HL Deb 17 January 1974 vol 348 cc1065-74

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the decision taken by this House on December 20 last, they will make a Statement on the position of the check-in facilities at the West London Air Terminal.


My Lords, as a result of the debate in your Lordships' House on December 20, I met my Ministerial col- leagues the following day to discuss as a matter of urgency the conclusion reached by the House. My honourable friend the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping wrote to the British Airways Board on December 21, to request them to consider the views of the House. The Minister's letter was considered at a meeting of the Board on December 28, when the Board decided that there was a compelling case for implementing their decision to withdraw the check-in facilities at West London Air Terminal on January 1, 1974. I have already made the terms of the Minister's letter and of the Board's reply known to a number of noble Lords and, with the Leave of the House, I will arrange for the correspondence to be published in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Following is the correspondence referred to:

Letter from the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping to the British Airways Board.

21st December, 1973.

Dear Henry,

You will, of course, have seen the outcome of yesterday's debate in the House of Lords about the proposed withdrawal of check-in facilities from the West London Air Terminal. Their Lordships approved by a majority of 82 to 28 a motion in the following terms:

To move to resolve, That this House deplores the declared intention of the British Airways Board to withdraw the check-in facilities at the West London Air Terminal on 1st January next; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government in the national interest to direct, if it is in their power to do so, or otherwise to request the Board to defer the proposed withdrawal until such time as—

  1. (a) the effects of the present fuel crisis on the drastically revised flight schedules and the future pattern of access to Heathrow can be fully assessed; and
  2. (b) a Select Committee of this House has enquired into and reported on the merits of the proposal, the Government have commented thereon, and Parliament has been given the opportunity of expressing an opinion on both.

We have, of course, discussed this subject on a number of occasions in the past. I understand very well the reasoning behind your Board's decision. Together with my colleagues in the House of Lords I have explained and defended your decision to Parliament. We have also made it clear in both Houses that I have no power to direct your Board to take a different view.

These arguments were, no doubt, considered by members of the House of Lords before they gave their approval to the motion I have quoted. In view of the terms of that motion, I am sure you will understand why I must now ask the Board of British Airways to give earnest and urgent consideration to the request that the proposed withdrawal of the service should be deferred until their Lordships' conditions have been fulfilled.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Heseltine.


31st December, 1973.

M. R. D. Heseltine, Esq., M.P.,

Minister for Aerospace and Shipping,

Department of Trade and Industry,

1 Victoria Street,

London, S.W.1.

Dear Minister,


Thank you for your letter addressed to Henry Marking following the debate in the House of Lords on 20 December. You asked my Board to give earnest and urgent consideration to the request that the proposed withdrawal of check-in facilities should be deferred until their Lordship's conditions had been fulfilled. I at once arranged for the decision to withdraw check-in facilities to be reviewed at a Board meeting held last Friday. The results of our deliberations are as follows.

It will be recalled that ever since 1946 BEA has checked-in passengers at the Air Terminal and this practice continued when WLAT was opened about 15 years ago. Check-in involves going to the desk, presenting one's ticket, having one's baggage taken into the custody of the airline, and being accepted for the particular flight on which one is hooked. It has also been the BEA practice that, once one has been accepted and has boarded the coach allotted for the particular flight, one's connection with that flight is guaranteed and the flight does not leave until passengers from the connecting coach have boarded.

I should, however, make the point that although I refer in this letter to a "guaranteed connection" there is in fact no legal entitlement under international conditions of carriage to a connection or, indeed, for a passenger to be carried on any particular flight.

Two years ago BEA felt it right to follow the general international practice of providing only a coach service from January 1974. The matter was considered several times by the BEA Board before a final decision was taken because the Board wanted to be assured that the new arrangement would be satisfactory for passengers. Other European airlines using WLAT have already withdrawn check-in at the Terminal and from 1 October last have provided a coach service only.

Under the new arrangements coaches will leave the Terminal and the Airport in each direction at 10 minute intervals with additional coaches whenever traffic warrants.

Measures decided upon to ensure that the interests of the public travelling on our European Division's services using WLAT are safeguarded include:

  1. (a) With tickets sold in the U.K. we shall make plain in writing the time by which we advise passengers to catch their coach if they are to be reasonably sure of catching their flights.
  2. (b) We shall arrange for a uniformed supervisor to be permanently stationed at the coach arrival point at No. 1 Terminal Heathrow to make sure that the unloading of passengers' baggage from the trailers towed behind coaches is satisfactorily done, that porters are available to help passengers, and that there are adequate luggage trolleys available. It will, of course, be one of the supervisor's primary duties to be on the alert to help passengers who may be anxious because they had arrived at the last moment. The BAA are providing a lift to make it easier for passengers at Terminal 1, and we are making sure that there will be sufficient check-in desks at Terminal 1 to avoid unreasonable queues even at times of peak demand.
  3. (c) We shall undertake that if any passenger should miss his flight as a result of exceptional delay—in spite of having followed our advice as mentioned in paragraph (a) above—in the arrival of the coach from West London Air Terminal he will be looked after as regards meals and accommodation at the expense of British Airways, and arrangements will be made for him without financial penalty to travel on the next flight on which accommodation in his class of travel is available.

We estimate that the new arrangements will produce a substantial net annual saving of cost to the European Division This largely arises through reducing the staff at WLAT to 260 in the first year and by reducing the number of coaches used. Furthermore to abandon or delay the project at this stage would involve further capital expenditure which could not possibly be justified in view of the short period of time before the London Transport rail link to Heathrow becomes operational.

These then are the facts. At its meeting on Friday, 28 December the Board reached the conclusion that on commercial grounds—and this phrase covers both the financial aspects and the obligation of the Board as a public transport operator to have proper regard to the public interest—there is a compelling case for implementing the decision on 1 January as originally intended. We believe that the new arrangements will enable us to provide a better service to the average passenger which is a most important consideration in the competitive environment within which we operate. In accordance with the principles referred to in paragraphs 8 to 12 of our First Report on Organisation, my Board has the fundamental responsibility to act in accordance with its commercial judgment and, having taken the view of the facts referred to above, it is our clear duty to continue with this project as planned.

We have noted with close attention the criticisms of our proposals that have been voiced in the House of Lords. My Board readily accepts that criticisms and anxieties voiced in the debate reflect a serious concern and this is something my Board has taken most seriously into consideration. We believe, however, that their fears will prove to have been exaggerated and that in practice the new arrangements will find acceptance by the public we noted particularly the experience over the last three months of foreign airlines using similar arrangements as a result of which there has been, so the foreign airlines tell us, no adverse reaction at all, and also so far as they know no passenger has missed his flight following withdrawal of the guaranteed flight connection between the airport coach and a particular flight.

I have referred above to the various measures we have already decided upon in order to meet as far as possible the anxieties that have been expressed. Moreover, we offered to afford the Airline Users Committee an opportunity to participate with us in monitoring the working of the new system after its introduction on I January, and I am glad to be able to tell you that this offer has now been accepted. I now propose—and we shall be writing to the Chairman of the Airline Users Committee—that after the initial six months of working of the new arrangements there should be a meeting between British Airways and the Airline Users Committee when experience then gained can be reviewed and improvements in the new arrangements, if any are thought to be necessary, can be discussed.

I hope the Airline Users Committee will also accept this further proposal as a constructive initiative to work in concert with them to ensure that the interests of the travelling public are fully considered and that proper attention is paid to those interests.

Yours sincerely,


for David L. Nicolson, Chairman.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord, the Lord Privy Seal, for answering this Question, may I ask him something as the Leader of the House? Does his reply mean that when one of the Houses of Parliament, in this case our own, records a decision by an overwhelming majority the Government are powerless in its implementation even if they wish to see the policy carried out?


My Lords, I willingly answer that question in my capacity as Leader of the House because have been concerned with this topic. At the end of the debate on this matter I was asked by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition what action the Government would take. I said I would consult urgently with my Ministerial colleagues who were responsible, and I did so. The letter sent by the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping which, with the leave of the House, will appear in Hansard tomorrow, stated: …I must now ask the Board of British Airways to give earnest and urgent consideration to the request that the proposed withdrawal of the service should be deferred until their Lordships' conditions have been fulfilled. That was the request put to the Board by the Minister. It has been made clear on a number of occasions that the final decision rests with the Board but that also it was most important that the views of your Lordships were taken fully into account; and that, I believe, has happened.


My Lords, will the noble Lord accept the fact that your Lordships' House will have heard with regret that the Airways Board treat the Government with the same arrogant contempt as they treated this noble House?


My Lords, I regret the use of those words. I know that the Group Managing Director of the British Airways Board has taken a great deal of care and thought over this matter. He has written to most, if not all, noble Lords who took part in the debate to try to answer, on behalf of the Board, the points they raised. It will also be seen in Hansard tomorrow that the reply from the British Airways Board is an extremely long, considered and reasoned one. I do not think that the comments which the noble Lord has just made will be upheld by the House when noble Lords have seen the correspondence to which I have referred.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether we are likely to have a report (shall we say?) within a month or two months as to how the new arrangement is working?


My Lords, I understand that the British Airways Board have agreed to co-operate with the Airline Users' Committee in monitoring and reviewing these arrangements in order to see how they work out.


My Lords, shall we have a report in your Lordships' House?


My Lords, I ought to give consideration to that point.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that our quarrel is not with the Leader of the House but that the British Airways Board seem to have treated with contempt the wishes of this House, as expresed in December by an overwhelming majority, and that the Board's letter in January to noble Lords concerned merely adds insult to injury? Will he ask the B.A.B. to consider that hurting a million customers is bad business?


My Lords, the Board have disagreed with the House. They have the responsibility to take this decision and they have reached a different decision—we must be frank about it—from that which a majority of your Lordships reached. That is not the same thing as "treating with contempt". I think that is really going too far.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is a conflict of obligations here? First there is the obligation of the Board to respond to the wishes of this House, but is my noble friend also aware that there is a responsibility on Parliament to support the constitutional independence of this national corporation for the day-to-day management of its affairs? In this difficult conflict would it not be right now to allow the Board the independence of management of its affairs which Parliament has given it? May I ask, that, as my noble friend has suggested, we should have a report, say in six or twelve months' time, as to how this arrangement is working to ensure that the interests of the customers, which the noble Baroness has so ably expressed, are being catered for properly, and so that we can then judge the situation again.


My Lords, my noble friend has touched upon the matter of principle. The proper relationship between Parliament and the nationalised corporations is laid down by Statute. It is clear where the responsibility lies, although sometimes criticism arises where a House of Parliament disagrees with a corporation. However, I am sure the advice we have just heard from my noble friend, who speaks with such experience, is wise and it will be helpful in the review of the new arrangements to see what the outcome is in practice.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the Minister concerned has power to give a directive to the Board concerned? Is it in the opinion of the Government that the wishes of this House, expressed in the way they were on an earlier occasion, are not sufficient for the Minister to exercise his powers?


My Lords, this matter has been gone into with the greatest care by the Treasury Solicitor and the solicitors advising the Department of Trade and Industry. They have satisfied the Ministers concerned, and me, that the power in Section 40 of the Civil Aviation Act 1971 does not apply to circumstances of this kind.


My Lords, as a matter of constitutional principle has been raised, is the noble Lord aware that the British Airways Board are not bound to accept a decision of your Lordships' House, or even the other place, but where it is a matter of public interest, not a matter of day-to-day administration, the Minister can direct the Airways Board under the Act itself? This power applies not only to civil aviation but to coal, electricity and transport. I had something to do with the preparation of the legislation and piloted it though the House of Commons. Is the noble Lord aware that if the Minister decides that this is a matter of public interest and takes note of what the decision of your Lordships' House was, and perhaps an expression of views from another place, he is bound to direct the Airways Board? That is the constitutional position.


My Lords, that is not quite so. I do not want to go too much into the detail of this matter because it has been discussed so often before. The situation is that the Minister has a power to give directions of a general character as to the performance of the Board's functions in relation to any matter appearing to the Secretary of State to affect the national interest. But, as I said in reply to the last question, the considered legal advice the Government have had is that it would not have been a direction of a general character for the Government to tell the British Airways Board to keep check-in facilities at an air terminal.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree therefore that the point at issue is the definition of what is a matter of day-to-day administration?


My Lords, it is a matter within the commercial judgment of the Board. The Minister has a power to give a general instruction on a matter of public interest. The legal opinion is as I stated in reply to an earlier question.


My Lords, may we know whether, after this lamentable event has taken place and when we have the report in three months' time, it would be possible, supposing the Board is considered by your Lordships' House to be unfavourable to the consumer, to the public, it will be possible for us to do anything about it; or are we simply at the mercy of British Airways Board?


My Lords, the British Airways Board of course will want to work closely with the Airline Users' Committee which has been set up, and I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, can take some credit for the setting up of that Committee. This is something positive, good and constructive which has come out from her campaign. I am sure the Airways Board will want to pay the closest possible attention to what the Committee advise them to do.


My Lords, I wonder whether I may ask the Minister something which I think is very fundamental and of which this is merely an example. What is the value of consumer councils to nationalised industry if their recommendations are to be disregarded, even when supported by votes in Parliament and by the consumer body concerned?


My Lords, this is a new Committee, and this must be one of the first matters that the Committee considered. As it happened, the Airways Board, in their commercial judgment—and it is their job to take this decision—disagreed with the advice both of the Committee and of this House. Let us hope that on other matters there will be no disagreement; that the Board and the Committee will work closely together and that a mutually advantageous relationship will be built up in the future.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, if the report in 6 or 12 months' time after review was unfavourable, it might very well have moved this issue into an area on which it was a matter of public policy for the Minister to give a direction?


My Lords, would the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that this is really a question of law, and that in the end it will, if necessary, have to be resolved by a reference to the Supreme Court?


My Lords, we are going rather wide of the Question now. I notice that it is 35 minutes since Question Time began. I do not complain of that because, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition said, this is the first time that there has been an opportunity to question the Secretary of State for Energy on his new responsibilities. We all know how very strongly the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, feels on this issue of the West London Air Terminal. I felt that it was right to give a full report on what had happened since our last debate. But if we could now move on to our next business, I think it would be more in accordance with our normal procedure.