Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: I see the merit of the amendments. I wish that I had thought to table some of them myself. However, I am a little concerned about the implications of Amendment No. 61. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how his environmental duties are likely to be exercised--by order, by regulation, by guidance or in some other way. That might help us to understand the exact implications of the amendment for how those powers are to be exercised. However, I agree with the general point that the adverse effects of air traffic, such as noise, vibration and pollution, should be part of the Secretary of State's responsibilities.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: The amendments are about environmental issues. Amendment No. 4 would add an environmental limb to the Secretary of State's duty under Chapter I, the primary purpose of which is to introduce a system of economic regulation into the provision of air traffic services post-PPP. The duties of the Secretary of State, as set out in Clause 1, deal with concepts such as efficiency, economy and the financing

6 Jul 2000 : Column 1617

of activities. En-route air traffic services will be regulated through an operating licence, which is an economic construct.

The amendment is unnecessary. The environmental provisions already contained in Clause 39 provide for the Secretary of State to give directions in relation to environmental matters not only to the licence holder or holders but to persons authorised by exemption to provide air traffic services. To exercise those powers properly, the Secretary of State has to consider the giving of directions to be necessary or expedient to prevent or deal with issues such as noise. The considerations under Clause 39 are not dissimilar to those proposed by the amendment.

The other five amendments would impose prerequisites on the exercise of the power to give directions. To answer a query from the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, it is a power to give directions. Amendment No. 61 would require the Secretary of State to get the approval of Parliament before giving directions under Clause 39. That is a significant departure from the present position under Sections 6(2)(f) and 72(2) of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 which this clause largely replaces in respect of air traffic service providers. The amendment would require the affirmative resolution procedure, involving debates in both Houses.

We see no need or justification for that. The power to give environmental directions is long established and used only sparingly. In the past, Parliament has been content to leave these matters for the Secretary of State to deal with, not least because he must have the flexibility to take a wider view on when environmental matters should have priority over financial expediency for the service provider. Examples would be if the provider wished to remove a navigational aid that had residual environmental monitoring benefits; or balancing the economic benefits to the aviation industry and its customers through restraining capacity increases which brings disproportionate economic penalty.

The provisions of the Bill have not altered that position. I suggest that an unnecessary burden would be placed on Parliament if these matters had to be referred to both Houses of Parliament. It would not be open to the Secretary of State to act in an unreasonable manner. If he were to act in such a fashion, he would be rightly open to judicial challenge.

The remaining amendments concern the provision requiring the Secretary of State to consult before giving a direction under this clause. As presently drafted, the Bill provides that the Secretary of State must consult a licence holder or an authorised person only in respect of a specific direction given to that particular individual. The amendments would further require consultation, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, perhaps implied, where a direction is to be issued to licence holders or authorised persons generally.

We regard the amendment as unnecessary. We do not envisage issuing specific directions to licence holders or authorised persons generally, only

6 Jul 2000 : Column 1618

directions of a general character; for instance, that full account be taken of the need to minimise environmental impacts. The appropriate time for consultation will be if and when these general directions are translated into specific details requiring individual providers to do or not to do particular things. At that point there will be consultation with the provider concerned. We believe that there is no need for a requirement to consult on any general directions. In the circumstances, I invite the noble Lord opposite to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: I am grateful to the Minister for that detailed reply. I shall certainly read carefully his words in Hansard, with regard in particular to my first amendment, in Clause 1, to add to the duties. I am grateful for the support I received from the noble Baroness.

I confess that I am obviously not as familiar with the 1982 Act as I should have been. That is my oversight. I had not realised that these measures largely replicate what is in the 1982 Act. If that has worked reasonably well, perhaps there is no need for the amendments to Clause 39. However, I shall read carefully what the Minister said. I was particularly encouraged to hear him say that the Secretary of State would not act in an unreasonable manner. I hope we can be assured that he will always act in that way, not just in this respect. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 5 not moved.]

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood moved Amendment No. 6:

    Page 1, line 25, at end insert--

("( ) The safety of aircraft must at all times take precedence over other considerations when the Secretary of State exercises his functions under subsections (1)(b), (c) and (d).").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 6 I shall speak also to the other amendments in the group. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Brett, will speak to his amendment, which is also in this group. I shall start by putting the argument and then go through the amendments, which I think will be easier.

I do not think anyone would doubt that the safety of the air traffic control system after PPP has been a matter of contention ever since the Bill was drafted and put before Parliament. There has been much discussion, for example, about the so-called safety locks; that is, the powers of the Safety Regulation Group of the CAA to inspect, insist upon high criteria for licensing air traffic controllers, approve procedures and equipment, specify working hours and so forth.

The answer that one is given is that much of the inspection is done by NATS, as is much of the approval of procedures and equipment; that the SRG is under-resourced for the work that it is supposed to do; and that in general the standards of hours of work, for example, which are preserved in NATS, are higher than the minimum standards required by the CAA. Another problem is that there is no air traffic control model similar to the one proposed in the Bill, either in

6 Jul 2000 : Column 1619

structure, international relationships or the complexity of the airspace covered in this country. Private providers in the UK are said to vary in their devotion to safety first and may be influenced by the need to generate income or profit.

Air transport is generally regarded as very safe, and so it is if measured in passenger miles travelled. It is less safe, however, than cars or rail per number of passenger journeys undertaken. That is the measure used by Boeing. The argument is that private companies need to generate profit. Safety can be high on the priority list but not always top of the list. Companies that depend on the stock market can be particularly vulnerable in terms of stock value movements and market confidence. During the course of such argument it is often said that airlines always put safety first and they are private organisations; therefore, what is the difference between an airline and NATS? The obvious difference, of course, is that airlines are in competition. As one Member said in another place, one can choose one's airline but not one's airspace.

However, even within the airline industry there are indications of the effect of the need to provide low cost and higher profits. The airline industry is reluctant to adopt the safer, rear-facing seat configuration. Long staff working hours are currently excluded from EU working time regulations. Finally, there is a danger of the loss of the safety-first approach because of pressure to reduce costs. An example which is often put forward is that of Railtrack where decisions not to proceed with safety work on the grounds of costs have now been openly admitted and publicly criticised.

One cannot restructure a Bill--especially a complicated Bill such as this--in such a way that every one of these provisos, doubts and worries is satisfied. However, our amendments try to put the safety-first aspect into the Bill wherever possible. Amendments Nos. 6 and 14 insist that safety should be the overriding concern in the exercise of functions by the Secretary of State and the CAA respectively in Clauses 1 and 2.

Amendment No. 35 is an amendment to Clause 8(4). That subsection refers back to subsection (1)(a) which requires the licence holder to ensure the provision, development and maintenance of a safe system by defining "safe". That is what the existing clause does. Our amendment adds to the existing requirement to comply with air navigation orders but the system has to have been licensed by the CAA. That forms part of another series of amendments, to which we shall come later, in which the CAA, rather than the CAA or the Secretary of State, is the licence granter.

Amendment No. 36 omits subsection (1) in Clause 10 which gives immunity from legal action to the licence holder if it fails in its duties under Clause 8 and the licence conditions and substitutes a requirement upon the CAA to take remedial action in respect of any failure under Clause 8.

Amendment No. 48, which adds a subsection to Clause 20, goes a little further. The clause deals with orders to secure compliance with the licence and our

6 Jul 2000 : Column 1620

new subsection requires the Secretary of State to make an immediate order of compliance if the licence holder is in breach of Section 8(1)(a), which is the duty of safety.

Amendment No. 51 inserts the same provision as does Amendment No. 48, but into Clause 22, cutting across the procedures involved in issuing enforcement orders. Amendment No. 54 inserts a new clause which would ensure that, regardless of the provisions of Clauses 20 to 30, which are concerned with enforcement, the CAA or the Secretary of State must suspend the licence if the licence holder is found to be in breach of Section 8(1)(a).

Amendment No. 55 inserts a new clause after Clause 34 which says that the Secretary of State must order the CAA to take over the administration of the UK air navigation system if he becomes aware that the financial state of the licence holder endangers its ability to comply with Section 8(1)(a). Amendments Nos. 56 to 59 amend Clause 35 and make it clear that it is the CAA--that is, the safety regulator--which issues the licence. Amendment No. 60 also amends Clause 35 by placing a backstop duty upon the Secretary of State to ensure the overriding importance of the duty of safety. Finally, Amendment No. 108 amends Schedule 9 to add information about any matter which has an adverse effect on safety to the list of permitted disclosures of information in that schedule. I beg to move.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Brett: It may be appropriate for me to speak to Amendments Nos. 7 and 15, which are grouped with Amendment No. 6, and support the thrust of the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood. However, before doing so I should declare an interest. Until one year and three months ago I was the General Secretary of the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, the union to which the air traffic controllers and engineers of the Civil Aviation Authority, NATS, the SRG and the inspectorate belong.

Amendments Nos. 7 and 15, in the name of myself and my noble friends who put their name to them, seek to underline the primacy of safety. I say immediately that I accept entirely that Ministers both in this House and in the other place share that objective. The objective is not in question. The question is how best to guarantee it.

Over the past couple of days I have taken the opportunity to read again the proceedings of the passage of the Bill in another place and the Second Reading debate in this House on 5th June which, unfortunately, I could not attend. Much of the debate in the other place surrounded public versus private as a means of provision, or indeed the role of the CAA on safety compared with that of NATS. But the real concern of controllers, engineers and pilots has been lost in both of those arguments.

The real concern is one of conflict of interest in the new form of organisation, rather than whether it is publicly or privately owned. First, it is true that the

6 Jul 2000 : Column 1621

CAA set, through SRG, ATC standards for NATS and the rest of the industry. The problem is that, as has been said by the noble Baroness, because of greater traffic densities, because en route control is rather more complicated than approach and airport control, we have had higher standards applied and self-regulated by NATS. The whole culture of NATS has been one of safety without any commercial pressures being applied to bend the whim of specific airlines or airports or indeed senior management in the Civil Aviation Authority itself. An air traffic controller is licensed to control the aircraft. It is those higher, more strict standards of safety about which we are concerned. That is what the controllers, the engineers and, more importantly, the pilots fear could be compromised.

The compromising of those safety standards will come from the private sector controlling interest. We are told in the Bill that the private sector strategic partner will have day-to-day control. The fear is that that day-to-day control and management could lead to the erosion of those higher standards and the Civil Aviation Authority would have no power to intervene until such standards had been eroded to the level that the CAA applies to the rest of the sector--that which handles 13 per cent of commercial air traffic rather than the 87 per cent handled by NATS.

The Secretary of State in another place--my noble friend Lord Whitty echoed this in winding up for the Government at the end of Second Reading in your Lordships' House--said that the NATS higher standards will be maintained through the NATS safety management system (Official Report, Commons, 9/5/00; col. 713). But unfortunately there is no explicit reference on the face of the Bill as to how that might be achieved. Including it in a safety management system, which, in turn, may be considered to be controlled by strategic management agreement, does not mean that in the fullness of time that agreement could not be changed by negotiation between partners coming in (when dilution takes place) and the Ministers sitting in positions of power. That is our fear, and that fear can only be expunged by having the primacy of safety on the face of the Bill.

Our fear is enhanced by the fact that the Government are ensuring that the executive directors in the new PPP will be appointed by the strategic controlling private sector partner. Staff remain fearful that commercial considerations are bound to make some impact because those directors, as part of their remit, will have to meet commercial considerations. That sets up a conflict between operational efficiency and safety. At the end of the day, when something is going wrong, we cannot wait until the resultant tragedy occurs; we must have the power to intervene. If the Secretary of State has safety as a prime responsibility on the face of the Bill, the matter can be raised by Members of this Chamber, another place or directly by those in the industry.

A second important feature is that, while National Air Traffic Services is largely self-regulating--it employees 5,000 people, with 1,700 controllers--and

6 Jul 2000 : Column 1622

ensures the higher standards, the SRG (as mentioned by the noble Baroness) has only a complement of 17 inspectors to inspect the air traffic control system in the United Kingdom. That is because of the self-regulating aspect of NATS. So at the minimum there needs to be considerable expansion in that part of the inspectorate to ensure that the standards are maintained.

As I say, we have no quarrel with ministerial will. We are anxious to ensure that we have, on the face of the Bill, a clause which will guarantee that Ministers in the future will not only understand what the intention of Parliament was in the passing of such legislation as we are now discussing but also have a responsibility to ensure that they maintain, as a primacy, safety over all other considerations.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page