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28 Nov 2002 : Column 475—continued

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): May I thank the Secretary of State for his typical courtesy in providing a copy of his statement in advance? I should also like to wish him a happy birthday. I suspect that this judgment is not the birthday present he would have chosen, but I none the less offer him my congratulations.

Does the Secretary of State accept that his entire consultation exercise has been flawed from the start? The High Court's conclusion that it was irrational comes on top of criticism from many quarters that it was rushed and based on inaccurate and misleading figures; contained misprints that required copies to be recalled and reprinted; involved four-week delays for some people in getting hold of copies of the consultation documents; and included questionnaires that many people saw as profoundly loaded.

Is it not the case that Gatwick was not the only important option to be left out? Why was the preferred option of Birmingham airport omitted? Why did the right hon. Gentleman consult on a sort of runway layout for Heathrow that even BAA Heathrow does not want? Will he comment on the belief of many in the Rugby area that some of the figures in his documents for that area relate to a completely different site two miles away from the one described? Given the immense importance of the issue to large numbers of communities, many of which had no idea before 23 July of what was being contemplated for them, would it not have been more sensible from the start to allow more than a 16-week period—most of it in the summer—for people to respond?

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We very much welcome the Secretary of State's decision in the light of the court judgment to extend the consultation. The Opposition were calling for such an extension even in advance of the judgment. However, will he clarify one point from his statement? Does the extension apply to the whole country or only to the south-eastern regional consultation? Does he recognise that many groups, and not only those in the south-east, will wish to revisit their evidence in the light of the re-inclusion of Gatwick?

Does the Secretary of State accept that, while he is right to say that decisions cannot be indefinitely delayed, they must be taken in the right and proper way and after genuine consultation? Will he pledge to publish the results of the full consultation well in advance of reaching conclusions, so that everyone can judge the basis on which he will make decisions? Will he give an undertaking that he and his Ministers will visit every affected site before announcing conclusions? Does he not recognise that he owes those communities that assurance at least?

Does the Secretary of State accept that if his final conclusions are to be seen as fair and reasonable by all involved, he and his Department need to listen more, consult properly and start getting things right, rather than hopelessly wrong?

Mr. Darling: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes in respect of my birthday. Last year, my former private office was kind enough to present me with a CD containing the greatest hits of Leonard Cohen. This year, the courts have not been quite so kind to me. I have always found Leonard Cohen more uplifting than many court judgments.

Let me deal with the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. I remind him that when I announced the consultation in July, he was kind enough in making a very reasoned response on behalf of the Opposition to commend me for the spirit in which I had launched the consultation. He rightly went on to urge me to bring it to a swift conclusion. I have endeavoured to do that, but I recognise that a problem has arisen in relation to Gatwick that I must deal with.

On the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised, Birmingham airport and options there are included in the consultation, as is Heathrow. I have always made it clear—I did so not only in July, but as recently as November, when we had an extended Question Time on this matter—that it is open to people not only to respond to what the Government canvassed in their options, but to bring forward any alternatives. After all, we are considering one of the most profoundly important decisions that will be taken in this Parliament about what to do in relation not only to a hub airport, but to other airport capacity. That is why I agree with him that it is important to get it right. People must remember that they can make whatever representations they think appropriate. The Government will then publish a White Paper, but afterwards, any decision to build an airport will be taken on a commercial basis by that airport's operator. It is not as if the White Paper is the end of the road. What it does is provide a framework against which everyone can plan.

I regret that as a result of the judgment, the process will take longer than I anticipated. It will give people four months longer. The hon. Gentleman asked whether

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the consultation was open to the whole country or only the south-east. The whole consultation remains open, because, manifestly, a decision on any of the London airports has implications for the rest of the country.

The whole consultation will therefore remain open and I hope that people will enter into the spirit of it by accepting that they have a chance to make representations on Gatwick, but that, for everyone's good, we must try to reach a conclusion by the end of next year. Waiting longer is in nobody's interests, especially those who might be affected by expansion.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I join the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) in thanking the Secretary of State for advance notice of the statement and wishing him a happy birthday. However, he has left us dangling in uncertainty about his birthday present from his new private office.

Although I welcome and acknowledge the need for the Secretary of State's decision, does he recognise that the High Court's judgment knocks a further hole in a set of deeply flawed consultation documents? Does it not provide an opportunity for the new documents to tackle not only the Gatwick issue but some of the other flaws? Does he accept that the current documents are based on the long discredited predict-and-provide approach rather than managing demand? Does he also accept that the growth figures in the documents unjustifiably assume that the current tax benefits to the airline industry, such as no aviation fuel duty or no VAT on tickets will continue, when that is unlikely?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is an incorrect assumption about the economic benefits to continued air expansion in this country and that it is not necessarily beneficial for Britain to become an international airport transit lounge? Does he further accept that the new document provides an opportunity to cover sustainability, which is missing from the current documents? Is it not now time for the Government to live up to their categorical commitment that aviation should meet its external costs?

The Secretary of State has an opportunity to correct some of the flaws; let us hope that he does that.

Mr. Darling: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. For those who are interested, my new private office gave me a nice train set. At least they run on time!

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman's subsidiary points. There is no question of anyone building airports on a predict-and-provide basis. As I have often said, the private sector will build and pay for any new airport capacity. It will not build an airport on spec; people do not do that.

Our objective must be to provide frameworks in which the commercial sector—the airlines as well as the people who run the airports—and people who live near airports can plan.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned economic benefits. The aviation industry, not only airports, greatly benefits this county, indirectly as well as directly. Heathrow must employ more than 100,000 people. The decision

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that we make, especially on London airports, is therefore immensely important not only to the people involved but to the country.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): During my 18 undistinguished months as aviation Minister, I learned two lessons about the aviation industry. First, its demands are insatiable; secondly, successive Governments have always given way to them. May I put it to my right hon. Friend that the time has come to make a stand? Instead of building more runways, airports and terminals, he should consider a little demand management. Air travel is not a basic human right and it should be matched by environmental considerations.

Mr. Darling: I remember that my hon. Friend spent 18 months as aviation Minister. Perhaps I take a slightly different view from him. Half the country flew at least once last year. My hon. Friend may believe that that is wrong. By demand management, he means increasing the price of air travel. That will prevent some people from travelling. It is problematic for hon. Members to say that to our fellow countrymen.

I agree, and the consultation documents make it clear, that the aviation industry should pay the price of its environmental impact. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made an announcement about that in the pre-Budget report. This is not, as my hon. Friend puts it, a question of giving in to the industry. We have to work out what we think the likely demand will be—of course it is critically important that we take into account the environmental impact—and to make sensible plans for that demand. As I said a moment ago, this industry is of immense importance to the country, and it is important that we get this right. I am in no doubt about this. I look at the issue from the point of view of the country, rather than the industry, because that is what the Government do. I do not, however, have the slight reluctance—I will not say antipathy—that my hon. Friend has in accepting that the industry might have something to contribute.

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