That the draft Airports (Northern Ireland) Order 1993, which was laid before this House on 9th December, be approved.
The principal purpose of the order is to enable the Government to privatise Belfast international airport. It also takes the opportunity to introduce certain amendments to current Northern Ireland airport legislation to bring it broadly into line with that which already applies in Great Britain. I shall deal with the two elements in that order.
The privatisation provisions are contained in part V, which, when enacted, will enable Belfast international airport to be sold into the private sector. The Government believe that the airport company, as a public body trading on a consistently successful basis over a number of years, should now be allowed to develop further, free of public-sector financial constraints and with the ability to grasp the opportunity offered by private-sector markets for capital and other resources.
Over the past 18 months--since the Government announced their intention to privatise--we have been working to ensure that, in legal and commercial terms, the airport is sold in a manner that will bring the maximum benefits to both the taxpayer and the travelling public. In that respect, Belfast international airport will follow in the footsteps of the former Government -controlled Great Britain airports which were sold in 1987 as part of the successful British Airports Authority privatisation.
Part V provides for the creation of a wholly owned Government company--a successor to Northern Ireland Airports Ltd., the public body which operates Belfast international airports--clears the way for the trasferred assets and liabilities to be sold on the private sector. Those powers are contained in articles 51, 54 and 58. The Government intend to privatise by means of a trade sale.
Before the sale takes place, however to ensure that there are no contingent tax liabilities as a consequence of privatisation, the property rights of the airport will be restructured in such a fashion as to avoid any adverse tax consequences. I draw the House's attention to articles 52 and 53, which deal with this necessary and important reorganisation scheme.
The remaining provisions of the order update current Northern Ireland airport law, largely to match the position in Great Britain. The new provisions also reflect developments that have taken place in the Northern Ireland airport industry over the past 20 years. The existing statutory responsibility of the Department of the Environment to promote the provision of airports in Northern Ireland is to be repealed.
That duty was considered necessary when the Aerodromes Act (Northern Ireland) 1971 was introduced, but, with the privatisation of the main regional airport and the emerging growth of other airport facilities in Northern Ireland, it is no longer considered necessary. The full list of repeals is contained in schedule 10 to the order. There are a number of provisions in part II of the order dealing with land, which afford certain rights to airport operators, for example, in relation to compulsory purchase and the protection of property. Part II also updates the present law in relation to certain aspects of airport safety.
Column 666Part III has a number of important features in relation to the management of airports, including improved arrangements for the making and enforcing of airport byelaws. I draw attention specifically to article 20, a new provision whereby certain designated airports will be required to provide facilities for consultation with airport users, the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, district councils and other interested parties. The system of airport consultative committees at mainland airports has evolved from similar legislative provisions introduced earlier in Great Britain and the committees have proved a successful forum for interested groups to discuss airport issues and problems with the operators.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : There is, unfortunately, rarely agreement about Northern Ireland issues among the political parties. Is it not odd, therefore, that when there is unity the Government seek to undermine it by pressing ahead with a privatisation measure which is greeted with little enthusiasm by the parties representing the Northern Ireland electorate?
Mr. Smith : We shall have to wait and see, but, even if the hon. Gentleman is right, I believe that the arguments for privatisation in Northern Ireland are as strong as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. In this particular case, privatisation will bring two particular advantages. The first is that management will have much greater freedom to manage and will be free from the interference that automatically comes with Government control. The second is that airport management will have access to private capital markets to gain further investment, a facility not at present available to them.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : The Minister is a Minister with a difference because he has--if I might put it this way--matured politically on the Public Accounts Committee where he has spent much of his time criticising the Government for the failures of privatisation and the way in which it has been handled. Will he assure us that he will apply all the lessons that he learned in the many hundreds of hours of deliberations and that this project will not come before the PAC in the future with a critical report?
Mr. Smith : I hope that the PAC will continue to examine all privatisations with not only a critical eye but a constructive approach to suggest ways in which we might do better in future. All the lessons learned by the PAC have been fully taken into account in this privatisation. Hon. Members and others have queried whether we should tackle the issue by way of a flotation or a trade sale. I have examined the circumstances extremely carefully and concluded that, in this case, the taxpayer will get the best value for money if we proceed by way of a trade sale.
Part III of the order contains a number of important features in relation to the management of airports, including improved arrangements for the making and enforcement of airport byelaws. I draw specific attention to article 20, a new provision whereby certain designated airports will be required to provide facilities for consultation with airport users.
Article 19 enables the new owner of the airport to obtain authority from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to appoint constables. The Secretary of State may grant this authorisation subject to such conditions as he may think fit. In effect, the existing Northern Ireland airport police will
Column 667transfer en bloc to the employment of the new owner. Under current arrangements, the airport constabulary is under the direction of the commercial management of the airport. That will continue to be the case post-privatisation.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) rose --
There are precedents for those arrangements. When, for example, the Port of London Authority and Tilbury docks were privatised their respective police functions were retained without any loss of effectiveness. The key point is that the present arrangements work well in practice. For 23 years, the airport constabulary has operated successfully as a discrete organisation under the exclusive control of a commercially driven management, and the Government see no reason why privatisation should be a catalyst for change.
Finally, and very importantly, I have taken into account the views of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and of other Government security advisers, who are satisfied with the proposed arrangements for airport policing after privatisation. Hon. Members should note particularly that members of the airport constabulary are already trained by the RUC and will be continuously monitored for performance by the RUC as part of its regular review of security arrangements at the airport. Should policing standards not be maintained to a satisfactory level, powers are available, under aviation security legislation, to allow the policing role at the airport to be taken over quickly by the RUC.
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South) : Is not the Minister a little confused about how the force is currently looked after? As the airport holding company is a public company, is not the police force under the control of the Secretary of State? We cannot compare the present position with what will happen in the future. Is the Minister saying that the present position will continue? Will the Secretary of State still have a responsibility for the airport police?
Mr. Smith : I am saying that privatisation will not have any practical consequences for the policing of the airport. The key argument is that the constables will be employed, as they are at present, by the airport and will continue to be trained and supervised by the RUC. They will be closely monitored, as they are at present. Furthermore, if the Secretary of State, on advice, is dissatisfied with the arrangements, he will be able to step in and deal with the matter promptly.
Mr. Mackinlay : Will constables have to be resworn on the vesting day of the private company, when they will become its employees? What is the Northern Ireland Airport Police Association's view on the privatisation proposals?
Mr. Smith : The police will not have to be resworn, because there will, I believe, be continuity of all employment arrangements, but I will look into the matter. I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's other question when I reply to the debate.
Airport constables who are already authorised to be armed will continue to carry sidearms when the airport is privatised. The Government are satisfied that continuation
Column 668of that arrangement raises no significant or insurmountable difficulties. The important point is that the RUC is content with the proposals.
The history and reputation of the airport constabulary are satisfactory and, for all practical purposes, its responsibilities and capabilities will remain unchanged by privatisation.
Part IV of the order deals with the economic regulation of airports. It includes new provisions that mirror the system that has operated in Great Britain since its introduction under the Airports Act 1986. The relevant articles are drafted with the twin purpose of ensuring fair competition between airports and fair trading within them. Airports, unlike most service providers, are recognised as having certain monopolistic characteristics in the provision of air transport services in their region. For obvious reasons, those services are not likely to be duplicated on the site next door. The Government are concerned to ensure that such monopolies should not be exercised to the disadvantage of airport customers. Airports trading above a certain threshold--in this case, a turnover of £1 million--will have certain requirements on the levying of charges placed upon them. That new system will be handled by the Civil Aviation Authority and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, as it is in Britain. It will effectively be identical to the regulatory model that applies to all other United Kingdom airports.
Let me touch on the responses received by the Government during the draft order consultation period. The process prompted 32 formal responses. As a result, a number of minor changes have been made. They include the additional requirement now contained in article 20 that designated airport operators consult the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland. Following representations by the Belfast harbour commissioners, it was also decided to tighten up certain provisions relating to compulsory purchase of land by airport operators.
The consultation period promoted lively debate about the method by which Belfast international airport should be privatised, with some support for the flotation option. The Government reconsidered that matter most carefully and concluded that the arguments in favour of privatisation by trade sale remained more compelling and offered the most cost-effective method of disposal.
Curent forecasts suggest that there will be significant growth in air traffic over the next decade and beyond. I believe that a privatised Belfast international airport, freed from the constraints of Government, with greater freedom to manage itself, will be in a position to grasp more effectively the exciting opportunities thus offered. I commend the order to the House.
Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan) : It is ironic that, if the proposed legislation applied to anywhere else in the United Kingdom, we should be having a Second Reading of a privatisation Bill, followed by a Committee and Report stage, Third Reading and consideration in the Lords. I make no apologies for saying yet again that this is the most undemocratic way of dealing with a major piece of Northern Ireland legislation.
The Order in Council procedure is the most unsatisfactory way imaginable of dealing with important issues in Northern Ireland. However, as Ministers have
Column 669pointed out over the years, the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland will not be restored until the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland can agree on some form of devolved power ; I hope that that will happen sooner rather than later.
I note that the Finance Bill, currently being debated in Committee, contains clauses relating to the privatisation of Belfast international airport. The Minister will no doubt be aware that that Bill has been guillotined, which means that, if the debate on stamp duty, which precedes the debate on the privatisation of Northern Ireland's airport, is protracted, the guillotine will fall before that debate is reached, again depriving hon. Members of a chance to debate and interrogate the Government about the reasons for privatising the airport. In short, we have before us a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs.
The order provides for the privatisation of Belfast international airport and gives rise to a series of important questions to which I hope the Minister will reply. The hon. Gentleman will know that the explanatory note issued by the Northern Ireland Office says : "The Aerodromes Act imposed a duty on the Department to promote airport development and extended the powers of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company enabling it to establish a subsidiary company."
The order represents a total abrogation of that responsibility. The very fact that Northern Ireland sits on the periphery of the European Community should lead the Government to play a full and active role in promoting airport development and developing transport links with the rest of the United Kingdom, the island of Ireland, the European Community and the north Atlantic routes.
The Minister pointed out that, to date, the record of Northern Ireland Airports Ltd. has been a good one. Operating profits at Belfast international airport soared to almost £4.5 million in 1992-93--an increase of 71 per cent. on the previous year's profits. Given such a glowing testimony, it seems crazy that the Government should be seeking to jettison one of the few economic success stories of their 15 years in office.
In the Government's desperate attempt to claw back some of the deficit that they have accumulated, they appear to be flogging off the last bit of family silver. The hon. Gentleman, in his consultation paper, believes :
"It is no longer considered necessary for the Department to have a statutory duty to promote and provide airports."
I invite the House to consider one point. It might not be considered necessary now for the Government to have those powers, but that was not their view when they were accepting taxpayers' money from the European Community for investment in the infrastructure of Northern Ireland international airport. From 1990 to 1993, a total of £7.5 million of grant aid was received from the European regional development fund transportation programme, all of which will now benefit the private company that takes over the airport.
During the debate in another place, the Minister, Lady Denton, stated :
"There will be no clawback of the grant on ERDF. That has been confirmed by Brussels."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 31 January 1994 ; Vol. 551, c. 1166.]
I wrote to EC Commissioner Bruce Millan last year, when it was clear that the Government would go ahead with the privatisation of the airport, suggesting that, on privatisation, there may well be a clawback of the grants that the
Column 670Government received. For greater accuracy, I have photocopied the Commissioner's letter for the Minister. It says :
"The question of clawback could arise in the event of privatisation. It has been reported recently that the government intends to dispose of the airport by a trade sale. If the purchaser paid the full market value of the business, the proceeds accruing to government would represent the full grant-aided assets, including ERDF aid, and in those circumstances the Commission might seek to clawback a proportion of the aid from the Government."
That is a different story from what was said in the other place. The letter emphasises that the purchaser would have to pay the full market value of the airport. Although the Labour party does not like what the Government are proposing, I hope that that is the case. We know from recent experiences, however, that to get their hands on fast cash, the Government are perfectly happy to sell Britain's public assets at bargain basement prices. Will the Minister therefore outline any assessment that his Department has undertaken to ascertain the market value of the airport? Will he further assure hon. Members this evening that his Department will only sell Belfast international airport at its full market value?
The Minister has a problem. If the airport is sold at its full market value, the European Commission may want some of its money back. If the Government sell it at less than its market value, the Minister may well be accused of doing that in order to avoid paying the Commission its money back. He has a problem on both those counts. Whatever price the airport eventually fetches, it is clear that the people of Northern Ireland will not benefit from the sale. We oppose the privatisation of Aldergrove airport. If the Government truly believe that the offer is attractive and that the sale will benefit the people of Northern Ireland, why is the Minister not letting them share such a golden opportunity? Selling the airport by means of a trade sale will do nothing to extend the share-owning democracy that the Conservatives have so often hailed in the past. Yet again, we witness the Government favouring big business above the individual, and private profits above public interest.
The Minister may be aware that I, along with the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) and representatives of the airport police, met his predecessor to raise a number of important issues relating to the future of police operations at the airport. I regret to say that the outcome of that meeting did not allay our concerns or those of the airport constabulary.
I understand what the Minister has said about the police at the airport, but I believe that most members of the public in Northern Ireland and elsewhere will be asonished to learn that the Government plan to vest police powers in a private operation at Belfast international airport. We support the request from the airport police that they should retain their operational independence. Especially in the Northern Ireland context, it would be highly dangerous for security and policing levels to be decided by managers who were motivated by profit.
I was talking about the problems faced by the police and about their operational independence. Can the Minister explain what specific policing requirements a successor company to Northern Ireland Airports Ltd. will be asked to meet? Section 2.6(e) of the explanatory document states that the authorisation to appoint airport constabularies
"may be granted subject to such conditions as the Secretary of State sees fit."
I should be obliged if the Minister would enlarge on that matter. Will the Minister tell us whether the requirements include minimum police levels? If so, what are those levels to be? Will they be regularly monitored and reviewed by the Secretary of State or, once the airport has been privatised, will policing become a matter for the successor company, although that company's raison d'etre is maximising profits? Despite the independence of the police at Aldergrove airport, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as the Minister has pointed out, plays an important role in training the officers at the airport. How will the sale affect the present working relations between the two groups? Who, if anyone, will be responsible for assessing training and safety standards, especially with regard to firearms?
The police, who have done a marvellous job at Aldergrove airport for the past 23 years, have asked their elected representatives to pursue the matter. We have given them our support in their wish to maintain their operational independence and their integrity. They are very concerned about the transfer of the airport to a private company whose motivation will be rather different from that of the current holding company.
What about the other workers at the airport? Will their current terms and conditions be honoured by the new company? Will the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 still apply? Will their pension provisions remain the same? Will their trade union recognition and negotiating rights be acceptable? Those issues are important to everyone who works at Belfast international airport.
Last week in another place, my hon. Friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, together with many of their Lordships, questioned Lady Denton about the implications of the privatisation of Northern Ireland international airport and how it would affect the current defence and security systems. Security at airports on this island is provided by county forces or regional police forces. At Aldergrove international airport, the position is more complicated, because the security facilities are shared with the airport authority and the Ministry of Defence. Regrettably, there still remains a continuing need for that sort of high-level security to be provided. Therefore, one needs to be satisfied that that level of security will continue.
One is bound to ask two simple questions. First, who will be responsible for security at the airport once it is sold? Will it be the new company, the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, or a combination of all three? Secondly, who will be responsible for paying for that security once the transfer has taken place? Clearly, security is an expensive operation. Will the cost be borne by the new owners, or will taxpayers be asked to pay, as they do already because of the problems that we have in Northern Ireland? There are two questions that the Minister must
Column 672address : who will pay, and who will have the overall responsibility for security at Belfast international airport once the sale has been effected? I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that those extremely important questions deserve an answer today. Earlier, I said that the Labour party is opposed to the order and will oppose it in the Lobby tonight. I could not put a better case for our opposition to the order than was put by Lord Cooke, a native of Northern Ireland, speaking in another place last week at column 1161. He said :
"We have in place at Belfast International Airport a management"--
Mr. Stott : The noble Lord was saying that we have a good international airport in Belfast. It is well managed, and makes a good profit. If the Treasury is concerned about the public sector borrowing requirement, Lord Cooke felt that methods could be arranged whereby the airport, under its current ownership, could have the right to borrow money on the commercial market. I agree with him. All those things could be put in place--all those things could happen at Northern Ireland international airport.
The only reason why this matter has been brought to the House today, and the only reason why the Government are privatising Northern Ireland international airport, is the incompetent way in which they have managed the affairs of this country over the past 15 years. They must flog off every bit of public assets. They are putting up taxes to reduce the deficit that they created. That is why they have come to the House and asked for parliamentary permission to sell this valuable asset. It is not for any operational reason, or any other reason ; they want the money to get themselves out of the mess that they created. That is why I ask my hon. Friends to join me in opposing this appalling measure.
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South) : It is the policy of our party to consider each privatisation proposal on its merits. If we find that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, we will generally support the proposal. Of course, if we find that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, we will oppose the proposal. From a personal point of view, the order has certain advantages. If it is passed, at least we will have one fewer quango in Northern Ireland. However, we are totally opposed to the way in which this vital legislation is going through the House--by order. That alone would perhaps push us into opposing the order. I agree with the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Scott) that the matter is not getting a fair crack of the whip in the House, and it is also not getting a fair crack of the whip in Committee on the Finance Bill. That surely cannot be good for democracy.
Before considering the contents of the order and the principle behind it, I wish to thank publicly the officials in the Department of the Environment who are looking after the privatisation for their co-operation and their consideration of my views during the consultative period. I also thank the former Ministers who saw myself and the hon. Member for Wigan earlier. I should like that to be put
Column 673on the record because hon. Members certainly criticise departmental officials and, out of courtesy, we should thank them when that can be done.
Belfast international airport is of great importance to Northern Ireland. Lord Cooke--one of the original board of directors, if I can put it in those terms--certainly made that clear in another place. He also stated that the airport was to be run for the benefit of business and ordinary passengers, but in a commercial manner. The view of the former Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, has been justified over the years.
The airport is the main gateway into Northern Ireland, even taking into account the ports and so forth. The number of people who travel through the international airport suggest that it is the main gateway. The people of Northern Ireland believe that it should be left in their hands.
It would be possible to change the control of the airport from the present quango situation to a different system, which would put it under the democratic control of elected representatives. Those representatives would be responsible to the voters each time they went forward to be elected. Such legislation would be acceptable, even if it did go through by Order in Council of the House, because it would provide a little more democracy.
As has been said, millions of pounds of European and Treasury money have gone into the airport. That has been matched by the high standards of service and the hard work of the staff in the airport, which reflects great credit upon them. I refer to the workers at all levels, and the citizens of Northern Ireland are proud of the valuable asset which we have in that airport. That asset should be left in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland. It certainly should not be sold to what we suspect will be the highest bidder, particularly when the economic situation is at such a low level. We may not get the exact figure that we would be looking for in the best circumstances.
The airport has been run efficiently and economically, and the security service has been given high importance. Sadly, profit will be the paramount motive under privatisation. While I agree that investors should expect a return on their investment, I must condemn the undue haste in auctioning off Northern Ireland's resources. The privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity is a sorry example. It was presented by the former Minister, the hon. Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), as essential to loweand Electricity--all Opposition parties and all Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland totally oppose the privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity. We now know the truth about whether we will have lower prices.
I do not accuse the present Minister. He has only just been appointed to his position, but, unfortunately, he has the job of steering the measure through the House.
At least there was a share flotation in respect of Northern Ireland Electricity and shares were bought by Northern Ireland citizens. Unfortunately, although share owners have profited because the share price is quite high, those who were too poor to buy shares still face very high electricity prices. Belfast international airport is now in line for privatisation, and next in the wings is Belfast harbour. They are some of our assets in Northern Ireland.
Column 674We disagree with the decision to refuse to issue shares, but, as a Member for the area, I see a ray of sunshine showing through the Tory ideological mist--that is, the management-worker buy-out offer. I hope that it proceeds. Each of us should wish the application well. If it is successful, people who have worked for years to make the airport such a successful operation might reap some reward for their hard work. Of course, it will also retain Belfast international airport in local hands.
Why was it necessary to include an airport official in article 18(3)(i)? Such matters should have been left in the hands of a constable of police. Article 20, which refers to the consultation of which the Minister made such a point, states that there will be "adequate facilities for consultation with respect to any matter concerning the management or administration of the airport which affects their interests."
Why are the four words "which affects their interests" needed? I should have thought that they would not be required. Does that mean that internal airport matters cannot be discussed, even when they indirectly affect the interests of people using the airport? A consultative committee is only a consultative committee ; what sanctions does such a committee have in respect of getting things done and resolving problems at the airport?
Can the Minister tell us whether a new pension scheme will be introduced? If so, will sufficient funds be transferred to ensure that members enjoy a full pension when the correct number of service years have been achieved? Is there a surplus in the pension fund? If there is, how will it be handled? Will it be used to give a pension holiday to the new company, as happened in the case of Harland and Wolff? Have the present pension fund members been consulted about the proposals to set up a new pension scheme? Have the present fund pensioners and deferred pensioners been kept informed? What arrangements have been made to give pensioners and deferred pensioners a say in the present or future schemes?
As a member of the Social Security Select Committee, I assure the Minister, the scheme members and the Department that the Committee views such matters very seriously indeed.
I shall now discuss airport policing--not security, but airport policing, because there is a distinct difference between security at the airport and policing at the airport. As the hon. Member for Wigan said, we met the Minister. We were accompanied by members of the Belfast Airport Police Association, and we discussed the worries of the association. As the constituency Member of Parliament, I look after the interests of all airport workers, but, having been specifically asked by BAPA to look after its members' interests, I wish to make several arguments to the Minister.
First, the BAPA should remain under Northern Ireland Office control. The Minister almost convinced me that that would be the case, because he said that the Secretary of State would be ultimately responsible in certain circumstances. I also explained that the association was at present under the Secretary of State's control. For about 22 or 23 years, BAPA members have successfully policed the airport and defended it from terrorist attack. Several members have received honours for gallantry ; others have received honours for dedication to duty. As the Minister said, they are trained to Home
Column 675Office standards by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the association is rightly regarded as a responsible, professional organisation.
However, under the proposals, in spite of all of those facts and all the nice things that have been said about the police and about the association, federated status and rights of representation are still refused to the association.
It does not follow that 22 or 23 years of co-operation between the present public company--for that is what it is--and BAPA will necessarily continue under any new company. If a private company is in control, conflicts may arise between policing and profit. For instance, I ask the Minister whether, in a scenario that I shall suggest, the company could force a policeman to admit a key worker if that worker has no identification. There could be an immediate conflict of interest between policing and the ownership of the airport. Because of his instructions, a policeman may say that no one can gain admission without a pass. If the policeman receives a phone call from management saying,"That is a key worker and he must get in to do his business or we will lose money and our profit, so you will admit that man," there will be a conflict of interest. Under such a conflict of interest, will the company be able to discipline the constable?
Will policing and security under a private company be maintained at the very highest level? I am sure that the Minister will say, "Of course it will", but I ask that anyway. Specifically, will the Secretary of State retain the power to make a direction requiring owners to meet security standards? More important, will that be incorporated into the conditions of the sale?
Will the proposed security committee, which has not been discussed yet, so I suppose that we should not really debate it at great length, have its recommendations enforced by the Secretary of State or with the support of the Secretary of State? Will those recommendations continue to update and improve the present security standards at the airport and on the approach roads? Will the Minister assure me that, as the constituency Member, I will have a right of access to that committee? Will he take this opportunity to announce the name of the chairman of the security committee?
If the order is approved, will the Minister tell us what title he has selected for the present force when it is taken over by the new owners? Will he confirm the undertaking given to me by his predecessor in a letter 20 October 1993, in which he said : "I will ensure that the airport company, at the appropriate time prior to privatisation, enters into a formal agreement with the Association"--
that is, BAPA--
"recognising its rights to represent the employment interests of its members"?
I await the Minister's reply on that issue.
As the order replaces the Aerodromes Act (Northern Ireland) 1971, I want to draw the attention of the House to the lack of an airports policy in Northern Ireland. The Minister and his predecessors have made no effort to ensure that Northern Ireland airports are complementary and not confrontational to each other. For example, I am very concerned about the position of Belfast city airport. Over a short period, there has been a tremendous growth of 40 per cent. in passenger traffic at that airport. In 1993, passenge traffic rose from 600,000 to 840,000. The company confidently predicts that it will increase to 1.2 million in 1994.
Column 676In view of those figures, will pressure be exerted on the airport authority to relax the current self-imposed flying curfew which prevents aircraft from landing or taking off between 9.30 pm and 6.30 am? It is almost certain that noise levels will rise, so the whole situation will have to be examined. I hope that any examination will be undertaken in the context of the recommendations made by the inspector who conducted the inquiry arising from the local plan for Belfast harbour for the period 1990-2005. Those recommendations were aimed at containing airport growth on the basis of noise parameters. Inevitably, every increase in the number of flights over that densely populated area raises questions of civil aviation safety. It must be remembered that the houses around the Belfast city airport were there before the airport. I am quite sure that the quantity of aeroplane fuel being dispersed over the area will give rise to concern about the health and other effects of such emissions. It is hardly necessary to draw anyone's atteiton to the difficulties with regard to road access to the city airport. Perhaps some hon. Members do not know about them, but everyone in Northern Ireland certainly does. The situation can only get worse. If the problem is not addressed we shall have a major road hazard on our hands. It would prejudice the safety and convenience of traffic on the Sydenham bypass. Indeed, press reports are already calling attention to the danger.
I have here two cuttings from the Belfast Telegraph. One of them is headed
"Lights plea as bypass crash fears grow".
Jim Rodgers and Ian Adamson, who are Ulster Unionist councillors for the area, have written to the Department of the Environment, and Mr. Rodgers is reported to have said :
"Drivers simply can't cross this road during the rush hour to get in and out of the airport. People are taking terrible risks, and someone will be killed if something isn't done immediately." Hon. Members hearing those words may conclude that roadworks are necessary. The point is that if the airport has to cope with more flights, passengers and road traffic than were envisaged at the time of the inquiry the problem lies in the lack of an airports policy in Northern Ireland.
Another edition of the Belfast Telegraph carried the headline : "Concern grows over traffic tailbacks at City Airport entrance : hazard fears on bypass".
A person who drove to the airport to drop off a passenger is quoted as having said :
"People were having difficulty getting into the airport, and the traffic was tailing back out on to the Bangor-bound side of the bypass."
Another man, who regularly travels on the Sydenham bypass on his way to work, is reported to have said that he often saw cars tailing back from the airport out on to the road. One of the newspaper articles says that there have been several car pile-ups outside the airport ; that passengers, having waited up to half an hour to cross the bypass, have missed their flights ; and that taxi drivers are reluctant to go to the airport because they cannot get in or out. These reports, as well as rumours about airlines setting one airport against another with regard to costs and discussions with airlines, highlight the confrontation that is caused by the lack of an airports policy. What we need is a policy through which the airports would complement each other. We have an international airport right out in the country, away from built-up areas. It has magnificent facilities, provided by public money. Why should not we