Ninth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 5 December 2001
[Mr. David Chidgey in the Chair]
Draft Transport Act 2000 (Consequential Amendments) Order 2001
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Transport Act 2000 (Consequential Amendments) Order 2001.
It is a singular pleasure, Mr. Chidgey, to be under your chairmanship. This hour and a half in Committee will be the first time that I have had the pleasure of standing here under your watchful eye.
We are considering an order that will amend certain enactments as a consequence of the Transport Act 2000. Hon. Members who were here in the previous Session will recall the 2000 Act, which began its parliamentary passage in December 1999 and received Royal Assent at the end of the following November. Among other things, it paved the way for setting up a public-private partnership, or PPP, for National Air Traffic Services.
The 2000 Act is a lengthy piece of legislation, as those who sat on the Standing Committee considering it will surely attest, yet it formed only a tiny part of the work load of the House in that Session. Section 277 was included to enable amendments to be made, consequent to the Act, which could not be picked up in the time available during the Act's passage through Parliament. As the amendments are to primary legislation, it is only proper that they be laid before, and approved by resolution of, both Houses of Parliament.
The order has two main purposes. First, it restores to NATS certain powers and responsibilities that it had under the Civil Aviation Authority. Secondly, it gives the CAA, in its role as an economic regulator of air traffic services, access to the same sort of information as is available to other regulators.
As Hon. Members will recall, until 31 March this year NATS was a wholly owned subsidiary of the CAA. On that date, it was separated from the CAA and transferred to Government ownership. Subsequently, NATS was the subject of a PPP, which was completed on 26 July.
As part of the CAA, NATS enjoyed certain benefits and was subject to certain responsibilities placed on the CAA. Once it was separated from the CAA, that ceased to be the case and the order is intended to restore the pre-separation position. Part I of the order defines who shall be taken as the authority responsible under the Aviation Security Act 1982 for the security of an air navigation installation. As the 1982 Act stands, it provides for the CAA or an aerodrome
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manager to be taken as the authority responsible. In the light of the 2000 Act, however, section 38 of the 1982 Act must be amended to include those authorised to provide air traffic services.
Parts II and III are designed to enable NATS to meet the operational requirements for the provision of en route air traffic services by making the licensed subsidiary of NATS a statutory undertaker and by enabling the same subsidiaryNATS En Route Ltd.to take advantage of a more favourable planning regime. Those benefits are important to NATS. Air traffic control equipment such as radar and navigation aids must be sited precisely to meet operational requirements. Air safety and the expeditious movement of air traffic demand nothing less.
Statutory undertaker status, powers of compulsory purchase and permitted development rights were available to NATS when it was a subsidiary company of the CAA, so I assure hon. Members that NATS is not being given special privileges. I also assure them that the benefits that the order bestows are being restricted to the licensed subsidiary of NATSthe agency through which the UK discharges its obligations under the Chicago convention to provide air navigation services.
Part IV is less complex. Hon. Members will recall that the 2000 Act established the economic regulatory regime for the provision of air traffic services and gave the role of economic regulator to the CAA. Part IV ensures that the CAA will not be disadvantaged in its role as a regulator by giving it access to a range of information that is available to other sector regulators in the discharge of their duties. Part V merely amends the 1982 Act to reflect the repeal of sections 62, 63, 73 and 74 of that Act.
In the short time that I have had, I hope that I have given a reasonable exposition of the order.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Thank you, Mr. Chidgey, for allowing me to catch your eye in this important debate. The order consists of dense legalese, which is almost impenetrable until one starts to work at the underlying Acts. Before I go into that, Mr. Chidgey, I welcome you to the Chair. This is the first time that I have had the privilege of serving under your chairmanship. I know that you will be firm, but fair, and will not allow us to stray too far.
This piece of legalese sounds innocent and unimportant until one delves into the detail and finds that the huge powers of a non-profit-making Government organisation--the CAA--are being transferred to a company with private interests that exists solely to make a profit. Huge powers of compulsory purchase, powers to enter land without notice, powers to survey land without notice and powers to obtain almost unlimited information without anyone being able to object are being transferred to a semi-private company and we must scrutinise that carefully.
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The Committee must also scrutinise the order carefully because NATS already has great problems. How can we be sure that it will even work? The Evening Standard yesterday said that, to survive, NATS requires a new cash injection of some £200 million to £300 million, yet it was set up only on 26 July. If an organisation set up so recently is already in financial trouble, how can we be sure that it is right to give it huge powers under the order? The Government will say that they reserve the powers and that the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions can take over if NATS fails, but that is not the point. We need reassurance that NATS will survive.
There is now a new company, which I had not even heard of it until the Minister told us about it this afternoon. He said that NATS En Route is a subsidiary of NATS, but perhaps he will tell us, so that it is in the public domain, exactly what NATS En Route does and what role it will have in respect of the powers being transferred by the order.
Most importantly, having read section 277 of the 2000 Act, I must put on record my utter disgust. That section allows the Minister to transfer huge and wide-ranging powers to NATS. I ask parliamentarians to use their judgment in deciding whether it is reasonable that any Parliament should hand over such wide powers to any Executive. Section 277 of the vast 2000 Act, of which I have a copy, states:
''The Secretary of State may, in consequence of any provision of this Act or of any instrument made under it, by order''
that is what we are doing today
''made by statutory instrument make such amendments (including repeals or revocations) as appear appropriate to him to be appropriate in . . . any Act''.
On a whim, the Secretary of State may amend any primary legislation by order. I ask members of the Committee whether they want to hand over that amount of power to an Executive, without checks or balances. One day, Labour Members may be sitting where we sit; we may then use that power and they may not like it.
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): Will my hon. Friend shed light on a matter for my constituents? Some live under a flight path and they are concerned that the company interests of the new private NATS may cloud the decisions necessary for the general interests of the local community.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but he needs to remain for my whole speech, which may last up to one and half hours.
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman must address the Chair.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to you, Mr. Chidgey. I was advising my hon. Friend to stay for the whole Committee and I am sure that you would endorse that. If he does so, he will receive the reassurances he seeks. The order transfers wide powers to the NATS public-private partnership.
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Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): As I was not a Member of the House before the general election, I would like to know exactly what view the Conservative party took on section 277 during the previous Parliament.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I would love to answer that question, but the hon. Gentleman may look up those Committee debates in Hansard and read a much fuller version that I can give him now. I shall desist before I go further down that line.
The Chairman: I am most grateful, Mr. Clifton-Brown.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I always like to crave the indulgence of the Chair, Mr. Chidgey. Suffice to say that the provisions of the order, which allow the Minister to take huge powers, are too wide. I hope that current parliamentarians and those of the future never pass such a wide-ranging order.
The Minister skirted around some powers that will be transferred, although he referred to parts II and III, which cover the most contentious powers. Under the provisions dealing with the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, the Acquisition of Land Act 1981and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, there are huge powers relating to planning, entry on land, surveying of land and, as the Minister said, reducing powers of planning.
I want the Minister to put on record the circumstances in which he expects NATS to use those overriding powers, which are stronger than those of virtually any other statutory undertaking, and certainly stronger than those of any commercial organisation. What would happen if NATS, as a commercial organisation, used those powers at the expense of another private airport operator? It could use them under the pretext of safety or to explain commercial development in NATS. It could say that the Government have set financial targets, and that it has considered every airport in the country in respect of what might be appropriate development. It might then say that it would help others use the powers, but charge them for that.
How do we know that NATS will use the powers reasonably, or that it will charge a reasonable amount for them? When we gave powers to other statutory undertakers, they usurped them and charged an exorbitant commercial rate for doing so. They charge not only for day-to-day running costs, but for a full cost recovery. As we know, these quasi-governmental quangos have an incentive to charge excessively. In this example, the Govt have a 49 per cent. stake while 51 per cent. is in commercial hands.
I ask the Minister in all seriousness, when such organisations are the statutory undertaker, what controls will there be on the amounts that they can charge? What controls will ensure that they act reasonably? With almost unlimited powers, they will be able to go to court and say, ''This is in the interests of air safety and efficient air safety operations as well as the development of NATS.'' The courts will not be able to say much about that.
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The Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which is amended by part III, is particularly contentious in respect of paragraphs 14B and 14C of the order. The CAA retains it decision-making responsibilities regarding permitted developments and building on land
''within the perimeter of the relevant airport by a relevant airport operator or its agent''.
Will the Minister say under what circumstances it would be reasonable to use those reduced planning requirements? It seems to me that people should not be subject to planning application requirements less stringent than those required by a normal commercial operation save in an emergency. That is the only time that those powers should be used. I would be grateful if the Minister provided some clarity in that respect. Will they be used only in an emergency or on a normal operational basis?
The 1990 Act refers not only to operations within an airport, but to reduced planning requirements up to 8 km from an airport. Effectively, what other commercial organisations do in terms of development may be controlled. That is a sweeping power, and we need to know from the Minister under what circumstances it will be used.
Part IV, paragraphs 15 to 25, amends legislation that provides the information obtained thereunder, which may be disclosed to specific persons and bodies for specified purposes. So, there will be a huge transfer of powers to obtain information. All part IV, which covers the Consumer Credit Act 1974, the Estate Agents Act 1979, the Telecommunications Act 1984, the Airports Act 1986, the Consumer Protection Act 1987, the Water Act 1989, the Water Industry Act 1991, the Water Resources Act 1991, the Railways Act 1993 and the Coal Industry Act 1994, gives powers for this new body, NATS, to obtain information from almost whoever it wants, whatever the circumstances.
I ask the Minister in what circumstances NATS would be entitled to demand information. Who will determine whether that information is reasonable and to whom may it be disclosed? A lot of commercially confidential information could be obtained in this way, so we want to know what use will be made of the commercial information obtained.