John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the Bill in this Second Reading debate. It is a good Bill, which addresses several important issues that have been debated in some detail this afternoon. It is a measured and balanced Bill, which considers some of the difficult issues that we face and tries to provide a pragmatic mechanism for dealing with the challenges before the industry.
I predicate all my comments on the fact that I am a big supporter of the industry and I always have been. I endorse the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) in identifying the important role that it plays in economic development.
John Smith: Is the hon. Gentleman asking about targets for the industry, or climate change generally? Yes, I am a supporter. The industry faces a huge environmental challenge, but it would be a mistake to think that this country can address that on our own, because it faces the industry internationally. When instituting change we must be careful to ensure that we do not damage the competitive edge that the British aviation industry enjoys. It has been pointed out that it is the second largest in the world, so we must be responsible and careful, which is why the Bill is by and large balanced.
I spent a brief spell working in the inward investment industry, so I can tell the House that it is virtually impossible to attract footloose international investment into the regions of the United Kingdom if those areas have no access to a thriving and prospering international airport providing a choice of scheduled business flights. Without such an airport, one certainly cannot attract high-value-added or high-tech industries, which are the sorts of industries that we hope will be able to compete with the rest of the world over the next 50 years or more. The aviation industry has an important role not only because of the quantity of exports that it carries and the number of passengers whom it transports throughout the world, but because it is at the cutting edge of business communication. If we stick our heads in the sand on that issue, we will damage enormously the competitive advantages of British industry.
: Does the hon. Gentleman therefore think that any amount of future expansion of air travel
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and the aviation business in this country is justified so long as the economic case stacks up, irrespective of the environmental damage that might be caused to nearby residents on the ground?
John Smith: The hon. Lady's question started well, but became somewhat loaded towards the end. If it is economically advantageous, we should generally support the policy. However, expansion would not be economically advantageous if it damaged the environment and quality of life of people living near airports.
I have some experience of living near an airport because the fastest growing regional airport in the United Kingdom is in my constituency. According to the aviation White Paper, we expect a fivefold increase in passenger throughput by 2020. We will have to address the huge environmental challenge that that will create and tackle the problem of surface access to such an expanding airport, but the expansion will be a vital part of the development of the south Wales economy. I was delighted to attend the recent opening of the Vale of Glamorgan passenger railway, which is the first such railway to be reopened since the Beeching closures of the 1960s in Wales. One of the major stations on the railway is providing a rail link to Cardiff Wales airport, which is absolutely vital to ease the congestion on our roads. However, that does not mean that we will not also need to continue to improve surface access.
I speak as a huge fan of the aviation industry, but I am sure that it will be of no surprise to older hon. Members that I want to concentrate on clause 7 of the Bill, which relates to aviation health, an issue on which I have campaigned for many years. Her Majesty's Government have an excellent track record on aviation health. Let me tell those who call the Bill piecemeal, disjointed and without vision that they are completely wrong, because it is radical and courageous. By creating the aviation health unit, the Government became the first in the world to provide such an institution. Under the auspices of the Bill, the Government will be the first to create a Minister for aviation health and to finance the aviation health unit, which is part of the Civil Aviation Authority at Gatwick, with a levy on the industry. The Government have a commendable record that sets an example to the rest of the world, which is dragging its feet on the many aviation health problems that constantly arise, including the huge public health problem of air passengers contracting deep vein thrombosis, which is the main issue on which I campaign and which the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) mentioned.
The British Government's record does not stop there. They made the largest single financial contribution to the World Health Organisation's study of the health risks of travelling, especially the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis due to long-haul air travel, which is defined as a flight of four hours or more. I understand that they contributed more than €2 million to the study, which was more than any other country affiliated to the WHO and almost as much as the other countries that contributed put together. We should be proud of that record. I congratulate and commend the Government on the lead that they have shown in the past few years by making Britain the only country to make available on a
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website, in leaflets and through the aviation health unit specific health advice for passengers about to engage on long-haul travel.
Dr. Ladyman: May I point out to my hon. Friend that the national health service is also doing its bit? When I visited my doctor on Friday to talk about going on my holidays, I was given advisory leaflets about deep vein thrombosis.
John Smith: I am well aware that doctors give such advice, but we are debating the Civil Aviation Bill. It is not only doctors who provide such advice; NHS hospitals in Britain contain air passenger and tourist advice centres to warn people about the dangers of flying. I must stress that they advise on the health risks of flying and not the safety risks, because there is a huge difference between them. Air travel is the safest form of travel in the world. One is less likely to be injured or killed by flying in an aeroplane than by walking down the street, riding a bicycle or driving a car.
Adam Afriyie: The hon. Gentleman is enthusiastic about aviation, but many hon. Members are worried about the growth of air travel at airports in their constituencies. Would he be delighted if all the increased air traffic came to his region of Wales? Would he encourage the infrastructure to be put in place so that the extra air traffic could move to his constituency?
John Smith: That almost happened following the horrendous terrorist attacks in New York in September 2001, because Cardiff Wales airport is one of the most accessible alternative airports on the Atlantic seaboard. It is the most fog-free airport in the United Kingdom and enjoys the most temperate weather of any airport in the United Kingdom. Consequently, every large jet in the air that was sent away from the United States at the time was diverted to the airportwe were delighted to have them. We have some geographical advantages, from which other hon. Members do not benefit. We are a seaboard airport and much of the traffic flies in over the sea and takes off over the sea, as long as the wind direction is right.
Air travel is the fastest-growing mode of transport in the world. We do not know whether it will double, treble or increase fivefold in my constituency, but we all agree that it is growing exponentially. We are in the bizarre position, which I mentioned in an interventioncausing puzzled looks on the Opposition Front Bench and on the faces of some new Memberswhereby last year 60 million Britons flew long haul from this country, with no protection whatsoever against damage to their health or well-being when on board the aircraft. I am sure that that did not sink in when I made my intervention.
Under article 17 of the 1929 Warsaw convention, airlinesexclusively, as a mode of transporthave no duty of care for the health or well-being of their passengers. They have a duty of care for their safety. That was upgraded in two further international conventionsThe Hague and Montreal conventions. However, when an attempt was made in the Montreal convention to make airlineslike any other passenger
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carriersresponsible for the health of their passengers, it was rigorously avoided. Efforts were concentrated on stopping the introduction of such a duty of care in law.
Earlier, we had an interesting debate about Air Travel Organisation Licensing and compensation. Some people are covered, others are not. We discussed how wide the compensation should be for the loss of a holiday or being stranded somewhere and having to pay to come back. However, there is no insurance cover for death or personal injury caused by damage to physical or mental health through flying. Indeed, a passenger who is injured or a relative of a passenger who has been killed or injured cannot even go to a British court to argue that an airline was responsible for death or injury caused by a health condition acquired through flying, although for me, the important one is venous thrombo-embolism.
Why do I speak in such a committed way about the subject? A 29-year-old constituent of mine died, killed by United Airlines. I do not believe that the airline denies that he died as a result of being crammed into an aircraft for an incredibly long time. That caused a blood clot in a lower limb, which dislodged and went to his lungs. A pulmonary embolism then killed him. That is a common cause of death in this country. According to the Health Committee report, more than 30,000 people a year die in this country from venous thrombo-embolism. I cited that figure in a previous debate, but I am not sure whether I was taken seriously. Most of those deaths are easily preventable.
We believe that as many as one in six of the deaths are flight related. They are causednot necessarily exclusivelyby flying for more than four hours in cramped and somewhat contrived conditions. We do not claim that that definitely is the figure, but all the indications suggest that it is. According to Professor John Scurr in a watershed piece of research, one in 10 air passengers who fly long haul develop blood clots in their lower limbs. Of those, 43 per cent. develop a deep vein thombosis that could dislodge and move to vital organsthe lungs, the heart or the brain. That is a huge number if it is anywhere near correct. We do not know for sure because the research, which the British Government are largely financing, has not yet been completed.
Research by the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand, conducted on a much bigger sample and published in December 2004, suggests that one in 100 of all long-haul passengersdefined as flying for more than four hoursdevelop a deep vein thrombosis. That is potentially fatal. If it does not kill, it causes horrendous damage, which will probably have to be treated for a long time, if not for the rest of the patient's life.
The World Health Organisation report, which the Government are largely financing, is about to be published. The research has been led by Professor Frits Rosendaal of Leiden university. It will show, without doubt, that people who fly long distance are five times more likely to contract a thrombosis than the community at large. It will therefore establish a definitive link. It will not define the causal relationship but establish once and for all the correlation between long-haul flying and developing the condition. No serious clinician or medical practitioner doubts the link between flying in cramped conditions in a contrived
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environment and the condition, although they may disagree about the scale of the problem. I believe that it is a huge public health issue, but the airlines have no responsibility for it in law.
Can one imagine a more contrived environment? The air is artificial; the pressure in a pressurised cabin is equivalent to being 6,000 ft above sea level; and the airline tells passengers what they can eat. The British Nutrition Foundation recently made some interesting comments about the salt content of the food that the big airlines shove in front ofnormally economy classpassengers. That could be damaging to passengers' health generally, but salt's dehydration effect increases massively the chances of developing a blood clot. Yet the airlines have no duty of care.
Clause 7 finally establishes the unit and asks the airlines to pay a pittance£200,000 shared between the airlines is not much moneyas a levy to finance it. When the Minister is given the responsibility of offering guidanceand, as I understand it, make Orders in Councilto protect passengers' health and well-being on aircraft, why do not we accept the opportunity of taking a lead in the world once again and place the same duty of careno special treatment or favourson airlines as exists for shipping, coach and railway companies, and even taxis?
If passengers get in a taxi, coach or train or sail on a ship, whoever carries them from A to B has a general duty to look after their health and well-being. Yet when passengers get on an aeroplane, there is no such protection. They are not even covered by their travel insurance. I am sure that millions of people in the country, never mind half those who sit in the House, have no idea that that is the position. I ask the Minister to consider using this as a golden opportunity not necessarily to place such a liability on airlines, because that could place the British airline industry in a difficult position, but to put down a marker to state that the Government's intention is to ensure that all airlines throughout the world have that same duty of care. If that could be achieved, there might never have to be any more tragic deaths like that of my constituent, John Anthony Thomas, who died in the prime of his life. His death was avoidable, preventable and unnecessary, and the airline was responsible. It got away with murder, and if we do not change the law, that could happen again.