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6.45 pm

There is the argument about safety achieved solely through regulation. We seem to have overlooked the fact that, in this instance, safety through regulation is safety at the last stage. Safety must come from within an organisation. That is the lesson that we are learning from Railtrack. The HSE and others were incapable of bringing Railtrack to heel and making it accept its safety responsibilities. In NATS, everyone is trained to ensure that safety is the first priority. It is deep within the culture of the organisation. As soon as we try in any way to undermine that commitment by introducing the profit element, that culture, built up over the years, will be put at risk.

We were told that there would be a quadruple security lock. We were told that safety regulation would be retained in the hands of the state. We argued for that anyway. We have campaigned for that for ages. That does not undermine the argument that the safety culture must be retained within the organisation.

We have been told that there will be a golden share. That is being challenged in Europe. It is no longer effective and cannot be implemented. The argument has been lost. We were told that there would be a Government director on the board. We have said time and time again that, when the sale takes place, the Government will have only a 20 or 25 per cent. voting option. When we tried to introduce a share voting option in the other place--in other words, some form of majority option vote for Government shareholders--it was rejected. We are left with the licence, which is ineffective if a company is operating in a market and there is no confidence in it.

The Government's final desperate argument is that of constitutional confrontation. If it were up to me, there would be no House of Lords. However, we owe it to the electorate to be honest and straight with them. We need properly to engage in consultation with the NATS work force, who have never been balloted on this issue, except by their own union. As a Labour Government, we should ask the work force what they want. I thought that we stood for that--industrial democracy and a commitment to workers' rights. My hon. Friend the Minister has not visited air traffic control at West Drayton. I live near it. Almost 99.9 per cent. of the work force will be opposed to the Government's proposal. The only person we can

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find within the organisation who supports it is the chief executive, and he was brought in to carry out what the Government propose.

Some Members may vote with the Government. However, in my view and that of pilots, air traffic controllers, technicians and the public, the proposal will put my constituents at risk. Heathrow is in my constituency, and I must look after my constituents' interests. There were no apologies forthcoming--well, perhaps one--over the sale of Railtrack following the accidents at Hatfield, Paddington and Southall. There seems to be less pressure now for accountability over that sale. If the proposed legislation results in one member of my community being harmed, there will be no absolution from me, and no forgiveness from my community. I will come for those responsible. At the end of the day, as I have said, my job is to look after my constituents' interests. If the Government's proposals are implemented, I believe that their interests will be put at risk.

I am not alone in saying this. My view is shared by every expert in the industry. It is not acceptable to distort party discipline and loyalty by a demand for blind allegiance when the issue is one that puts my constituents at risk.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): I support the Government on this matter, and I feel a chill wind from my own Benches as I say so. We must address some of the matters that have been raised tonight. Hon. Members should perhaps think about their qualifications and motivations for speaking in this debate. Many Labour Members will know that I am not a serial loyalist and am perfectly happy not to support the Government sometimes. I did not do so on freedom of information, and I probably shall not do so on local government, unless they do something about the poor performance they have given my local community recently.

The question is whether we should consider this matter in a different way to that portrayed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell). What are my qualifications for talking about this matter? I cannot pray in aid the time that I spent making sandwiches in the crew canteen at Heathrow airport, although that does at least prove that I have known the airport for a long time. Indeed, many of my family and friends and members of my local community have worked there. I can pray in aid my experience as manager of an information technology unit. In addition, through the parliamentary armed forces scheme, I have had an opportunity to visit many naval establishments at which air traffic control functions are conducted. I had the chance to talk to many of those involved in that process.

I have also examined equipment used by air traffic controllers in the military sector. It is, to put it mildly, antiquated. To put it rather more strongly, it should clearly have been pensioned off long ago. Those systems are inherently dangerous, and people with first-hand expertise say that underinvestment and ancient technology characterise the current system. Yet that system is extraordinarily safe, and I pay tribute to the military sector for its contribution to a staggeringly good record. The people who operate the systems are marvellous. They deal with those systems in ways that counteract the defects. Sometimes, air traffic controllers have to display

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extraordinary judgment and an ability to deal with a huge number of factors at once. Sometimes, too, they must display real courage. Circumstances can threaten their own lives, and they know that if their decision brings about a crash, they must live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. They are fantastic.

The pilots who work with those controllers know how marvellous and reliable they are. There is a personal relationship between pilots and those on the ground and a confidence built on extraordinary competence. Each year, though, the system gets nearer to the point at which their competence and their adjustments and their capacity for dealing with inherently unsafe technology becomes increasingly necessary. An 8 per cent. annual rise in air traffic is putting ever more demands on the system.

If one asks air traffic controllers whether they want to change their systems, they will say no. They know the system and have been trained in it. They know what to do to keep planes safely in the air. Pilots, if asked to change their systems, will say no. They rely on a system that involves crucial personal contact with someone in whom they have confidence. As the volume rises, however, the dangers of decrepit technology become ever more severe.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Is my hon. Friend suggesting that under privatisation the national en-route centre that is about to come on stream and changes at the London air traffic control centre will be accelerated, changed or improved? There is no indication of that being so.

Mr. McWalter: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She, and everyone, surely accepts that we need radical change in how services are delivered, and that change is needed soon.

If a fairy godmother appeared before air traffic controllers and pilots and waved her wand to give them a new system that was much better able to control the ever-increasing volume of air traffic in our skies, they would say that they did not want it. They would be receiving something that they could not operate. Pilots would say that they did not want it. They would say, "I know the old system and can rely on it. You are putting me into the sky with something that I am not sure I can rely on."

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington talked about holding people accountable, and even about coming for them if there were some air catastrophe. Let us be blunt: in any change to an inherently dangerous and complex system, there will be danger during the transition. No matter what system is put in place, there will be a period of transition in which there are dangers. That applies whether the change is privatisation, a public-private partnership or wholly in the public sector.

We should not castigate those who must take difficult decisions at a time of risk. At the very least, they deserve our tolerance and understanding. We should all work to ensure that the decisions that we take are as well informed as possible rather than lining up to blame other people when a plane falls out of the sky.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman is keen to use the word "tolerant". Does he believe that air traffic controllers, whom he has praised to the hilt, should be

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tolerant towards having to cope with an 8 per cent. increase in the number of flights, towards being required under the new regime to make cost savings of between 21 and 35 per cent. over five years, and towards contributing to the profits that the organisation must now make? Should they be tolerant towards all that?

Mr. McWalter: If the description given by the hon. Gentleman is accurate, no.

Mr. Foster: It is.

Mr. McWalter: The issue, in part, is what level of investment will be appropriate, relative to need. I share the feelings expressed by some hon. Members that the plans are insufficiently ambitious, given the huge difficulties that the system will face. Beginning to negotiate that and adjusting it as it goes along are two different things.

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