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8.56 pm

Mr. Spellar: I do not recall that it was entirely optional to attend this evening, but I am delighted that we were able to provide the opportunity for a constructive debate. One often says from the Dispatch Box that it has been a constructive debate, but on this occasion I actually mean it. The comments have largely been directed at the issue. Rightly, matters have been raised that have not necessarily been resolved but are still under discussion in Europe. I shall try to deal with some of those during my contribution, but may need to write to hon. Members.

I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) will allow me not to follow him all the way down his various arguments, which might be slightly diversionary. The fact that I do not do so should not be construed as agreement with a number of those arguments. I disagree with some of his comments, but he takes a keen interest in the aviation industry and is a strong representative on behalf of his constituents who work at the airport. We have worked constructively on a number on issues—for example, on the issue of kirpans for staff at Heathrow and at other airports.

What I found useful about the discussion was that there was a broad recognition of the existence of a problem: there are difficulties in European airspace capacity and

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that leads to bottlenecks. That in turn leads not only to delays but, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) rightly pointed out, to considerable environmental consequences: for example, the time that aircraft spend in the air needlessly using fuel.

There was an attempt to create a distinction between airspace and the impact on airports, but it is increasingly recognised that if there are delays in en-route airspace, particularly with the tight timetables that many of the no-frills airlines operate on, those can have considerable knock-on effects at airports and on schedules, and should not be underestimated. That is particularly a problem with a number of the bottlenecks in European airspace.

The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) said that we would use the issue of safety as a way of carrying the proposal. The situation is quite different. Safety is a prerequisite; it is an absolutely essential component that must underlie any system that we have, whether the current system or an improved one. It is essential and does not affect the argument one way or the other. We are talking today about capacity and, consistent with safety, realising the capacity to deal not only with existing problems, but with the increasing demand for air travel. We will put that in the wider public domain with the regional airport studies that will be published shortly. We are dealing with one aspect of the increase in demand and the need for capacity.

Mr. Steen: As I recall, during the terminal 4 inquiry, the deal was for 275,000 movements at Heathrow a year. As a result of navigational improvements, the figure is up to 400,000 movements a year. That has happened incrementally. At the same time, planes are getting bigger, so we could end up with a situation in which we do not need more airspace. Instead, there will be a need for ever bigger planes. Has that been considered?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman is trying to tempt me further into issues that will be debated publicly in a short time. He is right to say that larger planes are enabling more people to travel, without there being necessarily a commensurate increase in air movements. However, running parallel to that, there has been a huge increase in point-to-point flights. That is particularly the case with many of the no-frills airlines, which are operating not necessarily from major hub airports but from many others. That does not add to congestion at hub airports, but it does add to congestion in en-route airspace.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) and my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) referred to the new Scottish centre at Prestwick. I can assure them that the Government have not shifted one inch in our commitment to the two-centre strategy for National Air Traffic Services, including the Prestwick centre. The only issue is timing, for obvious reasons that have been mentioned. We shall ensure that NATS builds the centre as soon as future traffic forecasts make it viable to do so.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) asked why we could not proceed voluntarily through Eurocontrol. Eurocontrol has done a good job on many of the technical harmonisation aspects, but it is essentially a voluntary agreement between 31 member states and progress, understandably, has been slow. A

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number of major Eurocontrol programmes have been delivered late, or have not been as effectively implemented as we would have hoped. The greater authority of the EU allied to the technical capacity of Eurocontrol is a recipe for the more rapid progress that, for the reasons I have outlined, we believe to be increasingly urgent.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington asked about the 2004 deadline and whether it was optimistic. In the Council working group, progress has been slower than we hoped, but we still believe that there is every prospect that the single sky framework will be in place by the end of 2004 as planned. It has been recognised that implementation will be a gradual process that will be spread over a number of years.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh asked about military airspace. It is true that military aviation accounts for only 4 per cent. of aviation, although there are some localised issues related to that. However, that does not detract from the essential position; we have made it perfectly clear in the negotiations that we will not allow military operations to come within Community jurisdiction, under the first pillar of the treaty of the EU. As I also said, that view is shared by several other states.

Tom Brake: On the point raised by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang), if civil and military air traffic control no longer work together—if the former is conducted on the basis of a single European sky and the latter is kept separate—might that not lead to less harmonisation, and therefore to an increased risk to safety?

Mr. Spellar: No, I certainly do not see that happening. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the UK has had considerable success in harmonising requirements and ensuring compatibility in terms of resources. However, it is clear that this is a matter of national competence, which is an extremely important principle for many other reasons.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire also asked about NATS compatibility with the single European sky. As he knows, NATS is widely recognised as a leading air traffic service provider. It has invested heavily in new equipment—notably at Swanwick—and is already ahead of the rest of Europe in that regard. We do not envisage the single European sky placing an additional financial burden on NATS; indeed, it could win more work in a liberalised air traffic market.

I should tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington that undertakings with an individual state in respect of ownership have no bearing on the liberalisation of air traffic control; such matters are rightly those for the individual state concerned. As I said in my opening statement, the route that we have taken enables us to provide better, cost-effective services for the travelling public. However, privatisation of individual entities is not a prerequisite to liberalisation of the market.

Mr. Moss: The Minister talks about liberalisation of the European market, but one of the objectives is to reduce the 73 existing air traffic control centres to

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something more manageable, which must involve a dilution of the importance of the nation state and of national control. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) pointed out, surely many centres will therefore be ripe for amalgamation and takeover by the private sector.

Mr. Spellar: That is not a prerequisite. [Interruption.] No, liberalisation of the market, coupled with transparency in accounting procedures to ensure a level playing field, is perfectly compatible with different forms of ownership. It is right to debate this issue, but there is no prerequisite in terms of the European single sky and liberalisation of the market.

John McDonnell: It is accepted that there is no prerequisite, but air traffic controllers across Europe are anxious that the UK Government are becoming advocates of privatisation as the next stage in the process. An assurance from the Minister that the Government are not in fact advocating privatisation would go some way towards reassuring many of them.

Mr. Spellar: We are not advocating the idea that other countries run their businesses in a particular way, save that we should all work for the most effective use of European airspace, in the manner outlined in the single European sky proposals from the European Commission.

This has been a constructive debate in which the principal issues have been aired. It is also clear that there is some considerable way to go, and that the subject is one to which we shall doubtless return. However, we should bear in mind the fact that there is widespread recognition of the underlying problems, and of the need to make progress on behalf of the aviation industry and—perhaps more significantly—of the travelling public.

Question put and agreed to.


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