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Mrs. Dunwoody: The hazard of that argument is that the whole Swanwick exercise has been undertaken by private sector companies from the beginning. If there was a problem, it was not with the expertise in the civil service but with the project management and the computer companies. The civil service already has an extremely useful unit in Norwich, with enormous computer expertise, that is not used by Departments.

Mr. McWalter: That argument is not compelling because the expertise held in the private sector does not always make it through into public contracts. Under the previous Government, a computer company--I will not name it, although I know that I can do so here--sold inferior products to the public sector and did not provide adequate support. In my view, that was because there was insufficient expertise in the civil service to secure the right contracts to hold the private companies accountable.

There are clearly different ways of slicing the top off that egg, but, in my view, the failures show the lack of expertise in the public sector. I am saying not that the whole public sector has a lamentable lack of expertise in information technology--that would not be true--but that the kind of expertise needed to make the transition effective needs to be tapped into in an appropriate way. I hope that, between us, we can sort out the arguments to the benefit of air safety, air passengers and our transport system.

3.52 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Like the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), I am not a member of the Select Committee, but I am delighted to be able to contribute to our debate and to have heard the very interesting contributions that have been made. I apologise to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), for not having been here for her speech; I was engaged at another institution on the Strand. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) said: she has brought great distinction to her chairmanship.

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I declare more than a passing interest, as I have been an aviator for the best part of 33 years--I held a pilot's licence before I held a licence to drive a motor car--and I have the privilege of representing Farnborough, which is the birthplace of British aviation. In Farnborough, we have the aerodrome--the site of the first manned flight in the United Kingdom, when Samuel Cody took off on 16 October 1908--the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency headquarters, British Aerospace headquarters and the air accidents investigation branch.

I want to single out the air accidents investigation branch and its head, Ken Smart, for the phenomenal work that is done there. I am sure that members of the Committee will be aware of it, but I am not sure how many members of the public appreciate the fantastic resource of skill and forensic science that we have in the AAIB. I have seen the remains of the Lockerbie PanAm 747 there. Mr. Smart showed me how the branch had determined how that aeroplane met its fate. The fact that it could do that is a tribute to the way in which it works.

There are two branches: the engineers, who are all pilots, and the pilots, who are all engineers. They cross-fertilise in a very impressive operation. To a pilot, the institution is a little grim, because it is something of a morgue, with the remains of crashed aeroplanes; but I pay tribute to it none the less.

I echo what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) said about the high aviation safety standards that we enjoy. There has been universal recognition in this debate that the United Kingdom is extremely well served in that respect. We are an air-minded country and a world leader in many aspects of aviation, and it should come as no surprise to the House or the wider public that we have cause to be proud of our air safety record.

The air traffic controllers, especially in the London airports region, have performed their task with immense skill, despite the huge increase in traffic. I sought to make that point to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge). The House debated 10 years ago whether Heathrow should have its number of traffic movements raised to 275,000 and whether it was possible to move any more traffic there. We were told that it was not. In fact--her constituents are right to be concerned about it--there has been a 30 to 40 per cent. increase, which is again a tribute to the skills of the air traffic controllers.

The hon. Lady talked about the number of reported airproxes--they used to be called near misses, but we now have an airprox board. In 1998, the number of risk-bearing airprox incidents involving public transport flights per 100,000 flying hours was 1.2, compared with 2.37 in 1997 and 2.87 in 1996. That suggests that there has been an actual reduction, not simply a proportional reduction.

Dr. Tonge: The hon. Gentleman is comparing one year with a trend that was otherwise going up.

Mr. Howarth: I freely confess that I was using only the figures for the past three years, and I do not suggest that we should be complacent. There is certainly no room for complacency. We continue to enjoy high standards of air safety only because there is no complacency. Heaven forbid that there should be any in the House. It is vital that anyone with any interest in aviation should recognise that the number 1, 2 and 3 priorities are safety, safety and safety.

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We should none the less take encouragement from the picture that the figures give us of the state of play at the moment. In fairness, we should not stir up unnecessary concerns among the public, especially those who live near airports. The figures show that the situation is not getting worse.

Dr. Tonge: We need some clarification. The proportion of near misses to flights has been going down, which is excellent, but there has still been an overall increase in the number of near misses per year. That is what worries my constituents.

Mr. Howarth: I was seeking to show that there cannot have been an actual increase in the number. A reduction to 1.2 from 2.37 per 100,000 flying hours in 1997 suggests that the number has halved, and I am not sure that the number of flying hours will have gone up; but let us leave that point now.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead made an interesting point. I had the opportunity last year of flying on the Civil Aviation Authority's BAC 1-11 development aeroplane. Incidentally, I take the opportunity of this debate to say to Sir Malcolm Field that I hope that he retains that aeroplane in the CAA's control, because it does valuable work. I saw an exciting new development in operation on the aeroplane that would enable the pilot to use a rollerball--of the type with which we are all familiar from computers--to change the track on his navigational display, either because of bad weather or for another reason, and to press a button to transmit the new track to the air traffic controllers. Using the software, they could then establish whether the track were safe or conflicted with other traffic. If the track were safe, they could immediately authorise the pilot to adopt the new track. He would then press a button and the new track would be fed into the autopilot and the aeroplane would fly safely. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead may be reassured on that point.

I represent Farnborough as part of my constituency, and concerns have rightly been expressed to me about the proposals for new developments there, following the sale of the airfield by the Ministry of Defence to a company called TAG. Several years ago, the previous Government suggested that Farnborough should be the main business and general aviation airfield for London and the south-east of England, a decision that this Government also supported. I, too, endorse that decision, although my constituents are concerned about the number of movements, and safety is an important factor to them. I hope that the Minister will be able to assist Rushmore borough council in coming to an agreement on the planning application by TAG that will enable the airfield to continue to operate and, therefore, to continue to be the home of the world-famous Farnborough international air show.

The Committee made some important points about general aviation. I shall not rehearse the debate that we had recently on the air navigation order, in which the Minister mounted a stout defence against my concerns about general aviation. Paragraph 54 of the Committee's report states:

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    that all pilots should be given incentives to undergo training and, accordingly, recommend that VAT should not be charged for appropriate training courses."

I strongly endorse that recommendation and urge the Minister to adopt it. There is no doubt, as the Popular Flying Association has made clear, that the more pilots fly, the safer they are likely to be. The higher the cost of private flying is driven, the less likely people will be to keep their licences current--hence the more dangerous they become when they fly. Perhaps the Minister could also persuade the Chancellor to remove the tax on Avgas fuel, which is one of the high-cost elements of private flying.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead made a good point about the privatisation of NATS, and I agree with him. I have constituents who are air traffic controllers and I know that they have concerns. Safety is of course of paramount importance, but the experience of privatisation of BA and the BAA has not resulted in any diminution in safety. The PPP proposed for NATS is also unlikely to reduce air safety. I have spoken to Bill Semple and visited Swanwick and the London air traffic control centre at West Drayton, and I cannot believe that the professional people I met would do anything other than put safety at the top of their priorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who speaks for the Opposition on transport, made an important speech recently on the issue of Eurocontrol. I am concerned that the European Union is seeking a seat on the Eurocontrol board, because it is made up of sovereign nations and I suspect that the EU will simply supplant the individual nation states.

I am also concerned about the possible consequences for slot allocation in this country and for our negotiations with the United States of America about transatlantic access to gateway points. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South was right to point out the dangers of qualified majority voting if it were to be applied to the proposed new European aviation safety authority. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), have expressed concerns about that proposal; I echo them and hope that the Minister will take them into account.

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