HC Deb 28 November 2002 vol 395 cc474-87

1.9 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement about the Government's consultation on airports capacity.

As I set out in my statement to the House in July, the Government intend to publish a White Paper on air travel. As part of that, we will set out our views on how much additional airport capacity is needed and where it should be sited. In advance of the White Paper, we published seven consultation papers seeking views on a wide number of options throughout the United Kingdom. Part of that consultation included consideration of capacity in the south-east of England. A number of options were canvassed. One of the key questions was the importance of an international hub airport in the south-east and where it should be sited.

As I said in July, one option was to build at Heathrow, a second option was at Stansted, and a third option was a completely new airport at Cliffe. As well as the question of a hub airport, the south-east consultation paper looked at other matters, including where any new capacity should be located. I told the House in July that I had decided to exclude further development at Gatwick because of a legal agreement ruling out the construction of a new runway before 2019. That decision was challenged last month, when Kent county council and Medway council applied for a judicial review of that decision. On Tuesday the court upheld that challenge.

It might be useful to remind the House why the Government took the decision to exclude Gatwick. I also want to set out how the Government intend to proceed in the light of the court's ruling. The facts in relation to the Government's decision were set out in a witness statement put before the court. I have arranged to place a copy of that statement in the Library. I have also sent a copy of it to the principal Opposition spokesmen, along with this statement, in the usual way.

Briefly, the facts are these. The Government, prior to publishing the consultation papers, had to consider whether to include proposals in relation to Gatwick airport. In particular, they had to consider whether they should ask Parliament to overturn an agreement made in 1979 between the then publicly owned British Airports Authority and West Sussex county council.

The Government decided that it would be highly undesirable to do so as a matter of policy. We considered it important that people should be able to continue to rely on such a legally binding agreement. Accordingly, the Government reached the conclusion in respect of the 1979 agreement that although they could ask Parliament to overturn it, they would consider it appropriate to do so only if there was demonstrably no alternative way forward. That was clearly not the case, having regard to the other options before them.

As the House knows, the court took a different view. It held that people ought to have an opportunity to present their case on expansion at Gatwick. As I made clear in my written statement yesterday, although the court granted leave for the Government to appeal against this decision, I have decided not to do so. Inevitably, an appeal would be a lengthy and prolonged process and would result in an extensive period of uncertainty for people up and down the country. That is in no one's interest.

I have therefore decided that the consultation, due to end on 30 November, will be kept open until we have consulted on options in relation to Gatwick. It is only two days since we received the judgment and its implications need to be considered further, but I wanted to keep the House informed about how I intend to proceed. I intend to publish a further paper, following the decision to include Gatwick in the consultation. I will publish these further options in the new year. The consultation period will run for four months from then.

It follows, therefore, that all representations received so far will be considered, together with additional representations that follow from the decision to include Gatwick. As I told the House on 19 November, this is an opportunity for anyone in the country to express their views on all the options in the consultation, as well as to put forward reasonable alternatives. Inevitably the White Paper, which I had hoped to publish in the first part of next year, will be delayed, at least until the autumn of next year.

The Government took the decision to exclude Gatwick because they wanted to honour an agreement. The court has taken a different view. Rather than contest that judgment, I have decided that the right thing to do is to accept it and consult, but inevitably and regrettably, it means an extended period of uncertainty for everyone. The important thing now is to get on and reach a conclusion on what is a critical matter for the future of this country.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

May I thank the Secretary of State for his typical courtesy in providing a copy of his statement in advance? I should also like to wish him a happy birthday. I suspect that this judgment is not the birthday present he would have chosen, but I none the less offer him my congratulations.

Does the Secretary of State accept that his entire consultation exercise has been flawed from the start? The High Court's conclusion that it was irrational comes on top of criticism from many quarters that it was rushed and based on inaccurate and misleading figures; contained misprints that required copies to be recalled and reprinted; involved four-week delays for some people in getting hold of copies of the consultation documents; and included questionnaires that many people saw as profoundly loaded.

Is it not the case that Gatwick was not the only important option to be left out? Why was the preferred option of Birmingham airport omitted? Why did the right hon. Gentleman consult on a sort of runway layout for Heathrow that even BAA Heathrow does not want? Will he comment on the belief of many in the Rugby area that some of the figures in his documents for that area relate to a completely different site two miles away from the one described? Given the immense importance of the issue to large numbers of communities, many of which had no idea before 23 July of what was being contemplated for them, would it not have been more sensible from the start to allow more than a 16-week period—most of it in the summer—for people to respond?

We very much welcome the Secretary of State's decision in the light of the court judgment to extend the consultation. The Opposition were calling for such an extension even in advance of the judgment. However, will he clarify one point from his statement? Does the extension apply to the whole country or only to the south-eastern regional consultation? Does he recognise that many groups, and not only those in the south-east, will wish to revisit their evidence in the light of the re-inclusion of Gatwick?

Does the Secretary of State accept that, while he is right to say that decisions cannot be indefinitely delayed, they must be taken in the right and proper way and after genuine consultation? Will he pledge to publish the results of the full consultation well in advance of reaching conclusions, so that everyone can judge the basis on which he will make decisions? Will he give an undertaking that he and his Ministers will visit every affected site before announcing conclusions? Does he not recognise that he owes those communities that assurance at least?

Does the Secretary of State accept that if his final conclusions are to be seen as fair and reasonable by all involved, he and his Department need to listen more, consult properly and start getting things right, rather than hopelessly wrong?

Mr. Darling

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes in respect of my birthday. Last year, my former private office was kind enough to present me with a CD containing the greatest hits of Leonard Cohen. This year, the courts have not been quite so kind to me. I have always found Leonard Cohen more uplifting than many court judgments.

Let me deal with the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. I remind him that when I announced the consultation in July, he was kind enough in making a very reasoned response on behalf of the Opposition to commend me for the spirit in which I had launched the consultation. He rightly went on to urge me to bring it to a swift conclusion. I have endeavoured to do that, but I recognise that a problem has arisen in relation to Gatwick that I must deal with.

On the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised, Birmingham airport and options there are included in the consultation, as is Heathrow. I have always made it clear—I did so not only in July, but as recently as November, when we had an extended Question Time on this matter—that it is open to people not only to respond to what the Government canvassed in their options, but to bring forward any alternatives. After all, we are considering one of the most profoundly important decisions that will be taken in this Parliament about what to do in relation not only to a hub airport, but to other airport capacity. That is why I agree with him that it is important to get it right. People must remember that they can make whatever representations they think appropriate. The Government will then publish a White Paper, but afterwards, any decision to build an airport will be taken on a commercial basis by that airport's operator. It is not as if the White Paper is the end of the road. What it does is provide a framework against which everyone can plan.

I regret that as a result of the judgment, the process will take longer than I anticipated. It will give people four months longer. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the consultation was open to the whole country or only the south-east. The whole consultation remains open, because, manifestly, a decision on any of the London airports has implications for the rest of the country.

The whole consultation will therefore remain open and I hope that people will enter into the spirit of it by accepting that they have a chance to make representations on Gatwick, but that, for everyone's good, we must try to reach a conclusion by the end of next year. Waiting longer is in nobody's interests, especially those who might be affected by expansion.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I join the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) in thanking the Secretary of State for advance notice of the statement and wishing him a happy birthday. However, he has left us dangling in uncertainty about his birthday present from his new private office.

Although I welcome and acknowledge the need for the Secretary of State's decision, does he recognise that the High Court's judgment knocks a further hole in a set of deeply flawed consultation documents? Does it not provide an opportunity for the new documents to tackle not only the Gatwick issue but some of the other flaws? Does he accept that the current documents are based on the long discredited predict-and-provide approach rather than managing demand? Does he also accept that the growth figures in the documents unjustifiably assume that the current tax benefits to the airline industry, such as no aviation fuel duty or no VAT on tickets will continue, when that is unlikely?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is an incorrect assumption about the economic benefits to continued air expansion in this country and that it is not necessarily beneficial for Britain to become an international airport transit lounge? Does he further accept that the new document provides an opportunity to cover sustainability, which is missing from the current documents? Is it not now time for the Government to live up to their categorical commitment that aviation should meet its external costs?

The Secretary of State has an opportunity to correct some of the flaws; let us hope that he does that.

Mr. Darling

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. For those who are interested, my new private office gave me a nice train set. At least they run on time!

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman's subsidiary points. There is no question of anyone building airports on a predict-and-provide basis. As I have often said, the private sector will build and pay for any new airport capacity. It will not build an airport on spec; people do not do that.

Our objective must be to provide frameworks in which the commercial sector—the airlines as well as the people who run the airports—and people who live near airports can plan.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned economic benefits. The aviation industry, not only airports, greatly benefits this county, indirectly as well as directly. Heathrow must employ more than 100,000 people. The decision that we make, especially on London airports, is therefore immensely important not only to the people involved but to the country.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

During my 18 undistinguished months as aviation Minister, I learned two lessons about the aviation industry. First, its demands are insatiable; secondly, successive Governments have always given way to them. May I put it to my right hon. Friend that the time has come to make a stand? Instead of building more runways, airports and terminals, he should consider a little demand management. Air travel is not a basic human right and it should he matched by environmental considerations.

Mr. Darling

I remember that my hon. Friend spent 18 months as aviation Minister. Perhaps I take a slightly different view from him. Half the country flew at least once last year. My hon. Friend may believe that that is wrong. By demand management, he means increasing the price of air travel. That will prevent some people from travelling. It is problematic for hon. Members to say that to our fellow countrymen.

I agree, and the consultation documents make it clear, that the aviation industry should pay the price of its environmental impact. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made an announcement about that in the pre-Budget report. This is not, as my hon. Friend puts it, a question of giving in to the industry. We have to work out what we think the likely demand will be—of course it is critically important that we take into account the environmental impact—and to make sensible plans for that demand. As I said a moment ago, this industry is of immense importance to the country, and it is important that we get this right. I am in no doubt about this. I look at the issue from the point of view of the country, rather than the industry, because that is what the Government do. I do not, however, have the slight reluctance—I will not say antipathy—that my hon. Friend has in accepting that the industry might have something to contribute.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

Leaving aside the irony of a court of law reproving the Government for their reluctance to overturn a binding legal agreement between two public authorities—and leaving aside the merits of the case, which I believe are substantial—does the Secretary of State accept that his original decision to exclude Gatwick was correct, if only on the basis of that legal agreement? Does he also agree that the case for a new airport for the south-east, located on the coast—whatever configuration or option is chosen—remains very powerful, in that the flight paths of the growing aviation industry could be located over water rather than over people's houses? Given that a number of alternative proposals to the one in his original options paper for Cliffe have been put forward, will he use the enforced opportunity of an extended consultation period to ensure that those three or four different options for a new airport are fully exposed and consulted on?

Mr. Darling

Yes, the whole point of the consultation is to receive recommendations and representations, and if we receive serious, worked up proposals, of course we will look at them. That is the whole point. On the right hon. Gentleman's first point—I remember that he said something similar in July—it is an irony, but it is one of those things that we have to live with.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

I firmly believe that my right hon. Friend has made the right decision not to appeal the judicial review, because to have done so would have left us with more discontent and a greater sense that there was no future for our airports in the south-east. Gatwick wants to be part of the future, and I therefore firmly believe that the right decision has been made. Will my right hon. Friend assure me and my constituents in Crawley that the process of deciding the future of airports in the south-east will be dealt with in Parliament? My constituents want to know where we are going and what the future will hold, and that we have a proper plan in place.

Mr. Darling

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. It is very important that we publish a White Paper next year, because to let the matter drag on would do no one any good. On my hon. Friend's point about an appeal, I do not think that any good would come of the Government's engaging in lengthy litigation that would take months and months. Whatever else the Government do, I do not think that it is our job to provide a living for more and more lawyers when we could be getting on with the job. I speak as a former lawyer, and I am not too bitter, although when I see what some of my learned friends are getting up to these days, I wonder whether I made the right decision all those years ago. It would be quite wrong to prolong this process, and I want to bring it to a conclusion as quickly as possible.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

To please the Secretary of State, I shall tell him that I was responsible for the last review of airport policy in the south-east, so I know how difficult the issues he faces are, and I commend his statement today. In that review, we were careful to leave open the possibility of an additional close parallel runway at Gatwick, not least because it would be less disruptive than building a new runway at one of the other airports, or, indeed, at Gatwick. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how much importance h e attached to that possibility when he made his decision to exclude Gatwick from the consultation?

Mr. Darling

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his initial remarks. I know that he was involved in these considerations in 1995, and I always find it instructive to look back—so far as we are able, within the normal constraints—to see what happened to Ministers in earlier years. It is often very clear why nothing ever came of various proposals, and that does not apply only to transport.

In relation to Gatwick, as I told the House a few moments ago, because the Government decided as a first step, for the reasons that I set out, that it would not be right to overturn the 1979 agreement, it followed that we could not ask what were the best options for it. Clearly, however, they were considered earlier as part of the studies carried out before the consultation. Now that Gatwick has to be considered as a result of the court ruling, we need to publish a further paper that will give options, no doubt including the question of the close runway referred to by the right hon. Gentleman.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

May I commend the Secretary of State on his urgency? It is clear to me that, whether or not the court's decision is right, it can only be right for our economy and our environment to reach a conclusion on this important matter as swiftly as possible, because the longer we delay, the more damage will be done on both issues. In the consultation, will he ensure that people have an opportunity to raise the question whether we need only one hub airport for London or whether a different approach might be possible?

Mr. Darling

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend in relation to urgency and whether there ought to be one hub airport or more. That is one issue that is canvassed in chapter 4 of the south-east study. There have been almost 50,000 respondents so far, some of whom have addressed those points. She is absolutely right that they are matters that we need to consider and we will consider them.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the consultation process, does the Secretary of State agree that the overarching priority must be an early decision and early action, which is why I welcome his decision not to drag matters out by appealing? Does he accept that the UK, the south-east region and Heathrow are already suffering from delay and uncertainty? Will he make it his new year's resolution to summon the courage to complete the consultation process and start building runways as soon as possible?

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)


Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman is right about the fact that the south-east is already congested. The analysis of the problem is relatively easy; the solution as to where is rather more problematic.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

Leonard Cohen has a lot to answer for: Like a bird on the wire, Like a drunk in a midnight choir I have tried always to be true. If we are to be true in the next stage of the consultation process, will my right hon. Friend consider re-issuing the documents so that they are accurate, including, in particular, information on compensation; information on public meetings, which should be advertised locally in my area, not in the Evening Standard only; BAA's commitment to a sixth terminal linked to the third runway; and BA's proposal to shift the runway to the east, which would demolish another part of my constituency? Also, will he meet community representatives, as he has met industry representatives over the past few months? Even if the decision were not one that my constituents could be happy with, at least they would be able to accept the process as relatively fair.

Mr. Darling

I am glad that we have found something in common. Clearly, we both listen to Leonard Cohen.

On Heathrow, as I have said to my hon. Friend and, indeed, to others, if there are problems with the consultation exercise relating to either documents or procedure, he should let me or one of my fellow Ministers know and we will try to put them right. The matter is important and it is important that we get it right. We shall endeavour to do so.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

For my constituents in Bishop's Stortford, east Hertfordshire and the surrounding communities, the 16-week consultation process was rushed and ill prepared from the beginning. Now it has turned from tragedy to farce. Having accepted that the High Court judgment says that the Secretary of State's original decision was irrational and unjust, does the right hon. Gentleman now accept his responsibility for any resulting blight?

Mr. Darling

The court reached its decision on the narrow question of Gatwick. The judge held that people ought to be able to have their say; he was not asked to address the entire consultation

It is regrettable that the delay and uncertainty will continue for longer than any of us wanted, but we are where we are. We have the court judgment and I sense that the majority of Members want to bring matters to a conclusion, certainly next year. That is precisely what I want to do.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

May I tell my right hon. Friend that an early decision is essential? We do not want a repeat of the fiasco surrounding the uncertainty about the channel tunnel rail link's final route, which caused years of blight and other problems in my constituency. May I also tell my right hon. Friend that I deeply regret the action taken by Kent county council, which will cause blight, delay, uncertainty and misery for my constituents? Will he do all that he can to shorten the process? The four-month period he has recommended is too long: it will allow yet more months, possibly even years, of blight and uncertainty.

Mr. Darling

I understand the position of my hon. Friend and other north Kent Members who have made representations about the delay. When Kent county council took that action, it asked the judge to set aside what we were doing. The delay is a direct consequence of that, and we will just have to live with it. As I have said, this means that the White Paper will not be published until later next year, but I cannot try to short-circuit the process, not least because I do not particularly want to provide a fertile hunting ground for yet more lawyers who may seek to challenge the decision. The thing must be done properly, and I think that it can be done properly with a four-month consultation period. We must then try to reach a conclusion, because there will be an awful lot more debate to come.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)

It is difficult to imagine a greater cock-up—the most magisterial Government consultation, made more pompous by statistical assertions, extrapolations, tendentious questionnaires and bogus economics, all now in ruins. What comfort has the Secretary of State for those of my constituents who would have been well content with natural growth at Birmingham airport within its existing perimeter?

Mr. Darling

When I spoke to the hon. Gentleman the other day, he was rather more reasonable. If he still wants to come and see me to discuss these matters, he would be well advised to go on being reasonable. However, I understand that he has a point to make, and I understand why he is doing so. Many people have made the same point about Birmingham, not least when I was in Birmingham recently. I would be happy to discuss it with the hon. Gentleman—and with one of his hon. Friends, who I think wants to come along with him.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

I realise that my right hon. Friend has been put in a difficult position by the court decision, but does he appreciate the implications for the west midlands of what he has said about extending the consultation period? The siting of a new international airport near Rugby is being considered. The area has been seriously blighted by that proposal, and people were looking forward to an early resolution of the matter; but now the consultation period has been extended by a further four months. Can my right hon. Friend say anything of an interim nature about the west midlands, or must everything be delayed for four months?

Mr. Darling

As my hon. Friend knows, I wanted to bring the matter to a conclusion early next year. I expected to do so well before the summer, precisely to deal with the concerns felt by him and by other Members, not just in the west midlands but elsewhere. Unfortunately, because of Kent county council's action and various issues raised by it, I must proceed in a manner that is entirely proper and does justice to all the consultation. That means that the White Paper cannot now be published until the end of the year, which is regrettable, but people are perfectly entitled to go to court if they think it right. The judge took a different view from the Government. I have explained a number of times why I think it better not to prolong matters by spending months in the appeal courts—I think we should now get on with it—but I entirely understand what my hon. Friend has said, not just today but on previous occasions.

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor)

I welcome what the Secretary of State has said, but given this opportune hiatus he will clearly have to republish a number of documents. Could the Government spell out more clearly their position on such questions as mitigation and guarantees, especially in the context of noise of pollution and air quality? As the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) implied, during the consultation process hitherto people have raised such matters repeatedly with us, as their representatives.

Mr. Darling

As I said, my intention is to publish a further consultation paper that flows from the Gatwick decision. However, the existing consultation continues, and it is important to make it clear to people that they need not resubmit everything that they have submitted already. As I have pointed out, some 50,000 representations have already been received.

I shall reflect on mitigation and the various environmental concerns that the hon. Gentleman and others have raised, but I want to avoid prolonging matters for month after month, because that is in nobody's interests. For a start, that is not fair on those who live near airports; nor, indeed, is it good for anybody. I want to proceed as efficiently as I can, consistent with my obligations to consult and to behave in a way that is beyond criticism.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and for the speed with which he has entered into the undoubtedly sensitive area of tackling this country's long-term aviation needs. That is in marked contrast to the Conservatives, who simply ran away from this subject during 18 years in government. Could he ensure that public consultation is advertised much more 'widely than in just those areas closest to Heathrow airport? My constituents suffer—as do many people in London and the south-east—from overflights, and it would help if public meetings were advertised much more widely across London. On the environmental concerns, I hope that my right hon. Friend will confirm that this Government are arguing in the international community for a date by which a tax will be placed on aviation fuel.

Mr. Darling

On the latter point, as the consultation documents make clear, we believe that this issue ought to be resolved. My hon. Friend is doubtless aware from her previous experience that achieving international agreement on these matters is difficult, because many countries start from a completely different point of view.

As for the next few months, I should again make it clear that it is open to anyone throughout the length and breadth of the country to make representations. There is no restriction on that—indeed, I understand that some quarter of a million letters and pieces of information have been sent out to people across the country. In publishing the further document that will flow from the Gatwick decision, I want to ensure that people are aware of that point, but it is not necessary to retramp over every inch of the ground that we have covered; we simply need to ensure that we pick up what is necessary following the Gatwick decision, while emphasising that it is open to anyone, anywhere to make representations. Of course, whatever we decide on the London airports has implications not just for London and the south-east, but for the rest of the country.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)

Twice the Secretary of State has said that he regrets the extension of the period of uncertainty as to the future of several of the communities affected by this lengthening process. What message will he give to those communities affected by the blight of this uncertain period, who live under flight paths and very close to airports? I am thinking of villages such as Kirkliston and Newbridge, in my constituency, which the Secretary of State knows well.

Mr. Darling

I do indeed know them well. Because Kent county council challenged the Government and succeeded—at least to the material extent of getting Gatwick back into the process—we have inevitably had to consult on these issues. There is no getting away from that. It is of course regrettable that the period of consultation has extended as a result. It would have been nice to be able to say, "Let's treat Gatwick separately," but we cannot because, as one of the major London airports, it clearly has an impact on the rest of the UK—not least on Edinburgh, which the hon. Gentleman has in mind. There are many Edinburgh flights to Gatwick, as well as to London Heathrow, and I am afraid that we must consider that. I hope that we can bring these matters to a conclusion as quickly as possible next year, but I am certain that we are now talking about the autumn, because we cannot possibly do justice to a consultation and get something out before the summer recess.

Paul Clark (Gillingham)

May I commend the Secretary of State on his clear response to the situation within 48 hours of the judgment—an action that will be warmly welcomed by the people of north Kent? Yesterday's written statement, which pointed out that he will not seek to appeal, was also warmly welcomed by the hundreds of people who lobbied Parliament against the Cliffe proposal.

The Secretary of State said that a White Paper should be published next year. I urge him to stick to that, for all the reasons of continuing blight and anguish that have been given. In light of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), is he aware that the people of Essex were very concerned yesterday that they had had no exhibition or involvement, even though some of them, for example at Canvey Island, are very close to the Cliffe site?

Mr. Darling

There is no need for people to wait for an exhibition or an invitation to respond. There is no reason why anyone with a view on Cliffe or Stansted, whether they are affected or not, should not make representations. About 50,000 representations have been received on the White Paper, as I have now said two or three times. My hon. Friend knows that my original intention was to publish the White Paper early next year, and I hoped to resolve the matter in that way once and for all, but unfortunately the decision taken by the county council resulted in the very delay that, I suspect, many people in Kent did not want.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

What scale of fees is NOP charging for its involvement in the questionnaires, and will the Secretary of State refuse to pay those fees? Is he aware of the serious flaws in the questionnaires from the midlands and, I understand, from Wales? They talk about the number of flights currently going from the midlands to the south-east, but there are no flights scheduled from the midlands—or, I understand, from Wales—to the south-east. As a lawyer, does he consider that there might be grounds for judicial review or challenge if any decision is based on such a flawed questionnaire?

Mr. Darling

I was always taught never to give free legal advice, and I intend to stick to that. One can get struck off for it

The questionnaires were issued because it was put to us that there were some people who, for whatever reason, did not want to write but wanted some way of expressing a view. Questionnaires can never be conclusive in themselves. The Government will look at them, because they are one way of gauging opinion, but we will also look at all the letters and representations, including those from Members of Parliament, before reaching a view. When we publish the White Paper there will certainly be an opportunity to debate it in the House. I expect that hon. Members will have many views—not, I suspect, along party lines—and those will help to inform our decision. Of course, there are other opportunities to raise these matters in the House well in advance of the White Paper.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

My right hon. Friend will know that this is the worst possible news for my constituents, and especially for the 3,000 who signed the Kent Messenger petition that I delivered to him yesterday. They will welcome his sense of urgency, but he will be aware that, in addition to the anxiety that this is causing, it is holding back many of the infrastructure developments and other plans in the Thames gateway, and in particular the north Kent end. Will he give whatever reassurance he can to both the public and the private partners in the Thames gateway developments that he will reach a decision and publish the White Paper as early as possible, as the uncertainty is really starting to cost us dear?

Mr. Darling

We will do whatever we can to resolve the uncertainty. It must have been within the contemplation of Kent county council that if it went to court it might win, and that if it won there would be consequences. It had a perfect right to do that, but we have to accept the fact that the court reached a particular view and get on with it as quickly as possible. Of course, if there are specific problems in north Kent, I—or my colleagues, who may be more directly involved in some of the matters that my hon. Friend has in mind—will certainly consider them.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

The Secretary of State said that people can respond without having a public exhibition, but the majority want one, to try and find out the facts. I wrote to his Department some considerable time ago-I am still awaiting a reply, and perhaps my asking this question will help—about the perception that the process for Heathrow could have been done much better and more fairly. In the interests of fair play, therefore, would it he possible for the right hon. Gentleman to give a commitment to hold another exhibition for Heathrow? I know that the London borough of Hillingdon would be able and happy to facilitate that.

Mr. Darling

I shall reflect on that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he wrote and asked for a meeting. I asked my officials to provide me with a note of which colleagues had asked for a meeting with all Ministers in the Department, not just with me. The hon. Gentleman's name did not appear in that note, but I shall check again and find out what the position is.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

The Secretary of State has adopted a very reasonable tone to the House, which is to be welcomed. Residents of Bexley and north Kent hope that he will be as strong an environmentalist as he is polite to the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the consultation documents will be reissued in the south-east of England only, or is he considering the whole package? If he is considering only the south-east of England, can something be done about the cost? The documents are very expensive, especially for residents' groups. Would the CD option be a possibility? Could some money be saved to allow more people to understand the impact of the vector flight paths?

Mr. Darling

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was present earlier when I was asked a similar question. I made it clear then that the consultation will cover the whole country and not just the south-east. That is because the London airports are such an integral part of UK air transport as a whole. I am not planning to re-issue all the documents that have been issued already, but I am planning to issue a further document on the consequences of the Gatwick decision. There will, of course, be effects outside Gatwick, but the document is primarily on that decision. The new consultation period will run for four months from the publication of that document, and will allow people to make representations in respect of the entire country.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

I welcome the decision to extend the consultation across the whole country. Developments at Manchester airport such as a third runway or a fourth terminal would further blight the lives of people whom I represent. Picking up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend), may I urge the right hon. Gentleman to make a virtue of necessity and ensure that, when he makes a decision about where airport expansion will take place, that decision will be accompanied by a series of measures to protect people from excessive aircraft noise, pollution and the misery of night flights?

Mr. Darling

As I said earlier, the environmental impact of extending airport capacity will be taken into account. The consultation documents make that clear.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

I welcome the extended consultation period, but the Secretary of State should understand that the vast majority of my constituents consider the consultation over the Alconbury proposal to have been inaccurate and unfair. The single public meeting that was held was moved from Peterborough to Huntingdon at only a few days' notice. Those who were able to attend found that the information was inaccurate, not least in that no night noise statistics were provided in relation to an airport that will have flights 24 hours a day. Will he undertake to hold a further public consultation meeting, at which more accurate information will be provided?

Mr. Darling

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman writes to me setting out his concerns on that matter. I shall then reflect on how best to deal with them.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

May I remind the Secretary of State that the court case in question was supported by Essex county council on behalf of residents in the south of the county who would be adversely affected by the proposals on Cliffe, and on behalf of residents in the north of the county who would be adversely affected by the Stansted proposals? My special plea, on behalf of my constituents in Rayleigh and of people in surrounding constituencies, is that those in the south of Essex are allowed to play a fuller part in any expanded consultation period. In that way, they would be able to put across their worries about Cliffe. As has been noted already, there is considerable feeling in the south of Essex that, so far, people there have not been consulted properly on the implications of the proposals that may affect them.

Mr. Darling

As I have said several times this afternoon, there is nothing to prevent anyone living in any part of the country from making representations about any airport, whether it is nearby or distant. The Government want to encourage that. After all, the decision in the White Paper will have profound implications for air transport over the next 30 years. That is why it is important that we hear from people as much as possible. We have to reconcile people's concerns about airport development with the undeniable fact that more and more people are flying. Moreover, much of this country's prosperity depends on our ability to move people and goods about, nationally and internationally. There are decisions that we have to face up to, and we must take them next year. However, I appreciate that hon. Members want constituents to be well informed. If the hon. Gentleman has specific concerns, I suggest that he writes to me or to one of my ministerial colleagues. We will see what we can do to ensure that he has the information that he and his constituents need.