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31 Mar 2008 : Column 424

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) about employers encouraging older people in the workplace, one in four of UK adults are, like me, over the age of 60; will the Minister say whether he believes that each tier of our right hon. Friend’s Government is adequately represented in that regard? Will he urge the Prime Minister to ensure that the special contribution of the over-60s is better reflected in future reshuffles?

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Good question. I am sure that I can pass on my hon. Friend’s observations to the Prime Minister.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Will the Minister comment on grants of up to £3,000 to purchase vehicles being made available to foreign nationals working in the UK?

James Purnell: I am very happy to make inquiries into that matter. Obviously, we have a Motability scheme to support disabled people to drive. I do not think the matter the hon. Gentleman raises is one for my Department, but if he writes to me, I will be happy to look into it.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister for Pensions Reform tell us how much better off pensioners are under this Government?

Mr. Mike O'Brien: There is a bit of a difficulty for the following reason. We have been quoting figures that the average pensioner household will be £1,500, or £29 a week, better off, but last week the Conservative party published its own document, which is well worth looking at—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), the living in poverty figure is 5.2 million—that is an Office for National Statistics figure. Will the Secretary of State now answer my hon. Friend’s question, because he has passed the buck a number of times today?

James Purnell: Child poverty is down by 600,000, and pensioner poverty is down by more than 1 million. That is in contrast to the record of the Conservative Government, under whom both went up.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Last week, the Secretary of State made an announcement about the employment and support allowance. Will he tell the House how important that allowance will be, in giving both support to those who cannot work and help to those who can work?

James Purnell: That is exactly right. It will mean £16 more for the most disabled people. They will not be required to work, but as a consequence of the benefit changes we are introducing they will have much more support to get back into work, and much more income as well.

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Heathrow Terminal 5

3.31 pm

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con) ( urgent question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on the problems occurring for passengers at Heathrow terminal 5 and the security measures in place at the terminal.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I thank the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) for providing the opportunity to make a statement on the problems occurring for passengers at Heathrow’s terminal 5. The Secretary of State sends her apologies for being unable to respond to the question herself, but she is on a pre-arranged regional visit; I believe that the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) are aware of that.

Heathrow’s new terminal 5 opened to the public on Thursday 27 March. The terminal is operated by BAA plc, but British Airways is the sole airline using it. On 27 March, BA moved to T5 the majority of its short haul operations, which accounts for about 400 flights per day and some 34,000 passengers.

The management of terminal 5 is an operational matter for British Airways and BAA, but that does not mean that the Government are not taking a keen interest in seeing that the difficulties T5 has faced since it opened last week are addressed and resolved as quickly as possible. On its first day in operation, T5’s bespoke baggage system was affected by a number of issues. First, there were technical software problems, but more significantly BA’s challenge was integrating teams of staff, and it has been addressing this as a priority.

After 27 March, the baggage system became clogged as more bags were checked in than were being placed on aircraft. On a number of occasions, the system stopped functioning, which led to planes taking off without some or all of their luggage. BA has had to cancel short haul flights to ease the pressure on the baggage system. By the end of the weekend, some 28,000 bags had been placed in temporary storage. BA drafted in 400 volunteers over the weekend to help sort those bags and estimates that it will take up to a week to get them back to their owners.

The issue is mainly a problem for departing passengers. BA has advised that the incoming arrival bag times have been coming down steadily over the past few days and the average first bag time is now seven to eight minutes. That is as good, if not better, than for other Heathrow terminals.

As the Secretary of State has made clear, we expect BA and BAA to work together to ensure that solutions are found and that there is as little disruption as possible to passengers. Department for Transport officials have been in touch with BA and BAA at a senior level throughout. The Secretary of State spoke to the chief executive of BA, Mr. Willie Walsh, and to Mr. Colin Matthews, chief executive of BAA, on Saturday, and I visited the airport on Sunday to see the situation at first hand.

We have also been assisting BA, where appropriate given the necessity of maintaining effective security, in
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optimising all its security screening options, to help it tackle the backlog of bags that have yet to be reunited with their owners.

As our discussion document “Towards a Sustainable Transport System”, published last October, makes clear, we want a much greater emphasis on the needs of transport users. Passengers should expect airline and airport operators to deliver a good standard of service; so, although we recognise the considerable challenges in opening a major new terminal, we agree that it is extremely regrettable to say the least that passengers using T5 have had to suffer an unacceptably poor travel experience. Although I am convinced that T5 will ultimately prove to be a significant benefit to the passenger, there is no denying that delivery so far has fallen well short of expectations. What struck me on Sunday was just how devastated individual staff members were, from chief executives through to staff on the shop floor, that this had gone badly wrong. They were working hard to restore their own pride, as well as that of the operation, as was shown by, among other things, the number of volunteers who were helping.

The important thing now is to put things right. BA’s and BAA’s focus must not be deflected from resolving the problems affecting T5 and ensuring that the passenger experience improves significantly as a matter of urgency. That includes ensuring that those passengers who have been affected by disruption receive, at the very least, the assistance and compensation to which they are legally entitled. It is in both BA’s and BAA’s interests to work effectively together to deliver the necessary improvement. The travelling public are not mainly interested in who is to blame for which particular failing, but rather in being treated properly when things go wrong and in seeing real progress towards the high standards of customer service to which both BA and BAA aspire. Once T5 is on track, we will press both operators to identify the lessons learned and to explain their plans for ensuring that good service standards are not only delivered but maintained.

Before concluding, I must comment on security at T5. As one would expect, I am unable to go into detail on the specifics of issues raised in the last few days, but I would like to reassure the House that the Government enforce a sophisticated airport security regime, which delivers many layers of protection to the travelling public. The Department works closely with airport operators to ensure that standards are met, and officials have worked particularly intensively at Heathrow in recent weeks, given the opening of T5. That is normal in respect of security when a new terminal comes on line and helps to identify any areas that require improvement. The Department then works with the operator to ensure that swift action is taken to ensure that appropriate mitigation is in place. The process has been no different with T5. Let me assure you, and the House, Mr. Speaker, that aviation security is of the highest priority for the Government.

In conclusion, we accept the reality of the problems facing passengers using T5, we are monitoring the situation very closely to encourage BA and BAA to address the issues and we stand ready to assist in any way if it is appropriate to do so.

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Mrs. Villiers: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing this urgent question.

Since terminal 5 opened for business in the early hours of Thursday morning hundreds of flights have been cancelled, thousands of bags have been delayed or have gone missing, and thousands of passengers have suffered severe inconvenience and frustration. Both BA and BAA have let down their customers badly and, yet again, the state of Heathrow is a national embarrassment.

Even more worryingly, yesterday’s newspapers reported that Department for Transport inspectors had managed to bypass security checks on nine occasions during trials of the terminal’s new systems and that the terminal’s alarm system was not working properly. Will the Minister tell us what tests were carried out in relation to T5’s security systems in advance of the opening? Will he give us the results, including details on the number of times inspectors were able to bypass security checks? What steps were taken to remedy the problems revealed by the tests carried out? Were the tests re-run and, if so, what was the result? Is it true that the fingerprint checks were dropped shortly before the terminal’s opening to switch to a photographic recognition system? It is hard to believe that there would have been enough time to test that system appropriately in the short time available.

The Secretary of State said of T5 that “this building exhausts superlatives.” At the launch, she said:

She continued:

Given the impact of the project on our image overseas, to what extent did she or the Minister challenge BAA and BA about the adequacy of their preparations before the opening of T5? Did the Secretary of State or her officials scrutinise the plans that those two companies had for the first week of operation of such a crucial project for our national interest? How confident is the Minister that the problems will be resolved by the time terminal 4 flights switch to the new terminal? Is he confident that BA and BAA have kept passengers adequately informed during the crisis and given the best advice on the right compensation? Is he sufficiently confident that BAA’s renovation of Heathrow’s other terminals will be completed on time? What steps are being taken to ensure that the problems of the past week will not recur when the terminals reopen?

What steps are being taken to ensure that BAA and BA plan properly for the huge influx of passengers during the 2012 Olympics? A repeat of the fiasco of the last few days would be a disaster for the 2012 games and would leave the country a laughing stock around the world. Surely a company faced with real competition would be less likely to make basic and complacent mistakes such as leaving staff without an overflow car park facility on the most important day for Heathrow for a decade.

Does the Minister agree that the calamitous events of the past few days have strengthened the case for breaking up BAA’s monopolistic grip on airport capacity in the south-east? Does he agree that the time has come for the Competition Commission to proceed
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with the break-up? Finally, will the events of the past few days give the Government any cause to reconsider whether BAA is capable of managing the project to construct the third runway and sixth terminal that the Government are dead-set on building regardless of whether crucial environmental questions are answered or not?

How can the Minister or the Secretary of State possibly hold BAA to account effectively on all the critical questions that I have asked? How can they get tough on BAA’s performance on T5 when the Department has actively colluded with the company to fiddle the figures on Heathrow expansion? The cosy relationship between the Labour establishment and BAA on a third runway is notorious and means that the Government cannot possibly be objective in judging BAA’s lamentable performance during the opening of terminal 5.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Lady has asked a series of questions and I shall try to respond to as many as I can. First, I rebut the allegation of collusion. The consultation that the Department recently concluded in respect of the expansion of Heathrow was based on the 2003 White Paper that followed years of examination of whether we could meet the strict environmental standards that we laid down on noise, emissions and access. We were confident that those standards could be met and that is contained in the consultation documentation—the matter is out for consultation. Of course, the hon. Lady will have the opportunity to discuss the issues on Wednesday afternoon, when the Liberal Democrats have a half-day Opposition debate on Heathrow. I suspect that we will deal with the issues in more detail then.

Fingerprint checks were not dropped as a matter of security, but there were questions about the system’s efficacy and BAA decided not to proceed with it at that time. That was not a matter for the Department for Transport or for TRANSEC. We had no reason to believe that the plans for T5 would not work. The building—I believe that we all monitored its progress over recent years—is an exemplary, of British engineering, architecture and construction. It is a magnificent structure. Officials of the Department for Transport, BAA and BA are always in regular contact and we had no reason to believe that it would not work. We were confident about that and we were sure that the terminal would operate effectively.

This has been a great disappointment. As the hon. Lady said, national pride has been dented. Her Majesty opened T5 to national fanfare and delight in early March. The following week, when the A380 arrived for its first flight, many of us believed that Heathrow had turned a corner and that the bad publicity of recent years would turn into positive publicity, notwithstanding the importance of scrutiny as regards the expansion. Clearly, that was not the case.

The hon. Lady asked about compensation. The European Union’s denied boarding and cancellation regulations set out an airline’s responsibilities to passengers in the event of long delays on departure or the cancellation of flights. It is the responsibility of British Airways to comply with that regulation with
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regard to the delays and cancellations experienced at terminal 5 in the past few days. From our discussions with the airline, it is clear that it is aware of its responsibilities under those regulations, and is endeavouring to comply with them. The Civil Aviation Authority is monitoring the situation to ensure that that happens.

The 2012 Olympics will be a matter of great national pride. We are very confident that we will be able to deliver the Olympics as outlined, on time, and we have no reason to believe that that will not be the case. Incidents such as T5 serve only to reinforce our resolve to ensure that we redouble our efforts and that the 2012 Olympics are a huge success.

I believe that ultimately, and within a short period, terminal 5 will be a source of great national pride. It is a magnificent building; the services within it are top of the range in terms of passenger experience, and we believe that BA and BAA will be able to show that off to the world in very short order.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Will the Minister join me in congratulating my constituents who work at Heathrow, who, despite the job cuts in recent years and despite BAA trying to attack their pension fund before Christmas, nevertheless loyally turned out in large numbers, many of them volunteers, to help the travelling public? May I ask him to start thinking again about the future expansion of Heathrow, given the grotesque incompetence of BAA in managing the terminal 5 project in recent weeks and given that all the Government’s policies have been based upon the advice of BAA?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am very happy to acknowledge the role of all those working at Heathrow, who have tried to put the situation right. As I said earlier, one thing that struck me in speaking to staff members at all levels within BA and BAA was the damage to their self-esteem, and the fact that they were taking it personally that the systems had failed them. They were working extremely hard to try to correct the situation, as was evidenced by the number who volunteered to come in and do so.

The role of BAA in the consultation exercise was that it advised and supplied information. We set out in the 2003 White Paper that, for the economic interests of UK plc, we needed to increase the capacity at Heathrow, and that BAA had a role to play in that exercise. We did not accept all that it sent us without checking it. We have our own experts and officials in the Department who ensured that what BAA supplied was double-checked and that the evidence that we produced in the consultation exercise was Department for Transport information, not BAA information.

On BAA and its competence, I believe that we all know that the Competition Commission is to report on the operation of BAA in 2009. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on that matter at this point.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The events of the past few days represent a disgraceful inconvenience to passengers, reflect extremely badly on BA and BAA
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and are a national disgrace. I notice that the terminal 5 website still shows BA’s chief executive, Willie Walsh, describing it as

It reminds me rather more of the legendary sign at Oslo airport, which says:

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