HL Deb 26 November 1996 vol 576 cc119-22

3.5 p.m.

Lord Haskel asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they have taken in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to address the inadequacy of air traffic control over much of Africa, and what progress has been made.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, under the Chicago Convention the International Civil Aviation Organisation sets minimum standards and recommended practices for all aspects of international civil aviation. It is for contracting states to implement those standards or notify any differences from the standards to ICAO. The United Kingdom's representative at ICAO raised the issue of reported inadequacies in African air traffic control at a meeting of the ICAO Council and the council has asked the air navigation commission to investigate the position. The African Regional Air Navigation meeting early next year will also address these issues.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that rather worrying reply. Is he not aware of the report by the International Airline Pilots Association of the dangers of flying over Africa? Does he not agree that, in view of the fact that little can be done at the moment, the Government ought perhaps to be warning passengers of the minimum standards of safety when flying over Africa?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I certainly do not accept that my reply was worrying. Indeed, it described the appropriate procedures. There is an international body involved in this field—the International Civil Aviation Organisation—and it is entirely appropriate that it should co-ordinate the setting of standards. We believe that it is entirely right to support the ICAO in this matter. Clearly, standards of air traffic control provision vary considerably around the world and it is for operators to recognise the circumstances into which they are flying and for their commanders to follow the procedures accordingly.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Africa is notorious for dangers and that there are accidents waiting to happen unless something is done?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, there are many countries in Africa. Some have very little infrastructure, never mind an air traffic control infrastructure. What is important is that operators who go to that part of the world are aware of the situation in each individual country over which they fly and adapt their procedures accordingly.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is it not obvious that the inadequacy of air traffic control infrastructure over Africa, the virtual non-existence of radar control facilities, the lack of adequate training and competence among air traffic controllers, in so far as they exist at all, and failures of communication links are due to the fact that those countries do not have the wherewithal to be able to support the necessary infrastructure which would reasonably guarantee a much safer standard? Simply referring the matter to ICAO, which of course is desirable, will not resolve the matter unless the developed world understands the nature of the economic problem confronting these countries and, for the sake of their own citizens, aircraft crew are prepared to take action together to try to ensure that standards are improved.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the perilous economic circumstances of many of the countries involved. That is often the reason why they do not have sophisticated air traffic control equipment or infrastructure. That is why ICAO has a problem of technical assistance and why the United Kingdom, through the ODA, has previously funded a number of development projects in Africa which have involved improvements to ATC and other aviation facilities. The international community can do a certain amount through this type of action, but we must all support ICAO in the action it is seeking as well.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, bearing in mind that one of the busiest air routes in the whole world is the North Atlantic route, where of course there is no radar cover—it is very effectively controlled by oceanic control at Prestwick and by counterparts in the United States and Canada—would it not be desirable to set up a similar system to cover the African continent with perhaps a control centre in southern Europe run by Europe Control and another one in South Africa run by the South Africans?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point about the way in which transatlantic traffic is catered for. But that is rather different because there is crossing traffic in Africa, whereas essentially on the transatlantic routes aircraft depart at one end and are received at the other, and travel in a linear fashion. That is very effective indeed and, without radar, it is possible to organise air traffic control along those lines.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, can my noble friend ensure that if extra help is given—as it probably should be—for the creation and operation of air traffic control facilities in Africa, that it is very specific; that it remains under the control of the donor nations and that it does not go down the same sink of iniquity, corruption and violence down which most aid goes in Africa?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, on the wider point of aid, it is clearly the Government's policy that moneys which are given in aid are used as effectively as possible for the benefit of local people. That is very much what has underpinned our aid policy. We want to see the best value for the money that we put in.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, in the discussions with ICAO we must look for a firm timetable for action because mere talk is not sufficient. I am sure that the House is gratified by the support that has been given, albeit that it is not on an adequate scale, by a number of western countries. Bearing in mind the criteria for support which the Minister has mentioned, will he seek to obtain a timetable for action during the course of the ICAO discussions?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I support the sentiment behind what the noble Lord is trying to achieve through his question, but I believe that he underestimates the difficulties involved here. There are very many countries involved and they have widely differing economic circumstances. It is simply not possible to impose on a sovereign nation one's own views about air traffic control systems and then to have them paid for. Clearly, there are improvements that can be made here. We want to play our part, but the international community as well needs to be involved and that is what is happening.