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Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the Commission wants a single sky initiative following serious aviation delays last year. The high level group is concentrating its efforts on improved performance through co-ordination of the existing, somewhat fragmented systems across Europe. The inefficiency is caused by the large number of control centres, largely dictated by land frontiers. It seems inevitable that we must move towards consolidating air traffic services in Europe through a process of gradual rationalisation. That will take many years to complete but there are signs that it is under way. It will provide opportunities to bring commercial expertise and resources while safeguarding safety and the public interest. The rapid growth in air travel and related developments are likely to produce in Europe opportunities for a powerful British-based NATS company. The prospect is clearly unsettling for staff and it is desirable for management to involve staff as frequently as possible in the process of change. The high level group has been in dialogue with European controllers and its

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proposals reflect their concerns. The controllers are very much part of the solution and our skies will be better managed with their co-operation.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I apologise to the House and the noble Lord for my earlier intervention.

Can the Minister tell the House whether the single European sky will cover NATO aircraft in British airspace and in British bases? If so, do the Government believe that our US allies will be entirely happy if their aircraft are thus subject to the brilliant strategists in Brussels?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, NATS and the Ministry of Defence have always enjoyed a good working relationship at managerial and operational levels. They provide a joint and integrated service to the aviation industry. That will continue post-PPP. The Ministry of Defence relationship works well as both organisations are at present in the public sector. However, when the PPP is in place it is important that NATS and the MoD have a proper contractual relationship. They are currently negotiating a contract, which should be concluded in the next few weeks, and I am sure it will take account of the issues the noble Lord raises.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, is my noble friend satisfied with the number and quality of expressions of interest that have been shown from potential strategic partners in the NATS PPP?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, we are pleased with the quality and level of response and the expressions of interest from potential strategic partners for the NATS PPP. We will have to evaluate those further and decide which might be taken forward in the process. We do not want to release the names of those involved, for reasons of confidentiality, though some have already declared. We should finish the evaluation exercise and hope to be in a position to pre-qualify bidders in a matter of weeks. We intend to complete the PPP--after bidders put in their preliminary offers in September--by the end of March 2001. Those noble Lords who were up until 2.30 this morning will know that the progress of the Transport Bill through your Lordships' House should support us in that aim.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the principal causes of delay in European skies is the fact that some countries--notably France--still prohibit civil aircraft over vast swathes of their airspace? What representations are the Government making to those countries to ask them to minimise the areas involved?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, as I said, this will be a gradual process. We are in discussions with our French counterparts on this issue, as on many others in the field of transport. The exercise in which we are engaged is an attempt to try to rationalise both

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commercial and military use of the skies. There have certainly been delays in Europe in countries such as France. The delays in the European countries are running at twice the level of those in the UK. We obviously had a set-back with the problems we experienced in June, but in general over the past few years our air traffic services have had only half the delays experienced by mainland Europe.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, can the Minister clarify some of the stories in the press recently about a major breakdown in the contracting process for new equipment for NATS? Can he tell us what effect that will have on the need to modernise our part of the European airspace traffic control system?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, one of the reasons we want to take forward the PPP solution for air traffic services is to involve expertise from other quarters, particularly from the private sector. We have had experiences which are regrettable in the development of the Swanwick centre, which is some six years delayed and very much over budget. We had delays in the new Scottish centre at Prestwick. Again, that involved difficulties with budgets and with project management. And the most recent example of the problem we had with the development of a computer system in Scotland underscores the need to try to bring in a new way of making things happen more quickly in the air traffic services area. The NATS management is now very much behind the initiative. We look forward to a solution to the problem that was identified in Scotland in good time for it to meet the requirements of the system for which it is being designed.

Helicopter ZD576: Mull of Kintyre Accident

3 p.m.

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any doubts about the cause of the accident involving helicopter ZD576 on the Mull of Kintyre on 2nd June 1994.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the investigation into this tragic accident was very thorough. It involved the independent Air Accidents Investigation Branch and the aircraft components manufacturers, as well as MoD specialists. All possible causes were examined, but no evidence of technical malfunctioning was found. The RAF board of inquiry did establish that the Chinook was travelling too fast and too low and, crucially, outside both visual and instrument flight rules. However, I assure the noble Lord, that Her Majesty's Government are ready to consider any new evidence; but, without such new evidence, it is very difficult to justify reopening the inquiry.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I was going to thank the Minister for her Answer, but my Question has not

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been answered. The facts that the noble Baroness just gave to the House are well known. The question is whether there is any doubt. Is the Minister aware--indeed, will she accept--that the regulations of the Royal Air Force that were in force at the time of the accident required that, in order to find dead pilots guilty of gross negligence--I quote from the regulations--there must be "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" about the cause of the accident? That is why I tabled this Question. I should be grateful to receive an Answer.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, knows, I am aware of the regulations; indeed, we have discussed them in your Lordships' House before. Moreover, I hope that the noble Lord will not mind me telling the House that both he and I have also discussed the matter privately. I must point out to the noble Lord that, under the regulations, it is the reviewing officers who must be in no doubt. Ministers, properly, are not a part of that process. Those who investigated the accident at the most senior level examined literally hundreds of pages of evidence. They had the expertise to make the judgment and were in no doubt about their conclusion.

If the noble Lord presses me personally, he knows--I have already said it, so I will say it again--that I find his Question philosophically impossible to answer. However, I can tell him that I believe that I have been honestly briefed. Sadly, I also believe that the conclusions of the board of inquiry were right.

Lord Eden of Winton: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that, before being released into service, this aircraft was fully checked out and properly tested?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I can confirm that the aircraft was serviceable. The noble Lord may be thinking of an incident that occurred some years before in relation to the FADEC system, which has been the cause of some concern not only in your Lordships' House but also elsewhere. I must say that the FADEC software, which was the subject of litigation, was software in a test aircraft that was a pre-production version. It was comprehensively re-designed prior to the introduction of the Mark 2 Chinook into service in 1994. I hope that that covers the noble Lord's point.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, does it give the Minister any cause for concern that the Secretary of State at the time, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, now thinks that there ought to be another look at this accident and at the findings of the inquiry?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord that I have had enormous concerns over this matter. Indeed, I do not believe that anyone with a conscience, knowing what is at stake for the families of the two pilots involved, would have anything other than concern. But Sir Malcolm expressed his concern some two-and-half years ago

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when he said that he and Ministers in his administration might not have been fully briefed about certain aspects of the crash. The MoD's Permanent Secretary wrote to him at that time and invited him to come back into the department, if he wished, to refresh his memory. I understand that Sir Malcolm did not repeat those concerns when he met the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary last month.

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