HL Deb 23 October 1986 vol 481 cc431-3
Baroness Burton of Coventry

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a statement on the informal meeting of the Council of Transport Ministers held in London on 3rd October.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, the Meeting on 3rd October was called by my right honourable friend to enable him to assess the prospects of reaching a worthwhile agreement this year on Community air transport liberalisation. The Council agreed in June that there should be a step-by-step approach to full liberalisation by 1992. The immediate task is to agree on a package of measures for a three-year first stage.

The meeting made progress on the main outstanding points of difference, and allows us, as presidency, to carry on the work on a basis which clearly commands a substantial majority of support.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, while believing that the Government wish to make progress on the matter of European air fares, and realising that the Secretary of State for Transport finds himself entrenched between opposing factions, I should like to ask whether the Minister realises that, if the British presidency is not to be discredited, some firm and definite action must be taken. In view of the generalised answer the Minister gave to me, can he assure the House that the Government stand by their previously stated intention of achieving a first credible step in this campaign during the term of their presidency?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right in believing that this Government wish to make progress in this matter. We are now in the chair. Every presidency has to try to find compromises which bring about worthwhile agreement. We have tried to build on earlier progress under the Dutch presidency and to find ways of solving problems that meet the main requirements of the United Kingdom and other liberal states, as well as those of the countries less keen on liberalisation.

There is no compromise about the principle of liberalisation. We are simply working on the best way of getting there, and the 1992 goal means that those states originally preferring little or no change now accept that a first stage agreement has to bring real progress.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, in view of the enormous difficulty in making progress at government level in this matter and the entrenched interests of different nations, there seems to be a prospect, when British Airways is privatised of its acquiring private airways in Europe and thus setting up a structure in Europe which might give a more liberalised fare structure than could ever be reached at government level? It that a reality?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I think my noble friend is referring to an article in today's edition of The Times, which I have seen and have read with great interest. Of course the aspirations of British Airways post-privatisation are entirely a matter for it. However, I have read the article with interest and I wish to look into it further.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, I too have read that article, but it does not concern the Question that I have asked today. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether or not in his notes of the meeting on 3rd October there is any reference to the question of the airlines replying to the letter from the Commission, which was sent to them on July 10th, being raised by the president.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am not at present able to say whether it was raised at that meeting, but I am able to tell the noble Baroness that the Commission's legal action under Article 89 against the major Community airlines will begin to bite. In June, we announced our intention of reviewing the procedures necessary to enable us to apply the competition rules ourselves under Article 88, if the Council failed to reach a satisfactory settlement. However, I am bound to say that action under either article presents the grim prospect of protracted legal action, leading eventually to the European Court of Justice. We must hope that real progress can be made in November, which would avoid that.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, if nobody else wishes to speak, perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he is aware that although we get all these protestations—there is no lack of words—there is lack of action? Can the Minister tell the House whether or not at the forthcoming meeting on 10th and 11th November we shall at least see some action; or are we again to be told merely of the difficulties that arise in trying to achieve it?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, no one could wish for action more than this Government, as a result of the meeting in November. However, having said that, I refer to the previous answer I gave concerning what may happen if a satisfactory conclusion is not reached.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister able to give us an assurance that, unlike certain circumstances that have been referred to by the Select Committee of your Lordships' House, the Council of Ministers did in fact have their headphones on and did listen to one another in these proceedings?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am afraid that I am unable to answer that question as I was not there. However, I hope very much that they did.

Lord Kissin

My Lords, can the noble Lord indicate when progress in real terms and not in theoretical terms is expected in the new structure within the EC? Up to the present time, we have seen various announcements which are of a very limited nature, but we have not seen any real international agreements on a reduction, with a timetable as to when that could be realised.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, if we achieve the agreement that we seek in November, it would be for a preliminary three years' progress towards our ultimate goal of full liberalisation in 1992.

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