: I am following the hon. Gentleman's arguments closely. He is long on analysis
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and short on solutions. He says that airports should not be able to fine because they have no interest in policing aeroplanes that cause noise and pollution, but that scheme already exists at some airports. The only difference the Bill makes is to give airports the clear legal power to fine aeroplanes that go off track. That is what is new. Does he have concrete examples of the current scheme not working?
With reference to noise, airports have had the power to fix charges since the Civil Aviation Act 1982, but for the resident on the ground, the current methodology for measuring noise is highly unsatisfactory. While noise is measured in decibels, the equivalent continuous sound level is an index of exposure to aircraft. It is a measure of the equivalent continuous sound level averaged out over a 16-hour day from 7 in the morning to 11 at nightnot, I would point out, through the nightand it is taken during the peak summer months from mid-June to mid-September.
HACAN ClearSkies, the Heathrow voluntary organisation that campaigns on behalf of those affected by flight paths, believesI think that it is rightthat the continuous-level system underestimates aircraft noise in three key areas. First, averaging out noise can be misleading; secondly, low-frequency noise is ignored; and thirdly, the continuous-level classifications underestimate the level at which noise annoys people.
Let us take low-frequency noise, for example. The HACAN ClearSkies report claims that a significant component of aircraft noise is low frequencytypically the rumble, roar or drone of an aircraft. Including that measurement can increase the noise of a plane passing overhead by about 8 dB. More to the point, many of the improvements in aircraft noise are primarily concerned with mid to high frequencies. Put simply, decibels are an unsatisfactory measure of nuisance. It is the drone and roar of an aircraft that disturbs people, and that is never appreciated by the measures used. The entire methodology desperately needs review.
However, the Bill misses out altogether a more fundamental concern about the growth of aviation. It inevitably makes a distinction between designated and non-designated airports. In one sense, it makes a lame attempt to close the planning and regulation gap between the two. Designated airports are policed by the Secretary of State. The Bill merely permits non-designated airports to police themselves. I note in passing that, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) mentioned, Nottingham East Midlands airport is owned by the Manchester Airports Group, which is owned by its Manchester local authority, but from an east midlands point of view, the local authorityas it is referred to in the Billthat owns NEMA is not local if one lives in Leicestershire or Derbyshire.
For those airports that are not designated, there is almost no control over the expansion of flights and, crucially, there is almost no control over the growth of flights at night. The Bill would have little effect in addressing the mounting anger caused by the insensitive and uncontrolled growth of an airport such as NEMA. At the moment, a designated airport is controlled both
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on the ground and in the air. An airport that is not designated is controlled on the ground by planning law, but has almost carte blanche to do what it wants to expand activity in the air.
Mr. Todd: I would say that I am an objective observer living under its flight path. May I test the hon. Gentleman's theory? Is he saying that his party would designate NEMA and other similar airports?
Let me say more about NEMA; it is a case in point. NEMA recently applied to re-route its flight paths, purportedly to improve safety margins in its air traffic control, and in so doing aroused no end of suspicion that there was a covert plan to increase night flights. That is exactly what is happening. Until a few months ago, I and my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough, rarely received a complaint about aircraft noise from the western end of my constituency and from the north and west of his. Now, I get them every day. My constituents are being woken up at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning by noisy, low-level flights on their descent into NEMA. Nobody has any faith in the undertakings given about their required height or supposed flight path.
The Bill merely defines one aspect of the interrelationship between the airport and the airlines on noise and emissions, and there is nothing whatever that will definitely turn the legislative references to noise and emissions into the satisfactory control of either. Given that the airport is keen to expand, the supposed policemanthe airporthas an incentive to secure the opposite of the environmental discipline that we would like.
The matter has become the most heated local issue in my constituency, which is why today has seen the launch of what I predict will be the most popular local beer in Leicestershire. It is called Nightcap and is a brilliant brew from Belvoir Brewery, which is near Melton Mowbray. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall send a crate of the stuff to the Secretary of State in an attempt to alert him to the importance of this growing problem.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that he made remarks that suggested that his constituents' concerns about night noise were new to him and that such noise should perhaps simply be redirected to my constituency and that of my neighbour, which are clearly used to it?
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Mr. Duncan: The hon. Gentleman might have such noise in his more urban setting, but it is much more punitive in a rural setting. However, we are seeing not only redirection, but massive expansion. The main problems are growth, expansion and the poor policing of flights as well as the redirection of the flight path.
A specific aspect of the overall problem of the growth of night flights, which I have raised before and which the Bill should address, is the deficiency of tracking, monitoring and reporting existing flights under the current system. We often need a record of who has gone where, but we can simply never get one. If we are to have a mature exchange about such an emotive issue, it is as well to do so based on the facts, but that is virtually impossible at the moment. If I want to know who is flying over Hungarton in Leicestershire at 4 am, where the plane was coming from and going to, what height it was at, what sort of plane it was and the airline to which it belonged, I would just get the run around. The Civil Aviation Authority, the National Air Traffic Services and NEMA all bounce responsibility from one to another, so none of us can readily establish the facts. My constituents are becoming increasingly enraged and so am I.
On 9 February in Westminster Hall, I asked the then Minister, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), whether we could establish a single focal point that was equipped to respond to any inquiries designed to ascertain the facts about what plane was where and when. She undertook to do so, but wrote to me just before the election to say that she could not do so after all. Residents affected by night flights thus have the injury of nuisance compounded by the insult of bureaucratic abuse. I look to the Minister and the members of the Bill's Standing Committee to find a cross-party amendment to address the problem and incorporate the solution in the Bill.
There are other aspects of concern in the Bill. One extraordinary provision empowers an airport to fine an aircraft operator that breaches any noise abatement requirements imposed by the Secretary of State. The Bill then allows the manager of the airport to spend those
The entire structure is a perverse balance of rights and obligations, and I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough will express his strong views on the matter if he succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
What purposes does the Minister think will "be of benefit"? We all know that airport expansion worries local people and can have a devastating effect on local house prices. However, many people have found that their houses have become unsellable, even though they live outside the areas covered by existing blight compensation schemes. Not surprisingly, they are among some of the most impassioned and organised campaigners. BAA is highly profitable and a more generous compensation scheme is long overdue, but the Bill is not at all clear about whether such blight schemes could be extended on the back of it.
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The other main aspect of the Bill is emissions. In principle, the idea of allowing airports to take aircraft emissions into consideration when levying landing charges seems reasonable. Indeed, it is already happening and the Bill merely gives it legal backing. The problem is that the Bill just allows emissions conditions to be included in contractsit does not determine the basis on which they must be included. We thus need answers to fundamental questions.
Why should airports profit from emissionsor, indeed, will they? Does the Minister not think it a little odd to give a private company the power to levy a punitive charge against its customers? Should those companies really be empowered to impose such sanctions? How will the emissions be measured? Will the charges come with sliding scales that measure and reward success, and what will be the determinants of success? Given the lead time for aircraft development, does the Minister not believe that a system that allowed airlines to manage their financial resources in a measured way towards cleaner aircraft would be a better approach?
Design noise and emissions are, to some extent, a trade off against each other. By decreasing one, one increases the other. Allowing airport operators to levy charges for both noise and emissions risks creating an impossible contradiction for the airlines, at least in the short term. We need to know how that will be unravelled.
The Air Travel Trust is the other main element in the Bill. As we all know, as a result of the collapse of Court Line it has been with us since 1977, when the repatriation of stranded travellers was a major political issue and the taxpayer footed the Bill. Nowadays, tour operators hold bonds against their collapse and the trust fund forms the top-up if the bond fails to cover the cost of repatriation. Without going into too much detail, in 1996, the fund went overdrawn, although it continues to make payments when necessary, with a loan facility guaranteed by the Government. The fund is approximately £10 million in deficit and pays more than £300,000 a year in interest.
Although we all understand that, if the Government have guaranteed the fund, they have to make good the shortfall, the system was designed in the 1970s and suited the circumstances of that time. They do not pertain today. Anybody who books a flight through a tour operator as part of a package is protected by the trust fund, but someone who does that through the internet or books accommodation and flights separatelyvia whatever meansis not. Fewer than two thirds of air travellers enjoy protection, compared with 98 per cent. in 1997. Just over half of all travellers enjoy protection but more than half the unprotected passengers wrongly believe that they are protected. Evidently, if we started from scratch, we would design a different system.
The Bill allows the fund to be replenished and it looks as if it will also pave the wayor at least, it couldfor the Civil Aviation Authority's proposal to put a £1 levy on all UK-origin tickets until an insurance fund for that purpose reaches £250 million. If the fund is not extended to cover all ticket buyers for flights from the UK and is retained only for purchasers of package deals, such a proposal is patently absurd. However, if it is extended to all, there are some arguments for it. To put it succinctly,
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it would cover everyone, ensure their repatriation in the event of corporate failure and get any Government faced with an army of stranded passengers out of a political hole. In terms of the premiums paid and the benefits offered, it is a relatively efficient economic model for such cover.
On the other hand, the incidence of the £1 levy would fall disproportionately on a company such as British Airways, which is probably the last company that is likely to fail and carries the most passengers. The Bill is all the more unappreciative of such a company given that BA, acting voluntarily or in the spirit of its membership of the International Air Transport Association, is most likely to make arrangements to fly people back anyway, travel trust or no travel trust.