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The Department of Health has confirmed to me that there are many people waiting more than six months for an NHS in-patient operation and that figure is increasing, rather than decreasing. What mechanisms are available to ensure that the Prime Minister corrects his inaccurate statement?

Mr. Speaker: Well, the hon. Gentleman can put a question down for the Prime Minister and ask him to correct a statement that the hon. Gentleman considers to be inaccurate, but it is not for the Chair to intervene in these matters.

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Orders of the Day

Civil Aviation Bill

Lords Reasons for insisting on certain of their amendments to which the Commons have disagreed, considered.

Clause 1

Aerodrome charges: noise and emissions

Lords Reasons: 1B, 2B, 4B.

12.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): I beg to move, That this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments and proposes Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu thereof.

Commencing with amendment No. 1, we simply do not believe that it would be appropriate to impose a legal duty on all 140-odd licensed aerodromes to impose noise-related and emissions charges. Such a move would be disproportionate and would represent gross over-regulation. Many of the aerodromes are relatively small in size and will cause little or no significant disturbance or local air quality problems. Such a move would be at odds with the Government’s policy of not imposing unnecessary regulation on business. On that we have been, and continue to be, steadfastly clear.

I respectfully point out to hon. Members that the proposal in the Lords amendments would run contrary to guidance from the International Civil Aviation Organisation that noise-related charges should be levied only at airports experiencing noise problems. Airports have had a statutory power to charge for aircraft by reference to their noise for some 25 years, but our policy on aircraft noise is that whenever possible, local controls rather than Government diktat are the best way of managing the local environmental impact of aviation.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Minister must accept that the movement of aircraft noise over that period has been in one direction only—upwards—and that that has caused many people living around airports great inconvenience and discomfort. If we do not accept this proposal, what should we do? It is clear that the status quo is not working.

Gillian Merron: I note the hon. Gentleman’s view, but the question is whether the proposal deals with the point that he makes, and I suggest that it does not. The Bill as a whole takes us forward. Perhaps he will allow me to continue to outline how we can continue to take forward aviation for all stakeholders, including local communities.

Such a policy on the management of the local environmental impact of aviation was underscored in “The Future of Air Transport” White Paper. Many of our larger airports have regard to noise when setting their charges. BAA already applies an emissions-related charge at Heathrow and Gatwick by using the airports’ conditions of use. However, it is important to put it beyond any doubt that any licensed aerodrome has the power to set such charges if their local circumstances make that necessary. That is the purpose of clause 1.

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Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Will the Minister explain how we get around the conundrum that was raised in another place about the contrast between Birmingham and Coventry? She says that an airport can raise charges when there is a problem, but if it has no duty to monitor, how will it recognise that there is a problem? If there is no duty to monitor and a duty to charge, how do we impose the same constraints on an airport such as Coventry as those that apply to the designated airports?

Gillian Merron: It might help my hon. Friend if I outline why a blanket duty for airports such as that proposed is not the right way forward. A problem arises due to the evidence that exists.

Imposing a uniform requirement that an airport’s charges must be set by reference to noise and emissions would undercut an airport’s ability to reflect its local circumstances. I emphasise that we are considering not whether airports should be able to do that, but whether we should require them all to do so in exactly the same way. Charges are not the only lever—or even, in the case of aircraft noise, the most significant one—that we will expect airport operators to use to address the impact of their operations on local people. I emphasise to hon. Members that clauses 3 and 4 will do far more than that to drive improvements in the noise climate around airports. They will enable airport operators to impose penalties for breaches of the noise control measures that they have in place, such as noise limits on departing aircraft and noise-preferential routes. The revenue raised from the penalties will have to be put towards purposes that are of benefit to the wider community around the airport.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my hon. Friend from the east midlands region for allowing me to make an intervention. The Minister will be aware of the long campaign to get East Midlands airport—or Nottingham East Midlands airport, as it is now unfortunately named—designated under the Civil Aviation Act 1982. She and her predecessors have declined so to do and have fallen back on the suggestion that local agreement will resolve the problems. However, East Midlands airport’s 10-point plan has been imposed on local communities, and they rejected it several months ago at the independent consulting committee by 15 votes to one. What options do those communities have, unless we can require regional airports with a larger number of night-time flights than Heathrow to impose charges to reflect quota counts and noisy aircraft? Why can we not make that compulsory? The local agreement is not working.

Gillian Merron: Although I appreciate the worries about local noise that my hon. Friend and others have expressed, it is believed that the airport is fully committed to responding effectively. Several changes have taken place over the years. It is not necessarily the case that designation delivers fewer night flights or tougher controls. Additionally, NEMA has indicated that it wishes to take advantage of the powers in the Bill by taking tougher local action to protect the noise environment. The draft master plan—my hon. Friend will realise that the consultation recently closed—set out details of plans to minimise impacts and to respond to community concerns. I would not say that the specific matter before
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the House relates to designation, but I note my hon. Friend’s concerns about NEMA. Of course, should NEMA wish to put forward a further application for designation, it will be considered properly and fully.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I have supported the efforts of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on designation, but I want to pick up what the Minister said about localities. Amendment (a) in lieu refers to

while clause 1, which will itself amend section 38 of the 1982 Act, uses the phrase

No doubt those wonderful expressions make us feel deeply enthused by the Government’s policing activities over airports that allow a lot of noise to happen in their vicinities, localities or areas, but what do the words precisely mean in the context of Nottingham East Midlands airport, which allows aircraft to fly in and out that affect my constituents, because although they are up to 30, 40, or 50 miles away from the airport, they are disturbed by the noise?

Gillian Merron: I appreciate the representations that the hon. and learned Gentleman makes. No collusion is intended by the use of various words. I am about to move on to the reference to the consideration of local communities, but I will be happy to get back to him if he thinks that today’s debate does not address his concern. We all know the intention of what we are talking about.

A further reason why we do not accept that a blanket duty on airports is right is that the Secretary of State will be able to require an airport to fix its charges in a way that takes account of its local environmental impact. Existing section 38 of the 1982 Act gives the Secretary of State the power to direct specified aerodromes to make use of the charging power with regard to noise. That power, which will be extended to include charging by reference to emissions, is detailed in subsection (4) of proposed new section 38 of the 1982 Act. The power would be used if the introduction of noise and emissions-related charges at an airport seemed to be appropriate, yet the airport operator was unwilling to do that. I hope that that addresses the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson).

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Should an airport such as NEMA choose to exercise a charging regime—my hon. Friend has accurately said that it wishes to do so—would it remain within the Secretary of State’s discretion to say that the charges specified were inadequate and to specify other charges that met the objectives of local residents concerned about noise intrusion? Does the point merely relate to the principle and methodology of establishing a charging structure, or does it go on to say whether those charges are adequate for the purpose?

Gillian Merron: The charging regime has to do a job, so it has regard to appropriateness.

Amendment (a) would qualify the power of direction. The Secretary of State would be required to have regard to the interests of people who live in the area of the
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airport in determining whether and how to make use of the power. Our intention in moving the amendment is to acknowledge the concern of some stakeholders that the clause does not take sufficient account of the impact of aircraft noise on people living near airports. By giving the Secretary of State a duty to consider that when deciding whether to use his power of direction, we are providing an additional safeguard for the interests of the local community around an airport.

Amendment (b) is a minor, consequential amendment which will ensure that this new provision, like the power of direction to which it relates, is devolved to the Scottish Ministers. Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4 would affect the way in which noise and emission charges are set.

We agree that airport operators should set noise charges that are proportionate. However, International Civil Aviation Organisation guidance already states that noise-related charges should be non-discriminatory between users and should not be established at such levels as to be prohibitively high for the operation of certain aircraft.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the extent to which noise measurement goes on? In my constituency BAA carries out no measurement of the noise impact of Heathrow. Rather than talking about an area that the airport needs to have regard to, the Government may need to be a little more specific about how large that area should be and take account of the glide path of planes as they come in to land.

Gillian Merron: I can assure the hon. Lady that we take account of the operational noise of aircraft when we consider setting noise abatement objectives, which I know are very important to her and her constituents. I emphasise that in doing so we work towards and contribute to internationally recognised standards.

As I have already remarked, airports have been making use of the power to set noise-related charges for almost a quarter of a century. There has been no suggestion that the powers have been applied inappropriately or disproportionately during that time. We can see no justification for adding to clause 1 the requirement in the Lords amendments. Hon. Members who have expressed concerns should be in no doubt that, should there ever appear to be a problem with the charging scheme, the Secretary of State will have the power to direct an airport operator as to the manner in which its charges are to be fixed.

I ask the House to insist on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4, and I commend amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The Government have given us something of a dilemma, because Members in all parts of the House agree that the Lords amendments are flawed. Clearly, we do not want to impose regulations on every small airport in the country. The difficulty is that they reflect the frustrations with this empty Bill felt not just in another place but among Opposition Members—and, indeed, many Government Back Benchers.

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The Minister’s predecessor admitted that

In fact, when we last considered these matters on the Floor of the House, on 8 May, the then Minister admitted:

Tonight I shall be visiting Nottingham East Midlands airport with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). Whatever its failings in terms of night flights, and I shall be looking hard at those tonight, NEMA has for many years been charging on the basis of noise.

12.45 pm

Mr. Todd: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct: NEMA has levied such charges for some time. I questioned the Minister because those charges have not produced the effects that many people would desire. The key element, therefore, is whether a Minister might intervene and say that a particular charging structure was inadequate for the purpose defined and set out criteria for determining appropriate charges.

Mr. Brazier: Indeed, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have made a very small concession in that direction. I shall come to that in a moment.

All this Bill does, in plain English, is confirm powers on noise and emissions that airports have exercised for many years.

David Taylor: I do not know whether the use of the term “plain English” was an attempted pun, but we will leave that aside. When the hon. Gentleman meets airport management this evening he will hear about noise-preferential routes and track monitoring, and those initiatives are to be welcomed. The airport has attempted to establish a framework whereby noise problems can be adequately measured and penalties, wherever possible, imposed. But will he be checking on the scale of the noise encountered by people in the vicinity and the level of fines collected in recent years? If he does, he will be able to set everything in context.

Mr. Brazier: I assured the hon. Gentleman of that when I contacted him about my visit to his constituency, and I do so again.

Where has the Government’s policy, without the extra measures proposed by the Lords amendments, got us? They have finally admitted that they are not going to reach the target of reducing emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010, as we all knew. The Conservatives reduced CO2 emissions by 7 per cent. in their last seven years in office, but emissions are higher now than they were in 1997. The Environmental Audit Committee described Ministers as being “superficial and vague” about the environmental damage done by the Government’s aviation policy.

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The then Secretary of State summarised the purpose of the 2003 White Paper as follows:

In that statement we have a perfect example of what the Select Committee meant when it referred to Ministers as being “superficial and vague”. This Bill is a continuation of that policy—it is empty.

The point is that compelling airports to make charges in relation to noise and emissions would also make compulsory the purposes for which those changes were introduced—reducing noise and emissions and encouraging the take-up of more environmentally efficient aircraft. That would speed up a process that is already taking place.

The Government are being disingenuous with both the public and the airlines. In suggesting that there was no need for compulsion, the Minister’s predecessor said:

Much the same has been said today. Well, airports may well continue to do that. Some are doing so—after all, it is free money—but some are not. As the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) pointed out, charging carries no obligation for airports to monitor noise or emissions. There is no obligation to set targets, or to create and maintain any logical sliding scale to reward airlines for success. In fact, there is no obligation to measure, let alone report on, progress.

What proof is there that those charges have delivered any benefit since they started? We cannot tell whether they are working, as there is not even a requirement to provide statistics. All that the Bill will do, without amendment to beef it up—and the amendments before us are all that there is on the table—is provide a bit of cover for the airports in case lawyers from airlines make trouble for them.

The Government have made what amounts to a very small concession, which the Minister has explained. It requires the Secretary of State, should he use his powers under subsection (4), to consider the interests of people who live in the area of the aerodrome. If he were considering finally getting on with it and doing something, it is difficult to conceive of any circumstances in which he would not consider them in that context. The phrase “among other things” in the Government amendment makes a pretty worthless amendment even vaguer. However, it does at least leave open the possibility that a future Secretary of State might listen to the concerns of local people—and not just those living around airports; we should remember that flight paths extend a long way.

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