§ 3. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber)
If he will make a statement on the future of regional air services. 
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson)
The Government recognise the importance of regional air services and have undertaken a programme of studies on them. The Government will shortly undertake a consultation exercise on the findings of those studies through a series of regional consultation documents. Those documents will examine how regional air services could develop under a range of scenarios.
§ Mr. Stewart
The Minister will be aware of the worrying trend in the United Kingdom of regional air services being cut in favour of more lucrative international destinations. In my constituency, for example, we lost our link with Heathrow in 1997. Does my hon. Friend share my view that we have to beef up our protection for vulnerable geographic routes, such as those to and from Inverness and Plymouth? Does he agree 134 that we must demand stronger regulations in Europe for public service obligations; interpret the current regulations as liberally as the French do; and, finally, grapple with the difficult and thorny issue of the lack of runway capacity in the south-east?
§ Mr. Jamieson
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) on so assiduously following up this important issue on behalf of his constituents through questions, correspondence, meetings with constituents and Adjournment debates. He has left us in no doubt about the importance for Inverness of the London air links. I noticed that he cheekily introduced the issue of Plymouth in relation to Inverness; I am not quite sure why.
The Government have shown that where there is a demonstrable need for regional air services, we will take the necessary action to provide them—as we have in the highlands and islands, where there are public service obligations on certain flights. However, I remind my hon. Friend that public service obligations and the ring-fencing of slots are governed by strict European legislation, and we have to test each application to determine whether it meets those criteria.
My hon. Friend mentioned the south-east and east of England regional consultation document. I am sure that all hon. Members will be interested to see it once it is published.
§ Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)
Will the Minister acknowledge that any further expansion of Heathrow that involves the construction of a third runway would be completely unacceptable to the vast majority of local residents, and will he take this opportunity to rule it out?
§ Mr. Jamieson
It is too early to speculate on that matter, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait until the regional air services consultation documents are published. I assure him that many hon. Members, not only those in the south-east and east regions, will be interested in the outcome of studies in their areas.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
The Minister will be aware that in France, major airports in the Paris area have vast numbers of slots that are protected for public service obligations, allowing regional air services to connect people with goods and services. Given that it is possible to protect regional air services, will the Minister give an undertaking that the Government will put that at the top of their agenda in order to defend the interests of the regions?
§ Mr. Jamieson
I assure my hon. Friend that the importance of regional air services is very much on our agenda, as will be underlined by the consultation documents when they are published.
I can also tell my hon. Friend that my Department is considering the European legislation to see how it can be strengthened and to see if other policy options could be used to provide protection for regional air services. It has not generally been Government policy to protect and ring-fence the slots, because where they are protected—for example, in the highlands and islands—funding issues must be addressed as well.
§ Angus Robertson (Moray)
The Minister will be aware that a campaign for a public service obligation order for the Inverness to Gatwick route has been running for years, not months. He will also be aware that there have been debates in the House and Ministers have repeatedly been questioned about when the Government will announce a decision, yes or no, on a PSO for the Gatwick to Inverness route. The longer they take, the more it will be perceived as a rebuff to the Scottish Executive, who are in favour. The delay is inexplicable to the people of the highlands and islands, given the contrast with the situation in France, where there are at least 34 such PSOs, even on routes where there are competing airlines. When will the Government announce their decision?
§ Mr. Jamieson
I note the hon. Gentleman's interest in public service obligation orders and look forward to seeing ideas from his party about how they might be funded in certain circumstances, because that issue must be addressed at the same time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber has made clear to me the importance of the Inverness service. An application for a public service order was received from the Scottish Executive last year. We are in correspondence with them about the matter, and an announcement will be made shortly.