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Column 677have a policy to ensure that the airports complement each other and that each concentrates on what it is best equipped to do? Only in that way will Northern Ireland be best served by its airports--and the taxpayer will get a proper return on the grants provided for a co-ordinated, complementary system.
I object to the way in which this order to privatise Belfast international airport is being considered by the House. The Minister is new to the job, but I travel more in hope than in certainty that, one day, the House will treat Northern Ireland like the rest of the United Kingdom in respect of legislation.
The proposed privatisation has more disadvantages than advantages for the citizens of Northern Ireland. Accordingly, I shall recommend to my parliamentary colleagues that they vote against it.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) : I apologise to the Minister for missing the first few minutes of his speech. If I ask a question on a point with which he has already dealt, I hope that he will forgive me. The reason for my lateness is germane to the debate, in that aeroplanes waiting to land at Heathrow were considerably delayed by two or three centimetres of snow on the runway. Snow ploughs were clearing those few centimetres of snow all morning. We had no such problems in Northern Ireland--everything was in order at Belfast international airport when we left there.
In common with most Northern Ireland Members, I wonder whether it is worth while participating in a debate such as this. It is like sending for the doctor to attend the wake. Nothing that we say today will influence the decision that the Government have already reached, which is being made law by the infamous Order in Council procedure. From time to time, the Government give reasons why that mechanism must be used--such as trying to bring together the political parties of Northern Ireland to debate their legislative future, but that is not a valid reason. Bills on other matters affecting Northern Ireland are properly presented to the House, and are subject to a Committee stage so that they may be open to detailed debate and amendment. Often, sensible proposals are taken on board and incorporated before a Bill is passed.
However, we are unable to change by one iota the content of this measure. None of the good advice that the Minister will be given this afternoon-- mainly from this side of the House--will impinge on the order. Debate is ended, the door is closed and nothing can be changed. Anything that we say today will be retrospective to the consultation that ended some time ago. None the less, one must put down a marker of one's objections.
Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley) : I support the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He and others who participated in the group talks and in the major consultation that ranged over three years became familiar with the phrase, "Nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed." Apparently, now that we have all agreed, it is not to be done. In other words, the phrase is meaningless.
Column 678decided that they do not require the agreement of the parties in Northern Ireland. Procedures of the House are necessary to deal with matters of grave importance, such as the privatisation of the public assets of Northern Ireland and it should have been done in a Bill. There was a Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Bill, a Northern Ireland Employment Bill and others. It is not the fault, as is sometimes alleged, of the Northern Ireland parties that such methods are used.
As the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) said, the political talks were about institution and arrangements and were not about the subject matter of the various orders. We are all doctors prognosticating the life span of a dead body.
On behalf of my colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party, let me say that I am totally opposed to the privatisation. Therefore, I welcome the conversion of at least one wing of the Conservative and Unionist party to the anti-privatisation lobby today. Perhaps the conversion will gain momentum in that party in the foreseeable future. It was unfortunate, however, that it supported many of the previous privatisations.
We are opposed to the privatisation of the airport and of other assets of Northern Ireland because it is putting into private ownership that which we believe is essential to provide good service to the people of Northern Ireland. Such assets should be retained in the public sector, to be fully accountable to the public and to avoid the excesses which profit making is inclined to drive the sector towards--cost cutting, safety cutting, security cutting and many other aspects which have been mentioned.
A second reason for opposing privatisation, which has been touched on, is the question of real competition. It has been said that Belfast international airport is the gateway to Northern Ireland. That is true, without in any way looking down on the other points of access, be they airports or harbours. Belfast airport is the main thoroughfare through which most of the economic relationships with the rest of the world are conducted. It is the vehicle through which most of the Northern Ireland tourist business is conducted and it is important that it should remain in public hands so that the best possible facility, our window to the world, can be sustained in a fashion that makes it attractive and not the subject of unnecessary cost cutting from a profit motive point of view.
The third reason why I am concerned about privatisation of the airport, as with the other assets, is the question of lack of competitiveness. The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) referred to the privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity. It has been a scandalous failure from beginning to end. The Committee which dealt with the Bill was told time and again that competitiveness and alternative supplies would increase and that prices would be cut, not only for the industrial consumer, but for the private consumer as well. That has not happened. It was pointed out at that time that competition was not possible and would not occur. The fact that it was admitted that there would be no other distribution agency made competition impossible.
No matter where one looks, it is the same. For example, in Northern Ireland, we have no alternative but to buy our telephone services from BT. We must buy our electricity from the privatised Northern Ireland Electricity company. Again, we have no alternative--apart, perhaps, from chopping wood. We were promised the safeguard of a
Column 679regulator, but I do not think that regulators have been very effective in other fields ; certainly they are no substitute for the ability to shop elsewhere.
Over the past few years, Belfast international airport has received substantial capital investment and has been much improved : that has made it one of the most attractive airports that I, at least, have visited in many years. As the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) pointed out, its friendly atmosphere would be difficult to replicate. I, as a constant user of the airport, have noticed that atmosphere ; but first-time users have also remarked on it. The value of its ethos to Northern Ireland cannot be measured in purely monetary terms. The first impression gained by visitors to Northern Ireland--industrialists, investors, tourists and ordinary travellers--is that of an important "window", and the way in which that window is dressed is also important. I do not believe that a private company will be able to sustain the airport's ethos, or will even care about it, given that it will not put coins into the till at the end of the day.
There was mention of the possibility of a clawback of the public funds used for the redevelopment and refurbishment. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's reply ; it is evident that substantial amounts were invested well after the decision to privatise was made public.
Mr. Stott : The hon. Gentleman shares my view that the Government seem to see a conflict between the public accountability of an airport and its economic success. Belfast international airport is publicly accountable ; it is also very well managed, and is proving very profitable. The same applies to Manchester international airport : it, too, is very well managed, hugely profitable and publicly accountable--because it is owned by the city of Manchester and the 12 district councils, one of which is mine. I see no conflict between public accountability and profitability in an effectively managed airport.
Mr. McGrady : The hon. Gentleman has emphasised my point, perhaps more eloquently than I could have done. Belfast international is a first- class airport whose profits have risen over the past three or four years as a result of its refurbishment at the taxpayer's expense. Now the fatted calf is ready for slaughter at the altar of privatisation. We shall await the outcome with interest : if it follows the lines of the "parallel 2" privatisations that have taken place in Northern Ireland so far, customers and cargo traders can anticipate a much less satisfactory service.
I should like to know more about the method of privatisation. The Department set its face against flotation or management buy-out at an early stage, without giving any good reasons. Some of the reasons advanced in favour of flotation seemed reasonable to me--for instance, the improvement in the company's profitability since the original decision to privatise. It was suggested that that would encourage wider share ownership in Northern Ireland, or encourage local involvement in a management buy-out. The prospect of improved trading and sales was well established.
The Department--including the Minister's predecessor--fell back on the argument that the company was too small to be floated. Can the present Minister--who is also a chartered accountant--explain how Belfast international airport can be too small to be floated as a public company? I see no bar to such action. It must have been decided at
Column 680some stage that there was a line above which a company could be floated, and below which it could not, on economic grounds. Where was the line in this case?
In a press release issued on 12 August 1993, the Minister's predecessor stated :
"Whilst it is hard to define precisely the floor below which a flotation becomes inadvisable, I am satisfied that this company is too small to float satisfactorily."
Note the wealth of argument and debate in that sentence ; note the step-by- step logical process that brought that Minister to his conclusion! In fact, he did not give a single reason for his decision.
I know that the Minister perceived certain inconveniences in flotation, which turned him away from that course. I should be interested to know what value he places on the company ; it appears from what was said to justify the decision against flotation that the Government will sell at bargain- basement prices. The Minister continued :
"there are two complications ; first, the number of shares to be issued would mean either that many applicants received none, or that each allotment was very small Secondly, because the company is relatively small" --
this is like hiding behind a bush and shaking it at the same time-- "the aftermarket in its shares would be low in volume and hence difficult to manage ; selling shares in the company would not be an easy or straightforward process. Again this would disenchant shareholders. Overall, whilst I totally support the general policy of broadening share ownership, I believe in this specific case that the flotation of the company would not serve that policy well." I am sure that the Minister took good advice on that. I note from the same handout that several consultants were appointed to give that advice, and wonder whether they are putting their names to the statement. I refer to Touche Ross, Alan Burnside Communications and Citigate Communications. It would be interesting to know, incidentally, whether competitive tendering was involved, or the old boys' network. Competitive tendering has been forced on everyone else ; why not force it on the Government ?
Mr. McGrady : In any flotation, trade sale or management buy-out involving a shareholding company, shares will be involved. They will be passed to the new owner--whether that owner is a corporate body, an individual or a group of individuals, as would obtain in a management buy- out. I see nothing in the Minister's statement rejecting flotation that justifies his decision.
I do not pretend to have a detailed knowledge of this particular case and there may be genuine reasons which can be qualified and quantified. It would be interesting if the Minister gave us the figure above and below which it was decided that a flotation would or would not have succeeded. Will he tell us that, because of X, Y and Z, there should be a trade sale rather than a sale to, as it were, the people of Northern Ireland--either directly to shareholders or through a management-employee buy-out? A sale to the people of Northern Ireland would at least mean that the airport would continue to be operated by the people in the interests of the people.
I read again from the Minister's predecessor's press release and frame a question from the quotation. In relation to encouraging local interests, the press release states :
Column 681"whilst I will not in any way rule out bids from outside Northern Ireland, I am announcing today"--
13 August 1993--
"that I will be asking all bidders to include in their proposal what plans they have for local management and control, were they to acquire the airport."
What has been done by way of asking possible bidders about their proposals for local management control were they successful in buying the airport?
Another issue that has taxed and will continue to tax many hon. Members is the problem of policing and security. Those more experienced than I in this respect have already articulated their grave concerns. I have no detailed knowledge, but I know that changes have already taken place. At one time, all airport security was carried out by the airport police. As recently as last summer, the airport police controlled the periphery and the building itself was controlled by a security firm. I do not know whether the security firm has the same rights as the police to stop or hinder me in my progress without my claiming diplomatic or parliamentary immunity, or whatever it is that one does. It is sometimes perplexing to know who is in control of what.
The airport police rightly have responsibility for the security of access to the airport, but, as one trundles through the access gateway, one finds that a security firm takes over responsibility. At the end of the day, however, someone controls those patrolling the area, which was one of the most interesting questions asked by the hon. Member for Antrim, South. He wondered whether there would be a private company police force in addition to the security firms which have sprung up all over the place. Will there be a private company police force that is not accountable to anyone? This is the crunch question that must be answered, but the Minister dealt with it only in passing.
The Minister has made much play of the good relations and efficient service at Belfast airport, and I can certainly vouch for the courtesy of the airport police. The Minister appeared to say that the transition would not cause any problems vis-a-vis the police. Last summer I spoke to a couple of policemen ; I did not do so in an official capacity as I was merely passing through. One of them told me that 23 of his colleagues had applied for early redundancy because of the changes, because of their total dissatisfaction with their lot and with the security companies being brought in and because their future was a wholly unknown quantity. It is important that this aspect of the order is explained before we are asked to pass judgment.
Belfast international airport has a good reputation. It is an attractive, easy and open place and has all the things which an airport should have but which many of them do not have. If the order is passed, I fear that all that is good about the airport will be lost to the people of Northern Ireland for the sake of a balance sheet exercise by a company that is interested only in making a profit.
The airport is a public utility. No matter what legislation is passed, it can never be a private concern. If privatised, it would be a public utility run by a private company, and a public utility must always take account of the needs of the people. The privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity was a mistake because it failed the people, as did privatisation of British Telecom and other privatisations.
Column 682I fear that that will happen in this case, and for that reason, I and my colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party will oppose the order.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) : I, too, hope that the House will reject the order. In the coming minutes, I hope to explain the objectionable nature of the order, which has serious implications not only for the people of Northern Ireland but for everyone in the United Kingdom in relation to employment rights and policing. It is nonsense that we should examine extensive and detailed legislation in this way. This must be the only country in western Europe in which major legislation can be passed after only a brief debate in the legislature without hon. Members having the opportunity to amend or scrutinise it. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) who drew attention to article 18 which has serious implications for civil liberties and also empowers an airport official--not a policeman--to act in such a way as to put him in danger.
In addition, it is simply bad policy. If the legislation were to receive a proper Second Reading or Committee stage, either here or in some devolved Assembly, we could not only probe the Minister's thinking but perhaps persuade him to accept amendments. However, that is not possiblest interests of the people of Northern Ireland. The order will permit or trigger the sale of Belfast international airport. I oppose the sale in principle because the airport is the gateway to the Province. It is a public utility and should be legitimately exploited on behalf of the economy and the people of Northern Ireland and retained in public ownership. I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of pride felt in Northern Ireland for the airport, which is a prestigious enterprise.
Other hon. Members have referred to the lack of an airport policy for Northern Ireland. I can only say, "Hear, hear," but it fits in with the absence of a coherent airport policy for the rest of the United Kingdom. It is crazy that there are no plans for the growth of airports in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. That absence reflects the Government's general lack of interest and will create problems not only in my part of the country--the south-east of England--but in Northern Ireland.
Belfast city airport is a growing enterprise and there will soon be a prestigious and worthwhile development at Derry. I wish both projects well. The growth in airport provision, however, must be planned if it is not to cause problems for users and workers. To let airports grow willy-nilly is profoundly foolish. The absence of a coherent strategy will cause difficulties.
Madam Speaker, the order is a precursor to the sale of Belfast harbour seaport, which is provided for under the Ports Act 1991. I fear that, relatively soon, we shall have a similar debate in which we shall protest about the arbitrary way in which the Government will trigger the sale of the seaport without any examination by Parliament of the ramifications for workers and the community of Northern Ireland and its effect on the economy of the United Kingdom and of Ireland. I regret that. Even at this
Column 683stage, the Government should consider introducing a substantive Bill that includes their proposals for the sale of the airport and the disposal of the seaport.
Madam Speaker, the Minister--
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he has referred to me as Madam Speaker rather a lot. It is gracious of him, but I am a Deputy Speaker.
The Minister prayed in aid the sale of the port of Tilbury, which is in my constituency. It will not surprise hon. Members to hear that I know something about the history of the legislation that led to that sale and its consequences for the port's work force and police officers. The Government preferred and encouraged a so-called management-employee buy- out. They said that, even if they received a bid that was superior to that of the management and employees, they would, within certain limitations, discriminate in favour of the management-employee bid.
Subsequently, there was a management-employee buy-out at the port of Tilbury and, under the same legislation, a similar sale occurred across the river at Medway. The work forces of those ports were given shares, as part of the supposed "democratic process" of encouraging people to have an interest in the enterprise of their company. They were also encouraged to purchase further shares. I see that the Minister is acknowledging that that is probably what the Government also have in mind for the sale of the Northern Ireland international airport.
Many of the workers who purchased shares have since been made redundant. They feel deceived because, under the provisions of the sale and the ground rules on the purchase of shares, they had to sell them back immediately on redundancy, despite the fact that some had borrowed and others had invested their savings to acquire the shares. If the Minister believes that I am wrong to suggest that that strategy may be followed for the sale of the airport, he should give an assurance that if employees buy shares in Belfast international airport, and leave its employment or are made redundant, they will continue to hold the shares under a scheme created by the order. The Minister said that the order would bring practices at the Northern Ireland international airport in line with those at airports in the rest of the United Kingdom, which had been disposed of some years previously. That assurance does not extend to policing. Policing at airports under the private ownership of BAA is still provided by public agencies. BAA is required to purchase the service of the police. At Heathrow airport, the service is provided by the Metropolitan police, at Gatwick by the Sussex constabulary, at Stansted by the Essex constabulary and at Glasgow by, I understand, Strathclyde police.
Mr. Mackinlay : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who reminds me that Greater Manchester police provide policing at Manchester airport, which used to have a separate constabulary. It was deemed proper--I agree with this as a matter of public policy--that it should be merged into the Greater Manchester police because, for security
Column 684reasons and to maintain the operational independence of the police, it should not be controlled by people who had a commercial interest in promoting airport enterprise.
The Minister is not bringing policing of the international airport into line with that at other airports but, unfortunately, he will bring it into line with the position at the port of Tilbury. The Port of London Authority police, a proud force and the second oldest police force in this country, which used to police the port of Tilbury, was privatised and is now under the ownership and control of the Port of Tilbury company. That was most distressing to police officers. I know from conversations with officers at the Northern Ireland airport that the suggestion that they should be sold like chattels and a piece of airport equipment is repugnant to them. They are proud of their public office of constable. It is barmy and wrong as a matter of principle that they should be controlled by a private company.
Officers at Northern Ireland airports have seen what has happened at the port of Tilbury and realise that they will lose out in terms of pay and conditions. After a year or two, the Port of London Authority police lost their linkage with the pay and conditions of service of the county constabulary. The pay and conditions of service of the Northern Ireland airport police are linked to those of the RUC. As night turns into day, I am sure that that link will be lost. I hope that the Minister will reassure the police in Northern Ireland that I am wrong and that pay and conditions of service will continue to be linked to those of the RUC.
The Government have totally disregarded the work force of Belfast international airport and its police officers. There has not been any meaningful consultation. Discussions have been prompted by and held under the auspices of the hon. Member for Antrim, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott), who took the initiative of taking police officers to see the Minister to discuss the matter. So far as I am aware, however, there was no direct consultation of representatives of the police apart from that discussion. Moreover, from what I can ascertain, there has been a total absence of consultation with the trade unions representing the work force at the airport.
Mr. Mackinlay : I am, indeed, aware of that. Even if the Government are determined to privatise the police force at the airport, I find it amazing that they do not propose to allow police association representation on the security committee. Moreover, so far as I am aware, the chief officer of police will not be an ex officio member of that committee. I find that both breathtaking and profoundly foolish.
There is one other matter that I believe would have been examined in greater detail had the contents of the order been taken as a Bill ; indeed, I suspect that the Government might have reflected on it and amended the legislation. I refer to the position of the representative body of police officers. At present, the Northern Ireland airport police officers have an association. They have sought the status of
Column 685federation but, for reasons which I do not understand, the Government have declined to grant it in statute. That is bad enough. By the same token, however, the Northern Ireland Airport Police Association does not have the status of a trade union. There is, therefore, a massive void in respect of not only the status of the police officers' representative body but its legal position and capacity to protect and promote the interests of its members collectively and individually. I suspect that the Government are not being malevolent in this ; they are simply incompetent. The parliamentary draftspersons and Ministers have not examined the issue sufficiently. I fear that a degree of arrogance may be involved as well. It is wrong that these police officers should have the protection neither of a federation nor of a trade union. I suspect that that situation is unique not just in the United Kingdom but among advanced western democracies.
It is within the Government's capacity to give the airport police proper status, preferably as a federation.
The Minister implied that the Royal Ulster Constabulary was happy with the policing arrangements. I venture to suggest that that is not so. I think that the RUC was asked, "If the police force at Northern Ireland airport is privatised, will you help to monitor police standards to ensure that they are adequate?" One would expect the Chief Constable to say, "Yes, I will do my best." But there is no evidence to suggest that the RUC considers the privatisation of a police force to be a good thing. It is a breathtaking suggestion. Every police officer in the land--from constable to chief officer--is appalled at the suggestion that any police force should be privatised. It is bad in principle ; it is bad as a matter of public policy ; and it misleads the public who, not unreasonably, assume that someone in a police uniform is a public servant and independent. Any police officer in the United Kingdom would regard privatisation as a regrettable departure from the traditions of British policing, which have endured for 170 years. The police will fear that the privatisation of the police at the port of London in Tilbury and at Northern Ireland's international airport constitutes a dummy run for the privatisation of other police functions elsewhere in the United Kingdom. That is a real danger, and I believe that that will be the view of police officers everywhere.
The Minister has not told the House--but I will--that the chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, which represents the RUC, wrote to the Minister's predecessor in June 1993 :
"My Central Committee have voiced concern about the future of the Belfast Airport Police with the prospect of an armed and trained Police service coming under the control of a civilian Board of Directors Once privatised, the Airport will be completely commercially driven in its priorities and, not unnaturally, we cannot help but be anxious about the maintenance of the quality and scope of the Police service at the airport."
That sums up the legitimate fears not just of police officers in Northern Ireland but of any sensible member of the public, who would be horrified to know that a privatised police service was armed. We are being run by a barmy army, which proposes to privatise an armed police force in an area that is critical in security terms. Will the Minister even now pause to reflect on whether the order should be withdrawn so that the issue of policing can be the subject of further consultation and consideration?
Column 686Who will decide what is the correct operational strength and rank structure for the force at the airport after privatisation? Will it be the company or the RUC? How will that structure be enforced? I understand that, at present, the Northern Ireland airport police can check out vehicles via the police computer. They do not have direct access but can go through the proper channels at the RUC. Will the airport police still have comparable access to the police computer after privatisation? If so, I am not sure that it is good public policy. If not, how can they police properly? Either situation is undesirable and reinforces my argument that we should not privatise the police and that they should remain independent of the airport operators.
I have already referred to the police officers' pay and conditions of service. Unfortunately, there is evidence to show that there will not be protection. Will the pay and conditions of police officers employed in the force continue to be linked to those of the RUC? I asked in an intervention whether the constables would have to be resworn. That is not an insignificant point. Article 19 of the order states :
"An airport operator authorised in that behalf by the Secretary of State may appoint any person employed by the operator to be a constable on the airport managed by that operator."
That seems to suggest that existing police officers, who are proud of their office of constable and many of whom have given lengthy service to the police force at the airport and to the RUC before, will suffer the indignity of having to swear again when the privatised company takes them over as part of the airport furniture and fittings.
The draftsmen have not taken account of that point. I suspect that, unless the provisions are clarified, embarrassment may arise and the powers of police officers who act as constables after privatisation may be challenged if they have not resworn. That illustrates the clumsy and sloppy way in which the order is presented to the House. There is certainly no clarity on that point. I am told that, as part of the exercise leading up to the order, there was a so-called "keypoint" survey to examine what should be the policing needs in terms of location, numbers and costs at the airport after privatisation.
I realise that, by definition, such a document must be kept confidential, but I had hoped that the Minister would make that document available to the Northern Ireland Airport Police Association, because its officers and members will have to fulfil the policing functions. That is a further area where a moral obligation is not being fulfilled by the Government--to consult the people who will have to carry out the policing functions at the airport. It is wrong that there has been no disclosure at least of some of the main points in that survey to the police officers' representative body.
There is a danger with the method of sale that the Minister prefers. Although I am opposed to privatisation, I believe that a floatation would have been more appropriate, because at least the people of Northern Ireland would have had a slice of the action. One could argue that, after a flotation, the airport would still be partly within the ownership of the people of Northern Ireland. Under a sale, which I think the Minister proposes, there is no guarantee that there will be a maintenance of any Northern Ireland interests in the ownership and control of that airport. What is more worrying is that we have no idea who will purchase the airport.
I have expressed some concern and scepticism about so-called management- employee buy-outs, because my
Column 687experience at Tilbury is that the employee part of the buy-out is really a sham or a cosmetic exercise and not worth a bag of beans. Many people painfully found that they lost their jobs as well as their shares after a while. Nevertheless, such a buy-out has some continuity and identity with existing arrangements. At Belfast, things might not work out as the Minister intends. Some other enterprise or entrepreneur without loyalty to Northern Ireland, this country or western Europe might purchase the airport. What guarantee is there about the people who might purchase or own and control the airport? If it is purchased initially under the auspices of a management-employee buy-out, it could be sold again in the not-too-distant furture to another party.
The recurring theme of the debate this afternoon is about what will happen to the police. Heaven forbid, a Robert Maxwell type could purchase the airport. I would not want him to have ownership and control of a police force. One can think of other people. The mind boggles at the idea that they should be able to control and maintain a police force. Quite apart from the dangers of impropriety and undue pressure put on police wishing to maintain their independence, there is also a danger that they will be demeaned and abused, for instance as little more than commissionaires, as a front to the enterprise rather than as professional police officers.
What the Minister has so far rejected--I think that he should reflect on this--is that there are alternatives to the sale of the police force. The alternatives are to maintain the force within the ownership and control of the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment and for the officers to be leased out, as happens at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Glasgow and Manchester. They should stay under public control--Government control--and the costs should be charged to the new airport operators, thus maintaining their independence.
The airport police could have been absorbed into the RUC. Parallels occurred some years ago at Heathrow when the British Airports Authority police merged with the Metropolitan police and at Manchester when the airport police merged with the Greater Manchester police. The Government have spurned those alternatives. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Minister will reconsider and see that that is in the interests of the Government, the people of Northern Ireland and the proud police officers who feel insulted about the way in which they will be treated should privatisation go through. I return to a point which concerns me and other hon. Members. If the Government glibly sell off the professional police officers at Tilbury in Essex and in Northern Ireland, who are proud of their office, are those not dummy runs for the sale of police officers' functions elsewhere in the United Kingdom, such as the motorway police? Would not there be a replacement of police officers in public control by static security guards elsewhere? The Minister cannot pretend that that fear is not being uttered by police officers throughout Britain. There is a profound fear that that will happen unless the Government are prevented from going ahead with privatisation of the police force under the order. For those reasons, I hope that either the Minister will take the order back or that the House of Commons will throw it out.
Column 6885.25 pm
Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley) : But for world war two, the part of the airfield that was vested from my grandfather would have eventually passed to me. That might, in certain circumstances, have meant that I would have had to declare an interest. Now my hands are clean. I am not the landlord of the airfield. I hope that that does something to relieve the anxieties of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe).
I derive some satisfaction from article 17 of the order, which no doubt echoes the Aerodromes Act (Northern Ireland) 1971. The article confers on district councils various powers, such as the acquisition of land, planning restrictions on structures in line with flight paths and--this is important --providing or improving road links. I know that the present Minister, whom we are delighted to welcome to the Northern Ireland debate, even if it is only on an Order in Council, will not mind my mentioning that a predecessor of his in 1977 gave a solemn undertaking on behalf of the then Government that the missing link to the present airport would be completed within some six months. That was when the original road was closed for security reasons. It was not until my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South took over that area from me--and, therefore, represented it far more effectively --that the Department of the Environment got round to constructing the link after all those years.
I do not know whether the Minister has been there ceremonially to open it, but he would have been able to drive along it on the way to the airport. It is commonly known as the Killeen bypass. It is a great consolation to know that the district councils will have an important role, if not all the say, in providing and improving the road links.
Article 20 brings district councils into the picture, because it specifies and interprets the meaning of a district council in terms of the order. Article 20(2)(c) says :
"the district council in whose district the airport or any part thereof is situated or whose district is in the locality of the airport"
will have certain roles to play in the consultation at least. If consultation is to be effective, that means that adjacent district councils will have some input into the working of the airport under the new management. I freely concede that that will mainly mean Antrim borough council. However, may I put in a commercial for my Lisburn borough council which, like Newtownabbey borough council, is covered by the phrase
"or whose district is in the locality of the airport".
I suppose that Lisburn and Newtownabbey could claim that they are under the flight path. Aircraft taking off from either set of runways pass over those two districts in a short time, even before they retract the undercarriage. My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South does not have a monopoly on consultation here.
Article 20 deals with consultation. I have mentioned the district councils and the Minister mentioned the provision for consultation with the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland. I am especially interested in article 20(2)(a), which refers to consultation with "users of the airport". That might seem to be a very natural concession because without users, it would be difficult to justify the existence, never mind the policing, of an airport. However, we are setting up a body that in some ways resembles the controlling authority at Heathrow ; it is not an exact replica,
Column 689but it is near enough for the purpose. My next point has a direct bearing on the effectiveness or otherwise of consultation with users.
I sought to engage in consultation when the Belfast lounge was moved from gate 49 to gates 8 to 10, which is a much more remote location in the Heathrow complex. At the time, only one little insignificant sign was provided to indicate where the new Belfast lounges and gates were. Such was the volume of complaints from constituents--my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South and others had a similar volume of complaints--that I wrote to the authority pleading that signs be provided similar to those indicating Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester, which was not an unreasonable request. I received a rather high-handed reply which stated that it was considered that the signposting was adequate, but that, in the light of my representations, it would be reviewed. It was reviewed and the result was that the one remaining sign was removed entirely, leaving no signs--a situation which still exists. In the spirit of Christmas, I volunteered to purchase 20 posters if the airport authorities would put them up. They declined that offer and we still have no indication for first-time travellers of where they can find the aircraft heading for the airport that we are now discussing.
The British Airports Authority, as a result of other
representations made by the Aldergrove airport authorities, various institutions and trade organisations in Northern Ireland, retaliated by making the situation worse. I do not imagine that the British Airports Authority will bother to read Hansard. If it does, it will take a delight in ignoring the wishes of the majority of users. However, I hope that the consultation process provided for Aldergrove airport will be much more effective. I hope that the Minister and his Department will ensure that the users' wishes and views are not ignored as they are currently being ignored at Heathrow.
The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) apologised for his late arrival. I had the problem of being delayed for a few hours this morning. Others of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues may be late and some of my colleagues will be late. A telephone message from my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) was passed to me a few minutes ago. He was engaged this morning in consultations about the draft Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 and left shortly after lunch to get here. All those hon. Members have been delayed because of what I can only describe as imaginary snow at Heathrow. My flight was delayed for nearly two hours and we were told that the delay would last until the Heathrow runways were cleared of heavy snow. Hon. Members can imagine our surprise as we descended from west of the airfield and we saw that all the roads, even little country roads, were absolutely clear, as was the M25.
What sector of that cumbersome, incompetent authority decided, with no justification, to cancel flights, to divert flights and to delay flights, thus throwing the whole pattern of the day into utter confusion ? I imagine from the signals being transmitted in various parts of the Chamber that a little confusion has also affected various Whips Offices.
We can only hope that the equivalent authority created by the order will be more realistic, more competent and