HL Deb 14 October 1998 vol 593 cc915-7

3.2 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect the Swanwick air traffic control centre to come into operation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government have commissioned the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, DERA, to carry out a study on the Swanwick centre. One of the things the study is looking at is the likelihood of further delays to the opening date of the centre. The report is nearing completion, and its findings will shortly be announced.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply which has slightly put the kibosh on my further questions, as I guess he is likely to say that he cannot give me any answers until the report has been published. However, it indicates the continuing further delay in the progress of this important project, the delayed opening date of which was, earlier this year, said to be the winter of 1999–2000—already three years late.

Can the Minister tell us what has been causing those delays—bugs in the software or lack of financing? What is causing the problems? Turning to the cost, is this connected in any way with the fact that the status of the CAA is still not determined? I understand that a consultation paper will be published at the end of this week. Has that affected the ability to finance the additional costs associated with the delays? Finally, is the safety of passengers still assured, given the delays and the increasing level of air misses?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I regret to say that the first remarks of the noble Baroness unfortunately apply to most of the questions she has raised. I fear that she will have to await our assessment of the report. There are one or two things I can say, however. First, it is not a question of finance. In the past there have been delays, leading up to the date to which she refers. They were due to technical problems. The issue is not one of finance.

As far as the delays are concerned, we are confident that the West Drayton centre, which now handles 1.7 million movements per year, will be able to cope with any change in the opening date of Swanwick. It will be possible for the West Drayton centre to cope for several years yet. I therefore think that, so far as the safety of air traffic is concerned, noble Lords can be reassured on that front.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I have been raising this matter in this House for what is now a period of years? Can he give us an assurance—because I was raising this in the interests of safety—that the continuing delays are not due to fundamental defects in the proposed new system?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I understand that to be so. It is not a question of fundamental delays. As I have indicated, safety is assured over the whole period. I believe that the West Drayton centre can continue for a number of years. Therefore the new system, even if it is delayed further, will take over from an already safe air traffic control system. I can give that reassurance.

Lord Hayhoe

My Lords, can the Minister give us an assurance that the report will be published as soon as it is received?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I can give an assurance that there will be a government Statement on the basis of the report. That is all I can do at this point.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, can the Minister confirm reports that privatisation is being delayed? If those reports are false and privatisation is going ahead on the timetable previously envisaged, can he remind those Members of the House who have forgotten what the case is for privatisation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, some noble Lords will recall that my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister made an announcement about a public/private partnership in this area. I believe that the term "privatisation" is inappropriate in this case and that there is no reason to believe that the timetable for that will be affected by any technical delays, although the form of that partnership has yet to be determined and will be addressed in consultation by the Government very shortly.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister could explain to the House the difference between "privatisation" and "public/private partnership"? When the previous government sold 51 per cent. of the shares in British Telecom and kept a golden share, it was described by the party opposite, then in opposition, as a "dastardly privatisation". Now, the present Government propose to sell 51 per cent. of the shares in National Air Traffic Services and to keep a golden share and it is described as a "public/private partnership". What is the difference?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, do I understand from that that the main opposition party is opposed to bringing in private finance? The difference is that we are not selling off these assets for private gain. We are selling them off to mobilise additional resources—

Noble Lords


Lord Whitty

My Lords, indeed, for some public gain, precisely—for public gain both in terms of the resources available for a safe air traffic control system and to benefit the public finances generally.