Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu: My Lords, whatever happens, this Bill will have a great long-term effect on the motorist and motoring. As we have a long list of speakers, I shall confine my remarks to congestion taxes and workplace levies.

We have all sat in traffic jams, and it is a very boring process, but when we think about it do we not see that sometimes the problem is slightly exaggerated? I say that because in the 24-hour day even the worst roads are congested for only about two hours; most of the time there is no problem. Therefore, the motorists ask themselves, "Is this congestion really necessary?" They ask what research has been done to discover the causes.

The motorist has always been blamed, is blamed and will always be blamed. But if I were to show the House some photographs of the traffic in London in 1900 your Lordships would see that traffic congestion was far worse. In fact, 350 people were being killed by horse-drawn traffic every year in London alone. But, unfortunately, in line with the policy followed by successive governments of blaming the motorist for

5 Jun 2000 : Column 955

everything, when governments talk about congestion they seem to forget about such matters as roadworks, badly timed traffic signals, trucks unloading at traffic lights, coach traffic, inadequate and incomplete roads and so on. That is not to forget such other matters as IRA bombs and the widening of pavements, with a consequent reduction in the size of roads.

The motorist is used to being blamed for everything. The trouble with finding solutions to the problems I have outlined is that they cost money. It is much easier not to spend money and to make the motorist pay. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, that solutions exist, but the lack of good traffic management is very conspicuous in our cities. For example, it is well known that if there was more manual control of traffic intersections in rush hours, as happens in cities on the Continent, there would be far less congestion and traffic flow would improve. However, manpower costs money. Instead of taking measures to relieve traffic congestion, what is the workforce doing? It goes round the residential squares of London harrying the inhabitants--and, of course, makes money for the local authority.

What is welcome in this Bill is the very important consultation outlined by the Minister. However, one is not concerned solely with consultation. Perhaps I am wrong, but there is a great lack of research opportunities in the programme. More independent and open research must be conducted into the causes of congestion. The case must be made out before more taxes and levies are imposed as a last resort.

As to the proposed workplace levy, I remember a time when a developer could not build an office block in the City of London unless it included a car park for the staff. Now a fine is to be imposed for the provision of a car park, which is quite illogical. As a result, there will be increased staff and bureaucracy in local authorities. I ask the Minister to look at experience in America where similar schemes have been tried. They have resulted in what is called "the decayed tooth" syndrome where everything has gone outside the city and the centre is dead. We must be very careful to ensure that that does not happen here.

Motorway and trunk road charging causes me great worry. To divert traffic onto inadequate and less safe roads will create more congestion. More importantly, the Government must face the fact that because the motorways are the safest roads in Britain their proposal will cause more accidents. What research has been done? How many more accidents will be caused by diverting cars off motorways and on to inadequate roads?

Successive governments have aggravated the situation by lack of investment in motorways and so on. However, the present Government must take some blame because when they came to power they cancelled a considerable number of important bypasses, the completion of the M40 and so on. Not all of the problems can be laid at the door of past governments.

I hope that there will be more independent research and better presented cases. I hope that a co-operative effort will remove the "them and us" situation as

5 Jun 2000 : Column 956

between motorists and the authorities. Unless we approach the problem together, we shall never reach a solution.

5.3 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord who has just spoken. He did not refer to air traffic safety and my remarks are concerned exclusively with that matter. I hope that I make sufficient declaration of my interests if I say that I am President of the British Airline Pilots Association and am a former aviation Minister and member of the European Commission with responsibility for transport and the environment.

I am largely in favour of the radical transformation of our transport system which is envisaged by the Deputy Prime Minister not only in this Bill but in the year or two--perhaps longer--that he remains in that office. However, I demur very strongly from the proposal set out in the Bill to set up a public/private partnership to run National Air Traffic Services. I am against it, as were the Conservatives when in office. They consulted upon it and discovered that the vast majority of consultees were against a change in the status quo, which they had endorsed in the Civil Aviation Act 1982. The Conservatives did not have the political courage then to swim against the tide of informed opinion. Today, we have heard the mealy-mouthed attack on the proposal by the Shadow Transport Secretary, or whatever his title is, but the Conservatives have given no indication about that with which they had 18 years to deal but refused to repair the neglect.

The fact of the matter is that the then Shadow Secretary of State for Transport made it clear that an incoming Labour government would stand by a nationalised industry. What happened? The newly elected Labour Government, with a vast majority, contrary to their declarations while in opposition, supported the restructuring of air traffic control services to include a strongly commercial component. The Government's proposal supports the retention of 49 per cent of the company. Five per cent of the shares are to go to NATS employees and the remainder are to go to the private sector. Why have they added to the present complexity which the proposal demands? They have not begun to advance a proper argument for that case. We are told by the Conservatives that we should support their idea. Why? They had 18 years to do something about it but chose not to do so.

The Government have made it clear that they will never sell their shares, although an amendment to the Transport Bill makes a mockery of that by allowing, if necessary, for the company to be floated on the Stock Exchange. A resultant increase in overall share capital could dilute the Government's holding to as little as 25 per cent. Why have the Government done that without any explanation--if one has been given; perhaps I missed it--from the Minister today?

I know IATA very well. It has been claimed by IATA, which represents airlines and not the consumer, that,

5 Jun 2000 : Column 957

    "the industry needs a much more flexible and robust approach to investment that only the private sector can provide".

That is a fine assertion but it is not backed by any evidence. Why not? Over the years NATS has established a reputation as being effective, efficient, safe and second to none. Why should this now be put in jeopardy? Why did my colleagues in the Labour Party only a short time ago dismiss completely the idea of the proposed restructuring? The present structure of NATS has served the country, industry and passengers well. To compromise that for the sake of savings in cost, given that they could be achieved as predicted, is insupportable, the more so when there are viable alternatives to attract inward investment which have been tried and tested elsewhere in other contexts.

The case for retaining NATS in public ownership has been argued persuasively by my own union, BALPA. It has serious reservations about the means proposed for providing NATS with the investment funds required, particularly in relation to safety and service quality. Should not the pilots know? Are not they the best people to form a judgment about the matter? In this connection, I do not care that I am president of BALPA. I am concerned about the safety of the people who fly in aircraft; and the pilots have come unequivocally to the conclusion that the system which has served them and the public well should be retained.

The three unions which serve the public in this respect should know. They have the right to know. BALPA feels that it has made its representations very clear and, along with others, has, in response to the Government's invitation, suggested some creative forms of financing--highlighting non-recourse debt as used in overseas infrastructure projects such as Denver airport. It also pointed out opportunities for generating capital internally, such funds to be channelled back into the industry for reinvestment and not siphoned out to shareholders. It also believes that the Canadian trust approach could work well here.

It is worthy of consideration that all the unions share that point of view. The Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists submits that there is no political case, and no business case--all NATS costs are covered by charges to airlines. There is no industrial case. Above all, there is no air safety case for the Government's proposed alteration. There is also a defence case for not privatising a service in which there are vital defence implications. Currently, civil and military controllers work side by side, flexibly, without the necessity for contractual and bureaucratic arrangements.

Together with the Public and Commercial Services Union, they represent 95 per cent of the NATS staff. All stress that under the strategic partnership agreement, the management and control of the organisation will be the sole responsibility of the private directors, not the government directors whose shareholding could be considerably diluted following a flotation.

5 Jun 2000 : Column 958

What is the Airline Group? It is a consortium of nine United Kingdom airlines. It may consider putting itself forward as a strategic partner which would be committed to run NATS on a non-profit-making basis but no decision has yet been taken as to whether it will become a bidder. Therefore, until it makes a decision we are not entitled to consider the group.

The in-depth report of the House of Commons committee into this aspect of transport reflected the serious doubts expressed by those working in the aviation industry, not only in relation to safety but also the possibility of increased costs to airlines, and thus customers, in the drive to push up profits. It suggested possible ways in which the Government could achieve their objective for NATS without recourse to private profit motive. I am glad to say that the chairman is with us today listening to every word spoken, in particular my speech which supports her. It cited the positive advantages of independent public corporations and the trust model, as adopted by NavCanada which, in its view, met concerns about rising charges, lower safety standards, national security and so on. Why have the Government dismissed those concerns?

There is bound to be an increased risk to safety, however small and albeit with stringent regulation, where private profit is a prime consideration. We have only to note the recent tragic outcomes of the decline in safety affecting our railways to vouchsafe what I say. A fully nationalised service would have as its primary duty the elimination of all foreseeable risk. It would continue to provide vital non-profit-making services without which safety could be threatened. In any event, a commercial company would tend to favour its major customers at the expense of the rest in the provision of these services.

This Bill has nothing to do with enhancing air safety. But, as I said at the outset, apart from these proposals, the Bill is to be welcomed, and I am proud to have once been a member of the Government who have introduced them, along with many other measures which will enhance the quality of life for many more of our citizens.

The standards of our air traffic control are respected world wide. Complexity is not to be confused with cogency. I beg the Government Minister to understand that. There is still time for the Government to rethink their ideas about NATS. It is in all our interests that the Government should do so.

5.17 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, I shall confine my remarks to air traffic control although without his relentless logic.

As my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood made abundantly clear, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches are totally opposed to the Government's intention to part-privatise the national air traffic control service. I heartily agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, that it would have been better to have considered this matter in a separate Bill.

5 Jun 2000 : Column 959

The country is faced with a quite bizarre situation. As the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, remarked, in the last Parliament the Labour opposition were adamantly against privatisation while the Conservative government were fully in favour of it. The positions are now reversed, at least in so far as the Conservatives oppose the Government's PPP. One of the alleged virtues of the so-called two party system is that it gives voters a choice between competing policies. The chance would be a fine thing! In fact what has happened is that there seems to be a consistent government line on NATS privatisation, whatever party happens to be in power. Thus the will of the people, the majority of whom oppose such a privatisation, is contemptuously thwarted. I cannot resist making the point that voting reform is vital to offset such abrupt barefaced U-turns in policy.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page