HL Deb 10 November 1977 vol 387 cc269-72

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 what plans they have for mitigating the serious effects on the travelling public such as those recently experienced during the strike by assistant air traffic controllers.


My Lords, in any situation in the future the Government, as always, will consider the circumstances and take such steps as seem necessary and appropriate. As situations can vary so widely, the Government feel that it would serve no useful purpose to publicise possible responses to each of them.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I am not asking that publicity should be given to the plans, but that I am seeking an assurance, on behalf of the House, that plans are being made? I point this out because now, after some 10 weeks and with delay to millions of air travellers, many of whom—perhaps half—are travelling on important business engagements, it is becoming very difficult indeed to give an image that Britain is efficient and a good country in which to invest. The sooner this situation is put right, the better. Will the noble Lord bear in mind that if troops can be used to back up the essential fire services, then it may be possible to use the Royal Air Force Reservists to back up air traffic control on the most essential services?


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that all lessons arising from the recent dispute have been noted, and obviously the conclusions will be drawn by the Government. On the point of using military forces, I should say that there was one isolated case at West Drayton where the RAF was used for very special reasons, but I would urge the noble Lord to think of the very great dangers in these matters of introducing the military other than as a last resort and in very essential circumstances. Important though air traffic is, there is, I suggest to the noble Lord, a difference between the Fire Service and air traffic.


My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while we should like to think that the Government are looking at this problem, it is one which perhaps the Conservative Party could deal with domestically, as I understand that the chairman of the strike committee involved in this dispute is, in fact, the trade union organiser on behalf of the Conservative Party?


My Lords, I had noted that report to which my noble friend draws attention. I am not sure that we need take any real notice of it, or draw any very specific political conclusions from it, unless of course the gentlemen comes to be appointed as shop steward in the Conservative Central Office. That would be an interesting situation.


My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm that the computer which was at the centre of the assistant air traffic controllers' dispute is a common-use computer for both the Ministry of Defence and the civil air transport organisations, and is he satisfied that all the facilities provided by that computer remained available to the Ministry of Defence throughout the dispute?


My Lords, the incident to which I referred in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, arose because the generators which supply the Air Defence Data Centre also supply the London Air Traffic Control Centre, so there is a connection between the two services. But I will examine more closely the point which the noble Lord has asked me about and write to him more fully.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, having regard to all the difficulties with which the airlines and the airport authorities were faced, they did a remarkably good job during this period?


Certainly, my Lords; the Civil Aviation Authority, in conjunction with the airlines, reduced the number of flights, and I think that they are to be commended for having kept services going to the extent of 75 per cent. during that very difficult time.


My Lords, will the noble Lord give the assurance that there has been no reduction whatever in the standards of safety set up by the airports?


Yes, my Lords; air safety is not a matter which Her Majesty's Government, the Civil Aviation Authority, or the national air traffic service would ever be willing to put at risk; and indeed the actions that were taken had the question of air safety very much in mind.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that despite delays—and I experienced a delay of 24 hours in a four-day period of delays—the incredible good will of the travelling public, and not least of our foreign visitors, was really amazing? They sat in conditions at airports which were, I imagine, very similar to the black hole of Calcutta, due to gross overcrowding, which cannot be avoided on those occasions. The good will was quite amazing, but one only hopes that this situation will not occur again, because we cannot go on testing our visitors with conditions of that kind.


My Lords, I am glad to hear what the noble Lord has said about the general atmosphere, and I hope that he himself kept his temper during those 24 hours.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that one of the outcomes of the strike was a heavy pressure on railway sleeper services, and would he urge the railway authorities to do their best to increase the provision of sleepers when traffic increases in the remarkable way that it did on this occasion?


My Lords, I will pass on that point to the authorities concerned. I do not suppose that it is easy at short notice to step up that kind of facility, but this is a point which should be borne in mind.


My Lords, in view of the continued emphasis on this matter, I think we ought to draw attention to the fact that other nations, on the Continent and elsewhere in the world, are having air traffic control problems all the wretched time.


Yes, indeed, my Lords; and we should remember that the difficulties during that period were not due solely to the dispute within our own service, because at the same time there were difficulties in France, in Spain and in Canada, and there was a cumulative effect from the one service to the other. So it was not just British caused; it was trouble, as the noble Lord points out, in other countries as well.

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