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Lembit Öpik: My very next words were to have been, "and that is why the Third Reading of this Bill is so important to air transport in Wales." I apologise for digressing, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I get very excited about aircraft. The brief opportunity to sit down has calmed my spirit.
Returning to the specifics of Wales, I say to the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) that, in implementing the Bill, we have to make an informed assessment of what is feasible for air transport in the medium term. That ties into something that I need to clarify about my view of how the opportunity to support and fund regional aviation in Wales should be approached. I would be very resistant about taking the opportunity provided in the Bill to have an indefinite subsidy for aviation services. Although I can understand, at a push, that people even more fanatical than I might argue for that, it is my judgment that the best investment that this Bill provides is pump-priming. At Welshpool airport, the infrastructure is being built; nevertheless it would not be prudent for the Welsh Assembly to end up in an open-ended commitment to subsidise air transport that would necessarily be the domain primarily of business customers and perhaps a few wealthy private travellers. I agree with those who think that we must not place an enormous strain on Welsh expenditure by entering into something that we do not understand. The good news is that the Bill does not require that to happen, but does require some sensible investment.
I agree with the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith): we have a hub airport in the form of Cardiff. Although we have to think about the macro-environmental effects of aviation overall, that is no reason to hold Cardiff back. All of air transport must start living up to its environmental responsibilities. In that context, we should all agree that if Wales is to prosper and be an attractive centre of investment and tourism, we have to ensure that Cardiff international airport is well connected internationally, as well as internally in terms of land transport. I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's comments in that respect.
Those who question the benefit of aviation should remember that all the parties have proved its advantage. All the party leaders have been seen flying about the country. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was seen in his small helicopter, cruelly referred to by some of my colleagues as the batmobile. That shows that everyone who wants to travel quickly and can afford it tends to use aviation.
Although the Bill provides a good opportunity to discuss the infrastructure developments needed for Wales to establish its own regional air network, other matters, not directly related to the Bill, need to be considered. There are questions, which I shall not go into in great detail, about the use of American-registered
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aircraft in Wales and the UK as a whole, and the instrument rating and other qualifications that are required in the UK compared with the United States. I am glad to be able to inform the House that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), has agreed to meet me and MPs from other parties to discuss those issues. I am optimistic that that will smooth the way to using the opportunities created by the Bill to the full.
I hope that the scepticism that I have heard from the hon. Member for Leominster and others does not suggest that they oppose the Airbus developments in Hawarden. The A380 is the single most significant civil airliner being constructed in the world today and I am proud of the fact that that development is taking place in north Wales. I strongly support the environmental benefits that it will bring in terms of reducing emissions while carrying the same number of passengers as other aircraft.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made that point, because there was a great deal of concern when Mr. Isherwood, the Assembly Member for North Wales, questioned the legality of repayable launch investment, in a clear attempt to undermine the project.
Lembit Öpik: It is a shame that people do that. We have enough trouble with Boeing without having enemies in our own ranks. I hope that, to use a phrase from another time, it was merely a moment of madness. [Laughter.] That, Madam Deputy Speaker, was also a rhetorical point.
Overall, we should aim to create a regional air network but, coming back to earth, we should recognise that the single most environmentally friendly way to make long-distance journeys is by rail. Rail is also a vital tool of regeneration for deprived areas, so it must be the centrepiece of transport reforms. Many people have written to me on the subject, and I am sure that other hon. Members have had the same experience. To mention only one, the Very Reverend Archimandrite Father Deiniol has discussed rail infrastructure extensively. I hope that the Assembly will take a strategic decision to support the long-term investment required in rail infrastructure. That will be expensive. The Bill does not provide the funds; it merely provides the opportunity and gives the Assembly the freedom to discuss the issue meaningfully.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that improving rail services across the border in England would benefit his constituents and that he will help me to secure a direct rail link from Shrewsbury to London.
In normal circumstances I would criticise hon. Members who come late into a debate. However, as I happen to agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, I thank him for making the effort to come from his office to highlight the fact that cross-border rail links are important. For example, it is a shame that one cannot take a direct service from Aberystwyth to Euston, going through the constituency of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham
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(Daniel Kawczynski). I look forward to working with him to try to persuade politicians, rail providers and service providers that these links should be made available and that they should be bolder in running such services for rather longer to enable demand to increase. For example, I think that Virgin was premature in abandoning a service that had made it as far as Shrewsbury, only for it to be closed down.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman applaud the initiative linked to the powers in the Bill that allows the Welsh Assembly, with Arriva Trains and Network Rail, to reintroduce from the humble Llynfi line a train that from November will run all the way from Maesteg to Gloucester? That is the joined-up, cross-border thinking that we look forward to under the Bill.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman probably knows a little more about that service than I do. However, once the flow lines are in place, demand tends to follow. For so long, there has been under-investment in the British rail network and its services have been slashed. As a result, people have become accustomed to making journeys in a different way. I am encouraged that the Bill gives the Welsh Assembly the opportunity to make courageous decisions of the sort that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) has described.
On a local level, the more integrated approach that the Bill encourages and advocates is both welcome and necessary. Our vision should be of a co-ordinated network where bus and rail services complement rather than compete with one another, and where local authorities work together to increase efficiency and ease the burden of bureaucracy.
An important omission in the Bill is that of accessibility. A report entitled "Mind the Gap", produced by DisabilityLeonard Cheshirehighlighted the fact that many disabled people still experienced enormous problems accessing public transport. For example, nearly half of all the disabled people surveyed had found their choice of jobs restricted as a result of lack of accessibility to the transport that they needed to get to that employment. Nearly a quarter of those people had had to turn down a job offered because of a lack of accessible transport.
Improving the accessibility of transport for disabled people means more than free bus passes. They must be able to get on and off the transport that is available to them. If there are only a few trains a day, they need to be able to board those trains. More progress is needed in that area. One omissionI criticise myself in this instanceis that we did not think sufficiently through disability discrimination legislation and its implications for Welsh transport. I hope that the Welsh Assembly will make good what we omitted.
The Bill provides the framework to take Welsh transport forward. The hope is that the Government in Cardiff succeed where successive Westminster Governments have failed. Westminster Governments have shown themselves incapable of delivering a reliable and affordable public transport service. It is not integrated and it is not working well. The Assembly has the capacity to be more responsive to Welsh needs and to make the rail, bus and air system in Wales work. That
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system is not working so well in Britain. The Liberal Democrats have been grateful for the opportunity to discuss these matters. I hope that we shall be successful in convincing the doubting Conservatives of the benefits of a limited air network in Wales, and that there can be optimism that the Assembly will run with the powers that the Bill confers.
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