HL Deb 30 April 1969 vol 301 cc928-38

6.44 p.m.

LORD TREFGARNE rose to move, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Civil Aviation (Navigation Services Charges) (Third Amendment) Regulations 1969 [S.I. 1969 No. 510] laid before the House under Standing Order No. 62 on the 9th of April, be annulled. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should first like to say that, unlike the weighty and far-ranging speeches to which we have been listening in the major debate this afternoon, my remarks will not take so long. I hope to be able to despatch what I have to say in a few moments, because I believe that the points are quite clearly defined and easy to identify.

My motion seeks to draw your Lordships' attention to an increase of no less than 50 per cent. in the navigation service charges at present levied at nine British airports whose air traffic control services are provided by the Board of Trade. The new charge, like the old one, is related to the maximum permitted weight of the aircraft and is to be raised under this new Instrument from 3s. per 1,000 lb. to 4s. 6d. per 1,000 lb. of permitted weight. For example, the charge that will now be levied on a BAC 1–11 is to be increased under the Order from £13 4s. (if my arithmetic is right) to £19 16s.

I have two particular avenues that I should like to pursue. First, the question of the timing of this increase. Why has it been levied at this time of the year? In the month of April or May the inclusive tour season is just beginning, and at this stage there is no time, nor is it indeed possible, to alter the charter contracts that have been entered into, nor is it possible to arrange for fare increases to cover the operations for this summer. Perhaps the Government wanted to obtain the maximum revenue increase for this year. No doubt they did, and had they delayed the introduction by consultation with the authorities this would have affected their revenue. But in the past it has always been the practice, when changes in legislation of this nature have been introduced, for considerable notice to be given before the increase has taken effect. For example, it is normal for the increase to be announced, say, in January or February of this year and to take effect in 1970 instead of 1969.

Secondly, why have Heathrow, Gatwick, Prestwick and Stansted—airports run by the British Airports Authority, although of course they do not run the A.T.C. services—been excluded from the increase? Can it be that the Government feared such an outcry from the major operators using those excluded airports, plus, of course, the inevitable application for an increase in fares on the scheduled services, that they hesitated to apply the charge to those airports and decided not to do so? Or can it be, alternatively, that the Government feared international repercussions on such a scale, particularly from the operators using Heathrow and Gatwick, that they would have again been obliged to postpone or cancel the increase?

It is interesting to note that if the increase had been applied to all the airports instead of excluding the major ones, the same amount of extra revenue could have been raised by an increase of only 3d. instead of 1s. 6d. in the standard rate. That works out, I think, at 8 per cent.—a far cry from the 50 per cent. increase that was in fact imposed. Perhaps the Government think that even that modest increase at the major airports would have brought such a welter of retribution on their heads that they would have been obliged to postpone or cancel the increase. Because of the exclusion of these major airports, in my view the extra charge will discriminate most unfairly against the independent operators who, by and large, tend to use the provincial airports. It is now, as I have said, too late for them to increase their charter prices for the inclusive tour programmes this summer, and it is also too late for them to apply for fare increases on their scheduled services out of provincial airports, because the licensing procedure is such that it is bound to take three or six months after it has been to the Board and gone to appeal. So there can be no possibility of the increase taking effect before the autumn at the earliest. Indeed, for a purely summer service, therefore, the increase could not take effect until next year, by which time they would have had to operate for a whole summer at the lower fare rate, despite their higher costs.

It is normal procedure and I suggest also common courtesy for some consultation with the authorities concerned to take place before a new charge is implemented. When this charge was first intimated in November of last year the Board of Trade was approached by the authorities of the airports particularly affected, who, not unnaturally, objected to the increase. Their grounds, of course, were—and this, I should have thought, was an almost overwhelming argument against the increase—that the increase in service charge would result in even more traffic being channelled away from the provincial airports towards Heathrow and Gatwick, with an inevitable increase in the traffic density at those airports and a decrease in the traffic density at the other airports. I suggest that that will aggravate the situation which this increase is allegedly designed to avert.

However, despite the representations that were made by those affected authorities, no answer was given by the Board of Trade, or at least so I am advised. I can show the noble Lord I have some photocopies of letters which I have asking for information, which was not forthcoming. At one time a reply was received by the affected airports saying that the matter was under consideration and that their representations were being considered. Then out of the blue, without any warning whatever, the Statutory Instrument is laid before Parliament on April 9 last, and we see that it was to take effect in only three weeks from that date, on May 1. What sort of consultation is that? No wonder this Government are often accused, and rightly, I suggest, of authoritarian and arbitrary rule.

Finally, can I say that this measure increases the costs for those least able to bear them, is applied at short notice at the worst possible time of year, and is introduced without consultation and without even the minimum courtesy to those most directly involved. I beg to move.

Moved, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Civil Aviation (Navigation Services Charges) (Third Amendment) Regulations 1969 [S.I. 1969 No. 510] laid before the House under Standing Order No. 62 on the 9th April, be annulled.—(Lord Trefgarne.)

6.52 p.m.


My Lords, in supporting this Motion of the noble Lord that this Prayer should be presented to Her Majesty, I should like to support everything he has said in the Motion and in his speech on the broad issues. But I want to speak on the narrower issue of the Edinburgh Airport. I may say, in passing, that I do not altogether enjoy seeing that Stansted is one of the main airports exempted from the application of this Order. However, be that as it may, the fact is that Edinburgh Airport is not properly equipped. I am open to correction, but I think I am right in saying that in regard to the normal minimum standards of radar equipment it is not properly equipped, and blind landing arrangements are non-existent. Furthermore, as the noble Lord who is to reply is well aware, it is short of a major runway, the existing runway being so situated that diversions on account of cross winds are a frequent occurrence during the poor weather season. I am a regular fair-weather traveller from that airport, having found that it is quite impossible to rely on the service during winter or periods of high winds.

I feel, however, that it is proper to place before your Lordships the case of the Edinburgh Airport and to suggest that it is unreasonable that operators should be asked to pay this additional charge for putting their aircraft into this airfield, which is a very tricky one in which to land and is not properly equipped, either from the flying point of view or indeed from the point of view of the air terminal. Admittedly the reconstruction of the air terminal obviously must await a final decision as to a second runway. The Commonwealth Games are going to take place in Edinburgh next year. The airport is not properly equipped, and it seems to me unreasonable that operators should be asked to carry this extra burden imposed upon them at unreasonably short notice and without adequate consultation. I support the noble Lord's Motion.


My Lords, I rise merely to support my noble friend Lord Ferrier and ask that if this Order is not annulled special consideration be given to the fact that as it applies to Turnhouse there will be no equivalent service for the increased charge.

6.55 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, asked a number of questions, and I rather wish procedure permitted me to put a number of questions to him in return. First, I would ask the noble Lord whether he believes that the services that we are considering are essential. I think the answer which he and the noble Lords, Lord Ferrier, and Lord Balerno, would give is that certainly they are essential. The two noble Lords from Scotland seemed to suggest that the services were not adequate and ought to be extended. All I would say to them about Edinburgh is that I know that this Order will not limit the services which are offered at Edinburgh; it will not prejudice them in any way. I will see that the points which have been made about the adequacy of other arrangements are brought to the attention of those concerned. But I do not believe that the possibility of another runway, for example, comes strictly within the Order we are considering. Nevertheless, I will certainly see that what has been said is considered again, and I accept the importance of Edinburgh, in particular with the Games coming along.

I turn again to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who no doubt accepts that the services are essential. I would then go on to ask him whether he believes that they are being provided as economically and efficiently as possible. I think the answer to that would be "Yes". I have no reason to believe that any criticism is made about the efficiency of the quite devoted persons who operate those services. but to make certain on this point the Board of Trade are about to appoint outside consultants to consider the cost efficiency of the services provided at these airports.

If, therefore, the services are necessary, and if everything possible is being done to ensure that they are efficient, then the next question I put to the noble Lord is, "Who is going to pay for them?" I am not quite sure what the noble Lord's answer to that would be, but successive Governments have said that those who use the services should pay for them. The Maybury Committee as far back as 1937 recommended that Government assistance to civil aviation should be of a temporary nature only and that the objective should be an economically self-supporting industry. There is therefore no Party issue between us on this matter. That objective expressed by the Maybury Committee was emphasised again in a White Paper which the Conservative Government of 1961 published.

There is another objective, I agree, which is shared between the Parties and between the noble Lord and myself, and that is that we should do all we can to encourage the development of civil aviation I accept that if the decision was made that civil aviation should be self supporting next week then we should cripple the industry with extra charges and our larger objective would not be reached. But no fair-minded person can say that Her Majesty's Government are applying precipitately the charges which are necessary to balance costs. After all, we are here talking about, and the Order against which the noble Lord is praying refers only to, aerodrome navigation services—that is to say, the navigation services and intercommunications necessary for the approach. landing and takeoff of aircraft. We are not considering, certainly not as yet, the much more costly en route services which, as the noble Lord will know from his intimate experience, are needed and used when the aircraft is clear of the aerodrome departure or arrival.

The noble Lord asked about timing and I think he gave the answer to the question he put. If the Order had been delayed, if this increase had been delayed, the deficits would have been increased by that amount. I take his point about the charter flights: that the increase comes at an inconvenient moment. On the other hand, I doubt whether there is ever any time which is appropriate for increasing charges. There is always some reason why somebody should say, "Not at this point of time." Incidentally, I feel that the noble Lord is exaggerating the effect of these charges. I gather from B.E.A. that on a Trident aircraft, with a 70 per cent. load factor the extra for the return journey between London and Glasgow—I am sorry that I have this example and not that of London to Edinburgh, but I imagine that it would be about the same—


B.E.A. do not come into Edinburgh; they cannot.


—would be 2s. 7d. per passenger for the return journey. So really we are not talking about any increase which is going to cripple any charter operator or scheduled service operator.

I am afraid that I do not quite understand what the noble Lord was talking about in regard to consultation.


There was none; that is the trouble.


Municipal authorities were told as far back as last November that it would be necessary to have increased charges. They were given an indication of what the Government had in mind. They were invited to give their comments. These comments were considered. Eventually, someone has to make the decision; and of course it is the Government. I do not know whether the noble Lord wishes to intervene


My Lords, the noble Lord gives me the chance to intervene which I shall take. The first point is that the noble Lord has given an example of the B.E.A. return journey between London and Glasgow. My particular point was that B.E.A. are not the people chiefly concerned in this increase. The other point he made was that the consultations started in November. My point is that although the Ministry might have indicated that this increase was on the way in November, they did not really enter into consultation at all. I understand that they invited comment, but then refused to discuss the matter further; they merely said that it was being considered; and, then, two weeks later, o[...] less, they announced the increase.


My Lords, the noble Lord has made his case before, and he makes it again. I content myself with giving him the facts. Certainly B E.A., operating from Heathrow, are not immediately concerned with this, but the example which I Rave would apply equally to other operators flying over a similar distance for about the same fare charges.

I thought it would be interesting if I gave the deficits about which we are talking. For 1967–68 there was a deficit for the provision of these navigation services at the six municipal airports of £1,321,000, and at the three Board of Trade aerodromes of £514,000. It is anticipated that the 50 per cent. increase provided for by the Order will, even so, reduce these deficits by only some 25 per cent. So here again there is really no evidence of any undue rushing into the implementation of an objective which, as I have said, was established as far back as 1937.

The noble Lord asked me why the 50 per cent. increase was directed at these nine airports and not to others. The answer to that, I suggest to him, is because the Goverment are being selective and fair, and eminently reasonable in their approach, and are mindful of the special problems experienced in different parts of the country. It is this fair-minded approach which has led them to exclude from the provisions of this Order the aerodromes in the Highlands and Islands. In the same financial year, 1967–68, there was a deficit on the provision of these services at these aerodromes amounting to £309,000; but those airports are not brought within the provisions of this Order for reasons which I am sure the noble Lords, Lord Ferrier, and Lord Balerno, will approve.

There is no increase proposed either, as the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, said, at the British Airports Authority aerodromes. The reason for that is that the Government collect some £420,000 more than it costs to provide the services at the four airports within the control of the Authority. Fairmindedness and good commercial judgment do not suggest that there should be another increase in this case, when in fact there is already a surplus in the revenue received from them.

As the noble Lord knows—he complained about it at the time—there was an increase, anyhow, at those airports of 12½ per cent. on landing charges following devaluation, to bring the revenue, in terms of foreign currency, to the level received prior to devaluation. Incident ally, I would say that that 12½ per cent. increase in those cases where there were international services is the only increase in charges that has taken place since 1964, when the original attempt was made to recoup to some extent expenditure on the provision of these services. There are still other costs. The noble Lord did not ask me the other questions which I rather thought he would put to me: for example, the question as to what was being done to collect the en route costs. I have been talking here in terms of £1,300,000 for the nine municipal aerodromes, £309,000 for the Highlands and Islands, and £514,000 for the three Board of Trade airports. But there is still something like £11 million spent on the provision of en route services. The Government do not propose to collect anything in repayment of these. This will be a matter for international agreement. Discussions have already been started with our near European neighbours, and eventually I hope that it will be possible to get a fair and workable scheme for the recouping of payment for necessary, efficient services to the airlines which use the en route facilities. When that charge is eventually implemented—it will not, I think, be before 1971—I hope that the noble Lord will not feel it necessary to pray against whatever Order is brought for ward. I hope that, on the basis of what I have been able to tell him this evening. he will feel able to withdraw his Prayer.

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, I think I have the right to make a few short remarks to close this brief debate. First of all, I should like to deal with the point about Edinburgh Airport. I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, quite missed the point of what I was suggesting. The point made by my noble friend was, I think, that the services there were now inadequate, that operators were incurring additional expense by having to divert their aircraft from that airport when weather conditions were unsuitable, and that weather conditions could be unsuitable not only because the runways are wrong but also because the radar equipment there is not so good as it might be. But, he said, despite these inadequacies, and the extra costs that operators had to bear, an increase was being made in the charges. This brings me on to my principal point, that the noble Lord is asking us to provide cars before there are roads to put them on; in other words, he is licensing the cars before there are any roads on which to drive the cars.

The next point is the question of en route facilities, which he dealt with quite briefly. I am glad to hear that consultation is going on about how to collect en route charges. I think this is a good development, and I look forward to hearing the results of this, although I cannot promise that I shall not pray against the conclusion. Following on that point, he said that a firm of management consultants, or efficiency consultants, had been taken on to look at the facilities provided at these airports at which the charge is now being applied. That, too, I welcome, and look forward to reading their report should I be lucky enough to obtain a copy, if it is not kept among the secret archives of Westminster.

My principal objection to this Order and to the imposition of these charges is the timing. There is no doubt that to impose them at this juncture in the operating season, in the Spring, without proper notice is altogether irresponsible. Had we been given the usual 14 or 18 months' notice, then the charter contracts, to which I referred before, could have reflected the increase in costs; and had any increase in fares been necessary for the schedule operators then that too could have been applied for in good time, with proper grounds for the application. The noble Lord's example of an increase of 2s. 7d. between Heathrow and Glasgow was altogether misleading. I suggest, because first of all, the charge is not applicable at Heathrow, as he admitted. My objection is that the operations between these domestic provincial airports—admittedly on a smaller scale than the Glasgow/ Heathrow operation—will have double the incidence of the charge, because, of course, they will have to pay the increase at both their destination and their departure point. However, having said all that, there is little I can do by pursuing the matter, and I would thank the noble Lords on my side of the House and, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, himself, for participating in this debate, and beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.