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Mr. Brake: Will the Minister respond to the specific point--perhaps she was about to come to it--regarding whether there is scope for reducing the one-hour period over which flow is measured, so as to ensure that there are not massive peaks within any given hour? That problem would be ironed out if the time frame were much shorter.

Ms Jackson: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the arrival of aircraft often depends upon issues that are often beyond anyone's control. They have to do with weather conditions, air speed and, not least, where the aircraft departed from initially.

I would be hard pressed to give a categorical assurance on the one-hour issue, given the number of air traffic movements in our skies. I reiterate that it is within the power of air traffic controllers to manage the aircraft flow and to ensure that there is no danger. Safety must be the priority at all times, and it is the priority of all controllers. It is impossible for me to give a particularly detailed reply about the specific time scale that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but I am happy to examine the matter and write to him in more detail.

To cope with the increasing demands on air space, NATS has developed a two-centre strategy for the United Kingdom. One of the centres will be the new en-route air traffic control centre at Swanwick in Hampshire, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It will take over from the existing centres at West Drayton and Manchester.

The Government share concerns about the delay to Swanwick, but we must all be aware that such delays are not uncommon on projects of this size and complexity. Those concerns were also set out in the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee report on air traffic control, to which we responded on 24 June. As our response made clear, there is no reason to assume that the delay to the new centre will give rise to extra risk to the travelling public.

The London area and terminal control centre at West Drayton can continue to deal safely with traffic demands until Swanwick is operational. However, we recognise that it would be desirable to allay concern over safety. Our response to the Select Committee report confirmed that we will be commissioning an audit of current systems and personnel at West Drayton, and examining again the new systems at Swanwick. I assure the House that current NATS systems are being checked rigorously for year 2000 non-compliance. All non-compliant items should be fixed and tested by the end of December 1998.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked some very specific questions about the priorities--

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) : Will the Minister clarify the Government's exploration of the public-private partnership? Does she believe that it will have any effect on the speed of replacing the Prestwick centre?

Ms Jackson: I was about to touch on precisely the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. They referred specifically to what we perceive as the likely outcome of

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the public-private partnership as far as NATS structure and priorities are concerned. I assure the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith)--I keep forgetting the name of his constituency, but he smiles, so I trust that he has forgiven me--that legislation will be required before the proposals can be put in place.

We have made it clear that we believe that a public-private partnership is the best way forward for NATS. The actual details, other than the split of shares--51 per cent. to the private sector and 49 per cent. to the Government, with the retention of a golden share--we have already announced publicly. However, the priority will remain safety, regardless of anything else that is inherent in the public-private partnership. We are not yet able to give any other details to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): As the Minister is aware, air traffic control West Drayton is in my constituency. Although safety is a priority, it is related to staff morale. Does she agree that, to maintain that morale, there needs to be closer and continued consultation with the staff of air traffic control West Drayton, particularly via their trade unions, to reassure them about their future employment, conditions of service, the protection of their pensions, and any future development of the public-private partnership?

Ms Jackson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It gives me the opportunity to reassure him and the House that the issues that he has raised, which are especially important for those who have given so much dedicated service to their industry, are of primary concern to the Government. Those issues are being addressed, and my hon. Friend rightly points out that a successful conclusion to any of those matters depends on the closest liaison, co-operation and information being given to all those involved.

I have already referred to our response to the concerns set out in the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee report on air traffic control. Today's Financial Times has the headline: "CAA accepts MPs' criticism over Swanwick". Although it is by no means welcome, it is not unusual to have such delays, given the complexities of the systems.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to the incidence of drunken and unruly passengers. One of the most disturbing aspects of people's rising expectations of air travel is that some do not seem to have rising expectations of how to behave. The number of incidents of drunk and disorderly behaviour that have been reported to the CAA as potentially threatening to air safety has risen from 13 in 1993 to 62 in 1997. It should be appreciated that that is a very small proportion of the total number of airline passengers travelling on UK aircraft, which in 1997 was 85 million. Nevertheless, the issue is taken very seriously.

It is an offence for a person to be drunk or to act recklessly or negligently on an aircraft. Offenders face a fine of up to £5,000 or two years in prison, or both. The commander of an aircraft can deny boarding rights to drunken or unruly passengers, or evict them if the need arises--I presume that that is when the aircraft is on the

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ground. The CAA is working with the airlines to ensure that their staff receive appropriate training to deal with those people.

On the actions of the FAA, to which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred, I am not clear precisely how those could be enforced. The other offences to which he referred were the use of laptops and mobile phones, despite the fact that, on every flight nowadays, passengers are asked to switch them off. I shall certainly pass on his concerns to the CAA.

I have already mentioned the importance of independent investigations carried out by the AAIB, which is recognised internationally for its contribution to air safety. It tries to determine every contributory cause to an accident and any consequent injuries of deaths. It is free to make any recommendation that it wishes arising from its investigations. The majority of its recommendations are addressed to the CAA.

The AAIB is not required to assess the practicability or viability of its proposals, but the CAA must consider the feasibility and viability of such, assess how each would affect overall safety and the best method of implementation. Safety is its priority, and the authority accepts the majority of the recommendations, either in full or in part--more than 80 per cent. between 1990 and 1995.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): The hon. Lady is dealing in great detail with many of these issues, and hon. Members will be grateful for that, but does she think that the basic problem of air safety in this country is that we allow too many flights at too frequent intervals, especially in the south-east of England? Is she happy that the White Paper puts the emphasis on Heathrow and Gatwick, which are both in the south-east of England, as the hub of air transport to and from this country? Does she think that it would have been wiser, from all points of view, but especially in respect of safety for passengers and people on the ground, to have said no to more expansion of airports in the south-east?

Ms Jackson: I am somewhat surprised by the hon. Lady's contribution. Given the number of air traffic movements in this country, our record of air safety is second to none, although the Government, people in the aviation industry and the regulators cannot afford to be complacent about it. I was not aware that the White Paper made those assumptions about airports in the south-east. We have made it clear that there will be a daughter document on aviation and airports policy, and we are on the record as saying that we regard the development of regional airports as a vital way to regenerate the regions of the United Kingdom. Although we always take into account main considerations such as protection for the environment and surface access, airports are undoubtedly a regenerative accelerator.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned flight time limitations and automated cockpits. He is right to say that flight time limitations are important in respect of safety and ensuring that air crews are fit to fly aeroplanes and to take care of passengers. Such schemes are designed to ensure that crew are adequately rested between duty periods and do not work long hours that would cause fatigue.

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The CAA is responsible for the rules governing such schemes in the United Kingdom. I am confident that the schemes work well. Foreign crews must meet FTL regulations set down by their own authorities, as required under the Chicago convention. In Europe, we have been trying for some time to harmonise schemes to a high standard, but it has proved difficult to reach an agreement that is acceptable to all in the industry. The European Commission is working hard on a solution, and we expect proposals soon.

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On automated cockpits, computers and automated systems are being introduced progressively into new aircraft and--

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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