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House of Lords

Thursday, 14th October 1999.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Prestwick Airport: Fifth Freedom Rights

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How United Kingdom airlines will benefit from the unilateral granting of fifth freedom rights to the United States cargo airlines in and out of Prestwick airport.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston): My Lords, although United Kingdom airlines will not benefit directly from the granting of fifth freedom rights to US cargo carriers from Prestwick, there will be significant economic benefits to the region and to the UK as a whole; and UK airlines stand to gain from the ensuing liberalisation of the overall market.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, in his Answer, for which I thank him, the noble Lord has made the point that I was making in my Question. We are engaged in long drawn-out negotiations, which I believe are currently stalled, on the exchange of open skies access. Does the Minister agree that when one is negotiating with a very powerful party, it is not wise to grant one of that party's most powerful airlines rights to which we cannot gain access in our negotiating partner's country?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, we believe that the Prestwick decision represents a good deal for the UK as a whole. As the noble Baroness says, the talks have stuttered along for many years now. The modest offer that we have made is useful in a number of ways. It begins to open up our proposals on talks with the United States. It also represents a good deal for the United Kingdom as a whole. We were working under a threat that FedEx would withdraw its services from Prestwick if it were not granted fifth freedom rights to work out of Stansted. We held the line firmly on Stansted and the regional airports for the large markets in England, which form the major bargaining chip in the negotiations.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, as the Minister is aware, it is most unusual to negotiate without any reciprocity in these kinds of talks. Did the UK Government ask for any concessions from the United States Government in return for those rights? Did they, for example, raise the issue of wet leasing, which is of concern to the British cargo airline industry? We welcome the commitment to liberalisation, but we

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really should be getting something for our airlines in exchange. Is there any prospect of obtaining concessions from the United States--for example, in regard to a third carrier from Heathrow to America?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, based on our negotiating position, talks with the Americans are scheduled for next week. We have the support of companies such as FedEx, which, far from withdrawing from Prestwick, are now using that airport. They are also using their best endeavours to bring pressure to bear upon the American Government. As we enter the discussions next week, in what has been a lengthy and complex negotiation, obviously we do not want to talk too publicly about any bargaining positions. By engaging the Americans in discussion regarding cargo and fifth freedoms, we hope to be able open up the larger issues of liberalisation that the British Government have pursued for some time.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of briefings from FedEx stating that,

    “The British cargo airlines cannot offer, nor do they propose to offer, the aircraft types, products or services",

that they can, and that they have only 1 per cent of the total market? Does my noble friend agree that, unless British cargo airlines have fifth freedom rights in reciprocal arrangements, their share of the market will never rise above 1 per cent?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the British companies involved in the British Cargo Airline Alliance are indeed small. There are four of them, and they have less than 10 per cent of the UK market. In an increasingly global business, dominated by the Americans, it is our hope that we shall be able to achieve a deal with the United States that would allow our cargo companies to fly into the United States, and also have the right to wet lease airports in what is a very restrictive US market in terms of inward investment, wet leasing and cabotage. We want to crack the market, but we have no illusions as regards the difficulties that have been experienced to date. We shall attempt to ensure a strong negotiating position based on the line that we have taken in regard to Stansted and other airports.

Lord Gladwin: My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that, in the resumed bilateral negotiations with the United States, the interests of the all-cargo operators, so often the Cinderella in these matters, will not, in the final deal, take second place to the interests of the passenger airlines who, in this context, may adopt the role of the ugly sisters?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the negotiations which we begin next week will be concentrated on cargo. We will of course have the interests of British carriers at the centre of it.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is a highly sensitive issue, particularly at

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this juncture? It would not be possible for the Government to reveal their negotiating hand fully at this moment. Does my noble friend further agree that it is extremely important to use every endeavour, without creating any prejudice of consequence to British airlines, that the logjam that has persisted for a long time in these negotiations for fifth freedom rights should be broken?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the realistic perspective that he puts on these matters. I agree that it is important that the logjam be broken and to challenge what we believe are unhelpful attitudes in some aspects of the reciprocity that should exist between two countries that believe in liberalised markets. We will press hard and will look to FedEx and other companies involved to help us in our efforts to persuade the American administration of the need for change.

Lord Montague of Oxford: My Lords, does the Minister feel we should be worried by his use of the words “concentrated on cargo" when it comes to negotiations which will take place next week? Uppermost in the consumer's mind will be the cost of air fares, which could come down. Will that be given due consideration during the negotiations?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, we have agreed that we would like to get the talks back on track on passenger and cargo issues. We look forward to the initial exploratory discussions next week, but have in train other possibilities for negotiation with the United States, including an international conference which has been called in Chicago for December.

Ethnic Minority Languages: Information Format

3.15 p.m.

Lord Ahmed asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In the light of the research in the June 1999 report by the Joseph Rowntree Trust that suggests that audio information is the most accessible format for those who speak ethnic minority languages, what provision is available nationally to ensure that information in ethnic minority languages is in formats accessible to all.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the provision of information is primarily made in a written format, though I am advised that the Home Office and other government departments have entered into an agreement with the Central Office of Information for the provision of Braille, large script and audio tapes. With the exception of Braille, they can be adapted to ethnic minority languages. It is for each department to test and determine the most appropriate format for information, depending on the target audience.

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Lord Ahmed: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Can my noble friend inform the House what provision the Government have to encourage and support initiatives for the blind and partially blind within the visible minorities? Is he aware that Bradford Talking Magazines are providing an excellent service? Does he agree with me that projects such as the Bradford Talking Magazines need not only be given resources to consolidate and expand their work but also be made more efficient by being encouraged to be more culturally and religiously sensitive?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his question. I willingly extend my congratulations to Bradford Talking Magazines for the excellent service they operate for those who are visually impaired from ethnic minority groups within their community. Theirs is a model of good practice which should be extended as widely as possible. We nationally have much to learn from it.

As to the Government's position, we make adequate and good provision through the Central Office of Information which has a wealth of expertise in the field. As I said earlier, it has the capacity to translate work into Braille, large script and audiotapes, where appropriate. After all, it is for each department to determine how best to make use of its own resources and the way in which it works.

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