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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): As the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said, this has been a good debate. If I may say so, we have been discussing a good report. Although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will not be deflected by flattery, I pay tribute to her long interest in these matters. As I shall probably have to repeat several times in my speech, I can assure her that we take the report's recommendations very seriously.

It will not be possible for me to deal with all the issues raised this afternoon. There are rather a lot of them: some had only a tangential relevance to the subject but, happily, most were relevant. I shall do my best, but I shall be glad to write to hon. Members if I miss out any of the main points.

The allegation running through the debate has been that the Government are in some way complacent about air safety. I entirely refute that. We are not content with the status quo. We do not believe that everything is perfect. I shall not even go so far as to say that our air safety arrangements are the best in the world. I shall say only that they are among the best in the world, as the House will accept.

During my years in the House, I have heard many of our institutions--police, judges, soldiers and so on--described as the best in the world, most often by Conservative Members. That radiates an air of complacency that I have no wish to adopt, so I shall confine myself to saying that our air safety record is among the best in the world. Work goes on continuously to make sure that we maintain that record.

One requirement to being taken seriously in this matter is to ensure that we do not react in a knee-jerk fashion to tragedies. When a tragedy happens, everyone make an instant analysis of the circumstances, and experiences a personal gut feeling about what was wrong or about what should have happened. However, the benefit of hindsight is that it often shows that initial reactions were incorrect. It is vital, therefore, when dealing with important issues of safety, to reflect maturely and undertake proper research and analysis before reaching conclusions.

Some recommendations might even have an adverse affect on safety. For example, the use of smoke hoods was proposed soon after the Manchester accident, and subsequently. However, it has been suggested that smoke hoods could impede evacuation: if so, they would not necessarily be desirable.

Many hon. Members have spoken about air traffic control and about the Government's plans in that respect. Other opportunities will arise to debate those matters--the next coming on Monday, so I shall make only a few general points on the matter.

Many hon. Members have asked when we expect Swanwick to open. I can confirm that it is on target, which is more than can be said about the arrangements that we inherited. It is expected to open in spring 2002. What is most important is not to predict in advance the day or week when it will open, but to get it right. Stringent tests and training will take place between now and then to make sure that we get it right. Thus far, I am glad to say, opening is on target.

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We inherited a considerable mess at Prestwick and we are doing our best to put it right. That has involved unravelling some arrangements. If ever there was a case for getting some private sector skills into project management, it is the project management at Prestwick. It is anticipated that Prestwick should be ready by the winter of 2005-06, but I hope that no one will attempt to hold me to a particular day or week. Once again it is important to get it right.

I repeat a point that Ministers and everyone concerned with safety regulations has made at every opportunity--that aviation safety is, and will continue to be, paramount. That theme runs through all our plans for the future of air traffic control. We intend to separate, and keep separate, safety regulation from operations.

I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe)--forgive me if I am wrong--who made a comparison with Railtrack. There is none to be made. One of the big mistakes about Railtrack is that it was left with some safety responsibilities. It is a cardinal rule of effective safety procedure that safety regulation is kept separate from operations. That happens now and will be written into our arrangements for a public-private partnership of air traffic control. Far from undermining safety, we shall enhance safety arrangements. We are in the process of talking to all interested parties, including air traffic control and pilot representatives. We are taking seriously all their suggestions--they have made several constructive suggestions--for improving safety arrangements. For example, we hope to include on the board a director who has specific responsibility for safety. That will be an improvement.

Mr. Brake: I thank the Minister for giving way and perhaps he was going to come to this point. Can he explain why he did not include improved safety in his written answer which listed arguments for PPP? Was that simply an oversight or what?

Mr. Mullin: With the greatest respect, that is a silly point.

Mr. Brake: It is a serious point.

Mr. Mullin: Our position, which I stated at the outset and which I now repeat, is that safety is paramount. The safety arrangements that exist now are extremely good, as everyone recognises. We intend to maintain them when the PPP is up and running. In addition, we are willing to listen to any sensible suggestions, from whatever source, to enhance safety. We have had some sensible suggestions and we are taking them seriously. Indeed, I expect to implement some of them. I make the point again that the PPP of air traffic control will, if anything, enhance safety arrangements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South mentioned that there was a public perception that the sale of part of air traffic control would undermine safety. Like many public perceptions, it is wrong. It is the job of all responsible people to put right such misconceptions. Indeed, those misconceptions are shared by a number of hon. Members, and it is the job of the Government and those concerned with safety regulation and of the management of air traffic control to make sure that the correct perception and correct facts are given to the public.

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It is a little-known fact--people are constantly surprised by it, although one or two hon. Members are obviously aware of it because they referred to it--that, at many private airports--there is a long list of them which I do not have with me--air traffic control is already in private hands and has been for many years. It is regulated in the same way as air traffic control elsewhere and is working extremely effectively. Anyone who alleges that selling a stake in air traffic control to the private sector will make arrangements less safe must confront the fact that, already in a large number of airports, air traffic control is privately managed.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Is my hon. Friend aware that London Luton airport, which I am proud to represent, is one of those 18 airports that is not controlled by NATS and is already a public private partnership? It is one of the fastest growing United Kingdom airports. The Queen recently opened its second terminal. It employs an increasing number of my constituents. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to maintain the confidence of air passengers who go through London Luton for the sake of the industry and our local economies?

Mr. Mullin: That is true of Luton and of others. A list has now mysteriously appeared in front of me. The other day I had the pleasure of visiting East Midlands airport. It is quite a large privately owned airport where air traffic control has been privately operated for many years and is working perfectly satisfactorily. There are at least18 others, including Belfast, Blackpool, Bristol, Bournemouth, Coventry, Exeter, Guernsey, Humberside, Isle of Man, Jersey, London Luton, Liverpool, Leeds Bradford, Newcastle, Prestwick and Teesside. I know that some of those are small and I do not try to draw any too large conclusions, but some are considerable operations and have been working satisfactorily. In addition, the CAA already regulates the BAA and airlines that are in private hands. The CAA already has a lot of experience of regulating the private sector, so we are not breaking any new ground.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I hope that my hon. Friend will not misunderstand me when I say that to suggest that the operation of any one of his list of worthy and developing airports is equivalent to air traffic control over London is rather embarrassing. I hope that he will not persist.

Mr. Mullin: I am not suggesting that, of course. I said that I was not seeking to draw significant conclusions from it. But it is wrong to allege that the principle is somehow impossible, and that putting air traffic control into the private sector--albeit with state regulation, which is what we intend--introduces a huge new problem that has never before been confronted. That is all that I am saying--I put it no more strongly than that.

Mr. Gray: The Minister said a moment ago that the public-private partnership would, if anything, enhance safety. Is he suggesting that safety is less than 100 per cent? Presumably, he is. Secondly, will he tell us in precise detail how the proposed PPP will enhance safety?


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