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House of Lords

Thursday, 26th February 1998.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Ripon): The PRINCIPAL DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Air Traffic Control: New Centre

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When the new air traffic control centre due to replace the centre at West Drayton will be completed and in operation.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the Government expect National Air Traffic Services Ltd. to bring the new en route centre at Swanwick in Hampshire into operation in the winter of 1999-2000.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Responding to similar Questions of mine in 1989 and 1995, my noble friends Lord Brabazon and Lord Goschen supplied helpful information including reference to the new centre to be established at Swanwick, which at that time was thought to be only a few weeks' away. Are recent reports correct that the computers are giving serious trouble and that the centre cannot be ready at the time the noble Baroness has mentioned because they have faults? As the general public is concerned about growing congestion and near-misses in the air, are there any interim measures in prospect?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, in the past few weeks there have been various reports in the media suggesting that the Swanwick centre was experiencing severe technical problems and that the opening would have to be delayed beyond the current target opening date. The reports seem to derive from a letter which the chief executive sent to staff about difficulties with the training and development unit at the centre. However, the difficulties about which the department have been informed by NATS are not as serious as has been reported. NATS has built five months' flexibility into the programme. The noble Lord raises concerns about safety. Safety considerations are paramount. I share the noble Lord's concern that there have been reports of "air prox" incidents (near-misses). However, the CAA, who is in the lead in handling these matters, has assured me that there has not been an increase in such incidents.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, the existing control centre at West Drayton has coped with an enormous increase in air traffic over the past 10 to 30 years. Can the Minister explain how the new centre at Swanwick will be different in its means of operation and in the services that it can provide for the air industry?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the new system will be able to handle the much larger

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volume of air traffic that will fly across England and Wales following the new centre coming on stream. That will be followed with a new centre which will be built in Scotland. That will cover traffic over the north of the country and Northern Ireland.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I find myself spending an increasing amount of time in the air going round and round in circles in company with large numbers of Members from all parts of this House? Is she aware that nearly 25 per cent. of the time taken, especially in the summer, on the flight from Edinburgh to London, is spent circling overhead waiting for permission to land? As the Minister mentioned safety, can she give the House any figures relating to the number of reports of near-misses that have occurred over the London area in the past year or two?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord if he is going round in circles. I assume that he is not doing so politically. The levels of traffic will lead to delays from time to time. National Air Traffic Services will not do anything to compromise safety. If over the coming months West Drayton cannot handle traffic loads, then there will be delays in the air. We look forward to the new centre operating and thus allowing the noble Lord to arrive directly rather than to circle in.

Lord Gainford: My Lords, can the Minister say what measures have been taken to alleviate the stress on air traffic controllers at the moment as a result of the pressure on them until the new centre comes into action?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am not aware of any specific training programmes to deal with stress for people working at the air traffic control centre. However, I shall make inquiries to see if there are any such programmes and I shall inform the noble Lord.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux: My Lords, as regards the reports on near-misses and, very importantly, the reported exhaustion of air traffic controllers, does my noble friend agree that any delays in the delivery of this system will result in threats to the safety of the public?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the original operational date for the Swanwick centre was November 1996, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, indicated. There have been two delays to the operational date. I have given noble Lords the current target date. The major causes of the delay were problems with the integration of 23 software sub-systems and the need for additional functions in the system, which were identified following testing of it by air traffic controllers. As regards the degree of stress, I have undertaken to write to the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, and I shall send my noble friend a copy of my letter.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that she did not appear to answer the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood? Can she leave a note in the Library or something, so that we may know the answer?

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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Certainly, my Lords.

Viscount Hanworth: My Lords, can my noble friend assure us that responsibility for the new Scottish air traffic control centre will not be devolved to a Scottish parliament?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the functions of the Civil Aviation Authority and related matters, which include the provision of air traffic services, are to be reserved to the UK Parliament and the Government. Aviation regulations and safety are also to be reserved areas. It is sensible in practical terms that the functions of the CAA and aviation should be reserved in order to achieve consistent standards across the whole of the UK and to work in co-operation with Europe.

MAFF and DoH Advisory Bodies: Independence

3.9 p.m.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied with the independence of the advisory and other scientific committees reporting to the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in view of the extent of the links which their members have with the various industries concerned.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, the noble Earl is right to be vigilant about specialist advisory committees. The Government have every confidence in the independence of the advisory and scientific committees reporting to the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There are well established procedures under which any member with a commercial interest in a matter under discussion declares that interest; he or she may, if necessary, abstain from the discussion.

We recognise that the very fact that many members of advisory committees are highly regarded in their fields makes them attractive to commercial organisations. It is therefore no surprise that high calibre people on advisory committees receive funding from commercial organisations. This was one of the key messages contained in guidelines, The Use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making, published last year and delivered to the previous administration by Sir Robert May, the Chief Scientific Officer, which the Government have accepted.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for the reply. She will remember that I asked a similar Question in December on the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, which revealed a preponderance of interests from the side of industry, and that through a subsequent Written Question I obtained

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details of the financial interests of members of a further 14 of the key scientific committees. Is she aware that analysis of those figures shows a similar pattern to that of COT, with links to the food and chemical industries averaging over 60 per cent. and, in the case of one or two committees, exceeding 80 per cent.? Does she feel that that is a healthy state of affairs?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, the noble Earl rightly reminds the House of his previous inquiries on this subject when I replied that the Government have some concerns about the balance of interests on such committees and that that was one of the reasons why we were exploring, and why we are currently exploring, lay representation on the specific committee, COT, to which the noble Earl refers, and why we are seeking to include observers from relevant interest groups on the ad hoc group on vitamins and mineral supplements which is being set up. In addition, we have issued a consultation paper on opening up quangos. That is now out for consultation.

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