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8.25 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): This is the first debate on air traffic services on the Floor of the House since the partial privatisation of National Air Traffic Services, the UK air traffic control system, as the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) pointed out. The proposals for a single European sky raise questions and concerns, some of which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has already addressed.

One of the most important issues, to which both speakers have referred, is military air traffic control. The European Commission understandably wants to eliminate delays and problems caused by what it calls "national frontiers in the sky". That is fair enough, but surely there must be national frontiers in relation to the respective air forces of the member states of the EU. I see that it is the Government's view that the military authorities should not be bound by the regulations.

Let me turn to the important matter of co-operation between civil and military providers of air traffic services. Our Royal Air Force pilots must train, and some of that training has to be in UK airspace, over these islands. We always said that one of the reasons why the UK air traffic control system has been admired throughout the word is the successful co-operation between the military and the civil side. As everyone present in this debate will know, our military controllers operate on the same premises as the civil controllers. Such co-ordination does not exist elsewhere. I understand that in France, for example, there is no such dialogue between military and civilian controllers. I hope that the new framework of operation that is to be established to facilitate the partial privatisation of NATS will not jeopardise co-operation between our civil and military controllers in any way.

I turn now to investment in National Air Traffic Services. One of the main arguments advanced by the Government for the partial privatisation of NATS was that it would facilitate investment. We all acknowledge that the financial position of NATS was weakened by the downturn in traffic after the events of 11 September, but the Minister will be aware of the great dismay in Scotland about the announcement by NATS that the new Scottish centre is to be delayed. There is a desperate need for the new Scottish centre.

My right hon. Friend the Minister may be aware of the statement that I had the privilege to make five years ago this month, with the full authority of the Deputy Prime Minister, confirming our support for the two-centre strategy for the UK. In that statement, it was pointed out that the equipment at Prestwick was almost 20 years old. If it was 20 years old five years ago, hon. Members will need no assistance in working out that it is a quarter of a century old now. Will he give us an idea of when he now expects the investment in the new Scottish centre to come through, so that the work can get under way? Is it still the Government's position that the new Scottish centre will not be completed until 2008 or 2009?

Another matter that I had the opportunity to deal with when I was Minister for Transport was the establishment of a European aviation safety authority—EASA. The UK

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supported EASA strongly and we secured under our presidency the decision to proceed with it. I see that the EU Transport Council adopted the regulation establishing EASA only last week. With our tremendous aviation sector, it seemed to us at the time that the UK had a very strong case for securing the headquarters. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House where the decision making has got to with regard to the location of EASA's HQ?

I should like to say a brief word about liberalisation and competition. We need to be clear that a competitive framework for air traffic control could pose serious difficulties for air traffic services in this country and elsewhere in Europe. No doubt liberalisation and competition could drive down costs and probably prices, but what are those costs? They are the people who have done so well in managing our airspace until now—the air traffic controllers, engineers and other support staff. Many engineers have taken redundancy from NATS since it was privatised. It would be a great mistake if the huge body of expertise at NATS was disbanded to be replaced by inexperienced new people supplied by private contractors. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the great concern that the agenda for air traffic control in Europe is one of competition and privatisation. How far down the track would the Commission be allowed to drive such a market-oriented policy?

Of course, we support measures that will reduce delays for holidaymakers and business people in Europe, but always transcending that is the need for the highest attainable standards of security and safety. By the highest standards, we in the UK mean standards that are considerably higher than any that are likely to be set by a regulator. Today's debate is of great importance, because Parliament will have a duty to scrutinise very closely the development of European policy on air traffic control.

8.30 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I, too, welcome the opportunity for this topical debate. The newspapers have recently been full of stories about delays, strikes and allegations of pilots on the cheap flights airlines taking short cuts.

One of the key drivers pushing the single European sky proposals is the issue of air traffic delays. A couple of years ago, it was estimated that the cost of delays is 8 billion euros—roughly £5 billion. It is calculated that about 50 per cent. of delays are due to the airspace management structures in Europe. Huge environmental costs are associated with delays, whether it be aircraft stacking above airports or aircraft that cannot take the shortest possible route from A to B.

The single European sky appears to have several advantages. First, it could lead to a more efficient system. Other hon. Members have referred to the air traffic control system in the United States, which does a lot more for a lot less—it is estimated to be about 70 per cent. more efficient than Europe's systems. Secondly, it could create extra capacity—although I should be interested to hear the Minister's view on whether we are over-egging the pudding in that respect, because many of the bottlenecks will remain around European airports, irrespective of whether a single European sky is achieved.

Thirdly, the single European sky could reduce pressure on air traffic controllers, which might in turn lead to less pressure resulting from the need to train additional

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controllers. There is a recognised shortage of controllers, which may be exacerbated in the UK by the fact that higher wages are paid abroad. Fourthly, it could improve safety by making flight paths more logical. Finally, as the Minister said, it could mean that the UK industry was well positioned to take advantage of any business prospects.

The single European sky has potential disadvantages, too. Hon. Members will be all too aware of the political minefield that it represents in terms of perceived or actual loss of sovereignty. There is also the question of military independence. The Minister is right to oppose the extension of the proposals to military operations in which the UK requires flexibility.

The Government need to answer several questions. First, do they have a clear view about how airspace would be allocated to the different nations in moving away from border-based sectors to more logical sectors that do not represent country borders? Secondly, do they have a clear understanding of how the single sky regulator would operate? Thirdly, we have heard the implementation date of December 2004. I believe that that is optimistic, and that a fallback position is required. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government have made any independent assessment of that implementation date?

If the Minister can answer those questions, the single European sky should prove to be a positive development. However, it is important that harmonisation does not lead to a lowering of standards; British standards, practices and procedures must still prevail. Nor should it lead to a loss of military independence, so the military opt-out that the Minister proposes is welcome. Harmonisation is necessary for safety reasons and because it provides benefits to the consumer and to the environment. For those reasons, Liberal Democrat Members support the proposals.

8.36 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I shall deal first with the issues on which there is general agreement. On the inevitability of "Euro-sky", there is general agreement that at some stage over the next decade there will be a need for the integration of regulation across Europe. There is general agreement that that may lead to closer co-operation and, in turn, economies of scale, as outlined by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake).

There is general agreement, as there was in the debate about air traffic control processes in this country, that there should be a split between regulation and service providers. There are concerns about whether the proposals can be delivered by December 2004, especially given the delaying mechanisms of the six-month consultation period and the veto that could be exercised by non-Commission members. It is generally recognised in the aviation industry that a complex process of negotiation and consultation is involved.

Those are the points of agreement. The points of concern being expressed by those who work in, or have a knowledge of, the industry are that the proposals could become—pardon the pun—a launch pad for privatisation on a European scale, following what happened to national air traffic control services in this country. Industrial action is occurring in many parts of Europe because of those anxieties.

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It is worth while for the Government to state that the proposals have nothing to do with privatising air traffic control services throughout Europe. It would be useful if, as a Government, we had the humility to explain to our European colleagues that we had experienced the privatisation of air traffic control services and that we had learned our lesson.

I do not want to go into detail about the air traffic control experience so far, but I shall briefly mention some facts. Last Christmas, the air traffic control workers in my constituency could not have their wages because of a cash-flow problem; the airline company group that has taken over air traffic control returns month after month for additional public subsidies; the Government are so desperate for the British Airports Authority to bail out air traffic control services that they are willing to bribe it with a new runway at Heathrow.

I do not want to go into such detail about the failure of air traffic control services as privatised by the Government. However, despite assurances so far, some of the documentation that the Government have published links the single European sky proposal with privatisation. I am referring to the helpful bundle of documents that the Vote Office provided, especially the report entitled "Explanatory Memorandum on European Community Document", which was submitted by the Department for Environment, Local Government and the Regions on 18 January 2000. It was signed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is no longer an Under-Secretary of State and has returned home to the Back Benches. He has clearly maintained his interest in air traffic control matters, and is not with us tonight. I do not believe that he wanted to be associated with anything that happened previously.

On the single European sky proposals, the document states:

Yet again, the Government are perceived as a proselytiser for privatisation of air traffic control throughout Europe. There is no reference in the documents to a Commission proposal for advocating the use of commercial sector methods and expertise in air traffic control.

The high-level group's proposals make only one reference to a link between the environment for air traffic control and the discussion about monopoly services. The group said that although core air traffic control was a monopoly, there was an opportunity for competition for ancillary services. It did not refer to the introduction of commercial practices in air traffic control.

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