HL Deb 11 June 1981 vol 421 cc311-3
Baroness Burton of Coventry

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 are the legal provisions which make it illegal to sell discounted air tickets, and why is "the question of legality in this context a difficult one to solve".[Official Report, 19th May 1981; col. 828.]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, the legal provisions are contained in Sections 21 and 22 of the Civil Aviation Act 1971 in so far as British operators and their agents are concerned and in Article 80 of the Air Navigation Order 1980 in so far as foreign operators are concerned. In both cases the offence relates to the carriage of passengers or cargo in contravention of the operator's operating licence or permit.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, the Minister and the Department have lost all credibility on this matter by now. May I ask the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, whether he still maintains in this House that he does not understand that the purpose of the evidence submitted to him was to demonstrate that these tickets were being sold by the airlines and could be purchased freely at a discount in the United Kingdom? Does he deny that this evidence showed that persons paid less for their tickets than the amount shown, that photostat receipts for these amounts are available, that validation certificates show that they were issued by the airlines and that the airlines themselves were definitely named? Finally, is he aware that there is great resentment in this House and outside at the way that bureaucracy impedes any progress whatsoever in this matter?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am sorry that I have not been able to help the noble Baroness more in this matter but the evidence to which she refers does not, I am afraid, sustain her suggestion that an effective and successful prosecution could necesarily be mounted. One would need to show more to achieve a conviction than that the ticket had been sold over the counter by an agent or by an airline at a price other than the one which was the authorised price.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that a large number of people from this House purchase these tickets? Will he tell us whether we are liable to prosecution because we do so?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that has been the burden of my song in this matter: that it is difficult to say in a particular case without looking at the facts whether any noble Lord has contravened the various provisions to which I referred.

Baroness Elliott of Harwood

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether, in view of the fact that one of the biggest companies, British Airways, sells the tickets—perfectly above board in the sense that they do not try to hide it—at these bucket shop levels, that they are IATA's representatives in this country, that IATA is the governing body and that British Airways is the representative of Britain on IATA, he does not consider that British Airways is breaking the law?

Lord Trefgarne

No, my Lords; IATA is not the governing body of anything. It is a trade association of airlines. Most of the airlines choose to be members of IATA and very often airlines' proposals for fare increases, for example, come through IATA, first, to the Civil Aviation Authority and then to my department, for approval.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, I have asked this question several times and we are always fobbed off with the fact that IATA are the controlling agency. If IATA are the controlling agency ought they not to control their members so that their members do not break their laws?

Lord Trefgarne

No, my Lords, I am afraid that I must have misled my noble friend inadvertently. IATA are not the governing or controlling body of anything. IATA are governed or controlled (if those are the words) by their members.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the evidence submitted to his department by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, seems prima facie to disclose a case? Will he indicate whether the evidence and the question have been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions or whether they have been referred to the Attorney-General, and exactly what legal advice he has received in this very important matter?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I have a team of legal advisers within the department who are specifically experienced and qualified in these matters.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, why do not the Government take the risk of initiating the necessary legal proceedings against this firm—with a considerable chance of success?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that is the difficulty. There is no considerable chance of success. There is a very slight chance of success and, while the chance of success is so slight, I decline to waste public money on a prosecution.

Lord Morris

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Trefgarne suggested that IATA are not the governing body; but, as I understand it, IATA are within their power to dismiss any member of their body should that member transgress their rules.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I could dilate for some time on the powers and constitution of IATA. I might weary your Lordships if I were to do so, but my noble friend has got it wrong.

Lord Segal

My Lords, is the noble Lord able to say how many prosecutions have taken place so far, or when the first is likely to occur?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, there has been no prosecution while I have been responsible for these matters.

Lord Young of Dartington

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord this: If he has definitely made up his mind that there is no legal case, has he any other action in mind, short of prosecution, that would remedy the grave state of affairs to which my noble friend Lady Burton has so often drawn attention? Surely there is some other step he is proposing to take and he is not going to sit in his place facing these questions, day in, week in, year in and out, without taking any action whatsoever.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, there are two answers to that. First, so far as prosecutions are concerned, as I have said before, it is my duty to uphold the law in these matters. Whenever evidence which will sustain a prosecution is brought before me, I shall do that. But, as I have said to your Lordships on many occasions, the long-term answer to the problem is to secure a more competitive and equitable régime for air fares generally, and that is what we are seeking to achieve.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, the Minister has just given two answers; I shall be glad if I could have one. Is the noble Lord aware that we have the greatest admiration for his legal advisers, but, as 5 million tickets were sold by the bucket shops last year and the advisers were unable to find one case among those to prosecute, it does make one think.

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