HL Deb 06 February 2001 vol 621 cc1044-6

3 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the performance penalty regime proposed when the National Air Traffic Control Service becomes a public/private partnership is consistent with the undertakings given to the House that safety would be of paramount importance in the new arrangements.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston)

My Lords, there is no inconsistency between the proposed performance penalty regime for National Air Traffic Services Ltd and the Government's undertaking that safety will be of paramount importance. The delay term has been set at a level that is designed to give NATS an incentive to reduce delays without in any way undermining the primacy of safety as a factor in the operations of NATS.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Does he recall a question that I asked when he made a Statement on the Hatfield rail disaster? I asked whether there was some inconsistency in the performance regimes and suggested that they might be perverse incentives. Will he please reconsider his answer? If air traffic controllers take into account the possibility of delays and penalties, their attention may not be fully fixed on their paramount duty of safety.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, safety is of course the paramount consideration. Your Lordships ensured that that was the case by adding an amendment to the Transport Act 2000 during its passage through the House. The advice that the Government have received from the Civil Aviation Authority on the price regulation regime, including the delay term, had the approval of the authority's board, of which the director of safety regulation is a member. My department had a meeting with the director of safety regulation to ensure that he was satisfied that there would be no adverse implications for safety if the CAA's advice was adopted in full. In the event, the Government set a somewhat lower price cap and a somewhat lower maximum delay term for the NATS PPP in its early years than was recommended by the CAA.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend recognises my interest in this matter, which is as a consultant with the British Airline Pilots Association. Does he also recognise that only the Airline Group has seen Members of this House? The other groups have so far refused to do so or have not replied to the request that we should be seen. Is my noble friend aware that the Airline Group is the only one of the three groups that operates on a non-profit-making basis? Is that not a good idea?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, my department has encouraged all of the bidders in the NATS process to meet the trade union interest. I believe that those meetings have now been held. I hope that any request for further information will be responded to sympathetically. However, your Lordships will understand that we are currently in the middle of a bidding process and that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on individual bids.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, during the three-month delay to the PPP, the Minister was, among other things, going to seek to persuade the controllers and employees of NATS of the merits of the Government's proposals. How successful have those efforts been, bearing in mind reports that I have seen in the press that the controllers are now threatening to strike?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, my colleagues and I have visited West Drayton to see controllers and we have been to Swanwick. I have addressed meetings of managers at NATS and we have had meetings with trade unions. I have another meeting with the trade union leadership tomorrow. We have also seen pension trustees. We understand that it is natural for people to be concerned during a time of change. However, the Government have done much to meet legitimate staff concerns, and we remain open to dialogue. I shall take forward that dialogue when I meet the trade unions tomorrow. We are determined to secure a satisfactory outcome to the PPP and a strategic partner who will enhance and complement the operational excellence of NATS by bringing in new skills in the fields of project management, customer relations and financing.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, could my noble friend say whether, in his view, there is any substance to the argument that is put forward by some NATS operators, who suggest that to give a bonus scheme to a supervisor could be the thin end of the wedge, in that it might undermine safety?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, my understanding is that we already have contracts in place for senior managers, who are incentivised in terms of performance. During the years that 'those contracts have been in place, safety standards have not been adversely affected—in fact, they have improved. Safety remains the first and most important target for operational managers. The very small number of contracts that were on offer and that continued to have a very small percentage of incentive would not be detrimental to the very high safety standards that are set.

Lord Elton

My Lords, who will lose their bonus if there is a near miss?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, the way in which those bonuses are structured ensures that no individual flight is ever taken into account when assessing any kind of incentive. Rather, a general incentive over general performance right across the en route sector is involved.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, is the Minister aware that not all delays are necessarily caused or can be rectified by air traffic controllers? Other causes include the military use of airspace, bad weather and handling on the airfield at an airport. Are penalties envisaged in that context?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, the measure of delay that we have introduced is, as I said earlier, less than that recommended to us to ensure a smooth transition to the new regime. It does not include delays due to air traffic control at airports or to flow management problems that are attributed to other en route service providers. Moreover, it does not have any effect on consequential delays that are caused to subsequent flights as a result of knock-on effects. We will also exclude the impact of extreme weather, which removes a potential conflict between safety and financial penalties. That keeps safety paramount, as we have always intended.

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