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David Cairns: For the sake of completeness, my hon. Friend should include the phrase that he left out of the quote from the document signed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). It says that air traffic control should be "regulated robustly". That does not detract from the thrust of my hon. Friend's argument, but it is important that robust regulation forms part of the Government's strategy.

John McDonnell: I omitted the phrase not to be disingenuous but because I said in my introductory remarks that there was no dispute between us about the separation of service delivery and regulation. Robust

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regulation has been the standard that British air traffic control services set the world. That is why I did not refer to the phrase. However, my hon. Friend can understand the anxiety that the fact that the UK Government are advocating the introduction of commercial sector methods and expertise causes air traffic controllers throughout Europe. We can understand the reason for their anxiety that the proposal may be a stepping stone to privatisation.

It is worthwhile for the Government to state on the record that we have learned from our experience of privatising air traffic control in this country and that we do not advocate privatisation as part of the open sky policy. It is worth stating that we want to consider integration without privatisation. Two thousand air traffic control staff have been laid off or are under threat of losing their jobs in Britain because of part-privatisation—so no wonder air traffic controllers in Europe are anxious about their jobs when the British Government advocate privatisation on the back of a Euro-sky proposal.

The expression that we are "all Thatcherites now" is inappropriate in the context of air traffic control. Privatisation has failed in almost every other transport sector, and is failing in our air traffic control services. We have never experienced so many breakdowns, loss of morale on such a scale, so many job losses or such underinvestment. British air traffic control has approached bankruptcy many times. A statement that our Euro-sky policy is not based on privatisation would be welcomed throughout Europe.

8.44 pm

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): Like other hon. Members, I shall not labour the points of agreement between us, other than to say that I welcome the proposals. They are extremely important, not just for the industry—we are talking in terms of billions of pounds for the industry—but for our individual constituents who experience dreadful delays. They work very hard all year round, get a couple of weeks' holiday, then spend huge chunks of time at the beginning and end of their holiday sitting around in airport lounges. That is not a pleasant experience, and it is one that those of us who are frequent fliers also encounter. If we can cut delays and increase capacity in the skies, the provisions will benefit not only a big industry but individuals.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) mentioned that the national boundaries that exist on the ground are often utterly meaningless at 30,000 ft; the rivers, mountain ranges and forests that have given rise to national boundaries become less important in the open skies. Such boundaries should not, therefore, be a sufficient reason to hold us back from moving towards a new system and a new way of thinking about air traffic management. We all agree that reform is needed; it is perhaps the nature of the reform that is causing some consternation.

I was slightly confused by some of the comments by Members. On one hand, they appeared to assert that the provisions would result in duplication, with more committees and more bureaucrats considering the issue. On the other, we heard the assertion that the measures would centralise the system and introduce just one way of doing things. There was a slight contradiction there. We cannot duplicate and streamline at the same time—or perhaps we can, but I do not think that that was quite the thrust of the argument coming from the Opposition Benches, where there just seemed to be confusion.

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As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) said, we are talking not of centralisation but of greater harmonisation. That will involve the harmonisation of systems, software, hardware and training. The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the shortage of trained air traffic controllers in this country. Part of the difficulty in allowing air traffic controllers to take their labour to other parts of Europe is caused by the different specifications involved in different air traffic control training programmes. If we could achieve greater harmonisation there, we would have greater fluidity of movement of labour across the continent, which would be all to the good.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) mentioned the fear that the measures are about privatisation. Privatisation and methods of ownership are not prescribed in the document. What is prescribed, however—and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to it—is the unacceptable situation in which the providers of the service are also the regulators. That situation is untenable and ought to be challenged.

There has also been discussion about the civil and military aspects of air traffic management. An example from my own neck of the woods, which involves another medium of transport, is that of the flow of traffic on the River Clyde. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh will know that the Clyde port authority is the largest such authority in western Europe, and is very busy because of the amount of commercial and military shipping—including Trident nuclear submarines—that uses the river.

Until a few years ago, there was a staggering lack of co-operation between the harbourmaster based in Greenock, who was in charge of the commercial shipping, and the military personnel based at Faslane, who were in charge of the naval shipping. The harbourmaster would often send ships off down the coast, only for them to turn the corner and see seven French frigates coming up for an exercise that he knew nothing about. There has been much more co-operation at that level recently, and it is clearly not beyond the wit of Governments to ensure that such co-operation takes place in the skies above us. The Minister for Transport, as a former Defence Minister, seems ideally placed to bridge that gap.

Those who say that privatisation intrinsically raises issues of safety often point to Railtrack—although that has not happened in this debate. I have said repeatedly that I feel no less safe on a British Airways flight today than I did when British Airways was a nationalised industry, 15 years ago. I do not believe that it is axiomatic that the involvement of private sector expertise necessarily compromises safety. Of course a robust regulatory system must have safety at its core, and I hope that the Minister will convince us that he agrees with that.

There seems still to be some confusion about the residual role of Eurocontrol in a single-sky environment—particularly with regard to the EU's position as an acceded member of Eurocontrol—and about the relationship between Eurocontrol and the EU's new single sky committee. I have studied the documents in some depth, but I am still not sure about the exact relationship between Eurocontrol, the European Union as an acceded member of Eurocontrol, and the EU single sky committee. I hope the Minister can clarify the position.

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In general, however—like most Members who have spoken—I welcome the proposals, which I consider very necessary. They will be costly, but the cost of doing nothing—that is, increasing delays—would be greater, to the airlines, to the wider economy to which the airlines are tremendously important, and to our constituents who have to waste time in airports. I am pleased that action is now being taken.

8.50 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): I hope the House will forgive me for not having listened to all the speeches. The Minister, of course, will have listened to all of them assiduously, and taken on board all that was said.

I must declare a number of interests. We have to declare so many interests that we must be careful not to overlook any. I think I must declare my membership of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny, but if that is not necessary I declare it anyway. I am also an adviser to Airlines of Great Britain. In fact I have been an adviser to a number of airlines, both as a former practising lawyer and as a politician. I am sorry to say, however, that most of the airlines I have advised have gone bust, so I have not many left to declare. I do not know whether that has anything to do with my advice, or whether they have all got bigger, or worse. I think I have to declare the interest anyway, although the airlines I have advised have not done terribly well. One or two have kept going, however.

I shall be brief, as I know the debate must finish at 9.15 pm. I suspect that the Minister called it just to get the feeling of the House—if there is any feeling. Not many people turn up for aviation debates: the subject is technical, people do not really understand it, and they have other things to do. It is obviously important, however, for the Minister to get some feeling of what the House is thinking. I do not know whether he has got that feeling, or whether the House has been thinking or saying anything useful—or, indeed, whether it really matters. We have tremendous discussions in the European Scrutiny Committee, but it does no good. The Government go on doing whatever they want, and Europe goes on doing whatever it wants. Nevertheless, I think it useful for the Minister to take account of what is said in a personal capacity, although I do not think he will do anything with it.

What concerns me is whether the operation of a single market would be improved by the establishment of a Community body responsible for the creation of a single Community airspace. It seems rather as though a wizard were to enter Europe, wave his wand and say, "This is all one airspace". The airspace has come into being over a number of years as an airspace over the countries concerned, which have built up quite efficient air navigation schemes. People may not think them efficient, but very few accidents have been caused by error other than human error, and the machinery and mechanical equipment for navigation aids is now excellent. Ours in Britain is state of the art.

I am not sure why the Government believe that another body with more staff and bureaucracy will be better. I am reminded of the fact that if the word "safety" is used in the House, any rule or regulation—any statutory instrument—is passed immediately because no Member

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will ever vote against safety. Another buzzword is "security": as soon as it is mentioned, the regulation or statutory instrument will go through. The most recent example is the word "hygiene". Any measure deemed to be hygienic, or related to health and safety, will be accepted.

In this instance, everyone wants faster planes and more slots. Everyone wants to think the system is safer, and everyone assumes that if another body is created it is bound to be safer. That is not necessarily the case. Let us compare air traffic control in Poland—hopefully, it will be part of the enlargement of the EU—with that in Britain. They are miles apart. Such systems probably work over their own space, but I am not sure about trying to make them uniform, which is what this idea is about.

The Minister is a very good salesman. He will tell us that this is the best thing since sliced bread. He will use the word "safety" all the time and we will all say that this is wonderful—but is it wonderful? I do not know how we are going to judge. Is it ever going to happen? Is there ever going to be a wizard waving his wand over all the skies of the EU? Remember that another 12 EU countries will come in. No sooner will the sky be sorted out over the first 15 but another 12 will come on board.

This is a lovely idea; we all like it. I thank the Minister for bringing it to the House. We have had a good run for an hour or so and he has heard the views of some of his colleagues, who are using the debate for various reasons. It does not affect what he is doing. It is courteous of him to come along to tell us all his ideas. He wants to wave that wand over the sky and make it all one place, but I hope he will agree in reality that not much will happen other than this one-and-a-half-hour debate on whether it is a good idea.

With regret, I say: full steam ahead, get on with it, let us get it going tomorrow morning. The Minister will know that it is unlikely and that in 10 years we will not have seen anything at all. I thank him on behalf of the House for coming along and doing what he has done. I hope that I have thrown in my two pennyworth in this useful debate.


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