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Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I commend the remarks by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer). Although I suspect that we will disagree on much of the detail, he brings knowledge and experience to the debate, and his contribution was interesting.
The Bill extends to just 13 clauses and 17 pages. As such, it may be short in length, but it is, nevertheless, significant in its scope. For example, from the contents we see that it deals with public airport companies, appeals on route licences, the health of passengers travelling, the documentary evidence in relation to references and the Air Travel Trust. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I do not intend to make a detailed exposition of each; rather, I wish to consider the first section, which relates to noise, vibrations and emissions.
The absent Secretary of State will, I suspect, be all too familiar with the fact that my constituency borders on Stansted airport. As such, my constituents are constantly affected by the noise and emissions from overhead aircraft. That intrusion affects their quality of life. Sadly, over recent years, it has grown steadily as air traffic has increased.
It is not only people at home who suffer. A number of schools in Sawbridgeworth, Spellbrook and Bishop's Stortford have to interrupt lessons because the noise makes teaching inaudible. The rural parish of Thorley has reported oily droplets that coat the leaves of trees and plants. Indeed, a film of oil is often found when an aircraft has been reported as being off route. It is also found forming on ponds and pools. My constituents, and, I suspect, many other people across the country who have to live near airports, find that intrusion of great concern. The way in which noise and emissions are monitored, managed and enforced has a direct effect on their daily lives.
That is especially the case with night flights, which the Minister mentioned. Those are controlled at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted by a combination of noise quotas on one hand and a limit on the number of aircraft movements on the other. Clause 2 enables the Secretary of State to discontinue limiting the number of night-time
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flights at those designated airports. That leaves the noise quotas alone to regulate night-time traffic. While in principle I could accept that the regulation of aircraft noise needs to be more flexible and effective, and that aircraft movement controls on their own are crude, I do not believe that the answer is to discontinue limiting aircraft movements. Sadly, however, I suspect that that is what the Government plan. The Department has decided to delay by six months the second stage of the night-flight consultation. There has been no satisfactory explanation. Any new regime will therefore begin a year later than we were originally advised.
The resulting delay means that the Government have the time to change the law through this Bill and then use the new powers to create a very different regulatory regime, almost certainly starting from October next year. Given his remarks earlier, it is clear that the Minister expects to abolish the movement limits and thus allow more night-time flights. I did not notice that in bright lights in the Labour party manifesto, but it is of great concern and interest to many around the country.
A second point emanates from the issue: the switch in regulation would establish a precedent. Limits on aircraft movements provide the main way in which to regulate the growth of airports, as a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends have mentioned. If regulation for all flightsnot just those at nightwere centred solely on noise and emissions, the British Airports Authority could grow incrementally its three London airports without some of the existing checks and balances. That would represent a serious setback in the control of airport development, and I am sure that it would be universally opposed by my constituents.
Given the Minister's equivocal answer earlier, I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), to put on record clearly in her reply to the debate the Government's true intentionsnot just about night-time flights, about which we have had half an answer, but about daytime movement limits too. In the exchange earlier, the Minister seemed to be saying, "Well, these may or may not be abolished. We will have to decide in the future." That is not an acceptable answer. We do not want the limits to be removed, but for the Government to put a piece of legislation before us and not to give a clear answer on the record is reprehensible. I hope that the Under- Secretary will be able to clear up that point.
That lack of ministerial candour leads me to consider how aircraft noise is measured and by whom. Licensed airport operators such as at Luton or Manchester have a free hand in dealing with their neighbours' complaints. Indeed, they can even decide which of the environmental noise objectives should be adopted. That rather ad hoc approach has concerned nearby residents and campaigners for some years. They believe that, given the daily impact on their lives, the procedures for monitoring, managing and enforcing noise and emissions levels should be clearly founded in law. Indeed, there have been several campaigns to secure a change. For example, in the 1990s a former Member of this House, Mr. Stephen Day, was a vociferous campaigner on behalf of his constituents in Cheadle. It is good to see the Government finally responding to his and other campaigners' concerns.
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However, there is a second aspect on which the Government have failed to act: the need for independence in the systeman independent watchdog that is able openly to investigate and enforce the rules. At present, when my constituents are disturbed by excessive noise, they complain to the flight evaluation unit at the airport, which investigates the complaint, judges whether the noise limits or noise preferential routes have been breached, and then decides under its own rules and in its own manner whether a breach has occurred. It is also able to decide whether to fine the guilty airline. The problem is that the unit is owned, managed and staffed by British Airports Authority plc. Thus, the airport operator both monitors the problem and decides whether to charge and what to fine. It is not so much poacher as both policeman and judge.
I have visited the flight evaluation unit at Stansted and taken a number of my constituents there so that we could have a positive exchange, and I have no doubt that the individuals involved there are thoroughly professional, but what is wrong is the system, not the people. It is a complaints procedure that lacks transparency and objectivity. Indeed, given BAA's effective monopoly in the south-east of England and its pivotal role in delivering the Government's plans for air travel, it is vital to public confidence that the complaints procedure for noise lies outside the remit of a public limited company that runs the airports. That is why the Bill should establish an independent watchdog to monitor, manage and enforce aircraft noise and emissions limitsa watchdog independent of commercial interests and therefore likely to attract the full confidence of the public.
Such a unit does not need to cost the taxpayer a penny. After all, it could draw the funds that it needs from the fines that it levies, much as many other watchdogs do already. Nor would the regulatory burden need to increase. What is at issue is the status of the regulator, not the size or complexity of the rule book. I therefore suggest that all flight evaluation units be transferred to become independent of airport operators. Ideally, they might operate under the auspices of the Civil Aviation Authority, but I would be happy to discuss that if the Minister were willing to have an open mind on the question. The aim should be a complaints system that is objective and seen to be soa system that is open and fair to all.
I welcome the Government's wish to update the regulatory regime for civil aviation. Although the Bill is somewhat equivocal in tone and permissive in law, it is high time that the issues that it addresses or refers to were dealt with. However, the Bill is imbalanced. It seeks to help passengers, but hesitates when proffering help to those affected by air travel. That is why we need greater clarity on the question of night-time flights. I hope that the Under-Secretary will think carefully about how she will reply on that point, and that she and her colleagues will ensure that they give the matter the greatest consideration before any loosening of the regulations.
The Bill should also make the monitoring, management and enforcement of noise and emissions levels thoroughly independent of commercial airport operators. Others have suggested that there is no conspiracy, and I tend in politics and in life generally not to see conspiracies about me, but residents near airports genuinely feel that they are not being heard. Putting the
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system on an independent footing would help to allay those concerns and to ensure a positive dialogue between airport and resident. We would be sending the clearest of signals to people that their complaints will not only be treated fairly but that there is a system that they can trust. In the area in and around Stansted, that is not the case at present.
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