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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Can the Minister assure me that the Government are also taking seriously concerns in the light aviation community? Members of the gliding community are worried that the provisions will exclude them from European airspace and destroy the sport. Will he accept representations from the British Gliding Association to explain the issue and perhaps find a way forward?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman will know that I am always prepared to receive representations from fellow

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Members of Parliament, although I am not sure why the provisions on the relationship between civil and military airspace would have that impact. However, we recognise that a considerable number of people participate in gliding. Many of them are associated with the armed forces, especially the Air Cadet Force, and we would not want their interests to come into conflict. For a moment I was afraid that the hon. Gentleman might be talking about how extraterrestrials would come within air traffic control. I recall that they were part of my remit when I was Under-Secretary of State for Defence. I thank the hon. Gentleman for sparing us that diversion. On a more serious note, I await his representations on the gliding issue.

The air navigation services' proposal is still being developed, but the Government are strongly in favour of it. This is because the UK already has a robust regulatory system for air traffic services that is enshrined in the Transport Act 2000 and the air navigation order. National Air Traffic Services and its controllers are already licensed and operate under stringent safety requirements, which has led to a service of which the UK is justly proud. The Government will not allow these standards to be lowered, and we are convinced that single sky will raise rather than lower safety requirements throughout Europe.

The proposal on air navigation services is also designed to begin what is, in our view, the overdue process of liberalising the provision of these services. That is particularly the case in the non en-route activities such as airport approach control services, meteorology and aeronautical services. Both NATS and the Meterological Office are uniquely placed to benefit from this initiative and are keen to seek to capitalise on the commercial opportunities that the proposal offers for their expertise.

In the longer run, the Government hope that NATS will be able to benefit from any developments enabling far more en-route air traffic services to be operated across national boundaries within the Community. The airspace proposal respects the essential need not to compromise each member state's airspace sovereignty. Nevertheless, it stresses that Europe's airspace is a vital resource that must be efficiently managed as a whole rather than the somewhat fragmentary approach that we see today. For example, there are about 30 flight information regions throughout the Community and single sky hopes to replace these with one region in the upper airspace.

The intention is to create also functional blocks of airspace that are unconstrained by national boundaries. The Government support this notion as it would enable the formation of larger air traffic service providers—we hope that NATS will be one of these—that can benefit from the resulting economies of scale.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): My right hon. Friend used the expression "liberalise". Was that a euphemism for privatise? If so, will he explain whether the decision to create a European single sky, which I am tempted to support, is predicated upon the liberalisation of the markets or the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services? I ask the question because of the assurance of my hon. Friend's predecessor.

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend knows that I am prone not to euphemism but more to blunt speech. Therefore,

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I assure him that this is liberalisation in terms of opening up the market. It is not predicated upon the mechanism of ownership, either in the UK or in any other country. It is, however, about making the most efficient use of the assets that are available, and the most efficient use of the airspace that is available. That has nothing to do with the decisions of individual countries in terms of ownership of their facilities.

Mr. Salter: I thank my right hon. Friend for a full answer. Does he accept that those of us on the Government Benches who have grave misgivings about the part privatisation of NATS certainly have no such misgivings about the veracity of his answers nor the honesty and bluntness with which he has always dealt with us? However, I must press him again. One of the central arguments advanced in support of the reasoning behind the need to part privatise NATS was the forthcoming creation of the European single sky. My hon. Friend has correctly suggested that that decision was not predicated on that set of circumstances. Does he understand why many people are left slightly confused and bemused?

Mr. Spellar: I do not entirely accept that. The opportunity presented by the privatisation of NATS was to enable the most efficient operation and the incorporation of new investment that would constitute the leading edge of investment in air traffic services. That capability puts NATS in the best possible position to provide services on a broader framework as we are able to negotiate that within the concept of single sky. Other countries do not necessarily have to follow that route. It might be that they will therefore not be able to have the most effective organisation that is open to them. Therefore, services provided by NATS may be more attractive. We all agree that it is providing a technically proficient service, and an increasingly cost effective one. Decisions needed to be taken in the United Kingdom. These led to the provision of more efficient services in the UK and put British air traffic control in a favourable position in the international environment. That is different from arguments that are advanced as to what should happen in other countries. We come back to the point that I was making about the meaning of "liberalise" in this context.

David Cairns: Does my right hon. Friend agree that what matters is not so much ownership but separation between those who provide the service and those who regulate it, which is not the case throughout Europe? That is where reform is needed.

Mr. Spellar: There is much in what my hon. Friend says, but we are getting one step ahead of where we need to be moving in a European context. As I have said, there are many air traffic centres throughout Europe. I believe that there are about three times as many as those in the United States, and they are handling a unified air space.

There is a danger within Europe that the argument can be caught up in ownership issues, which are causing some difficulties in some countries. We saw the results only last week. It is right that we achieve a logical separation of the different issues. We recognise the differences between the regimes that different air traffic control systems operate. Some European operators have been able to raise

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their charges by their own unilateral decisions. In this country, NATS has to make an application to the Civil Aviation Authority and has to be able to justify increases in charges to the airlines. I think that it is generally accepted that that is the better format for considering the long-term development of a substantial but growing industry. However, it is facing the various challenges that I have mentioned.

The Government welcome the proposal to improve technical interoperability across the Community's air traffic service providers. We see this as a natural extension of the Community directives that already exist to promote air traffic service interoperability in Europe. Moreover, we believe that less fragmented air traffic services will enhance the overall capacity of the system significantly, reduce the cost of new equipment through more effective procurement practices, and further strengthen air safety.

Detailed discussions are continuing in the Council's working group. There was also a short discussion on single sky's framework regulation at last week's Transport Council, which I attended. That agreed some common principles on single sky, and the project will now be taken forward as a package on which we expect final agreement some time next year. In the light of the continuing work on the draft single sky proposals, the Government welcome the debate.

8.8 pm

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): The issue of European air traffic control has become increasingly important as a result of the ever-more crowded skies over Europe. Congestion inevitably leads to delays, increased cost burdens and inefficiencies. Last but not least, it leads to fears for safety. According to Eurocontrol's latest assessment, traffic is forecast to grow on average by 4.8 per cent. a year. That is the equivalent of an increase of 26.6 per cent. over the period to 2005. By 2015, it is predicted that there will be a 60 per cent. increase in flights. Other estimates suggest that the number of people flying will double over the next 10 or 15 years. We therefore have a real problem on our hands. Despite continuous efforts to deal with it, serious congestion prevails, particularly in the most intensively used air corridors of Europe. That congestion threatens the future of Europe's aviation market.

Current national air traffic control arrangements are indeed inefficient. To cite a popular example, Europe has 73 air traffic control centres, whereas the USA has only 20 to manage twice as many flights. The European Commission's answers to these problems are presented in the single European sky proposals that we are debating today.

At the heart of the proposals is the idea that national air traffic control arrangements should be brought under the remit of an expanded Eurocontrol. Even though operations could still be conducted by national ATCs, any such centralisation of air traffic control is contentious, because there would inevitably be some transfer of powers away from the nation state's control. That is particularly sensitive in relation to military aircraft control—a point that has already been raised by hon. Members. In most EU states, the control of military aircraft is integrated to some degree with civilian air traffic control. I hope to return to the issue a little later.

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We in the Opposition accept that the single sky plan would rationalise and, we hope, simplify air traffic arrangements in Europe. That, we believe, will require the EU both to sign up to a new institutional framework and to being part of the decision-making process by working more closely and effectively with Eurocontrol.

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