Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mrs. Dunwoody: I am rather amused that the hon. Gentleman, who occasionally tells us that he is a Scot, should find it so annoying that other Scots have positions of some importance.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that hon. Members will not start criticising the Scots.

Mr. Gray: You and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and other Scots who run this part of England, are none the less elected, in my case by the English and in your case by the Scots. Lord MacDonald is not elected at all and yet, curiously, is pontificating on English matters.

I raised a constituency case with the noble Lord concerning the safety standards of foreign carriers operating into the UK, and he said that civil airlines are required to comply with the "minimum safety standards". We are not asking foreign carriers to aim high and try to do as well as British carriers; we require foreign carriers to comply only with the absolute minimum. That is particularly worrying.

That matter was raised with me by my constituent, Mr. Stokes, of Hullavington. He quoted the worrying statistic that Ryanair, an Irish airline, currently landing in the UK, employs 18 Serbian pilots. It is curious that an Irish airline not governed by our high standards should employ Serbian pilots. That was apparently the case during the Kosovan war when we were at war with Serbia. None the less, we allowed Serbian pilots to land at our airports. That is bizarre and I hope that the Minister will tell us how that can happen and what can be done to prevent it from happening again, perhaps during an even more serious war in the future. The then Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), wrote to me stating:


When we are at war with Serbia, Serbian pilots should be prevented from operating in the UK. If the Minister cannot answer my questions, perhaps he will consider changing the regulations so that such a situation does not arise again.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich referred to a number of matters to which the Minister should reply. One concerned the width of the aisle through the forward bulkhead in the Boeing 737. Coming from a vaguely military background, I have always been puzzled why, when soldiers travel by plane--by crab air, as the RAF is called in the Army--they always face the back of the plane because it is safest, yet civilians always face forward. Why is that?

It is important constantly to reiterate that British air travel has the highest standards in the world, and we must keep it that way. Sorting out the botched job of NATS involves a consideration of whether we are lowering standards by palling up with the Europeans on these matters, and a general consideration of what we can do with regard to runway capacity in the south-east. Such considerations are important if we are to continue to be seen as the safest air carriers in the world. My concern is

16 Dec 1999 : Column 431

that the Government's response to our carefully worded and thought through report does not satisfy us on that point. Many will listen to what the Minister says in his reply extremely carefully. The Government's response to the report did not give us such satisfaction, so I hope that the Minister will find it in his heart to do so today.

2.36 pm

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) dealt with some matters on which I want to concentrate. However, given the situation, of which he is aware, my speech may have a slightly different slant.

I was pleased to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said. With her usual penetrating insight, she focused attention on a significant area of the debate which the Minister must answer this afternoon. The UK has had an excellent aviation safety record to date, but we might have taken it for granted for too long, and public confidence may not be retained.

Hearing the Deputy Prime Minister's welcome statement this week that there is to be an additional£80 billion for transport, the public may wonder why, for only another £1 billion, air traffic control cannot be maintained in the public sector. I wonder whether the public have worked that formula out. We are talking in real terms of only a small amount of money being returned to the Government--a profit of some 7 per cent.--so it is strange that we should be moving down the uncertain road of this public-private partnership.

Like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I travel fairly regularly on the shuttle, and you will know that much frustration is caused by the delays at Heathrow on a Monday morning. That it why it is important that we should hear from the Minister this afternoon just when Swanwick will be up and running. More importantly, we need to know when Prestwick will be given the go ahead. Since I entered the House in 1992, there have been many uncertainties about the Prestwick building programme, so one way or the other we need to know when that programme will go ahead. Both sites must become operational at the earliest opportunity.

Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr): Does my hon. Friend understand the frustrations of my constituents and the many employees at the Scottish centre at Prestwick about the continuing delays there which started when the previous Government questioned the two-centre strategy and then instituted a botched PFI project? Does he agree that the continuing delays are causing intense frustration and worry in Scotland?

Mr. Donohoe: Yes. My hon. Friend is a great champion of getting that building programme under way. As a neighbouring Member, I receive a great deal of representation from air traffic controllers at Prestwick. They are frustrated because the programme has not gone ahead and is not already in place. Given the amount of time that has elapsed between the announcement, with all its information about the future, it is amazing that, in 1999, as we move into a new millennium, not a single sod of soil has been cut on the site to enable the programme to go ahead.

Another comparison that is made with the proposed public-private partnership for National Air Traffic Services is the privatisation of British Airways and BAA.

16 Dec 1999 : Column 432

Yet there is no comparison between British Airways, which competes with British Midland--and, dare I say it, Ryanair--and air traffic control, a service in which there cannot be competition. Let us hope that there is no competition; clearly, NATS should continue to be a monopoly. It is disgusting that we are considering taking it outside the public sector. My view is based on safety considerations and the public perception of those matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned the recent accident at Paddington in that context. The public should be accorded the respect that they deserve.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I endorse my hon. Friend's comments about the mind of the public. Their views are reflected in those of the pilots. On 13 of the past 14 occasions when I travelled between Edinburgh and London, I asked the pilots for their views on the proposals. Every one is unanimously behind the British Air Line Pilots Association and Mr. Chris Darke. They are worried about who is in control when they have to land at the busy airports of Heathrow and Gatwick.

Mr. Donohoe: As usual, my hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge. The Select Committee took evidence from BALPA and we are therefore aware of pilots' anxieties. As a regular traveller on the route that my hon. Friend mentioned, I have been lobbied by pilots on the same subject. However, there will be plenty of opportunities for us to discuss NATS in future. It is only one aspect of air safety, and I want to mention some of the other subjects that the admirable Select Committee report considered.

First, I want to consider establishing an over-arching transport safety authority. Lessons should be learned from accidents that happen in all industries, not only the one that we are considering. We are perhaps better placed to deal with the problems of the virtual airlines, which have already been mentioned. However, it is more important for the industry to have well-qualified and highly motivated staff. I am especially worried about staff shortages in the safety regulation group. I am pleased to note that extra payments will be made to flight operations inspectors. I ask the Government to show similar flexibility in other cases.

The Select Committee was especially worried about the potential shortage of pilots and other staff. A review of air traffic operations took place in 1993. If PPP were introduced, staff shortages, coupled with the new owners' efficiency savings, would be extremely worrying. We must ensure that that does not lead to a drop in standards; standards are everything for the aviation industry.

Previous speeches have covered other subjects, but I want to concentrate on the fact that pilots must maintain United Kingdom standards, and be supported to do that. We welcome the Government's position. The Chicago convention and further testing of the Joint Aviation Authority require further attention in future.

There must be a greater focus on adequate training facilities in the industry. I do not believe that we should leave that to the private sector. The Select Committee concentrated on that. The Government must monitor the provision of facilities and ensure that the industry pays for the necessary facilities to maintain the high quality of services.

16 Dec 1999 : Column 433

The lack of aircraft maintenance engineers is worrying. As an engineer, I know the importance of maintaining planes and all equipment. Evidence to the Select Committee suggested a reduction in the number of maintenance engineers. We welcome the fact that the Government will establish a working group. However, working groups do not reach conclusions as quickly as they might, and the problem requires immediate attention. The Government must ensure that the industry fulfils its responsibilities on aircraft maintenance engineers and training in general.

We must emphasise the quality of air traffic regulation in this country compared with that in Europe. Some anxieties have been expressed about air traffic regulations but, rather than leading to United Kingdom standards dropping to those of some other countries in Europe, the regulations should ensure that standards are maintained and even improved.

Parts of the Government's response to the report have been disappointing. They need to sharpen their responses to the particular anxieties that have been expressed today. I hope that, this afternoon, we will receive some of the answers that we did not get when we presented the report to Ministers.


Next Section

IndexHome Page