members.

At the moment, we have the Joint Aviation Authority, which has been described as a club. Twenty-seven or 28 European nations get together, discuss issues and try to come to some conclusions. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) rightly said, it goes at the pace of the slowest camel in the train. We took evidence that clearly showed that three, four or five years may pass before conclusions are reached.

I know that the Government are worried about that. I suspect that it is one of the reasons why the Minister will say that the Government are in favour of developing the European profile, but we must make the decision making quicker and more efficient. We cannot tolerate inordinate delay in coming to decisions.

When we questioned the safety regulation group on the whole relationship between safety standards and regulations in the UK and what may happen in Europe, we were given assurances that, if there were inordinate delay and the JAA took decisions that reduced UK standards, the group would not hesitate to implement, or to improve, UK standards. That was reassuring, but the proposed European air safety authority is a different animal altogether. The JAA has no legal standing. EASA will be a legal entity. Presumably, therefore, its decisions will have the force of law.

If the safety regulation group is determined to ensure that safety standards in this country are not compromised as a result of the changed European profile, two things will be important. First, when and if EASA is set up as a legal entity and the safety regulation group does not agree fundamentally with a decision, the group will have two options. It can act illegally by doing something else and, as a result, begin to undermine EASA's credibility. We cannot have it both ways.

Mrs. Dunwoody

There is another alternative. The group can be ordered to maintain the compromise standard that is acceptable throughout Europe.

Mr. Stevenson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. It means that I do not have to detain the House with the second option. It is an important point.

The report makes it as clear as we could possibly make it that, if air safety standards in the UK are to be maintained and improved, we cannot tolerate international organisations, with perhaps the best will in the world, taking decisions that we are legally bound to apply, but that dilute those safety standards. We think—the report is clear about it—that the Government should be extremely careful and seek the most concrete assurances before they sign up to EASA.

I make two more quick points in relation to that. First, evidence to the Committee, which came from professionals in the industry, not from politicians, was clear. There is a north-south divide in Europe in relation to safety standards. Generally speaking, the north of Europe has much higher standards than southern Europe.

That leads to my second point. For my sins, I spent 10 years in the European Parliament, so I know a little about how the place works. We have heard the term "negotiation". People say, "Do not worry, we shall negotiate from a position of strength. We shall ensure that our interests are protected," and so on. That is fine. I differ from the hon. Member for North Wiltshire. There is a role to play in international co-ordination and co-operation on air transport. We have to be careful about falling into the trap of taking a little Englander view. By definition, that is the case. It is nonsense to argue differently.

Mr. Gray

The hon. Gentleman is entirely misquoting me. I went to some lengths to say that co-operation was important. We must co-operate with our European partners, but federal integration of the type that is proposed under some of the new bodies is exactly what we do not want.

Mr. Stevenson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me that he used the word "federal." I do not think that that word is in the report, but it implies that there is some other political motive behind his point. Nevertheless, the point is well taken.

Much can be done through negotiation, but we must never forget that EASA will be subject to qualified majority vote. It will not be a matter of us saying that we will defend our standards when we are outvoted by other people who think that those standards are either not appropriate, or too burdensome. It is an important point.

The negotiation that will go on will be fine in many respects. I have no doubt about that, but we are concerned about the notion that the UK's high safety standards are negotiable. There is a strong argument that, in the public interest, and in the interests of the industry, those high safety standards are, by definition, non-negotiable. Therefore, there is an issue for the Government to consider. If we are entering negotiations, will it be right that our high standards should be subject to such negotiation, with all the potential pitfalls that could ensue?

This is a good and detailed report. It makes some important recommendations. I remain somewhat disappointed about the Government's response, which in some cases is complacent and verges on the sanguine. I hope that, as a result of the debate—I shall listen to the Minister with great interest—we have been able to persuade him and the Government that the report should be taken far more seriously than appears to be the case.

3.20 pm
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson). A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting his part of the world for the first time, with a Joint Committee on a Special Procedure.

Partly because my husband works for an international airline, and is therefore a frequent traveller, I believe that aviation safety is an extremely important issue. I place great emphasis on his safety, as I do on that of others who work for his company and of everyone who travels by air.

I welcome the Select Committee report. I am also honoured to serve on the Transport Sub-Committee under the able chairmanship of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I joined the Committee two weeks before publication of the report—it therefore constituted my first official involvement with the Committee—and there has been a learning curve.

I join the hon. Lady in regretting the rather disappointing, even poor, Government response to the report, and the four-month delay in drafting that response. I agree with the hon. Lady that we must avoid complacency in the aviation industry. The United Kingdom has one of the safest aviation industries in the world, and successive United Kingdom Governments have ensured that we have made some of the world's greatest investments in the industry, both in airport air traffic control and in airlines.

I pay tribute to those who work in the airlines, in the airports and in related industries—such as the Civil Aviation Authority and National Air Traffic Services—who have worked consistently towards achieving extremely high safety levels in the United Kingdom aviation industry. We have been able to achieve those high safety levels because of the contributions made by our pilots, engineers and air traffic controllers.

Like the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that, on returning to the United Kingdom and taking my seat in this place, I would have the pleasure of serving with him. I do not think that, 15 years ago, either of us realised that we would again end up at the same place at the same time.

In playing its current role, the Joint Aviation Authority is handicapped by not having legal authority to impose agreed standards. I therefore view establishment of the European Aviation Safety Authority more positively than some other hon. Members may do.

The problem is one not only of setting European air safety standards, but of implementing agreed standards. As the Government's response notes, the Civil Aviation Authority has always played, and—rightly—will continue to play, a leading role in developing European standards in the Joint Aviation Authority.

Accident rates in Europe are among the world's lowest, and—as the Government's response states categorically—there is no evidence that harmonised safety standards have reduced United Kingdom safety levels.

I should like to make a confession: as a rapporteur of the Transport Committee of the European Parliament, I was involved in the creation of the European Aviation Safety Authority. The fact that any single organisation would lack teeth in implementing safety standards was the precise issue leading to the creation of the pan-European Aviation Safety Authority. Therefore, our objectives in establishing the authority do not warrant the suspicions expressed today by some hon. Members. As the Government's response explained—I rarely agree with the Government's memorandums, and am therefore slightly alarmed to agree with their response to this report—the objective is to give EASA legal powers to impose the standards that it adopts.

The Civil Aviation Authority has assiduously imposed the standards set in the United Kingdom, and we must ensure that all our European partners aspire to equally high standards. Third-country carriers seeking to use European Union airports and air space also must match those high standards. Therefore, EASA can only add to the greater collective value of air safety across Europe.

Mr. Gray

Does my hon. Friend agree that the important thing is that all airlines and aircraft that use British air space and British airports should conform to the highest possible standards—which are those established by the Civil Aviation Authority, which is answerable to this place? The standards applying in Paris, Brussels or Hamburg are a matter for the national Governments of those places, not for this place.

Miss McIntosh

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend, but simply say—I realise that it is a radical view to take on either side of the House—that, although we pride ourselves on our high safety standards, we should not accept that passengers travelling on other European carriers, or on international carriers seeking to land in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe, should have lesser safety standards.

An even more radical suggestion was made in the European Parliament: that, to ensure parliamentary accountability, a Member of the European Parliament should be on EASA's board, and that there should be annual reports from EASA to the European Parliament. The Minister, and perhaps other hon. Members, might like to comment on those suggestions.

Mrs. Dunwoody

As the hon. Lady is informed on the aviation industry, she will know that the type of airlines that we are talking about already comply with international standards, and that, almost without exception, those airlines support the International Civil Aviation Organisation, in which there are agreed common standards. Therefore, the issue is not one of not accepting international standards. Unfortunately, the history of our involvement in European institutions shows that, rather than harmonising upwards, we frequently harmonise downwards.

Miss McIntosh

My experience is perhaps more positive than the hon. Lady's. I shall return in a moment to the issue of third-country carriers. As she will remember, the Committee considered that issue—which I hope the Minister will address in his reply.

I welcome the Government's commitment to perform more ramp checks on foreign aircraft; their response commits them to performing 200 ramp checks annually. Although I appreciate that the Government are able to act only in response to specific concerns, I regret that random checks are deemed not to be compatible with our obligations under the Chicago convention. I believe that only with random checks and the element of surprise will we be able to impose the highest possible standard of inspections.

I invite the Minister to take this opportunity to update the House on the point just made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, on arrangements to travel into the United Kingdom from certain third countries at the millennium—which is only two weeks away. We should certainly like to send a positive message of safety to all those who use that type of transportation service over the holidays, and this debate might provide the Minister with an opportune moment to update us on the issue. I believe that officials in his Department said that the permits of four countries might be lifted at the millennium, which is fast approaching.

I share the concern expressed by the Select Committee, in its report, and by people outside the House, of a potential pilot shortage. United Kingdom safety standards cannot be compromised, and we should have sufficient pride in our civil aviation industry to attract a steady stream of recruits.

I have similar concerns about the recruitment and training of engineers and air traffic controllers. I hope that the Minister will deal in his reply with those concerns, as expressed in the Select Committee report.

During my time in the European Parliament, as Member of the European Parliament for Essex North and Suffolk South, I had the privilege of representing Stanstead airport. I therefore appreciate that, in many areas surrounding airports—such as, particularly, north Essex and south Suffolk, where air traffic and approach congestion are increasing—local people are increasingly concerned about stacking over airports at peak times. I should like the Government to address that, because it is difficult for busy airports to balance their development with the concerns of those who live nearby.

The cost of smoke hoods and the training of passengers in their use are also important issues. Many passengers do not fly regularly or do not use the same type of aircraft every time. The Government response covered the point adequately. It said:

Earlier research indicated that the delays in evacuation caused by untrained passengers trying to don smokehoods would cause a greater loss of life from fire than the number saved by reduced inhalation of toxic fumes. I do not want to be alarmist, but we have to balance safety against the fact that many domestic and European internal flights last less than 40 or 50 minutes. In many cases, there is not enough time to train passengers—including me; I am not always an ideal passenger—to use the complicated smoke hoods. The cost of fitting smoke hoods for every passenger could put low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet and possibly also Go and Buzz out of operation.

We would all like air rage to be addressed, particularly by discouraging potentially disruptive passengers. There is the growing problem of passengers who refuse to switch off their mobile phones and laptop computers. It is incumbent on the Government to impress on such passengers that those are serious offences that could be life threatening to a plane load of passengers. Those offences must be tackled seriously and stiff penalties must be imposed.

My final point is about military aircraft using uncontrolled airspace. That is of particular concern to me, because my constituency covers RAF Leeming, RAF Linton and Dishforth. I note that the Government intend to install a collision warning system for the ground attack Tornado GR4 aircraft. I should like a commitment from the Minister that the same system will be extended to the Eurofighter when it comes into operation in 2002, which will use bases such as RAF Leeming.

3.33 pm
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I join the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) in congratulating our air traffic controllers. We are grateful for the astonishing job that they do. This country has an enviable air safety record at the moment. However, I should like to address the factors behind my constituents' genuine concerns about air safety. We are constantly reminded of the issue in Richmond Park.

After the Southall rail crash, when safety was questioned, Mr. Justice Scott Baker said:

There may be a conflict between profit and safety. Many comments and comparisons have been made since then about the effects of privatisation on safety factors. Despite assurances about responsibility for safety being separated from the privatised NATS, people are very worried. That is a prime concern for my constituency, which lies under the two approach flight paths to Heathrow. We cannot forget about air safety. When aircraft pass over the area every one or two minutes during the day—despite runway alternation, thousands of people are affected every day and every night—conversations stop, teachers stop teaching and at night sleepers awake. There is a constant reminder of what might happen.

We have heard about aircraft flying with near-empty tanks. I got an unsatisfactory response when I questioned the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions about that after one incident. I was told that it was not this country's responsibility. That is extraordinary, when the aircraft are flying over our people.

We also hear about near misses in the sky. We are reassured that there are many more aeroplanes in the sky now but that the number of near misses has not risen in proportion, but they are certainly well publicised. People are very conscious of them and the number is rising each year, even if the proportion is not. The Minister shakes his head, but paragraph 21 of the Select Committee's report shows how numbers have risen.

Over the past 12 months, we have had some frightening attacks from the air in my constituency. In December last year, the body of a boy fell into a—thankfully derelict—site in Mortlake from an Air India flight. The boy had stowed away in the wheel housing and fell on a gas works next to a school. The Civil Aviation Authority carried out a full investigation after the inquest, but the only result was that the airline was asked to make tighter checks before its planes took off. That is not much comfort to my constituents when they remember that bodies have fallen out of the air.

On 12 November this year, a block of brownish ice fell through the roof of the school that was missed by the body 12 months ago. I shall not use unparliamentary language to describe what that brown ice really was, but the airline described it as

frozen effluent created by seepage through the aircraft structures. Whatever it was, it was very nasty. Luckily, it came through the roof of the school and not into the playground where the children were playing. The CAA promised another full investigation, but we have not heard any more about it. I was told on the telephone only two days ago that one of my constituents, Mr. Malcolm Welchman, was narrowly missed when walking along the pavement by another block of brown ice falling out of the sky. The incident has been reported to the CAA, which is trying to track the aircraft from which it came.

The situation is worrying. The Minister might investigate and name the airlines involved in such outrages. Why are such aircraft that come in to land at our airports not severely fined? Money from those fines should go on environmental projects or further safety measures. Eventually, somebody will be seriously injured.

The number of aircraft coming in over my constituency is another subject of concern. In 1993, the British Airports Authority forecast that, if terminal 5 went ahead, Heathrow would be able to take 420,000 air traffic movements every year. By 1996, there were 423,000 air traffic movements.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Does the hon. Lady accept that the number of aircraft movements is not limited solely by terminal capacity, but—much more importantly—by runway capacity? It is an extraordinary achievement of British airports to have produced so many more movements with the same amount of runway. Terminal buildings are not the problem.

Dr. Tonge

That point is made to me often. The danger is that, because we were promised no further development at Heathrow after terminal 4 and we now face the prospect of terminal 5, we know also that it will not be long before there could be a third runway. That is one of the problems for my constituents—promises and forecasts never come true, and are always overturned by events.

By 1997, the number of air traffic movements had increased. In 1998-99, we are already seeing in the region of 425,000 to 430,000 air traffic movements a year. Even without the new terminal or further development at Heathrow, estimates are already way above predictions. It is no wonder my constituents do not believe a word that BAA says. It is all lies to them.

My constituents do not believe very much of what is told them by the Government either when it comes to air safety and what will happen in and around Heathrow. We know that BAA will go on increasing air traffic movements with or without terminal 5. Will air traffic control cope in the future? Has that been considered? Will a privatised industry cope? Will it all have to cope on a shoestring until we start having collisions and crashes and the ensuing inquiries come up with the same remarks as were made after the Southall train disaster?

I cannot resist one last point. Can the Minister tell me when the inspector's report after the inquiry into terminal 5 will be published? Will the Government accept all the report's recommendations when it is published?

3.42 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

It is with some trepidation that I rise to speak, as I am not a member of the august Select Committee. However, the nub of the issue is something on which I have a little expertise. During this year, I have been privileged to be a member of the parliamentary armed forces scheme. As a result,

I have witnessed at first hand many of the air traffic control systems around various forces and places in this country. In addition, I was, for a time, a director of computing in a university, and I wish to talk explicitly about the information technology side of the debate.

By instinct, I am strongly in favour of keeping the air traffic control system within the public sector. One feels strongly about it because its record and professionalism have been so good. People have referred a great deal to the achievements of air traffic controllers. Having witnessed them at first hand, I have to say that I am somewhat worried about the quality of the instruments that they need to use to carry out their job.

It is true that air traffic controllers have fantastic expertise and ability to cope, but increasing air traffic year on year means that their task gets more and more difficult, and the ancient instruments that they use to monitor air traffic movements become more and more strained.

The Government are right to be concerned about trying to find a way forward that will meet that severe challenge. Even if we have a system that has been incredibly safe for 20 years, if we keep increasing the capacity, there comes a point at which it will no longer be safe.

With a database that has an order of complexity of 100, some people think that one can perform much the same operations to cover a database with an order of complexity of 120 or 200. However, there comes a point at which the extra demands being made require one completely to redesign that database, and to think again about how one copes with the extra pressures being put on it. That is true even in elementary arithmetic. Perhaps most of us can multiply two double-digit numbers, but most will find it difficult to multiply two quadruple-digit numbers. That small increased complexity taxes us to our limits.

In computing terms, that is what is happening with air traffic control. We are faced with the need for a radically new system. The Liberal Democrats say that there is a strong need for new infrastructure. I am not worried about that so much as the expertise available to us in IT to cope with the transition. Change we must, and all those locked into the current system—be they air traffic controllers or pilots—are worried about the change. They know how complicated it has become; they know how big Topsy has grown.

Yet we must find a way of managing that change while keeping the outstanding safety with which we have managed change over the past couple of decades. Doing that will require new resources. I am old-fashioned enough to think that, if that were the only issue, air traffic control should remain in the public sector and we should find those resources. However, I am much more worried about the problem of expertise.

North of the border, people talked this week about the number of civil servants with extreme expertise in fisheries, but little expertise in IT. That is also true south of the border, and in the British Isles in general. The public sector in general lacks the IT expertise that is needed to make the transition. That is due partly to history, partly to the way in which we recruit civil servants, and partly to pay rates. In my constituency—a high-tech constituency—people get £50,000, £60,000 or £100,000 a year for doing such jobs. It would be difficult to earn that much in any job in the public sector. Such people accordingly migrate towards the Microsofts and IBMs of the private sector.

As the expertise is increasingly in the private sector, it is right that, whatever else happens in the transition, the Government should lock themselves on to that expertise and try to find a way of marrying the professionalism, commitment and dedication of people such as our air traffic controllers to the extraordinary expertise that will be needed in IT to manage the revolution effectively.

That is why, despite the fact that a number of my esteemed colleagues signed an early-day motion in the previous Session lamenting the Government's stance on the matter, I found myself unable to sign it. I think that something like a public-private partnership, using the ideas about which I have talked, is needed. That does not mean privatisation, losing control or marginalising the commitment to public service that has rightly characterised the service for so long. The expertise will help us to achieve the results that we seek. We should also give recognition to the employees. The resulting structure would allow us to manage the difficult and dangerous transition in the most effective way possible.

Mrs. Dunwoody

The hazard of that argument is that the whole Swanwick exercise has been undertaken by private sector companies from the beginning. If there was a problem, it was not with the expertise in the civil service but with the project management and the computer companies. The civil service already has an extremely useful unit in Norwich, with enormous computer expertise, that is not used by Departments.

Mr. McWalter

That argument is not compelling because the expertise held in the private sector does not always make it through into public contracts. Under the previous Government, a computer company—I will not name it, although I know that I can do so here—sold inferior products to the public sector and did not provide adequate support. In my view, that was because there was insufficient expertise in the civil service to secure the right contracts to hold the private companies accountable.

There are clearly different ways of slicing the top off that egg, but, in my view, the failures show the lack of expertise in the public sector. I am saying not that the whole public sector has a lamentable lack of expertise in information technology—that would not be true—but that the kind of expertise needed to make the transition effective needs to be tapped into in an appropriate way. I hope that, between us, we can sort out the arguments to the benefit of air safety, air passengers and our transport system.

3.52 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Like the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), I am not a member of the Select Committee, but I am delighted to be able to contribute to our debate and to have heard the very interesting contributions that have been made. I apologise to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), for not having been here for her speech; I was engaged at another institution on the Strand. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) said: she has brought great distinction to her chairmanship.

I declare more than a passing interest, as I have been an aviator for the best part of 33 years—I held a pilot's licence before I held a licence to drive a motor car—and I have the privilege of representing Farnborough, which is the birthplace of British aviation. In Farnborough, we have the aerodrome—the site of the first manned flight in the United Kingdom, when Samuel Cody took off on 16 October 1908—the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency headquarters, British Aerospace headquarters and the air accidents investigation branch.

I want to single out the air accidents investigation branch and its head, Ken Smart, for the phenomenal work that is done there. I am sure that members of the Committee will be aware of it, but I am not sure how many members of the public appreciate the fantastic resource of skill and forensic science that we have in the AAIB. 1 have seen the remains of the Lockerbie PanAm 747 there. Mr. Smart showed me how the branch had determined how that aeroplane met its fate. The fact that it could do that is a tribute to the way in which it works.

There are two branches: the engineers, who are all pilots, and the pilots, who are all engineers. They cross-fertilise in a very impressive operation. To a pilot, the institution is a little grim, because it is something of a morgue, with the remains of crashed aeroplanes; but I pay tribute to it none the less.

I echo what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) said about the high aviation safety standards that we enjoy. There has been universal recognition in this debate that the United Kingdom is extremely well served in that respect. We are an air-minded country and a world leader in many aspects of aviation, and it should come as no surprise to the House or the wider public that we have cause to be proud of our air safety record.

The air traffic controllers, especially in the London airports region, have performed their task with immense skill, despite the huge increase in traffic. I sought to make that point to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge). The House debated 10 years ago whether Heathrow should have its number of traffic movements raised to 275,000 and whether it was possible to move any more traffic there. We were told that it was not. In fact—her constituents are right to be concerned about it—there has been a 30 to 40 per cent. increase, which is again a tribute to the skills of the air traffic controllers.

The hon. Lady talked about the number of reported airproxes—they used to be called near misses, but we now have an airprox board. In 1998, the number of risk-bearing airprox incidents involving public transport flights per 100,000 flying hours was 1.2, compared with 2.37 in 1997 and 2.87 in 1996. That suggests that there has been an actual reduction, not simply a proportional reduction.

Dr. Tonge

The hon. Gentleman is comparing one year with a trend that was otherwise going up.

Mr. Howarth

I freely confess that I was using only the figures for the past three years, and I do not suggest that we should be complacent. There is certainly no room for complacency. We continue to enjoy high standards of air safety only because there is no complacency. Heaven forbid that there should be any in the House. It is vital that anyone with any interest in aviation should recognise that the number 1, 2 and 3 priorities are safety, safety and safety.

We should none the less take encouragement from the picture that the figures give us of the state of play at the moment. In fairness, we should not stir up unnecessary concerns among the public, especially those who live near airports. The figures show that the situation is not getting worse.

Dr. Tonge

We need some clarification. The proportion of near misses to flights has been going down, which is excellent, but there has still been an overall increase in the number of near misses per year. That is what worries my constituents.

Mr. Howarth

I was seeking to show that there cannot have been an actual increase in the number. A reduction to 1.2 from 2.37 per 100,000 flying hours in 1997 suggests that the number has halved, and I am not sure that the number of flying hours will have gone up; but let us leave that point now.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead made an interesting point. I had the opportunity last year of flying on the Civil Aviation Authority's BAC 1-11 development aeroplane. Incidentally, I take the opportunity of this debate to say to Sir Malcolm Field that I hope that he retains that aeroplane in the CAA's control, because it does valuable work. I saw an exciting new development in operation on the aeroplane that would enable the pilot to use a rollerball—of the type with which we are all familiar from computers—to change the track on his navigational display, either because of bad weather or for another reason, and to press a button to transmit the new track to the air traffic controllers. Using the software, they could then establish whether the track were safe or conflicted with other traffic. If the track were safe, they could immediately authorise the pilot to adopt the new track. He would then press a button and the new track would be fed into the autopilot and the aeroplane would fly safely. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead may be reassured on that point.

I represent Farnborough as part of my constituency, and concerns have rightly been expressed to me about the proposals for new developments there, following the sale of the airfield by the Ministry of Defence to a company called TAG. Several years ago, the previous Government suggested that Farnborough should be the main business and general aviation airfield for London and the south-east of England, a decision that this Government also supported. I, too, endorse that decision, although my constituents are concerned about the number of movements, and safety is an important factor to them. I hope that the Minister will be able to assist Rushmore borough council in coming to an agreement on the planning application by TAG that will enable the airfield to continue to operate and, therefore, to continue to be the home of the world-famous Farnborough international air show.

The Committee made some important points about general aviation. I shall not rehearse the debate that we had recently on the air navigation order, in which the Minister mounted a stout defence against my concerns about general aviation. Paragraph 54 of the Committee's report states:

We recommend that the Government should take steps to ensure that access to training and practice for General Aviation pilots is not unduly limited, either by cost or by planning constraints. We believe that all pilots should be given incentives to undergo training and, accordingly, recommend that VAT should not be charged for appropriate training courses. I strongly endorse that recommendation and urge the Minister to adopt it. There is no doubt, as the Popular Flying Association has made clear, that the more pilots fly, the safer they are likely to be. The higher the cost of private flying is driven, the less likely people will be to keep their licences current—hence the more dangerous they become when they fly. Perhaps the Minister could also persuade the Chancellor to remove the tax on Avgas fuel, which is one of the high-cost elements of private flying.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead made a good point about the privatisation of NATS, and I agree with him. I have constituents who are air traffic controllers and I know that they have concerns. Safety is of course of paramount importance, but the experience of privatisation of BA and the BAA has not resulted in any diminution in safety. The PPP proposed for NATS is also unlikely to reduce air safety. I have spoken to Bill Semple and visited Swanwick and the London air traffic control centre at West Drayton, and I cannot believe that the professional people I met would do anything other than put safety at the top of their priorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who speaks for the Opposition on transport, made an important speech recently on the issue of Eurocontrol. I am concerned that the European Union is seeking a seat on the Eurocontrol board, because it is made up of sovereign nations and I suspect that the EU will simply supplant the individual nation states.

I am also concerned about the possible consequences for slot allocation in this country and for our negotiations with the United States of America about transatlantic access to gateway points. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South was right to point out the dangers of qualified majority voting if it were to be applied to the proposed new European aviation safety authority. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), have expressed concerns about that proposal; I echo them and hope that the Minister will take them into account.

4.6 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I shall be succinct, because we want to hear from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. As a non-member of the Committee, I wish to thank all my parliamentary colleagues who spend a lot of time on Select Committees and do valuable work on our behalf. I thank the Chairman and the members of the Committee.

I wish to restate the direct question put by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), because it bears repetition. How will integration with military flights be achieved under the Government's proposals? There may be a very good answer, but the fact remains that, not so many days ago, a very ugly incident occurred over Edinburgh airport, when a low-flying military aircraft on its approach suddenly had to gain flight because a bird apparently got into one of its engines. That created a situation that posed definite danger to a British Midland passenger aircraft. I contacted the Ministry of Defence to ask it for the details, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will do the same and answer, by letter or in his speech in reply to the debate if possible, the question about integration with military flying.

We all reflect our pasts, and part of my past was being seconded to P&O and the British India Steam Navigation Company. It was an absolute rule for anybody working on a ship that one obeyed the captain. Therefore, I believe that the pilots have a special position on all the proposals. Many Scottish Members fly every week to be here and some of us have taken the trouble to talk to the pilots in whose hands we and our fellow passengers place ourselves. On 13 occasions out of 14 recently—the other time the pilot was understandably busy with training—I have asked the pilots what they think of the proposals. I have asked whether they support Chris Darke and the British Air Line Pilots Association, or whether it is an instance of a professional association arguing a case. I can faithfully report to the House that every one of those pilots, with varying degrees of vehemence, said that they did not like the proposals as they understood them.

It may be that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has a good case, and I am not ill-disposed towards him because he, the Chairman of the Committee and I were all part of the bureau of the Socialist group of the European Parliament some 21 years ago. I therefore have great good will towards my right hon. Friend, but we are entitled to ask before we pledge support for the proposals how it is that the Government have been unable to persuade the pilots. The pilots make the precise point that it is all right to fly into busy airports such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, but that it is an entirely different matter to fly into the world's fourth busiest airport, Gatwick, or the world's busiest airport, Heathrow. They say that they want to be sure that there is unified control. If the Government fail to persuade the pilots on this matter, I fear that they will have to do without my vote.

4.10 pm
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

We have had a good debate and the Select Committee should be congratulated on the work that it has done on the report, which covers a subject that is of growing importance to all our constituents. I particularly thank my hon. Friends for their contributions to the debate; my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) made some very goods points as did my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), with whom I slightly disagree over some issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) is a pilot and represents a constituency with strong aviation interests and he always makes good points in the Chamber.

Many Labour Back Benchers also made sensible and measured proposals. When the House debates a Select Committee or a factual report on a matter that is of such concern to our constituents, it is sometimes at its best. I hope that the Minister will reply to many of the good and telling questions that Labour Members asked.

As was said earlier, the number of passengers passing through British airspace has increased from 93.2 million in 1988 to 159 million in 1998. In the same period, the number of commercial flights has increased from 1,135,264 in 1988 to 1,762,870 in 1998. That is an increase of 55.3 per cent. It is forecast that air traffic will increase by 50 per cent. over the next 15 years. The arrival of low-cost aviation has made air travel a possibility for all.

Heathrow has 98 movements per hour—that is a take-off or landing every 36.7 seconds. It is a tribute to the CAA that the tremendous increase in travel has been accompanied by improvements in safety standards. Flying in a commercial aircraft, particularly one registered in the United Kingdom, is a safe way to travel. However, the Select Committee has raised several concerns that we need to address today.

What first concerned me was that the Committee felt that much of the oral evidence that it had received was complacent and tended to emphasise the current good safety record rather than examining the challenges ahead. It is vital that the safety culture in the aviation industry is paramount and that the Government ensure that any proposals to change the existing system are based on research.

The safety regulation group of the CAA faces challenges both from deregulation and the arrival of low-cost airlines. I was particularly interested in the Committee's description of a virtual airline, a subject that several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson), mentioned. That is a fragmented airline, which perhaps leases aircraft and engines from outside the UK. In the past, the safety regulation group has been forced, simply through pressure of work, to pursue a less proactive role, leaving more of the checks to individual airlines. With well-known carriers, that may not be a problem but, with the arrival of new airlines, we need to ensure that they are properly supervised.

The Committee has identified a number of problems that I shall touch on, although with such a comprehensive report, it would be unfair to Members wishing to speak if I dwelt on all of them for too long. Airprox incidents— the number of risk-bearing near misses involving public transport flights—have decreased. In 1998, there were 1.2 for every 100,000 flying hours compared with 2.07 in 1997 and 2.87 in 1996.

Instances of overload have more than doubled. The number of periods when traffic controllers felt that volume was too great to guarantee safety was 49 in 1998–99 compared with 24 in the previous 12 months and 16 in 1996–97. National Air Traffic Services is finding handling the massive increases in air traffic increasingly difficult, with ageing equipment, under-investment and pressure from airlines to reduce delays. A senior official of NATS said earlier this year:

We can cope with 3 per cent. annual growth but 7 per cent. and higher is really stretching things". The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety has highlighted to me the conflict between safety and capacity. There are concerns about the recent reduction in the vortex rate at Heathrow from 3 to 2.5 miles and whether that rate may be eroded further. The issue was raised with the Select Committee by the Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers.

Another key concern are developments in Europe. We are members of the JAA, which was established in 1970. It includes regulating authorities from 27 European states, including the CAA. The JAA operates as a club and its decisions are not legally binding on its members. It is fair to say that there was criticism from witnesses to the Committee about those arrangements, which clearly need improving. However, the Committee was also clearly unenthusiastic about the Government's preferred solution of developing EASA to replace it.

Conservative Members believe in the nation state and in co-operation on an international intergovernmental level. We therefore oppose EASA being turned from an international organisation into one controlled by the European Union. We also resist the proposals now emanating from Mr. Prodi and the Commission with its "15 states, one sky" policy to take over the Eurocontrol organisation. That proposal was discussed last week by Transport Ministers in Brussels. Unfortunately, the Government, with their usual craven attitude, are falling over themselves to sign up to obligations that will result in EU involvement in the control of our airspace.

Conservatives fully support co-operation with other countries for better management of air traffic control. For many years, Britain has been a leading member of Eurocontrol—the European body that covers air traffic control in not just EU states but national regional air traffic control systems across the continent. There are huge air traffic problems in continental Europe. Other countries do not manage their systems well and cause European travellers horrendous delays. Those problems can be solved by continued co-operation rather than integration. They are not a pretext for the EU to muscle in and grab a whole new area of legal control. That is why we would have vetoed those latest moves.

Labour supports the proposal that the EU should itself become a member of Eurocontrol. That means that the EU will not only take over member states' negotiations in Eurocontrol, but will automatically acquire the power to make law and regulations about the airspace of the member states. The EU is due to join Eurocontrol on 27 January next year and that is a massive increase in EU legal competence.

The Government need to answer some crucial questions. What are the overwhelming reasons for Britain to give up control of our skies? What can the EU achieve for air traffic management in Europe in Eurocontrol which will not be achieved for Eurocontrol's non-EU members? If other EU members states are determined to go ahead, why should the UK not have an opt-out?

We have the best air traffic control in Europe, if not the world. It is hard to see what Britain will gain from this arrangement. We must not fall for the line that European integration will mean that the other EU countries will change their ways and adopt ours. The common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy have surely taught us that. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for Stoke-on-Trent, South have made that point. We need services to be improved not a levelling down.

Most important are the defence and security consequences. The EU is not a member of NATO, and many EU countries are non-NATO members. What are the defence and security implications of a non-NATO body partly controlled by non-NATO countries acquiring the supreme authority over UK airspace?

We are in favour of co-operation. We are full and active members of Eurocontrol as an international organisation; however, we are against unnecessary expansion of EU power for its own sake. It is plain that this proposal is really about European federalism and that Labour is selling out our vital national interests.

NATS has been the focus of the debate. Many hon. Members have expressed their concern about the Government's public-private partnership proposals. I do

not believe that safety issues will be affected by the change in status of NATS, but Government hesitation in the past two years or so may have damaged short-term investment. The Government's PPP is a convoluted compromise that has delayed the sale of NATS for the past couple of years. To quote my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), the shadow Transport Minister:

While the Government were searching for a way to spin this privatisation in the media and the Department was missing slots in the legislative timetable, Britain's air traffic system has been starved of capital investment and has had investment plans shelved". Conservative Members want a simple flotation with a golden share to provide for permanent UK control.

Another interesting point, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, concerned how little money would be raised by the sale of NATS. The explanatory note to the Transport Bill states:

Income from the partial sale of NATS to a strategic partner could raise in the region of £350 million. Against that, NATS has outstanding loans of around £300 million which will need to be settled … the total cost of establishing a public-private partnership … will be approximately £35 million". That means that only £15 million will be raised from the sale. I was interested in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, and in the Minister's intervention. I hope that the Minister will enlighten the House about how the Government will get more than the figure that they put in that explanatory note.

If the Government are serious about a PPP, they need investment from the private sector. The Opposition caution the Minister against accepting bids from foreign companies that are wholly or partially state owned. For instance, Thompson CSF of France is 40 per cent. owned by the state.

There is a real problem with NATS. All other air traffic control systems in the world are owned by the public sector. Many of the potential bidders for NATS, therefore, could be other states' air traffic control organisations. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to rule out the possibility that the air traffic systems of neighbouring states such as southern Ireland might be allowed to bid for a share of NATS.

Whenever there is a debate about air safety or NATS, the subject of Swanwick comes up, and several hon. Members mentioned it today. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that the opening date for Swanwick remains spring 2002, as he said in a recent written answer.

Several hon. Members also mentioned the delay in setting up the oceanic flight data processing centre at Prestwick. Will the Minister tell us when the contract will be signed, if it has not been signed already? What is the target date for the centre's opening?

A recurring theme in the Select Committee report was the problem of staff shortages. Staffing and training were among the key issues in the Committee's proposals. The safety regulation group has problems filling vacancies—five of its 45 posts remain vacant—and, as is the case with almost all such organisations, it faces stiff competition from the private sector over the recruitment of suitable staff. There is an argument that the staff of many of the bodies mentioned in the debate should enjoy better pay and conditions. That would ensure that we can maintain and keep the first-rate people needed to give confidence in air safety.

Mention was made earlier of the air accidents investigation branch of the Department of Trade and Industry, which has also suffered from staff shortages. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said that she hoped that the Minister would state that those shortages have been made good. However, a real problem of staff retention exists in those services.

The report states that, until 15 years ago, 70 per cent. of those working as pilots or in engineering posts were ex-military. Clearly, given the way in which the world is going, the problem of filling those posts will get worse unless the Government—and the private sector—offer a lot more in terms of training to ensure that we get people of the right calibre.

I was also interested in the Committee's plea that English be pushed as the language of the air, and made the standard for air-ground communication. In some respects, I understand other countries' opposition to that proposal, but it is an important point and I hope that the Government acknowledge it.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire raised the problem of runway capacity in the south-east. The Government's response seemed to suggest that they did not consider that there was any particular problem. However, in the document entitled "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone" published in July 1998, the Government said that a White Paper would be produced setting out airport policy for the next 30 years. I know that a possible factor in the delay to that White Paper has been the Heathrow terminal 5 inquiry. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) noted, it would be helpful if the Minister could give the House some idea of when we will hear the terminal 5 inquiry date, and of when we can expect a White Paper setting out a sensible airport policy for the future.

The Government have taken on board some of the Select Committee's recommendations, but I was worried to hear the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich say that the tone and quality of the Government's response had been poor, and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South described his disappointment at the way in which some of the recommendations had been received. Those two hon. Members are senior and respected figures, so it is fair to say that there has not been great joy and happiness at the Government's response. However, I know that, if the Government do not respond satisfactorily in the short term, hon. Members will come back to the House to ensure that they take the Select Committee report more seriously.

We welcome the aviation safety report by the Select Committee. However, we remain concerned about greater EU involvement in our skies and about some of the Government's rather convoluted plans for a PPP for NATS. However, this has been a good debate, on a topic that is close to the hearts of the many of our constituents who travel far and wide. I look forward to the Minister's response.

4.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

As the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said, this has been a good debate. If I may say so, we have been discussing a good report. Although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will not be deflected by flattery, I pay tribute to her long interest in these matters. As I shall probably have to repeat several times in my speech, I can assure her that we take the report's recommendations very seriously.

It will not be possible for me to deal with all the issues raised this afternoon. There are rather a lot of them: some had only a tangential relevance to the subject but, happily, most were relevant. I shall do my best, but I shall be glad to write to hon. Members if I miss out any of the main points.

The allegation running through the debate has been that the Government are in some way complacent about air safety. I entirely refute that. We are not content with the status quo. We do not believe that everything is perfect. I shall not even go so far as to say that our air safety arrangements are the best in the world. I shall say only that they are among the best in the world, as the House will accept.

During my years in the House, I have heard many of our institutions—police, judges, soldiers and so on—described as the best in the world, most often by Conservative Members. That radiates an air of complacency that I have no wish to adopt, so I shall confine myself to saying that our air safety record is among the best in the world. Work goes on continuously to make sure that we maintain that record.

One requirement to being taken seriously in this matter is to ensure that we do not react in a knee-jerk fashion to tragedies. When a tragedy happens, everyone make an instant analysis of the circumstances, and experiences a personal gut feeling about what was wrong or about what should have happened. However, the benefit of hindsight is that it often shows that initial reactions were incorrect. It is vital, therefore, when dealing with important issues of safety, to reflect maturely and undertake proper research and analysis before reaching conclusions.

Some recommendations might even have an adverse affect on safety. For example, the use of smoke hoods was proposed soon after the Manchester accident, and subsequently. However, it has been suggested that smoke hoods could impede evacuation: if so, they would not necessarily be desirable.

Many hon. Members have spoken about air traffic control and about the Government's plans in that respect. Other opportunities will arise to debate those matters—the next coming on Monday, so I shall make only a few general points on the matter.

Many hon. Members have asked when we expect Swanwick to open. I can confirm that it is on target, which is more than can be said about the arrangements that we inherited. It is expected to open in spring 2002. What is most important is not to predict in advance the day or week when it will open, but to get it right. Stringent tests and training will take place between now and then to make sure that we get it right. Thus far, I am glad to say, opening is on target.

We inherited a considerable mess at Prestwick and we are doing our best to put it right. That has involved unravelling some arrangements. If ever there was a case for getting some private sector skills into project management, it is the project management at Prestwick. It is anticipated that Prestwick should be ready by the winter of 2005-06, but I hope that no one will attempt to hold me to a particular day or week. Once again it is important to get it right.

I repeat a point that Ministers and everyone concerned with safety regulations has made at every opportunity—that aviation safety is, and will continue to be, paramount. That theme runs through all our plans for the future of air traffic control. We intend to separate, and keep separate, safety regulation from operations.

I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe)—forgive me if I am wrong—who made a comparison with Rai1track. There is none to be made. One of the big mistakes about Rai1track is that it was left with some safety responsibilities. It is a cardinal rule of effective safety procedure that safety regulation is kept separate from operations. That happens now and will be written into our arrangements for a public-private partnership of air traffic control. Far from undermining safety, we shall enhance safety arrangements. We are in the process of talking to all interested parties, including air traffic control and pilot representatives. We are taking seriously all their suggestions—they have made several constructive suggestions—for improving safety arrangements. For example, we hope to include on the board a director who has specific responsibility for safety. That will be an improvement.

Mr. Brake

I thank the Minister for giving way and perhaps he was going to come to this point. Can he explain why he did not include improved safety in his written answer which listed arguments for PPP? Was that simply an oversight or what?

Mr. Mullin

With the greatest respect, that is a silly point.

Mr. Brake

It is a serious point.

Mr. Mullin

Our position, which I stated at the outset and which I now repeat, is that safety is paramount. The safety arrangements that exist now are extremely good, as everyone recognises. We intend to maintain them when the PPP is up and running. In addition, we are willing to listen to any sensible suggestions, from whatever source, to enhance safety. We have had some sensible suggestions and we are taking them seriously. Indeed, I expect to implement some of them. I make the point again that the PPP of air traffic control will, if anything, enhance safety arrangements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South mentioned that there was a public perception that the sale of part of air traffic control would undermine safety. Like many public perceptions, it is wrong. It is the job of all responsible people to put right such misconceptions. Indeed, those misconceptions are shared by a number of hon. Members, and it is the job of the Government and those concerned with safety regulation and of the management of air traffic control to make sure that the correct perception and correct facts are given to the public.

It is a little-known fact—people are constantly surprised by it, although one or two hon. Members are obviously aware of it because they referred to it—that, at many private airports—there is a long list of them which I do not have with me—air traffic control is already in private hands and has been for many years. It is regulated in the same way as air traffic control elsewhere and is working extremely effectively. Anyone who alleges that selling a stake in air traffic control to the private sector will make arrangements less safe must confront the fact that, already in a large number of airports, air traffic control is privately managed.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Is my hon. Friend aware that London Luton airport, which I am proud to represent, is one of those 18 airports that is not controlled by NATS and is already a public private partnership? It is one of the fastest growing United Kingdom airports. The Queen recently opened its second terminal. It employs an increasing number of my constituents. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to maintain the confidence of air passengers who go through London Luton for the sake of the industry and our local economies?

Mr. Mullin

That is true of Luton and of others. A list has now mysteriously appeared in front of me. The other day I had the pleasure of visiting East Midlands airport. It is quite a large privately owned airport where air traffic control has been privately operated for many years and is working perfectly satisfactorily. There are at least 18 others, including Belfast, Blackpool, Bristol, Bournemouth, Coventry, Exeter, Guernsey, Humberside, Isle of Man, Jersey, London Luton, Liverpool, Leeds Bradford, Newcastle, Prestwick and Teesside. I know that some of those are small and I do not try to draw any too large conclusions, but some are considerable operations and have been working satisfactorily. In addition, the CAA already regulates the BAA and airlines that are in private hands. The CAA already has a lot of experience of regulating the private sector, so we are not breaking any new ground.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I hope that my hon. Friend will not misunderstand me when I say that to suggest that the operation of any one of his list of worthy and developing airports is equivalent to air traffic control over London is rather embarrassing. I hope that he will not persist.

Mr. Mullin

I am not suggesting that, of course. I said that I was not seeking to draw significant conclusions from it. But it is wrong to allege that the principle is somehow impossible, and that putting air traffic control into the private sector—albeit with state regulation, which is what we intend— introduces a huge new problem that has never before been confronted. That is all that I am saying—I put it no more strongly than that.

Mr. Gray

The Minister said a moment ago that the public-private partnership would, if anything, enhance safety. Is he suggesting that safety is less than 100 per cent? Presumably, he is. Secondly, will he tell us in precise detail how the proposed PPP will enhance safety?

Mr. Mullin

I am not alleging that safety is anything less than 100 per cent. at present. I am simply saying that we are in the market for any suggestions to enhance safety. A number of constructive suggestions have already come from interested parties. I mentioned one, which the hon. Gentleman may have missed—to have a director on the board of the new company with specific responsibility for safety. We will consider any other suggestions seriously.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked me about integration with military flights. Our proposals for air traffic control have been discussed with the Ministry of Defence, which is satisfied with the arrangements. We intend to ensure that the present excellent arrangements for co-operation between the military and civil air traffic control will be maintained. We shall lay an obligation on the National Air Traffic Services through its licence. NATS is negotiating a detailed contract for the delivery of joint and integrated services. I can give an assurance that the public-private partnership will have no adverse effect on the arrangements.

Miss McIntosh

The Minister answered the question by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). Could he also put my mind at rest that the Eurofighter will be fitted with the collision warning system that the Tornado has when it comes on stream in 2002?

Mr. Mullin

I am afraid that I cannot comment on that. If a note about that reaches me during the course of the debate, I shall certainly convey its contents. If not, I shall write to the hon. Lady. I assume that she would not want me to reply off the top off my head.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) made a number of sensible points. He referred to the huge pressure that will undoubtedly continue to be placed on those who work in the aviation industry by the exponential growth of the demand for air travel. There has been a 7 per cent. increase in recent years. He was right to say that it will put a great strain on the technology and on the personnel responsible for operating the technology. That is why we have to invest in new technology worth £1 billion. That is one reason—only one—why we are setting up a public-private partnership. It will require a radically new system. Incidentally, the technology is destined to go on changing—even when we have achieved the changes that will be made at Swanwick and Prestwick, that will not be the end of the matter. There are other, much larger, changes in the pipeline, and we have to be ready to meet them. That is another reason why we need to bring in the private sector.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said that there was some confusion about the amount of money that we hoped to raise from the sale. He had, as he said, a cast-iron alibi for his non-attendance at the Select Committee the other day. The same alibi does not apply to the other two Conservative Members who were absent.

Miss McIntosh

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As the Chairman of the Select Committee knows only too well, I was seconded to serve by special request on the special procedures committee considering the Tunstall northern bypass Stoke-on-Trent compulsory purchase order, and I have been doing that for six hours a day, four days a week, for the past three weeks. I was relieved from that duty only—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. That is a very interesting explanation for the hon. Lady's absence from the Committee, but it is hardly a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Mullin

The hon. Lady has my deepest sympathies. I do not seek to make too much of this point, except to say that I was, in my previous incarnation, a Chairman of a Select Committee, and one or two Conservative Members, such as the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) take them very seriously. But some do not, and I was disappointed when I appeared before the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee the other day that not a single Conservative Member was present. It goes beyond disappointment and becomes galling when the very same Conservative Members crop up in the Chamber a few days later and demand the answers to questions that have been given elsewhere.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am happy to support the normal exchange of insults. However, all the Conservative members of the Select Committee had legitimate reasons not to attend. I hope that the Minister will not use my Committee as an excuse for this kind of exchange.

Mr. Mullin

I am grateful for that information. I think that we should now move on and keep within the spirit of the debate.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mullin

No, I must move on, because I have only 10 minutes or so left, and hon. Members want replies to their questions.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire said that there was some confusion about how much money will be raised. No one can predict with certainty how much money will be raised from any sale of public assets. However, the £350 million estimated as the possible income from the sale of the 46 per cent. stake is exclusive of the debt. I hope that that is helpful.

The hon. Members for Poole, for Aldershot and for North Wiltshire referred to problems with the European Union. We all know the difficulties that some Conservative Members have with foreigners in general and the EU in particular. I have no intention of intruding on private grief, but a serious point was made, which was repeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson). Signing up to any future arrangements with Europe must not become an opportunity to dilute this country's very high standards. I entirely accept that. We will not agree to anything that undermines rather than raises standards.

Directives from Europe sometimes raise rather than lower standards. For example, environmental standards in this country used often to be lamentable, and we must be grateful to the EU for some of the measures that it forced the previous Government to adopt—albeit with some reluctance—and that we have adopted with rather more enthusiasm.

A point was made about the inspection of foreign aircraft, which was addressed to some extent in the Government's response to the report. We have doubled the budget for foreign aircraft inspections. We take the matter seriously, and hon. Members were right to raise it. We have agreed to an intensive programme of checks with the CAA. In the six months from 1 April, 56 checks were completed, which compares with 63 in the previous 12 months. The number of inspections is expected to accelerate over the winter months.

The safety regulation group works on the basis that hired foreign aircraft are expected to have safety levels equivalent to those in the United Kingdom. Rather than make general, untargeted checks, the group tends to concentrate on areas in which there is cause for concern.

Mr. Howarth

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mullin

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not, as I have only five minutes left and have been generous in giving way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich was among hon. Members who referred to the allegation that a plane attempted to land at Heathrow with very little fuel in its tanks. It has not been possible to verify the allegations. The airline mentioned was Malaysia Airlines. Departmental officials met representatives of the airline to review its fuel policy, which the CAA judged to be in line with international requirements. In May, it was agreed that the airline should provide my Department with weekly fuel reports for all its aircraft, and it has done so.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) referred to the millennium.

Dr. Tonge

indicated dissent.

Mr. Mullin

The hon. Lady shakes her head at me. Someone asked me to refer to it.

Mr. Brake

indicated assent.

Mr. Mullin

I apologise to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), who asked me to confirm that we are millennium compliant. The UK industry is compliant. As regards foreign airlines, two—Gulf Air and Southern Aviation of Zambia—have yet to supply appropriate information. Those airlines have been advised that their permits will be suspended over the millennium if satisfactory information is not forthcoming.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South, referred to concerns about the shortage of staff in the industry and training. Following publication of the Select Committee's report, an interdepartmental working group was established to consider what role the Government might play in supporting efforts to tackle the shortage of aircraft maintenance engineers, which we all agree is serious. The group has met three times—most recently on 13 December.

The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) asked about air rage incidents. The Government have set up a working group on disruptive passengers. Our consciousness of this problem is relatively new, and we need to collect information on the scale of the problem so that we may analyse it. The CAA has been collecting data for six months, and I expect to receive an analysis of the figures early next year. I do not want to jump the gun until the information is before me.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park referred to two extremely disturbing incidents that occurred over her constituency. I recall reading about those incidents in the newspapers at the time. Given what happened, I entirely understand the terms in which she expressed her concern on her constituents' behalf. Thankfully such incidents are extremely rare, although I appreciate that that is no consolation to anyone who happened to be involved. It is not always possible to identify the aircraft concerned, although it was possible in one of the two cases mentioned by the hon. Lady. The CAA works with all UK airlines to make sure that their aircraft are properly maintained and to enforce mandatory modifications to waste systems where necessary.

Terminal 5 was raised by the hon. Member for Richmond Park and several other hon. Members. The inspector completed his inquiries in March. He estimates that it will take him two years to write the report. It will arrive at my Department, therefore, in 2001. The hon. Lady asked whether the Government would accept its recommendations. It is normal practice to wait for a report before deciding whether to accept it. The most important thing is to get it right.

I repeat that I am conscious that I have not managed to address all the points raised in the debate, although I hope the House will concede that I have dealt with several. I refute the suggestion—

Question deferred, pursuant to paragraphs (4) and (5) of Standing Order No. 54 (Consideration of estimates) and Sessional Order of 25 October 1999 and resolution [29 November].

Forward to